Cast: Kathir, Aishwarya Rajesh, Radhakrishnan Parthiban, Sriya Reddy
Director: Bramma, Anucharan M
Rating: Four stars (out of 5)
A gripping, fast-paced narrative and a heart-pounding rhythm sustained all the way through drives Suzhal - The Vortex, Amazon Prime Video's first Tamil-language series. The eight-part show, propelled by outstanding performances, phenomenally fluid cinematography (Mukeswaran) and a splendid background score (Sam C.S.), hits the ground running. It never stops.
Created by Pushkar and Gayatri, Suzhal - The Vortex is a crime drama situated in a small Tamil Nadu hill town. With its cultural attributes and embedded social fissures, the location plays a significant role in determining the course of the story.
The series isn't, however, limited in any way by its generic parameters or its geographical setting. While being firmly rooted in a clearly defined milieu, it is instantly universal in scope. Its exploration of the failings and foibles of the townspeople is wide enough to deliver a comprehensive commentary on life, religion and society and its malcontents.
Suzhal - The Vortex, directed by Bramma and Anucharan M (four episodes each) - oozes energy and fervour as a cement factory blaze and the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl - the two incidents coincide -- unleash two separate chains of events that prise open the town's vault of disagreeable secrets.
The aftermath unfolds alongside the town's nine-day Mayana Kollai festivities. A multiplicity of themes bubbles to the surface and the twists and turns come thick and fast. A taut script ensures that the show does not lose either felicity or clarity except, to an extent, for a brief passage in Episode 4 devoted to a teenage love affair.
Myths and reality overlap in this tale of three families - one of a Marxist trade union leader, another of a woman in police uniform (she cites the 1990 Vijayashanti starrer Vyjayanthi IPS in a casual conversation with a colleague but is never anywhere near being a rabble-rousing, trigger-happy cop of the formulaic kind) and the third of the town's sole industrialist.
They grapple with vexed riddles that threaten not just their own domestic well-being but also the tranquility of Sambaloor, a mere dot on the map that is near-bucolic on the surface but simmering with not-so-dormant undercurrents of social tensions.
Mayana Kollai, a festival devoted to the worship of a Mother Goddess who is out to vanquish a demon, literally means "raid of the graveyard". The series captures the colourful, exuberant festival rituals in all their frenzy while it dives deep into what lies beneath the surface.
Buried in the folds of the town's history is the fast-shifting plight of once happy and productive farmers who now depend entirely on the cement factory for their livelihood.
Truths and falsehoods are unearthed by the local police team, led by officer-in-charge Regina Thomas (Sriya Reddy) and a young, committed sub-inspector Chakravarthy (Kathir), a man given to going beyond the call of duty.
Nothing that surfaces as the two cops probe the case of the missing girl and the factory fire is edifying. Sambaloor, like the forest and the water-filled quarry in its midst, is engulfed shadows that conceal the unknown - and the shocking.
The 'looting of the graveyard' rites not only serve as a framing device but also parallel the repressed emotions, hostilities and desires that define the principal characters. Among them is Shanmugam (Radhakrishnan Parthiban), a belligerent union leader constantly at loggerheads with the cement factory's managing director Trilok Vadde (Harish Uthaman), who has no patience for the workers' demands.
The latter, arrogant and impatient, is poles apart from his benign and accommodative entrepreneur-father Mukesh Vadde (the late Yusuf Hussain in one of his last screen roles).
Suzhal - The Vortex begins with the conflict between the brash MD and the uncompromising Shanmugam peaking alarmingly amid threats and counter-threats. Before the first episode ends, matters come to a head and the town quickly hurtles into disarray.
The most commendable aspect of the screenplay by Pushkar and Gayatri is that it gives as much weightage to the women as it does to the men, which isn't surprising though for a series that hinges on religious rituals celebrating an all-powerful goddess invoked to weed out the forces of evil.
The series examines both the masculine and the feminine through contrasting prisms. An aggressive atheist (Shanmugam) and a policeman (Chakravarthy) who isn't sure if he believes in God are juxtaposed while a lady police inspector (Regina) up against a personal crisis that comes as a bolt from the blue (both for her and the audience) serves as a counter and in a way as an extension to a younger woman (Nandini, played by Aishwarya Rajesh) estranged from her parents and grappling with anxiety attacks.
The families whose fortunes Suzhal - The Vortex follows are held together rather tenuously by blood ties that have weakened over the years. Shanmugan's religious wife Devi (Indumathy Manikandan) has left him and lives in an ashram.
His elder daughter Nandini, too, has drifted away from the family. Shanmugam lives with his younger daughter Nila (Gopika Ramesh), the girl who goes missing after her father admonishes her for not focusing on her studies.
Police inspector Regina Thomas' relationship with her husband, Vadivelu (Prem Kumar), the cement factory accountant, is frosty at best although the couple get along fine with their teenage son Adhisayam (Fedrick John).
The richly textured, visually diverse canvas on which Suzhal - The Vortex plays out lend the show a distinctive look and feel. But more than that, what it does is provide the narrative impressive scale and depth.
Elaborately attired devotees with brightly painted faces and dancing and swaying as if in a trance - the action pans out over nine days of the religious rituals - lend a carnivalesque air to parts of the series.
The screenplay by Pushkar and Gayatri flawlessly meshes the particular with the general as the tiny town where everyone knows everyone else assumes the form of a microcosm for all communities, all places, indeed all humanity, as the outright repulsive clashes with the sacred and creates a tangled web.
This tale about religion, crime, doomed teenage love, irreverence, dark desires, blackmail and tragedy has rare elemental power. It pulls into its sweep the vulnerabilities and tenacities of women, the role of faith in ordinary lives, the divide between those that serve and those that dominate and exploit.
Conceived and mounted in style and with a keen sense of time, place and cultural nuance, Suzhal - The Vortex brings alive a wide range of emotions and motives that drive the townspeople divided between the working class and the establishment represented by the police force and the corporate entity that determines the destiny of the people.
The actors deliver first-rate performances, with all four principal actors - Kathir, Sriya Reddy, Aishwarya Rajesh and Radhakrishnan Parthiban - at the very peak of their game. In many other ways, too, Suzhal - The Vortex sets a benchmark that will take some doing to emulate.