‘Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu’ movie review: Simbu and Gautham Menon are superb in this very ordinary gangster drama

Simbu is as invisible as Gautham Menon in ‘Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu’ and this is a welcome departure for them. Yet, something feels incomplete

September 15, 2022 01:36 pm | Updated 06:39 pm IST

A still from the film

A still from the film | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The dying embers of a forest fire end up elsewhere as a flame-throwing machine.

At least this seems to be the lyrical idea that must have ignited a spark in Gautham Menon to adapt Jeyamohan’s short story, now as Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu (VTK). At least that is how VTK opens, with Muthu (Silambarasan) being the ember in a dying fire who gets thrown out of it, as if to imply that he is a survivor. Or rather, he is a ball of fire himself. The latter sounds more believable.

Let’s get this out of the way: Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu isn’t your regular gangster film. In fact, it doesn’t even claim to belong to the gangster genre. Instead, we get a nice procedural drama that is both a blessing and a curse. More about that later. And Gautham Menon anyway isn’t interested in telling the story of a gangster; he seems content with the journey itself. He seems interested in capturing the life of Muthu in real time. By doing so, Gautham creates a mood piece with space and leisure that makes it hard to tell whether I enjoyed it to its entirety or if something felt lost in translation. But what I can confidently say is that the world VTK tries to construct in the first half is exquisite — both in terms of writing and direction. 

Gautham usually has this urgency to get into the protagonist’s head and ‘narrate’ his story, but that has been course-corrected. He has been using voice-over as a device to further the narrative. To fill up screenplay gaps. In VTK, the narrative itself is procedural in nature. Therefore, there is no urgency to rush over the story, no urgency for immediate pay-offs. In other words, it can be argued that Muthu’s story can be told only this way. When you adapt a literary piece of text for screen, there is a tendency to trim reams of pages that might take up the bulk of the screentime. Some filmmakers might show this gradual progression of life in montages or transition effects; Gautham himself has done it. 

Imagine this: for Muthu to leave his village in Naduvakurichi, Tirunelveli, to work as a migrant labourer in Chembur, Mumbai, pretty much takes about half an hour. And the next 40-odd minutes is dedicated to the everydayness of Muthu’s life; the people he meets, the stories he listens to. It could be said that some of these bits felt derivative and repetitive. Perhaps that was the point. To show the ordinariness of their lives, just like Vasantha Balan’s Angadi Theru

Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu
Cast: Silambarasan, Siddhi Idnani, Raadhika Sarathkumar and Neeraj Madhav
Director: Gautham Vasudev Menon
Storyline: The journey of Muthu through his formative years as a gangster in Mumbai

In Mumbai, Muthu works at a parotta shop run by a Tamil. His co-workers are all from different villages from Tamil Nadu but with very similar stories. They are all invisible people that make a city look visible. But Muthu doesn’t know that the shop is an underbelly of the underworld. His superboss is Gaarji, a gangster from Tirunelveli, who has a beef with Kutty Bhai (Siddique), a Malayali gangster. Muthu and his friends almost live dual lives. They wait for the order to execute and each time they do it, death plays its course and a new occupant arrives at the scene.

We get this terrific line from Muthu’s friend Saravanan (Appukutty): “They are like big machines and we are just like screws on them, not knowing anything about the machine.” Come to think of it, the “machine analogy” gets fully-realised in the interval block when Muthu is forced to take a pistol to defend. As if to suggest that: “He is no longer a screw but a machine. Rather, a bullet.”

The method of VTK is slow expansion and you can’t help but get partially soaked in it. Gautham seems to truly respect Jeyamohan’s writing and that shows all through the first half. In fact, the film ended for me at the intermission. It felt complete. It felt like VTK had made its point already. 

The point it was trying to make until now can be traced in Thamarai’s beautiful line in the song ‘Marakuma Nenjam’: “Adangadha rattinaththil yerikitu mela mela mela poghum. Adhil ninnu keezha paartha pullipilliya thaane thonum. Adhu pola bodha unda engum.”

This “adangatha rattinam” becomes a metaphor on Muthu when he gets sucked into the circle of violence. And how he falls into the pit is where most of the meat is. Right up to this point, VTK was straight up my alley. Up till now, it felt unlike anything we have seen in a Gautham Menon film. And the moment the second half starts, it heads towards a slippery slope and back into the Gautham Menon zone. But that is not the main issue.

The problem with VTK is… it’s just too ordinary for an expansive gangster saga. Written by Jeyamohan and Gautham Menon for the screen, VTK’s screenplay needed better dramatic points. This is not to be mistaken with “mass” moments. Please, no. Compare the intermission scene of VTK with what Vetri Maaran did in Vada Chennai and you will realise where I’m going with this. The staging should have been done in such a way that we feel participative and not distant from the character. Here, we just observe Muthu taking up the revolver. It does nothing. But you get the idea of the second half. It is in Thamarai’s lyrics again: “Engu thodangum. Engu mudiyum. Aatrin payanam.” The choice that Muthu has made is “aatrin payanam”. He doesn’t know where it will end, so do we. Again, VTK is too ordinary. Too derivative.

There are, nevertheless, positives. This is Simbu’s best acting in ages for the simple reason that we, thankfully, don’t see Simbu in the film. The actor is truly remarkable as Muthu, especially in the Mumbai portion. Put him in a frame crowded with people and it’s very likely you may not even notice him. That is how much we don’t see Simbu in this film. He even gets the Tirunveli dialect right and there seems to be a conscious effort to ensure that the character doesn’t slip into conversational Tamil. Early on, when someone asks Muthu to wear slippers, he says, “pirakku pottukaren” as opposed to the usual “apprum”.

Simbu is as invisible in VTK as Gautham Menon. This is a welcome departure for the filmmaker who has often come under fire for making the same films again. Gautham too has tried doing something different this time — really! There are a few long shots that simply didn’t work for me. But my favourite shot is when Muthu goes to a textile shop where he meets Paavai (Siddhi Idnani, in a badly-acted and bad-written romance) for the first time. We see them having a chat until cinematographer Siddhartha Nuni turns the camera away — it’s a reflection in a mirror. Gautham does this again in a later scene for the opposite effect, as if to shut Muthu’s advances.

The filmmaker has also taken a few criticisms of his previous films — with regard to normalising stalking —  for the better. So, when Muthu stalks Paavai, she shoots him down. Not exactly that but we at least get to hear the woman say, “This is wrong” and not fall for his charms. Likewise, in a later scene, when Muthu throws a wad of cash in front of Paavai’s father, asking for his approval to marry her, we get to see Paavai calling this behaviour out. For, only a scene earlier, we see Muthu saving Paavai from her boss’ sexual harassment.

The biggest positive has got to be how well-rounded the screenplay structure is: where it begins is where the film also ends. Which is why I am not exactly sure what to make of the last 10 minutes that teases for a second installment. For me, the film ended during the intermission.

Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu is currently running in theatres

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