Vikram Vedha: A wholly satisfying, beautifully conceived thriller
A delicious film that respects the intelligence of the audience and is one of the year's best
Vikram (Madhavan) is a stone-cold encounter specialist who can sleep soundly, regardless of how many lives he’s ended that day. “Korattai vittu thoonguven,” he says, and explains that he’s able to do that because of his conviction that he’s the good, and he’s putting bullets into the bad. Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi), the contemporised version of the wise vedalam from the Vikramaditya-Vedalam stories, is a firm believer that there’s good in the bad, and there’s bad in the good. In one scene, realising how difficult it is to shake Vikram off his conviction, he says, “Vikram sir. Vikram sir! VIKRAM SIR!” Vedha needs to call Vikram thrice even though the latter’s standing face-to-face. It’s a plea, and a demand, at once, to closely watch, to listen. A fleeting visual of Seven’s Kevin Spacey surrendering, and shouting, “Detective!”, flashed in my head. And quite interestingly, the introductory scene of Vedha is of a wilful surrender too. A policeman, in one scene, refers to Vedha as an ‘evil genius’. And while Vikram regards him as the devil incarnate, he will give him no such respect. Can Vedha ever get Vikram to listen to his stories, to solve his riddles? Can Vikram put a bullet into the seemingly devious Vedha? Gayathri-Pushkar’s Vikram Vedha is a beautifully written, incredibly well-made modern adaptation of the core idea of the Vikramaditya-Vedalam stories.
Cast: Vijay Sethupathi, Madhavan, Shraddha Srinath, Varalaxmi Sarathkumar
Throughout the film, the directors’ respect for the audience is evident, and it’s clear that they are not the sort to give too much weightage to the age-old rules of Tamil cinema about premarital sex, the ‘first night’, and women and alcohol, to name a few. Vikram’s first intrigued by Priya, a lawyer, when he sees her ordering the same drink as he: whiskey large with ice. Their ‘first night’ scene has Vikram and Priya, fatigued from the events of the day, just wanting to fall asleep. They have lived with each other for quite a while, and can’t be fussed over traditions. On account of such portrayal, as quickly as Vikram falls in love with Priya, I found myself falling for the film. This tastefulness, this sophistication, extends itself to how the directors have adapted the fundamental structure of the age-old tales: the question-and-answer format. I loved how the small stories inside serve the purpose of narrating Vedha’s story, how the question at the end of each tale has something to do with the conflict of Vikram. It all comes together so beautifully. The scenes that lead to Vikram making sense of a scar on a person’s wrist are a case in point, and are masterfully conceived and executed.
Vedha haunts Vikram just like in the old stories, but here, it’s of a different kind. There are many visual echoes, nods to the original material. Like in the car scene in which Vikram’s driving, and Vedha, from the back seat, leans forward to speak with him. If you squinted enough, you could pretend it’s Vedha clinging to the shoulder of Vikram à la the ghost in the stories. In another scene, Vedha, after posing a riddle and getting a satisfactory answer from Vikram, escapes by strangling him from behind, and again, the visual pays homage to the source material. And much like the actual stories, life lessons are casually strewn about in the film. “Mudivu pannitu thedaadhinga, thedittu mudivu pannunga.” “Prachanai vandha dhaan adutha level ku poga mudiyum.” These lines of course are said by the wise Vedha, who Vijay Sethupathi has interpreted as a character rather detached from his troubles. I imagine it’s only fair considering the traditional connections between wisdom and detachment. Even the final outcome of the film is a hat tip to the twist in the original story.
And still, there were a couple of minor niggles. Like the ill-fitting sarakku number, and in a flashback no less. It’s followed by a ‘sad love song’, which thankfully is cut short before it really kicks in. I can see why many would feel that the female characters in the film are quite strong, but does just having a career count as strength, if you’re going to be reduced to a manipulated pawn? The other female lead has even lesser strength. Vikram Vedha is very much a tale of two men and their ideologies.
On the whole, these minor missteps aside, it’s a delicious film that respects your intelligence, and there aren’t a whole lot of those. Right at the beginning, for instance, Vikram is established as a policeman who shows great attention to detail. “The devil is in the details,” he even says. In an opening scene, he is shown figuring out what the dominant hand of a person is, based on which wrist the watch is tied on. Towards the end, this left-hand right-hand conundrum comes back to play a big part in the climactic resolution. It’s a beautiful echo of the opening portion, and such writing is a big reason why Vikram Vedha is among the better Tamil films made this year.