By Haricharan Pudipeddi
Film: “Vada Chennai”; Language: Tamil; Director: Vetrimaaran; Cast: Dhanush, Samuthirakani, Kishore, Ameer, Andrea Jeremiah, Aishwarya Rajesh and Daniel Balaji; Rating: *****
In their third collaboration together, Dhanush and Vetrimaaran – a pair that only seems to be getting better with each outing – take us on a journey into the dark underbelly of rowdyism and politics in North Chennai.
Tamil cinema has had its share of gangster films but there can’t be a more authentic and rooted gangster film than “Vada Chennai”. It takes a lot of patience to sit through the film and if you’re not used to its slow-burning mood, you might find it hard to invest yourself in this 166-minute tale of an accidental gangster and his rise.
Dhanush plays Anbu, who aspires to be a national level carrom player – an opportunity which he sees as his golden ticket for a government job. It’s under the tutelage of Rajan (Ameer), a local messiah-cum-gangster who smuggles imported goods for a living, does Anbu see playing carrom as a career option. He sees a mentor in Rajan, who encourages kids from his locality to take up sports and not get into rowdyism.
Rajan aims for a better future for his people. Guna (Samuthirakani), Senthil (Kishore), Velu (Pawan) and Thambi (Daniel Balaji) work closely with Rajan and risk their lives for him. The story – set against the backdrop of major political turmoil in Tamil Nadu from late 1980s to early 2000 – revolves around these characters and the politics involving them.
Vetrimaaran’s “Vada Chennai”, which literally translates to North Chennai, is a world of its own and it is darker than anyone can imagine. It’s a world where it is tough to differentiate between good and bad; right and wrong. It’s a world where the men are scheming; women are bold and survival comes at a cost.
For instance, all that Anbu wishes for is a better life by playing carrom, but circumstances force him to take a path that costs him his career. For most part of the film, we see Dhanush as someone trying hard to fit into a lifestyle he was forced to choose. When he realizes his identity is taken away from him and he has to fight for survival, the film is a remainder of the bitter truth that sometimes the environment we grow up in and the people we associate with can have adverse effects on us.
Vetrimaaran doesn’t flinch to show violence on screen, but he shoots these scenes aesthetically so that the experience is never bitter. The crucial interval action sequence where a major attack happens on an important character inside a prison is shot under the makeshift cloth ceiling with blinding light.
Another action stretch unfolds in pitch-black darkness. Also, “Vada Chennai” portrays life inside a prison like no Tamil film has done before. Most of the first half unfolds inside a jail. From peddling drugs to hiding mobile phones in toilets; it’s with shocking realism the life within is portrayed and we are not spared of the details.
It would be a crime to talk about the film without discussing the contribution of the women. Both Andrea and Aishwarya are a revelation in their respective roles. In “Vada Chennai”, swearing is a way of life and women are no different when it comes to throwing cuss-words around. They’re equally bold and put up a strong fight, especially Andrea, for survival in the turf war.
The men are powerful and each one of them is terrific.
Dhanush’s character is layered and as the film progresses, we see him open up and come to terms with reality. It is mostly a restrained performance and there’s never a heroic moment which makes everything about his character even more real. Samuthirakani and Kishore are earnest in their roles and it’s a delight to watch them perform.
Ameer’s inclusion in the cast initially earned mixed response from audiences but it’s impossible to not cheer for his character in the film. He walks away with brownie points for his pitch-perfect performance.
“Vada Chennai” belongs to Vetrimaaran and as much as one can argue about it being a Dhanush’s film, you can’t take away the fact that if not for the vision of the former we would not have had this multi-generational gangster drama.