Cast: Nasser, Thambi Ramaiah, Priya Bhavani Shankar, Kalaiyarasan, Guru Somasundaram, Prasanna, Amala Paul, Krish
Directors: Pa Ranjith, Venkat Prabhu, Chimbu Deven, M Rajesh
Streaming On: Sony LIV
Just when you thought you'd outlived the season of anthologies (and Covid), we get Victim, Who's Next?, on SonyLiv, which brings together four extremely different filmmakers to give us four different interpretations of the term "victim". Covering different landscapes and conflicts, the anthology shows us the ultra-rich and the landless poor, the upper middle-class IT employee and the lower middle-class journalist, just days away from getting a pink slip.
Yet as with most anthologies, there's just the one or two films that stand out, leaving you with thoughts and images that outlive its runtime. Of the four films, two remain at odds with the filmmaker's strengths, resulting in awkward films that are too basic to be taken seriously in their respective genres.
The most awkward of these is what's being described as an M Rajesh "thriller". Titled Mirage, the filmmaker known for his comedies is seriously out of depth when he deals with a film that plays against our biases by forcing us to judge a person after being fed with a specific amount of information. But more a horror film than a thriller, it's about a woman who has to spend the night at a creepy Airbnb when a series of events take things from bad to worse. With extremely loud performances in a setting that lacks any kind of believability, Mirage is a sorry excuse for the PSA it tries to be at the end. It's also the weirdest knock-off of Shutter Island you're likely to see.
Venkat Prabhu's Confession is second on the list and it deals with an interesting idea that aims to explore the mind of a 'sinner', just moments before death. When a sniper points a gun right at you with a list of questions, is there a point in lying? Or is the resulting confession the most honest one you can ever open up to? Set in a world inhabited by just grey characters, Amala Paul's film plays weirdly like a counselling session. More than the sniper, who is just there to do his job, it is Amala's character that finally gets a moment to pause and ponder. In her life filled with too much of everything, it's this second of rest (before peace) that puts her life in perspective, giving her the much-needed confession she has been asking herself.
But what makes this film feel judgmental is the way its uprightness is activated only when it deals with a woman's moral decisions. This pits her against herself even if it has to do with choices that are hers and hers alone (like abortion) to begin with. In a sense, the sniper (which is designed to resemble the power equation between God and man) soon begins to resemble the dynamics between a woman and the local moral police squad. With a convenient twist and a flat ending, Confession takes its premise a tad too seriously instead of embracing its kitschy side.
Chimbudevan's Kottai Pakku Vathalum, Mottai Maadi Sitharum, though, is a satisfying return to base camp for one of Tamil cinema's quirkiest directors. Without the need to please a fanbase (like he had to with Puli) or a mighty cause in Kasada Thapara (capital punishment), we get several moments of good-old Chimbudevan in this "Covid Caper" that's about a journalist who is in desperate need of a hit story. The basic plot-line reminds one of his earlier films and like those, it's the conversations that keep matters light and funny. With Nasser playing the mysterious Sithar, there's quite a bit of observational humour that feels organic in this setting, and the director is able to capture a particularly distinct aspect of middle-class life, even within the film's limited runtime.
Yet it's clearly Ranjith's Dhammam (compassion) that's able to leave behind a thoroughly impactful memory. With a handful of characters brought together by one conflict, the film is able to write up a lasting thesis about multiple generations and how each of them look at one situation differently. Even the first image is distinct. With a little girl sitting right on top of a Buddha statue, it is she who turns teacher to her father when he asks her to respect the statue. In her confidence, she replies by saying 'Buddha himself says there is no God', then why should she? Kema stands on top of the same Buddha statue with her arms wide open, hoping to fly even as her father Guru asks her to step down.
Having grown up in a slightly "better" world, Kema doesn't see the need for any Gods. Everyone is equal in her eyes. So when a man from a dominant caste wants to pass through a narrow path she's walking on, she doesn't feel the need to step aside to give him the right of way. This narrow path on the farmland could be a stand-in for the hundreds of streets that deny Dalits entry. The girl's father knows this and so do the other men from his generation. But for this educated girl (her bright red school bag over her muddy clothes remains a lasting image), who must have grown up thinking the world is for everyone, it is only fair that this "anna" move aside for her to pass by.
What shocks the man from the dominant caste is this girl's confidence (or her arrogance). He perhaps gets a whiff of the future and the change education will bring to the next generation. If a young girl so powerless can take him on, what will happen to his ilk in the future? Even the reactions of the people who witness the skirmish that follows reveal a lot about the conditioning.
Take for instance the fascinating character of the older woman Komatha, who also happens to be the dominant character's aunt. At first, this lady appears to be an ally, a friend to Guru and Kema, the kind of person who doesn't let her caste location affect her equation with them. But despite being a witness to the order of events and despite being someone we count on to give an unbiased judgment, you see where loyalties lie the second things go wrong.
We find a similar layer of ambiguity in the helpless character played by Hari Krishnan. He is someone who knows the right thing to do, even pausing for a second to do what is fair. But under the pressures of his community and the incessant calls for war, he too needs to pick up a sickle to attack the oppressed.
What's alarming is how no one seems to care about the injured. Blinded by revenge and caste pride, what comes naturally to these men is to make matters worse rather than save their friend. This is true, even of the father. On one side we see a father like Guru, trying to create a better world for the next generation and on the other, we see a man so obsessed with bloodlust that he doesn't even see a bulging rock on the ground. Carefully designed with several powerful images, it is Ranjith's film that will remain the longest in memory after Victim ends, even as the rest fall prey to the curse of anthologies.