Director: Dhana Sekaran
Cast: Radhika Sarathkumar, Sarathkumar, Aishwarya Rajesh, Madonna Sebastian, Vikram Prabhu
Dhana's first film, Padaiveeran, was about a village wastrel who becomes a cop, but then discovers—to his dismay—that he has to stop the caste-based violence unleashed by members of his own family. The film ended with a strong message, but it had little else. Vaanam Kottattum, the director's follow-up, is, in the end, a "message movie", too—but this time, the (small) sermon is built up to. In fact, for the longest time, the screenplay (by Dhana and Mani Ratnam), makes you wonder where it is headed and what its focus is. I mean this in a good way, because most of the stories we see are woven around a single protagonist and most of the time, we know what turns his trajectory will take. (It's almost always a "he".) But for one, Vaanam Kottattum doesn't even have a protagonist.
You could say it has… protagonists. You could take this to be the story of Bose (Sarath Kumar), who murders two men and spends 14 years in a Madurai prison. He reenters the outside world, hoping to resume his life, but while his wife, Chandra (Raadhika), is happy to have him back, his son and daughter—Selva (Vikram Prabhu), Mangai (Aishwarya Rajesh)—want nothing to do with him. When he went to jail, they were children. Now, all grown up, they barely recognise this greying man, and even seem ashamed that they have a father with this kind of history. Chandra brought them to Chennai hoping that the city would leach from them the bloodlust of the village. Her plan seems to have worked.
So Vaanam Kottattum is basically Bose's journey. If you do a one-line narration, it would come off like he is, after all, the protagonist —and that this is the story of how he wins over his children. Why, then, does Bose come off like a supporting character? Because the screenplay takes scenic detours and gives everyone their own arc. This is the kind of film where even Selva's love interest, Preetha (Madonna Sebastian), has an arc. She could have been just a super-rich loosu ponnu who comes and goes, and we probably wouldn't have minded too much—but she gets a very detailed (and very tragic) backstory, and that's what leads Selva to fall for her.
If it takes a long time for Selva to think of Preetha in a romantic manner, it's because he has his own arc to negotiate, and it has nothing to do with love. He wants to establish a fruit-selling business in Koyambedu—and this, again, is dealt with in great detail. A kinda-sorta love triangle around Mangai (with Shanthanu Bhagyaraj and Amitash playing the vertices) is formed because Selva wants to expand his business. (You might say even the business gets its own arc.) This isn't to say the women, here, are just hanging around, waiting to be wooed. Mangai is a partner in her brother's business, Chandra works in a printing press, Preetha tries to salvage her father's industrial empire…
At every step during the writing, you get a sense of: How do we break this cliché? Early in the film, there's a gruesome killing, but we do not see the victims. Preetha Jayaraman's camera, instead, stays on two little boys, whose faces are splattered with blood. You expect these boys to grow up thirsting for revenge, and that does happen, but in an unexpected way. Let me just say it's not a conventionally sane depiction of action/consequence. A similar expectation of "piravi gunam" comes into play when Chandra fears Selva may turn into a hothead like his father — but another cliché is averted. Even Chandra's tough life is depicted with empathy, but without melodrama and sentimentality. Note the scene where she fends off a sexual assault. We are not invited to applaud her. We are not instructed to feel sorry for her. We are simply asked to see one of the many things it takes to be a single mother.
The most generous character arc in Vaanam Kottattum is that of Bose's older brother, magnificently played by the director Balaji Sakthivel. Someone who could have been relegated to the periphery of the story—and the story would have still worked—becomes its heart and soul. In other words, he is a protagonist, too. He takes care of Chandra when his brother is in prison, and you are really with him when he tells Selva-Mangai that their sibling relationship is nothing compared to the depth of feeling that exists between him and Bose. But I wished the other set of brothers (the potential "villains") had had some colour, other than the neon-reds that keep falling on one of them. They are too flat to make the climactic eruption seem worth the build-up.
The weakest portions of Vaanam Kottattum are the romantic stretches. One, they feel tacked on. (With so much story happening, you always feel you'd rather be elsewhere.) Moreover, they don't get the "arc" the dramatic portions do. The Shanthanu Bhagyaraj and Amitash characters barely register. The point where (and the manner in which) Selva reveals he has feelings for Preetha feels horribly inappropriate. I am also not a fan of Mani Ratnam's recent style of opting for full-blown songs instead of a regular (i.e. instrumental) background score. The songs by Sid Sriram work as montage fillers, but when they are set against actual scenes, they become very distracting. The scenes acquire a glib music-video feel.
But another recent Mani Ratnam feature (from Kadal onwards, I think) I am quite the fan of: the propulsive screenplay, where the scenes are smaller than usual, but the sprawl is bigger. Characters collide with each other in unusual ways. The segues happen in unusual ways. A moving chat between Chandra and her mother-in-law acquires a sinister edge by the end, when a third character makes his presence felt — and when this sort of thing keeps happening, there is a larger sense of interconnectedness even when the smaller connections aren't immediately obvious, and even when the duration of the scenes doesn't allow full-blown emotions to register. When Selva discovers how his father has helped his business, we feel his emotion (in the head) even when we don't see it (or sense it, in the heart).
The only real issue with such a sprawling screenplay—or rather, a screenplay that follows multiple character arcs instead of a single protagonist—is that some of the immediate emotional connect goes missing. (I would have liked more scenes with Bose and his children.) But that's why you hire these actors. Everyone is good and it's nice to see what Vikram Prabhu can do in a solid part, but Sarath Kumar is the revelation. Or maybe that's the wrong word, for he has always embodied what he does here: outsized virility, with the simultaneous ability to convey tenderness. And such screen presence, too! Why he hasn't had the "mass" career he should have had is possibly one of Tamil cinema's great mysteries.