It was March 2017.
Vetri Maaran was back in Chennai after promoting his 2016 film Visaranai in the cruel, cinematic city of Los Angeles. The film, a commentary on the absurd violence of police brutality, was India's official entry to the Oscars. But despite promoting the film amidst the Oscar glitterati, with advertisements in the centerspread of magazines, and unfurling a strong (and expensive) PR machinery, the film did not make the final shortlist.
Content with the wealth of knowledge on the architecture of Oscar-land that he acquired, he was back to work. The second shift of his next film Vada Chennai was remaining to be shot, and in the midst Film Companion South would launch their first ever interview, of Baradwaj Rangan and him.
FC's intrigue with Vetri Maaran, and his tragic heroes in a cruel, chaotic universe was cemented.
He is now gearing up for his next release Asuran. In preparation, we deep dive into his filmography, 4 films directed over 11 years, to make your viewing experience of Asuran richer, and possibly more informed.
Vada Chennai, a generational gangster saga, is a grim portrait of North Chennai, (where his first film Polladhavan was shot too) with the descent into alcoholism, and the prison complex where addicts teeter about in a haze, smoking charred lizards to get high. Vetri Maaran tends to shoot the rhythm of life with an ease. In Mysskin's films there is a certain stylization of the city, with empty lamplit roads, thugs roving around shooting bullets, or roadside shacks selling colourful toys, flower sellers, blind beggars etc. Vetri Maaran's city is as is. Even in a shootout scene at night, we see a family come out to the balcony to see what is happening. Whether this is out of concern or curiosity, the urbanness of the city has been established.
The abandoned ice factory in Polladhavan, reminiscent of the factories closing down across the city with the proliferation of home fridges, the cock fighting conventions in Aadukalam, even the aspirational qualities of lower middle class folks is captured without fanfare. In Polladhavan, when the police comes to arrest Dhanush, his father suddenly starts speaking broken English to hint at their innocence. In the same film there is a Shakespeare spouting, Harry Potter reading auto driver, picking up words to use here and there. Dhanush's bike in the film, too, comes to represent this access to a more refined world. In Aadukalam, this aspirational quality is embodied in the love interest, with Taapsee Pannu playing an Anglo-Indian. The city life, one of aspirations, temptation, and violence, both domestic and institutional, is depicted without stylization. It just is.
Moreover, his films always have an underpinning moral commentary to go with urban life. InVada Chennai development is a bad word because it invariably means displacement. In Visaranai too, the Police (Capital P) meant to invoke security and law instead invokes a reckless, violative lawlessness.
Visaranai had a linear timeline with two stories colliding mid-way. Vada Chennai hopped around time, jumping forward and backward with a voiceover routinely providing context. (In his debut film, he had two voiceovers.) Aadukalam too starts off that way, with various timelines and story threads put out before they streamline.
Then, there are also vague, undercooked Shakespearean elements he inserts, with the Macbeth witch proclaiming the future in Vada Chennai, making the film, rooted in the thralls of realism, momentarily flirt with the supernatural. There are also signs of Othello in Aadukalam, with the anxiety of holding, losing, and transitioning power.
Vetri Maaran's movies tend to momentarily descend into black-and-white. Towards the end of Visaranai, every time one of the characters die, the screen is drained of colour, as the body is drained of life. This happens twice. At the very end of the film, it's a blackout, drained of even light.
In Vada Chennai too, there are moments where Vetri Maaran drains most of the colours, retaining just one, like an awfully edited picture. This almost feel redemptive, that in a world drained off colour, there is one tether to a better life, with more hue. It is telling that these shots are in the jail, consumption of drugs and violence, burdened by past crimes, with a sliver of redemption for a quieter, less violent future.
Aadukalam too starts off with black and white shots, all are quick, cut to-cut from. It's obvious that these shots are going to get a flashback to explain the violence. If you have watched the trailer of Asuran, you would have already caught onto this. Watch out for more in the movie!
Velraj, who shot all of Vetri Maran's films, except Visaranai, has a distinctive style that feels like the love child of an invasive documentary and neo noir frames. He is also the cinematographer on Asuran.
When Visaranai was screened in Venice it did not have any background music. As it meandered across film festivals, BGM was increasingly added, till it its theatrical release in India. Vetri Maaran had to re-mix the sound design when he took the film to LA, because the BGM sensibility is much more under-stated there, pulsating in decibels much lower than the dialogue.
In Vada Chennai there seems to be an almost disregard for commercial BGM music, it comes up, here and there, and abruptly cuts to the next scene, without transitioning in or out. It feels clumsy, till you realize he does this with his scenes as well. This editing style he has cultivated over time. In his first film, he developed the love-story mostly through dream song sequences. In all his subsequent movies he would do away with it.
Pay attention to the sound design. Throughout Visaranai you can hear the rumble of thunder, and feel the damp frigidity of dawn, but you never see the rain. Only the pregnant and soaked skies.
In an interview with FC, before the release of Vada Chennai, he told us that if you pay close attention to the lips of the characters in his films, sometimes the dub is off. He often changes dialogues during the dub as he sees his film take shape on the editing table. He mixes sound till the very last minute he can, most actors always on standby, Dhanush sending his voice notes via whatsapp. This dub mismatch is not too hard to see in his earlier films; his final edits have become more refined over time, but you can still spot the stray dub debacle, if we can call it that.
In Visaranai, he wanted the film to be understood universally, and realized that phrases like AC and DA would not be understood by a foreign audience. So, he changed the dialogues that two police officers were having in the background to explain these concepts. In Vada Chennai, which had his usual mass audience, he had no such worries, not bothering to explain how a game of carrom works. Asuran too, I assume will belong to that category. So go to the theaters with your notes, you'll need to refer to them, but ironically, won't have time to. Vetri Maaran cuts his films oddly, scenes end when you feel they have just begun, conversations are cut midway, you look away for a moment and a character who was until a few seconds hale and hearty is dead, dying, or doomed.