Even this early into his career (Saani Kaayidham is just his second film), you can see that director Arun Matheswaran has great taste for powerful imagery. In Saani Kaayidham, there’s once again striking use of windows in dark rooms. There’s a tendency to capture wide landscapes that put to perspective the events of the film. There are many wonderful shots: one, for instance, is of Sangayya (Selvaraghavan) lighting a cigarette in a dark, open field. Another more impactful shot is of Ponni (Keerthy Suresh), face bloodied and weapon-ready, bearing down on her adversary in a theatre, while projection rays from behind her lend her the aura of a revenge goddess.
The moment defines the purpose of Saani Kaayidham in a sense, and its loyalty to the fiery emotion called revenge. That’s perhaps why fire is such an integral part of this film. Ponni’s life is turned around because of a fire, when she vows to make sure that each of the perpetrators know what it feels like to have their skin scalded. Even Sangayya’s final scene has something to do with fire. Revenge, as Tarantino put it once, is a messy affair, and Saani Kaayidham captures both the messiness and the catharsis.
The dialogues localise this story well. What a relief to see Keerthy Suresh belt expletives out with all the fury of a scorned woman and none of the reticence of a Tamil cinema woman. In a memorable scene, she steps on the accelerator of a van, yells out an expletive, and drives at men who never imagined that a woman could fight back. Unlike in Kill Bill where the protagonist operates alone—which serves to empower—here, Ponni has a shepherd, an able deputy, in Sangayya. And towards the end when she refers to him as god, it was hard not to feel slightly uncomfortable because this film, after all, is about a bunch of men underestimating the strength of a woman. Sangayya is not in the wrong, no, and yet, it feels like director Arun missed an opportunity to portray Ponni as a woman capable of operating without a man standing guard. Even at the very end, Sangaiya is cut and slashed, and yet, he’s there when she needs assistance.
However, I liked that the film stands in resolute support of the broken and the oppressed. At the centre is Ponni, a subjugated woman trapped in a man’s world. She’s not the only damaged person, of course. There’s Sangayya, her eventual constant companion, who’s suffered his share of horrific losses. It is a lovely touch that they are brought together by their shared grief. Even the boy, Sodalai, who eventually becomes close to the two, is visually impaired.
The violence of Saani Kaayidham resists the temptation of being exploitative and is aimed only at providing catharsis. For instance, Ponni is sexually assaulted in a Paruthiveeran-esque scene, but we barely see her during these grisly moments. Eventually, almost reluctantly, we are shown her swollen face, as she dimly attempts to process what’s happening around her. And later, you realise that this visual is necessary for a reveal about the young boy, Sodalai. Also, unlike in, say, a Kill Bill, Ponni here starts off by doing what any woman in her position likely would: rely on the judiciary, before realising that the system is rigged in favour of those in power and influence. For Ponni and Sangayya, revenge isn’t a choice; it’s a necessity. And through their revenge, we feel catharsis. It’s in delivering such catharsis that violence in cinema finds its purpose. It also helps that Arun Matheswaran shoots violence with the imagination and taste of a poet.
Also, perhaps, the bad guys needn’t have been as generic. The four of them don’t exactly scream of a unique identity, and this means that the individual kills don’t have too much to do with strategy but just Sangayya and Ponni jumping into the fray with weapons. The four bad men are in hiding, but Saani Kaayidham, despite having a policewoman as the protagonist, isn’t so much about finding their whereabouts. It feels a bit too easy… but Keerthy Suresh and Selvaraghavan make it work. Keerthy is terrific as Ponni, and never is she more beautiful than when she—no makeup, clothes in tatters, and hair all over the place—delivers death stares at her perpetrators. As for Selvaraghavan, he’s great at playing Sangayya, be it in silence or when he’s yelling out a lament outside a flaming hut within which the only hope he had at having a happy life is in ashes…
The epilogue serves not just to clarify crucial information about a supporting character, Sodalai, but also as a lament for wronged women like Ponni. It’s also beautiful that while we learn the truth about Sodalai, Ponni doesn’t. Instead, this woman, so wronged, so traumatised, has learned once again to trust someone… a boy who’s also suffered a traumatic loss. It’s a fantastic way to end this sophomore outing of Arun Matheswaran and confirms what we suspected after watching his debut film, Rocky: We have an original cinematic voice in him.
Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Selvaraghavan
Director: Arun Matheswaran
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video