In an early scene in H Vinoth’s Sathuranga Vettai, Gandhi Babu (Natraj, who’s quite good) sells a businessman a snake. What he’s really selling, though, is snake oil. He’s a conman, and the film – inspired by true events, we’re told at the beginning – is a series of cons. Vinoth employs a series of tricks to amp up his narrative, to make us feel we’re watching a really cool movie. He breaks the film into chapters and slaps a tongue-in-cheek title on each one. He uses animation to narrate a flashback. There’s a goon who, when he feels like it, speaks in pure Tamil. There’s a cobra that’s christened “Ilaya Thalapathy” Vijay. And there’s a lot of jittery editing, always in a rush to drag us to the next scene. What we don’t get is the pleasure of being conned.
The con movie is a curious genre. We’d hate to be in the victims’ shoes in real life, but on screen, we want the conmen to perpetrate the most elaborate frauds and get away with it. It’s vicarious wish-fulfillment for the id. We don’t see too many of these films in Tamil, so the newness keeps us watching (this is one of those not-bad-for-a-first-film films) – but the cons aren’t shaped well. They seem too easy (except for the last one), and the victims seem too dumb. And the director makes at least one very odd choice. When Gandhi Babu is apprehended by the police, we see that he’s used a variety of disguises – but when the first two cons play out, he looks the same. We want to see him in those disguises. We want some panache. We want those slo-mo shots of a beard coming off, a mask being ripped off. And we want some tension. We’re constantly aware of the nuts and bolts of the con, so we’re two steps ahead of the victims. We never watch these episodes wondering how something was pulled off; we just watch events reach their logical conclusion. Predictability is not something you want in a con movie.
The crispness, the crackle is lost when you filter certain Hollywood genres through Tamil-film sensibilities. Sathuranga Vettai is filled with talk. There are some funny, clever lines, like the one that goes “Kuttra unarchi illaama pannradhu edhuvume thappu illai.” (“If you don’t feel guilty while doing something, then it isn’t wrong.”) But a lot of the time, the characters seem to be speaking to us, the audience – they keep feeding us existentialist punch lines. Then there’s all the sentiment. Changes of heart occur too conveniently and by the time we see a character turn into a labourer, it’s downright laughable. We need to be eased into these developments, not pushed into them. And why the moralistic streak? Why should the hero (even when played by someone who’s not a big star) always have a tragic backstory, a reason for why he became who he is? By the time the love angle begins to play out (the heroine is Ishaara), the sandpaper-rough protagonist has all the toughness of butter. I suppose this was done to create sympathy for the leading man, but how about some sympathy for the genre?
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