Taanakkaran review: Tamizh’s debut film revels in brutality, fails to engage the audience

Excessive depiction of abuse, high-strung sentimental moments and poorly written characters, undermines Vikram Prabhu’s Taanakkaran.
Screengrab from Taanakkaran
Screengrab from Taanakkaran

Taanakkaran is set in a police recruits school (PRS) somewhere in Tirunelveli. These recruitment schools have parade competitions at the end of their training—something so fiercely fought over, that it lays the bedrock for the brutality bred into the police. This is the story the film attempts to tell us. Before the story begins, we are given a quick animated overview of the police department’s formation, mainly to remind us that it is an extension of colonial power. These animation sequences with voice overs are becoming a bit overused these days in Tamil cinema. Maybe there are other storytelling methods to convey the same information. That issue aside, Taanakkaran in this sequence, refers to the training of Indian recruits during colonial times. They competed with each other to move up within the system, the voice over says. In particular, they had intensive training and competitions where winners were rewarded with grain and alcohol and those who lost were punished with extra training.

Right at the beginning, a character walks into the school and looks over at the equipment on the training grounds and scoffs. “Being police just means dragging some fellow off the street and thrashing him. Why do you need this level of training for that?” The casual default to violence by real-world police comes off well in several scenes like this. It's no news that for decades, Kollywood has depicted police brutality as heroism. It’s interesting to see a film that tries to talk about where that brutality—seen too often in real life—could stem from. From the colonial-era, brutality is built into the system, Taanakkaran starts off saying: those wanting to join the force are brutalised and violence becomes a part of their psyche. It’s a necessary message to send to audiences, even though its credibility is undermined constantly by overly sentimental scenes. And also, only the message cannot be the movie. Apart from a heavy reliance on melodrama, two other factors drag down the film. The first is unnecessary extended sequences of abuse and second, poorly written characters.  

 Taanakkaran feels as if the actors were given a handful of vague adjectives to understand their roles and not much else. Lal, for example, who plays a training officer and the primary antagonist is: abusive, churlish, cruel and vindictive. We get that. He does the part to his best, grunting and growling menacingly, when he isn’t inflicting misery on the recruits in the guise of training them. But all of this isn’t nearly enough to engage a viewer’s emotions. I neither hated him nor was repulsed, merely aware of what his part in the story was. Lal in well-written roles is a phenomenal actor. His Yama raja in Karnan showed off the depth of his skill and ability for nuance. Unfortunately, nuance is exactly what’s missing in his characterisation.

Vikram Prabhu, the hero of the film, is an even weaker link. He is present and looks the part of an enthusiastic and physically fit young recruit. He also occasionally sounds the part, which is rebellious (since he’s the hero). That’s about it. You don’t really develop a strong interest in him. This is worsened by near-constant expressionless dialogue delivery. If he was aiming for stoic, what we get is wooden. Anjali Nair, who plays the female lead, is also an officer at the same recruitment school. Yet her presence there doesn’t serve to tell what women in the police force go through. She’s simply fitted into the school so Vikram Prabhu can have someone to fall in love with, as the Kollywood formula demands.

Director Tamizh (not to be confused with the filmmaker of Sethumaan who shares the same name) relies too much on repeated depictions of abuse, violence and humiliation. He could have instead, with better writing, let the darkness in various characters play off each other. This is Tamizh’s directorial debut. Was this heavy-duty reliance on brutality to evoke audiences’ emotions, an ill-advised trope he picked up during his previous association with Vetrimaaran, I can’t help wondering? Tamizh is known more popularly as an actor. Many viewers would remember him as the violent police officer, Gurumoorthy, in Jai Bhim responsible for the custodial torture and death of Rasakannu (Manikandan). Kollywood has only recently begun telling stories on police violence, which is why it’s essential to caution against depicting atrocities in exhausting detail, as the only way to deliver a message. The movie has been released directly on OTT and is now streaming on Hotstar.

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.

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