The best Tamil films, these days, are usually those that are set in the smaller towns and villages, and that’s because they don’t have to make too many compromises in the storytelling. In these films, we don’t sense the fear that’s so evident in the urban upper-class films, where we can practically hear the director wipe away cold sweat and think: “Okay, this movie is about a very small section of the Tamil Nadu audience. So maybe if there’s a track with that popular comedian, more people will watch it. And maybe I’ll [over]explain some portions, put them in context, for those who aren’t likely to have encountered these situations. And maybe I’ll throw in some fancy songs as well.” These decisions end up wrecking these films. Last year’s Kalyana Samayal Saadham didn’t make that mistake. It made no attempt to “reach out.” It stayed true to its premise, its characters, its milieu. P Ramesh’s Thegidi is another such film, small and tight and contained, more invested in pursuing an organic vision than in being all things to all people. Will it succeed? That we don’t know. But in its own way, the film is a success.
The story is about Vettri (Ashok Selvan), who, after an MA in Criminology, joins a detective agency for a job that involves – as his employer puts it – “shadowing and surveillance.” I waited a couple of beats for the inevitable translation, but it never came. And when Vettri begins tailing people, he takes pictures of them and pins them on a board, affixing post-it notes with key characteristics. (“Chain smoker.” “Short temper.”) These aren’t translated either. The Major Sundarrajan-isation of lines is, in itself, not a crime, but it slackens the pace – which can be fatal in a thriller – and it takes us out of the film by reminding us that this is being done for the sake of the viewer. If Thegidi clocks in at just a hair over two hours, without a single wasted scene, it’s because its characters do what they would do under these circumstances, not what an imagined audience out there would expect them to do.
This is one of those paranoia thrillers – I was vaguely reminded of a John Grisham novel that was made into a successful movie – where the protagonist finds himself deeper and deeper in a conspiracy, and the only major issue I had is that this paranoia isn’t played up enough. In the best scene, Madhu (Janani Iyer, perfectly cast) leans on Vettri and curls her fingers around his. He’s happy that the girl he likes so much seems to like him back, but a second later, he freezes. He sees a sign on a door nearby, that the area is under video surveillance. And he extricates his hand from hers. He knows he cannot afford to be seen with her, and the sign is a reminder of what people like him do, “shadowing and surveillance.” We needed more such moments of the sinister lurking in the everyday.
But I was surprised by how well this romantic track is handled. The meet-cute is more thought-out and more convincing than the ones we see in most romantic films, and the short conversations Vettri and Madhu share are beautifully written. I was especially taken by his need, earlier on, to explain himself to her, whom he doesn’t even know, simply because she caught him in a compromising position and he cannot bear the thought that she now has the wrong impression about him. We get, through this, the beginnings of their romance as well as a shade of his character. This is rock-solid writing. (And it’s funny when he tries to explain himself and she, unexpectedly, turns detective.) Selvan isn’t a very expressive actor, but the scenes (and the songs) with the couple work very well, and you soon find yourself wishing that they don’t do anything to screw it up. It bodes well for a filmmaker when even the non-thriller portions of his thriller register this strongly.
The thriller portions are equally impressive, with the preposterous elements (like an underwater murder) balanced out by the more restrained scenes. I wished we’d seen Vettri do a little more sleuthing (the non-flashlight kind), and I didn’t quite get what the deal was about his not owning a cell phone, a fact that’s impressed on us quite often. I also wished the Big Reveal at the end had come with a better explanation, especially as the second half, by when we’ve come to know who the bad guys are, revs down a bit. But there are plenty of tense moments, thanks to the deliberate pacing (that steers clear of cheap, amped-up thrills) and the fact that the film keeps zooming in on a small cast of characters. Everyone’s important in the larger scheme of things, even the army wife whom Madhu lives with. She has no problem with Vettri dropping in to see Madhu, and this is another way the movie’s milieu is established, rather than explained. Thegidi is proof that if the small things are worked out well, the bigger ones will take care of themselves.
* Thegidi = dice, gambling, fraud and deception
* Kalyana Samayal Saadham = see here and here
* Chain smoker = see here
* The Major Sundarrajan-isation of lines = see here (the 2:40 mark)
* a John Grisham novel = see here
* cheap, amped-up thrills = see here
An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.