We are subjected, so often, to flat staging and the dialogue-over-all-else style of filmmaking that when someone makes a movie that actually looks like a movie, a piece of cinema, the question of how good it is becomes secondary to the sensory experience of it. Balaji K Kumar’s Vidiyum Munn is the most excitingly staged movie since Mysskin’s Onaayum Aattukuttiyum. This isn’t about frames filled with pretty pictures, which we usually hail as great cinematography, but about mood and texture and disorienting canted angles and all those things that affect us at an almost subconscious level. It’s about the prostitute walking away from us in lipstick-red high-heeled shoes, the long shot of a wheelchair-bound man being led to an SUV, the view of a bedridden villain through the mosquito net that falls around him like a shroud, and above all, the superb gallery of unique-looking men and the close-ups they’re captured in, sometimes in front of an old-fashioned table fan, sometimes near a hissing cobra.
Vidiyum Munn is about a sex worker named Rekha (Pooja Umashankar) who is on the run with 12-year-old Nandini (Malavika Manikuttan) as various men chase them, and the who-what-why scenarios suggest, at first, a nail-biting thriller. There are thrills, notably in a superb sequence in a house in Srirangam where a former sex worker (Lakshmi Ramakrishnan) is menaced by a couple of thugs (John Vijay and Amarendran; I had a knot in my stomach about when, exactly, they’d unleash violence) – but the film is really a mood piece (suggested, apparently, by the British thriller London to Brighton). The pace is deliberate, and the subject matter is bracingly adult. No attempts are made to dilute the mood with comedy or romance, and except a stray line about all of us housing both God and Satan, or a veiled threat in the form of a fable, there’s none of the dime-store philosophising that frequently taints our films.
The director is right to stylise this material – presented more “realistically,” the narrative may have come off as too thin, too familiar. (Or put differently, the style becomes an indispensable part of the narrative.) Still, there are times I wished he’d held back. A lurid montage set to RD Burman’s Duniya mein logon ko feels out of place in this milieu. (Why not something by MS Viswanathan or Ilayaraja?) And a slow-motion stretch in the climax is a mistake. We’re meant to be squirming with dread, and instead we seem to be viewing an arty music video. But the performances carry the film home. Pooja, with her thin, tremulous voice, is very effective as the kind of beautiful woman so battered by life that she only sees the ugliness inside her. And as her underage companion, Malavika is excellent. We may wonder, at times, if she is a little too composed for someone so young, but then we remember that she’s seen and been through things that have made her grow up in a hurry. And mercifully, her horrific plight isn’t used as an excuse for a lament about social ills. The director understands that it’s not his job to be stuffing our heads with explicit messages. He makes us think. He makes us feel. That’s all that’s needed, really.
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