A clash of titans, Kamal and Ajith
November 18 2015 12:12 AM

Kamal Haasan plays an undercover cop in Thoongaavanam.

By Gautaman Bhaskaran

It is unusual for two big Tamil films to open the same day. I do not recall a Friday when a Kamal Haasan starrer and, let us say, a Rajinikanth blockbuster hit the screens together. But last week — on the eve of one of the biggest Indian festivals, Deepavali — Haasan and Ajith Kumar, another Tamil superstar, clashed in the cinemas of Tamil Nadu, literally adding to the fireworks!
Ajith Kumar’s Vedalam and Haasan’s Thoongaavanam are very different kinds of movies — in story, in script and execution.
Rajesh Selva’s Thoongaavanam is an absolute slick crime adventure that has two marvellous stars, Kamal Haasan and Prakash Raj, pitted against each other in a cat-and-mouse game —which unfolds mostly within the noisy smoke-filled, bathed in liquor environs of a nightclub. Can there be a better setting for a cocaine-deal gone awry with Haasan playing an undercover cop, Diwakar, out to trap fellow policemen who are hand-in-glove with the drug lord, Prakash Raj’s Vittal Rao — desperate to lay his hands on a missing bag of cocaine.
The bag is with Diwakar in a film that has been inspired by a French work, Nuit Blanche (Sleepless Night), and he finds himself truly cornered when Rao kidnap’s the cop’s young school-going son. Give me the white powder and take your son back, Rao laughs over the telephone, Prakash Raj’s hallmark trait. Diwakar walks into the nightclub, brimming with young fun seekers, and in the noise and din of it all, he manages to lose the bag — the key to his son’s freedom.
Stalked by Rao inside the labyrinth of a club, as well as two other police officers — one of them Mallika (played by Trisha, who seems too frail for the role of a tough cop) — Diwakar sees the minutes tick up as he plans his moves during a sleepless night in what is virtually a forest of vice.
Mounted with marvellous finesse and edited with breath-taking pace, the movie in just over two hours keeps us mesmerised by its gun fights and kicking sprees that play out — some of them inside the club’s kitchen, lending a wee bit to hilarity.
This is certainly one of Haasan’s better films in recent months (the other being Papanasam), but, yes, Kamal needs to make a greater attempt to sink into a character, something he was adept at in his earlier days. I would say the same for Prakash Raj, but he is of course capable of surprising us with a performance like the one we saw in Mani Ratnam’s O Kadhal Kanmani —where he was the caring husband of a woman, down with dementia.
A last word, Thoongaavanam is eminently watchable, even if that means keeping awake for a late night show.

*  *  *

Siva’s Vedalam is certainly not in the Thoongaavanam league. Vedalam is a movie that unashamedly worships its hero, Ajith.
Not surprising in a scenario where we have men like Rajinikanth or Ajith or Vijay who have to flex their muscles on the screen to tell the world that they are supermen — the message aimed particularly at the female fans, who are ready to swoon at the sight of Ajith’s ripping muscles or Rajinikanth’s tricks. So what if Ajith loses anything tender in the bargain or Rajinikanth begins to look like an inane magician.
Vedalam has been written only to exhibit a muscular Ajith, but Siva’s work is at same time careful about the star’s core image. He has to be a good man, who has to be a good brother to his sister, Tamizh (Lakshmi Menon). And why? For, he has promised her parents to take care of her. Gentlemen keep promises, Ajith has to be one. Otherwise, his fans will be devastated, Ajith’s Ganesh (there are frequent references to the Hindu deity) is a vicious battering ram who pounds people to pulp, while playing the noble samaritan. He is also as cunning as a fox: look at the way he exposes the lawyer, Swathi (Shruti Haasan), when she coerces him to give a false testimony in court (the legal system also comes under the scanner here), and see the way Ganesh (whose nickname is Vedalam or Phantom, minus of course the costume) fixes a two-timing Laxmidas (Soori).
And Ganesh is a cabbie in Kolkata (pray, why this city, I have no clue, and some of the scenes appear not to have been shot there), a do-gooder, who has an ace goonda like Kolkata Kali (Rajendran) eating out of his palm — all because the taxi-driver tells the thug that he looks “beautiful”. Where will all this silly romp end?
At the very end, when Ganesh — who migrates from Chennai (where he was a street ruffian, breaking men’s heads and extorting money for land deals) to Kolkata with Tamizh (who joins an art school and sees her artistic talent bloom) — vanquishes three evil brothers. The reason is as frivolous as a flickering flame in a hurricane. The methods he adopts will have the Mossad swooning in shock (Why did we not think of this, they would bang their heads on the wall).
Ganesh appears like Phantom at the flick of a frame, and silences dozens of sophisticated guns, and the men holding them crumble like nine-pins as the ball rolls, all fire and fury. The sight is ugly, downright gory, and I wonder how women in the audiences (children!) stomach such orchestrated violence performed with the relish of tucking in a plate of piping hot biriyani.
Vedalam is in a way an extension of Bahubali, where the evil is killed, and coming as the Ajit starrer did during Deepavali, the work is bound to strike an emotional note with all those who still believe, in this day and age, that the world needs supermen to get rid of bad guys, and yes supermen who are tender by day and tough by night, who caress their lovers as if they were delicate flowers, who love their sisters as if they were the last word in fragility.
At 157 minutes, Vedalam is but an Ajith Kumar show (all the way where Menon and Haasan are wasted). The man arrives with a big bang and never tires of bashing up baddies — but now and then taking a break to cleanse society of minor evils like fooling law courts or cheating on wives.
Certainly not for children, who might wonder how Phantom sprung out of their favourite comic books in such a horrifically mutated form.

l Gautaman Bhaskaran has been watching Tamil superstars for
three decades, and may be emailed
at gautamanb@hotmail.com

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