Cast: Kathir, Riythvika, Raj Bharath
Director: Jagadeesan Subu
Sigai (Hair), now streaming on Zee5, gives you two stories for the price of one movie. The first one begins with scenes of a Chennai night. Crowds swarm the Marina beach. Traffic chokes the roads. Beggars lie on the sides of streets. Commuters chug homewards on local trains. In the midst of this hubbub (and elsewhere), there’s the hint of another world, a different world. The flashing lights of a cop car. A funeral procession. A mother’s call to her son. The latter brings to focus the protagonist, Prasad (Raj Bharath), who’s a pimp. The call arrives when he’s talking to one of his sex workers. Talk about two worlds colliding. With the mother, he’s a son. With the sex worker, he’s a hardened businessman. She looks at the money he hands over and remarks that the amount keeps decreasing. He replies, without pausing a beat, that her age is increasing.
The plot — or rather, Story 1 — gets going when a new client calls Prasad. He needs someone for the night, and the writer-director Jagadeesan Subu gives us a glimpse of this underworld. Prasad calls “Chetta” (Rajesh Sarma), a Malayali colleague whose address book is filled with names written in his language. It’s a small touch that confers a human shade on a one-note character. Sigai is filled with these touches, which elevate other small characters: Nimmi’s negligent mother (who’s scared of her), a wife who hits upon a novel way to get back at a cheating husband, a sex worker who doesn’t mind being hurt as long as the money keeps coming in, or even the old man fond of inflicting cigarette burns on the women he hires for the night. I especially liked the scene where Nimmi (Meera Nair), the sex worker whom Prasad will end up recruiting that night, looks at a programme on TV, and the host goes on about how men get more attractive after their forties, while women peak in their thirties. The casual misogyny echoes what Prasad told the other sex worker earlier.
The crux of the film is that Nimmi goes missing and Prasad begins to search for her. These early scenes are classy, and it’s more than the writing. Ron Ethan Yohann’s score is an ever-present minor character — instead of popping up simply to amp up the drama, it throbs like an ambient heartbeat. And the editing by Anucharan is beautiful. In a couple of instances, he keeps one scene’s dialogue going as he transitions to the next scene (an extreme example of what’s called the L-cut) — the flow is super-smooth. It’s generally considered bad form to notice the editing, but good editing, sometimes, is like good cinematography — you see it, but you aren’t overwhelmed by it. Another unexpected moment is the split-second appearance of Mathivanan (Kathir), around the 45-minute mark, a full fifteen minutes before the character is properly introduced. I wondered if this was an editing decision rather than something written in the screenplay. Whatever it is, it works. It adds intrigue.
Alas, the film — which runs a little more than 90 minutes — begins to fall apart as it shifts to Story 2, a flashback. The larger (and more existential) universe of the earlier portions is traded for the constricted world-view of three rather uninteresting characters. It’s interesting, in theory, to have two story segments with two protagonists: Prasad and Mathivanan. If you want to be charitable, you could also add two acting styles, Raj Bharath’s blank-canvas attitude (a character remarks that he wears the same expression all the time) versus Kathir’s distracting, ultra-busy emoting. But the reveal is so underwhelming that I wished the second story hadn’t been part of the film at all. I would have been happier watching Prasad grappling with his conscience. Nimmi’s disappearance makes him wonder about the many women he puts at risk every night. That’s a whole movie in itself.
Even without the head-scratching convenience with which the mystery is unravelled (Mathivanan basically spills everything to Prasad), Sigai is problematic in other ways. There’s a spoiler ahead, and you may want to watch the movie first before reading the rest of this review. The “accidental” murder reminded me of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and it’s yet another instance of Tamil cinema turning “the other” into some kind of sociopath (though, in that regard, Sigai, which deals with a transgender, is not as problematic as Ratsasan). This is not a politically correct statement. I firmly believe that a character should be seen within the context of a film and not be extrapolated as a “representative” of a group in the real world. My point, therefore, is less about social responsibility than narrative laziness. Stop pinning motives on “otherness”, and start thinking of fresher ways to define killers. With the non-existent box-office demands of streaming platforms, this should be easier, no?