Cast: Daniel Balaji, Priyanka Ruth, Ashok Kumar, Velu Prabhakaran
Director: CV Kumar
In his first film, Maayavan, the producer-turned-director CV Kumar aimed for the moon. He had a high concept. He tried to get high on the filmmaking, too, and the result was a bit of a mess. In Gangs of Madras, he sets his sights lower and ends up with a much better movie. The premise isn’t new. We’ve seen it in the films the director names at the end: The Brave One (where Jodie Foster goes after the men who killed her fiancé) and Kill Bill (where Uma Thurman goes after the men who killed her fiancé). But go back further, and you’ll find films like I Spit on Your Grave, where the revenge wasn’t as important as the gruesomeness of the revenge. Gangs of Madras has that thrilling exploitation-movie vibe, aided by the lurid pulp-neon tones of cinematographer Karthik Kumar. If you like the idea of a lustful villain meeting his end by blood-splattered dis-ball-ment, you know you’re in the right movie.
The film feels fresh because it filters the vigilante angle through the prism of a gangster saga. Jaya (a steely Priyanka Ruth) is the wronged woman. She falls for Ibrahim (Ashok Kumar), who works as an accountant for a drug lord (Velu Prabhakaran), and the way Ibrahim meets his end shows that some research has gone into the writing. It has to do with people being “planted” for encounters, something I haven’t seen before. Jaya — who became Razia after marrying Ibrahim — finds out what happened, and she wants to go to the cops. When she learns why this isn’t a practical idea, she doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Can you get me a gun?”, she asks the informant. Had her name been, say, Jayan, the theatre would have been filled with hoots and whistles.
A huge part of the appeal of Gangs of Madras is seeing a “heroine” in a milieu usually reserved for the “hero”. Usually, female vigilantes in our films (think Mom) have to rely on their wiles. But Razia kicks ass, too. And she gets her ass kicked, too. The killings are refreshingly porny, the money shot being a scene where petrol is poured down a man’s throat, which is then set ablaze. For a while, the gangsters don’t even think the enemy could be a woman. They keep using masculine pronouns. (“Find and kill him by tomorrow…” “If only I get hold of him…”) But then, Razia does get to do what our heroes get to do. She gets mini-heroic scenes like the one at a tea shop where she buys a starving boy a cup of tea, or the character-establishing scene where, as a child, she gets revenge on a boy for something he did at school. She gets heroic lines like “En pasikku neenga saapida mudiyadhu” (uttered to a rather randomly sketched character played by Bagavathi Perumal). She gets heroic slo-mo walks, and a “mass” interval-block moment that involves some very cold-blooded consumption of biriyani. (It’s the best “biriyani moment” in Tamil cinema after the one in Thimiru Pudichavan, in case you’re keeping count.)
And yet, we’re never allowed to forget that Razia is a woman. After Ibrahim dies, she wails by a wall where they’d scrawled the names of their unborn children. A hero-oriented gangster movie, today, might not have gone to a place so nakedly emotional. Plus, she never becomes a superwoman. (In Maayavan, too, the hero was not an alpha male. He suffered from PTSD.) Razia ends up being used by a gangster named Boxy (a hammy Daniel Balaji). She ends up being used by the cops. There’s a lot of give-and-take in the way she achieves her ends — it’s not just one action set piece after another, like you’d find in a movie revolving around a hero. She’s against a huge drug network. She can’t just pick up a gun and shoot her way through. The story even shifts away from her for a while, because the males (the gangsters) are busy resolving their conflicts, and this will change how Razia does what she needs to do. Can you imagine a hero absenting himself from the screen for a longish stretch?
And yet, we’re never allowed to forget that Razia is a woman. After Ibrahim dies, she wails by a wall where they’d scrawled the names of their unborn children. A hero-oriented gangster movie, today, might not have gone to a place so nakedly emotional
All of this isn’t to suggest Gangs of Madras is perfect. I could have done without the (mercifully few) bits of preaching. I wished the film showed us how the free-spirited Jaya took so easily to wearing a burqa. The budget shows in places (though the kitschy production design is terrific throughout). The set pieces could have been stunners had they been staged with more flair. Still, they work — the death of a gangster’s long-time associate, or the shock killing of a character you expect to stick around for longer. The writing compensates — the clichés get small tweaks. Take Razia’s inevitable training montage. It’s not set to a song, but to a relentlessly percussive score (Shyamalangan) — the drums are getting their ass kicked, too.
Gangs of Madras isn’t the usual fantasy we get in, say, a Shankar film. (That’s what popped in my head when I thought “vigilante movie”.) The last scene is sobering. (Again, you wouldn’t have seen these images in a film driven by a hero.) There’s a chilling scene in a morgue, where Razia isn’t even allowed to weep in peace. The morgue attendant orders her out. The cops come in and make a scene. Becoming (and being) a vigilante comes with a price. And it extracts a price, too. The sickening body count is something we don’t see in many films, where the choreographed stunts — with goons flying into orbit, and the hero emerging unscathed, smiling — are cartoony, almost comical. Gangs of Madras shows us how many people will end up dying even if you want only a few people dead.