As Chandi Veeran opens, enraged men brandishing weapons descend on a village and all hell breaks loose. A bomb explodes under a woman and her young daughter – they fly into the air and land charred, dead. A few feet away, a man lies splayed on the ground, his face bisected by a sickle. And young Paari (who grows up to be Atharvaa) watches helplessly as his father, who’s rushed in to help, is speared through the stomach. The boy’s piteous cries rend the air. You’d think he’d be permanently scarred, that he’d simmer with dark emotions that would inform his every subsequent move. But soon after, Paari’s only concern is Thamarai (Anandhi). It’s the curse that afflicts many movies. You take on a serious subject. But you risk losing your audience if you let things get too serious. Hence the first half, with scenes like the one where Paari hides behind an irrigation tank, hoping to watch Thamarai bathe. Ah, true love.
This sudsy romance eventually flows into the film’s crux of two villages at war over a water source. This is what the film thinks it’s about – how, even today, there are villages that lack something as basic as drinking water. But the theme loses its specificity in the disappointingly generic narration – the feud could just as easily have been about a boy from one village eloping with a girl from another. It’s just the backdrop for half-baked drama and action. The director, A Sarkunam, made a terrific debut with Kalavani, which made us think he was a rock-solid storyteller. He took his time to develop situations and memorable characters. But here, we get caricatures like Paari’s mother. In an early scene, she’s shown carrying on a conversation with a picture of her dead husband. But this trait goes nowhere, and she quickly becomes redundant. One way to judge how important a supporting character is in a movie is to ask whether we’d miss him or her if they weren’t there in the first place. We wouldn’t miss half the village here.
The events – loud, and scored to deafening music – are equally arbitrary. Paari, who is removed at first from the feud, gets sucked into it most incidentally – at least, it seems like it. We never get a sense of destiny – son following the footsteps of the father, and so forth. These aspects are established in the laziest way possible, through dialogue. The funniest instance is when Paari decides to sacrifice himself in order to save the lives of many – a two-year-old would get what he’s trying to do, and yet, he explains it all in his “mind voice.” (“Yaarum saaga koodadhu… naamale sethuduvom.”) There is a lot of talk. A reformed villain speaks about having realised the value of water. Another bad guy speaks about “mobocracy”. There’s one of those long speeches at the end that every hero in this kind of film has to deliver, so we know the subject is something “worthy,” that the film has its heart in the right place.
Chandi Veeran runs under two hours, but I kept wondering if there was a longer cut that made more sense, where contrivances like Paari’s stint in a Singapore jail meant more to the narrative. Everything seems to be happening in a hurry, and the actors are swept along. Atharvaa overplays the cockiness. Anandhi goes through the motions of yet another sweet-young-thing part. Only Lal, as Thamarai’s stubborn father, lends some weight to the proceedings. The only parts where we see the Sarkunam from Kalavani are the ones bursting with rustic flavour, like the festivities with a game where girls scoop up coloured water and race back and forth to fill an empty bottle. Yes, Chandi Veeran is a step up from Sarkunam’s earlier film, the vile Naiyaandi, but is that really saying anything?
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