Cast: Dhanush, Aishwarya Rajesh, Andrea Jeremiah
For a while now, Vetrimaaran has been calling Vada Chennai (North Chennai) an epic, and it turns out he was right. The title design is epic. It has a big-screen quality, like the Cinemascope logo (narrow in the centre and broadening towards the edges). The narrative is epic, like, say, the Mahabharata. Arjuna may have been the most heroic — or the most "mass" — character, but the story is shaped equally by Karna's loyalty, or Draupadi's thirst for revenge. The character Dhanush plays in Vada Chennai is epic — though he's a more reluctant hero. Even his name isn't all that heroic. It's "soft." Anbu. (It means "affection".) All he wants is to become a carrom champion. (There are shades of Chandan Arora's Siddharth-starrer, Striker, which was also about a carrom champion in an urban ghetto who's caught in gangland crossfire.) But life intervenes.
The dense texture of Vetrimaaran's screenplay imagines existence as a carrom board, with every move causing collisions and ricochets. In the past, dressed up in ballooning pants like the ones Prabhu Deva wore in Kadhalan, Anbu meets Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh) — but the meeting is "caused" by Rajiv Gandhi. If he hadn't been assassinated, anarchy wouldn't have erupted on the streets, and Anbu's mother wouldn't have thought of using the chaos to rob things from a store, and Padma wouldn't have had the same idea, and Anbu may never have collided with her. This is the structure of an epic: the macro casts a shadow over the micro. And if Anbu hadn't met Padma, they wouldn't have fallen in love, they wouldn't have been caught kissing, and the ensuing shame wouldn't have driven Anbu to murder, and he wouldn't have sought refuge with the gangster named Guna (Samuthirakani)…
The film is divided into chapters that are named after these people: say, "Anbu Guna Chandra." In one instance, along with the names of people, we get the word "Oor": the place. This is the chapter where we learn how even the things that happened to this place in North Madras — shades of Rajeev Ravi's Kammatipaadam here, with development occurring over the displacement of the underprivileged — affect what happen to Anbu. It's one big tapestry, and if you don't pay careful attention, you may miss the patterns formed by the plot points that skip back and forth in time. (A special mention for invoking the 1980s with T Rajendar's 'Sollama Thaane', from Oru Thaayin Sabadham.) Note what Guna says at the beginning, in jail: "Pannradhuleye periya paavam nanbanukku seyyara nambikkai dhrogam." (The biggest sin is to betray a friend.") Consider how another gangster, Senthil (Kishore), is stabbed in the back. When these events occur, they're just… events. On reflection, they transform into poetic justice.
The biggest problem in Vada Chennai is that a much longer film (reportedly five-and-a-half hours; where's Netflix when you need them?) has been condensed to fit a running time of less than three hours. Characters played by recognisable actors (the doctor played by Marimuthu, the cop played by Asokan Vincent) come and go. (It might have been less distracting with no-name actors.) The cuts are sometimes jarring. Some of the scenes seem strangled. There were times I wished I was reading a novel, instead, where I could flip back to a page and refresh my memory about a person or a happening. But the freshness of the milieu and the situations and even the lingo (a carrom "flayer", a "funk" haircut) helps. As does the scrambled chronology. We get a sensationally staged and heroic (and yes, "mass") interval moment with Anbu. But soon, in a flashback, he is back to being slapped around by Guna. The hero becomes a mere man again.
But then, what could have been cut out? Maybe the early scenes in jail, which detail how ganja is smuggled in, and how Senthil lords over this domain. So many names are tossed at us (Doss, Raju, Velu and his brother Siva) that it looks like a pop quiz designed to test the alertness of the audience. But these scenes help to paint a lived-in world, one to which Anbu is a stranger. Maybe the longish scene with Anbu asking Padma's father for her hand could have gone — but it's great fun. And while the flashback with Rajan (Ameer) unfolded, I wondered if this much of the past was really needed. (Why not flesh out the Guna-Senthil scenes instead?) But later, we see how important Rajan is. Through him, we see the template of Anbu being chalked out — not just in who Anbu becomes but also why Rajan meant so much to Anbu. He was the one who introduced this young boy to carrom — he's a father figure. He even gets "mass" scenes (with a cop, for instance) that prefigure Anbu's own audience-pleasing "mass" scenes. History, too, becomes its own kind of loop when we see Rajiv Gandhi placing a wreath on MGR's body — much after he has been assassinated in the timeline of the film.
