Director: Arun Matheswaran
Writers: Arunraja Kamaraj, Madhan Karky, Arun Matheswaran
Cast: Dhanush, Priyanka Arulmohan, Sundeep Kishan, Shivaraj Kumar, Nassar
Duration: 160 mins
Available in: Theatres
Dhanush’s Eesa receives the perfect description, somewhere close to Captain Miller’s interval — a dacoit in the eyes of the Brits; a traitor in the eyes of his people. This dichotomy, and in consequence, the identity crisis that Eesa experiences in Arun Matheswaran’s third feature is a zone that Dhanush was born to thrive in. The perennially confused every man — that the actor is often celebrated for — gets a periodic makeover in Captain Miller, where Dhanush takes up arms against oppression in a pre-Independent India, and more importantly, oppression within the caste-laced confines of Tamil Nadu itself. The film flows as rhythmically as a river, leaving our minds brimmed with some of the most stunning images we’ve seen all year. But with almost every box ticked, why does the film leave us with an aftertaste that’s painfully lacking a feeling?
Eesa is struggling to find his footing in a politically-charged climate when we first set eyes on him. Should he tolerate caste prejudices in a village ruled by monarchs that doesn’t let him enter the temple his ancestors built or tolerate racial biases and fight for the British? “Our kings might not give us slippers, but the Britishers are giving us boots,” he notes, strutting off from his village, to the horror of his freedom-fighter brother (Shivarajkumar). This brilliant dichotomy is what forms Eesa’s core. At some point in the film, he is called a double barrel gun, and we can all see why.
And it’s nice to see that Eesa resists being pigeon-holed. He falls in love not at sight, but at meaning. He finds beauty in the kindness of Velmathi (Priyanka Arul Mohan as the niece of the village monarch), when she brings him out of a temple to safety. He casually discusses patriarchy with a woman even as he cleans vessels and she cleans rifles. But a lot of these details frustratingly remain just that. As scene-stealing as Dhanush may be, the impact mostly comes from a place of familiarity and his flair for social dramas that we’ve witnessed in the past, and not from the world we’re seeing on the big screen today.
Of all his films, Karnan (2021) comes to mind quite naturally in this context. While situations are different, the characters are put in similarly steered positions, where they each get a dramatic entrance to save their village from tyrants. Arun has a unique touch for bringing us stories about power and subjugation from a perspective we’d have never considered before. Yes, the British colonised Indians, but what about the lowered caste tribes who were forced to fight two battles as a result? And in this nuanced depiction of Indian bigots vs British bigots, the Indian stories are the ones that resonate.
Cinematographer Siddhartha Nuni's craft is luminous in places of grandeur — the silhouettes that are captured beside flames in an important moment are unforgettable — and in places of silence. Notice the scene where the monarch in-line (John Kokken) asks Eesa for help, and how the camera moves, laying the upstairs-downstairs dynamic of aristocracy bare.
The effects of bigotry (which Matheswaran documented in Saani Kaayidham (2022) with the optics of sexual abuse) is dwelled upon with earnestness in Captain Miller, too. While we’re moved by what we hear and what we see as individual moving parts, we aren't quite as touched by the film as a whole. And this is because we don’t see what these people mean to Eesa. In Karnan, the collective angst of the Podiyankulam quite literally bounced off of the tiniest of its residents. While the characters in Captain Miller are all fascinating in their own right — we have a doctor who doesn’t believe in picking up a gun (until she’s forced to and gets a badass moment), a 19-year-old dacoit who is determined to live by her choices, and a colonising prick with a Harvey Dent twist. But none of them manage to evoke the same kind of feeling that Miller so easily does. The killer stuff is quite naturally saved for Miller.
Watch Official Trailer of Captain Miller