What sets apart Simbudevan's Pulikesi is that it is a work in which the elements of cinema blossom.
In an age when most of the filmmakers in this part of the country are enlarging time worn genres like the gangster, vigilante, patriotic and the boy-meets-girl, one filmmaker has done some lateral thinking and come out with a movie that breaks some myths built over the years about cinema in Tamil Nadu and in the process he is laughing all the way to the bank.Simbudevan, the debut filmmaker, was fortunate to get a producer willing to back his idea and put in the money. With Rs. 3 crores investment, he put up 11 sets and produced a movie in 61 days. `Imsai Arasan 23aam Pulikesi' (King of Torture, the 23rd Pulikesi) is mesmerising Tamil audience.
For his first feature film, director Simbudevan has chosen a daring subject. The story is set in the backdrop of the Poligar wars — end of 18th and beginning of 19th century — with Kattabomman and Ettappan as off-screen characters. Pulikesi, an imaginary poligar, is a lackey of the British and curries favour with them until his long lost twin brother, with a koan-like name Ukkirabuddhan, surfaces and sorts things out. To counter the criticism against mindless entertainers, many filmmakers here have been saying that the audience wants only such films. Another argument one often hears is that Indian films have their own grammar and so do not compare them to international cinema. This film disproves both these points of view. More over, the characters in the film are not the stereotypes to which Indian/Tamil film audiences are used.The filmmaker reveals many influences that have worked on him. Asterix comics, Black Adder (remember the pigeon episode?), Mad Magazine and our own company drama. The film has echoes of the Fifties Tamil films `Malaikallan' (1954) `Nadodi Mannan' (1958) and `Uthamaputhiran' — of the two dominant stars. He spoofs some icons of the Tamils... Avvaiyar, MGR, Sivaji and so on. In fact quite a few actors of Black and White era feature in this film... Nagesh, Manorama and M.N.Rajam. But the concerns that get expressed are contemporary — conservation, child labour, globalisation, bureaucratic apathy and so on. Simbudevan brings in unexpected twists. The minister tells the twin brothers that he all along knew that they will get together one day. How? He turns to the audience and in a direct address tells them `Otherwise how does one undo this knot in the screenplay?' Cheran opened his film `Autograph' (2005) with an effective instance of direct address, in the Egmore station sequence. It was under Cheran that Simbudevan had his apprenticeship, in three films. A former comic strip illustrator, Simbudevan has applied this skill in filmmaking. He has used storyboard method, in which the filmmaker sketches each scene, developing a crisp visual style. You can see the influence in the way he frames and composes a scene.Next to the director, it is the art director who dominates the film. P. Krishnamurthi, national award winner for art direction and also for costume design for `Oru Vadakande Veera Katha' (Malayalam, 1989) and Bharati (Tamil, 2000) lives up to his reputation. The film opens with an acknowledgement to Roja Muthaiah Research Library, Chennai, indicating the research that has gone into it. The sets, the costume and the properties all reflect the flavour of the period - 18th century. Very imaginatively Simbudevan has chosen the Salvador Dali moustache for Pulikesi. He knows that this growth on the upper lip can become an ideological symbol by itself, like Hitler's or Bharati's.
Cinematographer Arthur Wilson creates a series of arresting images and tells the story economically. He tells the story in steady, lengthy shots, a manner that is so easy on the eye and facilitates the entry of the viewer into the magical world he creates. The way he has handled colour is another pleasing factor about this film. He uses old movie devices... wipes and split-screen. The film is not without its problems. The repulsive spitting scenes for instance. The minor characters are not finely drawn except the memorable spy. At least two songs come as interruptions. And there is an anachronistic reference to Nalanda University which was active 2nd century AD. The allusions to Tamil history and life, insightful as though they are, can restrict the appeal of the film to Tamil audience. Even with the Tamil diaspora it may not strike a chord.Comedian Vadivelu's Pulikesi is both the king and the jester and he gives a sterling performance. Each time he sits on the throne he does with great flourish and in a new posture. His acting is seemingly effortless, though richly stylised in many sequences. With dual roles, the script offers numerous opportunities to show his talent and Vadivelu seizes them eagerly.Whenever the twins are together in one frame, he brings out the contrasts in character, though facial expression and body language. The compelling acting by Nasser as the scheming uncle adds to the strength of the film. The two heroines are delightful. Their roles however, are meant merely to lend a tone to the film.This is not the first historical comedy in Tamil cinema. There may be others. But what sets apart Pulikesi is that it is a work in which the elements of cinema blossom. And it is not a mere historical. It is a parody with healthy concerns. Above all it is a thoroughly enjoyable, buoyant film comedy.