Karthick Naren's 'Mafia: Chapter 1', starring Arun Vijay, mistakes slo-mo for style
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Director: Karthick Naren

Cast: Arun Vijay, Prasanna, Priya Bhavani Shankar

There’s one terrific stretch of filmmaking in the first half of Mafia that shows you how Karthik Naren’s mind works. It’s not so much about the writing. It’s not about the performances either. It’s what one can call a perfect orgy of all the technical departments  to manufacture a moment. On paper, the scene may have just been “three anti-narcotic officers shooting at a drug warehouse to scare away the mules there”. But he turns this ordinary idea into a ballet of bullets, backed by Jakes Bejoy’s pulsating score and Sreejith Sarang’s cuts, to turn micro seconds into whole minutes of full-blown John Woo glory. In our obsession to constantly rank substance over style, we forget how only very few of our filmmakers can really pull off scenes that come with one intention…to just look cool.

But what one cannot understand is why he didn’t back himself enough to invest in a few more of these scenes to really make Mafia the ultra-stylish action movie it was sold to us as? Because, apart from one or two instances, the use of slow-motion quickly retreats to what it’s usually used for in our movies…to just make the hero look cool. Even when we’re talking about a mid-level star like Arun Vijay, we still go through the fragmentation of body parts we’ve come to call the “hero introduction scene”. So we see Aryan’s (Arun Vijay) left hand alone first as we cut to close-ups of his beard, eyes, feet and back before we finally see his face. Given that this is an action movie about a righteous law-enforcing officer, he also gets an intro song in the ‘Karka Karka’ mould.

Mafia Movie Review: Arun Vijay Slow-Mos Through A Just-About Watchable Drug Trade Drama, Film Companion

But the deal with Mafia is, we get a repeat of all this again, for the villain DK (Prasanna). We get stylistic flourishes like how Aryan’s shots/territories are always lit in warmer colours while DK’s is always either pink or blue. Written in the classic cat-and-mouse format, Mafia’s plot-line is thattai-thin. Motivated by a tragic personal story, a dutiful officer is after the main mastermind behind drug supply in the State. And when two seniors get hold of some information about this supplier, both of them end up dead; this urges Aryan to speed up his search for this man before he gets to him. 

It is here that one finds a few logical loopholes too. For instance, I just didn’t understand why someone who knows his life is at risk would open the doors of his house for the person he’s afraid of, at around the exact time he’s expecting an attack? The way these scenes play out doesn’t help either. Apart from the awkward pauses and the deadpan dialogue delivery, these scenes are an example of the difference between plain and subtle. I mean, how do you explain a dialogue where the character played by Priya Bhavani Shankar looks at a dead body and says, “idhu sadharnamana murder madhiri theriyala. Edho motive irukkunu nenaikaraen.” Even the writing of the characters supporting Aryan comes across as flimsy, because Aryan is constantly talking to them without a single instance of him talking with them. 

Even so, Mafia is what one can call a clean film. It’s certainly not ambitious, but there’s a certain pleasure to be had in a film where everything flows organically from one scene to another. There are no major complications or confusing narrative structures and the film pretty much achieves the expectations it creates for itself. Another factor that helps is the film’s conclusion; it gets you to, in retrospect, forgive a lot of the film’s flaws, because you start seeing this film as an origins story rather than as a plain first chapter of an investigation series. It might not have a lot to offer but Mafia certainly gets you excited for future sequels.   

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