While the script has enough twists and turns, you don’t exactly watch the series with your heart in the mouth. This is because the storytelling is full of generic moments.

Aishwarya Rajesh in a scene from SuzhalAishwarya Rajesh in a scene from Suzhal
Flix Review Friday, June 17, 2022 - 08:11

Pushkar and Gayathri, who gave Tamil cinema one of its most memorable and layered crime stories – Vikram Vedha – are the creators of Suzhal: The Vortex, Amazon Prime Video’s first Tamil web series. Directed by Bramma and Anucharan, the eight-episode series revolves around a 15-year-old girl who goes missing during the local festival of Mayana Kollai (graveyard robbery) in Sambalur, a fictional industrial town in Tamil Nadu.

If mainstream films have largely set their police procedurals in metros, Over-the-Top platforms seem to prefer small town settings following the precedent set by successful international web series such as Broadchurch and Mare of Easttown. Closer home, Raveena Tandon’s Aranyak (Netflix) was set in a small town in Himachal Pradesh. The charm of the small town is that everybody knows everybody, and that makes a police investigation juicier because secrets are bound to tumble out; the investigation is coloured by the police’s own equations with the town people. Suzhal unfolds in pretty much the same way.

On a fateful night, the factory that provides employment to many in the town goes up in flames. The same night, Nila (Gopika Ramesh), the younger daughter of trade union leader Shanmugham (Parthiban), goes missing. Sriya Reddy and Kathir play Circle Inspector Regina Thomas and Sub Inspector Sakkarai respectively. At first, they suspect that Shanumgham set fire to the factory and has hidden his daughter away as a distraction, but nothing is quite straightforward. Which is why the title of the web series is ‘suzhal’, which means ‘spiral’ or ‘vortex’.

The script, written by Pushkar and Gayathri, weaves in the local myths and legends about Angalamman, the powerful female deity around whom the festival of Mayana Kollai revolves. A girl was once abducted by an arakkan, we’re told, and Angalamman, with the help of her assistant Paavaadarayan, found her and saved her. The parallel between contemporary events and the myth is evident. Aishwarya Rajesh, who plays Nandini, Nila’s older sister, walks into the frame just as the procession for Angalamman is being taken out. It’s a fabulous introduction sequence, and the intercuts establish that she will transform into the vengeful goddess – but how and why?

Suzhal draws from people’s internalised prejudices and creates red herrings out of them. It’s clever how Pushkar and Gayathri make us believe we’re watching something very similar to Drishyam, only to overturn the assumption. It’s also interesting how the characters don’t neatly fit into a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ binary. Shanmugham is a respected trade union leader who fights for the rights of his workers; but he’s also a short-tempered man who isn’t as considerate towards his estranged wife and daughters. Regina Thomas may seem like a strong-willed officer but she too has her moments of vulnerability. Harish Uttaman, who plays the industrialist’s son, may seem like the obvious strawman villain but there’s more to him than meets the eye.

There are other characters, too, like Shanumgham’s brother Guna (Ilango Kumaravel) and his wife, the local priest’s assistant, Nila’s best friend from school and her family, tuition teacher Pushparaj, a private investigator who’s come to write a report on the fire in the factory (Santhana Bharathi) – who surface now and then, contributing to a piece of the jigsaw.

While the script has enough twists and turns, you don’t exactly watch the series with your heart in the mouth. This is because the storytelling is full of generic moments. Take, for instance, the scene between Shanmugham and Nila before she disappears. He shouts at her for poor marks in her report card, she weeps. She leaves behind a cutesy note that says ‘Sorry’. This hardly tells us anything about the father-daughter bond. Nandini joins the hunt for Nila, but again what sort of relationship did the two of them share beyond a sisters’ selfie that she gazes at longingly? We don’t imbibe the sense of urgency to find Nila that fills her family and the police. There is a love story track that’s vital to the plot, but the young lovers only do cinematic things that don’t endear them to us. Look at films like Thanneer Mathan Dinangal, 96 or Gantumoote – even if you recognise how juvenile the romance is, your heart aches for the couple. When you don’t particularly care for the characters on screen, it’s difficult to be invested in their fate.

In comparison, the romance between engaged couple Kathir and Nivedhithaa Sathish (why oh why don’t we see more of this talented actor?) comes off as more realistic. Though Nivedhithaa’s Lakshmi is stuck in the ‘whiny girlfriend’ mould, she plays the character with an honesty that’s hard to dismiss. Kathir, as Sakkarai, puts up a strong performance too. He runs, punches, romances, emotes and does the heavy lifting in all his scenes. While Parthiban is predictably good in a role that he can sleepwalk through, Sriya Reddy’s Regina comes off as a tad stereotypical. Must every woman cop behave like she has ingested a fireball for breakfast?

Aishwarya Rajesh as Nandini, of course, is the hero of the series, and the actor once again proves her mettle. When she looks devastated, it’s impossible to look away. Nandini is at the centre of the series and the reason why we watch till the end.

As a police procedural, however, one is left with quite a few questions at the end of Suzhal. For instance, how the bodies flung from a great height are found. It seems like an impractical move for the criminal and a violation of the laws of physics. Also puzzling is why the police don’t immediately trace the last known mobile tower location for Nila’s phone when she disappears. Duhh. There are a few links to the red herrings, too, which are not properly explained or developed.

Suzhal depends too much on frightening close-ups and low angle shots of people celebrating the Mayana Kollai festival with an inspired background score to insert suspense into the screenplay. There are also shots of sexual violence that needed to have been done more sensitively; by focusing the camera on the victims and their trauma, filmmakers turn the audience into voyeurs. We don’t need to see the discomfort and pain on someone’s face through the camera’s gaze to know what’s going on and how we should feel about it.

Although the series is set in a small town, we don’t learn much about the socio-cultural fabric of Sambalur beyond the Mayana Kollai festival. Unlike Hindi web series which have explored the intersections of caste, class and gender within the premise of thrillers in small town settings, Suzhal steers clear of delving into such equations. The fervour of the devotees becomes the driving force of the tension in the script and not the police lining up the clues. And if you’ve watched a lot of crime series and follow the news closely, it’s easy to guess the truth. I did, and that made the series somewhat disappointing to me.

That said, Suzhal is a lot more engaging than the original Tamil content that OTT giants have been producing. It may not be a vortex that sucks you in entirely but it’s a good enough binge-watch for those who have a taste for small town mysteries.

Watch the trailer of Suzhal here:

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film's producers or any other members of its cast and crew.

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