Ranking Vetrimaaran’s films — excluding the short films he made — can feel like picking a winner from a competition of despair. And yet, because of the artistry, his films end up challenging his own filmography; building on his flaws, adopting newer visual languages to express older tropes of a violent world.
Beginning with Polladhavan (2007), his films increasingly hold you in a brusque, violent, and breathless chokehold. Visaranai (2016), his third and most celebrated film, which was even sent to the Academy Awards as India’s nomination, is best described as a relentless marathon of brutality. Every time you think the film has let go, like steam released from a pressure cooker, the plot tightens into lashings and screams.
That none of this violence feels gratuitous is because of how normal violence feels in the world Vetrimaaran creates on screen. When characters die, they just do. When they are violated, they just are. Is this violence repetitive? Yes. But does it feel repetitive? No, because his films are not hinged on stylized violence. He doesn’t need to find innovative ways to stage it, since his films are about the contexts in which violence begins to feel like an everyday phenomenon — brutal but, like air, everywhere. It is these contexts that keep changing — from Madurai to Vada Chennai (North Chennai), Andhra Pradesh to the forested hills of Tamil Nadu — and the violence remains unsettlingly natural to all of them.
The opening credit of “non-linear editor”, the voiceover narration, and the opening shot yanking you into a flashback in Polladhavan — Vetrimaaran’s debut film is preoccupied with time flipping over itself, bending, contorting, staring at a bloody present and then tracing backwards to how we reached this bloodbath. The film follows the fallout after its happy-go-lucky protagonist Prabhu (Dhanush) loses his bike, and comes in contact with first an insecure underworld and then the inefficient blackhole of the police station. There is a visual recklessness, almost a disenchantment with stillness in the film. When the image does become still, it is usually like a jerk — either a photograph or a forceful pausing of the frame. Here is a director who refuses to be bound by conventional framing and narrative. He will bung in two narrative voiceovers — what Preston Sturgess called “narratage”. He will place the camera between two vessels on the gas, the foreground of coffee being flipped from tumbler to tumbler, with Prabhu entering from behind.
Polladhavan is dated in the sense that you see a director struggling with his style and the template that he wants to both tap into and wreck open — the grating dream songs of love and amorous celebration in a disco, for example. Vetrimaaran himself said in an interview with Film Companion, “From Polladhavan, I learnt I should never make a film like that.”
We begin in the present, but return to it only in the last half hour of this film. Karuppu (Dhanush) is a masterful cockfighter, but the Othello-like machinations of jealousy lead his mentor (played by V.I.S. Jayapalan) to exact violence by slowly chipping away at Karuppu’s reputation through gossip and cross-speak. And yet, as Karuppu’s fortunes balloon, his love for his mentor is never challenged. His mentor’s rejection of him never translates to Karuppu’s resentment. It is the kind of mythological devotion Ekalavya showered on Drona — one incapable of rancour. Blind love, as director Vetrimaaran notes in an interview with Film Companion, can be most dangerous.
The “centrepiece” — where Karuppu has to make his cock fight, not once, but thrice in the dust-flung competition,— is a grunting, unending tapestry of tension. It cemented Vetrimaaran as a director with a vision that drew from the well of Cine Madurai violence while cutting against it, stamping his distinct visual style, his trademark panting exposition in the beginning and his casual irreverence towards heroism. In the first “action scene” Karuppu is given, the camera is static, staring at the fight like a spectator, watching as Dhanush’s lithe frame tries to pummel the goons.
Aadukalam ends with Karuppu escaping the scene with his Anglo-Indian lover (Taapsee Pannu), not wanting to explain himself to those who have misunderstood him or been manipulated into believing incorrect things about him. It’s a rare, mature narrative closing that shows a protagonist who is okay being thought of as wrong, even though he was wronged. If that means keeping the memory of his mentor — who orchestrated the manipulation — unsullied, so be it.
Visaranai felt like an aesthetic sharp-turn for Vetrimaaran, showing us that as a director, he is capable of patient storytelling, linear storylines; neat, spare flashbacks, that unfold at the pace of life, without sizzling it up or slurring it down. The only throbbing background score in the film is that of ominous rain and crickets.
Perhaps, because the film is based on events that are true and shocking, Visaranai looks as though it is “captured” and not “shot” as a film (look at these violent words used to describe cinema). It does not even have that “centrepiece” moment of bloodshed that Vetrimaaran usually places carefully somewhere in the middle. It does not need it. The film, based on accounts of police custodial violence — first in Andhra Pradesh to poor Tamil Nadu migrants, then in Tamil Nadu to a white collar auditor — yanked from M. Chandrakumar’s novel Lock Up, is brimming with blood. The centrepiece, if anything, is that moment of quiet, of silence, of hope, that comes in little snatches before it is pulled away.
The cinematic virtue of this film is its relentless violence which never feels gratuitous. What differentiates one from another? Here is violence treated as life — without drama, without emphasis. A rare restraint that nonetheless produces horror unlike in another film — by Vetrimaaran or anyone else.
