Producer Suriya will probably come off best with the decision to release Ponmagal Vandhal directly on Amazon Prime Video. Following the controversy with the theatre owners, the film became written about, he probably got a good enough price from the OTT platform and with his name as producer and wife, Jyotika, taking centerstage, the film is bound to have a sizeable viewing. The problem, however, is that the film itself is not quite there.
Ponmagal Vandhal, directed by JJ Fredrick, falls yet again into that category of an extremely relevant and unglamorous issue taken up but then diluted by the trope of the ‘message’ films we see in Indian commercial cinema, especially mainstream Tamil cinema. So a film that deals with the sensitive issue of brutal sexual abuse of young girls and the lifelong trauma that a survivor goes through, if she lives through it, is told to us in a heavy handed, preachy and rather moralistic manner. The message is hammered home through several courtroom monologues by Jyotika, dropping references of various sexual abuse cases of young girls all over the country to show that she and the makers have done their research. Subtle it isn’t and neither is Indian mainstream Indian cinema or its audiences, but leave alone underlining the issues involved, this is underlining in triplicate. Most Indian films confuse getting the message through, come was may, at the cost of integrating it properly within a story that is cinematically told. The film bites off more than it can chew in this regard, at times trying to pack in too much to say.
In the film, Venba (Jyotika) is a lawyer who fights a 15-year old case that is reopened. The case concerns a series of kidnapping of young girls in 2004 in and around Ooty, who were then killed brutally, their corpses buried. The killer was thought to be a woman ‘psychopath’, Jothi, who was seen trying to run off with a young girl and who shoots two young men trying to rescue the girl. She was then arrested and killed in an ‘encounter’ by the police citing self defence. Venba takes on the case to prove Jothi’s innocence after all these years and also, that the truth of the case lies elsewhere…
After an interesting enough beginning in the misty Lovedale forest in 2004, the film is unable to sustain itself. The writing is rather weak and convenient at times while the film itself falls into no man’s land by taking up an issue and a story that required a far more realistic treatment but unfortunately, the film waters it down by trying to be more mainstream and viewer friendly. It doesn’t go the whole hog as a commercial film either, finally being neither here nor there. Undue dramatisation reduces the impact and proves cinema’s golden rule yet again for maximum impact. That less is more. Take the interval block for instance. Jyotika makes a startling revelation. Startling to the makers I suppose. As audiences, we know this particular interval block is coming from a mile away. As she speaks, the sound designer adds extra reverb to her voice, to tell us that a dramatic dialogue is going to be uttered, as if we couldn’t get it from what Jyotika says. It pretty much kills the whole moment. In fact, the interval block fails because of its predictability and doesn’t leave you interested enough for the film’s second half. Maybe this is why the final doesn’t-add-anything-substantial twist has been added (was it done as an afterthought?) to look at it with new light. Either way, it doesn’t work. The only interesting thing about this twist is the way Jyotika is used in the flashbacks, a little Kaahani (2012) like.
The point of a well-knit screenplay is to weave its elements smartly and coherently into its narrative flow. Ponmagal Vandhal fails in this. Jyotika is shown in the opening song entertaining young girls with magic tricks. This is then done, brushed under the carpet never to be used again in the film. So why use it then? Sadly, Indian mainstream cinema often doesn’t bother about things like this. I remember in Suriya’s 7aum Arivu (2011), he is a circus artist in the present day. Much publicity was done about how he learnt to juggle and other tricks. But apart from a little montage in a song, this track was never used again in the film. So why make him a circus performer then when he could have been anything else and it doesn’t make a difference. A couple of sequences also seem to be inspired from the Italian mini-series, The Trial, wherein the lawyers from present day are seen observing a flashback sequence as if occurring in front of them.
While the treatment is loud, melodramatic, obvious and filmi, the filmmaker has done his best to stick to his story and tell it in about two hours. But while this is heartening, it has its share of problems. There is no romantic track, for instance, in the film. Which, depending on the story, is fine and better it’s not there rather than being added as a necessary evil. I’m all for doing away with the unwanted tropes of mainstream cinema in our films. But what is Fredrick trying to say here? That being a rape victim, a survivor is tarnished and fated to be alone all alone her life? Or is it her choice, which is perfectly valid and could have added to her character. However, the film stays markedly clear of this angle and it is a little odd when you think of it. I’m sure the filmmakers mean well but in issue films and especially in India, they have to be aware, not just of text but more importantly, the subtext of what they’re trying to say or not to say.
The film is well-cast and performances are generally fine enough. Bhagyaraj and Parthiban, as the lawyer in opposition to Jyotika, come off best. Jyotika has some strong moments but also several in which you can feel the ‘acting.’ The support cast is fine but Thyagarajan makes for a lousy, lip quivering villain. The way a supposedly smart cookie like him gets so easily played by Jyotika in court is unconvincing to say the least.
The technicalities are so-so. The mounting of the film is low-key and the production design looks surprisingly low budget. Ramji raises the film a notch with some evocative camerawork, while the songs, filmed as montages, are adequately composed.
All in all, Ponmagal Vandhal, takes up a relevant subject as its backdrop but unfortunately, fails to do proper justice to it.
Tamil, Drama, Color