JJ Fredrick's Ponmagal Vandhal opens beautifully. We are in a forest in Lovedale — a misty picture that could be on a tourist brochure. And then, gunshots! The who and why are revealed through a series of news reports and accounts by cops, intercut with wailing mothers as the bodies of little girls are dug out from the earth. The credits appear in gentle dissolves, without disturbing the mood. It's a solid, no-nonsense stretch that establishes the premise and drops a hint that this may not be your typical Jyotika vehicle. Watching these scenes at home, I was happy there were no cheers when the title card for the producer appeared (it's Suriya) and when the heroine is introduced, riding a motorbike. Immersion and atmosphere are everything in crime thrillers/ courtroom dramas and nothing kills one more than an ear-piercing wolf-whistle, or the blinding flash from a smartphone screen two seats away.
But soon, the film settles into a very familiar zone: your typical Jyotika vehicle. Over the years, over what is called her "second innings", the actor has shown an admirable commitment to scripts that are about something. Ponmagal Vandhal is about something everyone should know, worry about, want to do something about. It's about the burden of trauma, a life lived with the memory of childhood abuse that doesn't stop with the event itself but seeps into your cells as you grow up, forever altering your identity, your perception of self. Cinematographer Ramji flattens the palette in the present and paints the past in vivid, warm shades. You may continue living, but those colours will never come back again.
But Fredrick doesn't trust his material. He doesn't trust the audience enough to feel that this "issue" is enough, and doesn't need to be cheaply sensationalised. Take the scene where we meet a bigshot named Varadharajan (Thiagarajan). Right away, we know he is the villain because he washes his hands after touching a labourer. Or take the scene where we relax with a judge (Pratap Pothen) and his assistant (Pandiarajan; don't ask me why he needs to be in this movie). It's not a conversation between these two men. It's a conversation between the screenplay and the audience. We are being fed information about the judge that's meant to red-herring us later. Plus, Pratap Pothen hums En iniya pon nilave, just like the K Bhagayaraj character gets an "ek gaon mein…" lesson. So cutely meta, no?
Cuteness is another killer in a crime thriller/courtroom drama, where a lawyer named Venba (Jyotika, who has her moments) digs into a 15-year-old case about a female serial-killer. For a second, I was taken aback that such a "family-friendly" star has taken up such an un-family-friendly subject, something like Raatchasan. But no worries! This is very much Jyotika in her Raatchasi mode. The subject may be dark, but the tone isn't. When a mother discovers that her child has been raped, we cut to "cute" flashbacks of mother and child in happier times. The screenplay comes with its own highlighter. It also comes with reaction shots, so that we know how to feel, even if we miss the solo violin on the soundtrack. And Parthiban, who plays Venba's opponent in court, comes with his trademark quips.
Fredrick tries everything, including laughable sci-fi level special effects. Some twists are mildly interesting, though the big one at interval point is spoiled by the flashback we see earlier. (A connection is established when it would have worked better as a surprise.) Can we hope that the OTT-release strategy will help genre films stay truer to their roots? Ponmagal Vandhal, after all, was meant to be a theatrical feature — so the extreme audience-pandering is understandable, even if not forgivable. What we are left with, then, is an interesting test case. Will actors use the freedom of the platform to change their image? (In other words, will Jyotika do a… Raatchasan?) Will they push for better scripts? Or are we just going to keep watching bland "issue" films while munching murukku bought from the local store?