With Vada Chennai, Vetrimaaran returns to the titular North Chennai where he shot his debut film. This time, however, there is more blood, more history, and more politics, and a richer, denser world full of human foibles and fumbles. The detailing is more vivid — like prisoners snorting lizard tails to get high. The violence is more structural — it telescopes its attention on a neighbourhood over time, not a group of friends like in Visaranai.
Like Aadukalam, Vada Chennai starts with bloodshed, which it returns to in the last half-hour. Unlike Aadukalam, this structure feels perfunctory, because the beginning is almost forgotten in the blitzkrieg of rat-a-tat action centred around Anbu (Dhanush), a sincere carrom player, who gets caught in the crossfire of a gang war that he further curdles and erupts.
This is a hypnotic movie, moving across time, back and forth, sometimes a flashback within a flashback. If you pause the film, turn and ask what year the events are taking place, it takes a moment because of how much is churning in the story. The death of M.G. Ramachandran and Rajiv Gandhi are used as temporal walking sticks to help us wade through the film. The original cut for Vada Chennai was 5.5 hours long, and the reason we feel scenes end abruptly with moments often collapsing as they begin, is because of the unsparing edit to bring it down to 2.5 hours. The action, the relentless throw of context, dialogue, and exposition, keeps you afloat, as though you were being swept away in an furiously rushing river.
What sets Vada Chennai apart is not just Anbu as an ambivalent hero who is swept into heroism by circumstances, but a hero who is unsure of who is right and who is wrong. He expresses this moral dilemma to his wife in a moving scene. There is a sense that if this film was narrated from another perspective, it might easily flip the moral labels we have slapped on characters. That a film allows its characters this latitude is a triumph of an expanded, exploded imagination — both moral and literary.
Both Vada Chennai and Asuran are, perhaps, the most cinematic of Vetrimaaran’s films — with a slow-motion pay-off that belongs to the masala template, lodged comfortably alongside the various Vetrimaaran-isms. Both insert their intermission after a rousing action sequence that disarms you with its style and emotional punch. However, while Vada Chennai is impatient in its storytelling — by narrative design and editorial desperation — Asuran digs deeper.
The first shot of the film, of a moon among milky clouds, crumples when feet are placed over it — we realise that we were seeing a reflection of the moon over still water, which is now being trampled over by escaping feet, that of Sivasaami (Dhanush) and his son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas). Chidambaram has just hacked the man who murdered his elder brother — an act of vengeance that dislocates his family, who are now fugitives.
Asuran perfects a lot of Vetrimaaran’s pursuits — the mass film without the mass conventions. There is no hero entry scene. There is, instead, the intermission block. There is no hip dangling love. There is, instead, trauma and affection. Humour does not exist, distilled in the form of a separate character, like a court jester. It is baked into the exchanges. There is no beauty, no polish. There is a harsh abruptness with which scenes transition. And yet, Asuran has packed in it the most potent scenes of grief and redemptive violence. It is Vetrimaaran allowing his films to char your heart, not just your senses. The second half gives the origin for Sivasaami’s docile nature, one that he has arrived at after a youth of bloodshed that left him orphaned and without love. This mirroring of the two halves is another beautiful Vetrimaaran-ism — from the slippers, to the heroism, to the tragedy that culminates in an escape. It is easy to dismiss this film as templated, but there is a reason templates have survived the onslaught of genre, taste, and time shifts. That it is predictable does not take away from what an artist can do with and within that predictability. Asuran is Vetrimaaran’s most emotionally staining — not draining, but staining — film; its violence lingering as hurt, not horror.
In one sense, Viduthalai is the culminating artistic collaboration between Vetrimaaran and cinematographer Velraj, who has lensed all of Vetrimaaran’s films except Visaranai. The opening shot of around 10 minutes takes us, in one sweeping, single take, through the debris of a train bombing. The sheer audacity of the scene, the lubricated ease with which the camera slides, both vertically and horizontally, sets the stage for Kumeresan (Soori), a kind-hearted police officer who has been sent to the forested hills as part of a police force that is trying to weed out an extremist group. It invokes awe while depicting horror.
The dense prologue, the unfussy heroism of Vetrimaaran are both here. The politics is just as long winded and stiff — like how Vada Chennai questioned development, here, too, the story hinges on how the state uses development as a cover for profiteering; the police, here, too, are brutal beasts. Love comes as a reprieve — both to the character and the narrative.
But what marks Viduthalai apart is how it makes violence seem so routine, Vetrimaaran isn’t even interested in sharpening it. There is a blunt relentlessness to it. It is not that the director can’t show violence that whips our moral sense of the world. It’s just impossible to fixate and linger on violence the way he did in the previous films. In Visaranai what was happening to a group of friends, in Asuran what was happening to a family, is, in Viduthalai happening to a whole movement of people. Vetrimaaran employs a disenchanted cutting away from these moments before their full impact is even felt, for the impact is not in its festering but in its unrelentingness.
If you notice closely, these rankings are in the order of Vetrimaaran’s filmography, suggesting that, at least artistically, he seems to be streamlining ahead, a swift, sure motion away from where he first began.