Cast: Suresh Ravi, Raveena Ravi, Mime Gopi
At first, I thought Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban — presented by Vetri Maaran — was a psycho-thriller: as in, a thriller with a “psycho” killer on the loose. Look at the signs. There’s a captive, moaning in unimaginable pain. There’s the position this captive is found in, something that feels almost fetishistic. There’s the pair of handcuffs. There’s the sickly yellow glare that surrounds this captive. There are the signs of dust and disuse all around, which suggest we are somewhere far from civilisation. Slowly, we see that this evaluation of the film may not be too off the mark. We are still in a psycho-thriller: as in, a psychological thriller. And the foundation of the drama that plays out is one of the pillars of civilisation as we know it today: the police force that’s meant to keep society in good health, failing which there’s only anarchy.
The irony of this fine film — and that “friendly”, reassuring title — is that the anarchy is unleashed by this very force. But first, let’s get done with the underwhelming opening stretch, aka the hero-heroine introduction scenarios. He’s Prabhu (Suresh Ravi), who delivers food for a Swiggy-type service. She’s his wife Indu (Raveena Ravi). They live in a largish house, but then maybe it’s due to her corporate job. In such a stretch, you’d want to see how two seemingly disparate types fell in love. Instead, we see them being in love, through silly scenes and songs. If you are the kind who judges films by their first 20-odd minutes (I am), you’d be forgiven for sighing and expecting more of the same. Nine times out of 10, the first 20-odd minutes are a dead giveaway of the kind of film that lies ahead. Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban, written and directed by RDM, is the tenth time, the rare exception.
Things get interesting when thieves steal Indu’s chain. She’s also molested. And then things get really interesting. Prabhu is stopped by patrol police and a battle of egos is set in motion. Prabhu represents the hot-headed youth. He’s the kind of guy who, if stopped by cops for no reason, will ask: “What have I done? Why should I pay a bribe? What’s your station? I will put this news out on Twitter…” And Kannabiran (a very effective Mime Gopi) represents the once-powerful System that people like Prabhu don’t fear that much anymore. And he makes it his mission to instill that fear in Prabhu (and in us) again. After a while, this cat-and-mouse “game”, if you will, gets positively chilling. There’s a point where Prabhu almost escapes his predicament. I was holding my breath.
Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban plays like Visaranai from another POV. (It’s even shot in the same police station.) If Vetri Maaran’s best film was about the common man getting sucked into a pitiless System for no fault of his own, RDM’s psycho-thriller is about what could happen if you intentionally fuck with the System, if you try to play the Hero. Is it a cautionary tale? Does it say that we should all shut up and accept the status quo, forking out a bribe as opposed to standing up against injustice? That may not be the director’s intention, but that is likely to be the takeaway for most of us middle-class folks, who dread confrontation (and the resulting mental torture). I. Could. Not. Imagine. Being. In. Prabhu’s. Shoes.
The film isn’t perfect. The budget issues (and that opening stretch) apart, there are some dialogues that are too on-the-nose. Some of these come from a good cop, Murugesan (Super Good Subramani). The performances are functional. But the clarity in the director’s vision and the utter sincerity in his storytelling make it very easy to get past these issues. There’s a lot of rock-solid writing, especially in a flashback that explains why Kannabiran let Prabhu leave. But every time you think the worst is behind Prabhu, a new horror erupts. After what seems like ages, I watched a film that’s genuinely unpredictable, and not in a gimmicky way. My favourite touch? It’s the bit where Indu and the men who robbed her are present at the station at the same time. As I said: unpredictable. This is an auspicious start, and it’s going to be interesting to see where RDM goes from here.