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Vadhandhi review

Kollywood is already rife with cop heroes whose violence and extra-judicial measures are feverishly celebrated on screen. Now, enter police procedural crime dramas. Written and directed by Andrew Louis, Vadhandhi – The Fable of Velonie streaming on Amazon Prime Video stars SJ Suryah playing Vivkek, a cop on a mission to solve the murder of an 18-year-old woman. The first episode tries too hard to establish how young and pretty Velonie (Sanjana) is, and how men are obsessed with her, until her terrible death. The scenes make your skin crawl, and once you are sufficiently triggered, Suryah makes an entry as a sardonic cop, coolly justifying encounter-killings. As is often enough in Tamil cinema, the victim is a woman with no agency, solely placed in the story to be lusted after, assaulted, or murdered. A khaki-clad man saunters into the situation, after the fact, and bloodily avenges her. It’s all supposedly very righteous. When juxtaposed with the reality of routine police brutality in India, distastefully made cop dramas like Vadhandhi among others have reached an inexcusable point.

There can be little doubt that police procedurals are a highly popular genre of crime drama. The trope of a single-mindedly driven cop, going to any extent to find the murderer has spawned iconic shows like BroadchurchLuther, and Mare of Easttown. It’s not surprising that Kollywood is looking to make inroads in that particular genre. What the above shows have in common is good writing, a stellar cast, and characters who are both deeply flawed and not above self-reflection. Vadhandhi has none of these. The series runs on the steam and bluster produced by Vivek’s self-righteous rage and the sexualisation of an 18-year-old while simultaneously infantilising her.

Vadhandhi is hardly one of SJ Suryah’s memorable performances and with a character as abrasive as his, you’re better off forgetting his character Vivek as soon as you can. Even the screen presence that Nassar, who plays a writer involved in Velonie’s life commands, compels you to keep watching. Laila, as Velonie’s mother Ruby, is an embodiment of toxic parenting with her constant slut-shaming and policing. At times it is hard to tell which is more grating—her acting or her character. Velonie is the male fantasy of an 18-year-old teetering on the line between childishness and womanhood. Her sexuality is the distressing bedrock of the plotline.

Nearly every man who has had some contact with Velonie sexualises her as does the script. ‘Is Velonie just naïve or is she promiscuous?’ – that seems to be the supposed mystery the show is obsessed with solving, rather than her murder. The defence that director Andrew Louis makes on how the murders of young women, particularly under mysterious circumstances, are sensationalised in real life, cannot pass muster to pass off the problematic elements in the show as incidental. It’s clear enough from the way the camera lingers again and again, repulsively over Velonie’s body, that she is merely an object of curiosity and desire with no agency either in life or in death.

If all this isn’t tormenting enough, there is also a steady stream of characters mangling the Kanyakumari dialect beyond recognition. It is hard to focus on a storyline when you’re preoccupied with wincing every other minute someone in the show just talks. The actors seem to have been told to replace all ‘s’ sounds from their speech with ‘ch’, leading to such a hackneyed caricature of the region’s Tamil, that you repeatedly struggle to process the information in their dialogues. If show makers cannot be troubled with getting their cast a good dialect coach, they must at least spare their audiences the unintentional parody that is passed off as authenticity. It would be laughable if the show wasn’t so unrelentingly bleak. 

As far as deduction goes, Vivek relies on slapping-around people without impunity, rather than securing crime scenes properly. His clue-finding is gimmicky at best when it does occur at all. Andrew Louis attempts to set up a slow burn with the story making sudden shifts to earlier events, but the flashbacks are merely disorienting. The ponderous pacing and erratic loops to the past make for an excruciating watch.

All these twists and turns become pale in comparison to the big reveal about how and why Velonie is killed. Vadhandhi’s show makers seem to think the series is a grand statement on sexual violence by men. It is not though. When a story dedicates eight 45-minute episodes with painstaking effort to depict the whole gamut of misogynist behaviour from lecherous looks to obsession to murder while including women characters for the sole purpose of their bodies being subjected to those violations, when it deliberately robs them of agency, all you have is a nauseating spectacle intended for the gaze of cishet men. For the rest of us, Vadhandhi is a triggering waste of time.

Saravanan Ramasamy’s cinematography is perhaps the only alluring aspect of the series, showing off the verdant splendour of the region. But with a story so bad, it is likely more useful for tourism than to keep us engaged.

Vadhandhi The Fable of Velonie !! SJ Suryah-starrer is a riveting thriller


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