This is a really brilliant concept for a film. An intellectual exercise more than anything. I encourage you to watch it straight through once without knowing what is coming, but I also suspect it might turn out to be more entertaining when you know what is coming and can watch how it is built. If you want to maintain the surprise, you can read my No Spoilers review.
Prakash Raj is a gangster with 3 sons: the enforcer, the businessman, and the wild one. Arvind Swamy is the oldest, he spends his days leaning on people and threatening or killing them. Arun Vijay is making deals for the family in Dubai. And Silambarasan is the youngest, smuggling drugs and guns in eastern Europe. Prakash and his wife Jayasudha are ambushed in their car and injured by a bomb. The three sons gather along with their wives, Jyothika who is Arvind’s wife and cousin, daughter of the family’s trusted advisor Jayasudha’s brother. And Aishwarya Rajesh as the smooth internationally connected wife of Arun. Vijay Sethupathi, a disgraced cop on suspension and Arvind’s old friend from school, starts hanging around them and Jyothika puts him on retainer to help protect Arvin. The brothers jockey for position and then decide to join together and attack Thiagarajan who is the rival gangster in the city. Arvind orders the killing of his son-in-law. In return, Thiagarajan sets attacks on all 3 of the sons. And then Prakash Raj recovers and comes home and brokers peace. The two younger sons leave, back to their lives, and Prakash tells Jayasudha that he knows one of their sons is the one who ordered the attack. Jayasudha is torn by doubts but doesn’t know if she wants to know. And Prakash dies suddenly of a heart attack before he can tell her any more. INTERVAL
In the second half, the brothers are all suspicious of each other following their father’s death, as their is no clear heir to his power. Arun can’t come back and asks for the funeral to be held over for a day. Simbu has just gotten married to his girlfriend in Europe and puts off coming home. Arvind goes through the funeral rites alone and begins to doubt his brothers. He instead relies on his friend Vijay Sethupathi. In Europe, Simbu’s new wife is killed by a sniper who he chases and kills with a quick neck snap. Simbu then goes to Dubai and asks Arun to join him and take down Arvind, Arvind who helpd back money from Arun as punishment for not coming to the funeral and (Simbu things) ordered the hit on his wife. Arun isn’t sure, but meanwhile in his apartment armed men sneak in, are confronted by Aishwarya, and then leave. The police arrive, and find a bag full of drugs that the men planted. Aishwarya is put in jail. Arun is sure it is Arvind who did it and now is ready to join Simbu. They come back to Chennai where Simbu pays off Vijay Sethupathi to work with him instead of Arvind, and then takes Aditi hostage while Arun kills their uncle. Arun also arranges for the henchmen to be sent on a wild goose chase to an abandoned factory where he can try to win them over to his side. Arvind realizes he is under attack and sends their sister and her husband and their newborn along with all the children off to safety. Jyothika is shot in a gun battle, Arvind rushes her to a hospital and confesses that he was the one who ordered the first ambush on Prakash Raj, because he was sick of working for his father and never for himself. And then Jyothika dies. Arvind arranges one last meeting with Arun and Simbu through Vijay. Arun shoots Arvind for what he did to their father and arranging the arrest of Aishwarya. Simbu shoots Arun, suspecting him of killing his wife. And then he asks Vijay to join him. Vijay finally speaks his piece, pulling out a hidden gun and shooting Simbu after telling him how much he hates crime and criminals and that is why he is a police officer. And then calls his superior with the three bodies behind him to reveal that the operation was a success. Over the end credits in quick flashes, we see documents of Vijay’s final report revealing how he was working all along to turn them on each other, bring down the gang from within with minimal casualties.
This is a very well-made film. The music, of course, is good. Following the pattern of the more recent Ratnam/Rahman films, the songs weave in and out of the plot instead of being set aside. As moods appear and reappear, the same refrain will play. They are still very very clever, the lyrics and mood working on multiple levels. For instance, the recurring fight song says “as I drop one sword I pick up another”. Which seems to be about the way the brothers keep fighting each other, but in fact is about how Vijay works any angle he can to drive family disunity.
It is not the peak that Ratnam is possible of, Kaatru Velidiyai even was more beautiful and inventive. But very well-made. Little things, like almost all the Dubai scenes are on boats, which no doubt was easier to film and allowed him clean contained locations. Or big things, like the brilliance of Vijay driving the car in circles by the side of a cliff in the end, a visual metaphor for how he drove this family around in circles as they teetered on the top of a cliff. It’s no Kadal or even Mouna Ragam where I could feel him reaching for a visual and not quite being able to grasp it. The only thing I might have felt him reaching for was an alternative plot.
