Before director Selvaraghavan came along, we thought we would never see a film like Pudhupettai in Tamil. Hell, we never even knew such films can even be made. It was 2006, and our cinematic knowledge of dark underbelly of the criminal world came from the likes of Nayakan and Baasha. The films that came before Pudhupettai had protagonists who became dons for a noble reason. Remember the iconic line, “Naalu peruku nalladhuna edhuvum thappilla” (Nothing is wrong if a few people benefit from it)?
And Pudhupettai called the industry’s bluff by dismantling Tamil cinema’s romanticisation of gangsters. The kid gloves were off. Here, Selvaraghavan allowed no room for confusion of any sorts. The protagonist, Kokki Kumar, was a bad man. He had no greater good on his mind when he ordered the murders of his biological father and a slew of his other rivals. He was just being a cold-blooded gangster looking out only for himself. Because it was a matter of his survival. As simple as that, not complicated at all.
The movie opens with Kokki Kumar (an impressive Dhanush) languishing in a prison cell in solitude. He deals with deafening silence by narrating his life story on a high-pitch tone echoing off the empty green walls. He hopes that someone might listen to his remorse. In a way, doing so is cathartic for him as he’s alone, terrified and crumbling under the weight of his guilt. Cut to flashback, we see Kumar getting ready for his school. As the camera pulls out of his tiny house, we get the picture of his neighbourhood, which is closely packed and heavily populated.
It is Pudhupettai, a ghetto in North Chennai. The image of the area was drastically different from Pudhupettai that we saw through rose-tinted glasses in Thirumalai (2003).
Kumar’s life turns on its head after his abusive father kills his dotting mother. And he runs away from his house fearing that his heartless father might even kill him to cover up his mother’s murder. And he becomes our guide into the underbelly of Chennai that ridicules general standards of morality of our society. It is a very different world that lives by the credo “nothing is wrong if I benefit from it.”
The gangsters chop off hands and slit throats for money. They sell drugs, traffic women for sex, terrorise the common people, help corrupt politicians and loot from law-abiding citizens. And those who indulge in such criminal activities, usually, meet a gruesome end. And a few lucky ones, become politicians.
Dhanush had delivered a timeless physical performance as Kokki Kumar. Especially in his monologue scenes, which are plenty in the film. But, the real surprise was Bala Singh’s performance as Anbu. His Oscar-worthy performance in the supporting cast is as good as Joe Pesci’s in Goodfellas (1990).
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Even as Selvaraghavan makes a film on the exploits of a criminal, he makes Kokki Kumar as unattractive as possible. The protagonist is repeatedly beaten up, gets abused, loses everything to his greed, his one hand is permanently damaged, there is a huge scar on his face, he loses his child, wives, friends, and soul. He is alone, afraid and feels pathetic. Nothing is stylish or romantic about being a criminal.
Pudhupettai is available on Amazon Prime Video.
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