Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu Movie Review: Scorching promise, middling results
Despite intriguing ideas and an invested Simbu, VTK's refusal to dive deep into the world of immigrants and gangsters means that a lot of potential feels unrealised
As the title, Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu, flashes, the sombre, unforgiving mood is unmistakable. The protagonist, Muthu (a fantastic Simbu), has just fought off fire, and is reeling from many thorns having pierced his back. The allegory, of course, is of people—like Muthu—whose lives hurt and hurt without respite. I was intrigued by this carefully constructed beginning. Admirably, there’s no deification in the introduction of Simbu. There’s no pomp and noise. This scorched setting of Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu Part 1: The Kindling, while the title flashes, serves as a prelude for what is to follow during the remainder of the film as Muthu negotiates with the life-equivalent of fires and thorns.
Director: Gautham Vasudev Menon
Cast: Simbu, Siddhi Idnani, Neeraj Madhav, Appukutty
There’s no denying that this is an unusual world for a Gautham Vasudev Menon film. Its protagonist, Muthu—played by a thoroughly invested Simbu—is unusual too in the GVM world. Sophistication is a luxury for the impoverished Muthu (Simbu maintains a rather distinct, lopsided walk throughout the film). Right at the very beginning, his mother (Radhika, who we see very little of) seems strangely worried about his proclivity towards violence and says something about murder written in his jaadhagam. I wish our films wouldn’t lend more sanctity to these superstitions, but in the case of Muthu, it seems destined that the magical prediction must come true sometime.
There’s also something magical, something sinister about a gun. At several points in the film, the strange power of this gun is alluded to, almost like it were the Elder Wand in Harry Potter. And much like in that series where the wand is said to choose the owner, here too, someone says that the gun picks its master. Someone else says that the gun controls the man and not the other way round. All of this feels like some meditation about the nature of violence, about its inescapable allure for its victims. I liked these ideas. I also liked that Gautham Menon shows he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty as he captures the grime and dirt of the decadent living space that the Tamil immigrants in Mumbai—Muthu included—are holed up in. The dirty walls, the open latrines, the sounds and sweat…
And yet, I craved for more insight, for more information about these immigrants and their souls. That’s why my most favourite portion of this film is a snapshot we get of their lonely lives when a drunken man’s video chat segues into a song-and-dance routine—that feels like straight out of Selvaraghavan’s playbook. I also enjoyed that Madhushree’s ‘Mallipoo’ is sung not from the perspective of the dozens of dancing men, but the lonely woman we don’t see in the video call. The singer’s pronunciation makes it rather hard to understand why all the men get sad during the second stanza, but we can make an educated guess.
I craved more pleasant surprises, especially in the depiction of Muthu’s routine, and by extension, that of the other immigrants as well. We see fleeting shots of their work—preparing parotta batter, scrubbing toilets… During their free time, there’s some public drinking, some Rajinikanth film watching. There’s some complaint about wet underwear. Simbu sells it all like nobody’s business, but the gaze still feels simplistic, like an outsider peeking in temporarily and picking up quick details.
But it’s still better, I suppose, than the heroine, Paavai (Siddhi Idnani), who looks rather out of place at the local apparel store, and definitely not like someone who might be discussing underwear sizes with Muthu. Their relationship always seems like a distraction—like time that might be better spent on giving us more about Muthu and friends. And when Paavai eventually wears wedding clothes, that’s when you know she’s in real trouble in the GVM universe. I wish this whole track had been rewritten, and the writers Jeyamohan and Gautham Menon had opted instead for a relationship perhaps darker and more in tandem with the mood of the film (Pudhupettai comes to mind). For lack of this, Paavai is left alternating between looking coy when Muthu flirts and looking frightened when Muthu fights.
And Muthu, it seems, gravitates naturally towards violence. Perhaps because he’s named after a famous Rajinikanth character, I thought of Baasha and how we wait an entire half in that film for Maanickam’s eventual transformation that occurs near interval. The high point that the first half of VTK moves towards too, is somewhat similar. The question is, when will Muthu cut loose? As you can expect, that scene turns out to be the pre-interval block… but fascinatingly and courageously, here, it’s not interpreted as a mass moment. VTK isn’t trying to make you jump in joy that Muthu has found his violent calling; AR Rahman’s score too makes this clear. However, this means that we don’t quite get the payoff we thought we were getting—but it wouldn’t have mattered had the film held up on its promise of helping us understand Muthu better in the second half.
And really, what is going on inside Muthu’s head? Does the gun make him happy? What’s this attraction? Is it a primal release? How infuriated is he about society? How much does he care about protecting his friends? Is he shocked that he is as good with a gun without any training? What’s his goal really? I could go on and on, but as it turns out, we don’t get many answers in the second half, which gets further distracted about the larger idea of two warring gang-leaders we don’t learn too much about anyway. Muthu and friends are supposed to be the nuts and bolts of a bigger machine, and perhaps part 2 will expand further into showing us the workings of the said machine?
There are sparks of promise when the film touches upon the interdependent relationship between Muthu and his boss (one particular conversation is a hoot). More interesting are the parallels between Muthu and Sridharan (Neeraj Madhav), and how they are both stuck in rival gangs, as they chart their journeys after falling in love. When they stick up for each other, it’s perhaps because they are reminded of themselves in the other. And yet, we are expected to fill up a lot of such meaning and detail in our head, with the film not quite showing great desire in wading into them.
And this, I found to be, VTK’s biggest weakness: this reluctance to sink deep into the mind and motivation of those who populate this world. Why do we watch rise-of-the-don films anyway? To vicariously realise some of the darkness within us, yes. But there are positives to take away too. What inner resolve helped Muthu rise against the odds? How did he find it? What did he lose in his rise? How did he change internally? How is the system responsible? How has it affected him, and how has he affected it? In a generic mass film that’s about hero worship, I wouldn’t care. But that’s the challenge of rising above the simplistic pleasures of a generic mass-hero-becomes-don film. You get held to a higher standard on account of your loftier goals. Where there’s greater potential, there’s greater scope for disappointment. VTK shows plenty of potential, and the disappointment is that it doesn’t quite hit as many highs as you would expect. By the time the film ended rather strangely—designed to appease Simbu’s fans perhaps—it felt like a different film entirely, one far removed from the scorching promise of its opening portions.