It’s not an exaggeration to say that Over-the-Top platforms in India have gone over-the-top with anthology films. Most of these have been around uninspiring themes, with more misses than hits in the lineup. Victim: Who is Next?, now streaming on SonyLIV, breaks the monotony by giving us four twisty thrillers that play around with the question of victimhood, agency and redemption.
Shot during the COVID-19 pandemic, each film is mostly set in one location. Dhammam (compassion), by Pa Ranjith, unfolds in an agricultural field; Mirrage, by Rajesh M, is set in a spooky guesthouse; Kottai Pakku Vathalum Mottai Maadi Sitharum, by Chimbudevan, makes use of an apartment building; Confession, by Venkat Prabhu, shifts between a flat and a hi-rise building. Interestingly, only one of the four films has the pandemic in the backdrop (and thank god for that because we’ve really had enough).
Dhammam is about a spunky little girl who is trying to entertain herself as her father works in the field. Ranjith captures her playfulness, her innate unwillingness to bend to rules set by other people, as she moves from one activity to another. Not even the Buddha idol watching over the field is spared. Kema (Poorvadharani, who played a crucial role in Karnan) climbs on his shoulder and tries to soar, as her father (Guru Somasundaram in fine form) is affronted by her show of disrespect. He has no answers for her logical questions though, so he uses his authority as an adult to silence her. Except, she won’t be silenced.
The father-daughter equation isn’t an idyllic, rural scene. It is free of the saccharine undertones that typically define these moments in our cinema. Kema is happy muddying her skirt, searching for a murrel fish (shot beautifully), but when a dominant caste man (Kalaiyarasan) expects her to step into the same mud to make way for him, she refuses. It’s a simple act of rebellion that spirals into horrifying consequences – but if you’ve followed Ranjith’s filmography closely, you will know better than to expect the ‘victim’ to take things passively.
The background score (Tenma) in Dhammam serves to build up the conflict and underline the tension admirably well. It allows the characters to breathe, for their gasps, screams, exhaustion and expletives to be heard. It’s suggestive of the sound you hear from the Tibetan singing bowl, tying in with the Buddhist motif of the film. As the conflict plays out, the bird’s-eye shots help you look at the larger context and simultaneously the pettiness of human actions. Compassion, Ranjith says, must first be extended to the self before it goes to others.
Poorvadharani comes as a relief from the average celluloid child who swerves sharply from manic innocence to annoyingly precocious. She could be the slightly grown version of the little girl from Kaala who is the first to fling a fistful of black powder on Hari dada. Some of the lines, though, sit heavily in her voice and seem too deliberate. Still, the child actor manages to pull you into the film and watch it from her perspective. The reliably good Guru Somasundaram and the supporting cast keep you guessing about how things will play out.
Rajesh M’s Mirrage is about a young woman (Priya Bhavani Shankar) who is travelling on work and has to stay at a guesthouse somewhere off ECR. Rajesh uses the horror film trope of an unhinged caretaker (Natarajan Subramanian is quite chilling) to narrate a story that left me in two minds. On the one hand, the film has effective atmospherics and jump scares that actually make you jump. On the other hand, it has a rather cliched ending that we’ve seen in many, many thrillers by now. The note at the end may seem well-intentioned but I’m not at all sure that the film itself doesn’t contribute to the stigma we see around the issue represented (elaborating on this will be a spoiler).
Natarajan and Priya are convincing in their respective roles; he’s cunning and terrifying, she’s sly and terrified. When they meet, she’s got the upper hand due to her social class, and she uses an arrogant tone with him. As the film progresses, however, she wavers and changes how she speaks, according to how threatening the situation becomes. It’s an interesting shift in the balance that is entertaining despite how scary it is. I wish though that Rajesh had gone for a different ending and not left me feeling cheated.
Kottai Pakku Vathalum Mottai Maadi Sitharum by Chimbudevan has a Sadhguru-like sage (Nasser) in conversation with a journalist (Thambi Ramaiah) from a weekly magazine. The sage has supposedly lived for 400 years and the journalist, who faces the possibility of a lay-off, decides to interview him as a scoop. While the first two films are serious and dark in theme, this one has elements of comedy. The sage and the journalist have a Thiruvilayadal kind of exchange that is meant to be a commentary on the state of our society, but it sounds preachy and forced.
The funniest scene, for me, was Thambi Ramaiah using the paranoia around COVID-19 to get his neighbours to stay away from the terrace where he’s conducting this mysterious interview. Chimbudevan offers four different climaxes for the short – almost as if he decided to film all the drafts that he’d come up with. Each of them plays with who the victim in the story could be. While it sure is inventive, the probability of each of these events happening is on thin ice.
Venkat Prabhu’s Confession begins with a frenzied Anjena (Amala Paul) rushing to her flat. She looks tense and her sense of urgency is palpable. When she opens the door to her flat, you expect her to get into some highly important task. Nope. She just wanted to pee really badly! It’s a typical Venkat Prabhu touch that puts a smile on your face. Amala Paul is comfortable in her skin, and as she pours herself a glass of red wine and takes off her bra to unwind, you marvel at her ability to own the camera’s gaze.
Krish strikes a discordant note as her husband in London though. The flirtatious and strangely accented English lines sound off, and the actor seems distinctly uncomfortable in mouthing them. Prasanna plays an assassin on an assignment, and the setup is intriguing. The plot morphs into a Phone Booth kind of situation but is undone by unconvincing coincidences. It felt like the film was going someplace interesting only for it to be diverted into a ditch. Amala plays Anjena with dignity but the litany of sins she’s made to recite comes off as sexist; I wonder if a male character had been placed in a similar predicament, would this have been the writing choice too?
None of the films in Victim: Who is Next? is boring even if they all don’t work equally well. Each of them has an element of surprise, something to hook you in and keep you watching. That makes this anthology a far better effort than what we’ve seen over the years.
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.