Director: Vignesh Raja
Writers: Alfred Prakash and Vignesh Raja
Cast: Sarath Kumar, Ashok Selvan and Nikhila Vimal
You don’t need to quote too many scenes from Vignesh Rajan’s killer first film to explain the control he has over the craft. In what could easily have been reduced to another template serial-killer thriller, he’s able to convert mundane police work to the status of a thrilling mega event. The scene I have in mind in one in which a regular police constable asks a suspect for an alibi. It’s set at a railway crossing and the questioning involves something as rudimentary as “which movie did you go for at this time?” On the surface, everything is plain and simple yet the nervousness we feel comes from what remains unsaid. All the characters here know exactly what’s happening yet not a word can be taken on face value.
This scene doesn’t just work because it’s being lifted by Jakes Bejoy’s stellar score alone. It has been edited in a way that we’re subconsciously counting down the seconds because we know the train is about to pass and that time is running out. The red light from the railway signal falls on the two main characters, adding a layer of intensity the colour red brings to the table and when the scene is over, the signal turns green, deflating the tension. So many tiny details have gone into this scene that you remain with it even when the film moves on. When we think about it again, you kinda, sorta realise how it isn’t all that important in the larger scheme of things, yet the ride was so much fun that you’ve already become the film’s advocate.
This is generally the feeling the film leaves you with because it doesn’t give you the space to think about the few loose ends it doesn’t tie together. The trick is also in the way that it operates in the spirit of a triumphant sports drama. With a working mentor-mentee relationship holding it together, you feel a real connection with its two leads Prakash (Ashok Selvan) and his senior Loganathan (Sarath Kumar). The latter is tough, unsentimental and tired from decades of service. Prakash, though, is the antithesis. In an ideal world, he is someone who should have ended up joining an edtech/fintech startup, located somewhere on OMR. He is young, geeky and many Slack messages away from the idea of a masculine Tamil movie cop.
But when they work together, you get the yin and yang of both street smartness and book smartness. And in a scene in which a team of officers look around for a prospective undercover officer who looks nothing like a cop, the camera hilariously rests on our clean-shaven hero Prakash. The contrast, at least in the beginning, gives you the feeling that Loganathan is fundamentally underwritten and one-note. His expressions remain unchanged and there’s almost nothing you know about him or his history. But by the time we get the full picture, we’ve understood why Loganathan is the way he is and it didn’t even require an elaborate sob story to take us there (just one “back” shot).
This isn’t to say that the film’s writing is as consistent as its making. In fact the writing in Por Thozhil, can be as fascinating as it can be frustrating. Fascinating because the screenplay always feels like it is two steps ahead of you. Just when you feel you’ve thought of every possibility, we get a detour that is both plausible as well as entertaining. Even when you apply the logic of narrative tools like a red herring to understand how the film’s diverting our attention, you also get how they’ve subverted it in some clever way. In one case, this includes dividing a series of crimes into two different time periods and in another, you see how the film has already planted perfectly obvious clues which we didn’t notice properly.
In other instances, the frustration comes from the thin lines connecting one event to another. Early on, we get a very generic dialogue explaining the connection between a major suspect and an old officer. If this was a mini series, that kind of a revelation would require half an episode to get us there. But in Por Thozhil, when we see Loganathan land up at a doorstep, the only logic we’re applying to remain hooked is “Loganathan must have some of sort of a Raghavan instinct”. You also do not feel fully convinced later on when the actions of one suspect is connected to that of another. Again, you feel a limited series would have been the ideal home for such writing choices. Without the space to elaborate or the rationale to justify it, they remain convenient writing choices we overlook because the filmmaking is just so damn good.
Apart from such decisions, the only other misstep comes in the form of a message being forced into a film that did not require one. The idea itself is cool and it’s meant to underline the thin line separating the mind of a dreaded criminal and a masterful police officer. But by trying to make sure this point does not get lost as subtext, Por Thozhil marks it with uncharacteristic melodrama, a rare instance where you feel something’s out of place.
Without a single dull moment, though, Por Thozhil is always engaging, especially when we see two brains and two styles of investigations taking place at once. Apart from the thrill, it is also a film that leaves you with one question: did we also just watch a study on the changing notions of Tamil masculinity, with one archetype of a police officer, making way for the new, younger one?