Watched the Tamil movie Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu yesterday and rediscovered Kamal Haasan, not having seen him in a long time. Haasan really is a great actor, something that's been easy to lose sight of at various points in the last few years. As the redoubtable DCP Raghavan in this film, he has such natural flair that he doesn’t need to put on a swagger or be played up by the script. Watching this short, stocky man stride into a villain’s den in the opening scene, I primed myself for some unintentional funniness, but Haasan brought integrity to even the standard dhishum-dhishum that followed – and he did this with good old-fashioned acting, not with elaborately choreographed fight movements. His physical appearance doesn’t suggest he can take on 3-4 men in a fight, but by the end of the sequence I knew I wouldn’t want to be a no-gooder encountering Inspector Raghavan in a dark alley. (The man looks confident and purposeful even in a later scene where he steps out of an elevator, starts heading in the wrong direction and has to be redirected by a companion.)
He’s believable even when everything around him is corny; he brings a note of authenticity to scenes that could have been laughably melodramatic. Take the flashback song sequence where Raghavan and his wife-to-be are riding together on a bike. She’s singing, the back-projection is terrible, it’s a stereotypical filmi moment, and Haasan raises it with a single expression (a shy smile when she briefly puts her head on his shoulder, a happy but slightly embarrassed glance around to see if anyone is watching them). Or the shot where he’s hugging a pillar in his verandah in a moment of grief. Or when he coolly informs an American cop about the accuracy of his gut feelings: “back in India, they call it the Raghavan instinct”.
None of this means Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu is itself a great film, though I enjoyed the first half a lot. For much of its running time it’s a solid (if occasionally derivative) exercise in style – very tightly made, very controlled, with some fine editing and cinematography. But it deteriorates in the last hour or so, losing focus and spending too much time on a romantic angle that’s accompanied by a cringingly loud and incongruous background score.
The story proper begins with a teenage girl being kidnapped and her father (Raghavan’s senior colleague) finding her severed finger hanging outside the door the next morning. (Gore Alert: it gets worse. This is not a film for anyone whose stomach turns easily.) Soon the girl’s body is discovered, and a few months later her parents are killed in their New York home. Raghavan, carrying his own demons (as so many middle-aged movie cops do) from having failed to save his own wife years earlier, travels to NY for the investigation; it’s obvious that his personal stake in the case runs very deep.
He teams up with an American cop, they start to make some headway. Then, midway through the film, we are introduced to the killers, two young men who posture and fume a lot. There is a confrontation, with the sort of bloodletting that Sam Peckinpah and Quentin Tarantino might have dreamt up in collaboration. The murderers escape and return to India, and Raghavan flies back after them. The film then obstinately refuses to wind up, with the final third turning the killers into omniscient cartoon villains who can apparently show up just about anywhere and kidnap/murder whoever they choose.
At a basic level Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu is still quite gripping for most of its duration, but my most serious problem with this film was its handling of the killers’ actions. Some scenes are almost pornographic in the way they seem to revel in the bloodlust of the two men. I’m no moralist (and many of my favourite films are gore-soaked anyway), but I think there’s something fundamentally indecent, even misogynistic, about first showing us the decomposing, half-naked body of a murdered girl and then subsequently depicting (even if in jump-cuts and swooshes that make the whole thing indistinct) the rape, murder and mutilation – right down to one of the killers taking out a large knife and gleefully saying “Now I want to cut the body into two even pieces”.
In a twisted sort of way, perhaps all this would have been easier to digest if the killers had been convincingly depicted as amoral psychopaths. (The film certainly tries hard enough to capture the spirit of Hollywood psychos from films such as The Bone Collector, Kiss the Girls, The Cell and Se7en… there’s even an extended view of a Hannibal poster in one scene.) But for all their intense monologues, nostril-flaring and general efforts to convince us that they are monsters in human guise, the two never seem much more than callow fratboys on a bad day. It’s easy to believe that they have a nasty appetite for rape and violence, but one doesn’t get the sense that they would have the stomach (or the imagination) for some of the more grisly things we see here. This makes the grisliness seem even more gratuitous and exploitative; it doesn’t feel like it’s organic to this film.
Note (maybe I should have mentioned this earlier in the post): for some reason, PVR is showing this film without subtitles. It was frustrating to not be able to follow some of the dialogues and I’m sure I missed a lot of the humour, but I didn’t have any problem understanding the story – also, most of the midsection, set in New York, is in English. (Incidentally Kamal Haasan manages to make Raghavan likable and self-assured even when he puts on a slight accent while talking to the American cop!)
P.S. At risk of being accused of profiling, I have to say the two or three groups of south Indian youngsters in the hall were models of decorum compared to most young people one encounters in PVRs. No screaming and yowling, no talking on cellphones. It was a welcome change.
Also see this review by Baradwaj Rangan, who's much better informed about Tamil cinema and Kamal Haasan’s career.