If Murder on the Orient Express were set on land and made into a masala movie, it might resemble Pandiraj’s Kathakali . The film is a whodunit centred on this question: Who killed the gangster Thamba (Madhusudhan Rao)? We know it’s not Amudhan, because this part is played by Vishal, the hero —or could it be him? After all, there are those ominous black-and-white flashback bursts that hint at some enmity. But everyone around Amudhan has a motive as well. Could it be Amudhan’s brother, whose seashell-ornaments business was wiped out by Thamba? Or could it be a henchman? Or Amudhan’s friend, who resents Thamba for stymieing his uncle’s political career? Or is it the tycoon Jayaprakash plays? Thamba abducted his daughter and got her married to one of his goons. It’s a plot point that exists simply so we have one more suspect to consider. In the absence of anything resembling character development, Jayaprakash keeps smiling menacingly. I suppose it’s cheaper than buying a T-shirt that says “Heh, maybe I am the killer.”
Nothing is developed very well in Kathakali . The opening scenes take great pains (translation: there’s a lot of voiceover) to set up a conflict between the fishermen of Chennai and Cuddalore. All of this is supposed to immerse us in a particular milieu — but then, a large chunk of screen time goes towards the generic romantic track between Amudhan and Meenukutty (Catherine Tresa). He hears her voice over the phone. He likes what he hears. He tracks down her address using her number. He does that charming thing Tamil-film heroes do, what the world outside Kodambakkam would call stalking. She’s not interested — until he buys a pack of strawberry-flavoured condoms. That’s when she discovers she really loves him. From love letters to French letters, we’ve come a long way, baby. But let’s not dig too deep. This is, after all, the kind of film where someone returns after a four-year stint in the US and is mocked for using hand sanitiser and lip balm. If the scene had subtitles, they’d read, “We’re running out of ideas here.”
But once this silly (and very long) track is jettisoned, Kathakali turns into a fairly watchable thriller. Two things help. One, the two-hour running time. Two, the focus. After a point, Meenukutty all but vanishes, leaving Amudhan free to find the killer before he is arrested for Thamba’s murder. Pandiraj’s earlier film, Pasanga 2 , was a well-intentioned mess, but he’s regained a bit of form here. At least, this looks like a piece of cinema. It’s shot well. It moves briskly. There’s a nice “mass” touch involving a selfie. Some thought has gone in. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but we are at a stage with these star vehicles where “some thought has gone in” and “not bad” are active recommendations.
A version of this review can be read at >baradwajrangan.wordpress.com