Ponmagal Vandhal Movie Review: This courtroom drama about big issues has big issues
The film deserves credit for taking on an uncomfortable topic, an important one
Hotshot lawyer Rajarathnam (Parthiban) is a corrupt man who has no qualms with justice being bought by those who can afford it. And yet, as Ponmagal Vandhal played on, I began to empathise with his plight of being stuck in a bizarre courtroom which begins increasingly to look like a therapy session. At one point, he hears out the other lawyer, Venba (Jyotika), and simply says, “WHAT?” For a film about a buried crime that gets unravelled after an old case is reopened, the court proceedings feel frustratingly spurious. Ironically though, one of the characters attacks how court proceedings are shown in other films. In Ponmagal Vandhal, a lawyer is permitted to go on tangential, emotional rants. A judge, who looks like a deer caught in headlights, lets out a scream of anguish. When confronted by a professional like Rajarathnam, who says that the judge summoning his client is without any basis, he channels his inner Petta Rap Nagma and screams, “Stop it!” Towards the end of the film, as Rajarathnam sits doodling something in court, I really felt for him.
Director: JJ Fredrick
Cast: Jyotika, Parthiban, Thiagarajan, K Bhagyaraj
Streaming On: Amazon Prime
None of this is to refute that the case being handled in this film is interesting, even if I saw the interval twist coming from a mile away. It’s a case about how the different departments of the system work in unison to protect the powerful. It’s about sexual abuse, xenophobia, exploitation of the judiciary… It’s serious, it’s dark, and I had to rub my eyes to make sure I was really watching a 2D Entertainment-Jyotika collaboration. On a side note, what an achievement for a 40-something-year-old woman actor to be making mainstream films centred on her.
However, she, again, plays another activist type. She’s rebuking someone about the Kiki challenge. She indulges in an unrelated rant over how the court isn’t taking a woman seriously, with everyone in the court looking rather befuddled, as there’s no evidence till then that anyone was prejudiced against her on account of her gender. I suppose I shouldn’t bring up the ‘evidence’ word, for lawyer Venba isn’t the biggest fan of it. “You prefer evidence to truth,” she often accuses in the film, seemingly unmindful that it is to arrive at the said truth that evidence—admissible of several varieties, of course—is sought in the first place. The film, in addressing these targetted issues, also offers generic nuggets of advice: “Thuninju nillu!”, “Edhirthu poraadu!”
It also doesn’t help that scene transitions feel straight out of a noon-time TV soap. And much like them, this film isn’t exactly subtle in trying to emotionally manipulate. When Venba shares her story in the court, from seemingly out of nowhere, you are shown quick shots of characters breaking down in exaggerated fashion. Even actor Pandiarajan, who looks quite confused about what he’s doing in this film, begins sobbing—or maybe that’s why. Even more manipulative is the child rape scene. The girl’s frock is soaked in blood. She’s screaming in agony, howling in pain. Her mother is heartbroken and is panting for breath. You are then shown a bunch of beer bottles… and pills… and injections… It’s amply clear what’s gone on. But director Frederick won’t let up. He isn’t sure you’re affected enough. He adds a couple of additional shots to ram home the point. One has the camera bearing down on the child from the rapist’s perspective, as she squirms in fear. The other’s even worse. The rapist is shown to be removing his trousers slowly. Come to think of it, this would have been a better time for Prathap Pothen to shout, “STOP IT!”
The film deserves credit for taking on an uncomfortable topic, an important one. It’s trying to present crucial questions. How can society attend to its sexual abuse victims? How can the law and due process make it easier for them? How can the victim be insulated from a power-hungry system? These are big questions, and loaded with complexity. I’m not sure “thuninju nil” cuts it—not in a film that wants to be a layered courtroom drama.
Jyotika seems into this film, she seems driven. She’s breaking down and looking primally frightened in a way we have hardly seen of her in films before this. I bought her even in those disconnected montage bits with the child. The film also has many other familiar faces. There’s K Bhagyaraj who, apart from being a supportive dad presence, milks that famous ‘Raghu thatha’ joke to little effect. There’s Prathap Pothen who seems zoned out as a judge, but a bit more in his elements, when drinking with Pandiarajan and singing, “En iniya pon nilaave”. There’s Thiagarajan, who, as Govind Vasantha’s music helpfully indicates each time, is the villain. The actor’s main contribution to this film is being able to, rather disturbingly, shake an island of facial flesh. Other contributors include Subbu Panchu and Vinodhini Vaidyanathan, who barely have any material to play with. Pandiarajan has even little, with the film’s main demand of him being to throw stares at Prathap Pothen, every time he seems to be losing control.
The one I liked the most is Parthiban, who seems alive in a way the other senior actors aren’t. He even manages to bring in his trademark word humour to enliven proceedings. “Golden opportunity,” he says, after receiving gold from a prospective client. “Ooty valaththa kili,” he says, talking about a child to her parent who lives in the hill-station. Quite fittingly, it’s he who calls out Venba for looking thoroughly out of place in the courtroom as a lawyer. “Aravekaadu advocate,” he says. It’s rude and judgmental, but after seeing the film and the nature of Venba’s arguments in court, you wonder if there’s not some truth to it.