Come to Tamil Nadu. Lovely beaches. Beautiful scenery. Lots of smuggling.
The movie starts out with a narration. The state of Tamil Nadu has a coastline approximately 1073 kilometers long. 430 of it contain islands of uncertain status. It is close to the island nation of Sri Lanka, but there is no government-approved transportation to or from there. But there are boats going back and forth every day, smuggling all sorts of designer goods, illicit drugs, and people. And one man has been in control of the smuggling for the past 20 years: Dhanapalan.
The movie proper starts in port city and capital of Tamil Nadu, Chennai. Specifically at the Headquarters of Makkal Katchi, the Dravidian populist Working People’s Party. A politician named Rengarajan, or RR, has arrived to talk to the Chief Minister. He claims that it is due to him that the leader’s vision was able to succeed in four districts. The Chief Minister agrees, but claims to have helped RR attain his success in his 30 years in the Legislative Assembly and Parliament. Then why, RR asks, is he helping Duraismay. This argument is either vague or simply over my head, but the result is that RR threatens to start his own political party and the Chief Minister rather sarcastically gives his blessing. As RR is leaving, the Chief Minister says to his second that finishing off Dhanapalan will put RR back in his place.
Now…wait…if Dhanapalan runs a huge criminal empire, then shouldn’t the politicians have taken him down already? And how would taking him down affect RR? I guess that we will have to find out.
About 400 kilometers south of Chennai is Karaikudi. A festival is going on and a bunch of men are waiting for the Minister of the Legislative Assembly to arrive. Sangli, the leader of a theater troupe, wants to start the stage play for God. Another man says that it will have to wait for the MLA. Sangli and his friend walk off, unhappy that people these days respect politicians and con men over the temple and deity. That MLA used to be a thug.
Is this the stage play? Well, in any case, this is Kumaran and Muttiah. They are performing a comedy routine that involves religion and…what definitely sounds like a penis joke.
Later, when other members of the acting troupe are on stage, and Muttiah meet again. Muttiah notes that Kumaran looks like a gang of men beat him up. Kumaran says that he rescued a girl from a group of ruffians. He describes it as if it were a movie or a stage play, except that she ran away instead of falling in love with him. But the show goes on. Seriously, it keeps going even as most of the audience has left and a few are just asleep.
Kumaran returns home to his father, who is Sangli. Muttiah is there as well, along with the married couple who also form the troupe. Sangli says that the play season is over. He assumes that that means that Kumaran and Muttiah will do nothing for the next six months. As for the married couple, they have a daughter whom they must earn money for her studies and eventual marriage. The husband tells Sangli that the stage plays have not brought in audiences except for during temple festivals. As they have not earned much from the stage plays or local labor, they have decided to go to the city to find more steady work. Kumaran also says that he is planning on going abroad to work for a couple of years. Sangli is disappointed; the theater has been his life since he was fifteen-years-old. He lashes out at all of them. Not long afterwards, the married couple and their daughter leave for the city.
Kumaran mopes over drinks with Muttiah. His father doesn’t believe in him, but Kumaran saw how that MLA treated his father the other day. And how everyone treated that same MLA with hospitality and respect. Muttiah isn’t sure. That MLA had started out as a thug, and it is only luck that he did not die young. Kumaran counters with tales of others who took petty jobs and eventually made it big. He claims that he is ready to work hard as long as he gets good returns. Why not put their lives on the line, go abroad, make money, and return home to enter politics. Muttiah does not want to get dragged into this.
Then the two men arrive late to a dance performance, force two audience members out from the front row, take their seats, and then bicker throughout the performance.
The argument culminates with Muttiah getting up on stage. And then Kumaran dancing from the front row. Oh, it’s a song and dance number…this movie isn’t even two hours long, guys.
Kumaran and Muttiah go to see Sangli’s friend to talk about work and uh oh, this woman just dropped limes all over the ground. Kumaran recognizes her as the person who got accosted by a gang of men, but she doesn’t seem to recognize him. She goes to another woman and asks who they are; a pair of buffoons who perform in plays and do stand-up comedy.
Anyways, the politician tells Kumaran and Muttiah to come back with one lakh rupees, which is a little over 1,200 USD. He says that that is the minimum amount to travel abroad. He calls for the woman, Elaya. She needs help with a backdrop for the college play; perhaps these two could help out. Kumaran claims to be willing, but Elaya turns down the offer and leaves. The politician tells them that she is his daughter’s college friend from Sri Lanka.
Kumaran and Muttiah go to see Ramiah, Ruling Party Councilor of the 18th Ward. He is also Muttiah’s father and Kumaran’s mentor of sorts. He is glad that the two have finally quit acting as clowns in the theater group and looking for real work. So, they want to go work abroad for three years? Fine with him. With his blessing, the two men leave to go work…wait, did they not ask him for the lakh? That was a rather nice-looking house.
The two men have been assigned to go to a prawn farm in Thondi, about 30 km southwest of Karaikudi. A man named Karuvayan immediately tasks them with taking a truck to Rameswaram, which is 100km even further southwest. But then his boss, Mr. Ansari, arrives and tells him to take care of…the thing. Also, he eyes Kumaran and Muttiah, telling Karuvayan to keep an eye on them.
So, Kumaran and Muttiah drive the RR truck (hmmm…) down towards the destination. Kumaran notices Elaya with another man on a motorcycle and tries to call out for her (saying “Rowdy”) as they take a side street. Muttiah tells him that they should keep going or else they will get in trouble.
The two take the truck to Rameswaram and go back on a motorcycle. Muttiah goes to the temple to ask his father for money. Finally. Kumaran sees Elaya and that other man emerging from a copy shop. He calls out (saying “Rowdy” again), but they don’t notice, so he goes to the copy shop and asks the employee what they were doing there. He tells Kumaran that they were forging documents. Is this guy Kumaran’s friend? Why would he just give up that information?
It is some time later and Kumaran manages to find Elaya at the college. I am not exactly sure where this is supposed to be, but there is a real-life college with a similar name in Coimbatore, about 200 km northwest of Karaikudi. Anyways, Kumaran approaches Elaya…calling her “Rowdy” again. She tells him to stop calling her that, and he promises to leave as long as she tells him if she saw him in Rameswaram. She says that she didn’t. Instead of leaving, Kumaran accuses her of lying…and of being a refugee, even though he says that she doesn’t look like one. She says that he is stereotyping refugees, but he counters that she is illegally duplicating certificates and the police will catch up to her. Elaya claims to know India’s law and order better than he does. In any case, her professor has high hopes for her and Kumaran must not ruin things.
Instead of leaving, Kumaran finds Elaya in the gymnasium, performing something for a group of schoolmates. Kumaran goes over to Nisha, the daughter of that politician, and asks about Elaya…and that other guy. Nisha tells him that that man lives in Mandapam Camp, which is about 10 km from Rameswaram. She says that that man is Elaya’s sidekick and like a brother, so Kumaran need not worry about him.
Elaya gets off the stage and Kumaran goes to praise her acting. She is not flattered. He arranges to help with the backdrop…which she doesn’t agree to, but he is doing it anyways.
Kumaran and Muttiah ride the motorcycle by the Ladies Hostel to see a police officer questioning Elaya. Or maybe threatening her. Kumaran steps in as the White Knight, asking what the officer is doing here at this hour. Wait, what is Kumaran doing here? Anyways, the officer says that Elaya was supposed to report at the station to sign…something…but she didn’t. Kumaran says that this is no way to inquire and somehow gets the officer to back away. Elaya seems a little more impressed now, though she says nothing to Kumaran.
Karuvayan sends the two men to Kareem Transport. Kareem tells them to transport a truck to Valinokkam, which is around 90 km southwest of Thondi. Actually, I don’t know where Kareem Transport is located, but whatever. They are to leave the truck there to get loaded up with salt and take a bus back.
The sun is starting to set by the time that the two get to Valinokkam. Kumaran hands the keys to the contact and goes to get some toddy. While on their break, Kumaran gets a call; Karuvayan tells him that the scheduled driver didn’t turn up, so they should drive back in the truck. Hmmm…why couldn’t they do that in the first place? Well, they agree. Better to maybe get paid for the return trip than to pay for bus fare.
On the drive back, Kumaran wakes up Muttiah and says that he will declare his love for Elaya when they get back. Wow, that was quick. Wasn’t he threatening to call the cops on her not two days ago? Muttiah thinks that it is a bad idea for…astrological reasons. The conversation is interrupted by a phone call. Karuvayan asks whether they had seen any check posts on their drive. Nope. Karuvayan says that something serious happened and that the truck must be kept safe at all costs. They should get off the main road and go through small towns. Karuvayan suggests some major detours. After the call ends, Muttiah starts to doubt that they are actually transporting salt.
Uh oh. A check post. There is no place to turn. Muttiah suggests that they stop, but Kumaran speeds up to drive through it. Well, he does manage to drive through it, but now there are cops chasing them. Karuvayan calls them up again, saying that they have been framed by major players. Just don’t get caught. Great instructions. Any tips for what to do when getting shot at?
