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Director Santha Kumar plays a delicious mind game with the audience, adding twists to a screenplay that is dense with details.
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Magamuni, directed by Santha Kumar, is one of the most complex thrillers to come out of Tamil cinema and a film that almost entirely justifies its lengthy runtime. Telling a compelling story of crime, political intrigue, caste violence and religion, the film also manages to flirt with philosophy without turning boring at any point.

When we’re introduced to Maga (Arya), a cab driver, he seems like any other man trying hard to keep his family afloat through difficult times. He’s stuck in mind-numbing traffic, his petulant wife Viji (a striking Indhuja) is complaining on the phone, and he’s in desperate need of money. Someone breaks his rear-view mirror and you think he’s going to lose control and do what our heroes usually do – beat them up and perhaps deliver a lecture on road safety. But he moves on, more concerned about his immediate worries.

It’s a few minutes later that we realise Maga is not who we thought he was. This may not entirely be a surprise, considering how the film begins, but was it really Maga who we saw in that first, dramatic shot?

Santha Kumar plays a delicious mind game with the audience, adding twists to a screenplay that is dense with details. In one scene, a character quickly grabs a phone plugged to the charger outside a house before leaving with his mates. It’s only later that we find out why the director meticulously drew our attention to this tiny detail early on. There are several players in this plot – Marimuthu (Ilavarasu), who is fighting to get his MLA ticket, his vengeful wife Gomathy (Deepa Shankar), Jayaram (Jayaprakash), who has the town’s respect but not his quick-tongued daughter Deepa’s (Mahima Nambiar), corrupt cops, an innocent young man caught in a web of deception and so on.

Sometimes, you get the feeling that there’s too much going on. A few lines border on speechifying but Santha Kumar always manages to bring you back to the story deftly. Take the contrasting versions of who a “veeran” is, for example. In one scene, Maga tells his gang members about how he’s able to eat when there’s a corpse on fire a few feet away from them. In another scene, another character (revealing who would be a spoiler) in a tuition class defines a “veeran” as someone who is able to study and write his test paper honestly. The little treatise on religion that this character gives takes on significance when we watch how the film ends.

The plot is always one step ahead of the audience, making the reveals truly impactful. Arya is understated in his performance, doing just what is necessary. He switches between subdued earnestness and the cunning of a thug effortlessly. The supporting actors are brilliant, especially Ilavarasu and Jayaprakash. In one scene, Jayaprakash opens the door with a sickle in his hand, looking thoroughly casual, but you can feel your heart pounding. Thaman’s background score builds the suspense remarkably well all through.

Though narratives like this seldom have any significant roles for women, Magamuni gives its two female leads something more to do than just play insipid “love interests”. The woke Deepa, who has Periyar on her wall, is not above slapping her father’s lackey when she is upset; Viji, who seems like an innocent at first, is not above discussing her husband’s “sketch” plans with him.

For a film with such elements, Magamuni is low on the gore. There are no close-up shots of blood splatter or chopped limbs. The camera (Arun Bathmanaban) instead studies humans as they live and breathe, tracing their motives through their flickering expressions. When a pivotal character is brutally hacked in a car, for instance, we watch it from a distance, only observing how the men move like tiny, fervid ants.

Mouna Guru (The Silent Teacher)Santha Kumar’s first film, started out small and went on to become a cult hit. Magamuni is a worthy follow-up to that first act.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.