Cast: Kathir, Aishwarya Rajesh, Radhakrishnan Parthiban, Sriya Reddy
Directors: Bramma, Anucharan M
Creators: Pushkar and Gayatri
Watching the eight-episode series Suzhal – The Vortex, produced by Gayatri & Pushkar, I felt that the only way to comprehend this mega-production was to binge-watch them at a stretch for about 7 hours.
I realized that this script was not designed as self-contained modules, but more as a six-and-a-half-hour film edited into eight long episodes. It does not allow the viewer to see any episode at random and get a kind of completed feeling as one would witness in the dozens of crime thrillers being aired today.
Well, that's the way it is designed and so, one has to see it for what the intentions are. All said and done the narration is reasonably engaging and, peppered with some fine performances by several young actors, it makes for some compelling watch.
Noteworthy is the balance held between some contrasting roles and their enactments. For a start we have Parthiban playing Shanmugham, an industrial worker versus Harish Uthaman playing Trilok Vadde, an arrogant capitalist; then we have Sriya Reddy playing Regina, a tough police inspector versus Aishwarya Rajesh playing Nandini, the traumatized daughter of Shanmugam, and then we have Kathir playing Sakkarai, a sincere junior cop as opposed to Guna, Shanmugham's brother, played by Kumaravel.
All of them are somehow stitched together by two bigger conflicts: A giant cement factory catches fire and gets burnt down, throwing hundreds of people out of jobs; And a stormy Romeo-Juliet teenage romance between Nila and Adisiyam, two high-profile school kids, and their tragedy which explodes all human relationships within the small town to tiny bits.
This powerful human drama could have been well accomplished within four long episodes. To spread out this production to twice its length, the story is thickly carpeted by a big massive tribal festival dedicated to Angalamman, a local fertility deity, replete with dances, stage plays, and some really esoteric rituals. The fact that this is so deeply a part of rural Tamil Nadu can be a big risk in trying to attract viewers who watch the dubbed versions in other languages.
In fact, the second episode is almost entirely dedicated to this village festival which takes place largely by night. This ten-day festival, however, functions as a time clock in the race to discover who burnt the factory down and who was responsible for the death of the teenagers.
Directors Bramma and Anucharan have equally distributed the responsibility of staging this highly intertwined screenplay. Watching their craftsmanship can provide a few lessons or insights into the formula for stretching a reasonably short human drama into a wide highway of subjects dealing with human psychology and social tensions. Let's look at some of them.
What we see are some highly polarized positions. There is a sleepy small hillside town in which we have a giant modern cement factory and on the other hand, we have locals who seem to be living in some kind of a time warp celebrating very ancient blood-letting rituals and then there are our primary characters driving Benz cars, attending convent schools, and living in posh modern bungalows while the rest live in small cramped residences. The women are sharply divided between those who are aggressive and those who are meek and submissive; the young ones are somehow seen under the shadow of very complicated elders whose dominance is seen as stifling their freedom while the local villagers seem to have complete freedom to dance out their rituals with total acceptance by the local folk.
Suzhal – The Vortex reminded me of a similar formula presented on Amazon, early last year, in another eight-part series called The Last Hour made by Amit Kumar. That police crime-thriller drama was staged in the hilly landscapes of Sikkim with very similar polarizations and complicated characterizations of tribal beliefs and modern-day ways of police dispensing law and order. Interesting to see a follow-up!
What brings a level of credibility to these narratives is the fact that none of the characters are totally clean and honest. The shades of grey revealed by every character seem to hold a mirror to several modern-day dichotomies of what is decent; who is virtuous; and how we have all ended up becoming our own enemies.
Parthiban and Sriya Reddy shoulder the dangers of living and enacting such dangerous and troubled relationships with enormous conviction and consistency; Kathir and Aishwarya Rajesh take on some incredible situations and handle them with quite some detailing; I should make special mention of the "therukuthu" artists from Purusai headed by Kannapa and a very convincing appearance put up by Mekha Rajan as Dr. Sangamithra.
But it is the role of Kothandaraman, an insurance investigator, played by Santhana Bharati which seems to have been written, a bit hurriedly. In more ways than one, his character should have been the main column holding up this drama but he has been treated like an outlier, a grimy irritating character, who has no capacity in deciding any of the outcomes. Sadly, he is the Hercule Poirot or the Sherlock Holmes of this narrative. He deserves a lot more attention and empathy.
But that does not happen. So, when he plays out the judgment card and becomes the conscience keeper for this tense drama at the end, it looks just too convenient in the last episode. It seems he has been planted simply to close the cases and make the culprits, accept their guilt and subsequent responsibilities.
Coming on an international OTT platform, I would like the young team at Amazon to take monumental decisions on navigating the future of Indian episodic dramas to dive deeper and fine-tune the screenplays and shooting scripts. The music track by Sam CS needs to sound a lot more original and feel specifically designed for the episodes.
All the chaotic tribal dances, the plethora of car chases, and drone shots have to be independently designed, from within the dramatic progression of the episodes. They should not look like stock shots into which you can dip, at any time and fill up the episodic time slots.
These are establishing times for building up one's credibility in an international OTT market and I am sure Gayatri and Pushkar have gained some valuable experience to move forward.