It is very rare to see in Tamil cinema characters with so many shades of grey set in a story as riveting as ‘Aadukalam’.

The rustic environs of Madurai’s underbelly provide the ideal setting for maverick director Vetrimaaran's second movie - a tale of friendship, love and betrayal, all centred around the village bloodsport of cock fights.

The detailing of every characters in the story is intricate. The narrative moves like a good novel where the first few chapters are all about etching and detailing the players, and the plot and the action unfold much later.

For those who allow the characters to grow on them through the long-winding first half, ‘Aadukalam’ offers a unique experience.

Vetrimaaran splits the movie right down the middle like two acts of a play; the first act is all about cock fights and the human egos involved; and the second half is about the circumstances that pit the two lead actors - Pettaikaran (Jayapalan) and Karrupu (Dhanush) - against each other, clueless about why they are fighting, just like two fighter cocks in the ring (‘Aadukalam’ in Tamil).

The story centres around Pettaikaran, a powerful patriarch and a cock breeder, who has never lost a fight in the ring. His has all the trappings of power and pride and is forever surrounded by cronies, including his two trusted deputies - Karrupu and Dorai (Kishore). Pettaikaran has a long-standing feud with local inspector Rathnasamy (Nareyn), who is hell-bent on beating Pettaikaran at least once in a cock fight.

Nothing in the movie is over-the-top. Yet the story is almost brutal in showing the ways a human mind would deviate if its ego were unhinged.

In parallel to the cock fights, we also see the innocent love story of Karuppu with Anglo-Indian girl Irene (Taapse Pannu not only looks the part but also makes an impressive debut), a resident of the Railway Colony. The love story contrasts drastically with the cock fight sequences and makes for a light and breezy first half.

Stardom sits lightly on Dhanush’s shoulders, and he has essayed the role with uninhibited energy. The manner in which he breaks into dance on the streets when Irene points a finger and tells him that she is in love, speaks volumes of an actor who is willing to live his role. It is easily his best performance to date.

And it is not just Dhanush. Vetrimaaran has extracted top notch performances from nearly every cast member.

The real standout performance of the movie though comes from V.I.S.Jayapalan, renowned Eelam poet and debutant actor. He towers over every one else with his intensity. It reminded one of Tatsuya Nadakai from Akira Kurosawa’s King Lear adaptation ‘Ran’, where an aging warlord faces the consequence of living his last days seeing his empire crumble before his eyes.

The cock fights - all of them created digitally - seem as real as they can get.

G.V.Prakash, who has shown some flashes of brilliance in his young career, brings his A-game to the movie. The songs are not just good, they also blend with the narrative. Velraj’s cinematography and T.Kishore’s editing round off a well-crafted movie.

Vetrimaaran’s honesty in listing in the end credits the movies that he has referenced for making ‘Aadukalam’ deserves praise. Especially at a time when movie fans, on online social networks, are quick to point out the influences any movie has. The debate on just how original any movie can be is pretty open but ‘Aadukalam’ is probably as honest and true to sensibilities as it can get.

Title: Aadukalam

Genre: Drama

Cast: Dhanush, Jayapalan, Kishore, Taapse Pannu

Verdict: Must-watch.

(A version of this review appeared in the print edition http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-cinemaplus/article1117109.ece)