I picked up a copy of Subramaniapuram after being intrigued by the costumes, Brothers’ Gibb hairstyles and excessive facial hair I saw in the songs – which I’m worried says a little too much about how I choose which films I watch!
It all makes a little more sense when it turns out that most of the film is a flash-back to 1980, although I’m not sure that large collars and flares ever made much sense. This is director M. Sasikumar’s first venture, but he worked with Paruthiveeran director Ameer on a few films previously and appears to have been influenced by Ameer’s true-to-life style of film-making. The realistic approach suits the gritty storyline, although the screenplay does wander in places with the first half being essentially a long set-up for the action in the rest of the film. However, there is enough suspense to keep the plot interesting and the attention to detail in the sets makes it an intriguing glimpse into India in the early eighties.
The film starts with a dramatic stabbing outside Madurai prison in 2008. To explain who has been stabbed and why, we move back to 1980 and a group of friends who spend their days lazing around the area of Subramaniapuram. Azhagar (Jai), who my subtitles call Alagar and Paraman (M. Sasikumar) act as security for the ex-councillor Somu and his brother Kanugu (Samuthirakani), although it’s a rather informal arrangement and Somu spends most of his time bailing the friends out of jail. Along with Kasi, (Ganja Karuppu), Dumka and Dopa, the friends prefer to drink and fight, rather than look for any gainful employment, which is a point of contention for Azhagar’s more successful brother and his long-suffering mother.
Some comedy is introduced with the goofy looks Azhagar gives Somu’s daughter Swathi (Thulasi), and the way he cannot keep his attention on anything else whenever she is around. It’s cute, and Azhagar’s attempts at stalking are met with plenty of encouragement, although naturally Swathi expects her man to eventually change his ways. Thulasi has a great shy and bashful smile which she uses well and she easily fits into the role of a school girl in the first throes of love. Later on she gets the chance to do a little more with her character and is convincing as she tries to reconcile her family’s expectations with her love for Azhagar.
The first half is slow with considerable time spent on developing the characters of the friends and not much progress with the story. However, there is a lot going on, but these are mainly background events which gradually combine to give an overall feel for the time and place. A trip to the cinema at one point for example, illustrates just how much Azhagar values his relationship with Swathi above his friends, which does have implications later on in the story. It also shows just how easily Azhagar and Paraman erupt into violence for very little provocation and that the Three Musketeers have nothing on Azhagar and his friends when it comes to the ‘all for one and one for all’ concept of fighting.
Essentially Subramanipuram is a story of betrayal. Kanugu feels betrayed when his political party appoints someone else into the role he has been coveting, and uses the unquestioning loyalty of Azhagar and Paraman to get his revenge. It’s also a story about the betrayal of Azhagar and Paraman who expect Kanugu to come to their rescue yet again and are spurred into action by Kanugu’s failure to get them out of jail after they remove his rival. There are many other betrayals along the way, which serve to highlight the few characters that do remain completely faithful. It’s an interesting look at how each small act of disloyalty starts another in a chain reaction that doesn’t intensify, but rather just keeps perpetuating in an endless cycle. Whether it’s about jobs, relationships both professional and personal or friendship, the betrayals come thick and fast throughout the community.
After the interval the story moves much faster as Azhagar and Paraman escalate their violence from petty fights to actual murder. The friends’ initial decision to kill Kanugu’s rival seems naïve, especially when Kanugu is so very obvious about his manipulation. However, their
subsequent actions quickly demonstrate how violence breeds yet more violence and that having killed once, it’s much easier to kill again. One of the most realistic scenes of the film does illustrate that it takes a fair amount of determined hacking to chop off someone’s head, so be warned that this isn’t a film for the squeamish (even though most of the aforementioned chopping does take place off-screen).
While Sasikumar does well at directing, he is rather more one-dimensional as Paraman, and even though Paraman has the potential to be an interesting character, he somehow never quite gets there. Jai has a little more material to work with as Azhagar, and does a great job of expressing every emotion from infatuation to terror and finally despair as the final betrayal hits home. It’s an impressive performance and enough to make me have a look for some of his other films, where thankfully he appears to have shaved off most of the truly excessive beard.
Ganja Karuppu is suitably annoying as the perpetually drunken Kasi, and when he does get the opportunity to do something more than just mug at the camera, he proves that he is a very credible actor when given the chance. Best of all though is the actor playing the disabled Dumka, who is wonderfully matter-of-fact and keeps the whole film grounded with his pithy observations and practical solutions. The character is well written, but the actor does justice to the role making Dumka memorable even though it’s only a small part. I haven’t been able to find out anything about him, but I hope he gets the chance to appear in more films in the future.
The costumes are also fantastic and all those shirts did conjure up some hideous memories of the late seventies. I have no idea how accurate this vision of 1980’s Madurai actually is, but it seems to be scarily reminiscent of 1980’s fashion in the UK (excepting the lungi’s of course). The music by James Vasthanan seems to fit the time period well and this is probably the best song which features plenty of those goofy grins and bashful glances between Azhagar and Thulasi.
Subramaniapuram starts out like any typical Tamil film, veers off into more novel territory with some good ideas, but is a little let down by patchy pacing of the action. Excellent performances and the dedication to recreating an early eighties feel make the most of the storyline although it’s not a film I’d recommend for the faint-hearted. Worth a watch though if you like a more realistic style of film and don’t object to the occasional outbreak of gory violence. 3 ½ stars.