Once in a long while, along comes a film which takes you into itself, and keeps you sipping from its deep pool of gritty pleasures. Vada Chennai is one such, and it cements Vetrimaaran’s growing reputation as one of India’s most electric filmmakers.
The nearly 2.45 hours long film unspools an ambitious, roiling story about a place, North Chennai, and its people, over a period of time. The film is not set in a bubble. It is pierced by real, change-making events: Rajeev Gandhi’s assassination, MGR’s passing are some of its inflection points. It feels appropriate to call it a saga.
The main protagonists are gangsters, and the film opens with a chilling post-kill conversation amongst the four men who’ve done it. Blood-stained knives clatter on a table, red splatters widen on their clothes. The tension the men release is almost post-coital. And you are back relishing Vetrimaaran’s visceral, take-no-prisoners skill, the last bit especially apt in this film, which spends a lot of time in jail.
The film connects the dots between these four men and the wet-behind-the-ears floppy-haired carrom player Anbu (Dhanush), and invites us along on his transition from a likely lad romancing a fiery lass (Rajesh) to a shorn, shrewd, steely-eyed top gang boss. We keep an eye on Anbu right from his almost-unobtrusive entry, because we know he is special: Dhanush plays him with a hair-trigger confidence laced with a barely-there swagger, which grows along with the film.
The film gets its epic quality from showing us just how entire communities, when pressed to the wall by greedy politicians and complicit civilians, can be eclipsed. Anbu, and the rest of the gang, Rajan, Guna, Senthil, Thambi (Ameer, Samuthirakan, Kishore, Daniel Balaji, respectively), are part of the fishing community, and their centuries-old relationship with the sea goes beyond just plain commerce: it shapes their character, and their lives.
Carrom as a game also has historical significance. It was so popular at the time that almost every neighbourhood had its champion players, and being good enough to win competitions was seen as a passport to a better life. Anbu plays the game, in his ‘vada’, and in prison, striking with precision, aiming unerringly at where he wants to go.
Just like in Vetrimaaran’s earlier films (Aadukalam, Visaranai), setting is everything. You can smell the briny salt water, the stink of the prison, the coppery tinge of the blood. And the faces: each one has their own history, even the women (Jeremiah has a pivotal role), who hold their own in this very male bastion.
Only in very few moments did the film lose its grip on me. In the rest, I sat completely wrapped up in this tale of once upon a time in North Chennai. This is meant to be a trilogy, and I can’t wait for the next, and the next.