Velaikkaran: Plenty to chew on, even if it isn’t all delicious  

Sivakarthikeyan. Remember this name, I’d written, as early as during his Rajini Murugan days. Velaikkaran is where he’s completely shed his comedy-actor tag. He’s a mass hero now, and in one portentous scene at the beginning, he mimics an actor, the superstardom of who he seems to have in his crosshairs. Some of the comedy during the film’s opening portions reminded me a lot of what Rajinikanth himself was known for, in, say, a film like Sivaji. Much like in that film, the protagonist of Velaikkaran — Arivu (Sivakarthikeyan) — bleeds compassion, and aspires for the improvement of life in his community, and by extension, society in general. There’s something almost naïve, something innocent in his earnestness to change society for the better all by himself. The cynic in me looked on in sympathy: Arivu, you can try but the world is what it is. You’ll end up the worse for your attempts. But Mohan Raja is a man of optimism — his heroine, Mrinalini (who everybody keeps calling Mirunalini), has the word ‘positivity’ tattooed on her forearm. You can see why she’d be interested in Arivu. Mohan Raja’s point is that all it takes to ring in change is the actions — not just thoughts — of one man (Thani Oruvan, if you will).  Emphasising on the need to act, Arivu says, “Ulagail thalaisirandha sol, seyal.”’

Director: Mohan Raja
Cast: Sivakarthikeyan, Nayanthara, Prakash Raj, Fahadh Faasil

Director Mohan Raja really seems to care, and his noble intentions — backed with the exhaustive research he seems to have undertaken on the subject — really differentiates Velaikkaran from run-of-the-mill big-budget films that piggyback on social issues. It’s his second consecutive film which deals with a social issue — one that’s more relatable, this time. The big question at the heart of the film — for a while at least — is this: Why is our salary never truly sufficient? Eventually, it problematically morphs into another question: Are we aware of the dangers of consuming some of the junk we have taken a liking to? In the film’s most enjoyable stretch, Arivu, who joins as a salesman at a leading FMCG organisation, learns about the difference between marketing and sales. He learns about hard work and smart work. He learns about sample marketing. Let’s just say that for a while at least, you will look at supermarkets rather warily. What I enjoyed most about Velaikkaran is how Arivu isn’t contemptuous of these ideas. He realises ideas, like weapons, are amoral, and eventually, trains them on his adversary, who doesn’t quite see it all coming.

It’s a film about the exploitation of the labour class. It’s easy to think of it as one that advocates socialism. The red flags bearing the image of the raised fist (traditionally associated with revolution and socialism) are definite markers. The ‘unionism’ associated with the flag is a topic that reverberates in this story. Also serving as a marker is the film’s scorn for class differences. Arivu, in one of his many passionate monologues, talks about how the lower class and middle class serve simply to fatten the profits of the upper class. The opening song, Karuthavanlaam Galeejaan, talks about how development is as a result of the work of the labour class. But quite unlike in keeping with the principles of socialism, Velaikkaran isn’t really interested in overthrowing the ruling class, or in stripping ownership from individuals and handing it to the government. Mohan Raja asks for something far simpler: loyalty, not towards the owners, but towards the job.

The end reminded me a lot of The Dark Knight. The hero trusts in the inherent goodness of people and hopes that goodness, even if fleetingly practised, will stick. His adversary meanwhile is convinced people are gullible and easily distracted. The problem with the director’s solution that problems could be sorted if individual workers developed a conscience about their job is how rather simplistic it seems. In most large organisations, like the corrupt ones in this film, different units — let alone individual workers — don’t always realise they’re doing wrong. Mohan Raja, that master of research, is aware of course of ‘division of labour’. He even takes a dramatic jab by calling it, ‘division of crime’. Arivu passionately points out that even the labelling and the bottle capping sections of a company are as culpable as the section that poisons the item in question. But it does seem a bit savage to make that accusation, given it’s almost impossible for them to know about the poisoning in the first place. The director suggests then — rather dramatically again — that ‘gossip’ be used to telling effect. At least in theory, you have to admit it all seems catchy and interesting. Fault these ideas for being simplistic, if you will, but definitely not the thought put into figuring out solutions, which is more than you can say about our traditional big-budget films whose usual answer to solving social evil is to make the hero a vigilante figure who says, “Reform or you die.”

I also liked how some of the film’s ideas echo towards the end. The radio channel idea. The switch-on-the-lights campaign, which signifies a literal emergence from the dark. Even something as seemingly innocuous as Arivu asking why he was selected at the job interview comes back to enterprising effect. Also heartening is the love angle in the film — especially given all the flak the actor received for the one in his last. That overused line in our films — I love you — doesn’t even figure, and yet, you never really question the relationship between Arivu and Mrinalini. She’s still just a crutch, mind you, but you can’t quite generalise that to all women in the film. Arivu’s smartest idea comes from a woman, his mother, in a lovely scene.

But for me, the most powerful portion of the film is the one that draws our attention to how we are victims of advertisements, pop culture, and peer pressure. I wish it had stuck to this problem instead of moving on to the less effective story of the substandard quality of the junk we consume — which even if solved, still doesn’t quash the original problem of financial insufficiency. Perhaps with the original, more gripping issue, the hero-villain sparring in the second half may not have seemed as tedious.

I also found it interesting that while Arivu seems to be against the idea of people waiting around for messiah figures — like Kalam and Kejriwal, it is said — the film eventually ends up romanticising Arivu as such a figure, even as he stands looking into the camera with determination, while his friends — comrades — dance around with flags featuring the raised fist. But Mohan Raja won’t care, when I also tell him that as I stepped out during interval, I asked myself if I truly needed the popcorn I was about to instinctively purchase. I suspect he is reading this, smiling at a job well done.

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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