“When I was a young boy we used to eagerly wait for the Ambulimama magazine each month to read the new ‘Vikramathithan Stories’. In each one the demon would pose moral questions to the king, and say ‘if you don’t guess the answer correctly it’ll break your head!’. We used to look forward to what new ethical riddles Vedalam would give us each time.”
I had never once heard of the ‘Vikramathithan Stories’ until this conversation with my Uncle Ravi a few hours ago. As I gushed about how much I enjoyed directors’ Pushkar & Gayathri’s phenomenal new film Vikram Vedha he casually relayed to me how much of his childhood was spent trying to guess what the clever, moral choice of each story was on his own, before reading the answer. “They were such well-written stories…it was very hard to guess right!”, he reminisced, while it dawned on me that - in the same way many of the baby boomer generation of Sri Lanka and India must’ve fallen in love with the famed Ambulimama series, on account of its suspenseful storytelling, I have fallen in love with Vikram Vedha largely on account of its impeccably well-written script.
Vikram Vedha is the definition and example of carefully crafted storytelling. Of course congratulations must be given to the entire team for an overall fantastic cinematic package. From the perfect balance of shadowed and bright cinematography by P.S. Vinodh, to ideally compliment a story about (the relativity of) good and evil, to the fine production details – the film is a tremendous visual treat. And of course, much could be written on the brilliant casting of Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi pitted against each other, and the stellar supporting cast of Shraddha Srinath, Kathir and Varalaxmi Sarathkumar. While Maddy brings his familiar intensity to his depiction of the straight & narrow ‘king’, Sethupathi exudes his natural charm as the ethos-obsessed ‘demon’ - the latter in a performance that, at times, was redolent of the late Heath Ledger’s brilliant take on the Joker in The Dark Knight. Their pairing will easily be remembered as one of the best ensemble casts Tamil cinema has had the privilege of seeing.
But above all these incredible components, what I believe truly denotes Vikram Vedha as one of the best Indian films of this year, is its script – the true star of this gritty drama. It is complex, detailed, augmented by witty and multilayered dialogues, and decently honors the importance of proper character development – a practice rarely respected at all in commercial South Indian cinema. Turning a blind eye to why Vikram would choose to patiently listen to the ramblings of a murderer (without the threat of his head being broken if he did not), the use of Vedha’s storytelling formally setting the stage for a series of flashbacks was a quirky and much appreciated change from the humdrum method of displaying a character’s eyes welling up with tears as the camera sentimentally pans into them. Through its innovative structure Vikram Vedha gives us the added entertainment of imagining how Sethupathi’s ostentatious Vedha might colorfully describe all that is shown to us, mentioning all the important details that later become imperative for Vikram to solve a much larger puzzle.
To me, however, the shining glory of Pushkar & Gayathri’s script is the intricacy with which multiple narrative enigmas are woven, such that you are unlikely to guess the solutions, until the characters in the film do so themselves. Although there are a few expected tropes, common in most Tamil gangster films, and you may be able to sense what characters might be secretly backstabbing another – the clues are so well shrouded (and yet also in plain sight!) that you probably cannot figure out exactly how the evil bests the good at times, until the very end. And in that lies the film’s magnificent triumph – it is a conundrum for those within it & those watching it.
The maze imagery used in the marketing campaign could not be more well suited to the theme and emotions of the film. I, and I’m sure many others, assumed that the metaphor was simply referring to how Madhavan’s ‘cat’ would be chasing Vijay’s ‘mouse’ amidst a web of crime syndicates and other gangsters. While watching the film I changed my guess to suppose it was a reference to the intricate network of housing projects of North Madras, where much of the film is set, and stunningly depicted in aerial takes. But after finishing the movie I now believe the maze is actually a reference to how it’s often very easy to assume you know exactly what your methodology should be to get out of a crisis – you know where to go, what to do, and, perhaps, who to punish, to right some wrongs – much like Vikram seems to. But in actuality, until you get that full overall view of the labyrinth it’s very easy to be on the wrong path, or headed for a wall, while the exit - the escape to your entanglement – is in a completely different direction.
Either way you slice it – Vikram Vedha weaves a web that will blissfully entrap you for a few hours on the big screen and then, likely, in many hours of discussion after. The essence of what makes this film so exciting is akin what stood out about the classic Vikramathithan Stories, according to my uncle: “it’s very hard to guess the right answers!”
Written by - DILANI RABINDRAN