As a child, I was fascinated by the Vikram Betal folktale. The idea of a demon piggy-backing on a king and telling him stories with moral conundrums seemed deliciously twisted. The image itself raised so many questions – the handsome king, the mischievous demon holding on to his neck, ideas of good and evil, fair and unfair, right and wrong. The sharply etched line between black and white dissolving into a soup of messy grey.
In Vikram Vedha, directors Pushkar and Gayatri reimagine the Vikram Betal tale as the story of a cop and a criminal. Vikram is an encounter specialist. The film opens with an action sequence, which establishes his skill on the field, his cowboy swagger and the casual cool with which he sets up a cold-blooded murder to look like an attack in which cops were forced to retaliate with gunfire. Vikram kills without hesitation but he sleeps well at night because he is convinced that the men he is killing deserve to die. He is simply cleaning up the system.
Vedha is the opposite of Vikram. He's a criminal but also something of a myth. Early on, cops speak with awe about the time he leapt from the first floor of a building and sliced a man in half, from head to toe. Which made me flashback to another film about criminals – Thiagarajan Kumararaja's superb Aaranya Kaandam in which the brutal don Gajendran is also built up through a story – one in which he bites a woman's thumb off. By the time, Vedha arrives on screen, with the camera following his imposing back, we are already afraid. Vedha then proceeds to dismantle Vikram's stable world – Vikram's wife, who is a lawyer takes up Vedha's case so he becomes a painful splinter in that relationship. And Vikram's moral certitude, his idea of himself as a savior starts to fray under Vedha's probing. Nothing is what he had imagined it to be.
The screenplay, also by Pushkar-Gayatri, is beautifully constructed. Like the proverbial demon, Vedha tells Vikram stories, each one of which gives us a flashback and takes the narrative forward by providing clues that help to decode Vedha's actions. With each story, Vikram finds himself floundering a little more. Until eventually, he sees that there isn't that much difference between him and Vedha. They are mirror images – two men who kill.
The casting is bang-on. R. Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi have a similar physicality. When they face-off, it is a battle of equals. You don't know which one is stronger and more importantly, you don't know which one you want to see win. Pushkar and Gayatri don't take sides either. Each character is built with slow motion shots. The film is awash in testosterone with men charging at each other like fearsome gladiators. In one scene, Vedha says, 'Hanging out with men all day, sometimes I feel I'm stuck in a gent's toilet.' Sethupathi is brilliant, balancing the violence his character unleashes with swag and charm. Vedha might be a murderer but when he talks, it's so hypnotic that you want to listen. And Madhavan nails Vikram's existential crisis.
The women jostle for space in this overwhelmingly male world. Varalaxmi Sarathkumar plays Chandra who loves Vedha's brother Pulli. Their equation is established in a single scene in which he slaps her. But she doesn't let him get away with it. She's a fascinating character and I wish we had seen more of her.
In Vikram Vedha, Pushkar and Gayatri layer masala movie tropes with moral ambiguity. DOP PS Vinod plays with lights and shadows, underlining the battle of black and white. As does the overused but terrific background score by Sam CS.
Pushkar and Gayatri create a puzzle, which is so consistently intriguing that we don't stop to ask why Vikram, a trigger-happy cop with a higher body count than many criminals, gives such a patient hearing to Vedha. I guess, like us, he also a sucker for a good story.
You can see Vikram Vedha on DisneyPlus Hotstar.