You know how some critics conclude at the end of their reviews that the film is ‘strictly for the fans of an actor’, as though by virtue of being an admirer of the actor, you should somehow be able to tolerate underwhelming work? Well, let’s just say Vivegam is going to get a lot of those reviews. Strictly for Thala fans. What they mean is that you should be able to step in with a certain bias for the actor’s films which will help you turn a blind eye at the film’s flaws, in favour of all the moments that glorify the actor: the punchlines, the life advice, the ripped body the camera pays obeisance to, and all the slo-mo fights. But what such advocates don’t seem to get is that such masala moments are like the bullets that are fired by the thousands in Vivegam. The story… that’s the gun. Without it, you’re just throwing bullets at people. It’s simply… futile.
Cast: Ajith, Vivek Oberoi, Kajal Aggarwal
Vivegam makes no secret of its intent to piggyback on the superstar status of its hero, Ajith Kumar. He plays an indomitable agent called Ajay Kumar (the name so it can abbreviate to AK). He’s, as his ‘nanba’ Aryan puts it, “the best killer on earth”. But AK exists in a Tamil film; so, he’s also a model husband. He is the sort to answer his wife’s calls even when he’s on a bike with gun-toting killers hot on his prowl. Almost every major character in Vivegam plays a serious fan of the hero. They just can’t stop eulogising him to the skies and back. Among the various hymns Aryan sings of AK are lines like, “Poraadama poga maataan, saaga maataan.” He even nods in the direction of a previous Siva-Ajith collaboration when he says, “Vivegamaa seyal padraan. Veeram-a varaan.” One time, he makes it pretty evident that his praise is aimed at the star. “Thala keezha ninaalum pidikka mudiyadhu,” he says, laying special emphasis on the first word.
Meanwhile, Yazhini (Kajal Aggarwal), AK’s wife/devotee, almost gets moved to tears by his very presence. In one scene, as death looks certain for her, she closes her eyes, praying that she marry him again in her next birth. ‘Everybody loves AK’ would’ve been a fairly decent title too. There’s also clearly a lot of concerted effort put to make sure that he isn’t shown pandering to one religion. Just after he hears moving news from his wife, he makes the sign of a cross. He goes on to kneel as Muslims do, and then brings his palms together in true Hindu style. This isn’t an isolated scene, mind you. In a later scene, there’s a shot of Yazhini with paintings of Lord Ganesha in the background; this comes seconds after a shot covers a sculpture of Jesus on the cross. It’s a calculated effort at appealing to various communities.
The director’s first film with the actor was set in a village; the second was in a city; and for the third, they have crossed the border. For a while, its aspiration of being a Hollywood-range spy-thriller doesn’t seem too far-fetched. The setting, the use of VFX, all the talk of drones and nuclear weapons, references to concepts like the morse code, the action set-pieces… you almost buy into it all, despite the almost irksome super-fast editing, and the general lack of silence in the background score. But then again, for a film that’s trying to be international in treatment, some of the English usage is rather amusing. Yazhini, when she gets tongue-tied, says, “Struck aidchu”, when she means, “Stuck aidchu.” Another character keeps calling an earthquake, ‘earthquack’. A top police authority asks for the SWAT team, pronouncing it to rhyme with ‘flat’. It’s like the handsome guy in a svelte suit, who walks into a fancy wedding, and suddenly begins picking his nose. It ruins the mood.
All said though, Vivegam is an ambitious film, and technically, it’s right up there. I’ll give Siva that much. The film’s conceived as a race against time, which explains the digital design of the film’s title. Every set-piece is a battle against time. It’s about phone calls that can be tapped after 30 seconds, weapons that will explode in five hours, watch-bombs that will explode in half-a-minute… AK’s battle against time is a running theme. All the fancy gadgets, including touch screen systems, laser guns, hologram projections… are conceived and executed really well. Vivegam’s probably among the few Tamil films that have aspired to be Hollywood in treatment, and not left you squirming.
Shooting in sub-zero temperatures in countries like Bulgaria must not have been easy at all. But the moment someone refers to the hard work of the crew, in defence of a film, you know there’s something wrong with it. In Vivegam, there’s quite a lot. For fear of spoiling it, I’ll stop with saying that the audience shouldn’t be expected to feel the angst of betrayal if they haven’t been adequately exposed to the depth of a bond. As for the portrayal of women, Vivegam wouldn’t even pass the qualifiers to the Bechdel test. Both the characters played by Kajal and Akshara Haasan need to be protected, with one of them disappearing as fast as she arrives.
Towards the end, an almost parodic sequence reminded me of Paravai Muniyamma’s famous contribution in Dhool’s climax. By that time, the original promise of an international spy-thriller felt like a distant memory. But I guess any film which shows a phoenix flying at you, after the villain compares the hero to one, is always going to have a tough time living up to lofty ambitions. At any rate, I’m just glad the bird’s face didn’t turn into AK’s.
This review was written for The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to this page if you’d like to share it.