A tale of two halves
The setting is the true hero of Madras . Small apartments with colourful plastic water pots and old TV sets, a dusty playground lit up with yellow lights, streets swarming with people … you can almost be forgiven for imagining that you sense the teasing aroma of meats as the camera scouts the narrow alleys of north Chennai. It’s that real! You feel you are watching the events of the story unfold from the congested balcony of your own single-bedroom flat in north Chennai; like you’ve already had casual conversations with these endearing characters during your visits to the neighbourhood market. The easily angered but loyal Kaali (Karthi), his selfless and ambitious best friend Anbu, the eccentric Johnny who spouts 150 words a minute, the politicians Maari and Kannan… they are all real people.
A painted wall in Karthi’s neighbourhood is in itself a character, almost living and breathing. It’s a mark of director Ranjith’s detailing and storytelling that even a stone wall becomes sentient. After a delightful, racy first half, you want the interval to be over soon, popcorn be damned!
The second half, sadly, doesn’t quite do justice, because of its sudden deviation from hyper realism . It hits a wall, pun intended. Suddenly, the real Kaali becomes unrealistically heroic. The Kaali and Kalaiarasi (Catherine Tresa) romance becomes a nagging distraction. You even catch a track that’s surprisingly similar to Hans Zimmer’s ‘Time’ ( Inception ) in Santhosh Narayanan’s otherwise excellent background score. A sad love song later, you are left wondering if the makers decided midway to check the cliché boxes. Unarmed man in fist fight with ten armed thugs. Check. One-on-one climactic combat. Check. You get the idea.
It’s also probably a good time to raise the question of romance. Is it necessary in all stories? Would Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment , a story you’re reminded of when Karthi grapples with the horror of his act, have improved from Raskolnikov falling in love earlier ? Of course not. A love story is a long journey, not a trifling series of encounters, and definitely not stop-gap. Also, it would be a good idea to desist from portraying a woman’s refusal as secret acceptance; it’s regressive in the extreme.
Karthi, despite looking a bit too sophisticated for the grime of north Chennai, is a revelation with his dialogue delivery and body language. He is every bit the quintessential ‘local paiyan ’. Madras takes its title from its setting. Just as the lustre of north Chennai weakened with time, so does the film’s. What if north Chennai were the centre of the city today? What if Madras , the film, had retained its realism in the second half?