There was an alternative twist possible at the end of the film. One I almost thought the film was nodding towards. Early on, suspicion falls on the brother’s uncle because they explain that Prakash Raj killed his father and destroyed their family. The uncle turns out to be innocent, but it came to my mind that this could be setting up Jyothika or Jayasudha as the mastermind. Jayasudha’s family was destroyed and she was forced to marry the victor in the struggle. Than her niece who she raised was married into the same family, to her son. We see the strain in both their marriages, Jayasudha and Jyothika. Could it be that the two woman worked together to destroy their family? But no, that’s not the answer.
Jyothika’s death scene laughs at that idea. All along she refused to leave Arvind alone, no matter how far into danger he ran. And at the end she laughs at herself, that she thought she was some kind of Kali to protect him. In another movie, that would be what she was, his strong protector or else the avenger for her family. But in this film, she is just a woman, a woman who can be shot and killed like anyone else.
In my No Spoilers review I really struggled on how to critique the film for not giving us a main character to care about without revealing that the purpose of the film was, in fact, to not give us a main character to care about. The whole film feels odd because the narrative gives us no sympathetic point of view character. Every time it feels like we have found one, that goes away. Arvind is the hardworking older son, with the strong wonderful wife, trusted by his father to take over. But he also shoots a man in cold blood for cheating him out of some money, and has a shallow relationship with his mistress Aditi, all sex and giggles and posturing, nothing that makes us sympathetic with his decision to cheat on his wife. Arun is softer and kinder, the son who helps his mother out of her bandages and saves his children when they are attacked. But he is strangely cocky and egotistical, obsessed with business, and willing to miss his father’s funeral for a business deal. Simbu is the forgotten youngest son, the one on the frontlines taking risks. But he is smuggling drugs in order to buy guns, a bad business all around. And he is quick to pull a gun and considers killing a female hostage in an early gun chase (something Arun shies away from).
It starts in the very first scene. Jayasudha and Prakash Raj are an older couple going to temple together on their anniversary, this should be sweet and loving. But instead Prakash tries to jolly Jayasudha along and she sticks in occasional little barbs about his mistresses, and how their years of marriage together have involved a lot of lies and infidelity. Mani Ratnam refuses to let us idealize these people. Prakash is not a sweet old man with a sweet wife, he is unpleasant and corrupt man who is faithless to all around him. And the film goes from there, any time we want to see Arvind as a true lover torn between two women, we are reminded that his affair with Aditi is a matter of her enjoying being with a powerful man, play acting at interviewing him, and him enjoying an escape from his life, no love there. If we want Simbu to he the pure lover, we are reminded that he is also a gun smuggler. If Arun is the sensible and sensitive one, he is also the one who is money mad.
(Simbu gets a love song, but he’s also an unrepentant drug and gun smuggler)
The whole film is strange that way, as I said in the other review the only characters you really get inside of, the only ones you truly care for, are the women. Jyothika especially she has many moments of perspective, of us watching her face and seeing the tiny signs of emotion in response to what is happening and relating to her. Jayasudha has several wonderful moments early on, that first scene in the car, later watching her sons snipe at each other while her bandages are removed, and then trying to deal with her husbands accusation that it is one of their sons that tried to have them killed. She drops off in the second half but comes back with a vengeance at the end of the film when she insists on meeting with Simbu to try to make peace. Even Aishwarya has her little moment, we see her with her children in Dubai, helping them with home work before bed, then confronting armed men to protect them, and finally coldly angrily confronting Arun in jail, telling him to send her children to London and that he should be in there, not her. We even have the young sister of the brothers, she barely has a role, but we see her clearly recently post birth, fragile holding her tiny baby. And yet all of these women are shunted aside. Jyothika is killed, Aditi is captured and then released and forgotten, even Jayasudha agrees to be a hostage with Simbu after Simbu gives her a pitiful plea to come first for once, and then is never seen again. Aishwarya is left behind in her jail in Dubai. Why are the only characters who actually seem like real breathing humans that we can relate to so constantly sidelined? In favor of other characters that, no matter how you try, you can never quite find yourself to care for.
Partly because there are those other people who don’t quite reach the level of “characters” but who you can’t quite forget. The men that Arvind kills, the young girl being sold into prostitution, Ratnam’s sympathetic eye turns towards them, a quiet reminder of the price of all this crime in the city. The people who truly deserve sympathy.
