ONCE UPON A CRIME
The story of a police investigation is detailed in a smart, grown-up movie that gets most things right.
AUG 27, 2006 – THE CHENNAI PAPERS THESE DAYS are full of ads about Kamal Hassanâs shooting-in-progress Dasavatharam â could this be a first, that weâre seeing publicity for a movie thatâs just begun to be made? â and each time I catch one of these ads, my reaction is an inward groan. It isnât that Iâm not looking forward to the film. (I am. I really am.) But the thought of Kamal playing ten roles â or the thought of him playing a dwarf, or a woman in a nine-yard sari, or a village yokel with a handlebar moustache, or an accident victim with soda-bottle glasses and a scar and a limp, or a bulked-up psychopath with a shaved head, or a hard-of-hearing naÃ¯f with a earpiece â is a bit exhausting because Iâm never sure if Iâm being asked to respond to the performance or the gimmick behind its conception. On one level, yes, itâs thrilling to have this huge, huge star take all these risks and disfigure his good looks â and you have to admit he looks good even today â for the sake of our entertainment. (And for that, Iâm certainly grateful.) But a part of me also yearns for the times I used to enjoy Kamalâs performances without having to acknowledge how hard Kamal was trying to disguise the fact that it was him that was giving these performances.
One of the great pleasures of Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu is that it is anchored by a Kamal Hassan performance by an actor who actually looks like Kamal Hassan, walks and acts and talks like him. Thereâs no accent, no face-altering makeup, no showy body-language transformation; thereâs just a smart moustache that angles downwards at the edges. Otherwise, itâs the Kamal we all know, the Kamal whoâs grown up and aged before our eyes on screen. Heâs bulkier now, in that fleshy, middle-aged way â and this extra baggage adds layers of world-weariness to the character (of DCP Raghavan) that no mere prosthetics could. By now, we are familiar with the effects Kamal uses as an actor â the tilt of the head as heâs appraising someone, the way that sandpaper voice cracks in the emotional moments, the closing of the eyes accompanied by the guttural sigh as heâs trying to compose himself â yet thereâs something fresh about the way he adopts these tics here. Maybe itâs because weâre seeing him in a copâs uniform after so long, and maybe itâs because thereâs no distraction due to props and weâre free to sit back and relish the lightest of touches â the startled look as he bumps into a girl in a disco, the grim acknowledgement of Prakash Raj (in a wonderful cameo) as the latter receives him at the airport â as well as the big, actorly flourishes.
The fact that this is a Serious Kamal Movie â you know how he alternates one for the classes with one for the masses â and the fact that Kamal plays a cop made me think Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu would be in the tradition of Kurudhipunal. There too, Kamal was a cop, and the film was a sombre meditation on the nature of terrorism, among other things. But I was wrong. This is more along the lines of Soorasamharam, a simple, straightforward thriller; rather, itâs the thriller that Soorasamharam wanted to be but so miserably failed to become. If you strip away the externals, this is just another masala movie. Thereâs nothing more to it than the fact that Raghavan takes on a case and tracks down the killers, while attending to some personal business on the side with Aradhana (Jyotika). And nothing spells out these masala-movie intentions more than the first sequence, where our hero kicks open the gate that leads to where a villain is, and proceeds to single-handedly rout the bad guy and his numerous henchmen; after he finishes, the camera revolves around him in the manner of a faithful devotee circumnavigating the statue of his favourite deity. They couldnât have been more blatant about this being a hero establishing sequence if theyâd inserted a title card that said âHero Establishing Sequenceâ?. Soon after, we have the super-snazzy opening credits â set to the catchy Harris Jayaraj number, Karka Karka â where Raghavan demonstrates what the lyricist Thamarai eloquently terms nara vettai; he hunts down a bunch of bad guys and beats them up. At that point, I knew what director Gautham (heâs dumped the âMenonâ?) was after: a straight-on variation of the cops-and-robbers â here itâs cops-and-killers â action thriller. But I wasnât quite sure how this formulaic construct would fit in with our expectations, our greedy expectations of that âsomething newâ? from each one of Kamalâs releases.
But if that âsomething newâ? isnât there in the tale, itâs in the telling. After that explosive start, the film settles down into something weâve not quite seen before in Tamil cinema: a police procedural presented in a dry, docudrama fashion. Raghavan goes about investigating a gruesome murder, and thatâs what we see. He interviews the owner of a tea stall. He talks to a beggar. He follows his hunches. We donât meet his family until well into the movie, and even then, weâre not quite sure whoâs who. There are no cute introductions of a gruff father or a teasing sister. We donât know if heâs close to someone, anyone. Nothing is allowed to distract us from his work â not even fancy camerawork. Except for the romantic flashbacks â detailing Raghavanâs brief time with his wife (Kamalini Mukherjee) â the palette is bleached, as if to inform us that, for Raghavan, life without her is drained of colour, and itâs just work, work and more work. More than any other film of this type â something like Pulan Visaranai comes to mind â Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu gives us a sense of a day in the life of a cop, as if an invisible camera crew followed him around as he went about his job.
