Monday, August 24, 2015

Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai: In the end, the little guy always gets screwed.

This past weekend I caught up with Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai, a pointed social commentary of a masala film that took me to places I did not at all expect. The posters had led me to believe this was going to be a film about Arya being a badass revolutionary hero, which was true to an extent, but his badassery was shaded with some pretty heavy moral gray areas.


As the film opens, Balu (Arya) is being sentenced to death by the Indian high court for revolutionary crimes against the State. Treason. He’s going to be executed by hanging in a prison in Tamil Nadu. Now, the problem is that this prison hadn’t had a execution in 12 years and they don’t have an executioner on staff but because international law demands an experienced executioner--to avoid “unnecessary” pain and suffering--the prison director, Macaulay (Shaan), calls up the one guy he knows with experience, Lingam (Vijay Sethupathi).

But when we meet Lingam, he doesn’t seem like a serious, “no unnecessary pain” executioner… by all appearances, he’s nothing but the town drunk! His character is given to us in shorthand in the first song of the film, “Kalaasi Kalaasi,” which has Lingam singing a deceptively cheerful song about how he forgets his troubles with wine and women.

And it’s at this point, this first song and the introduction of our real hero, Lingam, that the film finally kicks into gear. Over the course of a song, the film loses that dull, stiff feeling that usually saturates “social message” films and really comes alive. Because it’s schlubby aam aadmi Lingam, not the cold, elite revolutionary Balu, who we’re going to follow for the next two hours.

The conflicts the film has to resolve go like this: Lingam absolutely does not want to execute anybody ever again; Macaulay, the jail director, is absolutely going to ensure the law is executed; Balu will absolutely break out of jail if he can.

Balu’s supporters, led by Kuyili (Karthika and her eyebrow game), sense that they can use Lingam’s reluctance to go through with the execution to their advantage. Kuyili sweet talks Lingam into accepting the job telling him that if he helps free Balu, he won’t have to kill Balu. With Macaulay leaning heavy on his mother, Lingam doesn’t have any other options and takes the deal with Kuyili.

We then get an extended prison heist sequence in which Balu, Kuyili, Lingam, and a handful of Balu’s prison buddies try various schemes to get him out. Will they work in time? I was on the edge of my seat waiting to find out. But, ultimately, what I cared about--what we were supposed to care about--was not so much if Balu lived or died, since it’s made very clear that he was committed to his cause until death, but whether or not Lingam would be forced to kill him. Because the guilt of it would break him completely.

Lingam is the heart and soul… and pawn of this film. He’s caught between the legal mumbo-jumbo of the State, acting through Macaulay who takes his moral cues from the letter of the law, and the Revolution, acting through Balu and Kuyili, both of whom seem to care more for the “Cause” as an idea than the people it’s supposed to be helping. No matter who he trusts, Lingam… Lingam is just plain fucked. Both sides are “supposed” be looking out for his well being but are they really?

The best part is that Vijay Sethupathi completely grasped Lingam’s situation and used it to create an amazing character. Lingam felt so fully alive and human that you couldn’t help but hope that he come through this film in one piece. The way Vijay was able to convey so much emotion in his face and body language meant that we only needed one or two brief flashback shots to understand perfectly the burden Lingam had been carrying all these years. The guilt. (All of this is also a beautiful bit of moralizing via narrative from writer-director S. P. Jananathan. If capital punishment isn’t State sanctioned murder, would we feel Lingam’s predicament so strongly?)

And Lingam’s hope. One of the cruelest plot devices is also, sadly, one of the most realistic. Karthika’s character, Kuyili, is a type of woman I’ve definitely met before in real life but don’t generally see on screen. She’s competent, collected, cool, and totally at home in a male-dominated environment. Except. Kuyili, almost without realizing it, uses the fact that she’s female to manipulate. She throws on a sari and a demure attitude to visit Balu in prison and they let her in without so much as a second glance. In that disguise she’s “just” a woman, there’s no way she could be a dangerous revolutionary! But with Lingam, it’s more a bit more sinister. She makes him think that she cares about him and then uses those feelings to guilt him into doing what she wants… jailbreaking Balu. Vijay as Lingam is so open and human that his hope is exquisitely painful to watch. One almost doesn’t want to forgive Kuyili...

Balu himself is a bit of a cipher. He’s dedicated to the Cause and willing to die to make his point. At times he seems to care about his fellow prisoners but then he’ll undercut that with something that makes you wonder if it’s not all for his own benefit. In many, many ways he is the exact opposite of the letter-of-the-law Macaulay because at least with Macaulay you know it’s not personal.

Speaking of Macaulay, for a film that takes place mostly within the walls of a prison, director S. P. Jananathan does a fantastic job with both cast and visuals. The camera was dynamic, giving us all sorts of neat shots that kept the jail interiors from getting boring, and the prison cast was full of quality character actors, full of personality. I ended up caring far more about them than I would have expected to. One of the threads kind of running beneath the main story was this idea that the prison had been built in colonial times by the British and how ironic that the Indian government was making sure it stayed full. The second half of the film opens with a bit of an “item,” set in the prison yard, making just that point.

(You can also see Vijay knocking Lingam’s reaction shots out of the park. Even his dancing is compelling and so human and vulnerable. All loose limbs and sloppily tied lungi.)

Perhaps this film resonated so strongly with me because, as an American, these issues of prison, capital punishment, and so on, are very much a part of our cultural conversation, too. In a scene early on that really hit home to me, S. P. Jananathan has some characters sitting around and discussing methods of execution, and one of them brings up the horrific execution of Clayton Locket by lethal injection. In America. And then go on to discuss the horrors of the electric chair, another American invention. Even for me, who knows the history, this was a shocking (pardon the pun) realization. That America is the leader in these methods of capital punishment.

If this subject matter all sounds bleak, that’s because it is. But watching the film wasn’t a bleak experience. It may be callous to call a film about an execution “entertaining” but Purampokku Engira Podhuvudamai really did have a lot of entertaining moments. It was an engaging film and one that really got me to think and feel. I highly recommend checking it out if you have a chance, at least for Vijay Sethupathi’s performance.

1 comment:

Moimeme said...

I've been waiting for your review of this film ever since I read your enthusiastic tweets while you were watching. Sounds absolutely fascinating, and I'll definitely try to get a hold of it.

One thing that struck me right away was the name of the prison director. Macaulay is a name that has tremendous resonance in India, as being the author of the entire "Anglicized" system of education that was designed to produce Indians who are "Indian in appearance, but British in thought." These type of people used to be called "brown sahibs", but nowadays are more usually referred to as "Macaulay putra/putri" (son/daughter of Macaulay), and it is a serious insult.

So I knew that the choice of this name for a character couldn't have been a coincidence. I kept waiting for some explanation of it in your review, but the only remote connection I got was that the prison was one started by the colonizing British. Now that you know this background, does it add anything to your review that you'd want to mention?

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