Cast: Suriya, Priyanka Mohan
About 10 minutes into the Pandiraj film Etharkkum Thunindhavan — that the makers inexplicable insist is better called ET — there is a voiceover introducing two warring villages. They are warring because a woman belonging to one village, married to a man from the other, died by suicide following a familial dispute. The woman's community beats up her husband. Suriya, who belongs to the husband's community, smashes the skulls of the latter's attackers. This protector of his people, allegedly preventing violence following her suicide, indulges in the fight in absolute glee. He can barely control his smirk, he walks in slow-mo, swings his punches in style, stays on every punch just a moment longer to let the audience cherish it.
This happens in every fight. The most jarring one comes while rescuing a woman from her molesters. Even then, Kannabiran (Suriya) makes his delight in the violence abundantly known. Writer-director Pandiraj wants us to believe that the violence is justified. He adds paragraphs of dialogues insisting so: "Naan kola pannala, kalai edukkaren" (I'm not killing people, just clearing weeds) Kannabiran insists at one point. Yet, the stunt sequences are designed to titillate — and man, titillate they do.
What works for Etharkkum Thunindhavan is that the action sequences are written well. For instance, just around the interval block, there is a ponna kadatharom (kidnap the bride) sequence. Kannabiran is going to kidnap his girlfriend Adhini (a nebulous Priyanka Mohan) at the village temple festival. There is barely any narrative conflict because the only one of consequence against the union is the bride's father, who it has been adequately established is an oppukku chappani (a lame duck, if you'll forgive my very loose translation). Yet, Pandiraj stages this with relative grandeur. He makes it as taut as it can be given the shortchanged pieces he's got on hand. The twist in the end lands, almost endearing as it is satisfying — perhaps much credit for that should go to Suriya's image and charm. This can also be said of the entire third act. They're obviously not mindblowing or even especially clever; but they are satisfying and keep you guessing. Pandiraj does a splendid job of keeping you interested enough to guess what will happen next. And he delivers on the surprises.
If you set the titillation of set pieces aside — not saying they're not important or good cinema, just that they're not enough — Etharkkum Thunindhavan is empty. It is the story of Kannabiran, a beloved son, gentle lover, lawyer, feminist ally, street fighter, community protector, even a mini-local mafia don who kidnaps and tortures people for information. It is also the story of Inba, a rich, suave murderer with political clout, who oversees the kidnap and rape of young women, videographs it, and uses it to blackmail them. You'd expect that at some point these two stories cross paths and fireworks happen. But they don't.
Over 2.5 hours, random incidents occur instead — two ridiculously out of place songs in which Suriya is in bizarre wigs and costume, a romance track inspired by WhatsApp cons, proof that Kannabiran is a "scientist," the piss-poor bonding scenes between him and his mother (an intermittently charming Saranya Ponvannan), thinly veiled red herrings and the like. Just like Pandiraj's Kathakali, by the time the core of the film catches up, we're already exhausted and restless.
Even during those long minutes, there is hardly any conversation in Etharkkum Thunindhavan. Everything is an exposition. During Adhini's most vulnerable moment, she and Kannabiran launch into a lecture. Thank god they aren't lecturing to the camera — actually, scratch that, they soon do — but they are instantly flying into the 'moral of the story' zone all the time. In the world of ET, there is no space for vulnerability or even feelings; only constant reassertion of moral authority.
This obsession with morality is also Etharkkum Thunindhavan's biggest letdown. Because the film is so sure of its moral highground that it barely considers its arguments. At one point, a character asks and I paraphrase, "judges sentence criminals to death all the time. Is that murder?" Before you reply with a resounding yes, you realise that the question was rhetorical. Because the character soon adds that it isn't murder, so Kannabiran's serial killing isn't either. Throughout the third act, various people keep asserting, "ivangalukku vaazhave thagudhi illa" (they don't deserve to live). I am itching to ask who died and made Kannabiran god, but that would be inappropriate because women actually die in the film and ask Kannabiran to avenge them. Wait for the post-credits sequence to learn that the living ones also think he's god, not just godsend.
This god complex comes at the cost of the well-meaning message the film wants you to believe it conveys. Pandiraj makes characters say in as many words that clandestinely shot videos of women is not their fault, but the abusers'. Yet, he also makes Kannabiran go out of his way to stop these videos from going public to "save the woman's honour." "Yevan kattippan" (who will marry her), they keep asking, about the futures of these women. Victims of such abuse keep pleading Kannabiran to stop the videos from going public, they weep in horror. There is also an inappropriately staged and entirely unnecessary flashback about Kannabiran's sister and child rape, which is presented as the motivation for him to protect every woman he deems sisterly.
On the other hand, at a lighter moment, Kannabiran's mother confidently promises that she didn't raise him to be the kind of man who has premarital sex. There is a glint of pride in it. Even the Etharkkum Thunindhavan (which literally means one who dares to do anything) doesn't dare to exercise his rights over his own body. Pandiraj wants us to accept that there is a limit to personal freedom. There is a boundary to feminism. Despite its grand assertion of moral clarity, Etharkkum Thunindhavan is just hypocritical posturing — it says something and does something diametrically opposite.
And it doesn't help that Suriya feels miscast as Kannabiran. The speech, body language, mannerisms, and naughtiness feel more like Karthi's zone. Suriya is too stiff to be goofy, too upright to be shady, too clear-headed to be vulnerable. He is at his best when he's being the morally unambiguous vigilante, but can barely be convincing as the horny young man rushing to a song-and-dance show. This makes it appear like Suriya is walking in and out of character, making Etharkkum Thunindhavan an overall tough watch.