Director: H Vinoth
Cast: Ajith Kumar, Huma Qureshi
Commercial cinema, more specifically 'mass' films, have a nagging conundrum. They need to kindle expectation so when the mass moment comes, it is familiarly satisfying. But they also need to be unpredictable to be truly enjoyable. This is a thin line to straddle. Few filmmakers today are able to build the anticipation of familiarity as well as deliver the surprises — Nelson and Lokesh Kanagaraj come to mind as exceptions. H Vinoth, however, can barely do either.
Valimai is the story of family man Arjun (Ajith Kumar), who is also a shrewd cop. He moves to Chennai to save his elder brother (Achyuth Kumar) from alcoholism, while also catching a deadly gang of murderers and drug kingpins. How he navigates friends, foes, politicians and allies — obviously — forms the rest of the film.
What's clear to anyone watching Valimai is that it's a star vehicle. Ajith gets half a dozen introduction scenes — he rises from a van, he stands on a plank suspended in the air, he gets off a police jeep and walks in slow motion over and over. In the hands of a crafty writer and filmmaker, these scenes would have set the screen on fire. But in Valimai, they are not only predictable, but also laughable.
Take, for instance, the intro scene that establishes the kind of cop Arjun is. He catches young male criminals but doesn't file FIRs against them. Instead, he gives money to their wives and mothers and lectures, them to "buddhi solli thiruthanum" (speak good sense into them). His subordinate asks him why Arjun didn't get the system take care of these people. Arjun explains that the system will only make the situation worse. To this, the subordinate exclaims, "saar neenga vera maari." As if waiting all his life for just this line, Ghibran diligently cues the title song that goes 'naanga vera maari' (composed by Yuvan Shankar Raja).
This problem of being obvious and predictable is all over Valimai. At one point, I began predicting what would happen in the desperate hope that H Vinoth would surprise me. But he never did. We've heard every dialogue before, so much so that, you, dear reader, would know from a mile away what anyone is going to say. The jokes are so drab that the characters in the film laugh to guide us in that direction. The interval block is a split screen with Ajith on one side and Karthikeya, who plays the villain, on the other. There is text overlay on screen telling us it's the next day, over the voice of Arjun telling the villain he'll meet him the next day. At one point, there is a paragraph on screen that I couldn't finish reading on time.
This predictability might not entirely be H Vinoth's fault though. We are film-addicted people, and we can probably just tell these things by instinct. Except, Valimai has nothing else going for it either. Ajith can barely emote — he has one uncomfortable face for the entire spectrum of feelings. Karthikeya has more range than Ajith does. When Sophia (Huma Qureshi), with tears brimming in her eyes, asked Arjun why he's speaking dejectedly, I broke into uncontrollable laughter that I couldn't stop until Ajith finished his lecture about life and stones or something.
The characters are all written for the convenience of Arjun. Sophia, for instance, can do sketches of suspects, run analytics, shoot big guns, fight with her bare hands, lead the most challenging mission in Tamil Nadu police history — just about any of the grind work that Arjun can't be bothered to do. To say nothing of being the family friend who shows up for emotional support too. She's everybody and nobody, a role that shortchanges how badass she actually is. Bani J is the villain's sidekick, meted out a similar treatment. To be fair, though, even the men are written in exactly the same superficial fashion.
With such superficial and half-hearted performances, the emotions just don't move us. Arjun's mother (Sumithra trying her damnedest best) punishes herself to a hunger strike, an emotion that should resonate with everyone. Yet, it's treated like a piece of information that we should remember, not an emotion that we feel instinctively. When we watch the villain manipulate Arjun's brother Kutty (Raj Ayyappa), we think of the latter as stupid, not the former as evil. Without the strengths of these emotions, the stakes are never high enough. So, Valimai feels like a superbike stuck in second gear.
Despite all of this, though, what makes Valimai reasonably watchable is Dilip Subbarayan's stunt choreography, deftly supported by cinematographer Nirav Shah. Together, they build action that's a delight to watch. Dilip is inventive, without turning it into something unbelievable. It's the right amount of clever, perfectly right for mainstream. It only helps that the film is about biker gangs — Ajith on the bike is a sight to savour for fans. Even in overlong stunt sequences, the film is enjoyable.
But, be warned that enjoying Valimai, that lasts nearly three hours, takes a special kind of viewer: One who is motivated to have fun and laugh at themselves for enjoying this. Right at the end, as the film climaxes and Arjun rises victorious, his brother taunts the villain, "ei sappa" (hey loser, I suspect). At that point, I found myself thinking he's perhaps talking to me, a loser who had so much fun.