Cast: Bobby Simha, Parvathii Nair, Kaali Venkat, Gayathrie
Director: Guhan Senniappan
Guhan Senniappan, the screenplay writer and director of Vella Raja, has an eye for detail. He establishes his characters in the Amazon Prime series with large back stories, and, sometimes, with just a scene that tells a lot about them. In the beginning of the series, a male cop berates an assistant for serving a senior female cop (Parvatii Nair as Teresa) green tea. He’s miffed that he’s given only a cup of plain old coffee, whereas the new Madam in the office is given special attention. For him, green tea is a symbol of respect, and, he feels that he isn’t getting it. You can call it male ego, if you will.
This particular character introduction from the first episode is picked up much later to tell us that he’s the cop who’s taking bribes from Deva’s (Bobby Simha) gang to keep mum about the latter’s illegal activities. You’ll realise this when you’re swiftly transported from an altercation in Bawa Lodge, where Deva and the cop are at loggerheads, to the empty chair in the confines of the police station. The camera moves from a cup of green tea that the office boy places on the table to the eager eyes of Teresa who seems to be wondering about the absence of the motor-mouthed officer.
Don’t these flashes of ingeniousness talk about the kind of director Guhan is? He’s showing you how all these characters are inter-connected in the world of Vella Raja. But there aren’t too many things this series can boast about since we’ve already seen it all in Netflix’s Sacred Games and K V Anand’s Tamil movie Ayan. Also, the lack of innovation in the storytelling methods and the pleasure one gets from watching actors revel in their roles add to the existing woes.
While Sacred Games, earlier this year, drowned us in the realism of Mumbai’s underworld, Ayan, which released almost a decade ago, took us through the process of smuggling. Do you remember the scenes that explained how cocaine was smuggled through the statues of gods? That makes a comeback in Vella Raja in the form of home décor items. It’s a little different, though, as here, the low-quality pieces are broken to gather the packets of cocaine. The tricks highlighted in Ayan, on the other hand, were of another level altogether.
All these poignant sub-stories get dimmed under the weight of Deva’s barbarism, and this is the main reason why Vella Raja doesn’t stand a chance on the podium of ensembles
Of course, Guhan isn’t selling us this part of the narrative alone as he brings together a bunch of characters from different walks of life – Kamesh (TM Karthik), a doctor who’s never been in a relationship; Adhira (Gayathrie), an advocate who fights for the poor; a physical education coach (played by Kaali Venkat) who brings his niece and nephew from Kovilpatti to Chennai to win a game show; and two good-for-nothing men who leave no stone unturned to make a quick buck.
Most of the episodes go back and forth between 2015, wherein Deva was first a cog in the wheel, and 2018. If Ganesh Gaitonde (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) steadily rises to the top in Sacred Games, it takes just one night for Deva to get hold of the king’s seat in the cocaine business. The best part about Vella Raja involves an action sequence in which Deva overpowers a dozen men while he’s drenched in his own blood. I could see many colours of excitement on Bobby Simha’s face during those ten minutes. Plus, the claustrophobic atmosphere reminded me of the brilliant stunt episodes in Mysskin’s films. There’s something likeable about an underdog achieving the one thing he’s told he can’t get his hands on.
But, then, these handful moments take the centre stage, and, they erase the minor arcs that are developed around the other characters, like the one with the students of Kovilpatti helping the coach by giving him money to take his sister’s children to Chennai – their school building has collapsed and they need a couple of lakhs to get back on their feet. Or, for that matter, Adhira’s case; she’s a social-activist-cum-advocate who raises slogans against the atrocities committed by a copper factory. Due to the accumulation of chemical waste in the factory, children in the vicinity are dying of cancer.
All these poignant sub-stories get dimmed under the weight of Deva’s barbarism, and this is the main reason why Vella Raja doesn’t stand a chance on the podium of ensembles. And, when it comes to the police officers, Teresa, who’s hell-bent on nabbing the kingpin that’s responsible for the rising crime rate in the city, doesn’t really do a good job, for she seems more interested instead in giving brooding looks to the camera.
Parvatii Nair’s serious face doesn’t change one bit in the entire series, and the confusing aspect about this is that nobody knows what she’s actually processing in her mind. If not her methods, I want to know more about her motives at least. Teresa needs more substance to survive in season two (if it happens).