For reasons good and bad, Amazon Prime Video’s latest Tamil series Vadhandhi warrants a watch. Firstly, the way it builds its world is a huge win. In one of its initial scenes, we see a police officer ensure no one sits at the back of an ambulance carrying a semi-decomposed body of a young woman. The worry here is that even a dead body may not be spared by human vultures. This is a dark, despicable world, with many of its characters posing skewed moral compasses.
The series takes the paranoia that this gossip-hungry, patriarchal society elicits in us, and embodies it in this enclosure of a world where most men seem to be lustful animals on the hunt for prey and no woman is safe. Velonie (Sanjana), a young Anglo-Indian girl in Kanyakumari, is killed and Vivek (SJ Suryah), a Sub Inspector, takes the case. The initial episodes are crisp and set up a wonderful base. Velonie is portrayed to have been like a modern-day Cleopatra, whom the men couldn’t resist ogling at. A rumour that assassinates Velonie’s character spreads post her death. Potential suspects are aplenty, but like in most whodunits, within a few episodes, the primary suspects are mapped out clearly. There’s Vignesh, Velonie’s supposed fiancé whom she despises; Vignesh was supposed to pick up Velonie from her aunt’s place on the day she went missing. Three brothers — Santhosh, Sanjeev, and Sunny — who live in the woods with their aged mother and illegally hunt game for a living, have enough evidence against them as well. Other suspects are around the corner.
The overall structure of the screenplay in Vadhandhi is well set up for a whodunnit series. The cliffhangers after every episode do not come across as gimmicky, and there are ample high-drama moments and red herrings placed to keep you going for a few initial episodes. It’s also refreshing to see the creators do away with time stamps, fade-outs, and establishment shots to show the shift in the period in this non-linear narrative; dialogues, actions, and other details in the narrative are used for this.
Vadhandhi: The Fable of Velonie
There is also a visible effort to ground the material to the regional setting, and to let the story unfold within the said geography. Every character in the series speaks in the native Kanyakumari slang. This includes Velonie’s conservative, controlling mother Ruby (Laila), who even speaks English with a taint of the native slang. The landscape of Kanyakumari and the neighbouring districts are used to the advantage of the series. A handful number of distinct sets keep recurring throughout the series — Angel Lodge, the lodge run by Ruby and Velonie; the Sucheendram Police Station; the woods where the three recluse and reckless brothers reside; and Vivek’s house. These create an impression that this is akin to a small-town story, which was the case with Suzhal as well, a series that was created by Pushkar-Gayathri who creative-produced Vadhandhi.
Now, the problems arrive after the few initial episodes. Amidst all the uneasiness and tension that is meticulously built, you begin to wonder why the scrutiny of the “virtue and character” of the victim continues, with the “good guys” trying to prove that Velonie is not what she is projected to be. At one point, even Vivek asks “Velonie nallavala kettavala therila? (I don’t know if Velonie is a good girl or not),” based on her alleged sexual affairs. It makes you wonder if the series is leaning towards victim-blaming sentiments by defining what is good or bad. Is death the punishment for sexually-liberated individuals? What if she was polyamorous? While it is true that the reality isn’t a rose garden, it’s disappointing to see how the counter-actions are all only to deny the media’s narrative, with not even one lead character going, ‘So what if the reports are true?’.
Similarly, there is a revelation about another woman falling prey to a gruesome attack, and while she gets poetic justice in the larger scheme of things, the storytelling could have taken a moment to empathise with that other victim as well. All victims are victims, isn't it?
Another huge concern is a parallel track that features a gang of friends who comment on the sensational Velonie case. We keep getting one problematic dialogue after another from the men here, and they do get called out. However, it also seems like the series is trying to go over and out of its world to show the problematic mindset, when it was already doing that quite well with the larger narrative. The same is the case with yet another track that features Hareesh Peradi as a top journalist Sethuraman. The role of the media in society is a necessary element to explore, but the series takes a rather convoluted route with a lot of detours to show this.
These issues do play spoilsport and tire us ever so often. The series certainly could have been made tighter. Watching such intense content with a slow-burner treatment for over eight hours is bound to eventually get tiresome, especially when the red herrings begin to get predictable and when tested tropes make a comeback. While it's understandable that the initial episodes had to give equal screen space to the key characters to keep us guessing on the whodunit, the later episodes could have been quicker.
You do feel bad for actors like Laila, Vivek Prasanna, and debutant Sanjana who deliver splendid performances. SJ Suryah is at his best in the series and brings Vivek to life really well. Even if it isn’t necessarily binge-able, Vadhandhi is an otherwise fairly engrossing offering.
Vadhandhi: The Fable of Velonie is currently streaming on Amazon Prime