Madras: A tale of crime and punishment in the slums

Over the last few years, Tamil filmmakers have reduced the poor neighbourhoods of Chennai to a place bubbling with gangsters and anti-social elements.

Pa. Ranjith’s second feature titled Madras, starring Karthi and Catherine, compensates for it by providing a rich, pulsating account of life in the slums. It marks a superb comeback for Karthi after a string of duds.

The film is set in Vyasarpadi, a place that is home not just to gangsters but also to IT professionals, hip-hop loving youth, football enthusiasts, die hard romantics, working men and women.

The poor neighbourhood is portrayed not as a place that is beyond reformation, but as an inevitable part of the city that actually keeps it going. It is place from which the affluent middle and upper middle classes get their cheap labour and the politicians…their muscle.

On the surface, it is a standard story of revenge: Kaali (Karthi), a techie who has a cushy job, tries to avenge the death of his friend, Anbu (Kalaiarasan) by his political opponents. The site of a conflict is a 30 feet wall, on which a portrait of the revered leader is painted. The rival faction (of which Anbu is a member) has been trying to ‘take back’ wall in vain for years. Caught into this war of egos between the leaders of the two parties, Anbu loses his life. The rest of the film is about whether Kaali avenges the death of Anbu by killing the one of theirs.

The film brings into the narrative all aspects of life in the slum: impact of political opportunism, daily conversations, the way youth pursue the opposite sex, the effect of police brutality and so on. The women, for instance, are not your typical victims of domestic abuse from a drunk husband, but defy stereotypes. The female protagonist, Kalaiyarasi, for instance, is not a cut out, a girl who merely falls in love with Kaali. She is politically conscious, doesn't believe in the Divine and, in a way, 'reforms' Kaali when he bays for the blood.


Director: Pa. Ranjith

Cast: Karthi, Catherine Tresa

Music Director: Santhosh Narayanan

Producer: Studio Green

However, the film is much more than that. It is an account of what happens (or is rather happening) when political ideology is stripped of its emancipatory ideals that it claims to pursue and manifests itself as a mere turf war affecting the life of people in complex ways.

It is a film that identifies political parties as an extension of the egos of their leaders. It examines how and why they systematically promote and maintain a culture of violence.

What is impressive about the film is the manner in which it captures intimacy, conservatism, relationships and aspiration of people in all its complexity.

For instance, the conversations between Kaali and Kalaiyarasi are not regulated by middle class decency, but are marked by what some would call the working class ‘loudness’.

When Kalaiyarasi says that she loves Karthi, he replies with a simple, ‘then kiss me’. Same is the case when Anbu, who, despite living in a small space with his kid, still shares a raunchy intimacy with his wife.

But it is precisely the ‘loudness’ that brings some freshness to the conversations and makes it enjoyable.

Rarely does one gets to see a Tamil film that reflects the social reality so closely and sketching a detailed account of life that the middle and the upper middle class know little about. Full marks to Pa. Ranjith for that.

Read >Sudhir Srinivasan's review of Madras.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 2:09:26 PM |

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