It's not easy developing a germ of an idea from a 12-year-old incident that changed world dynamics forever, into a gripping, even entertaining film. But, talented director Radha Mohan, who's proved his mettle many times over as a teller of good stories, manages to achieve that in Silent Movies' Payanam, thanks to a spiffy storyline, humour-filled dialogues, some stylish acting by Nagarjuna (oh yes, after all these years, he still makes your heart flutter as the ready-to-strike commando!) and effective performances by an ensemble cast.

It's a regular day at the Chennai airport, and for the passengers of Star Jet SK 957. However, shortly after take-off, terrorists hijack the flight, demanding the release of their leader Yusuf Khan, and Rs. 100 crore.

The scenes that play out see the flight making an emergency landing in Tirupati, hectic negotiations between the Government, led by Home Secretary Vishwanath (Prakash Raj) and National Security Advisor Lakshmirathan (Krishnamurthy), and the agitated terrorists, a media circus outside the airport, the passengers from different backgrounds (an aged couple, a doctor, a retired colonel, a mimicry artiste and a family from Pakistan) slowly forging unlikely bonds, and NSG commandos led by Major Raveendran (Nagarjuna) raring to strike. Thanks to a stroke of luck, they get that chance, and it's adrenaline-pumping action after that.

Radha Mohan, in a departure from his feel-good movies, and dialogue writer T.J. Gnanavel strike gold with fast-paced scenes and sparkling dialogues. If there is someone who can bring in light-heartedness to a gripping thriller, it has to be Radha Mohan — there are digs galore at punch dialogues in senseless films and improbable situations. Ironically, a similar film comes to their rescue later on.

A great advantage is that the film grabs audience attention from the word go —you're worried about the plight of the passengers one minute, chuckling the very next at the wry humour, and before long, gripped by the suspense.

This is where the actors come in. Radha Mohan rewards his favourites with author-backed roles — M.S. Bhaskar as the Rubik-cube loving Father Alphonse and Brahmanandam as the director of formulaic films are a revelation. Prithviraj as ‘Shining Star' Chandrakanth whose bluff is called during a crisis is a riot. So is Chaams as the doting fan whose blinkers fall off. Charan is competent in twin roles — he plays Yusuf Khan and junior artiste Ranganathan who's suddenly called upon to serve the country!

Nagarjuna, looking every inch a super-fit commando, sinks his teeth into a role that calls for myriad emotions — you now understand his 13-year-long hiatus from Tamil cinema! Bharath Reddy (a cardiologist in real life) as his dapper deputy makes an impression too. And, it is to Prakash Raj's credit that despite being the producer, he gracefully lets Nag hog the limelight.

Somehow, Kumaravel, another favourite, gets a raw deal; the character does not really touch your heart.

Another drawback is that the terrorists are not menacing enough; and, what is the logic of their leader masking his face when dealing with the negotiators and looking his regular self before the passengers?

On the technical side, K.V. Guhan's cinematography is top-rate — Kashmir being bathed in snowfall, and a fight illuminated only by bursts of gunfire need mention.

The aircraft and airport are apparently a set. Really? Art director Kathir, take a bow! Music director Pravin Mani comes up with a rousing title track, the only song in the movie; the background score peaks and plunges at the right moments. And, at two hours, the film is tight in most parts, thanks to editor Kishore.

As the end credits roll, you only wish there had been a Major Raveendran who had his way in December 1999 at Amritsar!

Payanam

Genre: Drama/Thriller

Director: Radha Mohan

Cast: Nagarjuna, Prakash Raj, M.S. Bhaskar, Bharath Reddy, Kumaravel, Brahmanandam…

Storyline: Terrorists hijack a flight demanding the release of their leader. Will the Government succumb?

Bottomline: Take this trip

Keywords: PayanamTamil cinema