Poriyaalan gets off to an alarmingly conventional start. In a college reunion of civil engineers, the hero (Saravanan, played by Harish Kalyan) gets to mouth this rather banal ode to his ilk: “Ulagathoda future-a design pannradhu civil engineer” – he, and those like him, design the world’s future. There is a ‘Gaana’ Bala number. The heroine (Shanti, played by Anandhi, who resembles Priya Raman) falls for Saravanan and begins to sing very generic (and unmemorable) songs. And we meet an equally generic villain – Sundar (Achuta Kumar) – who, in his first scene, murders a man who owes him money. (This is a Vetrimaaran production; a song from Aadukalam is heard in the background.)
And then, slowly, things turn interesting – it’s as if the director, Thanu Kumar said, “Let’s get all this commercial crap out of the way right at the beginning.” We also realize why the film opens in medias res, with Saravanan and his buddy Prabhu in great distress, fearing Sundar’s wrath. Without this hook, which segues into the above-mentioned “commercial crap,” we’d have nothing to hold on to. But once Saravanan leaves his job with a big builder (Naren) and decides to start his own construction company – a small one, with the aim of building just one flat; in contrast, his boss speaks of gated communities – the film really takes off.
Poriyaalan is a sort of sibling to Vetrimaaran’s first film, Polladhavan. There, a middle-class youth lost his bike, a prized Pulsar, and got entangled with the underworld. Here, Saravanan, who drives a Pulsar, loses a large sum of money and gets entangled with Sundar, who’s something of a one-man underworld. What sets these films apart from the typical action-thrillers is their texture – you can taste the grit. The civil engineering angle introduces us to a world we seldom see in the movies, populated by real estate agents, mediators, and loan sharks. And the emotional hook comes from the interconnectedness of it all – Shanti is Prabhu’s cousin, and it’s Prabhu who arranges for the money Saravanan needs for his housing project. And Prabhu, of course, is linked to Sundar. By falling for Shanti and by accepting Prabhu’s money, Saravanan makes his friend’s life hell in more ways than one.
The storytelling, after that flabby beginning, is superbly economic – Poriyaalan runs just about two hours. And this is possible because the film doesn’t linger on the obvious. Take the scene where Saravanan and Shanti are caught canoodling by the folks. There’s a moment of awkwardness when Shanti leaps out of her seat – but we don’t hear the elders speak. We cut to a shamefaced Saravanan walking up to Prabhu, who’s heard the news and is now torn between friend and family. Soon after, Saravanan goes to Shanti’s father and makes the kind of speech that’s remarkable in its simplicity. For an anguished lover, he spouts no lovelorn rhetoric.
And there are grace notes aplenty. I loved the bit where Sundar’s wife urges Prabhu, who’s being held hostage by Sundar, to eat. The scene comes out of nowhere. It’s not strictly necessary. But it’s authentic. It fleshes out this world. Sundar’s young daughter, too, is a surprise. She looks like she should be in school, but she handles her father’s accounts. When we first see her, she’s in front of a currency-counting machine. Write interesting supporting characters, even the ones that are blink-and-miss, and that’s half the battle won.
I could have lived without the jackhammer-like background score, the item song at the end, and also the Saravanan-versus-many fight sequence (though this is mercifully short and choreographed fairly realistically, if that’s the word). I also wished Sundar had been better etched. Had his heinousness been established with more colour, we would have been sweating along with the hero. But the film makes good on its promise of a tight little thriller, with mostly adequate performances and a very flavourful one by Mohan Raman. He plays the mediator who, despite his obvious riches, prefers to travel by auto. For a while, he keeps us guessing about his character. Is he good? Is he bad? In a different filmmaking climate, he’d have made a heck of a protagonist.
* Poriyaalan = engineer
* Priya Raman = see here
* Aadukalam = see this joyous stretch here
* in medias res = see here
* Polladhavan = see here
* canoodling = see here
* currency-counting machine = see here
* jackhammer = see here
* Mohan Raman = see here
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