Pudhupettai (2006)

Pudhupettai

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.

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Visaranai

 

“Give me the pink one. It’s my lucky lathi. Now let’s get them to confess”.

Vetrimaaran’s film takes a journey through the lawless side of law enforcement, where results matter and truth is often unwelcome. Adapted from M. Chandrakumar’s novel which was inspired by his own experiences, there is a relentless sense of doom pervading this story. Don’t get too attached to anyone!

Four Tamil men have come to Andhra Pradesh to work, sleeping rough in a park to save money. One night they are all picked up by the police. They are brutalised over and over but not told what they are suspected of doing and what they must admit to. It’s all a game to the cops but no one told Pandi, Murugan, Kumar or Afsal what that game is.

Afsal (Silambarasan Rathnasamy) is the youngest and weakest. Frightened of being hurt, and generally shy and inarticulate, Afsal triggered the arrests with a confession under duress and wavers most when under pressure. The four boys stick together and try to find a way out, trusting that their innocence will be recognised. Pandi (Dinesh Ravi) and Murugan (Aadukalam Murugadoss) are the stronger ones, with Pandi the more cynical and Murugan the more placid. Kumar (Pradheesh Raj) is injured badly early on and is a quiet, tense presence for most of his scenes.

The boys go on hunger strike and it seems to work. They are released, given money and told to come back to the station to sign a statement. They stop for a meal, eventually laughing at their strange fortunes. But when they go back, the sadistic Superintendent (Ajay Ghosh) says he couldn’t hit a starving man so he tricked them into filling their bellies. The beatings resume, more vicious than before.

I was struck by all the energy that goes into forcing confessions when maybe with the same expenditure of effort they could track down the real criminals. There is a discussion about finding someone else to take the fall but the boss is worried after all the injuries that the men will complain so he decides they must be found guilty. Eventually all the pressure works, especially the emotional blackmail from Pandi’s boss who knows it’s a set-up but encourages Pandi to take the easy way out for everyone’s sake. Including the police. These poor guys are expendable.

Pandi refuses to make a false plea once he is in front of a magistrate although his Telugu is not up to the finer points of his defence. Luckily for him there are Tamil Nadu police in another court so one is called upon to translate, and even more fortunately he recognises Pandi.  Inspector Muthuvel (Samuthirakani) explains the boys have jobs, never admitted fault, there is no evidence, and they’ve been beaten up for days on end. The magistrate knows Superintendent Rao has form for closing cases with false evidence and the boys go free.

Unluckily for Pandi and friends, the Tamil cops need their help in return. Sure enough, they help kidnap a high profile money launder KK (Kishore) from the courts. Back in Tamil Nadu, Kumar gets dropped off along the road but the others are taken to the station along with KK. KK tells Muthuvel that the last move in this game will be to tie up all the loose ends, like Muthuvel himself. And KK is a very smart man. About to leave, the guys are asked to clean the station building before they go. The ominous music says that was a bad idea, and I think Pandi knew it too.

Vetrimaaran mostly sticks with realism, creating a sense of the world just out of sight of the mainstream. The dark side is literally dark, with much of the film shot in night time and dimly lit interiors. The scenes are beautifully composed and I felt immersed in Pandi’s world, and the feeling of being entangled and lost. The spike of fear when the cops start torturing people is visceral, the relief when it stops and the terror of those waiting their turn also feel real. There is a foray into black and white for a couple of climactic scenes that struck me as annoyingly filmi. I wasn’t sure if it was censored because of all the gore or just cleverness, but regardless it was too tricksy. Other more successful visual metaphors were derived from the core of the drama – the movement between light and dark, between high and low places, people up to their necks in muck wading through sewers. The pace drags a little when the boys are hanging around doing the cleaning, and there is a little too much helpful exposition to get everyone on the same page, but these are minor issues.

Dinesh Ravi carries most of the film as Pandi was the enquiring mind, the calculating observer, and the loyal at heart.  His reactions and interactions with Samuthirakani give the story a centre and conflict that held the other strands together. Samuthirakani has gravitas and a wry humour that sparks up when Muthuvel is at ease. He is the cop who knows what is right, wants to be clean, but is coerced by his higher ups. Kishore is also impressive as the sly money man who can’t believe he will run out of friends or dollars. The dialogue is often sparse and meaning is layered through action and reaction. This is a man’s world. There is a budding romance (Anandhi as Shanthi), and a female cop (Misha Ghoshal) who deliberately forgets her phone so Pandi can call for help and that is it. All the supporting performances are good, but there are so many fleeting character appearances that the police dissolve into one huge despicable khaki organism.

I am not really surprised that the film failed to make the Oscars. A dog eat dog world with no hope of justice, and with the police at the heart of the darkness, seemed like a hard sell.

This is an accomplished film with some exceptional performances. It’s not an easy watch due to the casual brutality. It made me question why such a topic is still so current. And there is no moral or redemption to send you whistling on your way. Just death, lies, greed, and a promise of more of the same. 4 stars.