During the latter half of the movie, we are watching the episode of a good-hearted gangster in the 80s, a smuggler who has won the hearts of the people of his locality with his generous deeds. In one of the scenes, we see the man walk down the dock discussing business as usual, but hands down a pair of binoculars as a gift to a young boy waiting at the shore. It is much later that it dawns that what we witnessed was also a handover of viewpoints right there, as we find that this boy grows up and stands as a voice of rebellion for the common man against the politicians and scheming corporations decades later much like the gangster was back in his glory days.
Neither of these two men mentioned here though is our lead man Anbu. Anbu (Dhanush) is a goody next door boy who aspires to be a state-level carroms player or ‘flayer’ as they refer in the movie. He always hoped to live the straight forward clean life, but Vetrimaaran’s movie is about how this lad gets sucked into the whole revenge thirsty gangster politics of the hood. And once sucked it, there seem to be no going back.
Of course, the binoculars do come into play. Anbu uses the binoculars to locate the girl he ran into the other night. He spots her, woos her and then, in an attempt to stand up for his love, ends up getting into a scuffle with one of the local gangster. From here on, destiny takes him on a different path where he finds caught between the gang rivalry. And here he opts to stand for the people who helped in the time of crisis.
However, as the years go by. it all eventually takes a toll on him and now Anbu, married and matured, realizes that it is eventually time to stand up for what he truly believes in, come what may.
Welcome to Vada Chennai, or simply put –Once Upon a Time in North Chennai. The tale of a young lad who unwittingly ends up being a part of the dreaded gang war of the hood- the very thing he hoped to avoid.
Director Vetri Maaran who has earlier given gems like the national award winning Aadukalam and Visaranai, has come up with yet another stellar work in the form of Vada Chennai – which is said to be the first of a trilogy. It is an ambitious project and Vetrimaaran has come out with a film that Tamil cinema definitely can be proud of in years to come.
It is the gritty realistic portrayal and firm storytelling skills that comes to the fore. Vetrimaaran smartly employs a non-linear narrative which sees the story slip in and hop from one decade to another without ever getting the audience confused. He weaves the narration around important events of history like the passing away of MGR, or the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Also, the movie is narrated in chapter format of various episodes of Anbu’s life which means every time the narration begins to lag, there is an interesting chapter around the corner and you find yourselves hooked back again to the happenings of these people. There is no bowing down to commercial factors, there is no cheap double meaning comedies to keep frontbenchers happy…heck, there is no whistle-inducing entrance even for the lead man.
And yet there is so much happening here. It all begins with the death of Rajan (Ameer). What we are immediately thrust into is a brief update on the various gangsters and characters who are immediately affected by the removal of this vital gang leader. Each of them is interestingly depicted that the director can move into the backstory of any of these characters with ease and we would not raise a complaint. Such is the potential of the world that Vetrimaaran has intricately created, that is warrants for a Netflix/Amazon miniseries. And why not, because as per the director himself, he has written around five-six hours’ worth of material from which he has narrowed down it to this 166-minute film. Not only does he keep you engaged, he leaves us wanting more.
The plot has ample doses of rich Shakespearean drama as Vetrimaaran lays out his epic tale of betrayal, loyalty and deceit in the narrow lanes of North Chennai. Those who enjoyed those themes in Aadukalam, is certain to get a kick out of this one as well. The whole thing may play out like a standard gangster fare and does make no attempts to take you by surprise. In fact, you can see where things are headed from miles away, but the scenes are built up in such fine fashion that you are watching it from the edge of your seat in anticipation. One of these sequences is the assassination attempt of one of the gangsters in prison leading us to the interval block. The other is the confrontation scene during a marriage where we watch how things shall unfold, lest it does spill into a Game of Thrones style ‘Red Wedding’. And of course, the scene where Rajan discovers his gang’s true intention.
Dhanush has emerged to be a superstar over the last decade, no doubt. But here the actor in him takes precedence. The actor is pretty much relegated to the backdrop for much of the portions and serves us, the audience, as an entry point into the mad bad world of these gangsters. All the performers get ample opportunity to shine in their respective roles be it Samutharakani, Kishore, Pawan, Daniel Balaji as the gangsters or Aishwarya Rajesh as the fiery woman who becomes Anbu’s lady love. Special mention of course to director Ameer Sultan, who literally becomes the heart of the movie with the flashback portion. Andreah Jeremiah too shines and puts in her best to give depth to one the defining roles of her career.
The real gangsta here is Santosh Narayanan who comes up with a feisty score elevating some moments, and then at some key moments, director Vetri Maaran effectively goes into silence which inscribes the impact even further.
The weakness, if any, is the lack of something innovative in terms of story. The tale of gang rivalry and the scheming politicians who use them for their own goals are as old as the hills. We merely see the same tales being repeated, in various languages with merely a change in the setting, be it the Subramanipurams, or the Wasseypurs. It is only the assured and confident way in which it is handled by Vetrimaaran that makes it truly stand out.
One can also whine about the sudden transformation of Anbu during the corporation meeting and the fallout that immediately follows thereafter. Yes, it does come in a bit rushed. Probably some scenes were left behind on the editing table or was dropped out from the original written script. Knowing Vetrimaaran’s way of dealing with things, the former seems more likely. Maybe a director’s cut is required, what say?
The leading ladies is also a matter of concern. Aishwarya Rajesh starts off strong and daring but as the movie progresses seem sidelined. I hope she does not go the Tamannah way like we saw in the Baahubali saga. And on a personal note, I thought the role of Chandra required a more senior and powerful actress to play the part. It was the kind of role that I thought Jyothika was headed towards in Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chevantha Vaanam. But alas, it wasn’t to be. Anyways, I would only be glad to see Andreah proving me wrong in the sequels to come.
Technically, the movie is outstanding. Velraj’s cinematography captures the time periods well. Costume from Amritha Ram remains natural without being all filmi. And special mention need to go to the set design (Jacki) especially the huge prison sets where most of the first half is set in. And hats off to the hard work put in by editor G.B.Venkatesh, R. Ramar to get this beast in its current form from the possibly massive material. VADA CHENNAI is indeed a great team effort with some brilliant cast and crew under the guidance of Vetri Maaran and that passion shines through in the final outcome.
VADA CHENNAI is one of those layered movie, one certain to keep the deep analyzers and movie bloggers busy for months to come as they dig in deep into the visuals and themes of the movies. A movie that gets it all so right is a rare sighting in any film industry, forget just Tamil. And watching this offering, the first installment has set up the board perfectly. The striker is ready to knock down the whites or the blacks, and the queen has taken the rightful position- right at the center of the playing field. For the carrom flayer Anbu, it is game on! Bring on the sequels!
Cast: Dhanush, Aishwarya Rajesh, Andrea Jeremiah, Samuthirakani, Kishore, Daniel Balaji, Radha Ravi and Ameer
Directed by Vetrimaaran
Music by Santosh Narayanan