In Mafia: Chapter 1, Arun Vijay plays Aryan, a Narcotics Control Bureau officer. No, let's rephrase that. He plays a stylish Narcotics Control Bureau officer. Aryan wears tight shirts that show off the hours he has slaved away at gyms. His hairstyle gleams with product, and it shows off the hours he spends at salons, shaping and sculpting it just so. There's no rule that such a man cannot appear on screen with such a look. The problem is that the look is just… a look. It doesn't define Aryan. Had even one person around him mocked (affectionately) his commitment to this look, the look would have transformed into a character trait. It would have meant that this is a man with a dash of vanity. Aryan, in other words, would have been defined by the screenwriting. But now, he is defined only by the costume design.
I think I get where this is coming from. Karthick Naren is a young filmmaker. He wants to make a stylish thriller set in the world of drugs — and his generation's definition of "style" probably comes from the West. But in the effort to make a "Hollywood-style" thriller, the film ends up like a pale photocopy of a Hollywood movie. The lighting scheme is filled with flashy neon colours. The villain who controls the drug trade in Tamil Nadu (Prasanna's sly, self-amused performance is genuinely stylish) has steak dinners and listens to Beethoven symphonies and wears Versace shirts. The style is all on the surface, and even there, it isn't as stylish as the director seems to think it is.
I am not getting literal here. I am not saying that someone that controls the drug trade in Tamil Nadu (and calls the consignment "sarakku") has to be shown wolfing down Thalappakatti biriyani while listening to a Deva gaana song. But when something is so out of the ordinary, it could use some help from the writing. It would help to have a why, and this why will come to define the character. Maybe this villain saw Scarface as a child. Maybe he aspired to be like the flashy Al Pacino character. So you still have your "Hollywood styling", but it's no longer just a surface thing. It digs deep.
The bigger disappointment in Mafia is that there's no style in the writing, either. The villain's identity is revealed some 10 minutes after we're made to think it's a huge mystery, that this reveal is what the film is going to be about. There is no gradually mounting suspense, no sense of the screws slowly being turned. Instead, we get twists — and these are fun to think about, but they never transcend the "one-line" formulation. Something sounds great when you narrate it in a "one-line" — but a one-line is just the skeleton. It needs blood and tissue and bones. It needs to breathe.
The single-minded pursuit of surface style kills the movie. The rhythms are flat. The scenes play like summaries that nobody bothered to shape into… a "scene". There's a lot of dead air. Arun Vijay (in a Jeep, with his colleagues) gets the kind of slo-mo entry where it takes approximately six-and-a-half minutes for the door to open and his foot to land on the ground. (Oh yeah! He has a stylish tattoo on his hand.) You'd at least understand the weight given to this moment if he were going after the villain. All this buildup is for a stakeout that will result in the arrest of two silly college kids. It's like building a machine gun to kill a mosquito.
Some of you may think: So what's wrong? Don't all heroes get slo-mo entries? Why not Arun Vijay? At least with the latter part, I agree. It's high time Arun Vijay — who has the muscles and the magnetism — got the kind of leading-man roles he deserves. But then, Mafia is not your regular "mass" movie, where the slo-mo serves a very different purpose. In those films, the technique allows fans to savour the "hero entry". Here, it literally… slows down the motion. The action scenes are especially affected by this inconsiderate use of slo-mo, which seems to be in the movie simply because it's… stylish. Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World plays over a scene simply because it's a Western pop song and so it's… stylish.
I wish at least some of this style had found its way into the writing and the filmmaking. "Style" isn't just about posing. It isn't just about looking "cool". And it's certainly more than just colour schemes and costumes, all of which is just the surface. Style has to first be in the screenplay, in the way the characters are defined. (Aryan's colleagues, one of whom is played by Priya Bhavani Shankar, come off like secretaries taking dictation. They have zero agency.) The style has to be in how the scenes are shaped while writing, and how these scenes are executed during the shoot. We saw all this in Karthick Naren's first film. Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru was filled with style. Mafia is just filled with slo-mo.