Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Selvaraghavan
Director: Arun Matheswaran
“Pazhi vaangardhunna enna,” (what is revenge?) asks Ponni (a terrific Keerthy Suresh) earlier on in Arun Matheswaran’s Saani Kaayidham. The film from there is an elaborate, inventive and improvising answer to that very question.
Ponni is a police constable, belonging to an oppressed caste, in the coastal village of Paradesapattinam. When her husband asserts his political ambitions and self-respect, oppressor caste men brutally rape Ponni and set her house on fire with her husband and teenage daughter inside. Through the course of Saani Kaayidham, she, along with her half-brother Sangaiyya (Selvaraghavan), seeks revenge.
The standout thing about the film is its craft. Saani Kaayidham is an exquisitely cinematographed film, with Yamini Yagnamurthy displaying immense control. The extreme wide shots kindle as much awe as emptiness. The close-ups are designed to shake the viewer, and shake it does. The perspective shots are discomfiting — do we really want to see the world as Ponni and Sangaiyya see it?
The auditory juxtapositions are also eerie — sound design by Sachin Sudhakaran and Hariharan M, audiography by Vinay Sridhar. At one point, we hear Ponni and Sangaiyya talk about burning a lawyer alive. All we see is Sangaiyya walking to another room and lighting his beedi. In the background, we hear a human being set on fire. We instinctively imagine the burning human body, and it sends chills down our spine. Arun Matheswaran finds dozens of such ways to make us experience the violence.
Nagooran Ramachandran edits with a light hand — the intent of the film is to make the audience experience and perhaps even inhale the depths of violence. Sam CS adds to the eerie discomfort of the film with a mixed bag of a background score. Underlining gruesome murder with ‘malarndhum malaraadha’ is almost stomach-churning.
Keerthy Suresh is terrific as Ponni. She is in complete control of her performance of pain, grief and fury. The scene where she is crying in anger and then violently wipes her tears as she turns her wrath at herself for crying is one for the ages — a quick movement of her hand, a million emotions to show. She looks several leagues above her costars, including Selvaraghavan, who does his best. To watch her do this with the effortlessness that would betray most veterans is a gratifying realisation.
Yet Saani Kaayidham is not an easy film to watch. There is a warning right at the beginning to that effect. “Extreme violence”, it is described as. Though I’m unsure that phrase does justice to what we’re about to see. “Blood and gore” wouldn’t cut it either, because there is more than just that. Sickles are lined with speckles of flesh. The sounds of crushing bones and burning bodies are always in the foreground. The viscerality of acid being poured on the human body is palpable, even if we don’t see the skin burn.
Arun Matheswaran is enthralled by this level of violence. He does his best not to gloat in it. He attempts to focus on emotion instead of violence. For instance, there is a scene in which Ponni murders a man tied up in the back of a Matador van. The frame only captures her. We see her punch — of course, we hear the breaking bones — and pour acid, her emotions going from anger to rage to madness to emptiness. This scene is about Ponni’s feelings.
Yet, two-thirds of the film is filled with intricately shot violence. After a point, the wafer-thin storyline gives way to the indulgent staging of murders. As the film moved forward, the gruesomeness of the murders escalate. Arun Matheswaran breaks them with chapter titles, some sharp commentary like “Oru Ponni, Oru Saabam, Oru Samudhaayam” (Ponni, A Curse, A Society); others just stoic observations like “The Matador Murders.” After a point, Saani Kaayidham is a lesson on how many ways to kill a person.
That is not to say that the writing is flimsy. It isn’t. Even within the mindlessness of the violence, Arun Matheswaran finds space to unnerve the audience with philosophical questions. He taunts us with moral dilemmas even within the anarchic revenge saga — how to kill a disabled teenage boy if you suspect him of being a rapist? What should another teenage boy have experienced for him to become a willing party to the violent act?
That doesn’t mean that the writing is strong either. It’s enough to prevent the film from becoming clumsy, but not enough to rise beyond its visual mastery. Arun Matheswaran plunges the depths of human depravity in Saani Kaayidham — a noble feat in itself. Yet, the film feels as empty as the endeavour of revenge it traces.