And then suddenly, Muneeswaran decides to become a policeman because well, free alcohol and respect. I wasn’t sure where the story was headed, given how lethargic and vague the beginnings of this film are. What Dhana does efficiently during that period though is establish the characters that populate the universe of this story. Malar (Amritha), for instance, isn’t your average demure girl — well, not entirely. He also manages to use humour efficiently to keep things fairly entertaining. It’s not as riotous as say, in last year’s Oru Kidaiyin Karunai Manu, but it still buzzes with a fair amount of zing.
A character challenges Muneeswaran to show his English knowledge by reciting ABCD. He responds, “Chinna ABCD-a, periya ABCD-a?” Best of all, the characters move on without making a big deal of their dialogues. It’s just another normal day for them. Somewhere during the beginning, it seemed to me that Amritha, playing Malar, looked a bit too polished to belong in the milieu, but soon enough, Dhana shows self-awareness by getting a character to quip, “Ivalukku ennadi mugam ipdi veluththu kadakku…” You can’t pinpoint a fault that the director has already acknowledged.
Villages films and casteist undertones have had a long and successful marriage, and so it is with Padaiveeran too. But where the film is really different is, it doesn’t give in to the temptation of defining characters by just their casteism. These are brutal people who are willing to kill at a moment’s notice, but then, these are also people who have hearts so big that they are willing to get themselves arrested if it means a friend achieving his ambition. By the time the story escalates — and it does with one shockingly cold murder of a woman — you are sufficiently invested in the lives of these people, in the complicated dynamics that hold the village prisoner.
Simply looked at, Padaiveeran is a coming-of-age story. It’s a man-child becoming a man, a casteist fool who realises the folly of his ways. Eventually, he faces the same dilemma that Arjuna does in the Mahabharata. Does he do the right thing, or does he save his relatives? There’s no Krishna to guide him, but who needs god, when good ol’ human camaraderie can polish up your moral compass? A few days of friendship cleanses the flaws of a lifetime for Muneeswaran, and that’s a lovely story unto itself. During a particularly sensitive moment, he sits, face buried in his hands, confused over why every person he ever loved hates him for doing the right thing. Padaiveeran makes many deep points without really making a meal out of them.
Of course, there are quite a few bothersome aspects too. The twist in the love track feels a bit too forced, and well after you’ve figured out what happened, Dhana still gets Malar to verbalise her entire plan. It robs the sequence of some necessary economy. Also, Muneeswaran’s friendship during his police training days doesn’t register as strongly as it should. And finally, there’s one horrible police-officers-rejoicing song that the film could well have done without.
Perhaps the biggest of all the issues, the film’s apparent solution — remove the head and the problem gets sorted — is too simplistic and doesn’t take into account how entrenched the whole issue is. A single assassination won’t solve things. A single leader walking about, spewing wisdom, won’t solve things either. The film, in fact, has such a character, played by Bharathiraja. And in hindsight, he could well be said to play Lord Krishna, given he’s named Krishnan. He’s drinking all the time, and has more or less given up on redeeming his society. It’s probably an apt imagination of how helpless Krishna would be in these decadent times.