There are a few song sequences, especially an item number, that prove to be an unwelcome distraction. The first thirty minutes could do with some editing. The comedy track doesn’t really tickle the funny bone.
The aforementioned flaws are the only ones I can think of. Outside of that, Polladhavan is just about perfect.
The premise is pretty simple. Prabhu, an unemployed young man from a lower middle-class family buys a motorbike, a Bajaj Pulsar he has been lusting after for years. It turns out to be his lucky charm, as he soon gets a job and a girlfriend as well. Then, one night, it gets stolen. In trying to find it, his path crosses that of a gang of smugglers. Especially that of Ravi, the younger brother of a local kingpin. Things go south from there on. Basically, a man on the street goes up against the underworld. Sure, we’ve seen this before. But not often has it been done so well.
In a sense, Polladhavan is about two relationships. One is between Prabhu and his father, a tough old man who despairs for his son but loves him all the same. Despite all the bickering, there exists a deep, abiding affection between the two men. The other important relationship is between Ravi and his brother Selvam. There is love here too, and a sense of the elder one watching out for the younger. All four characters are well-written and remain consistent to their natures throughout the movie. In keeping the focus firmly on them, Polladhavan achieves an economy of plot that is gratifying. There is much violence, but when it happens, we see the sense in it because we understand the characters involved.
The characterization of Selvam is one of the high points of the movie. He would not hesitate to kill if it makes a difference to his business. But he is not an unreasonable man, and respects Prabhu’s desire to avoid conflict. He assesses correctly that his brother is too rash, too consumed by bloodlust to be effective in his line of business. He see too that his brother’s survival depends on his own in ways that his brother does not yet comprehend. His dialogues and actions show a sensibility that is not often found among gangsters in Tamil cinema.
The other high point is the way the movie depicts the relationship between the gangsters and the law-abiding citizens they live among. To the extent possible, each would prefer to stay out of the other’s way. Some of the movie’s most interesting passages deal with what happens to stolen bikes. I do not know how much of what is depicted is true, but it sure does seem that way.
The performances are top-notch. Dhanush is particularly effective at creating a character we care for. There is never a moment when he seems unconvincing or over-the-top. A lesser movie would’ve let him blow his top more often; this one mostly just lets him simmer, so it is all the more effective when he fights back. The other three major characters do a good job as well. Murali plays Prabhu’s father as well as you would expect him to. This is the sort of role actors like he and Raj Kiran dine out on. Daniel Balaji, who was so effective as the psychopath in Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu, plays yet another of the same ilk. The most notable performance is that of Kishore, who plays Selvam. His is the best-written part, and he does it justice.
The women have smaller parts, but do a pretty good job of rising above their obligatory nature. Anju is the pick of the lot, playing Selvam’s wife as a woman who understands her husband’s power but not what makes it work. Bhanupriya and Divya/Ramya have little to do as Prabhu’s mother and girlfriend respectively, and do it quite well.
Action movies are a dime a dozen. However, most of them concentrate on how well character A beats up character B. Few concentrate on why. Polladhavan works precisely because it makes a correct choice in this regard.
ps: And no, I have not forgotten The Bicycle Thief. The movie uses the same premise (man depends on bike for livelihood, finds it stolen and searches for it), but charts a different path and deserves to be regarded on its own terms.
pps: Oh, I forgot to mention: The remixed version of Engeyum Eppodhum by Yogi B absolutely ROCKS! You can check out the video here.