Around halfway between Thondi and Valinokkam is Ramanathapuram, which is the location of the Narcotics Control Unit where Kumaran and Muttiah find themselves. The man in red seems to be the one in charge, the superintendent. He is the person who had shot at them. Apparently, the truck contained 25 kilograms of cocaine. The Superintendent seems to think that one of them is Dhanapal, and vows to put all of his men in prison within six months. So…which of them is Dhanapal? Kumaran asks who that is, which gets the Superintendent even angrier. Kumaran says that they are just theater performers…which had been true a few days ago. Muttiah brings up his father being a councilor in the ruling party, which the Superintendent takes as an opportunity to expose political corruption. He asks Kumaran and Muttiah to perform a routine for him. They do, and he commends them. He tells them that they can perform the rest in prison. They are to be sent 100 km north to Pudukottai immediately.
The constable tells Kumaran sign a statement detailing the events of the capture that says that he is Dhanapal. Kumaran thinks that this will be cleared up in 10 to 15 days, but worries that he will not be able to go abroad with a black mark on his record. Yeah… Kumaran is looking at maybe 15 years.
Hey, remember RR? Well, he is asleep when Karuvayan’s boss, Ansari, calls him to tell him that the state police, under a new Superintendent, had taken the stuff. The first time in five years. RR asks what happened to Dhanapal and the stuff. Well, the stuff got seized. Ansari says that Kareem had sensed that something was off and sent two newbies in Dhanapal’s place. RR claims that Dhanapal would not have let the cops seize the stuff. Well, he may have known to take the major detours before getting trapped on the main road. RR places the blame on Kareem for making this decision.
The cops take Kumaran, Muttiah, and the drugs, to the Judge. She asks about Kumaran’s scar, which the Superintendent says happened due to the accident at the end of the chase. She asks if Kumaran was smuggling the drugs and he denies it, saying that the drugs were merely in the truck. Not a…very good defense. She hands him the FIR to sign which, once again, identifies him as Dhanapal. He insists that he is not Dhanapal, and she says to prove it in court. Wait…is that how that works? Proving his innocence? Won’t it be even more difficult to deny being Dhanapal in court if he signs a document saying that he is? Damn, he is fucked. The judge commends the Superintendent in nabbing the highest quantity of drugs in five years. And…he just joined the team today? Ansari had said that he was new, but…
Muttiah starts tearing up on the ride to prison. Kumaran tells him to calm down; he is not Dhanapal after all. The constable tells Kumaran that even if he can prove that he is not Dhanapal, there is still the issue with the smuggling and running through the check post. There is no way that they are getting out of this. The constable then pulls out a gun…wait, what?
The Superintendent catches up to the van that is stopped in the middle of the forest. The Superintendent looks at the injury on the constable’s arm. Is that supposed to show that the two criminals shot him and escaped? He does not believe this at all. He berates the constable, saying that he had brought him onto the new team despite him being a local because he had no black marks on him. And now it seems like he is as bad as all the local cops and should be put in jail. The cops looking through the forest return having failed to catch Kumaran and Muttiah. The Superintendent says that they should keep this from the law and order team, else they will get laughed at. But, they should forward all information to other teams, talk to their families, whatever else. The two criminals must be caught.
Kareem goes to see RR, who chews him out for sending the stuff at all if he thought that it was going to get captured. Kareem says that he was not sure if there really was a check post, but he wanted to keep Dhanapal safe while maybe bringing the stuff to its destination on time. RR is not satisfied with this explanation saying that Dhanapal would not have gotten caught like the two newbies. He asks about the newbies, and Kareem tells him that they escaped from custody, though without the stuff. And Dhanapal? He may be in Sethukarai a coastal pilgrimage center about 12 km south of Ramanathapuram. RR demands to talk to him, so Kareem calls him. RR tells Dhanapal to get the stuff back and take care of this upstart Superintendent.
Kumaran and Muttiah are walking through the forest. They are confused as to why the constable shot himself, but Kumaran assumes that he will get charged for that too. Kumaran offers to take the blame for everything so that Muttiah can be free, but Muttiah refuses. Then they realize that they cannot contact their parents, as cops have probably already gone to see them. And they have…threatened them too. Muttiah thinks that their faces will probably be in the newspaper tomorrow. So, they should wait until the afternoon to go back to their village, as everyone will have forgotten what they had seen in the morning by that time. Pretty good reasoning there.
