Vada Chennai is possibly the most ambitious Tamil film till date, if you consider the generous expanse of its canvas. The gangster genre is quite popular in Kollywood, given that it lends itself to “mass” action scenes and suspense, but seldom has a director dug his heels in so firmly and told the story he wants to tell without striking a compromise. Bollywood had Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012 and more recently, the Netflix series Sacred Games wove in the history of Mumbai through the rise and fall of its gangster groups. So too, Vada Chennai documents North Madras – its gullies and lanes, its dialects and politics – through warring factions.
The film has a non-linear plot and at times, the changes in timeline can be confusing, especially since there are numerous characters in the film. However, Vetrimaaran manages to anchor it with the big events in Tamil Nadu’s political history which will find resonance with the audience. The film begins in 1987, soon after MGR’s death. Someone has been murdered and those involved are still covered in blood – till the last few scenes, we don’t know who the victim is. The story then moves forward in time, to the new millennium, when Anbu (Dhanush) is in prison over a squabble. Dhanush doesn’t get the sort of introduction scene that’s become a routine in star vehicles. But then, Vada Chennai isn’t one, even if it may have been produced by the actor.
The jail, like the world outside, has its gangs and leaders. There’s Senthil (Kishore) and his men who rule over Block 7 while Guna’s (Samuthirakani) men are in Block 11. Vetrimaaran is unflinching in his portrayal of life inside the jail – from inmates who smuggle drugs by stuffing it up their anus to the kind of brutal violence that breaks out every now and then to establish who’s the alpha. Anbu seems near docile and you wonder where he’ll fit in on the chessboard full of greys. The answer comes right before the interval, in a superbly shot fight sequence under a fallen pandal. You never know who will stab whom till the final blow falls. Velraj has done some exceptional work with the camera – despite the crowded frames and parallel conversations that go on, there’s never any doubt about what we’re supposed to keep sight of. The shifting colour palettes also help with identifying the time period of the plot line.
Though much of the film is dark – literally and metaphorically – there are unexpected moments of humour. Like the whole sequence around Rajiv Gandhi’s death which ends with Anbu’s mother explaining what she thinks a washing machine’s uses are. Or the “girl-seeing” ceremony which ends with the brother of the bride slapping his own father. The language of the streets, which is so familiar to anyone who has lived in the city, comes alive in all its colour. Vetrimaaran could have tried to get at least a ‘U/A’ by going light on the curses but it is admirable that he stuck to his guns and kept the authenticity intact. I burst out laughing at several places for just the sheer novelty of hearing these creative phrases on the big screen – a cop comparing Anbu’s funky haircut to a chicken’s ass, for example.
The women, too, are made of flesh and blood, a relief from the angelic and “innocent” heroines who make us want to scratch our eyeballs out. Aishwarya Rajesh is delightful as Padma, cussing freely and wanting to make out with Anbu whenever the opportunity presents itself. The two of them make a very believable pair but their romance isn’t just one of those boxes to be ticked in the script. Everything that happens in Vada Chennai has a domino effect, with the characters constantly trying to conquer their circumstances. And there’s a galaxy of them in the film. It would have been simpler to fill the scenes with blood and gore, falling back to the explanation that this is a gangster film. But Vetrimaaran painstakingly builds each character and draws the tremulous web around him or her. Perhaps the only person who looks a bit out of place is Andrea, who plays Chandra. While the actor suits the role of the quietly manipulative woman, her dialogue delivery seems a tad deliberate when compared to the ease with which the others slip into the slang.
As the film progresses, you wonder if you can ever remember the different factions and what their relations are. But by the time Vada Chennai (Part 1) draws to a close, Vetrimaaran manages to draw a clear lineage map in your mind. Ameer, Daniel Balaji, Samuthirakani and especially Kishore are excellent in their respective roles. Though we know of it as a “Dhanush” film, Vada Chennai belongs to each of the characters who are embedded in its fabric. The actor-producer appears in the role of a teenager and grown young man, looking every bit convincing in both. There’s probably nobody else in the Tamil industry right now who can play such roles with the realism that Dhanush brings to them. The set design and costumes, too, are spot on – from the jewellery the women wear to the posters on the walls that recreate the milieu.
Vada Chennai is a dialogue heavy film and it’s a relief that we have so many silent frames where we’re allowed to hear what people are actually saying without an overly loud background score vying for attention. Santosh Narayanan’s music is restrained and just what is required for a film like this. The editing in the second half, however, could have been smoother. The screenplay has one too many jerks and it feels as if the makers tried to cram as much as they could. The organic way in which the first half progressed, with one scene segueing into the next, doesn’t remain consistent in the second. Vada Chennai, like Kaala, also speaks of land politics and the rights of the people over the place they call their home. Much like the Pa Ranjith-Rajinikanth film, Vada Chennai too questions the nexus between the capitalist and the political classes – however, while Kaala (and for that matter, Madras, which was also located in North Madras) boldly announced the sociocultural identities of its characters, these markers are a lot more muted in Vada Chennai.
Vada Chennai has a Part 2 and 3 and from the way the first one ends, there’s plenty of story left to tell. It remains to be seen how the film, with its lengthy runtime and snaking plot, will be received by an audience that is used to a song and dance every now and then for relief. But this is a gangster drama that deserves to be welcomed with open arms, if nothing for its sheer audacity.
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.