Readers Write In #147: Betray-Maaran: Exploring an insidious emotion

Posted on March 4, 2020

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(by Adhithya KR)

“I never felt like I didn’t have a father -”

Slash. Pettaikaaran deftly slits his own throat as only one practiced in culling roosters can. He falls, dooming Karuppu to a life of running from the law.

Aadukalam was the first Vetrimaaran movie I watched and that scene was etched into my mind for a long time. I could not believe that a character like this could exist – How could somebody be so poisonous that even in death he would deliver a killing blow?

Years later, after watching Asuran, I decided to revisit Vetrimaaran’s earlier movies and watch the ones that I had missed out on. I intended to study a very specific aspect of his movies – Betrayal. The violation of trust is an integral part of his narrative, but it is used in a different manner each time. In Vadachennai, an act of treachery is the premise upon which the epic is built. A similar act comes across as a massive shock in Visaaranai making the audience question the very social institutions which they unquestioningly trust. In Polladhavan, it is a plot twist.

Aadukalam flips the axis of the story at the midway point – Rathnasamy has just lost to Karuppu and his friends. He has lost his hair, his moustache, and his honour and has every justification to incite violence in what could become a typical “mass” second-half. Vetrimaaran ignores the possibilities of this explosive confrontation and instead corrodes the protagonist’s life from the inside. Karuppu is barely beginning to stand on his own legs when the carpet is pulled from under his feet.

Why is betrayal such a strong emotion? The feeling of being cheated is so potent that it can even trump death. Death is an inevitability to some extent, but a breach of faith is something that nobody is prepared for and many a time you have to live with it. It’s a drastic shift in your world-view. As psychologist Jordan Peterson puts it, it means you have to ‘see’ differently. All assumptions that you made about the person who cheated you are invalid, your understanding about that person is wrong and you have to see him differently. Not only that, it means you have to see yourself differently. You begin to question the decisions you took, the assumptions you made and the way you saw things during the entire farce. It’s easier to go into denial.

The betrayed men in Vetrimaaran’s movies primarily go into denial. Take the final scene in Visaranai for instance. It’s obvious that the three people are being transported for slaughter – But the police officers have to do very little convincing because Pandi and his friends badly want to believe that they are wrong. How could the “good police officer” who saved them be the messenger of their death? Pandi even refuses to shoot Inspector Muthusamy in self-defence. Similarly, in Polladhavan, Selvam is more confused than hurt that he is stabbed by Ravi and voices his concern for the very brother who is hacking him. “How will you survive without me?”

It could be this feeling of being indebted and patronised that motivates the traitor. Both in Vadachennai and Polladhavan, the leader is a giant so large that he overshadows his own proteges. That shade might be the only thing shielding them from a harsh world, but the perceived lack of freedom irritates them. In their minds, they are the ones who are not receiving fair treatment and they are taking corrective action to invert the power equation.

In fact, every Vetrimaaran film (except Asuran), has a micro-betrayal that motivates the main betrayal. In Polladhavan, Ravi feels cheated that his brother supports an outsider. Pettaikaaran’s ego is hurt that his student went against his command AND won, not once but three times. The henchmen in Vadachennai get royally humiliated in their slum by Rajan. Even in Visaranai, Pandi’s action of helping out KK with a cellphone and being in the wrong place at the wrong time precipitate a sequence of events that leave Muthusamy with no choice. This small action seems insignificant to the character but that is where the balance tips. Only the audience can see that being outside the story, and there is a grim foreboding that starts building towards the moment of reckoning.

Visaranai is particularly difficult to watch. Not only is it distressing to see the person who saved three men from certain imprisonment turning into their executioner, but it’s also an instance of laymen getting cheated by “The System” that is supposed to protect them. The System is so omnipotent that it can bend the will of the most well-intentioned person to suit its needs and it ultimately betrays the very people who make it up.

The most complex film in this respect is probably Vadachennai. Whereas the other films dealt with the establishment of trust between characters and then drove an axe into that trust, this film questioned what trust even meant. Ironically, Anbu begins by using a small act of betrayal to establish trust with Senthil. He rats out Guna and Velu for using a cellphone and seeks refuge with Senthil to ‘escape’ their ire. Halfway into the movie, Anbu backstabs Senthil (literally) and it is only later that we find out that Senthil pulled off the exact same move with Rajan (Poetic justice?). Anbu’s benefactors Guna and Velu are willing to turn him in when he begins to shift his stance towards them, whereas others from the opposition camp turn up to support him. It’s a web of relationships being forged and people being traded with little regard to loyalty. The bonds in Vadachennai are purely functional.

There are echoes of other Vetrimaaran films: The henchmen living under the shadow of their boss, Anbu being a ‘pawn in the system’ and rethinking it at a later stage, the mentor-protege relationship between Anbu and Guna that goes sour. But what’s different about Vadachennai is the presence of two other brilliant characters: Thambi and Chandra. These two characters seem so fluid in their loyalties, adapting to the new landscape at every stage without any resistance that they almost come across as spineless creatures. It’s only at the end that it’s revealed that they are loyal where it counts – In sticking to the plan, in weathering it out and waiting for the right medium to fulfil their destiny.

The pattern can turn predictable at times. The instant Sivasamy helped his friend get a job in Asuran, I knew that the same friend was going to be Sivasamy’s downfall. Is that sort of predictability boring? I don’t think so, because every story of Vetrimaaran’s is an exploration of what happens when people with strong motives cross paths. There is rarely a Deus-Ex-Machina or a surprise element that propels his stories forward. Familiarity breeds contempt and that contempt will inevitably cause relationships to implode. Sometimes it’s depressing, sometimes it’s disgusting, but it’s always interesting to watch that disintegration unfold on screen.

I had some reservations about the title of this article. It sounded like I was cursing the director. But it was just an attempt to pay my respect. Because, in spite of all the betrayals, I’ve never felt betrayed watching a movie by Vetrimaaran.