Director: Vignesh Shivn
Cast: Suriya, Keerthy Suresh, Ramya Krishnan, Thambi Ramaiah
Thaanaa Serndha Koottam is a remake of Neeraj Pandey's Special 26, which was about a group of con artists who conduct raids pretending to be CBI officials and saunter away with the loot. If you've seen the original, the question — given the general air of moral uprightness that surrounds the Tamil-film hero — is whether they'll retain the gleeful sense of amorality around the crimes. Short answer: they don't. In an early scene, we see the character played by Suriya being interviewed for a CBI job in the Economic Offences department. (Wait for the Sasikala joke in the second half!) When asked about his interest in this particular division, he replies with an earnest punchline: "Podhaikka vaendiyadhu ponatha… panatha illa!"
And this tone nudges the film from a cheeky heist thriller into a Shankar movie, albeit a light-hearted one. In the latter, this kind of line builds up the character, whose intensity taps into our own grievances about the System — we urge the damaged hero to become a vigilante on our behalf. Thaanaa Serndha Koottam doesn't want to dig that deep. There's a ton of humour, beginning with Anandraj's "mind voice," and the director Vignesh Shivn actually winks at the Shankar flashback within the construct of a Shankar flashback. (We expect tragedy. We get comedy. Then, we get the tragedy.) So the heavy-handed messages — especially towards the end — and the naalu paerukku philosophy (from Nayakan, invoked here) don't fit. I was thankful that at least the Enge endru povadhu number wasn't used in its entirety. Thoughts this existential have no business being in a film that just wants to entertain.
But entertain, this film does — in a very different register. The key to Special 26 was the emphasis on a quiet kind of realism, which offset the preposterous turns in the narrative. Vignesh Shivn mass-ifies the original. He transforms a (relatively) character-driven screenplay into something more hero-centric. The mega action-block ending is a mistake, but elsewhere, the director does many things right. (He's so alert to comic possibility that you wonder why he hasn't made an all-out comedy.) When our gang moves to Hyderabad, we laugh at their confusion in the midst of Telugu and Hindi speakers. Even the completely needless Peela number (aka Let's Give Heroine Keerthy Suresh Something To Do) doesn't appear as much of a speed-breaker, given the affectionate nod to the garish AVM sets from the 1980s.
That's the era Thaanaa Serndha Koottam is set in, and the nostalgia is irresistible — from the now-extinct Wellington theatre to the presence of Sudhakar and Karthik (in an underwritten role as a "theriyaadha villain") to the giant hoardings that were once a fixture outside Tarapore Towers. But there's more. The film opens with an interview, where an MA MPhil candidate is applying for a clerk's post. The Varumayin Niram Sivappu poster outside isn't just an empty time-period signifier. This scenario (overqualified interviewee, dumb interview) is exactly what that film was about.
The first half-hour is filled with fantastic energy, the standouts being two colourful and wonderfully choreographed Anirudh chartbusters. (His background score, though, is intrusive. It eats into the dialogue, though this has probably more to do with the sound department.) The pace dips subsequently, but the actors — Ramya Krishnan, Thambi Ramaiah (who, for a change, isn't asked to overplay) — help us hang on, and Suriya is in particularly good form. The role is not exactly a stretch, but few heroes are as charming when playing shamelessly to the gallery. He even gamely takes shots at his height and his most famous role (the cop that roars). After Theeran Adhigaram Ondru and this film, let's hope it's a new era for big stars. We're not really asking for art films; just engaging commercial films where the screenplay is more than just an excuse for four fights and five songs.