Director: Gautham Vasudev Menon
Cast: Silambarasan TR, Siddhi Idnani, Radikaa Sarathkumar
Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu is most fascinating when you zoom in on the small steps it takes within the gangster movie genre. Written by Jeyamohan, it is as much the coming-of-age story of a helpless Muthu (Silambarasan) from Naduvakurichi as it is about an outsider entering and then making it in the world of crime in Bombay. But the fusion of these two narrative threads are so harmonious that there’s no dissonance between the internal journey of a man destined to a life of crime and the external journey that traverses landscapes and morality, language and time.
A fatalistic approach to Muthu’s destiny is planted in our minds right from the first scene. Having graduated with a bachelors’ degree, Muthu asks the postman if he’s brought the good news of a job letter. In the arid thorn bushes that Muthu calls home, a job is the safest escape route. But instead of an appointment letter, the postman brings fate in another form when his half-lit beedi burns down all of Muthu’s farmland. Left with the image of a hundred thorns piercing into Muthu’s back, we’re also imagining him as the man who got stabbed in the back by the same parcel of land that’s meant to feed him.
An inescapable feeling of hell surrounds Muthu wherever he goes; an astrologer had warned Muthu’s mother that her son would inevitably become a murderer. It is the same inevitability that finally leads him to Bombay as well. When given the choice between a suitcase full of cash and a pistol, he doesn’t choose the former and it’s as though he doesn’t know why. It’s fate making the first move yet again when we see him reach Bombay without a lot more than a loaded gun. Paraphrasing a line from the film, it’s the gun that chose Muthu and not the other way around.
Muthu’s destiny seems bigger than he is and this is the case with the people inhabiting his new world in Bombay. Every important character we meet here is somewhere along the same journey Muthu has taken. At one end is his boss who predicts an ending at the hands of Muthu. Far closer to the starting line is a character who becomes a mentor; he gives Muthu his first drink and assignment and through him, we see Muthu sensing his own future, at least in terms of a family. Yet it is the character of Sreedharan (Neeraj Madhav) that makes Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu feel like a departure from the gangster films we’ve seen before. The subtext about fate and destiny, doubles down when we see Sreedharan as the mirror image of Muthu, arriving in Bombay on the same day, perhaps on the same train. Their paths keep converging and in the beginning, we sense that it is Sreedharan who got the raw end of the deal. Through Sreedharan, we’re constantly watching another story unfold although the blanks are being filled by us subconsciously. What was until then a story about a man who could not escape his fate, evolves slyly on the side into a parallel story about a man who actually could.
It is a fascinating new direction to take to answer one of the genre’s most repeated questions—can a gangster ever escape the system he/she becomes a part of? In one of the film’s best dialogues, we’re told that people like Muthu are just screws that form a part of a huge machine, without even knowing what the machine does. Despite his best intentions, we see Muthu make the same mistakes his colleagues have made before him. And when the film ends, it gets you to go back and question the high you felt during it’s epic interval sequence. Should the gun have remained where it was? Is that where Muthu crossed the mellisana kodu?
Jeyamohan’s writing is deftly complemented by Gautham Menon’s filmmaking style, especially when the outsider gaze contributes to a feeling of isolation and discomfort in a punishing terrain early on and then in a strange new city. A testament to this is how the film maintains the claustrophobia even when we shift from the stuffy top floor of a parotta shop into the seedier bedrooms of a five-star hotel suite. The consistent use of long takes for action scenes as well as the songs, further unifies the broad themes of a film into one singular vision.
Ironically, for a Gautham Menon movie, it’s the romantic portions that feel off-tone in what is a deep dive into a man’s inner battle with his fate. The conversations between Muthu and Paavai (a slightly out of sync Sidhi Idlani), feels too “woked-up” and eager to prove a point that it feels unnatural and forced. It is when other characters enter this equation that we sense life being breathed into it. An example of this is when we see all of Muthu’s cynicism enter into a hilariously transactional meeting between him and Paavai’s parents.
I was equally indifferent to the staging of ‘Unna Nenachadhum’. Again, with cinematographer Siddhartha Nuni’s single shot, the effect, I assume the makers wanted, is that of a song taking over what looks like a regular conversation between lovers. Without the usual flourishes and choreography, it is as though these lovers are simply speaking to each other in poetry, only for it to “sound” like a song that is playing to the viewer. I experienced a similar indifference to the way Rahman’s wonderful songs were broken down earlier to stitch up different portions early on, even when the film itself isn’t able to create that cohesion. Add these parts to a totally underwhelming sequel bait and you find the stellar portions of the film getting diluted by what felt like afterthoughts.
A major reason why we never feel the full blow of these portions is how STR is able to play Muthu. Even with the film’s limited timeline that spans a few months (not including the epilogue), we see every bit of Muthu transforming from a powerless nobody into a beast who does not want the powers he’s been given. STR gets us to feel the body-ache Muthu feels when we see him limping from place to place in his village. He also gets us to feel the difference when the gait becomes more confident after his transformation. With a perfect return to form for both director and his favourite lead actor, Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu is a film that gives you that rare joy of “rediscovery”. It is that sweet spot you land on when talented artistes reinvent themselves without losing the essence of who they are. It also brings with it the notion that they have lots left in them to offer.