Kumaran manages to contact Elaya, I guess that he got her number somehow. She owes him for getting that cop to back off, so she gets her sidekick to take her from Mandapan Camp to Vivekanandar Hall. And if Google Maps is correct, that is a 540km journey back north to Chennai. Erm…maybe there is a closer one? The building shown in the movie looks nothing like what Google Images showed me, so whatever. Anyways, the four meet up. Elaya tells her sidekick to inform the camp that he will be on leave for two weeks for a shoot. Then he is to get Kumaran and Muttiah jobs at Muthupetta Shanmugan’s prawn farm. She turns to to tell him that the local police will catch him if they need him, otherwise they will let him go for when they need to catch him. So, needs to find out just how important he is to the cops. Of course, there is more to Elaya’s plan, but the details will have to wait.
Though the new Superintendent is still hellbent on recapturing on the mistaken belief that he is Dhanapal, he is also trying to dismantle the rest of Dhanapal’s organization. Through various arrests and whatever else, he gets members of the operation to rat out on each other. It gets bad enough for Kareem goes to complain to Ansari about the Superintendent. It used to be that the local police would not mess with Dhanapal’s operations, but now they are arresting all of the trucks from transport to harbor. Ansari says that this all started when their minister RR started his own party, so his former allies are trying to frame him through Dhanapal. Oh, that’s all? I guess that Kareem is no longer worried. He says that this new Superintendent cannot do anything to Dhanapal, at least no more than any other Superintendent could do in the past. He tells Ansari that the stuff will be back in their possession by the next sunrise.
And with that, a trio of goons enter the Narcotics Control Unit and assault all of the cops. Just three of them wreaking havoc. The big one, does not have any sort of face covering, stops another from smashing a cop’s face in, at least so that he can ask where the stuff is first.
A cop pulls a rifle on the big guy, but he just grabs it and smacks the guy in the head with the butt.
As the other two go get the stuff, the big guy asks another cop for the Superintendent’s phone number. He calls him up and asks when he starts the night shift. The Superintendent asks who he is, and the big guy tells him to answer his question. When he doesn’t, the big guy says that the Superintendent will be working the night shift every day. And then he hangs up. And walks out.
I am going to guess that this guy is Dhanapal.
So, this movie goes through so many locations that I had to go to Google Maps a lot just to figure out what was where. I figure that it is only fair that I post some images from Google Maps, pointing out where certain places are from the movie up to that point. I didn’t get all of them, but you can see that there is a bit of traveling back and forth. There is even more during the rest of the movie.
I got kind of interested in the geography of this movie just because there is so much of it, and so much of the movie is traveling, of showing off South India. The movie does not necessarily present these places as attractive places to live or even visit, but it makes them look interesting. Like, I think that this shot from later in the movie is neat. Just a casually messy two-lane road next to a single train track. No real reason for this shot, but it is interesting.
Kumaran is kind of a standard Indian movie hero. He is an everyman with ambitions for something greater. He comes across a beautiful woman and is determined to win her love. He becomes a persistent annoyance to her until he vanquishes a worse annoyance. And…he is a cool-headed kick-ass fighter with a sense of justice. And…erm…he has lighter skin than his sidekick. That said, he is frequently over his head. He has to think quickly, but he is just as often wrong as he is vindicated. He is somewhat naïve, completely unaware of the criminal underworld that is barely under the surface. Some critics have noted how often Kumaran (and Muttiah) just hangs out in public as if they are not in danger until danger makes itself known. Perhaps that is a flaw in the movie, but I find it a sign of his naivety. He knows that he is in danger, but he cannot help himself.
The Tamil Nadu in this movie is quite interesting. And full of crime. I cannot say how accurate the depiction of organized crime in Tamil Nadu is, but it shows it as being vast and entrenched. The smuggling industry is a major player, with direct connections to local politics. Politics seems to be less about public service or even ideology, but status and power, so it is hardly a scandal for a gangster to enter local politics. Perhaps the politicians could have gone after Dhanapal at any time, but started only due to petty squabbles. The local police in their entirety are expected to be bought off, not doing anywhere near their proper job for five years. It is only when outside politicians bring in the new Superintendent and his team that things get done. And it turns out that they are not really restoring justice as they are merely enforcers for the other side of the political squabble.
There is also some…socio-political commentary about Tamil identity. I did not really catch all of it, but I got the gist of some of it. A little over the halfway point, there is some narration about how Tamils had historically traveled the world. And that is evidenced by Tamil presence in South Africa, Pakistan, and all over Southeast Asia, as well as linguistic traces in Korean. But now? Brought low. The movie shows this through the Tamil Sri Lankans.
