A new era has dawned in Tamil cinema. Lokesh Kanagaraj, the four-film-old filmmaker, has opened the gates to a new Cinematic Universe that hints at wondrous possibilities with Vikram as the first big step. There has never been a filmmaker before Lokesh to steer the conversation around delivering a true cinematic experience in the right direction. Before Lokesh, cinematic experience meant grand ideas and needless adornments to massage a star’s male crowd. But this filmmaker is committed to giving you an experience of a certain standard.
There’s a certain taste, visual flavour and a certain style to the way he writes and directs. He accomplished this cinema experience with ease in the terrific Kaithi, a pure-genre film that had the flavour of a wholesome Hollywood thriller. Like Speed on drugs. He gave us a tease of this new Cinematic Universe in Master. About the Vijay-starrer, I had written in the review, “This mouthwatering possibility, to tie two different films of two different eras, is fascinating — in theory. And if Master is what Lokesh could do to a Vijay film, one smiles at the thought of what one could expect from him for his vaathi, in Vikram.” This mouthwatering possibility, unfortunately, still remains a theory. For, what felt organic and thrilling in Kaithi, feels weak and forced in Vikram.
Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is a cinema experience, as is Marvel’s Avengers, as some would argue. Lokesh, a fan of Scorsese, would earlier take the route his masters took. But with Vikram, he plays it safe and goes by the demands of the market. For, the world of Vikram is an extension of Kaithi and picks up three months after the events of the latter film. Trying to create a franchise isn’t the problem. The question has more to do with the whys.
Cast: Kamal Haasan, Vijay Sethupathi, Fahadh Faasil, Kalidas Jayaram, Gayathrie and Suriya
Director: Lokesh Kanagaraj
Storyline: Amar and his team of Black Squads take up the case of high-profile murders that lead them to two people: Santhanam, a drug kingpin and the Ghost.
Do not get me wrong. Everything about Vikram is good — except for Kamal Haasan. Why do you even need the man for this film? Why make a film with Kamal when you don’t even get to register and feel his presence? Why Vikram (1986) ? It could have been any other film. Of course, we get the logical reasoning behind using the brand Vikram. But does Kamal’s original film have any relevance to the new one? Absolutely not. You could have shown Kamal as an Agent and the film still would have worked big time. The new Vikram could have still been a standalone film where Amar (Fahadh Faasil who is absolutely terrific) carries on the legacy of Vikram, like in the James Bond movies. The open-ended climax hints at that possibility. As fans of the original film and Kamal Haasan, you feel let down. The disappointment comes from the fact that Lokesh has failed to realise the true potential of his idol — both as an actor and action star. Nevertheless, there is a lot to chew on.
For an action-thriller to click, it has to be a well-oiled machine. Vikram is that machine. Right from the start, it is a thrill-a-minute ride with a battalion of characters. As you might know, the screenplay for the film was born out of Kamal’s idea — of a protagonist. Throughout the leisurely-paced first half, which is densely-packed with lots of layers, it is for the search of a protagonist. As a writer-director, Lokesh does a neat job in the world-building exercise and sustains the intrigue. The film does leave you confused after a point and you try to wrap your head around the proceedings, given what happens in that shocking yet brave opening sequence.
Vikram has an unusual opening. Definitely unusual for a Kamal Haasan film. It begins right with ‘Pathala Pathala’ song, which feels like an afterthought that was inserted just for the sake of it. Except for this oddly-placed song, the film gets going and there is not a single wasted moment in the long-drawn first half. Lokesh must be as much a fan of Christopher Nolan as he is of Scorsese. A lot of scenes remind you of Nolan’s film. We, in fact, get a Tenet-like sequence and a Bane-like voiceover in this one. There are lots of references to masks and unmasking of identities. The man in-charge of this unmasking is Amar, who heads an uncounted team of Black Squads. They are assigned by the Police Department to investigate a series of high-profile murders in the department that leads to one man Santhanam (Vijay Sethupathi, who is, of course, terrific). Santhanam runs a drug empire. He faces the heat from a recent drug bust, which is a hark back to Kaithi. Anything more would spoil the fun.
Movies about RAW agents and their sacrifices have rightly become a sub-genre. We have seen it a thousand times. Yet, something about it continues to allure us. In this case, it has Kamal reprising his quasi-Bond character, Vikram. The tone and mood of Vikram is quite tense like Kaithi. And like the latter, there are plenty of whistle-worthy moments featuring small characters who take you by a delightful surprise and score. There is a particular scene in the second half that none of us saw coming. Of course, there are throwbacks to old Tamil songs. My favourite involves the ‘Kalviya Selvama Veerama’ song from Saraswati Sabatham and has Vijay Sethupathi raising his hand rather mockingly.
Vikram truly comes alive post the adrenaline-filled interval scene. Action is Lokesh’s forte and the second-half has impressive stunts (stunt directors are Anbariv masters) and a superior camera work by Girish Gangadharan of Jallikattu fame. Yet, there is something missing. And that something leads us back to Kamal. You could quite see Lokesh’s struggle not knowing what to do with Kamal’s character as Vikram. There is not enough beef to feed the lion — in this case, there are three brilliant actors. The screenplay issue must have been this: Amar has to find the Ghost, through which he finds Santhanam. But for Vikram to go all guns blazing, it needed a stronger reason and not just the personal loss. Even in the old film, Vikram was not a sentimental character. And Lokesh yet again suffers in the sentimental scenes.
That brings us to this: no other actor in Indian cinema can cry like Kamal Haasan. Period. You cannot contest that. What’s slender in the writing, Kamal deadlifts with his acting prowess. Just watch the man where he is looking at a baby misty-eyed, you cannot help but feel a lump in your throat. That is the kind of actor we are talking about. Somewhere, you wish it was a 60% Lokesh and 40% Kamal film.
Vijay Sethupathi, on the other hand, is remarkable as Santhanam. Perhaps after a long time, we see the effort he has put in to play a character and not be weighed down by the Sethupathi-ness. But unlike his Bhavani in Master, Santhanam remains wooden for the most part. His character is defined by his actions, but that doesn’t mean he is powerful.
There are two heroes in Vikram: Fahadh Faasil and Anirudh. When there are no guns or deafening explosions, Anirudh’s background score does the talking. The entire film belongs to Fahadh. He is magnetic as Amar and a scene-stealer. In the film’s ending portion, there is a hint at extending the universe with Suriya and Fahadh. Thinking about what that film might be is exciting.
Pointing out the basics: Kamal has done it all. Vikram, for him, is like chewing betel leaf and spitting the stem out. But there is a big takeaway in Kamal’s decision to step back and shed his superstar image at this stage in his career. It feels like Kamal has finally made up his mind about the future and where he is headed. He wants to do what Sivaji Ganesan did in the later stage of his career: pave the way for youngsters and watch them grow. But it is also a reminder that the chair Sivaji sat on and later Kamal, continues to be empty.
Vikram is currently running in theatres