Vetrimaran continues his exploration into the worlds of Shakespeare and gangsters. Only this time, he is a far superior filmmaker.
“Vada Chennai” is divided into chapters and each one is part of a larger jigsaw puzzle that can perhaps never be solved. The best one is titled “Anbu, Rajan and the Hood”. It tells the story of Rajan (Ameer), his brother Thambi (Daniel Balaji) and underlings Guna (Samuthirakani), Senthil (Kishore), Velu (Pawan) and Pazhani (Boxer Dheena). They are smugglers, working for the powerful politician Muthu (Radha Ravi). In a sudden turn of events, Rajan takes a stand for his people, irking Muthu, who plots his fall using Senthil.
The betrayal and (eventual) killing of Rajan is easily one of the best ‘directed’ scenes in Tamil Cinema. It happens in a restaurant. Rajan remains seated but others keep going in and out. We sense fear and cluelessness among the underlings. In fact, the seeds of their future dynamics are sown in this very scene. Never has the washroom mirror gained so much importance. It’s like watching a copy of “Assassination of Julius Caesar” thrust on a real director.
One of the most interesting aspects of “Vada Chennai” is that the Shakespearean references don’t end here. We have the father’s (Rajan’s) ghost driving the son (Anbu (Dhanush)) from “Hamlet”. Rajan and Anbu follow very similar trajectories. Anbu marries Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh) almost in the same way Rajan marries Chandra (Andrea). Anbu stands up for his people the same way Rajan does (and gets into trouble). We even get Chandra remarrying Guna (Gertrude married Claudius in ‘Hamlet’). Finally, we have the witch from “Macbeth” who keeps sprouting predictions for the future.
Vetrimaran mentioned in an interview that all his scripts came out of ‘Vada Chennai’. Since I caught the movie only after knowing this, I started seeing his movies everywhere. Sprinkle a bit of masala in the gangster confrontation scenes and you have ‘Polladhavan’. Change carrom to cockfights and invoke Othello, you have ‘Aadukalam’. Finally, focus the jail scenes on a specific set of victims and you have ‘Visaranai’. Is this the actors? the milieu? the pet-peeves? I am sure there is something more interesting going on with this pack that only Vetrimaaran and his sub-conscious could tell us.
Watching ‘Vada Chennai’ is like watching any epic (I got the same feeling with ‘Sacred Games’ recently) — you can make any character the driving force and yet, the story wouldn’t change much. Take Chandra for instance. When we see her first, all we know is Guna would do anything for her. Later, a remark by Senthil’s wife completely changes our perception. Towards the end, we realize without her, there is no movie. But, wait for this. You could make the same for Muthu. Or Anbu. Or Guna. The writing is so dense (and it’s clearly cleverly written) that I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t make a series out of it.
However, this density comes with its own flaws. After a point, it’s hard to keep track of the characters and their motivations. That’s really a nit though, considering what the movie has achievement. One grows tired of calling performances as outstanding but that’s how they are in “Vada Chennai”. While we must appreciate Dhanush for adding sunshine to these movies, the movie really belongs to Samudhirakani. He played a somewhat similar role in ‘Subramaniyapuram’ a decade back. It’s astonishing to see how much he has grown as an actor. You only have to look at his indecisiveness (or impotence?) — be it while killing Rajan, or what to do with Anbu and Kannan, how to deal with Senthil and even when finally confronted by Anbu. What a piece of work is this guy!
Finally, one of the complaints my friends had about the movie is its predictability. While this is somewhat inevitable when you are making a trilogy (‘Baahubali’ ended on a high but the second part couldn’t match up to it), I will admit that the form kept me watching. Take the fight scene after the carrom tournament in the jail. It is shot like some kind of macabre dance. Or the chasing scenes around Dhobi Ghat. Or the dance around the widowed Chandra. Or the closing shot, which tells us that the whole story was contained in a tiny region. We don’t know if Vetrimaran is an auteur (yet) but for now, he is a fantastic filmmaker. For now, that’s enough!
– Sai Vikneshwar