Director: Arun Matheswaran
Writer(s): Arun Matheswaran, Madhan Karky, Arun Matheswaran
Cast: Dhanush, Shiva Rajkumar, Priyanka Arul Mohan, Aditi Balan, Sundeep Kishan
Duration: 160 minutes
Available in: Theatres
If mass cinema is the masculine, muscular flexing that pummels people to dust; with the story as weak, but essential ligaments; the women as ornamental — the seduction being that of the audience, not the lover — Captain Miller offers a strange, sawtoothed, and strong alternative. Here is a film with violence as both a means and an end. The promise is not that of justice or peace, but recursive, greater violence. There is no end in sight.
A wastrel, for all intents and purposes, resigned to the violative nature of being born to a certain family in a certain time, Captain Miller trails the thorny journey of Analeesan (Dhanush) from ambivalence towards becoming a man with conscience at the heart of his actions, not convenience, or resignation.
There is a temple at the nerve centre of his village, one that Analeesan and the villagers are not allowed entry into. We are in pre-Independence India when the nationalist movement was running alongside the landed gentry becoming cosy with the British. There are two paths out of this quandary — economically, by joining the army and fighting with the British, thus, making money; and socially, by joining the revolutionaries, ashing both landed gentry and the British to cinder.
At first, Analeesan chooses the former. When he argues with his brother, a freedom fighter, about his decision to join the Army, he gives one of the most powerful explanations for it — that for him respect is freedom, and if respect means the boots he gets to wear, the uniform he gets to inhabit, and the name he is rechristened — Miller — then he chooses that. Respect as freedom is a radical re-thinking of the very idea of liberation. Freedom is a strange demand we make on ourselves, at best an overused cliche, at worst a Sysphian ask. Respect, on the other hand, humanises freedom.
But this respect does not last very long. In one of the pivotal sequences of the film, when Miller is forced to shoot at unarmed protestors, he realises the brutality of the British Empire and strikes back. There is a fire raging in the background, the pyres of all the gunned down nationalists is a deep orange, and his frame is embedded against it. You don’t see his facial expressions, only his slumped, defeated silhouette. He is about to shoot himself from guilt, when he is stopped by someone with one of the most poignant lines delivered in the film, “Pona uyir paththadha?” (Are the lives forsaken so far not enough?)
The conflict at the heart of Captain Miller is, now, diffused. The shape of the villain keeps shifting — the landed royalty, the British — with the victims remaining the same, the residents of the local village. What are they fighting for? On the one hand, it is as basic as the desire to enter the temple. But there is also the larger cause of freedom which uneasily hangs over the film.
The film’s language is that of excess, limbic excess, with fire-flung, gun-strewn, gunpowder laced sequences. Siddhartha Nuni’s camera is shaking, quaking really. When it is still, the colours bleed — whether it is the texture on the doors, the saris, or the temple sculptures. When blasts are detonated, in the corner of the frame you can see bodies arcing their way through the sky, like confetti. It is almost poetic. But this excess begins to wear thin.
As with the law of diminishing marginal utility, the value of life keeps plummeting with every blood-bath. When violence begins to feel like air, death merely feels like a forceful exhale. But given that it is death that causes a change of heart in Miller, and it is death that keeps the violence at boil, the film loses its momentum, lost at sea among the various incarnations of villainy. It is only in the course of these action sequences that the film rises to its promise — that of Dhanush, the actor, the star.
Dhanush’s eyes have an aching deadness that he has deployed in films like Vada Chennai (2018), Asuran (2019), and Karnan (2021). When he is drunk and the eyeballs pivot up till his eyes become a milky nothingness, there is both despair and disrepair. Dhanush has, previously, performed this transformation from a meekling to a strongman, and it is his light frame — which has been throbbed with slight muscle here — that evokes fear because of the confidence of the stride, the charisma in the enervating glare, and that red thundu, flowing in the wind, sculpted by its breath. To be in the presence of Dhanush on-screen is to be in the presence of stardom itself; the eyes cannot rest on anyone but him. Logic falls at his feet, bent beyond recognition.
Then, to completely leach love from his story, to give him only rage — and a rage that is largely unrelated to love — is the film’s decision to frame womanhood as uninterested in masculinity. These are women here wielding guns, their saris tucked so that they can ride bikes with ease, women who do not need an excuse to take space in the narrative. They are angry, too, and that is that.
The division of the film into chapters — a staple with director Arun Matheswaran — however, begins to feel like a forced re-shaping of the film, making the length feel heavier, as the enemies keep getting larger and larger, till the very point of villainy waters down.
In Matheswaran’s previous film, Saani Kaayidham (2022), there is an image that has stayed with me, of blood dissolving into chilli powder, making you wonder which is more red. There is a face that is mutilated, bleeding, smacked by a glass bottle, and then doused with chilli. A strange beauty that is at the heart of a strange, relentless violence. This tradition Matheswaran continues in Captain Miller, of seeking beauty in the corners of the very thing that contradicts it — gore.