Saani Kaayidham review: Keerthy Suresh, Selvaraghavan are terrific in this bloody, yet focused revenge drama

Filmmaker Arun Matheswaran’s second instalment in what he calls his ‘revenge trilogy’ is gory and disturbing. Like the director’s previous film, it has a few auteur touches here too, and yet, there are a few issues

May 06, 2022 04:12 pm | Updated May 07, 2022 06:28 pm IST

A still from ‘Saani Kaayidham’

A still from ‘Saani Kaayidham’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

This review may contain graphic details that might be triggering

There is a rare pessimistic look that Arun Matheswaran brings about in his films through the use of monochrome visuals as a means to convey despair and suffering. Arun uses this black and white cinematography only at intervals, especially for the characters’ flashbacks — both in Rocky and Saani Kaayidham. It is often said of Bergman’s black-and-white films and the pessimistic influence they had. But the pessimism in Arun’s films comes from powerlessness. The monochrome, in other words, is intended to convey the stillness of the characters and the absence of colour in their lives. This, of course, can be attributed to the narrative choice with a very specific purpose: to tease us with a flashback. But the backstory never becomes the forefront, it is only a reminder.

There are at least two absolutely stunning shots in the flashback that do remind you of Bergman — just in terms of its choreography. First is an extreme long shot of a deserted hut and a boy who looks deserted. Second, also an extreme long shot, of a (deserted?) mother and her daughter in focus, while the boy becomes a shadow figure in the background. My jaw dropped. Cinematographer Yamini Yagnamurthy does a fantastic job; her work is very formal. She opens with a wide, a mid and a close-up shot. This sort of a composition is what you would find in classic films. Yamini is especially terrific when it comes to filming scenes of sexual violation, but more about that later.

Arun Matheswaran is a fascinating talent, no doubt. He looks at cinema not just as a means of telling stories but epics. Hence, he is not satisfied with making films, but epics. As we saw in his terrific debut Rocky, Saani Kaayidham too is structured similarly like a weighty piece of lyrical text — with six chapters separated by a prologue and an epilogue. Arun’s Rocky was a brief exploration of the idea of land by having a protagonist who has his roots in Sri Lanka. The politics in Saani Kaayidham is direct and closer to reality with caste-based violence. If Rocky was about a man asserting his rightful place in an alien land, Saani Kaayidham is an assertion to rise above the social order. Both these films are about the powerless fighting their way to the top. 

If you take revenge as a genre, most filmmakers would look at it from the prism of cause and effect. And hence, they would be content with having three big moments in the narrative. Or maybe four. But in Arun’s films, these big moments are what they are about. These big moments aren’t exactly “big” in the conventional sense, say, like in a Vetri Maaran film. These are big in thoughts, choices and the scale with which frames are painted with blood. In other words, Arun Matheswaran’s films don’t build up to violence. They are designed to begin and end in violence, even at the conceptual level.

This rare conviction that Arun possesses is what makes him a committed filmmaker. That commitment is even rarer to find these days, when films are increasingly becoming corporate-controlled and filmmakers needlessly pandering to the tastes of the market. Having said that, this writer definitely feels Arun needs to put the practice of his stylised violence to better use. He needs to direct his violence towards the audience and not be content with exploiting it for “shock” value. He needs to direct his violence towards making standout sequences.

This was a huge problem for me in Rocky. This is a huge problem in Saani Kaayidham. Full disclosure: I am all in for extreme cinema, provided it makes me flinch. The violence in Arun’s films are too easy, too exploitative and too playful. Some scenes are censored and cuss words are muted in the current version of Saani Kaayidham. What’s the point of releasing such films on digital platforms anyway? What’s the point of these atrocious claims about “artistic freedom” that you get on OTT platforms? 

Saani Kaayidham
Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Selvaraghavan and Kanna Ravi
Director: Arun Matheswaran
Storyline: Ponni and Sangaiah, who share an estranged relationship, are brought together for a common purpose: revenge

Saani Kaayidham is built around the brutal sexual assault of Ponni (Kudos to Keerthy Suresh for agreeing to do this) that goes for so long. It is very, very disturbing and chilling. Yet, the sequence eschews the usual sensationalism and ends up being suggestive. Props to Arun and Yamini for filming the assault with minimum details. The sequence, yes, is cruel. But Arun is careful not to exploit the assault, unlike our commercial filmmakers. At the same time, Arun is equally careful when it comes to writing the bad guys. They are not bad because of what they do, but how they think. There is a scene where someone makes a hand heart gesture at Ponni. This was more triggering than the aforementioned scene. This is what makes Arun an important voice because more than anything, he knows how hierarchy works, knows how men think. 

But this is to not say that Saani Kaayidham is entirely brilliant. The film says that the events take place in 1989. But the language, words the characters speak are today’s Tamil. Yes, violence is graphic, but it is not real. Which is why when Ponni and Sangaiah (a terrific Selvaraghavan) go all out, we become indifferent to what we see after a point. This happens because violence is stylised. Sometimes the film does make you feel it was conceived for these “big” moments and not the other way round. Speaking of violence, there is an outrageous scene when Ponni and Sangaiah (who are half brother and sister) are butchering someone, their hands bathed in blood, when ‘Malarthum Malaratha’ from Pasamalar plays in the background. It is a scream.

Keerthy Suresh’s eyes never looked more powerful. Selvaraghavan, on the other hand, is a great choice. He gets two superb moments where you truly buy his innocence. There are a few shortcomings though. Sparing details, the way Ponni reacts in the end is not how she would react. These two characters were never sentimental!

There are a few auteurist touches in Saani Kaayidham. A curse comes true. The neglected half-brother becomes a watchful protector. Mahabharatham plays on the radio when Ponni gets her final act, as if to imply Panchali’s sabatham. Like Inglourious Basterds, we get an explosive climax in a theatre. Blood drips on kaayidham . There is a beautiful parable about a thousand eyes and a visually-impaired boy. I am a fan already.

Saani Kaayidhamis streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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