Vadhandhi: The Fable of Velonie, On Amazon Prime Video, Indulges In Obvious Misdirection To Be Engaging

In spite of its focus on characters and the setting, the structure is driven wholly by the mechanics of the plot and rarely by emotions
Vadhandhi: The Fable of Velonie, On Amazon Prime Video, Indulges In Obvious Misdirection To Be Engaging

Director: Andrew Louis

Cast: SJ Suryah, Sanjana, Laila, Nasser, Vivek Prasanna

Streaming On: Amazon Prime

Pushkar-Gayatri’s new production is cut from the same cloth as their first creation in the long format, Suzhal – The Vortex (2022). Beyond belonging to the same investigative thriller genre, it works with similar archetypes as well. The enigmatic teenager, a negligent parent, spiraling cops, etc. It also ensures of being rooted to a specific setting, so we get a sprawling mystery set in Kanyakumari this time, with a good dose of the dialect and scenic locales. For a production house, this is a good cornerstone to function with, since there’s so much more character brought about by rootedness, something that can even make up for the tiredness in a story.

That being said, there’s an obvious coldness that permeates this new series, something that I noticed in Suzhal as well. In spite of its focus on characters and the setting, the structure rings artificial, in a sense that it’s driven wholly by the mechanics of a plot and rarely by emotions. In Andrew Louis’s Vadhandhi, there seems to be a lot of cheating-the-audience going on by sheer will of the screenplay, as opposed to the same feeling like the natural course of an investigation emerging from organic character decisions. At times we’re made aware of whose perspective we’re getting a flashback from, but then there are also those that are not connected to any point-of-view, seeming like blatant edit/screenplay decisions.

The narrative is interesting in the way it lays out its ideas. We get to witness the generation of a rumour from a new source in every episode. Starting with the media and journalists, moving on to a male author, distant social media users, and even gossip-loving locals. Such a thread has the makings of a story suited for this format. It’s a page-turner, a binge-inducing thriller, where “truth walks, while the lies fly”. This universal truth does get as frustrating for us as it does for sub-inspector Vivek (SJ Suryah), who’s in charge of the murder investigation we’re following. This is both the boon and bane of this series.

The boon is that the frustration keeps us wanting to know more, and the bane is that there’s an emotional dissonance with the revelations. I couldn’t care about the protagonist solving the case for his catharsis, not as much as I wanted to get to its depths for all the time I’ve invested. I’d rate any piece of storytelling that achieves the former, as being superior to the latter.

The rootedness brought about by the setting only feels like an attempt more than an authentic account of the way of life in that region. The Kanyakumari dialect, sprinkled with sweet doses of Malayalam words, doesn’t quite come with a lived-in feeling through this cast. Again, there sure is an attempt, but it surely doesn’t feel organic. Ditto with the Anglo-Indian English, which is all the more lifeless with the constant repetition of certain phrases and words.

SJ Suryah gets enough moments as SI Vivek that are built towards his strengths. The long-format is a great space to explore and embolden the calibre of such actors who can drive a character-based narrative. There’s a nice scene where he drops an uninterrupted backstory of a former flame, where his uninhibited demeanour drives home his motivation for being invested in the Velonie murder case. He also gets the classic single-shot drunk monologue, which is where the series gets deep into his headspace. While enjoying his performance, this is also where I clearly realised that I don’t care about the very question that’s disturbing him and the story world – who was in Velonie’s heart?

Anandhi, Vivek’s wife (Smruthi Venkat), is rendered as someone who can put her foot down, but her character falls into the immature-nagging-wife trope too much, which even gets played for laughs at a few places. I also wish the makers hadn’t visualized whatever was going on in Vivek’s head, regarding his feelings towards the deceased Velonie. It feels like a redundant sequence that doesn’t add anything complex to the fact that he’s drawn towards her.

The mechanics of the investigation do feel real, like the accessibility of leads, the hierarchy of the system and even the pacing of it. But I wish the series stuck to this track alone, dropping the detours that it takes to establish the extent of rumours. There’s an absolutely corny track involving urban youngsters who discuss the case, in a distant city far removed from reality. Both the filmmaking and writing fall absolutely flat here, with dialogues that repeatedly drive the same point over and over, and a very dry, point-and-shoot filming of the group’s conversation. The track involving a politician is again, too typical of Tamil cinema’s overdramatic gaze and presentation of power circles.

That’s probably another undoing of the series. It operates too close to the syntax of mainstream Tamil cinema that we’re all too familiar with (a staple complaint for the Tamil web-series scene), failing to push anything new for this format. When a character in an action scene says he’ll stay back on being asked to go elsewhere, you know he’s facing death in a few moments. When someone is going through a pile of laundry, you sense that that’s where the next lead will be found. The music is also mostly blaring over the events, often taking the drama to an unpleasantly melodramatic space.

There’s a brutal subplot involving rape that uses misdirection. We’re made to believe that it happened to a girl we know, but we then get a reveal that it happened to someone else altogether. The nonchalance towards the new girl and her whereabouts after this reveal is disheartening, especially in a series that seems to care so much about other things such as false narratives written around women by our society at large. The unreliable narrator logic for this instance of misdirection is sound, but the fact that the same shots are used way earlier, sans any narrator or perspective, is the sort of frustratingly noticeable cheating that the makers indulge in.

While the story does involve debunking insulting narratives around an otherwise honest young girl, it’s not a stretch to wonder that it might also be perpetuating age-old stereotypes associated with the Anglo-Indian community that she’s from. There sure is a neat and noble message packed for its ending, but the series doesn’t do much to question existing narratives around the community as much as it feels sorry for general forthcoming ones. This is one intersection that the makers have missed out on in terms of their politics. They get a lot of other things right, like the portrayal of the extent to which mistrust from a parent can affect a child, and how religious terminology can be used to easily vilify children.

The final image of the story is that of Vivek expressing his want for another child, a girl, to protect her and provide her all the happiness in the very society that he has come to detest the ugliness of. It might seem honorable at first thought, but having followed his harrowing journey through the investigation, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that his idea sounded like a coping mechanism more than a ray of hope. The ominous background score adds on to this feeling. It’s a slightly scary thought when you think of it. What could happen to a child born solely to be an agent of catharsis for someone’s disappointment with society?

While the social narrative that Vadhandhi is attempting to explore is admirable, I find it lacking in craft to root for any of it. The misdirection and withholding of information are too obvious to not be thrown off by. If you tend to be impressed solely by the smarts in a barrage of twists, this is for you, but for those seeking to root for emotions, this isn’t quite the place to be looking in.

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