JJ Fredrick's Ponmagal Vandhal is a courtroom drama that revolves around the reopening of an open-and-shut case that took place 15 years ago. In Ooty, young girls are getting abducted, and CCTV footage emerges of a woman shooting down two men. As they investigate, the bodies of all the missing girls are found near the woman's house, the evidence is overwhelming, and she is dubbed "Psycho Jyoti". The police shoots her when they learn she is armed.
Naturally, when this case is reopened after so long, that too with the film's heroine fighting her case, it is understood that it's to eventually prove Jyoti's innocence. In other words, delayed justice isn't denied justice. The lawyer in question is Venba (Jyotika), who we never picture as this ambitious lawyer trying to dig up a sensational case to get ahead in her career. There's an inherent darkness to Venba and the pain from a scar she's trying to hide (there's also a literal scar on her face). It is obvious that this isn't just any other case for Venba, even though it is her first. So when this case is reopened, it also opens up parts of the past she had chosen to bury forever.
This gap of 15 years to reopen the case is very much intentional. In another film, perhaps starring a man, a Rocky-like training montage would have been used to take us through these years for our hero to get stronger. But Ponmagal Vandhal isn't about getting physically stronger to exact revenge, it is about regaining one's mental strength to procure justice. This difference between revenge and justice; that's the line thin Ponmagal Vandhal wants to walk.
This is important even if it's not exactly engaging. The film understands that the legal system is flawed but it doesn't completely reject it either. So it's not about breaking the law as much as it is about slipping through its cracks. For Venba, it's not about retaliation. It's more about restoring balance, both internal and external.
Ponmagal Vandhal achieves this because the perpetrators of the film's most heinous crime are already dead. So there's no scene where the victims are seething at cocky criminals who feel like they're going to get away with it. The problems are bigger than the individual.
But that's where the film begins to lose focus. On the surface, the film is an investigative thriller — the simplistic reveal tells us what really happened to those girls and that woman all those years ago. But it also wants the courtroom to be Venba's stage where she vanquishes her inner demons.
As a thriller, the writing is just too ordinary to keep things engaging. Even the film's two main twists feel like additional information rather than the bottomline. The actual incident, the real criminals and the mastermind behind it become obvious 15 minutes into the film. Elsewhere, the screenplay is obviously fooling the audience as it withholds essential information. For instance, in a heart-to-heart conversation between Venba and Pethuraj (Bhagyaraj), the film deceptively gives us the impression that they know only as much as we know. So when the film goes on to its big reveal in a subsequent scene, you realise that this earlier conversation was more for the audience than between two people who already know each other's past.
The writing that has gone into these characters is just as problematic. We get Parthiban (doing obviously Parthiban things) playing a hot-shot criminal lawyer but we never really understand this man's mind. Is he ruthless enough to just about do anything to win? If he is, at what point does he become this softie who gives up and starts understanding Venba and her plight? And, of all the criminal cases he has fought, what about this case sparked his transformation?
Pratap Pathan, who plays the judge, gets another bit of inconsistent writing that involves him, his moral compass, his daughter's wedding and a suitcase full of money, none of which makes any sense.
But eventually, only Venba's journey (Jyotika in the film's only effective performance) keeps things moving. After a certain point, you understand that this isn't just a case, but also a form of therapy that brings her back to life. Purely as a courtroom drama, Ponmagal Vandhal is extremely ordinary. But as the story of a woman overcoming her trauma by exposing her wounds to the world, it makes a case for itself.