The ‘con trick’ genre, as I see it, is like walking a tight rope, especially in the context of Indian cinema. Why? Before I explain the obvious connection, let me briefly take you through the etymology of the genre. A confidence trick (con-trick) is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence, used in the classical sense of trust. Confidence tricks exploit classic characteristics of the human psyche such as dishonesty, vanity, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility, naiveté and greed. The perpetrator of a confidence trick (or “con trick“) is often referred to as a confidence (or “con”) man or a con-artist.
Now if you look closely, con men or con artists are seldom seen in our feature films as lead men, not because they are hard characters to write, but because our commercial cinema space doesn’t allow for a grey shaded protagonist, not to mention the lack of freedom to engage the audience with focused or distraction free storytelling, making the gradual escalation of stakes (that is all important for films of this genre to be effective) literally impossible. Only very few have succeeded in being honest to the genre and true to the plot, while many others have taken the easy way out and given us mediocre films, that stand as disgraces to the genre.
There is something terribly inspiring about a debut film-maker, who takes up the con genre for his maiden film, and chooses to believe in his craft, while staying honest to himself, the viewers and the genre as a whole. AG Amid, the director of the latest heist thriller to hit the theatres ‘Rajathandiram‘ deserves a round of applause for his sheer guts and his confidence in his audience. Amid as a screenwriter impresses with his skill to incorporate the indispensable elements of the con genre into his script with style: an airtight con, an intriguing “mark” or foil, a ton of misdirection both for the characters in the film and the audience, and strictly no unwarranted flab in the garb of ‘entertainment’. But most importantly, he strikes gold through his deft characterization of his protagonist – a great con man – someone who is charming and clever, while at the same time, selfish, cunning and ruthless.
The basic plot of Rajathandiram is not something complex. It is basically one of crime, deceit and retribution. But Amid has a catch, that catches us off-guard. What if the act of deception is known to the victim and the cops, right from the stage of foundation work and planning? Nothing is a secret any more. It’s all there in the open, as nude as a porn star. But wait? Amid still manages to sustain the tension throughout the film, and takes us through a rollicking ride of thrills and jumps. How? What if the perception of the deception is not the real deceit? Here is another promising new entrant to the guild of filmmakers who know their audience and do films for the joy of making them, with a conspicuous disregard for elements widely believed to be box-office must-haves. If we fail to support such daring and honest filmmakers, it would be our misfortune, as we will be sending a message across that we do not want our films to explore new ideas, brilliant execution and unique grammar.
Amid’s attention to detail in writing scenes and characters makes a huge difference to the film. Take for example the sequence where a sudden altercation creeps up between the male and female leads in the waiting hall of a railway station. The writing is natural and strong, and the actors are in their elements. But you never fail to notice the sleeping man in the benches, who wakes up startled, hearing a slap, and witnesses the argument in half sleep, confused about the nature of the relationship. The way this scene leads into a montage number (the only song in the film), that effortlessly depicts the closeness developing between the leads in a matter of three minutes; well, its scenes like these that restore the belief in honest story telling and good cinema.
Another brilliant stretch happens in a star hotel, where the protagonist along with his friends attempt to flick a consignment bag from a middle man. In probably the film’s best writing segment, nothing goes as planned, and things go terribly awry, as expected of small time crooks. And that’s how Amid goes about telling his tale. He drags us into the commotion and involves us in the decisions, his characters make. Here, plausibility takes a front seat over heroism and slickness, and understandably so, the chaos works pure magic. The cinematography by S.R. Kathiir is top-notch in these parts (and in general throughout the film), and combined with a pulsating background score by Sandeep Chowta, almost all the action sequences pack a punch. Amid consciously stays off songs and a dedicated comedy track, but the humor is all-pervading, ingrained into the script.
Veera is apt and natural as the cool-headed crook Arjun Parthipan, and scores well in his modulations in dialogue delivery. The Anglo-Indian female lead character, Michelle, played brilliantly by Regina Cassandra, is written with lots of sensitivity and purpose to the overall scheme of things. But the real show stopper is Darbuka Siva, who literally brings the roof down with his spontaneity and wit as Arjun’s friend Austin D’Costa. Amid should also be duly credited for writing some of the best comic scenes in recent times, that don’t come across as a sore thumb. The pacing slightly lags towards the end, but Amid doesn’t seem to mind. The editing could have been a tad better, especially in the climax, but the fact that it plays no major havoc to the final output speaks eons about Amid’s writing and film-making potential.
Witty, clever, audaciously bold and entertaining. Rajathandiram easily qualifies as the best Tamil film of the year, thus far. Go watch it and let me tell you it it’s not often that one gets to see such an original, honest and daring film from a debutant.