Viduthalai Part 1 Review: Reasonably Low-Impact For Vetri Maaran, But Still A Brutal Film

Viduthalai remains the rare instance in a Vetri Maaran movie where you do not have to take a disciplined, conscious effort to wash away the chilling imagery
Viduthalai Part 1
Viduthalai Part 1Film Companion Review

Director: Vetri Maaran

Writers: Jayamohan (novel "Thunaivan"), Vetri Maaran

Cast: Soori, Vijay Sethupathi, Prakash Raj, Gautham Vasudev Menon

The sprawling single-shot opening stretch of Vetri Maaran’s Viduthalai is one that needs to be watched and re-watched. We’re pushed so uncomfortably close to a train wreck that the devastation is not just in front of us but it’s all around. Without a predictable geographic trail, camera movement is disorienting from the ground up to a bridge and into the few remaining compartments of the bombed train as bodies pile up and severed limbs jolt us into attention. It takes a whole 10 minutes for the camera to zoom back to learn the magnitude with the safe distance of watching another terrorist attack on another front page. The shock is intentional because there’s no way we can move ahead without feeling deep hatred for those who orchestrated this injustice. 

The opportunity to fight this injustice is what gives Kumaresan’s (an unbelievably good Soori) new assignment the idealism he needs to operate. Because an idealist is a word you’d throw up even in the most basic reading of a man like him. Kumaresan has joined a police outpost guarding the forest from these rebel forces who are said to have bombed the railway line and he’s replacing another officer who was killed on duty. This little detail is new information but he accepts it as though the challenge makes his job even more meaningful and we too soon see the forest through the same idealist eyes of Kumaresan, at least in the beginning. So when he’s punished for his efforts for saving the life of a dying woman, even if she’s from across enemy lines, he’d rather accept the punishment than admit to himself that he’d taken the easy way out. 

Kumaresan’s innocence gives Viduthalai a force that makes its terrain far more real and unnerving. Although he enters this world as an outsider, sporting the rose-tinted glasses of someone brought up on the glories of the police force, he goes through a baptism by fire as he’s able to witness reality from a vantage point. The theme of a vantage point recurs not just in the form of visuals, with drone shots showing us how tiny these people appear in the endless forests but Kumaresan too finds himself being asked to man the watch tower. At first, this duty is just one more punishment, like how he’s being asked to clean the toilets. But it takes until the final shoot-out for one to understand how Kumaresan has remained at a metaphorical vantage point throughout, in clear view of not just what’s in front, but also what’s hidden. 

This is an aspect to Kumaresan that allows us to draw parallels between him and Perumal (Vijay Sethupathi), the leader of the Makkal Padai who is also very much the enemy of the State. Chances are that Kumaresan too would have become a leader like Perumal or his follower if circumstances were any different. This also gives the invisible relationship between Perumal and Murugesan a layer of mutual respect for each other, even if they’ve been destined to be enemies.

The breaking up of their story into two parts allows for the first film to be entirely functional as Kumaresan’s loss of innocence, from an obedient government servant to someone who is being forced to question the system he was devoted to. It also gives the film a certain softness because the story of individuals impacts us more than a conflict as broad as the State taking on a rebel group/revolutionaries. In fact, Kumaresan’s love story with Tamilarasi (Bhavani Sree) becomes a bridge between the two worlds showing us how love is still the strongest form of diplomacy.

While it remains a complete film in this respect, you also sense it lacking in the kind of impact we’ve been conditioned to brace ourselves for in Vetri Maaran’s films. At the outset, apart from Kumaresan’s voiceovers to his mother and the relationship with Tamilarasi, we’re often kept at a distance with the other major events within the film. Despite a majority of the film getting set within the police camp, one wishes we could see Kumaresan develop a relationship with at least one other officer there. Which means that even when we witness the graphic death of an officer who is just like Kumaresan, we know nothing about him except that he’s another police officer. Similarly, when we understand the equation between Kumaresan and a senior who functions like a mole for the rebel group, we’re hoping the dynamic develops into a full-blown conflict, the kind Karuppu (Dhanush) experiences with Pettaikaran in Aadukalam

Even if we get past individual relationships, the graphic nature of violence too does not create the bone-chilling empathy Vetri was able to create for his protagonists in Visaranai. On paper, the events are far more visceral in Viduthalai, including a stretch in which fingernails are clipped one after another and a longish episode in which a dozen women are stripped naked as a ploy to capture Perumal. Yet one wonders if the blow is lesser felt because Vetri chooses to intercut this with a huge action set-piece. And with the real details set to appear in the second film, we’re expected to hold on to this injustice at face value with the police remaining the bad guys for the most part, asking us to wait until later for the greyer details.  

The second half too had stretches that could remove you almost entirely from the film. A second love song between Kumaresan and Tamilarasi does the biggest damage even when we’ve already gathered all the feelings we need for them to feel the impact of what’s coming. Instead of providing us with a moment of calm, there is an ominous undercurrent that can only signal an incoming tragedy. 

All of these contribute to making Viduthalai a better precursor than an event in itself. With the first part dropping us straight into an unfamiliar terrain and with the battle lines drawn up clearly, we’ve been primed for innocence to make way for full-blown implosion (the film easily has the most exciting intro into the second part). But at the place at which we’re left at, Viduthalai remains the rare instance in a Vetri Maaran movie where you do not have to take a disciplined, conscious effort to wash away the chilling imagery. It’s still a powerful film but it’s arguably the only time a film of his did not feel like a punch to your gut.     

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