Playing a Tamil movie cop has been nothing short of a right of passage for stars over the years. Kamal Haasan has done it several times — Kaaki Sattai (1985) and Kuruthi Punal (1995) come to mind — and so have Rajinikanth (Moondru Mugam), Vijay (Theri), Ajith (Mankatha), and Suriya (Singam). But if there is one thing that these revered cops, all unique in their own way, share, it is their ubiquitous “toughness”. If the average Tamil cinema hero clothed in starched khakis had a face, it would be Kamal Haasan’s Raghavan in Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu (2006), threatening a thug to put a knife through his eyes — eyes that carry no fear. Ashok Selvan’s Prakash in Tamil thriller Por Thozhil, however, is an outlier. Not only does this policeman not have a moustache, his entire personality trait revolves around a bubbling fear of the responsibility that comes with his khakis.
There have been outsiders in the genre before. Shyam Mohan’s Kochaal centred on a policeman persistently derided for his short stature, Sai Ganesh’s 8 Thottakkal had a submissive cop who lands himself in a soup in its midst and of course there is Soori’s gentle constable who fights with kindness in Vetri Maaran’s Viduthalai. But Vignesh Raja’s Por Thozhil has given us a Tamil film cop who owns his fear: one that is startled by what’s lurking in the dark, but even more startled and moved by injustice. Let’s take a look at how Por Thozhil manoeuvred this balancing act by breaking down five scenes from the SonyLIV movie.
There is nothing particularly police-like in DSP trainee Prakash’s demeanour and filmmaker Vignesh Raja establishes this irony more than once in the film. But the first person to notice this about Prakash is the audience. Introductory sequences in cop films are usually structured to celebrate the hero’s bravado (IPS Anbuselvan is thrown off his house when we first see him in Kaakha Kaakha, and Vijaykumar disciplines thugs crashing a government school with style in Theri). But the first time we see Prakash in Por Thozhil, he’s scared to run to the loo in the dead of the night.
Prakash’s fear isn't the kind we’re used to. He isn’t grieving the death of a loved one or fearing an attack from someone he wronged. He is just a cop who scares easily. The screen then cuts to a shot of Prakash looking at his reflection in the mirror. He’s staring at his neatly ironed uniform, but something is missing. His family is excited about his first day at the office, but his nephew is doubtful, sharing our reservations about this cop. “Will you be able to catch criminals like this?” he asks, as he throws him his phone. Vignesh quietly plants the same question in our minds as Prakash reaches his station.
Sarathkumar’s SP Loganathan is everything that Prakash isn’t. He’s haughty, tough and has no patience for weakness. One flexes his muscles, while the other his brain. So, when the SP is assigned to take Prakash under his wings, the first thing he notices about the cop is his angst. When their senior officer assigns them to a high-profile serial killing, Prakash looks ready for the challenge, but his trembling hands, which Loganathan gets a glimpse of, tell another story.
So, when Loganathan pulls Prakash into a morgue, we know fully well that he does that to shatter his confidence. Disgusted by the corpse and its autopsy report, Prakash suppresses a gag, until he can’t. When Loganathan realises that he can’t tough it up, he suggests Prakash catch the next train home. But there is no place for fragile masculinity in Vignesh Raja’s Por Thozhil. In the next scene, we see Prakash quietly take his seat in the car. Prakash and Loganathan share one stern look that is enough to convey his resilience. No room for a chest-beating monologue here.
The alpha in Prakash and Loganathan’s mentorship is asserted pretty early on in the film. But the sequence that cements this equation is the one where the duo recreates the crime scene.
This is also where Prakash realises that his only form of redemption is by action and acceptance. As he kneels down to take the place of the victim, a visibly uncomfortable Prakash finally begins getting into the head of the serial killer and his mentor. The striking staging speaks not just of the power equation of a murderer and his victim, but also of an alpha and his protege. This is also the scene that lets us in on Prakash’s actual strength — the fact that it lies not in swagger, but his awareness of his place in the world. He might be submissive, but he isn’t weak.
Prakash finds his bearings in a quiet moment in the car with Loganathan. “Is it very evident that I’m scared?” he asks in this rare moment of introspection for a cop film. Prakash’s origin story might sound cool on the surface, for it involves a ten-year-old nabbing a thief, until you realise the tragicomic truth. His stimulus might be a lie, but his identity isn’t. He might be terrified of the job, but he is even more terrified of not doing his job well. Por Thozhil paints every character in its universe with the same level of intuition. If Ashok Selvan is the way that he is because of his childhood, then so is Loganathan (whose scars indicate a strained childhood), and maybe a few other killers, too, we’re told. Vignesh Raja takes his responsibility seriously and uses the genre to talk about the gravity of trauma in a world of cold-blooded murderers.
Moments after baring his angst, Prakash is forced to face his fears at the supermarket. The entire scene is staged with suspense and tension, its visual treatment right out of a horror piece. A small shadowing task turns into a dinner invitation with the devil (Sarath Babu’s Kennedy) that Prakash cannot get out of. If this were any other film, we’d expect the hero to walk in with a swing in his arms, hungry for some blood and justice. But Prakash isn’t a swaggering cop. With Kennedy’s every tiny movement, he flinches and recoils just like we would, looking like he’s ready to sprint at any given time. But he doesn’t. He instead steadily cracks the mystery in trepidation, even if that means letting Loganathan have his moment by swooping in and saving him.