Cast: Kathir, Aishwarya Rajesh, Radhakrishnan Parthiban, Sriya Reddy
Directors: Bramma, Anucharan M
Creators: Pushkar and Gayatri
Pushkar and Gayatri, the creators of Suzhal – The Vortex, weren't overselling their new mini-series when they described the show's writing process to be closer in spirit to that of writing a full-fledged novel than a short story. There's an interiority we feel with several characters that go beyond obvious first impressions or their larger arcs. We feel we know them well enough, only for a reveal later on to give us a new dimension to their personality and their side to a truth. This makes it hard to describe Suzhal – The Vortex as the story of any one character or family. We may have entered its world as an outsider, but by the third day at this place we're as invested in the scandals and the gossip of this town as though we went to school here.
This is true because the story can only be described as that of Sambaloor's, the town where it's set. The town's name is obvious because it's the ashes of a prosperous place that we're seeing when we enter it. With the town growing around the fortunes of a big cement factory, the series opens with a labour strike that culminates with its main building catching fire. There's commotion and outrage all around Sambaloor, but what adds to the aftereffects of the fire is when a girl is learnt to have gone missing the same night.
It's a special set of skills that has gone in to build the world of Sambaloor. We trace its transition from an agricultural town of farmers to one of factory workers with one conversation. Through its use of wide and aerial shots, we also become familiar with its geography with thick forests on one side and a bottomless quarry on the other. The police station, the hospital, the workers' quarters, the school, the factory, the market, the cemetery, they all fall in the middle as we learn the length and breadth of the place. It's important we know so much about the place to get fully sucked into the vortex it eventually builds into.
This concept of a town that behaves like quicksand is then doubled when the writers choose to place two investigative threads—that of the missing girl and the factory fire—during an eight-day ritual called the Mayana Kollai. We get shots of hundreds of people making their way into town for the festival but not all visits are voluntary. And through elaborate cross cutting, we switch between revelations in the investigation with the myth of Goddess Angali and a demon that has been awakened after years of slumber.
You remember how Pushkar-Gayathri blended the story Vikramaditya and Vedhalam with a modern-day conflict between a gangster and a policemen, in the same way Suzhal – The Vortex marries myth with reality. You also get a pleasant feeling of familiarly in their obsessive love with the dualities in the worlds they create. On the surface, this duality pops up in the atheism of communist labourers that's at odds with the thousands of devotees at the temple festival. The same conflict spills over into family-life too with an atheist father and a religious mother who struggle to raise their two daughters. In another family, there is a similar story of disharmony, but here the issues arise from a strong mother and a weak, powerless father.
Opposites like these are everywhere, yet what I found most interesting is a conversation that happens between old classmates SI Chakkarai (an excellent Kathir) and Nandhini (Aishwarya Rajesh acing a deceptively clever character). Set on a bridge that connects Sambaloor to the outside world, these two discuss reasons why one of them chose to leave the town for good while the other chose to stay. It really is a conversation that makes most sense to those who understand the suffocations of a small town. As a regular, Nandini thrives in moving as far away from this town as she could, away from the secrets and the people she knows all too well. As for Chakkarai, a police officer, it's the same familiarity that makes him want to stick around because that actually makes him better at his job.
These complex inter-personal relationships, even between characters you didn't think had anything in common, is another reason why Suzhal – The Vortex feels like a novel. In a sense, the world and its inhabitants become important enough for the investigations to genuinely matter because it feels like a place where everybody knows your name.
Yet its the actual plot that lets the show down. It carefully builds a world and characters but there's not much they can do to help the two investigative threads that are being used as a base to keep moving along. In the case of the missing girl, it's what we know about these characters that keep it interesting, with us suspecting most characters at least once through its runtime. Although it develops as two parallel investigations, only one gets the importance it deserves. The other, about the factory fire, feels at best like an addition that doesn't create tension and even its resolution feels tame in comparison to the case that actually matters to us.
But the viewer's relationship with the case of the missing girl Nila too isn't always as gripping as it first was. An inordinate amount of time is spent establishing obvious red herrings you know cannot be the prime suspect. A lot of time spent introducing us to a Facebook page, a set of photographs, and its members too don't really add much to the final resolution. The same goes with some of the subplots that play out in the background. When it works, like the story of another missing girl, the payoffs are great. But when it doesn't, like when the idea of a love triangle gets mooted, it feels too forced and inorganic to coalesce into the larger scheme of things.
But Suzhal – The Vortex is a series that gets so many things right so early on that it becomes bigger than the sum of its twists. Of course it would work better if you didn't see it coming but it's still pretty enjoyable even if you've got there before the show has. You have to credit its directors Bramma and Anucharan for the way it remains engaging even when it goes down paths that doesn't lead us anywhere. Sam CS's music really adds a second layer to get you to feel the chills of this strange, otherworldly place. By drawing from a thoroughly Indian setting to tell a story about a universal theme, Suzhal – The Vortex is an arresting character study of a place and the many dark secrets it hides behind its peaceful exterior.