Consider the prefix “Once upon a time in” that is affixed in the English subtitle that appears during the opening credits. Here’s a director who has pretty much announced, right at the start, that he’s attempting to do to the bylanes of a fisherman’s slum in North Chennai, what Sergio Leone did to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in Once Upon a Time in America. This film too, has a sprawling canvas, a nonlinear narrative, characters who are perpetually armed with their baggage if not their weaponry…
If you’re looking for other gangster sagas to point to, there’s Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. Or, if you’re looking towards literary cues, there’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose memory is evoked in its circular narratives and repetitive motifs and knack of having a larger story nudge a smaller story every once in a while. Or Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Or Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
The thing is, if you’re making an epic, and Vada Chennai is indubitably one, you’re unlikely to break a heck of a lot of new ground in terms of the basic emotions and storylines. Yeah, there’s lust and greed and betrayal and vengeance. And a girl and a gun. At that level, we’ve probably described most stories.
Where you make your mark is in how rooted the story is, how organically its characters’ motivations are tied into the time and place they’re from. Vada Chennai’s characters are driven by the same base impulses as anyone else, but you can’t imagine them in any other milieu. And what’s more, this film is not just about its characters. It’s about this location, about its importance to the people living there. The film is narrated in chapters, each named for three of the characters. But the key chapter that details the genesis of this story uses the word Oor, meaning place. This place.
One useful way of understanding a film is to ask yourself: what has changed between the beginning and the end? A narrative this nonlinear doesn’t lend itself easily to such analysis. But consider the opening and closing shots instead. The opening shot is of a bloodstained murder weapon casually thrown on a table. The reasons for this murder have to do with this place, and what people want to do with it. The closing shot is of the oor itself. There’s an old wall separating this neighbourhood from the more “gentrified” world on the other side. The other wall is the sea. The place hasn’t changed. Nor have the pressures from the outside. The people dealing with them have, and sometimes their stories have their genesis in that of the people who came before them.
A character with an ability to look beyond the immediate term gifts a pair of binoculars to a little boy. You see him sitting on top of a tower with the binoculars as a young adult. You see him capable of looking past the short term as an adult. And you realize that even a throwaway moment, where an adult gifts a child something he fancies, has such an emotional resonance in hindsight. These stories are like geological formations. Scrape away a layer of rock, and there’s another layer that tells the story of a previous age.
You don’t see them all in chronological order, though. The nonlinear nature of the storytelling is a wee bit disorienting at first, but you realize soon that this is not mere gimmickry.
The effects of a murder — the one referenced in the opening shot — are seen well before the murder itself is shown, in what is probably the standout sequence in the film. As good as the film-making is in that scene, the emotional charge comes from the fact that we already know how the ripple effects of this event will be seen in the coming years.
An attack that happens around the interval block comes as a surprise, but in the scenes that follow, Vetri Maran interleaves the backstory that motivated it along with its aftermath, thereby shaping our perception of that attack in very interesting ways. And then he adds another layer of motivation that precedes this one, thereby reshaping our view once again.
This is not a filmmaker toying with form, or with the audience. This is a master storyteller telling us that Once upon a time is not where the story starts. It’s just where you begin to narrate it.