Cast: Ajith, Vivek Oberoi, Kajal Aggarwal, Akshara Haasan
Vivegam (Prudence) is a big-hero movie, so let's begin with the big hero introduction shot. We're in a Serbian forest, where Evil Man No. 1 is selling a hard disk to Evil Man No. 2. One of them calls himself "ruler of Russian mafia," which instantly raises a few questions. For instance: Is the Russian mafia like a kingdom, where the head isn't just a "don" but a "ruler"? Are his underlings required to bow in his presence? What is Putin's take on this self-proclaimed monarch? (Were his services invoked during the American presidential election?) I'm fairly sure the answers were on screen, but I was unable to catch much over the screaming and whistling in the theatre.
But that is understandable. Everyone knows, of course, that the first five minutes of the big-hero movie are pretty much a write-off in terms of exposition, especially when Anirudh is conducting his own little Metallica concert in the background. All this is just the prelude to the hero's appearance – and in true "mass"-movie style, this occurs in parts. First, we glimpse the famous salt-and-pepper hair. Then, his silhouette, with two outstretched arms pointing guns at the bad guys. Finally, after an explosion, light from the blast lights up Ajay "AK" Kumar (Ajith, in autopilot mode, playing a Counter Terrorist Squad agent). You have to wonder: If the amount of thought expended on the hero's introduction were devoted to the screenplay, what terrific movies we'd get!
When AK tortures someone to extract information, he calls himself the "Mozart of pain." The Tamil subtitles give us this: "Valigalil Thiru Mozart"
But there's no screenplay here, though one is credited to director Siva. Vivegam is just a collection of "moments," woven around a series of action scenes. During the story discussion, things must have sounded great. Let's go beyond the gravity-defying fistfights we always subject our audiences to. Let's stage a fight in an Albanian tenement, the camera pointed skywards as bodies fall from the stairs. Let's set another one between speeding trains, with opponents wielding swords and nunchakus. Let's have another action sequence in a traffic jam, and yet another one around large glass windows seen through a sniper's scope. Let's set the climactic showdown in a gorgeous, stalactite-filled cave. These concepts sound so fresh, so fun, so stylish, so exciting! What's on screen isn't.
That's Vivegam in a nutshell. There are more ideas here than you usually find in these films. There are scenes woven around Morse code, a hologram, a pacemaker. Even the emotional bits sound nice – like when AK hears his child's heartbeat during a moment of danger, or when he conducts his wife's valaikappu (bangle ceremony) in the middle of a forest. But these remain ideas – they aren't fleshed out by a strong screenplay, with interesting characters. Karunakaran shows up briefly as a translator who doubles as comic relief. He needn't have bothered. There's plenty of unintentional comedy elsewhere. When AK tortures someone to extract information, he calls himself the "Mozart of pain." The Tamil subtitles give us this: "Valigalil Thiru Mozart."
The wife, played by Kajal Aggarwal, goes by the name Yazhini. (Tangential thought: Can Kajal Aggarwal say zha?) You'd call her ornamental and say it's only to be expected – but think back to another action movie, Sethupathi, and how lived-in its heroine (also a housewife) seemed, how much zing there was in her relationship with her husband. Another film that came to mind was Dhool, where Paravai Muniamma broke into a sensational song over the final fight sequence. Yazhini tries the same trick here and we laugh. Or take Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, which showed us it isn't impossible to marry a Hollywood thriller with Indian emotions. Which is to say that these films can be written well, with "mass" moments and with strong characters.
Vivegam wants to be a Bond-style adventure – we get the pre-credits action sequence; the credits roll over a Bond-ian montage, set to a Bond-ian song; and the plot is typical Bond-ian nonsense, about a nuclear weapon and man-made earthquakes – but it doesn't have the rigour of the Bond movies, where the outrageousness is backed by some logic. AK is cast off in the snowy wilderness, where he converts the outdoors into his personal gym, doing upside-down crunches using a tree as a hanging bar. How does he go on to commandeer the sophisticated equipment he uses later? Why not have a character on the inside help him out?
Ask Siva, and he'd probably smirk, "I am making this film for hardcore fans, not you." Fair enough. Which, I guess, explains why AK's laboured punch dialogues seem like private conversations with his core audience – Ajith seems to be putting in pauses to accommodate their screams and whistles. Which is also why Vivek Oberoi has been flown in, to sing the hero's praises in English ("Bravo! That's AK!") and Tamil (Poraadama avan pogavum maattan, saagavum maattan; he'll keep fighting to the end). And why not? The Europe-based AK celebrates Pongal. He makes a mean dosa at his wife's south Indian restaurant, where European waiters have been trained to sing Rajavin parvai… Yazhini teaches Bharathiyar songs to European children. Secret agents who double as missionaries, spreading Tamil culture around the world? Let's see Bond top that.
Watch the trailer here: