Remember Raghavan from Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, who went to New York to solve a series of homicide cases? What if Raghavan is replaced by DIG Rudhran (Vivekh), who sets out on a similar intriguing mission in Seattle but post-retirement? While hypothetical, I couldn't restrain from drawing parallels to Kamal Haasan's 2006 investigative thriller. While the former was a more a man of action who goes by his gut or should I say, 'Raghavan instinct', the latter's strongest muscle is his brain and he uses his mind palace ala Sherlock, before arriving at conclusions.
Debutant director Vivek Elangovan has broken the usual stereotypes that you associate with Vivekh's characterisations and instead concentrated on the actor's seldom explored strong zones. Unlike his other films, Vivekh doesn't make references to cinema, politics, or real-life personalities. In fact, his Rudhran doesn't even bother to keep tabs on any of those. He watches only one type of news most of the time - crime. However, the director does keep the innate nakkal in the actor intact. For example, even while whining to a friend about being homesick in the US, Rudhran says, "Idhu oru kambi illadha jail pa... Aana inga namba ooru maadhri illa, kuppa lorry kuda evlo suthama iruku theriyuma?"
Not many filmmakers have successfully utilised the full potential of the performer in the veteran comedian, but in Vellai Pookal, Vivek sets up a solid stage for the actor and Vivekh steals the show effortlessly. One particular scene where he breaks down in tears is just beautiful.
Vellai Pookal is a smart film all through despite taking a fair share of cinematic liberty. Vivek doesn't let us down with loopholes or loose ends, which are littered in most investigative thrillers. Setting aside one particular instance, the screenplay isn't propelled by random coincidences but by pure investigation. The director goes one step further with clever visual storytelling, and he also deserves a special mention for the portrayal of implied violence in the story. When a girl gets abused, the establishing shots and the sound effects that follow are enough to make us cringe and the pain hits home in full force. As an aside, I would have liked it if the film had been titled Vivegam, keeping in tune with the witty nature of the film as well as a cheeky nod to the same name shared by the actor and director.
Every character in the film has a reason to exist and all of them carry a hidden secret. Ajay (Dev), Rudhran's son isn't your average 'American Mapillai', who sports an artificial accent and carries a laptop in all the scenes as if he was born with it like Karnan's kavasa kundalam. He is conflicted yet empathetic to all. With the film being entirely set in Seattle, there are a whole bunch of foreign actors and a definite note of praise to them all - it is refreshing to see them playing relatable and realistic roles. Actors Paige Henderson and Gabrielle Castronover deserve particular mention and I really would like to see them work more in Indian cinema. But the best of all the actors is Charle, who I consider a hidden gem of Tamil cinema. He shines as Bharathi in Vellai Pookal, and acts as the Watson to Rudhran's Sherlock. Charle lightens the mood of the fairly intense film with his organic humour and has his share of witty moments.
Vellai Pookal opens with a shot of a couple watching the famous Nagesh and Sivaji conversation about divinity and life on TV, and the wall behind it is filled with photos of revolutionists like Karl Marx and Che Guevara. This couple are unaware of their 10-year-old kid going through perennial sexual abuse from a predator. This scene is followed by Vivekh's intro. I wonder if the prelude can be taken as a tease hinting at his real-life persona as a thinker. Or should it be perceived as this progressive couple failing to pay attention to the issue their child is going through? I believe this single sequence conveys the entire purpose of the film. For a change, Vivekh doesn't speak in length to convey this social message. The film speaks for itself.
As I left the theatre, I was happy to see that the Chinna Kalaivanar had well and truly arrived, not as the naive 'Aettu' Erimalai, or the clumsy inspector Agniputran, but as the witty, and gutsy DIG Rudhran.
Film: Vellai Pookal
Cast: Vivekh, Charle, Dev, Paige Henderson
Director: Vivek Elangovan
Rating: 3.5/ 5 stars