Purampokku Engira Podhuudamai: Brave, even if a bit burdensome

A word I kept going back to again and again as I was watching Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai was ‘interesting’. You can argue against many of the points the film subtly makes — and indeed you should — but Purampokku isn’t a lazily made film. A problematic argument people generally make about complex films is how the effort needs to be rewarded, even if the end product isn’t that great. Purampokku is probably the closest a film can get to making a case for itself just for the ‘effort’ that clearly went into its making.

Balu (Arya), a communist revolutionary who’s working for the cause of the ‘people’, gets sentenced to death under various sections including 121 and 122. Now, normally, I’d immediately read up about those sections to ensure that the sections are rightly used, but it was clear right from the opening scene — when it starts off as a documentary about how India is being used as a garbage dumpyard by first-world countries — that this wasn’t a film that was going to make frivolous mentions.

Purampokku received much hype before release for its massive prison set erected at Binny Mills, all of which is justified for how well the set is used in the film, and how much screen time it gets. It was refreshing to note the little details as Balu is brought into the prison by Macaulay (Shaam), an upright policeman. Balu removes his clothes, affixes his finger prints, and shows a bullet scar above his chest and a birthmark on his back to prove his identity. He does this all so nonchalantly, like the chore it is. Such details are all across the film and add so much reality to the setting. There are also cute, clever concepts used: phishing, trojans, conveying secrets through Sanskrit shlokas, and QR code scanning are a few. All these keep you on your toes.

Director: S.P. Jhananthan Genre: Drama Director: SP Jananathan Cast: Shaam, Arya, Vijay Sethupathi, Karthika Storyline: A policeman has to ensure that a death sentence is carried out without glitches.

You have Vijay Sethupathi playing Yamalingam, the guilt-ridden hangman who is forcibly given the responsibility of performing Balu’s execution. Despite his inner demons, his is the lighthearted presence that brings relief from the preachy seriousness of it all. He gets the theatre laughing when he points out that only alcoholics like him continue to remember the Gandhis and the Mahaveers, as days commemorating them are dry days. Even though it is he who gets the scenes that actors generally love — you know, those scenes that are designed to have the audience applauding at the end — it is Shaam I liked the most. His Tamil doesn’t seem totally natural but he is perfect as the steadfast cop who believes the law is above all. I was reminded of Les Miserables’ Javert, and the regular references to revolution only made this association stronger. Where the film didn’t quite work was in problematising this rigid belief of Macaulay, who in all probability is named after Thomas Macaulay, the inaugural member of the Supreme Council of India who, post-Independence, has become the whipping boy for things wrong with the British rule. Considering that Balu has utter condescension for the law, partly due to the Indian Penal Code being created by the British (as he points out in the film), you wonder if Macaulay is Jananathan’s version of a ‘good’ villain, much like Javert was in Les Miserables.

And then, what perhaps came as the biggest relief of all — the lack of a love track in the film, even though there’s an unrequited love angle. The little duet in the form of ‘Dhaegam Thaakkum’ thankfully tapers off into a scene quickly. What sheer audacity to have a mainstream heroine like Karthika and refuse to use her as the girlfriend of any of the three mainstream heroes in the film! That alone made me feel so much fondness for Purampokku. Well, that and the fact that the police in the film aren’t just reactionary as we are traditionally accustomed to seeing. Macaulay is an intelligent cop, one who preempts moves and takes intelligent proactive steps to thwart his enemies. It’s a great game of chess between adversaries who are equally intelligent. And that makes the second half of the film so interesting to behold.

The problems I mainly had with the film concerned the lack of a proper story and to a little extent, with its philosophies and how propagandist certain scenes are. None of the principal characters endure any serious transformation or find their beliefs questioned. You could make a case for Yamalingam, but even there, you’re not quite sure why he’s so easily, willingly, sucked into a terrorist plot. He never comes across as being that naïve. Javert in Les Miserables becomes such a great character mainly because he faces circumstances that force him to question his beliefs. There’s none of that in Purampokku.

Also, when planning Balu's rescue mission, we're told that once he's dropped by the rope, a group of people can come into the basement under the trap door through a tunnel and rescue him, so long as he is able to hold his breath. But surely, Jananathan should have noted that India now follows the long drop method of hanging, which means that a subject dies not because of asphyxiation but because his neck gets broken by the fall. So, his holding his breath or otherwise is quite irrelevant.

And there’s also all the sympathising you’re encouraged to do with Balu’s situation. Sad music kicks in when he’s caught by the cops, and you’re not quite sure why a bomb-making terrorist deserves so much sympathy. Surely, there are better ways of propagating a cause than by confronting a few military men with a bomb and yelling for India not to be used as a dumping ground. My heart goes out to those in the military, who’re freezing in the ice, and suddenly have a mad man with a bomb shouting what seems like total nonsense. There’s a great scene when Macaulay ridicules Balu for being a misguided communist revolutionary, and the latter retorts that it is Macaulay who behaves like a uniformed rowdy, who, in working for the government, goes against the people whose taxes pay him. While it’s quite difficult to resist the temptation of ridiculing a public servant, I found myself siding by Macaulay. Balu says that the problem with the world is that there is more emphasis on ‘thani udamai’ than on ‘podhu udamai’. Hasn’t Balu seen the repeated failure of communist countries, of the ills that have unfailing plagued societies that embraced ‘podhu udamai’ in all its purity?

However, despite its underdeveloped story and philosophical problems, Purampokku is a brave film in many ways, and even perhaps a necessary one.

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2022 4:19:14 am |