Movie Review: Vada Chennai
Vada Chennai (meaning North Chennai - and not, 'come to Chennai' !) sees the stars of Aadukalam get together again - in what is termed as Vetri Maaran's dream project, slated to be released as a trilogy, this is part one of this highly ambitious outing.
Coming fresh off the success of the viscerally engrossing and equally disturbing Visaranai (the interrogation) that plays off our deepest fears and misgivings about the System which screws us over pitilessly and brutally, the grander and more ambitious Vada Chennai perhaps pales in comparison. But just a wee bit. But patience. Because this is Vetri Maaran's grandiose dream taking shape in celluloid and we cannot go wrong, in trusting this genius. As is proved in the final twenty minutes of the movie, where we see the metamorphosis of Anbu, the protagonist played by Dhanush (as usual in absolutely crackling form) The part two - titled Rise of Anbu has us waiting with bated breath.
But the first half personally for me, was a see-saw experience, [Second half ultimately ends in an exhilarant high, so no fears there!) The narrative was extremely gripping in parts and a bit slack in the rest. Dhanush effortlessly steals every scene that he is in. Though for a gangster drama, the plotting, counter-plotting and building up off the scenes into a climactic intrigue - was a bit slower than what I had come to expect. Not to say that there isn't violence, the whole movie is a gangster drama after all. The jail scenes in the first half, the stealthy romance on top of water-tank and the gang feuds that lead up to Anbu finally landing in jail etc, are very well scripted but a tad bit slow. The movie doesn’t introduce Anbu’s character in the usual whistle-podu slow-mo but in a very grounded understated manner, entering the jail gates.
The story opens to a blood-soaked murder but in classic tarantino-style, the murderers, four of them are sitting around a restaurant table calmly discussing the murder, while wiping the blood of their knives and clothes. It sets the mood of the movie. It’s going to be black and stark and watch out, there’s going to red. Lots of it.
We come back to this murder – but much later in the movie and that is the master-class of Vetri Maaran and his team, in stitching together the whole tapestry of moving parts, smaller plots converging amidst the growing intrigue and pitched up gang-violence. All set in the seedy dark underbelly of North Chennai, against the grand sweeping spectacle of the sea behind.
Most of the first half is focused on the tensions inside a jail-yard – between the two rival gang leaders, Guna and Senthil. The bad karma of that murder back in 1987 has come back to haunt the gangsters and they have a bitter fall-out. The tension builds up as both factions are plotting against each other and the focal point of this narrative becomes, whether Guna’s gang can actually entice Senthil into the spider’s lair where they can mount an attack to finish him off, outside his own protected sanctuary which is a section of the jail house cordoned off like a fortress by his henchmen. It builds up nicely peaking up into a carrom tournament that is Anbu’s brain child [It comes out that Anbu is a talented carrom player, a state level champion hoping to get to the nationals before he got jailed] The script helps create those layers into the story where the viewer is actually confused about where Anbu’s loyalty lies.
The story then zooms out, cutting across timelines, split into chapters that are nicely titled as “Anbu and Padma..”, “Anbu and Chandra” peeling back the layers to the mystery behind Anbu’s reluctant entry into this gang-war and the origins of it. Set in early 1990’s the first chapter looks at the romance between Anbu and Padma [ Aishwarya Rajesh – lights up the entire screen with a rousing act as the intrepid local girl, on equal footing with Danush!] but then we cut back to sweeping tendrils of tension within the jail-house as the carrom tournament progresses under a shamiana. Will he or will he not? We bite our nails waiting for Senthil to make his way into this setting where the killers await. This was definitely one of the best scenes of the movie.
We cut back to 1996, where Anbu accidentally kills one of Senthil’s henchmen when he teases Padma and beats up Padma’s brother. This is the turning point of Anbu’s life as now he is on the run against Senthil’s men taking refuge with Guna, Senthil’s rival. But the best part of the movie with the various links of that chain falling straight, happens well into the second half. Andreah Jeremiah’s character, Chandra and the role, this character plays in this whole gang-war comes to light. It comes together beautifully and this one’s punctuated by the heartrending story of Rajan, the messiah gangster who is the mentor to all the main four gang-leader characters, established by then. Director-turned actor Ameer Sultan puts in a searing performance as Rajan – a do-gooder and the protector of the underprivileged slum-dwellers of Vada Chennai, standing up against the corrupt police officials and warring against the politicians. It’s a bit predictable in terms of where his role is headed to but it still provides that wallop to the storyline, bringing everything together and shining light on the grand schemes playing individually.
In terms of performances, in a star-studded line-up it is difficult to pick one as being better than the other. Samuthirkanni, Kishore, Ameer, Andreah – all playing central characters are absolutely spot-on and shine in their roles. Andreah, well doesn’t fit into the “slum-dweller” by her looks but gives us a measured performance as one of the pivotal elements in this story. Dhanush plays his role, sans the heroism, muted and restrained. But with him and Vetrimaaran, we know this is always building up to a grand climax. We are rewarded towards the fag-end as Anbu the reluctant hero finally takes up the mantle of protecting his neighborhood against the nexus of politicians and rich realtors. The last few moments are gloriously filmed and Dhanush’s restrained act for most parts of the whole movie, finally breaks loose. Truly rewarding.
Santhosh Narayan’s background score brings in the chill and clearly highlights the brewing tension that is simmering underneath, waiting to explode. There are visual metaphors galore. The period and times are captured nicely by references to Rajiv Gandhi’s death or MGR’s passing etc. Vada Chennai has all the classic elements of a gangster epic. Reluctant hero, warring rival gangs, scheming politicians, femme fatale and that layer under layer of brilliant storytelling that keeps us glued, trying to piece it all together. Vetri Maaran grand dream on silver screen is a shining gem that brings alive the grit and drama underneath the veneer of the North Chennai slums. A movie that will help burn Dhanush’s already shining stars, even brighter and firmly establishes Vetri Maaran as one of the mastercraft storytellers of our times.