Vada Chennai: A gritty, even if rushed, gangster drama with unforgettable stretches

Vetrimaaran has revealed in recent interviews that bits and pieces from Vada Chennai developed life and grew bones to become the three films he has done so far. As you walk out of Vada Chennai, you know exactly what he means. The carrom board culture from this film made its way into Polladhavan. A character in that film survives a hitjob and gets paralysed — an occurrence you see in this film too. The idea of a leader whose two proteges turn rivals — with one of whom the protagonist allies — is in Aadukalam. We see that here too. Vada Chennai’s distrust of the system, of the government, we see in Visaranai. All those three films — and now Vada Chennai — are fascinatingly united in one other way: The inescapable descent of the protagonist into darkness. In Polladhavan, a stolen bike guides him into a tour of the gangster world. In Aadukalam, an unwitting ego tussle pushes him into harm’s way. In Visaaranai, of course, it’s just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Anbu (Dhanush) in this film is a victim of circumstances too. He wants to become a carrom board player (“Board aadanum”), but circumstances hold him prisoner. As Anbu processes it, “Ennannamo nadandhu pochu.” In a Vetrimaaran film, you’re a prisoner. Many times, literally. A large part of Vada Chennai is set in prison, and after perhaps Mahanadhi, I haven’t been as engrossed in prison politics. It’s perhaps why a character does a hat tip to Kamal Haasan’s film when he tells another prisoner: “Mahanadhi la vara madhri vazhukki vizhundhuttennu sollu.”

Director: Vetrimaaran
Cast: Dhanush, Samuthirakani, Kishore, Andrea, Aishwarya Rajesh

The cyclical nature of the story is almost mythical. And much like in myth, a woman is at the heart of everything that happens. You just know when you see Chandra (Andrea) for the first time that she’s got personality. In one memorable shot, as a bunch of henchmen flank her, she stands at the centre, breathing fire. A woman, not a man, as we usually see in gangster films. It didn’t bother me too much that the actor didn’t quite feel like she belonged in that neighbourhood — something about the looks, something about the dialogue delivery, but it didn’t bother me. She’s a mysterious beauty in this universe — like Helen, like Draupadi, an agent of chaos, and such women don’t necessarily need to look like they belong. That Jayalalitha reference in conversation, and those striking funeral video bits, may not just be here to add realism to the period it’s set in; it feels like a metaphor for Chandra in a sense. There’s a second woman — Padma (or as Anbu calls her, Bathma), played by Aishwarya Rajesh — whose striking characteristic is her easy tongue for expletives. It’s almost cathartic hearing a woman abuse with such abandon, but I wish this pluckiness had translated to something significant. She ends up simply being an embellishment, at least in this first film of the trilogy.

If Chandra shows that leadership isn’t found only in the realm of men, Padma shows that expletives aren’t either. And boy, are they littered around this film. They’re inventive, funny, and as they are sometimes meant to be, mostly expressive. It’s not done for shock value or said by characters who channel it to seem fashionable. It’s as it is, as it should be; it’s how they talk. Dialogues are one of many areas that serve as indicators of all the research that has clearly gone into the making of this film. In the mouths of these North Chennai characters, compromise becomes compromisation; player, flayer; solve, saal; and casual, casualty. You really get a sense of life there, and I don’t know about you, but I really felt a lot of affection for how they are and empathy for who they have been forced to become.

Vetrimaaran’s a master of staging, and in Vada Chennai again, you see plenty of evidence. Two murder sequences, especially, are the stuff of literature. One reminded me of the famous Solozzo murder scene in The Godfather. The setup, the conversations, the hesitation, and of course, that it is set in a restaurant. It’s a scene that I dare say will stay in my head for a long time, and it’s quite fitting then that it is in the aftermath of this all-important murder that the film begins. It’s not just a gimmicky beginning used to send the narrative back and forth; it’s where the beginning of this story actually lies.

In the other murder sequence, you have two novices undergoing a rite of passage of sorts. The event is the equivalent of two young lion cubs hunting a weary hyena. It’s fascinating to see as they, full of vigour and inventiveness, wake up to what they can actually do. It’s a sequence Santosh Narayanan’s music stands out in. There’s one other murder sequence — which I suspect will be a lot more popular than the ones I’ve talked about here — that brings the roof down. Fascinatingly enough, the roof is brought down in the actual scene too. I saw the twist coming from a mile though, as I did with the other. So while the twists aren’t particularly a surprise — and I’m not sure Vetrimaaran intended that they be — they were still largely enjoyable. I also much enjoyed the film’s wicked sense of humour, which manifests every now and then, and often when you least expect it. Like when Anbu’s brother-in-law slaps his father to bring him in line.

If I’m not blown away by Vada Chennai, it’s partly because I kept feeling repetitive echoes from Kaala. It may be unfair to this film, given that it’s been in the pipeline for many years now, but it’s impossible not to draw parallels with the Ranjith film, given Vada Chennai’s emphasis on the importance of, say, protesting to protect your welfare, given its cynical view on urban development that demands slum eviction. One scene as authorities sit in with the slum dwellers is almost a carbon copy of the one in Kaala, as the hero (Anbu here) makes it abundantly clear that he finds the plan unacceptable and harmful. There’s also the indication in Vada Chennai that only education can help these victims in the long-run. So while Anbu says, “Sandai seiyanum”, he’s also asking an educated friend to stay out of trouble.

More comparisons with Kaala ensue, when Anbu taunts the authorities about not even understanding their language. Good luck not feeling echoes of Kaala’s friend taunting the villain about his ignorance of the locality’s geography. This film even has the same weakness: An awkward fight scene bolstered by Santosh’s guitar riffs that seems way too cinematic to belong in a gritty film as this.

It is tempting to think of Vada Chennai as being Vetrimaran’s Kaala. The passion in the voice may not be as all-consuming, but there’s more colour in characters, more grit in the setting. However, with all the back stories and all the various subplots getting contained into about 2 hours and 45 minutes, Vada Chennai also feels rather choppy. You swing from character to character, without there being too much time to dwell on motivations and ambitions. I would have loved it, say, had Rajan’s fate taken more time to unravel. There just isn’t time though to dwell on the hunger for power, the transformation from loyalist to betrayer, the Thambi-Rajan relationship… There’s also an expository dialogue here and there to quicken up proceedings. An important character, for instance, speaks at length about their plan, as the other person stands on the road, a mute listener. Every now and then, you also have the narrator explaining among other things, the overarching idea. It’s the sort of information that I’d have appreciated being left for himself to figure.

Still, we must remember that this is merely the set-up film. Vada Chennai is the first piece of a triptych. This focus on ‘three’ isn’t just in the number of films planned in this franchise; it also exists in the three characters that each section focusses on. And of course, there are three chapters in the film, with the common character being Anbu in each of them. As you walk out and reflect on Vada Chennai, it’s hard to miss the inevitability of life’s cyclical nature. It’s a constant struggle between the corrupt and the righteous. Every time a selfless man arises, corruption begins to rise, and every time a corrupt man threatens to run riot, justice begins to rise. It’s the sort of delicious irony, the sort of life rumination a Vetrimaaran film leaves you grappling with.

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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