Could Anbu's transformation have been better developed? Yes — but this is where Dhanush comes in. His ascent to stardom has come alongside his growth as an actor, and there's not one scene where he makes us doubt Anbu's actions. Watch him twitch (internally) in the scene where he's afraid he may get outed in a war of words between Guna and Senthil. We twitch with him. In a way, Anbu is a 180-degree counterpoint to the Kokki Kumar character Dhanush played in Pudhupettai. In that genre-defining drama, he was one of the "kedi pasanga" (heartless criminals) like Guna and Senthil. Here, he's the saviour, the kind of man who protects people against someone like Kokki Kumar. (Throw in Maari, and there's a fun thesis to be written about this actor's gangster outings.) And he's aided by solid writing. At first, after Anbu's most unheroic introduction scene, I thought it was a Baasha-like scenario, the lamb poised to turn into a lion, post-interval. But it's never that easy.
You could even make the case that this is not really Anbu's story, that he is but a cog in the revenge machinery that someone else has set in motion — but even Vetrimaaran, I guess, has to accept that some things cannot be done when you cast a big star. The women — even in their truncated parts — come with surprises. The witch out of Macbeth who sounds out omens. The woman who says she's ready to slice up anyone who tries to displace them. Senthil's wife, who seeks an eye for an eye — and whose comment to Chandra (Andrea Jeremiah) about being married only once changes the tone of the story like a light switch. And Chandra herself, who isn't who she seems. Only Padma gets shortchanged. She's introduced with a memorable swear word (the audience went wild), but her spunkiness dissipates gradually and she turns into arm candy. But I loved the development where she asks Anbu to get a shave, before their wedding night. Anbu goes to the barber, but he's summoned by Guna. Cut to 2003, and the beard is still there, even bushier. Even the facial hair tells a story: Anbu never becomes the man Padma wanted him to be.
The actors are so good (Ameer is a standout) and the film's parts are so much greater than the whole that savouring them becomes its own kind of satisfaction. With his outstanding cinematographer Velraj, Vetrimaaran unleashes one flamboyant scene after another. This is a dark film, and the visuals give the impression of being shot in natural light. There are lots of blacks in the jail scenes, and even the outdoor scenes suggest some kind of cloud cover. The effect is that of a painterly documentary — an enhanced form of realism. An extended scene in a hotel, leading to murder, is one of the most spectacular stretches I have seen all year. The framing, the use of space — it's magnificent. Watching Vada Chennai, I suspect, is like seeing the truncated cut of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. You keep thinking what each set piece (a chase in a dhobi colony with sheets hung out to dry; a murder attempt during a religious procession) might have been with a more generous running time.
The only serious complaint is with the use of Santhosh Narayanan's songs — rather, the non-use. The songs pop up in snippets, the way they do in Martin Scorsese's films — but there, we have pop/rock songs that blend easily (and invisibly) into the air, whereas here, the situation-specific numbers stick out. And I feel for the lyricists. Look how beautifully Vivek, in 'Ennadi Maayavi Nee', evokes a romantic mood soaked in blood and the salt of the sea: Pattaa kaththi thookki / Ippo mittai narukkura… Uppu kaathula / Idhu panneer kaalamaa… Chopping it up is a crime on par with those committed by these gangsters. Is it time for a certain kind of film (and a certain kind of filmmaker) to avoid songs altogether and just focus on the background score? Because that's really what drives Vada Chennai. The pre-interval action block is scored with the chilling monotony of a violin (it alternates between two notes, over and over) and a percussion that sounds like a pounding heart. That's all that's needed in a film where the filmmaking is its own kind of music.