And then in the end, suddenly, the whole film is flipped and turned around. We are watching these people as Vijay Sethupathi sees them. And to his eyes, they are criminals and innocent victims. His dead father, riddled with bullets, versus his mother who killed herself. Leaving him, the child, to be raised with a burning anger for crime and desire to cleanse his city. There is a photo of the family, at the christening of the daughter’s new baby. It looks like a family photo, like a moment of happiness that we will look back on in sorrow later. But now we see it from Vijay’s perspective, these are his targets, all the people he has to clean out of his city.
Arvind and Arun and Simbu, they are criminals who need to be cleansed. They may be humans with family and friends, but it doesn’t matter, they are criminals and deserve to be destroyed. Jyothika and Jayasudha and Aishwarya, they are innocent bystanders, they should be cut out and removed from the picture as much as possible.
And so that is the version we see. All of these people like bugs under a microscope, their interactions and personalities studied so as to be exploited, controlled. The ones who are innocent, who do not deserve a part in it, they are ignored or contained. The others, they are left to desperately struggle to be free as all their sins catch up to them.
I need to watch the film again, especially the end credits where it is all written out, but I am sure it will end up fitting together like clockwork. Through out the film there were these moments without explanation. Why did this or that happen, how did this person know that thing at that time, and so on. And once you fill in the empty space, the hidden saboteur who is using non-lethal clever tricks to keep the misunderstandings coming, suddenly it all falls into place. The assassin was delivered tied to the gate of Arvind Swamy’s house but still breathing so that Arvind could panic and read the message that someone knew he was the one who sent the assassin. Aishwarya was arrested in this tidy fashion so that she could be safe in a jail in Dubai, and her children sent off to London far away from all this. Jyothika and Jayasudha has a chance to leave too, with the rest of the family, but didn’t take it. Even Aditi, her location was revealed (doubtless by Vijay Sethupathi), but she was only used as a temporary hostage and then released to disappear like the others. And off and on through out the film we saw the police officer calling to warn the gangsters that the department was done looking the other way, they were going to end this crime wave one way or the other. An empty threat, seemingly, until we learn that the department was backing Vijay to make it happen.
(Really interesting character for Aditi. She is not simply a mistress, she has her own job and pays her own way. But her relationship with Arvind, it’s shallow, it’s an experience not a love story. We can see why Jyothika dismisses her instead of being jealous of her. Jyothika and Arvind, they are like one person in two bodies, we can really see the cousin relationship combined with marriage in them, same background and same upbringing and same parents long before they were married)
And of course Vijay fits together just right himself. We see in his first scene that he is called up for violence against a campus drug dealer, and mention is made of his gangster father and mother who killed herself, leaving him to be raised by her aunt and uncle. And then the film moves on, he is suspended and asks Arvind for help getting off suspension, and so on. We forget that his original suspension wasn’t for bribery or misbehavior, but for beating a suspect too much, for hating criminals too much. And we forget that the son of a dead criminal could grow up with a criminal tendency, or could grow up simply hating crime.
From there, we see him in his humble struggling middle-class household, not the house of a man who cares enough about money to take a pay off from a gangster. We learn that he is friends with Arvind Swamy, but not an every day friend, seems to drift in and out of his life. He also has an almost superhuman ability to gain information just when it is needed. And we see his calm in the face of every threat. If we spent more time with him, instead of seeing he appear and disappear, we could put together the clues and realize this is much more like an honest police officer than a corrupt one, certainly not like one who could be threatened into following orders. Vijay plays it perfectly as well, he is mostly the cool slightly cowardly and not caring about a thing personality of a bad cop on suspension and desperate for work. But there are moments where we see a flicker of confidence, of coolness, that doesn’t really match with someone who is jumping to Arvind’s tune.
And so at the end everyone we know is dead, and yet it is a happy ending. Because suddenly we see things from Vijay’s side of things and know that everyone else we have been watching for the rest of the film is bad, deserves to die. We should be rooting for Vijay to manage to destroy them if he possibly can.
That’s what the opening of the movie is about. Vijay’s voice over explains that a city reinvents itself every ten years, like a snake shedding his skin. That’s all Vijay is trying to do, to ease along the process of shedding that skin. Clean out the crooks, the gang members and the leaders alike, and let the city start fresh. That’s what we are watching here, the death throws of terrible people as they tear each other apart to make way for something new.