“Madras”… Beautifully made, but with little to say

Posted on October 2, 2014


Spoilers ahead…

It’s probably very reductionist to describe Pa Ranjith’s Madras as Sathya meets Subramaniyapuram – but that’s how I saw the film. From the former, we get a young man’s coming of age against a knavish political backdrop. Like Kamal Haasan’s character, Kaali (Karthi) is a graduate with a merry bunch of friends, and instead of carrom they play football. They live in cramped quarters in Vyasarpadi. The song that takes us through these surroundings – Enga ooru Madrasu – is a younger sibling to Madura kulunga from Subramaniyapuram, and Madras reflects that film’s obsession with chronicling the environs with near-anthropological acuity. The congregation of plastic buckets around a tap. The peeling paint on the walls. The obsessive football games. (A child goes by the name of Ronaldo.) The Ilayaraja hit parade. The ease with which the young take to violence, and the effects on their lives, their loves. (Kaali’s romantic interest is Kalai, played by a wan, miscast Catherine Tresa.) It’s all there.

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And we’ve seen all of this before. The story revolves around the dispute over a wall that hosts the painting of a political leader, and when a character from one side tells the enemy “Idhu enga area, enga suvaru,” we are reminded of Enga area ulla varaadhey, the song from Pudhupettai that also invoked Vyasarpadi as one of their areas. The now-violent-now-tender (and very physical) relationship between Kaali’s friend Anbu (Kalaiarasan) and his wife Mary (Ritwika) is reminiscent of the Madhavan-Meera Jasmine track in Aaydha Ezhuthu. (Kalaiarasan and Ritwika make a far more convincing pair than Karthi and Catherine Tresa.) And the narrative treads a familiar path – scenes of friendship and romance first, and then the heavy stuff. But Ranjith, whose first film was the delightful Attakathi, is a good filmmaker and a thoughtful one. From the beginning, where the screen splits in two to mirror the splitting of a political party into two factions, it’s evident that his technique has become sharper. (This, again, reminded me of the early scene in Pudhupettai, where the right half of the screen is lit in a lurid red, the left in an equally lurid green. Madras goes on to use colours to differentiate the areas in which the two split factions operate.)

The energetic filmmaking dusts the cobwebs off Madras. When Anbu and Kaali are joshing about on the football ground, we see this as a series of alternating long shots and mid shots – we get the sense that something larger is at play, and soon enough, there is. The way the crowds gather around a corpse is equally brilliant – we feel the claustrophobia. (The scene begins brilliantly – some low-level ambient sound, and then a woman’s shriek pierces the air.) It’s a cliché to call scenes sculpted, but that’s what we have here – the presentation of Kalai’s past in vignettes mirroring the narration being given to Kaali; the music-backed montage of happenings, both romantic and violent, in the neighbourhood; the footsie-playing cross-cut with high-level deal-making; the stylised local dancers who show up in happy songs as well as sad numbers. Santhosh Narayanan contributes heavily. The songs are superb and the score is even better, eschewing themes for primal sounds. (An action scene in the first half echoes with drums that sound like a heart hopped up on adrenalin.)

But the writing isn’t up to this level. The domestic scenes are fine – the one where Kaali’s mother (Rama, the Bharathiraja heroine who got to wear the trademark white frocks in Ey rasaathi) keeps rejecting prospective brides is a riot. And I liked the slivers of political philosophy, as when a party worker advises Kaali to get married and have many babies because their strength is in numbers. But beyond a point, it becomes difficult to overlook the familiarity of the material. The romantic track is intrusive, and the songs are badly placed. And it’s a problem when a film made in 2014 is telling us the same things about how politics works as Sathya did – in 1988. The ending is a disaster, the result of one of those do-gooder impulses that strikes filmmakers on occasion, when they feel they have to not just make a movie but remake a society. It’s also hard to buy into Kaali’s character once he transforms into something of an action hero. (The scene where his fight with thugs is cross-cut with his moves on the football field is laughable. At least if this had been his first fight sequence, we might have bought the conceit.)

This is easily one of Karthi’s better roles, but his tendency to oversell an emotion – when compared to the natural-seeming supporting cast, almost everything he does is accompanied by an exaggerated facial expression – doesn’t help the character of Kaali, who also comes off as aloof. We don’t know why he does what he does. He’s an IT graduate, working in a software firm, making decent money. He wears branded stuff – Proline sweatshirts and Adidas track pants. People keep referring to him as something of an outsider, as a “padicha paiyan.” At one point, Anbu says, “Un vaazhkaye vera.” So what keeps him here, and what draws him to the political skirmishes around the wall? Is it a Michael Corleone kind of situation, where an outwardly civilized man finds himself unable to escape the savagery running through his veins?

Or is it something more… sinister? One way to read Madras is as a quasi horror film, with the wall the equivalent of, say, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, a source of evil that turns everyone in its vicinity. It’s wild, I know – but hear me out. The film begins with what could be termed the “legend” of the wall. After a series of killings, a red stain appears on the wall and it keeps spreading. Thereon it is often filmed in perspective – it looms. The streetlight in front keeps flickering, casting ominous shadows on it. People refer to it as a malefic being: “Adhu bali pottudum.” Sure enough, accidents keep happening around it – also, a suicide. In one stretch, Kaali’s bike breaks down near the wall… and it’s night… and there’s the eerie feeling that he’s being followed… and he keeps getting blank calls… If the point is that this whole culture of worshipping personalities through their likenesses on walls is similar to a horror show, who will disagree?


* Sathya = see here
* Subramaniyapuram = see here
* “Idhu enga area, enga suvaru” = This is our area, our wall.
* Pudhupettai = see here
* Aaydha Ezhuthu = see here
* Attakathi = see here
* Ey rasaathi = see here
* “padicha paiyan” = educated youth
* “Un vaazhkaye vera” = your path is different
* Michael Corleone = see here
* The Shining = see here
* “Adhu bali pottudum” = You will be ‘sacrificed’.

Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Tamil