Director: Ranjit Jeyakodi
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Gayathrie, Ramesh Thilak, Arjunan
Vijay Sethupathi is such a star today (I can still hear the whistles from his sensational introduction scene in Vikram Vedha) that it’s hard to believe he was once just a fresh-faced actor. The Vijay Sethupathi from those days — younger, slimmer — is whom we see in the long-in-the-making Puriyaatha Puthir (A Mystifying Puzzle), where he plays a music director with eclectic tastes. His walls are plastered with pictures of Western Classical composers, Jimi Hendrix and the album cover for Laakhon Mein Ek, K Balachander’s Hindi remake of Ethir Neechal, for which RD Burman scored the music. Kathir seems as offbeat as the actor playing him.
He falls for a music teacher named Meera (Gayathrie), and though these early romantic scenes are pure cliche, Sethupathi is so into them that he makes you wonder what his career might have been like had he chosen a more conventional route like his Vikram Vedha co-star. I smiled at his little pretend-sulk when Meera won’t invite him to her flat for a cup of coffee. Had Gayathrie been into these scenes as much as her co-star (she’s too stiff), they may not have seemed like cliches at all. But slowly, the what-might-have-been questions cease to matter — for the film transforms into a thriller.
Like Lens earlier this year, Puriyaatha Puthir is a retribution-themed cyber thriller, with the cell-phone camera wreaking as much havoc as a serial killer in a different kind of movie. The first victim is Kathir’s friend, whose affair with a married woman is exposed. Then, another friend is caught on camera during a drug bust. Worse, provocative pictures of Meera begin to pop up on Kathir’s phone.
Puriyaatha Puthir could have used more atmosphere, but the bigger problem is that of pace. The film isn’t tight enough, tense enough. The inevitable motive-explaining, second-half flashback puts the brakes on a narrative that’s just picked up speed.
What has all of this got to do with the woman who, in the film’s opening scene, jumped off a building? Who is the character played by Ramesh Thilak? (I mean, really. Who is he?) How can the perpetrator be at such proximity to these events, always, that he comes off with such plum footage? And why does Meera insist on a door delivery of the red violin she orders from Kathir’s store?
An early scene in a bar serves up a herring the colour of that violin. Kathir’s pals tell him that nothing is a crime until you get caught. They add that life becomes more interesting when one veers from the norm, as when (shades of Vaali) you begin to lust after your brother’s wife. At the end, we get another set of messages. We look the other way when bad things happen to strangers. It’s only when things happen to the ones we love that we suffer. These lines are, as always, an annoyance — as though a film cannot be meaningful until a character nutshells it into a thesis statement (or three).
But the director, Ranjit Jeyakodi, invokes Chan-Wook Park and Roman Polanski, and he keeps you watching. Dinesh Krishnan’s camera keeps finding ways to disorient us — sometimes, a tad too flashily — and we get a sense of what it’s like to be stalked. A lot of the story takes place in and around the apartment complex Meera lives in — it’s a masterstroke. So many pairs of eyes watching, so much more loss of privacy.
The kinkiness extends to the romantic portions, which at first glance, seem innocuous. In what appears to be just an exchange of “cute” sms-es, Kathir asks what’s Meera’s favourite dress. “School uniform,” she replies. He asks if she’ll wear it for him. Then, he asks if she’ll appear without it. She smiles — and from here, it’s just a short step to the scene where Kathir is the one flashing the world in a raincoat.
Puriyaatha Puthir could have used more atmosphere, but the bigger problem is that of pace. The film isn’t tight enough, tense enough. The inevitable motive-explaining, second-half flashback puts the brakes on a narrative that’s just picked up speed. And I groaned when the director (who also wrote the film) resorted to that most tired screenplay device: a diary. A major question pops up. So characters who seemed to meet in the present already knew each other in the past? And one of them doesn’t remember?
But the film remains watchable. At least, it makes you want to know the who-what-why behind the mysterious happenings. And at a time we’ve just received a landmark privacy judgement, these events remind us of how compromised we all are, how easily lives can fall apart even due to the most innocent videos. I enjoyed the big reveal. I didn’t see it coming. But the film’s best scene occurs after Kathir receives a clip of Meera caught undressing. He goes to lodge a complaint with the police. But at the station, he realises, that like the rest of the world, these men in khaki are voyeurs too, licking their lips at the prospect of viewing the “evidence.” Just whom do you turn to?
Watch the trailer of Puriyaatha Puthir here: