As ‘Viduthalai’ shows, Vetrimaaran is a filmmaker who never disappoints

It’s yet another of his films where no detail is an accident, where the filmmaker executes his vision exactly as he wants

Vijay Sethupathi in Viduthalai
The unbelievable casualness of Vijay Sethupathi is Viduthalai’s huge strength.

Vetrimaaran is universally admired for his cinematic creations. However, to understand his mind, it may be worthwhile to reflect on his ideas, and how he has been an advocate of rooted stories and characters. In an interview, he was quoted as saying, if one wants to get a global audience, as a director, he’s required to tell them a local story. Perhaps, this describes one of the secrets behind the success of Vetrimaaran’s movies — a sentiment that would find resonance with many.

Cinema, according to Vetrimaaran, has always been a tool for political expression and freedom. Grass Root Film Company, his brainchild, makes his worldview obvious. He emphasises a greater focus on the socio-political context, which impacts the way stories are told.

Also read | Viduthalai review: Deeply political, soul-stirring film, which leaves you shaken

Even though cinema is an escapist medium, Vetrimaaran is aware that his aim is never to escape reality — instead, his main task is to challenge the existing norm. This is why Viduthalai Part 1, headlined by Soori, which hit the screens recently, makes for an important watch.

The milieu of Viduthalai

Set in the 1980s, the Vetrimaaran-directorial opens with a train blast. The extended montage, which appears to be a single shot, transports us into the horrifying accident site where human body parts are scattered. Men who lost their limbs are shown struggling to survive. Women scream and beat their chests in grief. Also, we witness veshti-clad political party members shifting the blame without taking responsibility for what had unfolded. All of this blood and violence is intended to incite rage against the culprits, who attacked the bridge and killed these innocent civilians.

Soori in Viduthalai
Soori in Vetrimaaran’s Viduthalai

Makkal Padai, headed by Perumal (a) Vaathiyaar (Vijay Sethupathi), is widely seen as having masterminded the entire episode. The government views Perumal as a “faceless ghost”, despite being portrayed as the rebel group’s popular leader who fights for the rights of  oppressed indigenous people living in the mountains. Nobody knows how Perumal looks. Thus, the government launches Operation Ghost Hunt to nab him.

Was the Makkal Padai indeed behind the train attack? If yes, then, why do some villages back what is considered a terrorist wing? These questions remain unanswered.

Also read: Comedians make good actors, says Soori before release of Vetrimaaran’s ‘Viduthalai’

Cut to Kumaresan (a superb Soori), through the bus window. This means that his journey will be just as bumpy as the bus’s, which takes the winding roads. We see Kumaresan enjoy the sights and sounds of the village. The mood of the scene changes eventually, and we find out soon that he is all set to join a police camp as a rookie driver.

Every film that Vetrimaaran makes consumes a lot of time and effort. He had acknowledged his inability to create light films in another conversation. He looks at each film as a test, which helps him grow as a person. “Themes that I deal with should excite me to the point where it completely disrupts my routine,” he noted in the interview.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say he also expanded the festival market for Tamil films like Kaaka Muttai — a rather significant accomplishment. Then came Visaranai, which represented India at the Academy Awards and won three National Awards in 2016. Also, Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai had its world premiere at the Gala section of the Pingyao International Film Festival in China.

A filmmaker’s courage

Vetrimaaran manages to go head-on into contentious issues that most filmmakers would shy away from, especially in these tricky times. It requires courage, and that’s admirable.

Mani Ratnam’s work inspired him to become a director, but Balu Mahendra, who is regarded as a genius in Tamil cinema, has had a lasting impact on Vetrimaaran. According to the respected filmmaker, Balu Mahendra is always there for him, whispering, “This is not good, this is not right,” when he is on set or editing.

There were many things Vetrimaaran appears to have wanted to convey in Viduthalai — mainly, how one is considered “anti-establishment” whenever he dissents or stands up to something he believes in. 

Vetrimaaran tells us the story from Kumaresan’s point of view, in the form of letters to his mother. Kumaresan describes his role in the power struggle as well as the horror that unfolded in the forest, through his words. In addition to telling us Kumaresan’s story, Vetrimaaran also walks us through the experiences of a low-ranking police driver.

