What well made movie! With a lot of well made thoughts at the heart of it. The biggest of which is, what makes a moral man? Or, to put it in Indian philosophical terms, a dharmic man? (No Spoiler review here, if you are planning to see it and don’t want to be spoiled)
Just gonna get SPOILERS out of the way from the beginning so I can talk about the rest of it:
Madhavan is part of an elite police task force. They are encounter specialists and the start of the film is them shooting in cold-blood 3 men. They are trying to track down Vijay Sethupathi, head of the gang, but he walks right in to the police station and insists on talking to Madhavan. He tells Madhavan how he became a gunda, and his first moral dilemma. When his baby brother was taken and tortured, should Vijay kill the man who ordered it or the man who carried it out? Madhavan and Vijay agree that he should kill the man who ordered it. And later, after Vijay is released on bail, Madhavan’s superior officer and best friend is killed and Madhavan puts it together that one of the victims in the initial encounter was Vijay’s little brother, and Vijay has now taken revenge by killing the man who ordered it. An added complication is that Madhavan’s strong willed wife Shraddha Srinath is serving as Vijay’s lawyer.
Madhavan tracks Vijay down again, but before he can kill him, Vijay offers to tell him another story, how his little brother Kathir grew up and fell in love and Vijay had to protect him and his girlfriend from vengeance by his own mentor, leading to a gang war. Madhavan begins to realize through this story that Kathir truly was an innocent, and Madhavan was wrong to shoot him. The guilt distracts him and lets Vijay attack and escape again. Finally, Madhavan begins to realize what is happening, the police were used as a weapon by Vijay’s enemies, he was set up to kill Kathir in order to draw Vijay out, and the real villain is whoever orchestrated it. Madhavan follows the clues and figures out it was Vijay’s gang member Vivek Prasanna (who was the man he did not kill who had tortured his little brother in the past) who pulled the strings. He traps Vijay and Vivek in the same place that his friend died and gets the full truth. The police weren’t innocent either, everyone on his team but himself was getting a pay off to attack only certain people in certain places. His friend new they had killed an innocent when they shot Kathir and the guilt tortured him. He went to the gang hide out to rescue Kathir’s girlfriend, and failed. Finally, the rest of the police team were the ones who killed him. The rest of the team show up at this point and Madhavan and Vijay fight together to hold them off. Madhavan finally kills his commanding officer, following the theory that it is the one who issued the orders who should be punished. And we end with Madhavan and Vijay pulling guns on each other, with an open question of whether Madhavan will kill him, arrest him, or let him go.
Notice that, for me, it was never a question of Vijay winning at the end. His pulling the gun merely adds another layer to Madhavan’s decision. He know has a legitimate threat that he can use as an excuse to shoot. And evidence that any partnership was only temporary, Vijay cannot really be trusted. But should he still let him go because he is not as bad as other people out there, because he could be a force for good in the world? Or does Madhavan owe him freedom because of the death of his brother, and his helping Madhavan so far? What is the correct thing to do?
That is what this movie is asking all along, what should Madhavan do? And what Madhavan is asking himself. I love that, a hero who is fallible and knows he is fallible. We are introduced to him striding in and unquestioningly gunning down three men. And this is not “heroic”, we don’t get big triumphant music while he is doing it, there isn’t a huge impressive fight scene. Well, it’s impressive, but in a different way. He is gunning these men down like taking out the trash. And then is equally pragmatic in how he arranges the evidence to show a legitimate shoot and makes sure everyone has their stories straight. So, okay, the audience can start to see him as kind of a bad guy.
But then we see him tracking down the son of one of the men he killed, and when the boy tries to attack him, he grabs him in a hug and then takes him to an orphanage, where he clearly has brought boys before. And is paying their expenses. Okay, so he’s a good guy. He kills bad men, but he tries to save children before they become bad. And later he says that explicitly to his friend, that he sleeps well at night because he knows no one he killed was ever an innocent, he could see it in their eyes that they were guilty.
(Also, he’s super sexy and has a great romance. All the hero stuff)
Now, this could still make him a bad man. We see that in the next section. His team is preparing to arrest Vedha, planning to send in riot police, use their power to trample over the people. And he doesn’t question it, he is sure he is right. Even as the newspapers are writing editorials calling for reform because of their brutal methods, Madhavan still knows that what he is doing is right. Or is it that he is sure anything he does will be right merely because he is the one doing it?
He’s not! That’s what makes this hero, and this film, different from others. We get Madhavan SUPER COP for a good hour. But not to make him all “heroic”, but rather to show why his decisions matter. He really can find, kill, arrest, beat up, anybody he wants. And that is why Vijay has picked him to be the one who can help him. And, at the end, we realize is also the reason his corrupt colleagues wanted him on their team, and committed to capturing Vijay.
