Mani Prabhu

It’s not every year that you get to witness a film towards the very fag end that almost topples the year’s bests, makes you forgive all those mindless duds that were remorselessly dished out in the name of entertainment, puts that smile back on your face and sends you off with restored hope that Tamil cinema is in very safe hands. Dhuruvangal Pathinaaru is that rare piece of story-telling magic that once again reminds you of the beauty of the audio-visual medium and the things it is capable of, if handed with a fair degree of integrity and skill. There might be the occasional misstep, or in hindsight, a couple of things that could have been staged or shaped better, but beyond all that, it is easily evident that Karthick Naren has pulled off, in his very own ‘cerebral’ style, what you could call a true ‘dream debut’.

Speaking of which, the whodunit thriller at no point of time, gives the impression of having been helmed by a debutant. In fact, from the very beginning, where a white Swift Dzire drives into the frame with the rains mercilessly lashing out, everything about D16 seems to be a demonstration of what’s possible when you believe in your craft, not giving in to mainstream movie-making myths, and when you don’t take your audience for granted, like a bunch who would want every damn clue explained, every single back-story referenced, and a colourful song to ease things off when the proceedings get a little too knotty. The first half, in particular, doesn’t feature even a single deliberate distraction from the free-flowing main plot that unfolds in mysterious disconnected bursts – something our self-conferred trade analysts might call ‘suicidal’. But then, it happens. The narrative just holds you by your collar and sucks you in. For a moment, you even forget to breathe.

But the scenes do. Of unbelievable atmosphere and tension. At many instances, much more than what we expect them to. A person missing under total chaos. A bizarre death. An accident that shatters all perspective. All these happening within a radius of 1 km. That’s all we are shown. But that’s enough to keep us pondering on the endless, mind-bending questions, the circumstances resonate. What are we dealing with here?

A comedy of errors? A nasty trap? A queasy modus-operandi? A nut-crack on the prowl? Karthick’s single most impressive feat is keeping us on the hook, all the while, as the detailed police procedural unfolds in real time, surprisingly in a non-filmy docu-drama fashion. This is that part of the film, where he whizzes from event to event, dropping the dots all the way for us to take note off, but before you can take them in, and process them in any meaningful way, another unexpected development stares you in the eyes. Sometimes, very conveniently. Sometimes, even to the extent of working against the film’s atmosphere. Could he have paused to let things linger for a while, and managed the same tautness? Personally, that might demand a second viewing, I guess.

But even the casual viewer can’t miss how organically the puzzle solves, each piece leading into a nail-biting search for another. There is an unmistakable flow, in the way characters are introduced, interestingly fleshed out and yet kept sufficiently in the dark, for us to keep guessing their motives. At least, a part of this magic is because of the film-maker’s superb subverting of the ‘expected’. We get a brilliantly written new cop recruit who, instead of the lead, takes over the part of the ‘gut hunches’. We get a sincere constable who, over the years, has made peace with the way the system works. And as the icing on the cake, we get the frighteningly real middle-aged inspector protagonist, portrayed by Rahman with loads of maturity and restraint. We, however, don’t get his melodramatic flashback. It’s just tossed off in the narrative credits. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the way it had hardened this seemingly sensitive guy. Again, the director doesn’t conspicuously put him in instances to showcase this.  Everything just happens and we see him through the lenses that the film-maker had so smartly slipped on to our eyes.

Nothing comes in between this partly cynical and partly existential jigsaw puzzle that Karthick is leading us to assemble. No comic one-liners. No atmospheric songs. No excuses for a romantic back-story. No fancy camera angles. No arm-twisting manipulative music, which instead complements the film’s texture like they were yin and yan  (What a find, this Jakes Bejoy is! Wish he explores ‘silence’ a little more).  A Pulan Visaranai or a Vettaiyadu Vilayadu, at times comes to mind. But they were all operating in star territory, with also an eye on appeasing a section of the audience. But here, the focus is entirely on deconstructing the puzzle. A grand deception. And the characters reacting to it.

Which is why, by the time we reach the third act, there should have been lot more clarity in the staging, ideally. Especially, regarding the behaviour of the characters at times defying rational deduction and understanding. A very critical sequence, towards the climax, comes across as unnaturally rushed. And consequently, we end up with quite some loose ends. But, Karthick saves his biggest rug-pulling feat for the finále, which makes us see everything that has transpired on screen in a new-light. Some questions remain unanswered even afterwards, but when you have been treated to something this magical, why even bother to bicker.