If you’ve watched and loved Neeraj Pandey’s Special 26, bear this warning in mind: Thaanaa Serndha Koottam is NOT a heist film. I repeat, it is NOT a heist film. It clearly didn’t mean much that the story is based on a famous robbery that occurred in the late 80s. If you were simply hoping to see a Tamil version of Special 26, you will be disappointed. I repeat, you will be disappointed. Vignesh Shivn, to be honest, isn’t even trying to make a heist film. Instead, he’s gone for the sort of ‘saviour’ film we have seen quite a bit of. It’s probably because the business model here isn’t all too encouraging of stars doing genre-loyal, clever films.
Cast: Suriya, Keerthy Suresh, Ramya Krishnan, Senthil
Director: Vignesh Shivn
Also, our stars, it seems, can’t really play a protagonist with a streak of selfishness. Iniyan (an in-form Suriya), like countless others of his ilk who have championed causes in Tamil films, possesses a heart of gold. He reminded me of one particular popular fictitious champion of the downtrodden: Kicha of Shankar’s Gentleman… if, of course, he were infused with quite a bit of humour. Both characters lose a friend, and both then take to looting the rich to help the underprivileged rise. Gentleman tackled corruption in education; TSK takes on corruption in employment. The chief difference though is, while Kicha is an idealist and tries to create an alternative system, Iniyan is a pragmatist, and tries to play the current system. “Lanjatha vechu dhaan lanjatha ozhikka mudiyum,” he says. Somewhere, the protagonist of another Shankar film, Indian, is raging and booking a return ticket to the country.
Oh, and there’s another similarity between Kicha and Iniyan. Both fall in love with a ‘Brahmin maami’, who serves no big purpose in the narrative. It’s a pity because it seemed for a brief while that TSK seemed intent on correcting the weak love angle in Special 26, but then again, despite encouraging early signs, it’s the same old story of the heroine who exists only to pine and worry for the boy. It seems that even Vignesh Shivn is aware of this. He gets her to say, “Adhukku thaane naanga irukkom.” Is he, like Iniyan, trying to attack the system by playing it?
Iniyan, unlike Ajay of Special 26, doesn’t really seem to believe in ingenious, iron-clad plans. He’s more a man of faith, it seems. In a crucial life-or-death scene, he trusts that the good he’s done will beget selfless gratitude. Another person who’s winging things as he goes along is trigger-happy cop, Kurunjivendan (Karthik, who I rather liked in this underwritten role). He talks of wanting to gather evidence, and seems like a smart man, but you don’t get why he lets one too many criminals in on his big end game plan. And if his plan is to take them all down, why even bother with evidence? Even the big break he gets in the case is on account of a lucky phone call. By the end, his transformation from a potentially menacing villain to a laughing stock is complete.
What Vignesh Shivn has done with TSK is, he’s sacrificed on the seriousness and the smarts to milk the content for the laughs and the feels. Rather ironically, Iniyan himself says, “Feel panna anju paisa ku prayojanam illa.” But nevertheless, Iniyan and all his associates get tragic backstories to justify their looting. Azhagu Meena (Ramya Krishnan playing a vulnerable character after a while) has a wheelchair-bound husband and has to fend for her substantially large family. Another associate’s effeminacy has caused him to be discriminated against. Even Iniyan’s father is not exempt from this treatment.
But the jokes — which come in all shapes and sizes — quite work, much like in the director’s last film, Naanum Rowdy Thaan. A potential tragedy is cleverly turned around on its head for a joke. A serious interrogation is trivialised by a version of Vadivelu’s famous ‘Enna nee kaiyapudichu izhuthiya’ joke. While in the midst of a CBI raid, Azhagu Meena messes up her lines for a joke. Vignesh Shivn is constantly looking for opportunities to lighten the proceedings. It risks trivialising the content — and indeed, it does — but so long as the jokes work, you are sufficiently distracted. Occasionally, they do fail. Senthil’s first ‘petromax light’ joke is a moment of great nostalgic warmth, but when tried a second time, it falls flat.
Nostalgia, of course, was among the big rewards of Special 26, given the authenticity of the period it’s set in. There are quite a few rewards in TSK too. The landline phones. Mount Road without traffic. Gold Spot. And all the film posters in the background: Thillu Mullu, Poovizhi Vasalile… In an important scene, Iniyan retells a line he saw in 1987’s biggest film, Nayagan. It’s a lovely touch.
While on nostalgia, composer Anirudh’s contribution to this film cannot be undervalued. He almost seems to have taken this project up as a challenge to try and show the world what he could have done had he been around in that era. Some of the BGM — with the sort of instruments that you generally only hear in the songs of composers of that era — is delightful. As a montage plays, a background male vocal goes, “Rabapapapa”. I chuckled in enjoyment. It’s not a surprise at all then that when the end credits begin to roll, Anirudh’s is the first name to appear.
Oh, and there’s another element of nostalgia that is perhaps the biggest positive of Thaanaa Serndha Koottam: Suriya showing what he can do when he’s allowed to have a bit of fun. It’s been a while since his eyes glinted with mischief. He’s been the raging upholder of justice for a tad overlong, and while Vignesh Shivn also gets him to be the voice against corruption, at least here, his methods are different, and the actor doesn’t take himself all too seriously. It’s all perhaps best summarised in one scene when he’s interacting with a cop, and notices his name tag… Doraisingam, it reads. Suriya doesn’t overreact. He doesn’t make a wisecrack. His reaction simply betrays the tiniest amusement, and that’s it. It’s perfect. Can we have a lot more of this Suriya please… even if it means tainting a remake or two.
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.