Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Kamal Haasan and Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu

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.


  1. I didn't like the movie much except perhaps the no-frills first act.

    And, yes, the close-ups of the mutilated bodies were almost caressing in nature. And, the director's idea of the portrayal of hero's suffering everytime by placing his ladylove (or others for that matter) in great danger was very "indifferent" to his love interests (or others) themselves. And, whether they survive or not, never seemed to be the point of concern.

    Or, at least, I felt so.

  2. what does the title mean btw?

  3. IMDB gives Hunt and Play as the "informal literal translation". Wonder if that's right...haven't been able to find any other reference.

  4. Whaaaat! you went to a movie without knowing what the title meant??

    I have seen lots of foreign language movies without subtitles( Dweepa(Kannada), 400 Blows (French), Blue Angel(German)) but at least I knew what the title meant in every case!!!

    you were with some interpreter?

  5. That's quite a literal translation, actually.
    To be more precise it means "Hunt, Play".

  6. You've made it to a wiki entry! Now you're a certified celeb.

  7. Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu has been attacked by gay activists in Chennai for painting a fairly horrific picture of gay men. I haven't seen the film myself, but the two villains are apparently shown as a gay couple. This would fit with the very homophobic nature of Tamil society, much worse in many ways than in the North. Ambai's short story One and Another, in her brilliant new collection In a Forest, a Deer, is a rare exception.

  8. Vikram: thanks for that input. In the film’s climax, the Haasan character very scornfully says something to the main villain - I didn’t understand the whole sentence but it ended with a very forceful and accusatory "homosexual!", and it was obvious he was talking about the gay relationship between the two men. The audience really laughed at that.

  9. Jai Arjun - Was surprised to see you review a tamil flick; even more so at the fact that VV played in Delhi!

    Vettaiyadu means - Hunt and Vilayadhu means Play, so it means hunt, play but the connotation is one of 'The game is on' and as a friend suggested the 'hunt' is second nature to Kamal's character that is a game (so - 'play') to him.

    You should check out the director's previous work - Khaaka Khaaka which comes w/ subtitles and a director's commentary on DVD (look for the Ayangaran DVD).

    I agree w/ most of your comments; this is the most restrained I have seen Kamal in a movie since Devar Magan, which in itself is an achievement.

  10. my big grouse was the opening. i am surprised that a lot of people like it.

  11. hi

    we r from india ...

    i m not able to buy any dvd from ayngaran company...

    would u advice us on how to get ayngaran vettaiyadu vilaiyadu dvd..

  12. "Or when he coolly informs an American cop about the accuracy of his gut feelings: “back in India, they call it the Raghavan instinct”."

    Didn't you find that line to be a laugh out loud, roll your eyes moment?

    I reviewed this last September, and had the same complaint about pinning the responsibility for the murders on two gay men. First, it's just too perverse (and not in a good way!) that these guys would derive any pleasure from the acts, and second, it's just very irresponsible to have such damning portrayals of group of people who are still struggling for their equal rights (when not trying to avoid a thrashing).

    Saw you on NDTV last weekend, thought you made some good points.


  13. Good review.

    I am not a big fan of Kamal but I did find the movie quite "intriguing". The first scene was quite unnecessary, as were a couple of songs. But in spite of the English second act and not the regular heroism-laden Tamil movie culture, the movie was a superhit in Tamil, which was a big surprise.

    I was actually, quite unprepared for the gore. About the allusions to homosexuality, I dont think there were many except but for one dialog in the final reel. I wish the stereotype could have been avoided but so are could many in Indian cinema, in general.

    Suggest you watch Virumaandi...probably better and tauter than VV though with a rural milieu. Directed by Kamal...acting, a bit over the top. Said to be inspired from Kurusawa's "Roshuman" (at least the narrative style). One of his better movies in the last 3-4 years.

  14. Thanks for the review. I liked the movie a lot.

    Here's my quick review