Director: Prasath Murugesan
Cast: Atharvaa, Manikandan, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Nikhila Vimal, DD Neelakandan, Dilnaz Irani, Ilavarasu
Available on: Disney+ Hotstar
Duration: 5 episodes, 188 minutes
At the centre of Disney+ Hotstar’s latest Tamil procedural drama Mathagam are two ambitious men — one, a straight-shooting Deputy Commissioner of Police and the other, Tamil Nadu’s most dangerous criminal of modern times, whose fates intersect solely because of chance. DCP Ashwath (Atharvaa) desperately wants to get out of an argument with his wife who is in the throes of postpartum depression. So, he wakes up the half-asleep streets of Chennai by going on a sudden patrol just to get out of the house. Ashwath’s messed up defence mechanism ends up giving him a taste of bigger fish to fry aka gangster Padalam Sekhar (Manikandan), a type of fish he never knew existed. While this in itself makes one hell of a MacGuffin, this still isn’t what makes Mathagam unique. The sparkle in Prasath Murugesan’s thriller lies in how it treats every character that orbits these two men with compelling writing.
Mathagam takes the genre quite seriously and that is a massive game-changer for a show, which comes at the back of several such procedurals, which has quietly gone on to become a streaming favourite format over the years. No criminal exists in this universe without a purpose, and no backstory exists without character. So, when Ashwath first runs into Sangu Ganesan, a throat-slitting expert, the gangster’s might isn’t just something that’s already been established. Mathagam takes its time to tell us why this gangster, despite being a small cog in a big wheel, is still important to the story. And the series does this with precision and technique — every time a rowdy's name is mentioned, we get a microscopic glimpse of their modus operandi through newspaper headlines, cartoons, and black-and-white photos, always accompanied by the words of a legacy cop, whose files are Ashwath’s holy grail.
Sekhar is assembling the city's most tenacious rowdies under one roof for the birthday party of Choolai Babu, a 50-year-old who dresses like he’s 18, and Ashwath suspects the city is in danger. So, a covert operation begins. If Ashwath needs to get to Sekhar, he needs to go through every small gangster with a colourful prologue. And this band of rowdies include Ice Box, a man who got the name for smuggling illegal funds in ice box coffins during elections, the hilarious Mava Sait, a black magic believer who was once believed to have dug up a corpse for a ritual, and Jail Kuyil, a pot-head with the voice of an angel. And then of course there is Sekhar himself, played effortlessly by Manikandan, a gangster who has climbed up the ranks by flexing his wit (“Arivum Ayudhamum” is how he is described).
The band of soldiers on Ashwath’s side is no less and two women, in particular, stand out for their grit and ease of depiction — Sayanthika Biswas (Dilnaz Irani), the commissioner of police who puts her head on the line to chair the operation, and Niralya, a cybercrime consultant, without whose tactical knowledge, the operation would crumble. But the lovely thing about these ordinary women being extraordinary at their jobs is how the show registers their true lives. The first time we see Sayanthika is at leisure at her sprawling apartment, solving a crisis at home, while gearing up to solve another crisis in the city. She makes sure that every man answers to her, with the might of every last cell in her body. And her husband (Gautham Vasudev Menon) is happy to step aside. “I am proud to be Sayanthika’s Prince Consort,” he scoffs at a minister’s sexist remark at one point.
Niralya, on the other hand, is a mother, who runs codes to hack phone calls in between pumping breast milk for her newborn. And these are all scenes that are off-handedly depicted like with a shot of Niralya walking with her pump in hand while the camera focuses on a perp being held captive. Nikhila Vimal plays Ashwath’s wife, who is battling the consequences of an absent husband and an absent father of her child. It shouldn’t be innovative to see women have agency in a world such as ours today, but it regrettably is especially in this genre. But Mathagam is careful and conscious with good intentions.
And since the film has a mystery to solve in the middle of all this, Praveen Antony’s fast cuts make sure that we’re hooked with every neatly packaged episode that is made to hold tension. Prasath leaves a few things unsaid. Besides knowing just about his rap sheet, we know nothing else about Sekhar. Is there a good man lurking inside this beast? And is there a beast lurking inside Ashwath that we don’t know about? Wouldn’t it have been easier to resonate with these troubled men by knowing more? Prasath is more interested in being a mere observer of an extremely eventful operation. Perhaps Mathagam Part II would give us all the answers we need.