Vikram Vedha is a masterclass: Morals, not bullets, flow from these guns
It lambasts without mincing words the horrors of extra-judicial killings in India.
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It is rarely that I find a Tamil film that fascinates, and Pushkar-Gayathri's Vikram Vedha starring two very different kind of actors tops in script and performance. The story of a cat-and-mouse game played by a ruthless encounter cop and a hardened-by-circumstance don may not be exactly oven fresh, but the ability of the husband and wife team helming the film to adapt the age-old, but timeless folklore of King Vikramadityan and Vedhalam (Betal) to the crime and criminality of modern times is what makes Vikram Vedha sparkle.
The narrative is stylishly crisp, the craft flies, and the subtlety seen through the imaginative choice of colours (white, black and grey and the way they change on the costumes of the protagonists) as well as the unbelievable casualness of Vijay Sethupathi as gangster Vedha push the picture to the point of perfection. Or almost.
In fact, Sethupathi's opening appearance – about 30 minutes into the movie – is one that nobody is going to forget. Even as Madhavan's Vikram is gloating with his team mates over his recent encounter in which several of Vedha's men have been shot dead, the don walks into the police station with a swagger, gun in hand. And as Vikram and other policemen run down the stairs to confront him, Vedha throws his weapon on the ground, kneels down and says he is ready to surrender.
The filmmakers' ability to adapt the timeless folklore of King Vikramadityan and Vedhalam (Betal) to the crime and criminality of modern times is what makes Vikram Vedha sparkle.
At the interrogation, Vedha clearly has an upper hand, and floors Vikram with a story that cofounds our cop. Are Vikram's killings not as bad or as good as Vedha's murders? Both are convinced that they are right, and the question – much like the one posed by Vedhalam to the king – has the man in mufti (he does not wear a uniform) muddled up. In walks Vikram's lawyer wife, Priya (Shraddha Srinath), with a bail order, and out walks Vedha with a smirk on his face.
There are a couple of more occasions when we see the policeman and the outlaw meet, and each time, Vedha has a tale to tell, a tale that he cajoles Vikram to listen to, and each story, drawn from the narrator's own life, tragic and tumultuous, has the cop pausing and pondering – while the handcuffed guy escapes.
Sethupathi's spontaneity is sparkling.
Woven into the main plot are several incidents that talk about Vedha's tremendous affection for his younger brother (Puli, essayed by Kathir) and his girlfriend, Chandra (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar), and his love-hate-rivalry with another underground lord, Chetta (Harish Peradi). Each of these – and the little romantic tiffs which Vikram has with Priya over her decision to be Vedha's advocate – plays out with wonderful finesse, not for a minute distracting us from the crucial core story of the hunter and the hunted. Interestingly, both begin to slip out of their designated slots as the frames flip by.
In fact, it is precisely this ability of the directors to transform a tale of treacherous encounters into a bewildering puzzle – with Vedha shooting moral questions, not bullets, at Vikram – that endeared this work to me.
Adding to this smart scripting (a perennially weak area in Indian cinema) is the masterful casting. Madhavan's method acting translates into a power-packed performance. He does not have to take his shirt off or display his biceps, the firmness of his jaws says it all. His steely grit comes through his arrogantly sarcastic sentences and tone. His condescending darts flung at what he calls the roguish underdog (“You must have risen from the gutters...,” Vikram says to Vedha during their first meeting) are a marvel to watch from an actor whose range has swung from the chocolate-boy romantic hero in Alaipayuthey to the no-nonsense boxer in Irudhi Suttru (Sala Khadoos in Hindi). And now the brutish trigger-happy exterminating hero, who soon sinks into muddled despair.
And the guy responsible for this is Vedha - who pilots a victory of sorts in this game which has no clearly defined hero or villain. For Sethupathi makes villainy look so natural, almost ethical, with his mesmeric, cool take on a part that would never have been easy to walk through.
Madhavan's method acting translates into a power-packed performance.
His dialogues - often softly spoken - throw up distressing moral questions, and since he has the ability to deliver them in a rivetingly casual way, they appeal all the more to us. And the message hits our hearts. Sethupathi's spontaneity is sparkling, and Vikram Vedha can be one of those rare movies where we would like to bet for the baddie.
Honestly, the film, edited with no flab whatsoever, is a must watch for all those who still seek out that rare gem in the heap of worthless stones. Also, one should not miss the message: it lambasts without mincing words the horrors of extra-judicial killings in India, something the nation saw for the first time during the Emergency imposed by the Indira Gandhi government.
It is quite possible that Bollywood would be tempted to remake Vikram Vedha in Hindi, and who would step into Madhavan's and Sethupathi's shoes? Maybe Manoj Vajpayee as Vikram and Nawazuddin Siddique as Vedha!