Cast: Guru Somasundaram, Amala Paul, Prassana, Priya Bhavani Shankar, Thambi Ramaiah
Directors: Pa. Ranjith, Venkat Prabhu, M. Rajesh, Chimbudevan
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
An anthology of Tamil short films streaming on SonyLIV, Victim - Who is Next?, delivers wildly different strokes. What we have here are four directors, four storytelling modes and four distinct end results. The range of styles on show is definitely noteworthy. The cumulative impact is, however, undermined significantly by a lack of qualitative consistency across the four films.
Dhamman, directed by Pa. Ranjith
Dhammam (Compassion), written by Pa. Ranjith, is a sledgehammer blow, a microcosmic parable that lays bare the unchanging reality of violence against Dalits in rural Tamil Nadu (and, needless to say, all of India).
Marginal farmer Guna (played by Guru Somasundaram) quietly goes about the chore of preparing his minuscule patch of land for the next crop while his tween daughter Kema (Poorvadharini) plays nearby unmindful of surroundings. Along comes an upper caste farmer Sekar (Kalaiyarasan), who owns large tracts of land around Guna's plot.
A seemingly innocuous confrontation between the cocky white-attired man and the little girl over the right of passage along a narrow pathway that separates Guna's land from the next escalates into a dispute that has unintended but terrible consequences.
Director of photography Thamizh A. Azhagan's fluid camera captures the chaos on the ground and, when unyoked from terra firma, soars free to reveal the little constricted blocks that the land below has been split into. While dealing with the raw specifics of the situation, Ranjith crafts a tale about the imperilment that caste-derived arrogance poses to humanity at large.
Helped by the economy of means made possible by the 30-minute format and the freedom offered by digital distribution, the writer-director is able to eschew his usual mass-oriented approach to caste oppression dramas and embrace a succinct, pointed line of narrative action to deliver a powerful, disconcerting film that is destined to stand the test of time on its own steam.
The other three films that constitute the quartet pale in comparison although each of them has something or other to offer the audience.
Confession, directed by Venkat Prabhu
Actor-director Venkat Prabhu, whose brainchild this anthology is, delivers a psychological thriller, Confession, starring Amala Paul as a media pro who finds herself in the line of a sniper's fire.
The twisted plot isn't entirely convincing, Anjana lives in a swanky condo in Adyar, Chennai. The smooth-talking gunman (Prassana), positioned in a building opposite Anjana's, is from a much less fancy, strictly middle-class address. But the socioeconomic divide isn't the reason why "Remington Sniper" is gunning for Anjana.
The sniper gives the 'cool girl' an ultimatum - confess to your 'misdemeanours' and I will spare you. It isn't instantly clear why she is at the mercy of a random man - who, on his part, tells his unsuspecting wife that he has requested his bosses to relieve him of night shifts. By and by, it emerges that she is a target because of who she is - a girl with a mind of her own.
Both Amala Paul and Prassana give solid accounts of themselves, but the idea to put an independent, ambitious girl under a murky microscope because of the choices that she has made smacks of unacceptable gender prejudice.
MIRRAGE, directed by M. Rajesh
The appearance of another damsel in distress, this one in M. Rajesh's Mirrage, begs the question: isn't it time to junk the stereotype for good? Pavithra (Priya Bhavani Shankar), a Bangalore-based IT professional, lands in Chennai for a client presentation and checks into a guesthouse in the city's outskirts for the night.
There you go, another cliche - a desolate house with horrific secrets - is thrown into the mix. To make matters worse for Pavithra, she has to reckon with a deranged caretaker who dutifully informs her that she is the first guest in the heritage villa in six months.
At 24 minutes, Mirrage is the shortest of the four films but it quickly gets into a loop that, despite a jump scare here and shock twist there, forces the plot into a corner from where escape is possible only via a desperate throw of the dice. The film veers away from the genre in order to deliver a pressing message.
Mirrage does not work either as a supernatural thriller about a malign force unleashed in the still of night nor as a commentary on the demons that often gnaw at the minds of human beings and need to be addressed before it is too late.
Kottai Pakku Vathalum Mottai Maadi Sitharum, directed by Chimbudevan
In Kottai Pakku Vathalum Mottai Maadi Sitharum (Betel Nuts & Terrace Seer), a comedy conceived and executed by Chimbudevan, it is a man, a jaded journo in his 40s at that, who is in a major spot of bother. In the aftermath of "an auspicious day when the entire city suffered a lockdown in 2020," Sikandar (Thambi Ramaiah), Kanda to his acquaintances, is on the verge of retrenchment.
The only way Kanda can save his job is by locating and interviewing a fabled sage (Nasser) who is over 400 years old and who returns to the world of mortals once in half a century. His next visitation is due in the middle of the pandemic. The journalist stumbles upon the seer. The latter agrees to field his questions on two conditions, one of which could put the man's life on the line.
The ensuing conversation between the two is neither spiritual nor philosophical. It takes the form of freewheeling banter over the state of the world at large and Tamil Nadu in particular. The sage touches upon matters drawn from the news headlines of the day and verbalizes home truths, among which is the realization that a pandemic is Nature's way of striking back at mankind's callous ways. Kanda has more mundane matters on his mind. He asks the sage to compare Tamil cinema divas from fifty years ago - Saroja Devi and Savithri - with today's queen bees Samantha and Nayanthara. He does not receive the expected response.
Four stories about four characters faced with life-and-death questions constitute the core of Victim. The vehicles they employ vary from the staggeringly good Dhammam, which would receive a five-star rating if one could grade the films individually, to the infinitely less affecting Mirrage, with the Venkat Prabhu and Chimbudevan films occupying the middle ground.
Watch Dhammam, if not the others, for the sharp and stirring sampling it provides of what Pa. Ranjith can achieve if he is allowed the option not to play by the rules of the commercial movie industry and adopt an artistically individualistic idiom.