With this, his fourth film, director Vetri Maaran reiterates his skill as a master storyteller as he takes us through North Chennai’s crime-infested slums with a gritty, violent saga of a talented carrom player, Anbu (Dhanush), who finds himself drawn into a vortex of crime as he gets caught between two warring gang leaders, Senthil (Kishore) and Guna (Samuthirakani)…
Vada Chennai is part of Vetri Maaran’s ambitious, dream epic – the first of a Godfather-like trilogy set in North Chennai from the 1980s onwards. The film, Maaran’s ‘Once-Upon-A-Time-In-Chennai’ saga, admittedly, takes time to settle down and suck us in as we are initially given a flurry of information to process, telling us who is who amongst the numerous characters and what is what. But before we know it, the main storyline, going seamlessly back and forth in time, kicks in and we are hooked.
While elements of the storyline have, no doubt, been seen before several times and certain plot points are obvious, where Maraan scores is in his treatment. Otherwise, we have seen warring gang lords, the confluence of crime, the law and politics, the dislocation of slum dwellers in the name of development, or the rowdy hero fighting for the cause many a time before. Yet, the filmmaker creates a multi-dimensional world with well-etched out characters, and one where we care for our protagonist, who all his life just wanted to be a carrom player. And it’s just not in the writing or in the chapter driven structure of the film. The narrative flow with its crests and troughs sees several set pieces beautifully staged with apt use of locations like the top of the water tower where Anbu and Padma exchange kisses in their developing romance or the action sequence in the Dhobi ghaat of the city. And Maaran’s film craft comes searing through in the sequence where Rajan is killed in a small military type hotel. The scene, and the tension within, is built up wonderfully moment by moment before the final pay off, showing us a filmmaker who clearly understands cinematic storytelling and who pays much attention to detail.
Even in a gritty, raw, violent film like this, Maaran ensures there are several small moments of delicious, insightful humour. The bit where Anbu goes to ask for Padma’s hand brings a smile to the face, while Anbu’s mother is a hoot in the scene where she wants to keep a stolen washing machine even though she has no clue what it is for. The films shows us how the death of well-known public political figures – in this case MGR and Rajiv Gandhi – give the slum dwellers the perfect excuse to ransack shops and steal goodies like TVs, mixer-grinders etc for their homes!
In a film that rests largely on the men, the women, too, have their smaller moments. It is most refreshing to see none of the women are short of spunk whether it is Anbu’s mother, Senthil’s wife, who bays for blood following the attack on him, Padma, Anubu’s love interest, or Chandra, Guna’s woman. In fact, it is Chandra, who drives the main plot, cleverly using Anbu as her executor.
In terms of the flip side, though the Rajan flashback is integral for us to understand the ensuing narrative, it goes on for much too long. Also, the big revelation of Chandra’s true motivations is not as effective as it should have been. It is the one place where the filmmaker wavers in his otherwise unfaltering control of the story.
Coming to the acting, Dhanush is simply superb as the simple carrom player who wants go from State level to National level but finds himself entangled in a world of crime. Working with Vetri Maaran in this, their third outing together following Polladhavan (2007) and Aadukalam (2011), he portrays the entire range of emotions of Anbu perfectly, be it his aspiring dreams as the young carrom player hankering for sporting glory, the youngster feeling the first flushes of love, or him becoming the reluctant hero, who has no qualms in killing if he has to. Dhanush brings a strong smouldering-beneath-the surface-intensity to Anbu with much restraint and understatement. In the sequence where Senthil and Guna try to piece together who might have attacked the former – we know it is Anbu – the subtle shift of emotions that flit across his face as he (and we) wonder if he might get caught is cinematic acting at its finest.
The supporting cast, full of talented performers, is largely spot on. Kishore and Samuthirakani, expectedly, give well-etched performances as the warring gangsters who once upon a time worked together. Kishore plays the overambitious player, Senthil, not averse to turning to betrayal for personal gain, whereas Samuthirakani as Guna, has his moments of vulnerability and loyalty. Director Ameer scores heavily as Rajan, the caretaker of his people and a role model for the young Anbu, while Daniel Balaji is also fine as Thambi, a negotiator and peacemaker of sorts often called in to try and create a compromise between the two warring factions. However, Aishwarya Rajesh after her initial pluckiness, is not given much to do once her character, Padma, falls for marries Anbu. Maybe, we’ll have to wait for the succeeding parts to see how her character develops. And Andrea Jeremiah, in the pivotal role of Chandra, is the one big weak spot in the casting. Hers is an ineffectual performance for so important a character.
Technically, the film is well crafted. The production design and the mounting of the film cannot be faulted and is complemented beautifully by R Velraj’s moody on-location camerawork that gives the film much of its grittiness. The film sees several well-conceived long takes with the steadicam, while the action set pieces are nicely executed. The background score, although loud and obvious, does enhance the film in places. The songs, however, are used in bits and parts in the background, to accompany the ongoing events and feel frustratingly incomplete. The editing keeps the story moving along even if a mite choppy in certain areas.
All in all, Vada Chennai is a strong first entry for Vetri Maaran’s crime trilogy and he has ensured that he has us waiting expectantly for parts 2 and 3. That, to me, is the film’s biggest success.
Tamil, Crime, Action, Drama, Color