Apparently, there were Tamils in Sri Lanka as early as the 2nd century BCE. There were also a large group of Tamils who were brought to Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu in the 19th and 20th century to work as laborers. To simplify a very complicated issue, Great Britain ruled over Sri Lanka in various forms between 1802 and 1948. And they elevated the Tamil minority (at least a certain section of the Tamil population) over the Sinhalese majority. It has been argued that the British deliberately pitted the two groups against each other, so that there was major ethnic tension when British rule ended. The Sinhalese majority took power and almost immediately enacted laws that favored them over the Indian Tamils and then over the Tamils in general. There were various deadly anti-Tamil riots and a rising Tamil separatist movement, that resulted in a civil war that lasted from 1983 to 2009. Between 1987 and 1990, India intervened on the side of the Sri Lankan government. Supposedly, the reasoning was that destabilizing forces could threaten India and that Tamil separatism could take hold in the Tamil population in India. The Sinhalese grew to not appreciate the Indian military presence and…Indians did not appreciate being there. So, they went back to India.
As for Tamil Nadu specifically, there was support for the Tamil separatists, which the Sinhalese disliked. So, relations between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka have been rather poor. Since 1948, Sri Lankan Tamils have migrated to Tamil Nadu. The Indian government tried to keep them in Tamil Nadu, as the Tamil language is not spoken as much in other states, but there have been some that settled elsewhere, including the state of Kerala, which takes up the small western sliver of South India. They speak Malayam in Kerala instead of Tamil and…ironically, that is actually where Anagha, who plays Elaya, is from. Anyways, the refugee situation exploded during much of the civil war. Now there are hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu, with Mandapam camp being a point of transit. Many came without documentation and were deemed illegal migrants. Even for those not deemed imminent dangers, the refugees are put under major restrictions and denied many rights. There have been attempts to give the refugees citizenship, but I have no idea how that will go. In fact, it was in August of 2022, the month before this movie was released, that a thirty-six year old named Nalini was granted Indian citizenship, having live in a refugee camp in Tamil Nadu pretty much since she was born…in India.
So…um…yeah. Perhaps I should have saved that clumsy (and maybe misleading) rush through Sri Lankan Tamil history for a movie that was directly about that, but the movie touches upon it to put Kumaran’s trials in perspective. Kumaran got into this mess because he wanted a shortcut to success and, for some reason, was not able to ask his rich associates for a loan. He is now on the run for something that is only mostly not his fault, and he is facing several years of prison time. What about the refugees? They are here because they were fleeing imminent death and have arrived in India with no rights. If the subtitles are correct, Elaya says at one point that she has never even been to Sri Lanka, meaning like she, like Nalini, was born in India, but still treated as a non-citizen. In order to do anything for herself and the people around her, she had to dip into extralegal activity as well as to be very well-versed in Indian law to defend herself. After all, if she is already considered illegal, then why should she bother obeying the law except for when she cannot get away with it. Later, the movie introduces a character who is considered a terrorist, though he fights the designation. He is not on the run in order to avoid several years of prison; he is on the run to avoid execution. The movie expresses…sympathy for the refugees…maybe support. But it stops short of advocacy.
There is also a religious component to the movie. Though Singla appears to be dismissed by pretty much everyone, including those who like him, his opinion appears to carry the most weight. He seems to be the only person who still has proper respect for God. Everyone else seems to revere wealth and the wealthy, while also wanting to get wealth. While, yes, there are those who struggle to stay afloat, sheer greed and hunger for power form the core of Tamil Nadu’s problems.
These are heady issues that the movie brings up. Does it handle them well? Eh…I dunno. With Indian movies being allowed to be 150-165 minutes with little trouble, this movie goes relatively quickly. So, if one is looking for a deep dive into these issues along with a romantic subplot, you might be disappointed. The movie uses these primarily as backdrop to the narrative. A few critics complained that the movie bit off much more than it could chew. Perhaps another 45 minutes could have allowed the movie to delve more deeply into those issues. But I do kind of like its rather speedy pace and plot-heavy narrative. I also like how little hand-holding there is, despite the story sometimes getting near baroque. There was an odd choice to have a reveal late in the movie that recontextualizes a bit of the movie, and I felt that it would have been fine to let the audience follow that thread instead of withhold that information. Even with that, I appreciate that the movie refuses to grind to a halt to explain what just happened, instead chugging forward towards a chaotic finale where I was still unsure what would happen.
This movie is fun. Yeah.
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