When the hijack-thriller Payanam created a bit of buzz a couple of years ago, I thought we’d see more action films that wove riffs on sturdy Hollywood templates. It’s taken a while, but now we have Shaheed Kader’s Chennaieil Oru Naal, remade from the Malayalam hit Traffic.
The template, this time, is the race-against-time thriller (the emphasis being on race), and it’s fleshed out with a film star (Gautham Krishna, played by Prakash Raj) who has no time for his family, an aspiring journalist (Karthik, played by Sachin), a doctor (Robin, played by Prasanna) looking forward to an anniversary with his wife, and a cop (Sathyamoorthy, played by Cheran) rejoining duty after being suspended for accepting a bribe.
These lives — hitherto unconnected — converge around a road accident, and the film, thus, is also a commentary on chaos theory. If a butterfly flaps its wings at a traffic intersection in Chennai, can a little girl, struggling for life in a hospital in Vellore, be saved?
Kader understands that this kind of film, to work, needs to be leached of sentimental melodrama, and he treats potentially tear-jerking scenes — a sister in distress; a son’s quarrel with a parent (who slips in well-meaning advice); a father’s actions after the death of his son — with impressive restraint. The stray emotional hooks (the reason for Sathyamoorthy’s suspension, the revelation about Robin’s marriage) are restricted to quick-cut flashbacks, and the focus stays on the mission, headed by Chennai Traffic Police Commissioner Sundarapandiyan (R. Sarathkumar).
The back-and-forth-in-time narrative structure helps camouflage the inconsistencies, like the fact that the skies are sunny when it’s supposed to be raining. (Also, the love story early on may have been better served by a couple of scenes instead of a choreographed song.) What’s missing is the nerve-jangling tension that Hollywood routinely infuses into this kind of product, but the periodic cliffhangers keep us invested in the outcome. This is the sort of outing Tamil cinema could use more of.