Language: Tamil 

Director: Sri Ganesh, 

Cast: Vettri, Nasser, Aparna Balamurali, MS Baskar

Rarely have I heard a film’s leading man dismissed with such exquisite contempt: “Mudhugelumbu illadha oru nallavan!” (A spineless saint!) Part of the powerlessness we sense in the character – a sub-inspector named Sathya – is surely due to the ineffectiveness of the actor, a newcomer named Vettri. 

He’s terribly stiff. There’s no strength, no confidence. It seems to take him effort just to part his lips and say his lines. But luckily, the story plays on this very (lack of) quality. The first time we see Sathya as a grown-up, it’s the voice you notice, the meekness with which he answers a superior. One gets the feeling Vettri didn’t have to act. He just had to be.

The director, Sri Ganesh, was an assistant of Mysskin, and you can sense a similar love for formal (and yes, showy) rigour. A superbly constructed canteen scene involving a slow zoom-in/zoom-out – locating a man in this world, and then slowly isolating him through a close-up, as the others fall off the frame, then bringing them back (the shots linger just an extra beat or two) – is right out of the Mysskin playbook. As is the choreography in the scene involving four people, two of them with guns, in a locked room. As is the hat tip to Eastern cinema. The story is adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog.

Vettri’s terribly stiff. There’s no strength, no confidence. It seems to take him effort just to part his lips and say his lines. But luckily, the story plays on this very (lack of) quality

I mean it when I say “adapted.” The similarities stop with the plot: a rookie cop’s gun is stolen when he is taking a ride in public transport, and he teams up with a veteran (Pandian, played delightfully by Nasser) to track down the weapon’s new owner, who has begun to unleash a wave of crime. 

But here’s the twist on the Kurosawa film: this criminal is no “stray dog.” He isn’t a rabid, deranged menace on the streets. He is on a cold, calculated path of revenge – against the people who wronged him, and also against Fate. The title – 8 Thottakkal (8 Bullets) – suggests excitement. The tone suggests existentialism.

Sri Ganesh writes odd, lovely scenes. Like the one where a sympathetic man gives a little boy a laddu. It's the man’s birthday, and he says – somewhat creepily, making you fear the worst – “Un kitta mattum sollanum-nu thonichu.” (I felt like telling you, and no one else.) And there’s an entire eccentric episode built around a man who takes issue with a swear word. This sequence involves a jeweller. Much later, we get a sequence set in a jewellery shop. The connections are odd and lovely too.

Most films give us a setting. 8 Thottakkal gives us a (Mysskin-like) universe, where actions have reactions, where the cuteness of children is no guarantee that they won’t end up collateral damage. (We see this even with the young Sathya.) People who go in expecting a thriller may end up disappointed, for there’s something more, the constant sense of something… cosmic. It’s there in the meticulously crafted mood. It’s there in the lines. 

Pandian orders a juvenile delinquent to be beaten up. He says the boy needs pain. That’s the thing that will change him. Had this been typical Tamil cinema, the meaning would have just resided in just the words, and line would have become a message. But in Sri Ganesh’s world, it becomes koan-like philosophy.

Most films give us a setting. 8 Thottakkal gives us a (Mysskin-like) universe, where actions have reactions, where the cuteness of children is no guarantee that they won’t end up collateral damage 

8 Thottakkal isn’t perfect. It’s self-indulgent. There are rough edges. It’s too long. The symbolism in the last shot (after an eye-roll of a coincidental person-sighting) is too on-the-nose. There’s an abstract dance sequence – Astad Deboo in Aminjikarai, featuring extras in kabuki face paint – that’s so tonally off, it comes off as unintentional comedy. The situation is supposed to exemplify the troubled relationship between Sathya and Meera (Aparna Balamurali), but the couple has barely spoken a few words, and a song seems like serious overkill.

But overreach is easy to forgive when there’s evidence of vision, and the talent to pull it off. The characters are beautifully written. The criminal who has an unexpected family life. The child-murderer who cherishes his grandson. The thief who, even while fleeing the jewellery store after cops arrive, takes a moment to snatch a necklace for his married lover. The man who decides to restore some balance in the universe by littering the street with currency notes. 

The actors don’t always match up to the characters, but MS Baskar is magnificent. It’s the best performance-you-did-not-see-coming since Radha Ravi’s heart-rending turn in Pisaasu.

I kept thinking about the film long after it ended. I kept thinking about the funny lines, as when a gangster says he is so close to someone that they practically eat off the same plate. (The payoff is killer!) I kept thinking about the sad lines, as when the criminal apologises to the clueless cop for ruining his day. I kept thinking about how we discover Sathya loves Meera. He tells her about his past. She shrinks away. Later, he explains the extenuating circumstances. Why didn’t he tell her earlier? Because he doesn’t have to justify himself to everyone. That’s when we realise Meera is not “everyone.” Which leads to this dilemma. If someone who was good to you ends up wronging you, are you now supposed to look at the extenuating circumstances? 

8 Thottakkal reminds you of a film like Anjaathey, where you walk in expecting a tale of cops and robbers and walk out having experienced a tale of right and wrong, good and evil, man and his milieu.

Watch the trailer here: 

Rating:   star

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