Gautham does extremely well with these events that make up the exciting first half. I hated MinnalÃ©, and was subsequently quite surprised by how good Kaakha Kaakha was, and now thereâs this. We are familiar with directors who start with a bang â with a stunning first feature â and then disappear into thin air, and we call these first films a fluke. But with Gautham, it appears to be the other way around. His debuted with a fluke, all right, but only in the sense that what heâs made afterwards has been really impressive. There are still things I wish he wouldnât do. He doesnât realise that some things are better left to the imagination â thereâs a lot of gore here thatâs dwelt on with excruciatingly loving close-ups â and he gives his music director a little too much leeway with the background score (from the bugles and the snare drums that open the movie, Jayaraj drenches the soundtrack with the exact kind of bombast that the picture is trying to steer clear of) â but Gautham directs his story smoothly, keeping things moving with the hum of a well-oiled machine. Even the way he shoots his songs has become so much better. (I still shudder whenever I recall the sublime Vaseegara being picturised with those tubby pole dancers.) The mandatory number showing the hero and heroine getting familiar â the gorgeous Vennilave â is vibrantly shot in the streets of New York, which is where Raghavan is pursuing his case. And even in this pursuit, weâre not shown every step; weâve seen police work on screen before, and Gautham trusts that we can connect the dots in our heads. And this makes the film rich in unexpected ways. The first time Raghavan follows one of his hunches, for instance, and lands up at the exact location of a corpse, I rolled my eyes and wondered if we shouldnât have been shown a couple of extra scenes that led him to this brilliant deduction. I mean, he just stops his car and walks to the spot. But then weâre shown that Raghavan records his thoughts (about his cases) into a Dictaphone that he keeps replaying while doing other things, and suddenly it seemed logical that the facts of each investigation are so seeped in his subconscious that, yes, he would be able to just stop his car and walk to the spot.
But for all the detail and care thatâs lavished on the protagonist, itâs when the antagonist makes his appearance that the film threatens to fall apart. Thereâs an awful scene where we learn who he is, why he is the way he is, and so on, and itâs so clumsily and simplistically done, itâs like a schoolchild reading out an essay he wrote titled âMe and My Motivationsâ?. Part of the sneaky appeal of serial-killer thrillers is in the gradual revelation of the serial killersâ motives. Weâre already in horror about what they are doing, and the best movies in this genre â Seven, The Silence of the Lambs â make us sink into further horror about why they are doing these things. There isnât any of that here, and the person who plays the killer is encouraged to act out so broadly, it comes as a shock, especially considering how underplayed everything else is. Whatâs tougher to take is the way this character calls out to the gallery: heâs two parts put-upon Dhanush in Kaadhal Kondain, one part crafty Carlos the Jackal. Maybe this showiness was a conscious decision â an effort to please fans of regular masala movies, to give them something juicy in the midst of the dry, businesslike matter-of-factness around â but itâs one thing when thereâs a compromise in the form of a gratuitous item number (set in Goa, with Mumait Khan), and itâs quite another when a major character is at odds with the rest of the movie.
But if Raghavanâs interactions with his nemesis are the weakest portions of Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, his scenes with Aradhana are among the strongest. Gautham continues to dream up for Jyotika parts that no oneâs imagined her in before, and she contributes to the kind of mature romantic angle weâve rarely seen before. Itâs not just about boy meeting girl and falling in love; itâs about boy with baggage meeting girl with bigger baggage and tentatively exploring the practicality of a new relationship after their respective old ones have faded away. Thereâs a scene where Raghavan and Aradhana walk side by side and talk about their past, and their chemistry is so relaxed, so unfussily romantic, thereâs really no need for the cut-away flashbacks that punctuate this conversation. I know it sounds strange to highlight the love angle as the best aspect of a serial-killer thriller, but thatâs what makes this movie so interesting. The detective work and the mano a mano confrontations are exciting and well-done, but these arenât exactly new for anyone clued in to Hollywood. But those incidentals, those notes on the margin â those are the signs that Tamil masala cinema, even with its unique set of conventions and must-haves, can grow up if it wants to.
Copyright Â© 2006