Director: Mohan Raja
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Nayanthara, Fahadh Faasil
The opening credits of Velaikkaran (The Worker) play over images of… workers: a tailor, a mechanic, a bus driver. But even earlier, we’ve had a hint about the film’s concerns, when a bunch of boys from a slum run past an expensive car and one of them puts a scratch on its side with a sharp instrument. Why? Because he’ll never be able to afford one. But isn’t just poor = good, rich = bad. The scratch transforms into a line on a sales chart, and we are now in a corporate meeting, with the likes of the owner of that car. The addressing of class in Tamil films is nothing new – and we know slum-resident Arivu (Sivakarthikeyan) is going to run a scratch across these rich men’s lives – but the dignity in this film is. It wants to be a crowd-pleaser, but with class.
Which means that – despite the glimpse of a Baasha poster early on – Arivu doesn’t get “mass” moments and ginormous action scenes. Which means he gets to display his “heroism” in a (dare I use this word in the context of a big-star vehicle?) brainier way . Which means the heroine (Mrinalini, played by a glamorous Nayanthara with a look that says, “I can’t be rescuing little girls in borewells all the time, okay?”) is from a Brahmin family, and yet, not caricatured with a set of easy stereotypes. Which means that whatever magic potion Mohan Raja began to take during the making of Thani Oruvan, he’s clearly ordered himself a vatful. The first half is surprisingly innovative.
As Arivu sets up a local radio station, the screenplay sets up a series of beautifully interlocked scenes. There’s a genuine sense of community. Even Anirudh’s super-infectious Karuthavanellam galeejam isn’t some random hero-introduction number, but a celebration of this tightly-knit bunch. Radio brings this community together. Radio also brings these characters together. The way Arivu meets Mrinalini, the way Arivu brings down gang leader Kasi (Prakash Raj), the comedy track (with Robo Shankar), the dramatic scene where Arivu wisens up to his family’s situation – it’s all written around the radio. Best of all: even the messagey bits work, because they come in the tone of the RJs we hear on FM stations in the morning: a dash of do-goodism that knows the difference between a shot of positivity and a Samuthirakani movie.
My favourite stretch is, again, written around the radio. Arivu decides he’s going to give a running commentary on a clash between two sets of thugs. (I was reminded of Sanjaya giving a running commentary of the Kurukshetra war to Dhritarashtra. Our myths are packed with masala storytelling.) What should have been just an action scene contains a surprising number of beats. There’s comedy, as Arivu mimics a cricket commentator. There’s sentiment: a man who’s beaten up and bleeding gets to talk to his mother. There’s fury, with Arivu going on a bit (only a bit) of a rampage himself. And there’s the seed for Arivu’s transformation, the belief that the young men of this slum can dream of a better life. (It’s a bit of a lecture, sure, but only a bit.) This is smart writing, powered by Sivakarthikeyan’s unfussy charm. Among our major stars, he’s the only one who looks like the boy next door who won the lottery and is still rubbing his eyes. The character fits him like a glove.
Arivu enters the white-collar world as a sales agent for an FMCG company, with Adi (Fahadh Faasil) as a mentor, and the writing continues to respect the audience. We get a long sequence with Adi explaining to Arivu the science behind supermarkets, and a longer stretch where Adi and Arivu decode the mystery behind a competitor’s product. I’m not saying this is Inception, but it’s unusual for a star-driven Tamil movie to be this mindful, and this painstaking about endowing its protagonist with the tools he’ll come to use later. Usually, the whole thing would be dispensed with in a montage of whooshy cuts and windy sound effects. (I felt sorry for Fahadh Faasil, who’s stuck in a generic role a million miles from his nuanced turn in the year’s best movie, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, but maybe he was paid enough to buy a brand-new, scratch-worthy car?)
The surprises keep coming. The best light bulb moment since Swades. An unexpected nod to the Tamil writer who went by the pen name of Stella Bruce. The gentle, unforced relationship between Arivu and Mrinalini. (It’s not much, but what’s there is done well, and it’s nice that Sivakarthikeyan, an actor frequently accused of misogyny in his movies, gets to be part of a subplot about the slut-shaming that outspoken women face today.) And the best kind of moral hook that the hero finds himself implicated in the villain’s schemes. The writing compensates for the direction, which is competent rather than electric. But I didn’t mind the studied low-keyness. I preferred it, in fact, to the red-carpet bombast that typically defines these films.
But the second half disintegrates. We are now in hero-turns-the-tables zone, and, without warning, Velaikkaran turns deadly earnest. We already have an idea about the impending worker-owner conflict, thanks to a long pre-interval rant from Arivu – it’s preachy, sure, but there’s an emotional core that rings true. But later Sneha appears in a subplot reminiscent of Super Size Me, the Morgan Spurlock documentary about consuming fast food and recording its ill-effects, and all nuance flies out the window. We seem to be hearing super-sized variations of the same lines of dialogue – I felt I was stuck in an elevator during a power cut, with the love child of Das Kapital and a Business India editorial. The director of Thani Oruvan has left the building.
There are still some sparks. I liked how Arivu’s mother (Rohini), who makes a living as a domestic help, turns a debasing experience into a spark of inspiration. The chess games between hero and villain are fun, at least in spurts. And I laughed when Arivu delivers a punch line ending with the word “viswasam,” which is the title of Ajith’s next film – the whole theatre resounded with a delighted roar from the audience. (Our films can be unexpectedly entertaining in these ways.) But the emotional stakes are low, and the songs don’t help. The masala pitch the first half resisted so stoutly is now in the driver’s seat – it doesn’t work that way. By the time we see factory workers waving red flags, conflating class struggle and corruption, the film has descended into insanity. Velaikkaran is half-sprint, half-stumble.
Watch the trailer of Velaikkaran here