Warning: Here be spoilers
A long time ago, a director named Vasanth, best known until then for romances like Keladi Kanmani, made a thriller called Aasai. It starred Prakash Raj (in a stunning breakout role) as a psychotic man who kills his wife so he could marry her sister. There was, of course, a conventional hero in the picture (played by Ajith), but the focus was on the bad guy. What made the movie so interesting was its obvious intelligence, and Vasanth’s ability eschew suspense of the pulse-pounding variety. You got to see evil at work in a slow, meticulous manner.
Once again, Vasanth brings those principles to work in Satham Podathey, a well-crafted thriller about a woman who divorces her husband but finds that he’s not so easy to get rid of. When Banu (Padmapriya) first meets Ratnavel (Nithin Sathya) and gets married to him, he seems like a nice guy. It turns out that he is impotent (thanks to his alcoholism), but she doesn’t know this when they get married. Later, even when she finds out about his impotence, she stands by him. But when his alcoholism and abusive nature comes to be known, she walks out. The experience leaves her traumatized, but with the help of her family and her brother’s friend Ravi (Prithviraj), she recovers. Sure enough, she and Ravi fall in love and get married. Everything seems idyllic, but then…
What makes Satham Podathey better than your average movie is the little things it gets right. Take Ratnavel, for instance. You realize very early on that this guy is bad news. That he could seem perfectly reasonable one moment and turn into a monster the next. But you do not see him change his voice or his body language when he switches, so to speak. He still speaks in that same matter-of-fact tone of voice. It makes him more effective, not less.
The performances of all three leads are quite good, and each deserves plaudits for a different reason. Nithin Satya gets a nice, meaty role and turns in a performance worthy of comparison with Prakash Raj’s in Aasai – he makes Ratnavel seem like a man you could know all your life and still not know him at all.
Padmapriya is her usual competent self, which is good because she has a challenge on her hands here. The first act of the movie shows the breakdown of her marriage. The second act shows how she comes out of her depression and learns to love again. The third act shows her having to deal with her ex-husband once again. The thing is, each of these has an entirely different tone. Especially the second act, which begins in despair but evolves into sweetness and light before Ratnavel returns. The shifts in tone could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, had Banu’s character not served as our anchor. It is to her credit that, throughout the movie, she creates a plausible character that we care about.
Prithviraj has the sort of role that is so often underwritten in thrillers like these. There’s the bad guy, there’s the good woman who has to deal with him — most writers stop at that point and simply add other characters as filler. Interestingly, this movie avoids that route and makes Ravi an engaging sort of guy whose love for Banu is matched by his intelligence. Prithviraj, who in recent years has emerged as an actor to watch out for, justifies the effort that went into creating Ravi through his performance.
The camera work and composition are top notch. For instance, a number of scenes are shot within a particular room where Banu is kept prisoner. These shots are composed so that the camera seems to look down upon her from somewhere close to the ceiling. It makes her seem walled in, heightens her isolation from the world outside.
It is not that the movie doesn’t make any missteps. The editing is quite sane to begin with, but suddenly descends into unnecessary showboating. Some key scenes, such as the one where Banu learns of her husband’s alcoholism, are edited so that the filmmaking gets in the way of the story-telling. Surely you didn’t need so many cuts there?
Another glaring weakness is the way the last fifteen minutes unfold. The movie places more emphasis on what happens than on how Banu reacts to it. Given the strength of the characterizations until that point, this was a strange choice to make. The scene where Banu is released from the room where she was imprisoned by Ratnavel is shot in a very matter-of-fact manner – a few shots from her POV, or some reaction shots that show how she deals with coming out would have added immeasurably to that scene.
It is these things that prevent me for giving the movie an unqualified thumbs-up. However, on the whole the positives outweigh the negatives. A well-made thriller in Tamil cinema is a rare and beautiful thing. This one earns that distinction.