Director: Mari Selvaraj
Writer: Mari Selvaraj
There couldn’t have been a better opening stretch for a film that speaks the language of Maamannan. An elaborate intercut sequence binds the two worlds that co-exist within the same Salem. On one end, you see Rathnavel (Fahadh Faasil) preparing a small army of dogs for a race. This is then intercut with Veeran’s (Udayanidhi) backyard where we see him feeding his pigs. The dogs don’t live in a kennel, but in a mansion most humans would find luxurious. And at the other end of the town, Veeran’s pigs live in a muddy sty, moving around freely. At first, you’d likely think the dog and the pig are metaphors representing Rathnavel and Veeran respectively and this may very well be true too but only partly. The animals, in true Mari Selvaraj fashion, come to mean a lot more with each passing minute.
For Rathnavel, these dogs represent a part of his ego. The care he provides for them extends only until they continue to win him races. As for Veeran, the love for pigs is true and unconditional, something that is linked to his very existence. You also see a reflection of this mindset in the way both of them look at people. Given how it is a movie set during an election, you realise how Rathnavel looks at people in his constituency as either votes or vote banks. He has the backing of his caste and he plans to win the election using the same ego and caste pride as his weapons. And for Veeran, there’s no strategy at play except good governance and equality. Yet by the half-way mark, this subversion has worked to such an extent that it has already changed the way we look at pigs (the ‘Panninga Than Kootama Varum’ line from Sivaji means something else right now).
The film works just as well when we think about it as a study of two generations. We understand this when we further compare Rathnavel to Veeran and the families they come from. But this becomes even clearer when we see how differently Veeran reacts to a problem compared to his father Maamannan (Vadivelu), who is also an MLA. One of the best echo scenes in the movie comes when a set of Veeran’s friends come home for a visit. At first, they greet Maamannan the same way they would when an elder enters their own families. Yet Maamannan corrects them twice and insists that they must sit even when they’re speaking to someone older or more powerful. We only understand the meaning of this scene later when Maamannan himself refuses to sit when he’s in the presence of Rathnavel.
This double standard — the fact that Maamannan himself is not able to practise what he has preached — results in the film’s most fascinating equation and the best interval in recent times. It also reflects how the educated second generation in a family like Maamannan’s does not accept the status quo. Just like how the poster of Thevar Magan (1992) placed right next to that of Maamannan’s reveals the father and son sitting right next to each other when compared to the son standing in the older film, the film puts forth its politics in the massiest manner one can think of.
The second great echo scene comes in the way we see Rathnavel going forward with two different ‘executions’. Staged in very similar ways using the same location and camera angles, we understand how Rathnavel’s mind works almost entirely because both murders and victims appear to be indistinguishable, at least to him.
All this results in an extremely solid first half that plays out as an intense character study of three men. It is personal, intricate and political even without having to introduce us to many characters outside the three of them. Yet you also find the film losing that balance as it moves into the realm of the aforementioned election. From personal, the film soon becomes ‘public’ with individual plot points making way for larger, more generic situations. The intensity too starts to drop once the film shifts to this mood.
Except for one scene in which a large group of youngsters guarantee their support to Maamannan and Veeran, we don’t really sense the positive change the duo has had on the people either. Even otherwise, it’s always much harder to maintain high levels of drama during long stretches where the actual election process is taking place. What this does is urge us to wait for scenes in which Rathnavel meets Veeran again because that’s the space in which the film retains the tension it was able to build earlier on. And because the film is eventually about the rise of Maamannan with the help of his son Veeran, it cannot organically accommodate ‘mass’ scenes that are written around Veeran alone. So when Veeran gets a fight scene, almost out of nowhere, you don’t really understand why it had to be placed at that point. It works neither as a part of Rathnavel’s sly political trickery nor does it work as a solo mass moment for its hero.
Yet the reason why the film never slips is because the performances remain steady and strong. Udayanidhi himself is earnest and original, even in the film’s most dramatic moments, but its the equation between Fahadh and Vadivelu that continues to keep it all together. Fahadh presents us with one the best villains of recent times; unhinged, unpredictable and with a raw energy that makes him extremely stressful to watch.
Vadivelu too isn’t just brilliant in the scenes that are written around his performance. For instance, he slants his head very subtly when he understands the real intention behind his senior’s silence on a major political issue, expressing his character’s failure without a single word. Initially lacking in confidence, you notice his transformation almost entirely through his body language. What’s equally fascinating is how he’s able to create a performance unlike any he’s done before, despite the hundreds and thousands of hours we’ve watched him in before. Add these to AR Rahman’s score and Theni Eswar’s visuals and Maamannan leaves you with several sequences that are impossible to let go of. Despite the compromises in the second half, Mari Selvraj’s third film remains powerful, proving to be a testament to how his voice remains the loudest.