G.Marimuthu’s Pulivaal – the tiger-by-the-tail title is very apt – has an involving hook. The story pits Karthik (Prasanna), a fat-cat businessman, against Kasi (Vemal), who makes Rs. 4000 a month as a supermarket employee. Karthik loses his iPhone (it has incriminating information) and Kasi pockets it, unthinkingly. A have becomes a have-not, a have-not suddenly has something – and the film takes a step into Patricia Highsmith territory. Kasi discovers that, perhaps for the first time in his life, he’s holding the cards and he’s now in a position to dictate terms to people who won’t give him a second look. Yet, his newfound aggression doesn’t fully displace his innate timidity, honed through years of bowing and scraping. In one scene, he’s giving Karthik the royal runaround, and in the next, he’s terrified of the consequences of what he’s unleashed. And his actions set up a neat reversal of audience sympathies. First, we want to see Karthik brought down from his privileged perch. We want him to crawl. But gradually, we begin to root for him.
At the heart of Pulivaal, adapted from the Malayalam film Chaappa Kurishu, is the grim truth that we cannot control life, and that the things we do can sometimes spiral into disastrous consequences for innocents. (Oviya plays this film’s collateral damage.) But the uninspired narrative doesn’t do this theme justice. The characters – save for Karthik’s father, who provides a surprising grace note – are strictly one-dimensional, the staging is flat, and the events are preposterous. (The bit involving the character played by Swarnamalya is downright childish.) The film’s best stretch is an impressively staged action sequence in a grimy public toilet. Karthik’s rage and Kasi’s fear are amplified in the small space, and, for a few minutes, we see the kind of atmospheric thriller Pulivaal could have been.
One reason our thrillers almost always fall short is that the must-haves of the genre – the gradual escalation of stakes, the nail-biting tension – are inherently incompatible with the must-haves of our movies, like the songs and the stand-alone comedy track. At least the singing-dancing music videos, one of which employs brightly coloured parasols, are restricted to the first half. (The hero sings that he will ignite the heroine’s heart with petrol, and she replies that she’ll cool him with ice cream.) The gags, unfortunately, run throughout. There’s Soori dispensing SMS kadi jokes, and, at the other end of the spectrum, we have what appears to be a stab at biting political humour. Because no Tamil movie, these days, can do without the mandatory TASMAC bar scene, we have Valliappan (Thambi Ramiah), the manager of the supermarket Kasi works in, sitting down for a drink, and overhearing a conversation in the next table. A Kannadiga extends a glass of undiluted liquor to a Tamilian and asks for water, in Kannada. The man is unable to understand the request. Valliappan helpfully says, “Karnataka thanni kekkudhu.” Elsewhere, he carries on telepathic conversations with an employee over the preludes of Ilayaraja’s superhits. The trend of lazily invoking the maestro’s music shows no sign of abating, and one wonders if these filmmakers realise that by reminding us of how sublime art can get, the rest of their film ends up looking all the more impoverished.
* kadi jokes = PJs
* Karnataka thanni kekkudhu = Karnataka wants water.
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