Too many times we see films lose the plot after intermission—a concept as old as the movies that India, and a few other countries, have retained. Some call it The Curse of the Second Half. Some movies recover miraculously post-interval, like tail-enders winning a match after the team's main batsmen have failed. In this series, we write about films that are half good, and half bad. Or the other way around. Thank god for the loo break though.
Indian archaeologists have been looking for a lost Chola tribe (yes, those Cholas), believed to have gone into hiding someplace near Vietnam. When one of these archaeologists goes missing, the government puts together a search party, consisting of Anitha (Reema Sen), Lavanya (Andrea Jeremiah) and a 'coolie' named Muthu (Karthi), who brings with him a band of mercenaries…
The search party follows a map and experiences a series of dangers, and all we seem to be seeing is a very derivative Indiana Jones-style entertainer. The creepy-crawly snake attack from Raiders of the Lost Ark is routed through the graph of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where an archeologist-father goes missing, causing the archeologist-child to embark on an expedition retracing his steps….
But the set pieces aren't exciting. Things are made worse by the squeezed-in songs, the shabby CGI effects, the carelessly cast heroines (neither of whom is remotely interested in convincing us about their fluency in the spoken language)… As a result, there's no investment in the material, and there's no buildup. There's just showdown after mildly diverting showdown. You think this is what the rest of the film is going to be like, an ultra- generic action-adventure ride with a splash of the supernatural…
And then, we get the second half!
The joke of the film is that the entire pre-interval stretch is the buildup. And the entire second half is the showdown. Once those obstacles are navigated, the film mutates into a beast that could scarcely be imagined from the chromosomal constituents of the first half. Now, this is bad news if you're a creature of cold logic, but a thrilling turn of events if you're willing to surrender to heavy-lidded imagery on the threshold of a fever-dream. (The trippy-nightmare sensation is exaggerated by soot-and-flame cinematography, and by slo-mo editing rhythms.)
The last obstacle faced by the team results in the protagonists becoming possessed by spirits, and as if taking a cue from these characters, the film itself becomes possessed. The ultra-generic Indiana Jones mould is shattered. What emerges is a drastic reimagining of the Cholas and the Pandiyas – who are no longer the benevolent, gold-encrusted royals from Tamil-screen historicals and mythologicals of the 1950s and 60s, but blood-soaked barbarians. (Some interpretations paint this development as Selvaraghavan's comment on the Eelam Tamils' war against the Sri Lankan army.)
Where the early portions used hard cuts, around interval, the cuts become fades-to-black. The sound design changes too, from sharp sounds to a more "echo-ey" sounds that feel like they've risen up from the depths of a dream.
There's so much that's compelling in the second half that I readily forgave the director his "sins" in the preceding portions. This is where the real story begins, and we get one of Selvaraghavan's most astonishingly deranged characters, the Chola king portrayed by R Parthiepan. He is introduced as a Dionysian tyrant, defined only by his appetites – for food, for sex, for cruelty. (He has no qualms about butchering his starved subjects, when they lunge at the sight of fresh meat.) But after a while, we realise why he has become this way. He is the latest in a long line of Chola kings who huddled for survival in these distant caves. He is frustrated. He is desperate for vital information that has been awaited for generations, about a saviour, about The One.
And when he gets this information, he transforms. He is humanised. The storytelling transforms, too. Selvaraghavan, now, switches largely to imagery (frescoes and film), folk theatre and song (Thaai thindra manne details the deprivations of the Cholas). Where the early portions used hard cuts, around interval, the cuts become fades-to-black. The sound design changes too, from sharp sounds to more "echo-ey" sounds that feel like they've risen up from the depths of a dream. And some of the earlier scenes acquire more "masala" definition. For instance, a search party with torches at the beginning gives way, by the end, to a search party with torchlights.