Cast: R Madhavan, Vijay Sethupathi, Shraddha Srinath, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar
The latter half of the title of Pushkar-Gayatri’s Vikram Vedha belongs to the gangster played by Vijay Sethupathi. Even before we set eyes on him – and it’s a while into the movie before he swaggers in – he’s something of a legend. Cops speak in awe of the time he leapt from the first floor of a building, knife in hand, and sliced through a man’s head. And when news gets around that he has surfaced, it feels like Satan himself has emerged from his underground lair.
An ordinary masala movie would pit a god against this demon – and indeed, the first half of the title (R Madhavan) does come across like the scourge of evil, a saviour. He’s an encounter cop, but he’s able to sleep guiltlessly because he’s convinced the men he’s pumping bullets into are bad men who deserve to die. But slowly, the paint starts peeling away. Rather, the colour of his tees undergo a change. During the first meeting of Vikram and Vedha, the former is in white, the latter in black. By their last meeting, Vikram is in grey. He knows now that it isn’t a clear-cut line between good and evil.
The notion that cops and gangsters are but two sides of the same coin isn’t new: Michael Mann’s Heat is a brilliant exploration of how a cop who thinks he is doing good may be more messed up than the gangster. But Pushkar-Gayatri have decided to tell their story through the prism of the Vikram/Vetaal folklore – hence the title. The film opens with an animated stretch with the king Vikram high up in his castle, and soon, in pursuit of the vampire Vetaal, he plunges deep into a lake, a metaphorical hell. The creature latches onto his back and begins to narrate stories that are the old-world answer to a grey T-shirt: there’s a moral conundrum at the end.
This, in short, is the film. In a shot in a jeep, Vedha, who’s seated behind Vikram, quite literally appears to be on Vikram’s back. And boy, does he tell stories. Structurally speaking, this is a terrific idea. Each of Vedha’s stories is used to launch a flashback, and in addition to reshaping Vikram’s notions of morality, each of them provides clues to crack the case, find out what Vedha is up to and why.
As characters, I didn’t buy a second of Vikram or Vedha. The latter is more a conceit, a wise-beyond-his-years agent of learning. Pushkar-Gayatri have no patience with filmy clichés, so when someone close to Vedha dies, we don’t see him weeping in frustration, seething with rage. He’s a Zen killer, more Zen than killer. After narrating his first story, he tells Vikram, “Idhu Vedha-va pathi illa, dharmathai pathi.” (This is not about Vedha. This is about dharma.) If he got himself a shave and ditched the gun, you’d find him under a Bodhi tree.
And Vikram transforms into a rapt disciple, holding on to his every word. The writer-directors themselves must have been unconvinced about this, for more than once, a character asks Vikram about his fascination with Vedha. King Vikram was forced to hear Vetaal out because if he didn’t, his head would shatter into a thousand pieces. This Vikram’s reason simply seems to be “the screenplay told me so.”
It’s a testament to the leading men that we don’t burst out laughing by the time the Vikram-Vedha relationship morphs into something out of a Hollywood buddy-cop movie. Madhavan’s is a part he can play in his sleep, but the actor is wide awake – he makes Vikram a cocky cowboy cop whose eyes are slowly clouded by doubt. And Vijay Sethupathi is fantastic, tossing away crowd-pleasing lines in the most casual fashion. Part of the fun of the film is watching these actors play off each other – in terms of acting styles, in terms of the “class” versus “mass” image, everything.
The women are more real. Vikram’s wife Priya (Shraddha Srinath) is a lawyer, and one of her cases introduces a moral dilemma in the household – something that isn’t explored as much as I’d have liked. And Varalaxmi Sarathkumar plays Chandra, who loves Vedha’s brother Pulli (Kathir). Their single scene together made me smile. He slaps her. She’s startled for a second, then she slaps him back. She’s no pushover. Chandra is also the most convincingly written character. Something she does when handed a bagful of cash harks back to how, as a child, she was similarly swayed by the prospect of easy money.
For the longest time, we get tired gangster-movie tropes. A loved one who says, “Give up this job. Let’s go away and do something else.” Or the “you killed one of my people, now I’m killing one of yours.” You’re two steps ahead. You think a character is going to die; he does. And the attempts at character-building are fleeting, like when Vikram’s black-or-white worldview is explained by a line about his father, also a cop, who had no use for shades of grey. The thrills we expect from the genre are absent.
Which leads me to wonder if, beneath the gangster-movie veneer, Vikram Vedha isn’t really a neo-noir puzzle, a series of jigsaw pieces that come together only by the end. For I liked the film more when I was thinking back about it than while I was sitting through it. A character is given the Biblical name of Simon, and, like the Simon of the Bible, he has a son named Alexander. He gets a Biblical quote as well, about the “sins of the father” that we slowly realise isn’t as throwaway a line as we thought it was.
The actual throwaway lines are a lot of fun. Pushkar-Gayatri’s first two films were comedies of some sort, and that playfulness seeps into the snappy dialogue here. Before an encounter, Vikram tells his men, “Boys, odambula ottai vizhaama paathukkunga.” (See that you don’t end up with holes.) The music, though, takes itself very seriously. CS Sam produces a good album (Nee pogaadhey is just lovely), but his score is deafening, and it drowns out a lot of the dialogue.
And thanks to cinematographer PS Vinod, there isn’t one uninteresting frame. As in noir, we get a lot of light and shadow play. When two men talk in the first floor of a building, the camera is just below, at an angle, so the windows above them seem to be fanning out under the sky. Another conversation is staged through the bars of a window, with the wall blacking out an entire half of the frame. A gang war, set on a beach, begins with what looks like a freeze frame – just two sets of enemies, and the sea behind them. At least in this respect, the answer to whether Vikram Vedha is worth watching is a resounding yes.