Pudhupettai is Selvaraghavan’s ode to gangster life, telling the story of the rise and fall of Kokki Kumar in the slums of Chennai. It’s brutal and violent, and for the most part Selva doesn’t give his ‘hero’ any redeeming features making this a departure from most other Tamil gangster flicks. At the end of the day, the only real priority for Kumar is himself and trying to keep himself alive, which reflects the film’s tagline ‘survival of the fittest’. The film is shot almost like a documentary, following the wandering path of Kumar’s life rather than having a distinct narrative, and it’s this realism and attention to the details of the characters and their harsh lives that makes Pudhupettai such a fascinating watch.
The film opens with Kokki Kumar (Dhanush) in jail. He seems disorientated, perhaps mentally ill, as he shouts out for anyone who might be listening to him. These opening shots feature Kumar in green with contrasting red light from outside the cell, further isolating him and accentuating his odd behaviour. This colour scheme replicates throughout the film, maybe to illustrate Kumar’s almost split personality but it’s also used to highlight important moments in his life. It’s part of how Selva pulls the story together, using images and brief vignettes rather than long drawn out scenes to develop his characters.
The film then moves to a flashback of Kumar’s early life in the slums of Pudhupettai. He seems a typical young man as flirts with girls and is chastised by his mother for dancing in the streets rather than hurrying off to school. However, violence is never far away. His father is violently abusive and finally one night Kumar returns to find his mother has been murdered by his father. Fearing for his own life, Kumar flees onto the streets to try to make his own way in the world.
He’s not terribly successful at this and eventually turns to begging in the streets where he is accidentally picked up by the police during a raid on drug sellers operating under local thug Anbu (Bala Singh). Anbu’s men take Kumar under their wing and introduce him to their boss, managing to secure him a spot in their gang. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi has a small role here as one of the gang, and there are a few other familiar faces including Aadukalam Murugadoss who also pop up in the background.
Kumar gradually learns how to be a gangster and there is some good humour worked into the scenes where he learns how to use a machete and case the scene before a crime. He also has a mean temper and when backed into a corner by a rival gang lead by Murthy (Prudhviraj) he fights back, killing Murthy’s brother and turning Murthy into an enemy for life. The film follows Kumar as he meets and falls in love with prostitute Krishnaveni (Sneha) and subsequently takes over the area from Anbu after killing his former boss in a dispute over his treatment of Krishnaveni.
Kumar has grand ambitions and with the gang behind him he takes Anbu’s place working for corrupt politician Thamizhselvan (Azhagam Perumal). The body count rises as Thamizhselvan commissions murders and Kumar steadily makes inroads into Murthy’s territory. But then Kumar sees Selvi (Sonia Agarwal), the sister of his main henchman Mani, and he falls instantly in lust. Forgetting Krishnaveni he marries Selvi instead of the real groom at her wedding and immediately has another enemy out for his blood. Mani joins forces with Murthy and the two conspire to bring Kumar down.
This is the seedy side of gangster life and Selva shows the grubby political deals and bloody in-fighting between the rival gangs as something to be expected, rather than as exceptions to the rule. No-one comes out of this looking good and Kumar in particular is not a nice man. At first there seems to be some attempt to explain Kumar’s violent tendencies on his early experiences, but during a drinking session with the gang one night, it’s revealed that everyone has a similar story. It’s even a source of entertainment for the gang as they each tell their stories of abuse and murder and decide who has the funniest story.
It then seems as if there may be some compassion in Kumar when he fights Anbu for Krishnaveni’s freedom, but this doesn’t ever seem to be a grand passion or even much of a love story at all, and Kumar tends to treat Krishnaveni more as a possession rather than a lover. He’s able to completely ignore her when he sees Selvi and isn’t at all bothered by Krishnaveni’s attempt to leave him, until she announces that she is pregnant. That of course makes all the difference, and this is the one part of the film where Kumar genuinely seems to care for someone else. The birth of his son is a momentous event in his life, which makes his son’s loss later in the film more effective than expected.
There are signs that Kumar might be a better man than first appears when he takes on cases where the local people have been affected by corruption and crime after overthrowing Anbu. But this appearance of trying to help the poor turns out to be just an easy way to develop a power base and get support – something that Kumar needs if he wants to further his political ambitions and make a name for himself. I love how each time Kumar seems to be acting more responsibly it’s shown to be just another way to make sure he comes out on top. The pragmatism and cunning he shows seem to be reasonable requirements for someone who aspires to be a top politician, while the extreme violence and disregard for human life explain why Kumar makes such a good gangster.
Throughout, Dhanush is excellent despite a tendency to overact in the prison scenes where he has to explain his story directly to the audience. His transformation from a scared adolescent to a violent and cold-blooded criminal is brilliantly achieved, and his tendency to become completely feral when he loses his temper gives the character a chilling authenticity. Here is someone with few morals, who decides what they want and then goes ahead and takes it without worrying about the consequences or the possible price. Sneha does a fantastic job with the character of Krishnaveni and gives her dignity and grace despite her profession and her association with the gang. Krishnaveni seems to genuinely love Kumar, although some of this may be gratitude for helping her escape the brothel, but she brings some normalcy into the storyline and provides a good contrast to all the violence. She’s not completely innocent either and her entrapment of Kumar by mentioning her pregnancy after he marries Selvi is a clever twist, as is Selvi’s nasty dig when she points out that Kumar can’t be sure that the baby is his. It all rings true and despite the buckets of blood and excessive use of knives (check out Kumar’s impressive machete storage cupboard!) this doesn’t seem to be too fantastical a story. The characters all seem plausible too, particularly in the way they let their petty squabbles and problems spill over to affect the whole area.
The rest of the cast are uniformly good too – Sonia Agarwal has less to do than Sneha but she is excellent as the reluctant bride, while Azhagam Perumal has so many backflips that it’s a wonder he can work out which way to look at the camera. Clever writing and good dialogue ensure that everyone has a role to play while the good performances mean it all flows beautifully.
The film is enhanced by excellent cinematography from Arvind Krishna, who makes Chennai look stunningly beautiful one moment and then grimly ugly, just as Selva juxtaposes Kumar’s dreams with the harsh reality of life as a gangster. The songs and background music by Yuvan Shankar Raja also suit the film well with the songs seamlessly flowing into the dialogue and some hauntingly beautiful instrumentals.
At almost 3 hours Pudhupettai is a long film and at times it does tend to drift into indulgent territory, but then it’s so well made that it’s hard to complain. This is a film that seems to get better and better with repeated viewings as more of the story becomes clear. As with most Selvaraghavan’s films, the subject matter is dark and his characters flawed, but the subject matter here suits this type of delivery and as a whole the film works very well indeed. Not one for the squeamish given the preponderance of edged weapons and gory bloodshed but for anyone who enjoys a gangster film, this is one of the best. 4½ stars.