Vetrimaaran’s ‘Vada Chennai’ floors critics and cinephiles at Pingyao

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A small but invested group of foreign film critics and cinephiles at PYIFF were exhilirated by the blood-soaked knives and sickles and the fabulously mounted killings

“Takashi Miike would have liked it,” was the instant reaction of Tomita Mikiko, the programmer for Japanese cinema at the Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival, after watching Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai(North Chennai in English) that had its world premiere on Friday night at PYIFF.

Comparisons with Mr. Miike — some of whose cult films are identified with extreme violence, bloodshed and yakuza — could well explain Vada Chennai’s hold on the small but invested group of foreign film critics and cinephiles at Pingyao. They were exhilirated by the blood-soaked knives and sickles and fabulously mounted killings, the manic energy and the frenzied, chaotic loop — from start to finish — around the world of Chennai “rowdies”.

At first glance Vada Chennai appears to be yet another familiar, fast paced — and at times, bewildering — gangster drama teeming with innumerable characters and fantastic set of actors. You feel it could have paused on a person a while longer, dwelt a little more on a relationship, elaborated on a situation a wee bit more. But with an urgency all its own it dashes madly back and forth in time — from 2000 to 1991 to 2003 — and between places: the slums, dens and prisons of Chennai. However, the many seemingly-loose ends come together satisfyingly as the essential human tale of betrayals and loyalties finds a closure — and a new beginning — in the finale. Vetrimaaran has two more films planned.

At the centre of the violent bedlam is Dhanush, the boy next-door, harbouring dreams of becoming a carrom champion, pulled dangerously into the swirl of crime syndicates. There is comic relief, there is nail-biting tension, there is romance and there’s a woman with agency in an otherwise all-male universe. The political strand and contemporary history run all the way through — the hope that the gangsters see in Jayalalitha’s rise to power, the death of MGR and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

Vada Chennai is about displacement in the name of development; about idealism and social welfare as against opportunism. It’s about standing up for one’s own home, livelihood and neighbourhood. It’s about the cycle of idealism — its death, rebirth, inheritance and continuity. Most of all it’s an allegory on leadership and on passing on the baton to the youth that in the words of the film itself, is “a tiny anchor that holds the massive ship in place”. To the world at large Once Upon A Time In North Chennai is Tamil Godfather. Bring on the sequels.

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