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Viduthalai raises moral questions about good and evil. As an audience, we almost feel the filth in the system as he delves into the moral rot. Like if someone were rubbing a wound one thought had healed, or pretending never existed. The visuals used to describe his thoughts are so potent that no matter how hard one tries to escape them, one cannot.

Police atrocities

With the public being hounded and degraded by the men in khaki, movies portraying police violence have become popular. And this was a significant factor in the success of Drishyam/Papanasam, Visaranai, Jai Bhim, Karnan, Taanakkaran, and Writer.

Viduthalai follows in the footsteps of the most prominent cop dramas that highlight police brutality in Tamil cinema. Take this scene where Kumaresan refuses to apologise to his egoistic boss Ragavendar (Chetan), who doesn’t view everyone as being on equal ground. You feel that Kumaresan’s resilience disturbs Ragavendar. He is furious that a ‘driver’ is not submitting to him.

Vetrimaaran’s films mainly focus on social issues, while hinting at the Dalit identity. With strong well-written rural Dalit characters, he has been making political statements about the collective indifference to the marginalised, in several films. Viduthalai is no exception.

Kumaresan is forced to spend months cleaning toilets, bringing food to the guards, and buying chouchou from the market. Though this is only the first of many scenes of sickening brutality, it’s the film’s most shocking, revealing how much the police will abuse their authority to serve their ends. It’s almost impossible to watch Viduthalai and not be shocked by how honestly it was filmed and compellingly it was told.  

Also read |  Why bagging an Oscar is almost akin to winning elections

The Dalit lifestyle hasn’t been the main subject of numerous movies. There have been pro-Dalit movies before, but it took almost a century for someone like, say Pa Ranjith or Mari Selvaraj, or Vetrimaaran, to produce ethically acceptable Dalit movies.

Vetrimaaran avoids cinematic pitfalls, and how he creates possibly the most sincere version of his characters is where he scores high. And, it is always great to see a film where no detail is an ‘accident’, where the filmmaker executes his vision exactly as he wants. Watch out for scenes in Viduthalai featuring the brilliant Soori, who wins hearts as the conniving rookie driver, thanks to his innocence and authentic physicality. He looks the part, and we root for him, naturally.

Literary works as films

Vetrimaaran is equally adept at writing, too. Tamil cinema is not a newcomer to the practice of literary works being adapted to the big screen. However, it is more obvious now as a result of numerous filmmakers like him choosing the works of well-known authors. Most of director Vetrimaaran’s films are adaptations of literary works.

But by this time, a curse had set in, making things worse for authors — it was said that movies based on books performed poorly at the box office. Vetrimaaran almost broke that jinx.

His Visaaranai, which was India’s official entry for the 2017 Oscars under the Foreign Language Film category, was based on a novel titled Lock Up by M Chandrakumar. A crime thriller featuring Samuthirakani, Dinesh, Anandhi and Aadukalam Murugadoss in the lead roles, Visaranai primarily deals with police brutality, corruption and political treason. The movie went on to become one of the best films in Tamil cinema.

Next, Vetrimaaran’s Asuran, headlined by Dhanush, is an adaptation of Vekkai, written by the Sahitya Akademi-winning author Poomani. Viduthalai, too, is adapted from Jeyamohan’s short story, Thunaivan. His work-in-progress Vaadivaasal, featuring Suriya in the lead, is based on a novel of the same name by CS Chellappa.

In an interview, Vetrimaaran claimed that despite being a voracious reader, he never looks for motivation in books. “I bookmark something whenever I like it. I go back and see if I can make that into a film when the time comes,” he was quoted as saying.

It is said that Vetrimaaran and his ensemble get along incredibly well. And perhaps that is why he gets the greatest performance out of them. Except for lip sync issues here and there (in scenes featuring Rajiv Menon), Viduthalai is quite satisfying. Despite being emotion-heavy, it is suffused with warmth.

His ensemble does a convincing performance as though they are unaware that a camera (with trusted cinematographer R Velraj by his side) is there and is tracking their every move.  The unbelievable casualness of Vijay Sethupathi is Viduthalai’s huge strength.

It’s interesting to watch Kumaresan and Perumal play cat and mouse, in the climax. Vetrimaaran brings the two together, coalesces, and fuses them. Is there much that separates the two? Aren’t they reflections of each other? Here’s hoping part two will throw more light on the questions.