As the title, Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu, flashes, the sombre, unforgiving mood is unmistakable. The protagonist, Muthu (a fantastic Simbu), has just fought off fire, and is reeling from many thorns having pierced his back.
The allegory, of course, is of people—like Muthu—whose lives hurt and hurt without respite. Admirably, there’s no deification in the introduction of Simbu. This scorched setting of Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu Part 1: The Kindling, while the title flashes, serves as a prelude for what is to follow during the remainder of the film as Muthu negotiates with the life-equivalent of fires and thorns.
There’s no denying that this is an unusual world for a Gautham Vasudev Menon film. Its protagonist, Muthu—played by a thoroughly invested Silambarasan TR—is unusual too. Sophistication is a luxury for the impoverished Muthu. Right at the very beginning, his mother (Radhika, who we see very little of) seems strangely worried about his proclivity towards violence and says something about murder written in his jaadhagam.
I wish our films wouldn’t lend more sanctity to these superstitions, but in the case of Muthu, it seems destined that the magical prediction must come true sometime.
There’s also something magical, something sinister about a gun. At several points in the film, the strange power of this gun is alluded to, with someone saying that the gun picks its master.
Someone else says that the gun controls the man and not the other way around. All of this feels like some meditation about the nature of violence. I liked these ideas.
I also liked that Gautham Menon shows he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty as he captures the grime and dirt of the decadent living space that the Tamil immigrants in Mumbai— Muthu included—are holed up in. And yet, I craved for more insight, for more information about these immigrants and their souls.
That’s why my most favourite portion of this film is a snapshot we get of their lonely lives when a drunken man’s video chat segues into a songand- dance routine. I also enjoyed that Madhushree’s ‘Mallipoo’ is sung not from the perspective of the dozens of dancing men, but the lonely woman we don’t see in the video call.
I craved more pleasant surprises, especially in the depiction of Muthu’s routine, and by extension, that of the other immigrants as well. We see fleeting shots of their work—preparing parotta batter, scrubbing toilets… During their free time, there’s some public drinking, some Rajinikanth film watching.
There’s some complaint about wet underwear. Simbu sells it all like nobody’s business, but the gaze still feels simplistic, like an outsider peeking in and picking up quick details. But it’s still better, I suppose, than the heroine, Paavai (Siddhi Idnani), looking out of place at the local apparel store. I wish this whole track had been rewritten, and the writers Jeyamohan and Gautham Menon had opted instead for a relationship perhaps darker and more in tandem with the mood of the film.
And Muthu, it seems, gravitates naturally towards violence. The apex point that the first half of VTK moves towards concerns Muthu’s relationship with the gun.
The scene is imagined as the preinterval block… but fascinatingly and courageously, it’s not interpreted as a mass moment. VTK isn’t trying to make you jump in joy that Muthu has found his violent calling; AR Rahman’s score too makes this clear. However, this means that we don’t quite get the payoff we thought we were getting.
As it turns out, we don’t get too many insights about him in the second half, which gets distracted in trying to half-heartedly present two warring gangleaders.
There are sparks of promise when the film touches upon the interdependent relationship between Muthu and his boss. More interesting are the parallels between Muthu and Sridharan (Neeraj Madhav), and how they are both stuck in rival gangs. When they stick up for each other, it’s perhaps because they are reminded of themselves in the other. And yet, we are expected to fill up a lot of such meaning and detail in our head, with the film not quite showing great desire in wading into them.
And this, I found to be, VTK’s biggest weakness: this reluctance to sink deep into the mind and motivation of those who populate this world. In a generic mass film that’s about hero worship, I wouldn’t care. But that’s the challenge of rising above the simplistic pleasures of a generic mass-hero-becomes- don film. You get held to a higher standard.
VTK shows plenty of potentials, and the disappointment is that it doesn’t quite hit as many highs as you would expect. By the time the film ended rather strangely— designed to appease Simbu’s fans perhaps—it felt like a different film entirely, one far removed from the scorching promise of its opening portions.