Siddharth has always been a bit of an outlier in Tamil cinema, and in Sivappu Manjal Pachai, you see why. He plays a traffic SI named Rajasekar, and, at first, you think the part is something of an outlier, too. This guy… as this character? But slowly, the chalk outline gets filled in, and you see who he is and why he's chosen to sweat it out on the streets. Siddharth's on-screen persona appears to me the way the actor is on Twitter — there's a dash of arrogance and entitlement and I am better than you — not in a bad way, but in a way that says he is not going to be fake-humble and downplay his opinions and strengths. Rajasekar fuses with what we (or, at least, I) sense of Siddharth in a way that obliterates the line between player and part. (It's the Holy Grail for many an actor; few are fortunate enough to realise it).
Rajasekar gets into an arranged marriage with Raji (Lijomol Jose), and given the apparent difference in class, this doesn't seem like the most obvious pairing the matchmaking system is going to bring about. (There's an exaggerated scene where Rajasekar's family sets out to meet Raji, and the way they react to the neighbourhood is like a bunch of Boat Club residents finding themselves in Kasimedu.) But again, Rajasekar/Siddharth makes you see that the man is like the Arvind Swami character in Roja, someone who says something like "I want to marry a village girl", and genuinely means it. There's a long, messagey speech that Rajasekar delivers in front of his superior. In lesser hands, it would have sounded like a mugged-up "Why I Want to be a Traffic Cop" oration by a fifth-standard student. Siddharth makes the corny lines sing with conviction. And yes, also that arrogance and entitlement and I am better than you — and not in a bad way.
Many filmmakers have acknowledged the importance of casting. John Frankenheimer said, "Casting is 65 per cent of directing." Edward Burns said, "Good filmmaking is 95 per cent good casting." I don't know what percentage Sasi, the writer-director here, attributes to this factor, but his film is one of the best examples of casting in recent times — with the exception of Madhusudhan Rao, who plays the villain like he always plays the villain. In his case alone, it's not casting. It's stereotyping. He's the guy you hire when the script says "look menacing and do menacing things". His introduction scene has him chop someone up with a chainsaw. Who? Why? Nothing matters. It's "menacing". That's all.
In an action drama, which is what Sivappu Manjal Pachai is, the villain usually brings about the conflict — but here, there's also Madhan (GV Prakash Kumar), who likes to bike-race on busy roads. He runs into Rajasekar, who chases and catches him and insults him in public by doing something that (in his view) robs him of his masculinity. That's the start of this conflict. This is the Agni Natchathiram template, given that Raji is Madhan's sister. So Madhan and Rajasekar have to rein in the hate, at least for Raji's sake. This is also the Paasamalar template, given that Madhan and Raji mean everything to each other. (There's a thanks to Majid Majidi in the opening credits, and maybe the brother-sister of Children of Heaven are an inspiration, too.) Their parents are gone, and there's just an aunt ('Nakkalites' Dhanam, who's another fabulous instance of casting). 'Ivan thambi paadhi, thanthai meedhi' goes a song — but unlike the Sivaji Ganesan-Savitri bond, there's no saintliness, here. GV Prakash Kumar is perfect as someone who's confused about this whole adulting thing. I was shocked when he fired a shot at his brother-in-law. But, you see it's more about his frustration that things aren't turning out the way he wants. He's a man-child. He wants to be there for his sister (like a man) but he sulks like a child because she chose Rajasekar. I'm half-kidding, but it's probably a good thing he doesn't have access to that chainsaw.
Raji's love for her brother is tempered by her practicality. She sees that Rajasekar is a good man. Sasi writes very good combination scenes for the many characters, which bring out nice shades. There's one between Rajasekar and Raji. There's one between Rajasekar and his mother, which shows how his understanding of gender politics is not much better than Madhan's. There's one between Raji and Kavin (Kashmira Pardeshi, one of those rare milky-faced imports who isn't a bland emoticon, and manages to seem like a real person). As the rope in the tug-of-war between Rajasekar and Madhan, Lijomol Jose is fantastic. It's not something hugely histrionic she does. It's just how she looks, how she comes across, how unfussily she puts across the character of a girl next door. Again, casting. Sasi likes his Paasamalar-era sentimental "touches", and there's an eyeroll of a touch towards the end that involves Raji's dupatta — but the earlier touch involving a couple of shirts hung out to dry is awww-some. Raji is just that kind of person, and Lijomol Jose has this way of making you feel less of a cynic. With another actor, I might have laughed out loud at this "touch".
Sasi has never been much of a technical director (he's more a writer) — but there's some tight framing, and a lot of the staging is surprisingly dynamic, especially in a blow-up in a restaurant and an action stretch set amidst wild reeds. (Prasanna Kumar is the cinematographer, and I think the DI colourist, too, deserves some credit for the mood.) I wish the writing had been as consistently elegant. As in Agni Natchathiram, I wish the villain had been integral to the family infighting, and I wished Raji had more of a part to play. But usually, when two men fight over a woman, it's a love triangle. Sivappu Manjal Pachai, though, isn't about the triangle. It's about love. There's a nice line from Rajasekar (and it's something Sanal Kumar Sasidharan keeps saying in his interviews): that love can be a form of oppression ("Anbungara perla adhigaaram pannrom…"). The story may revolve around the men, but it's still about the woman. That's not half-bad.