Updated: January 24, 2022 8:46:08 am
Out on Netflix after a limited theatrical run at the end of last year, Kadaseela Biriyani is a darkly humorous revenge saga that features the best use of a coffin since perhaps Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Director Nishanth Kalidindi’s film is a terrific example of how to maximise scale despite a shoestring budget—a true indie that occasionally flirts with deep philosophical ideas. For instance, one of the highlights of the film—a wry voiceover narration by none other than Vijay Sethupathi—was added after the fact. Sethupathi was so impressed by the movie, he watched it multiple times over a couple of days, before announcing that he had to be involved in some way or another. It was Sethupathi who suggested the narration, which, if you think about it, is a rather bold note to give.
The importance (and the abuse) of voiceover narration can’t be overstated. The most famous, of course, is the one that Warner Bros inserted into the theatrical version of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, in an effort to make it more palatable for general audiences (it has been said that star Harrison Ford deliberately performed the voiceover poorly, in the hope that it dissuades the studio from using it). The Blade Runner situation was a classic example of voiceovers being used as a narrative crutch, something that generally signals a filmmaker’s (or, in this case, a studio’s) lack of faith in the audience.
Sethupathi’s narration in Kadaseela Biriyani, if anything, makes a straightforward movie more complex. It heightens the sense of dramatic irony, and drowns the story in a pool of nihilism. This is where the coffin comes in.
Visibly filmed on consumer cameras attached to gimbals that the filmmakers probably bought on Amazon, the film subverts a rather by-the-numbers revenge plot by giving it a Biblical edge. When a Tamil man is killed by a wealthy rubber plantation owner in Kerala, his three sons—two of them thirsty for blood and the third a Michael Corleone-esque outsider—vow to avenge his death. They congregate at a toddy shop—the meek Chikku Pandi has to be literally dragged along—and hatch their plan.
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“We are planning a murder, not a trip to the toilet,” one of Chikku’s more merciless elder brothers reprimands him, perhaps in a pointed nod to his resemblance to the youngest Corleone sibling. It was in a toilet that Michael had stashed the weapon with which he would kill Captain McCluskey, the bent cop who had a hand in the assassination plot against Michael’s father, Don Vito Corleone. And it was this act of vengeance that would send him down a violent path, ultimately making him more ruthless than any man in his family had ever been. Chikku Pandi’s transformation isn’t as graceful as Michael’s—he spends almost the entirety of Kadaseela Biriyani as a comically passive presence.
But it is in that same early scene that Kalidindi pays homage to the two directors whose films have had perhaps the biggest influence on him. And although the scene is staged like the opening moments of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs—complete with earnest discussions about the logistics of their plot, and peppered with quirky nicknames—the rest of the movie has the scrappiness of Guy Ritchie’s early crime films.
The code names that the brothers give their adversaries are very much of a piece with Kadaseela Biriyani’s crude masculinity—the sort that you’d associate with Ritchie’s movies. Big Ass, Strawberry Flavour, Piggy Fart Roast—these are just some of the (admittedly translated) names that the Pandi brothers come up with. Not the greatest endorsement for their intellect (or maturity). But you’d imagine that these are the sort of sobriquets that Ritchie—the creator of characters as memorable as Bullet Tooth Tony and Franky Four-Fingers—would also think up, were he to ever make a movie set in the Kottayam countryside.
Like Ritchie’s films, Kadaseela Biriyani is dominated by men, but this isn’t really an issue. Allow me to explain. Had the film introduced female characters and then disrespected them—either thematically or narratively—it would have surely been a problem. But because it doesn’t, it isn’t. Logically speaking, Spider-Man: No Way Home did a far greater disservice to Aunt May—arguably its most prominent female character—than anything that Kadaseela Biriyani does to the lone woman who briefly appears in it for one scene.
The movie is more concerned with social injustice of a different kind. ‘Pandi’, for instance, is a derogatory term that Malayalis use for Tamil people. Chikku’s cultural identity plays a key role in the film, especially when it paints a bullseye on his back when he’s on the run from cops. He is pointedly an outsider; he doesn’t belong in this violent world, in more ways than one.
It’s quite amazing what Kalidindi and his team have achieved with so little. The decision to shoot on real locations with natural light, for instance, adds such atmosphere. As does the simple choice to use a shallow depth of field in close-ups, which makes every shot seem more expensive than it really is. Kadaseela Biriyani is a calling card movie for a real filmmaker; watching Kalidindi’s career progression will be just as interesting as watching the films he makes.
Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.
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