Pa Ranjith’s recent film Natchathiram Nagargiradhu explores the different facets of of love, life and politics through the lens of an incredible ensemble cast that includes Dushara Vijayan, Kalaiyarasan, Kalidas Jayaram and Shabeer Kallarakkal. But this is not the first time that the filmmaker has had to explore a milieu rich with characters. With the filmmaker having finished 10 years in the industry this year, let’s look at characters that have left a deep impression on the admirers of the auteur’s universe.
Kalaiyarasan’s Arjun is a memorably entertaining stand-in for the audience that Ranjith wants to address this film to. A conservative, deeply regressive, dominant-caste Tamil man who is barely aware of his privilege. By consistently framing and timing him in such a way that we laugh at the character, Ranjith breaks down Arjun’s view of the world and lays bare the problems with it. Even if he knows he has stuff to learn about, he wants to be taught rather than put in the effort himself. He puts the onus on others to teach him, but eventually comes around to realising his follies. Thus, Arjun gets the most prominent arc among all other characters in the film, and also goes on to show how political correctness can be a process, but that isn’t to say that the film doesn’t put the character in his place when required.
Johnny is a proxy for one of those local relics that every neighborhood has. Pa Ranjith’s Madras traces the caste and power politics that divide two communities in the North Chennai neighbourhood. While the heart of the film is the relationship that Anbu (Kalaiyarasan) and Kaali (Karthi) share, Johnny is an undeniable strength of the hood, and in turn, the film. He is a vagabond, always seen with a newspaper in hand, mixing meaningful advice with hilarious gibberish from time to time. “He was once formidable,” Anbu lectures his friends, who poke fun at Johnny’s expense. He is one of those indestructible structures in the neighborhood, who is seen lurking in the background, even when he has no line to say. But when he finally falls as part of a larger collateral damage, you realise the searing impact that the character has had on you and the film’s universe.
It’s hard to believe that Madras is Charles Vinoth’s acting debut. Vinoth has played quite a few baddies in his career, including that of the excellent Mohan, a sleazy drug lord in Kolamaavu Kokila. But Maari walked so that Mohan could run. In Madras, Vinoth plays Maari, a local politician who fosters a bond with Anbu. “Anbu’s like my brother,” Maari keeps crooning with an earnest sincerity and a grin that fools Anbu and the audiences alike. Like Johnny, Maari is omnipresent in the locality, but in his case, through billboards, wall paintings and campaign chants. He is also one of those “good politicians” that every locality yearns for, until of course before expertly pulling the rug out from under us in the finale. Any drama is incomplete without a good villain, and Vinoth quickly becomes a villain we all love to hate in the film.
Anjali Patil is Charumati, a “Marathi Mulgi” who speaks a smattering of Tamil in Ranjith’s Kaala. But in the nooks of Dharavi, she only goes by Puyal (storm), because she fights up a storm any time the people of her land need her support. Even in the film’s introduction shot, Puyal is seen fighting for the land rights of the Dhobi ghat residents. She is the girlfriend of Lenin (Manikandan), Kaala’s youngest. But the movie makes sure that the relationship doesn’t remain her identity, but instead her strength. One of her defining sequences is when rogue police officers remove her pants in an attempt to molest and embarrass her. But after a few seconds of disgust, Puyal picks up a stick and hits them back like a storm.
Among the reasons why Kalaiyarasan continues to hold such an important place in our hearts is the way he played Anbu, one of recent Tamil cinema’s most touching best friend portrayals. A politician himself, Anbu wants his buddy Kaali to focus on his education and work so that he can do his part in bringing up their community. There’s a lot of genuine affection in Anbu’s little moments with his wife, and we get the sense of a whole, fully rounded person who believes in the need for both political involvement and education to rise. So when Anbu faces an attack, we’ve already felt so much fondness for him that we’re entirely with Kaali in his pursuit for justice.
Even the harshest critics of Kabali admit that some of the film’s best scenes were those that feature Kumudavalli (Radhika Apte). Right from the fourth-wall breaking first shot where she speaks directly to the camera about her politics of colour, she registers a strong emotion in us. The film’s emotional depth too comes from Kabali’s long search for her after his return from prison. The scene where they finally meet, when a remarkable Apte breaks down, followed by a mature, tender romance during the Maya Nadhi song, is arguably one of the film’s best moments. In fact one could even argue that there could have been a separate film that simply traced Kabali’s journey to find Kumudavalli. We would have loved to watch just that.
Dancing Rose, played by a wonderful Shabeer Kallarakkal, is one of the most interesting characters to come out of Sarpatta Parambarai. The film set in the early 70s, traces the clash between two big clans in North Chennai. Even for those who are not fond of boxing matches, Rose’s somersault entry, swagger, and dancing fights are a treat to watch. Rose is a boxer who is loved by the crowd and yet feared by opponents. He also hasn’t lost a single fight in career, at least until his face-off with Arya’s Kabilan. His boxing techniques is said to have been inspired by the British boxer Naseem Hamed, who was known for his dance-like movements.
While his fights form the entertaining portions in the film, there are more reasons to like his character. He teams up with Kabilan’s arch-nemesis Vembuli to seek revenge. But unlike Vembuli, Rose plays by ethics, if not rules. If there is ever a supporting character that gets a spin-off from the Pa Ranjith universe, Rose would make a strong contender.
We first meet Kema when she’s trying to reach the sky as she stands over a statue of Lord Buddha. The low angle shot shows us the sky and a lone tree in the background, and Dhammam‘s subtext is immediately registered. Her father, a farmer working on his field, asks her to get down and stop disrespecting the statue of God. She replies quickly, reminding him that Buddha himself claimed that there was no God, underlining the irony of calling him God then. She is confident and strong even when she argues with her father.
She is not fearful of his authority and questions everything he says to her. Later, we notice the difference between her and her father when we see how differently they react to a man (Kalaiyarasan) from a dominating caste. The father would surely have stepped aside and let the man pass through first, but Kema is surely not that person. In fact, it is when Kema stands her ground that the reasonably peaceful situation spirals into chaos. Unlike others in the short film, she is perhaps the only one who can see everyone as equals. She is neither above or beneath anyone and her attitude towards everyone is the same. So when she sees the injured man simply lying there, she doesn’t nurse notions of revenge to leave him to death. It is finally her compassion, even to the man who hurt her and her father, that finally ends up saving a life.
Dushara Vijayan was only two films old when she played Mariyamma in Sarpatta Parambarai. Though the film largely focuses on the boxing ring and the men inside it, Mariyamma manages to leave a strong impression, and so does Vijayan. Playing the self-willed wife of Kabilan, she fights for her husband when he is in pain and gives him an earful when he steers the wrong way. Take this scene for instance: When a rival gang tries to attack an inebriated Kabilan, Mariyamma fights them off single-handedly, with a toddler in one hand. And the very next moment, she threatens to leave him if he does not stop drinking. Representing the women of North Chennai in the 70s, Mariyamma leaves an striking mark as the credits role.
Rangan Vaathiyar, the boxing coach of the Sarpatta clan, is the mentor everyone needs in their life. You might not see him smile ear-to-ear in the entire film, but that doesn’t mean he is a ruffian. When things go haywire, his students might dither over the right and the wrong, but Rangan is unwavering in his morals.
In a striking example, he prioritises talent over nepotism. While he could have chosen for his son Vetri to get inside the ring, he instead opts for the naive yet talented Kabilan. Similarly, he chooses patience over impulse, technique over violence, and boxing over revenge, off and on the ring, making him not just a seminal character in the film, but also the entire Ranjith universe.
This story was originally published on September 3, 2022