(Also, reminded me of Kabali in that the ultimate message is that the police are the strongest gang of all)
Which brings me to the Baital Pachisi! Of which I know nothing except what wikipedia tells me. What strikes me about the tale is the idea of a seemingly evil being who for some reason wants to latch on to a noble soul. And the idea of a noble soul being fully tested by an evil being. The good and bad together. Oh, and also the discovery after they have taken this journey together that the evil soul is as trapped as the good and the good can be the one to rescue it.
That’s what this movie is about. Not the twists, not the action, but the twisted relationship of a seemingly force of Good that is actually evil, a villain who is in fact being chased by a greater villain, and a powerful man caught in between and asked to decide.
We have to see that Madhavan is a super cop so we know that his decisions matter in this world. And the “twist” is the discovery that he is actually making decisions. He is not blindly assuming he is always in the right. When Vijay challenges him, forces him to acknowledge that Kathir was an innocent, he did wrong in killing him, Madhavan doesn’t just ignore that. But, at the same time, it doesn’t destroy him. That is his real strength, he is able to understand that he was wrong and move past that, keep looking for what is the next right move. That’s why Vijay picked him, and that is the trait his corrupt colleagues are trying to avoid awakening, keeping him happy with simple goals and simple solutions so he doesn’t think too much. Keeping him the same as the usual cop hero, who sees a target and shoots it and doesn’t think past that.
(Love this movie, but Salman isn’t exactly a deep thinker in it)
But Madhavan isn’t the usual hero. He doesn’t want the simple answer. We see that in all kinds of ways, for instance when they have tracked Vijay to his hide out in a crowded apartment block, the camera shows Madhavan thinking while his team suggests a house to house search. He looks slowly all around the square, and then agrees. We see Vijay get warning that the police are coming and take off across the roof, down a construction platform, and so on. And slowly we, the audience, figure out what Madhavan was doing, looking around and tracking the most likely escape route. He wasn’t taking the easy answer of brute force, he was looking for the elegant answer of driving Vijay to him.
And he doesn’t want the easy answer for his friend’s death either. He starts by assuming Vijay did it. But once he sees evidence to the contrary, he doesn’t just push it under the rug, he isn’t capable of that. He starts pulling on the thread until he figures out everything, even when the horror of it causes him to almost lose himself (a great moment when he cries to heaven and shoots his gun to the floor), he still keeps going and survives. That’s the real strength, the real hero, to confront all the insanity and madness of life and keep going anyway, keep trying to map out the best path.
Madhavan only works as a hero by how we see him play off our not-quite-a-hero Vijay. In my no spoilers review I talked about how we have to resist putting our characters into the standard film boxes, more specifically resisting the Deewar box. And I think that might be on purpose? The writers/directors (husband and wife team by the way, may be the first time I have heard of that in Indian film!) put in an awful lot of parallels. Vijay (not named Vijay in the film, that would be a bit too far) is a dockworker who becomes a smuggler after being discovered by a powerful Don, raises his younger brother and tries to get him educated and keep him “good”, etc. etc. But they want us to have Deewar, and all the other movies like it, in our heads so that we can see how this isn’t quite it. Vijay doesn’t get into smuggling out of desperation or driving anger or something, it’s just convenience. He never has any nobility or higher purpose. And his little brother doesn’t grow up to be a perfect police officer, but a smart kid who kind of wants to be part of the gang himself, and takes their dirty money and cleans it for them. And the romance isn’t with sweet innocent Neetu, or with elegant tragic Parveen Babi, but instead with a girl who is kind of half of each. Literally the girl next door, but next door in a slum, raised among criminals, and half a criminal herself.
(This isn’t the clean handsome type of gangster that we usually see in films)
The thing is, Vijay isn’t noble perfect tragic Amitabh, and his family isn’t noble and perfect either. But they also aren’t all bad. They are human, they are people. That’s what makes it a moral dilemma. Madhavan knows that there is a thin line between innocent and guilty and he knows Vijay is on the wrong side of that line and he is on the right side. But he starts to realize there is more than one line, that the line is constantly being drawn at your feet and you have to decide whether or not you should cross it.
Vijay made multiple choices to cross to the wrong side. But he also made choices to stay on the right side, to raise his brother right, to protect him as an adult, to forbid the other gangsters of his area from using children in their illegal dealings, to stay loyal to his old friends. And Madhavan, he is “good”, he joined the police, he saves children, he is the one man who is incorruptible, and he is a great husband. But he also made the decision to kill multiple times, used his wife to help track down Vijay, and makes a mockery of police protocol when it is convenient to him. Neither of them is completely good and neither of them is completely bad. It is a constant choice you make, every day.
That’s what the whole film is about, choices. The choices that Madhavan makes, the choices that Vijay forces him to make. From his unthinking split second decision in the beginning to shoot to kill, to his lengthy punishment that leads to him never being able to make such a thoughtless decision again, to understanding that every choice has consequences and can never be undone.