A scene from Kaithi

Director: Lokesh Kanagaraj

Cast: Karthi, Narain, George Maryan

Kaithi is Lokesh Kanagaraj’s follow-up to the superb Maanagaram, and the writer-director continues where he left off. Once again, we have a focussed narrative without songs — but with borrowed film songs. If a character from the earlier film was from Trichy, the city is where this entire film is set in. Both films take place over the course of a single night. But most importantly, we have the cross-hatched structure — the screenplay is so precisely split between various narrative threads that it’s impossible to see where the writing stops and where the editing begins. Are we witnessing the birth of an auteur?

I’d say we’ll have to wait a while. Because Kaithi is a much more (intentionally) dumbed-down movie. Lokesh gives away everything in the set-up. The plot is about cops and druglords and a huge consignment of cocaine. We know not just that there are moles on both sides, but also who these moles are. We see bounty hunters and an older version of the Hollywood trope of a rookie cop (named Napoleon and played by an excellent George Maryan) — and he’s surrounded by a bunch of hapless engineering students. We know that a little girl in a destitute home is waiting for an “important person” who will come in the morning, and, of course, we know this important person (Dilli, played by Karthi) is the prisoner the film is named after.

Every movie is a balance of what it is about and how it goes about it. Kaithi, surprisingly (though again, intentionally), packs all the what into the opening. There’s not an iota of suspense along the way, as Dilli and cop Bejoy (Narain) set out on an 80-kilometre road trip across some very intimidating terrain. (It has to do with those drugs and cops who need urgent medical attention.) Even Dilli’s flashback is as generic as they come — though it’s a nice touch that he narrates it. Cutting back to those events might have meant showing things happening during the day, which would cut into this film’s airtight nighttime atmosphere.

So we are left with the how, which is essentially a series of action set pieces. I was reminded of other (better) films such as Khakee and The Departed, which show what’s missing here. I missed the sustained tension. Some of the action is imaginatively conceived, with branches and bottles and torchlights, but they aren’t quite set pieces because there’s little sense of spatial geography and the choppy editing shreds whatever choreography there is. These larger-than-life fights, with a superhuman Karthi in front, are also tonally at odds with the gritty texture Lokesh seems to be going for.

But what I missed more is character building. Everyone stays the same from start to end. This isn’t about twists and shock-reveals. This is just about transforming these one-note “types” into flesh-and-blood people. I thought Bejoy and Dilli would end up with one of those mismatched-couple arcs, but Narain is in panic mode throughout. Where’s the down time? Over a whole night of travel, there’s surely going to be a moment or two when this wound-up cop takes a second to breathe and become the man that he is!

Karthi and Narain in Kaithi
Karthi and Narain in Kaithi

Am I complaining too much? Perhaps. Kaithi is certainly a sturdy vehicle for Karthi, who — as Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru so memorably demonstrated — is one of our few actors who can do both Clark Kent (through his face) and Superman (through his stocky frame). There’s a fantastic “mass” scene, set around a swimming pool, where Dilli stuffs himself with biriyani — it’s a stunning few minutes of a purely physical performance. When he sinks his teeth into meat, his eyes seem to be experiencing an orgasm. It’s strange how Karthi looks and sounds so genteel and urban in real life, but his best work on screen is when he’s got a bit of animal inside him.

But is Kaithi a sturdy Lokesh Kanagaraj vehicle? Or for that matter, is it fair to even expect anything more from a director who has just one film behind him? Isn’t it enough that Kaithi — though overlong — is a fairly gripping genre piece, and has a few thrilling moments and some comedy (courtesy, Dheena), too? Plus, a fabulous Rambo-esque finale that’s as amazing as it’s absurd? I don’t know. I kept thinking back to the director’s interviews where he revealed that he’d written this story with Mansoor Ali Khan in mind. I would have liked to see that version of Kaithi.

That Kaithi may not have had the milk-those-tear ducts stretch about the earrings Dilli has bought for his daughter. That Kaithi may not have had the ugly contrivance of a girl telling a boy she loves him, only to see him murdered a few seconds later. In that Kaithi, these collateral damages may have made us feel more. Maybe that Kaithi would have even kept the reveal of Dilli’s daughter for the end, with him only imagining what she’s like. My job, though, is not to review what might have been, but what’s in front of me. And that’s a perfectly serviceable — and generic — piece of entertainment.

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