This won’t be a comparative piece between Matheswaran’s poetic debut and his gory sophomore film. Arun Matheswaran, in two films, has made a mark on the audience with regards to crafting very violent, gritty dramas with simple, well-trodden premises. “Rocky” coasted on that premise with some fantastic and creative filmmaking with regards to its low budget and utilizing its simplicity to mine as much potency from its premise as possible.
“Saani Kaayidham” is a much higher budgeted feature, but the tone and gritty nature of its storytelling is still intact. It follows a police constable (Keerthy Suresh) of a lower caste whose husband comes into conflict with the higher caste laborers at the factory they all work at . Their egos bruised; they lure the police constable by conspiring with her fellow officer to one of their outhouses, where they rape her while they burn her house down with her husband and daughter inside. The daughter was sleeping while the husband had been beaten to an inch of his life and thus was half dead, unbeknownst to his daughter. The law, too, is easy enough to bend to the whims of the perpetrators, and thus our protagonist, with her half brother (Selvaraghavan), takes matters into her own hands, which leads to a sloppy, bloody, and gory revenge drama.
It would be easy to call “Saani Kaayidham” exploitative, and Matheswaran sometimes luxuriating on the brutality and violence would be ample proof, but his choosing to focus on Keerthy Suresh’s haunted visage, the camera holding steady while she breaks down and transforms into a vengeful force of nature, the anger almost taking over her, as seen by her hitting her hands or mimicking the actions of cutting the limbs of one of the perpetrators. The second key scene is inside the van when she has poured acid over one of the perpetrators, who is already half-delirious due to the wounds she has inflicted. And then she starts punching him hard in the face repeatedly. The camera focuses on her face for a second when she stops to catch her breath, and we see a wry smile. Matheswaran showed how the power of inflicting violence could bring about a sense of bloodlust, a primal feeling not entirely hampered by the righteous reasoning of inflicting violence.
But then again, the genre itself invites violence to exist within its fabric. This is a brutal revenge drama, a western set in the coastal villages of Tamil Nadu. The wide-open vistas, and the chases through the leafy green foliage, are in sharp contrast to the hacking of limbs, to the bearing of rightful vengeance by the two siblings, all taking place within closed spaces. One in a secluded guest house, one inside a van, and one in an abandoned movie theater. The sharp difference between the spaciousness of the locations highlights the contrast of the rustic beauty with the violence occurring behind closed doors. The overtone of casteist violence is very much prevalent throughout the movie, along with a healthy dose of the takedown of misogyny. Unlike his debut, Matheswaran brings far larger societal commentary to the forefront of “Saani Kaayidham,” and that should be appreciated.
However, the big flaw of the film is its screenplay. At two hours and 18 minutes of runtime, the movie does take a while to get to the point. The central antagonists aren’t very well developed, though that could well be intentional, but even Selvaraghavan’s character is paper-thin at best. That is, however, offset by Selva himself, who is absolutely brilliant in this role and nails it. He brings to life a loyalty to the character of the brother with a sense of reluctance and apprehension at seeing his sister on a vengeful path, worried about her peace of mind but unable to stop helping her. It also works as redemption for his own character, as he is unable to save his niece and brother-in-law. There is a subplot dealing with a blind kid, the son of one of the perpetrators, who gets unwittingly involved with the siblings. While it might be constructed as a mirror to a similar situation in “Rocky,” where the character of “Rocky” is saddled with a kid for the latter half of the movie, the plot thread is less effective here, and only comes across as unnecessary.
“Saani Kaayidham” is ably supported by Yamini Yagnamurthy’s gorgeous cinematography and some beautifully rendered handheld camera work. From a technical standpoint, “Saani Kaayidham” is above reproach, and Matheswaran is channeling his inner Tarantino in some of the action sequences. “Saani Kaayidham” is surprisingly darkly funny at times, especially “The Matador Murders,”; be it Selva keeping his attackers at bay by brandishing the gun at them (not loaded), or by Keerthy Suresh’s character driving the van in reverse, making a decision and then choosing to ram the van through her attackers. That set-piece is fascinating in its construction, with equal amounts of suspense and a surprising amount of humor to offset the pathos throughout the movie. However, what stops “Saani Kaayidham” from becoming a classic in its genre is the lack of depth given to the characters or efforts to make them a bit more interesting than their archetypal construction would provide. The antagonists are all evil, some cartoonish and some insidious, while the protagonists are all vengeful. But like I explained, only Suresh’s character is shown some depth, and even then, those don’t feel like part of the screenplay but more like an acting or directorial choice. Matheswaran might be on his way to making a vengeance trilogy in the vein of Park Chan Wook’s seminal work, and this sophomore output, while not perfect, is a definite gory triumph.
“Saani Kaayidham” is an Indian Crime Drama film written and directed by Arun Matheswaran.