If you’re following Vijay Sethupathi’s meteoric rise in Tamil film industry, you know the brands of cinema he’s part of. On one hand, he does films the general Tamil audience prefers, on the other he tries to steer those audience to watch films he prefers to do. This year, Vijay had the space to do a hero-centric “Sethupathi” as well as the character-centric “Iraivi.” He either does acting in the proverbial sense like in Dharmadurai or just becomes the person on-screen. Off the screen, Tamil film industry is blessed with yet another sensible filmmaker like Manikandan. In a year and a half, Manikandan has made three marvelous films in three different genres. When such professionally sensible actors and filmmakers come together, the end product is a meaningful entertainer. Manikandan’s Aandavan Kattalai (‘Deity’s Order’) has a premise we’ve seen in numerous Tamil films.
The difference here is that we have well developed characters that we can relate to.
It’s a familiar story of a jobless, debt-ridden guy with aspirations to make quick money in a foreign land. But the staging from the very first frame is so elegant that the characters become more than ‘types.’ The protagonist’s name and situation also make up for light comedy. Gandhi (Vijay) is desperately trying to get to Britain by applying for a tourist visa. He seeks a way through a ‘travel agency,’ which turns out a den of con-men.
What looks like an easy shortcut ends up making Gandhi walk like a mouse trapped in an intricate maze. He has the right amount of conscience to not pass through the ‘holes’ in the system. After more lies and shortcuts, the misery only deepens. How he disentangles from the burgeoning trouble is narrated with a fine mix of comedy and empathy.
On the outset, Aandavan Kattalai looks like a ‘loud message’ feature. My heart sank when the film opened with ‘it’s a tale meant to create awareness.’ The words made me think of a government-funded tele-film. May be, the words were to satisfy the general audience who want immediate answers to what the film is about.
It’s a fairly good deceptive tactic as Manikandan goes on to make truly engaging cinema. He does create awareness with this tale, but it was like what he did in “Kaaka Muttai,” by observing close-to-reality characters in a perceivable situation. The intention once again is not to make shoddy, melodramatic characters, who’re seeking instant response from the audience.
As Gandhi’s friend Pandi, Yogi Babu delivers hilarious, witty one-liners. He played a small-time crook in “Kaaka Muttai.” He and comic actor Singam Puli have endlessly played the same characters, but the humor always works thanks to the genuine, relatable situations it’s played out in.
When the gags decline, Aandavan Kattalai gets a little tiring (there are no songs to soothe the viewers). We wait for the turn of events that make Gandhi meet Ritika Singh’s Karmeghakuzhali.
It is a much-expected coincidence in the tale as Gandhi just comes up with a name ‘Karmeghakuzhali’ when the faux brokers ask our unmarried protagonist to fill in a random name of his spouse (to better his chance of getting the visa). As Gandhi searches for a woman with a same name, the narrative seems to turn into a typical romance story.
But the script (written by Arul Chezhiyan, Manikandan and Anucharan) underplays the unreal romance aspect. It maintains its focus fully on Gandhi’s struggles. It’s not often you see three writers come together to write a script for a Tamil film and it actually pays off well. The characters are nuanced and well etched out. It’s easy to predict how the relationship between Sethupathi and Ritika would turn out, but it gets there in an organic manner.
For most part, Aandavan Kattalai is a hilarious indictment of our awful ‘shortcut’ mentality. Gandhi moves through a network of brokers, government officials and lawyers, who exploit him and his fear of dealing with the system. We’ve become wired to overturn rules to speed up bureaucratic processes. This lack of patience along with the manufactured fear for government officers is well explored. Finally we have a nicely crafted Sri Lankan Tamil character that doesn’t just play with pathos.
There’s fluidity in Manikandan’s direction, unlike many directorial efforts in mainstream Tamil cinema. Few dialogues that play up with the name ‘Gandhi’ and the recurrent shots of airplane flying overhead (to comment on how the protagonist still stuck in his short-cut) feel like unnecessary jabs. But you can overlook those, given the overall movie experience.
Ritika’s ‘yes’ to Sethupathi’s obvious question isn’t totally convincing. It’s probably some kind of assurance the regular audience seeks.
Well-written and played supporting characters strengthen the narrative. From the woman who casually plays the strict judge to Vinodhini as the junior lawyer, Manikandan brings in one of the best supporting cast in recent Tamil cinema.
I don’t think there is any need to reassure viewers on Vijay’s performance. I couldn’t help but smile observing people fiercely applaud in the theatre. It’s the kind of response super stars get for their silly, loud proclamations. The film ends with the shot of the airplane taking off. Maybe, it’s a metaphor for the rise of Sethupathi (who’s done five movies this year), Manikandan, and hopefully Tamil cinema.
Aandavan Kattalai (150 minutes) is a charming, feel-good drama that subtly challenges our falsified notions of taking societal shortcuts. Undoubtedly, one of the best Tamil films this year.
By Arun Kumar