Vikram Vedha: A ferocious cops-and-gangsters tale with an Agatha Christie twist

Pushkar-Gayathri’s ‘Vikram Vedha’ is a Mani Ratnam-esque take on a popular mythical tale featuring two characters — a king named Vikramaditya and a spirit named Vetala. While it’s not necessary to make yourself familiar with this story before watching the film, there’s an added level of fun when you’ve already read it and recognize the story’s visual motifs and other contents translated into a modern context in the film. And I don’t want to tell you that story now because it doesn’t matter much.

Here, Vikram is a cool encounter specialist (a superb Madhavan) who does not suffer from the guilty conscience that some of his peers do when he goes home after mercilessly dispatching gangsters in violent shootouts. He also doesn’t hesitate when it comes to occasionally planting evidence and making the crime scenes look favorable if need be for him and his team members; according to him, they are the good guys. His ideology and morality are reminiscent of some of the police characters from Sidney Lumet films.

He is married to Priya (Shraddha Srinath), a lawyer — a profession that he hates.  Similarly, she hates cops; but somehow they hit it off after bumping into each other at a bar: he drinks, and so does she. There is a Gautham Menon level of sweetness in their chemistry. When Vikram is preparing to encounter a famously dreaded gangster named Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi), to everyone’s surprise, Vedha walks into the police headquarters and surrenders. Vedha’s entry occurs almost at the 30-min mark, and Pushkar-Gayathri uses this time to give him a fabulous build up before he finally shows up.

This build up is done through Vikram’s team members who, while sitting idly at their tables, discuss some of Vedha’s terrifying escapades, especially one incident where he jumped from a building and upon landing, chopped a man’s head in half, right through the middle, with his cleaver. This one story is enough to give the listener chills and a small idea of Vedha’s notoriety.  He is described as if were a boogeyman, just like Vetala. And the thought of Sethupathi — the finest actor working in Tamil cinema right now — playing this character made me smack my lips. When he finally shows up (in slo-mo), my heart was racing like a bullet train.

His grand entry scene is akin to some of the best I’ve witnessed from Hollywood. Here are three that instantly came to my mind: Kevin Spacey’s from ‘Se7en’, Henry Fonda’s from ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ and The Joker’s from ‘The Dark Knight’. Why Vedha, who has been on the run for a long time, suddenly decides to surrender himself, is an intriguing set-up. He isn’t interested in talking to any of the cops present except Vikram. The first thing that comes out of his mouth is, “Sir, shall I tell you a story?” If it were any other gangster, Vikram wouldn’t have been interested; but Vedha is not just any other gangster. So he listens.

Vedha informs Vikram that there is a riddle hidden in each of these stories. These are stories from his own life, pivotal events that happened in the course of his rise from a small-time hoodlum to one of the most feared and respect gangsters in India. That the gangster’s remarkable career trajectory is similar to Sethupathi’s own is interesting in itself. Just like the number of layers in a Rubik’s Cube, there are three significant phases in Vedha’s life, and by narrating them to Vikram, he hopes to show him something that he hasn’t seen before. Several new, surprising developments come to light, and the viewer, just like Vikram, never sees these coming.

The film has two strong female characters — one is Priya and the other Chandra, played by Varalaxmi Sarathkumar. They are not doormats, and when slapped by a man, can slap him back. The film is a pure mainstream entertainer with some exceptional performances, especially from Sethupathi. His imposing physicality, mischief, menace, body language and intimidating confidence reminded me at times of British actor Tom Hardy. The man is able to juggle so many moods effortlessly. He wonderfully tweaks his performance according to the varying age of his character. It’s his performance and the twisty narrative that kept me engaged throughout. It’s a good but not great film elevated mostly by Sethupathi’s charismatic presence and his playful chemistry with Madhavan.

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