From the very beginning, from the minute a lowly MNC employee rolls off his bed in a tiny house whose walls bear a poster of T Rajendar, Nalan Kumarasamy’s Soodhu Kavvum is a demonstration of what’s possible when movies are made for the sheer joy of making movies. There isn’t a single calculated moment, something cynically aimed to satisfy this segment of the audience or that one. Everything is organic, the events rooted in a nutty story and sprouting through a brilliant screenplay. Like a collector who polishes his vintage car every morning, you sense in this team the pride of ownership, that it’s their film and that they have to treat it the best way possible. The performances (in a cast toplined by Vijay Sethupathi), the cinematography, the dialogues, the sets, the editing, the outstanding songs and background score – it’s all one of a piece, with nothing sticking out with attention-grabbing awkwardness. Most thrilling of all is the gleeful amorality – there’s not a nalla karuthu in sight.
It’s difficult to discuss Soodhu Kavvum – which centres on a botched kidnapping (sorry, “kednaping”) attempt – without spoiling it for the first-time viewer, because it isn’t about what happens so much as how these things happen. It’s about the vibe. It’s about the parking valet who bathes and changes into fresh clothes and applies sacred ash on his forehead and then sits down to have a drink, delivering an impassioned rant about the futility of reading newspapers. It’s about the loser who, like James Stewart in Harvey, introduces people to his invisible companion. It’s about a politician who seeks solitude while tucking into pizza. It’s about a kidnapper who picks up the ransom money coolly, as if he were a delivery boy for a courier company picking up a package. It’s about the funniest spelling mistake ever, where an innocent declaration of lunching out is reduced to an unprintable sexual act. It’s about a name like Nambikkaikannan.
The director’s uncompromising vision – in the current Tamil-cinema scenario, where box-office compromises are everywhere, you could even call this some kind of conscientiousness – extends to the songs and the fights, which don’t cut into the pace of the film but instead enhance the overall mood. The only full-fledged song (the irresistible Kaasu panam) is a dream sequence that takes place in an Indra sabha-like set, where the dancers are in gold ribbons and red sneakers. And a fight scene (featuring the excellent Yog Japee, who plays a “psycho inspector“) is cut as a montage, invigorated by backdrops that keep changing. The quirk, thankfully, isn’t overdone. Had every scene been saturated with colour, we’d have ended up exhausted – there’s just enough bizarreness to keep us wondering if, for instance, the casual shot of oranges at the corner of a frame has anything to do with a character thinking up a plot point about the fruit for a film named Honeymoon.
Soodhu Kavvum doesn’t quite explode the way you expect it to – I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I think the pacing in some stretches is a bit off – but that’s a small price to pay in the face of such riches. This is the kind of film that marries Tamil cinema with cinema from beyond. From the former, we get a line like “Yen da en nanban-a adiche?’ – a clever reworking of a cliché that invites not eye-rolls but laughs. And from the latter we have such surreal moments as the small song that reunites hero and heroine in heaven… in the middle of a torture scene. I am most curious to see how Soodhu Kavvum will be received – the noir-comedy isn’t a genre we dabble in all that often – but of at least one thing there is little doubt. These brave little films are here to stay. Vijay Sethupathi, the poster boy of this cinema, was welcomed in his first scene with cheers and claps usually reserved for mass heroes making their entry. It’s the sweetest sound I’ve heard in years.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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