Small towns are usually romanticized by everyone. But only those who live there know that there’s nothing to romanticize. The close-knit circles, the comfy houses, the lazy atmosphere, and the “simple-minded” people seem attractive enough to spend your entire lives over there. It’s only after you live there, try to be yourself, speak the truth, or try to reach a place (literally or metaphorically) to know where the rest of the world is at, that you get to see its ugly underbelly. The “Fear Street” trilogy, “Impetigore,” “Midnight Mass,” “Midsommar,” “Churuli,” and all three seasons of “Dark” have explored this in great detail. “Suzhal: The Vortex” is a surprising, bold, and absolutely jaw-dropping new entry in this genre. Full disclaimer: strap in properly before watching it because it is going to make your head spin.
Created by Gayatri and Pushkar and directed by Bramma and Anucharan Murugaiyan, “Suzhal: The Vortex” takes place in a small town in Sambaloor. The show opens at the Vadde Cement Factory, owned by the father-son duo of Trilok (Harish Uthaman) and Mukesh Vadde (Yusuf Hussain). The workers of the factory, led by Shanmugam (Parthiban Radhakrishnan), Guna (Kumaravel), and Dayalan (Purushothaman), are staging a protest against Trilok’s bad management. The local police, led by Regina (Sriya Reddy) and Sakkarai (Kathir), who are under Trilok’s thumb, disperse the crowd by brutally beating everyone up. Later, the factory goes up in flames and Trilok accuses Shanmugam of doing it. While the police question him, Shanmugam’s younger daughter Nila (Gopika Ramesh) goes missing. This causes his estranged wife, Devi (Indumathy Manikandan), and elder daughter, Nandini (Aishwarya Rajesh), to return to Sambaloor after many years.
The first thing that you should do is leave any and every assumption about “Suzhal: The Vortex” at the proverbial door because there’s a good chance that none of them are going to be correct. So, there’s no point in trying. I walked into it with a few expectations based on the name of the show and the poster, and they were subverted. I tried to piece together the puzzle laid out after every episode, and all of my inferences ended up being wrong. No, I am not going to discuss the plot since people should watch it as spoiler-free as possible. And it isn’t as if writers Gayatri and Pushkar consider the audience to be fools. They know very well what kinds of crumbs the modern audience will notice and the ones they’ll not. On top of that, they make sure that when they follow up on the real twist, it’s both noticeable and not noticeable enough for the audience to go, “how did I miss that?”
The only criticism I probably have about “Suzhal: The Vortex” (and it’s not a critique of the show but of the release model) is that all the episodes are dropping at once. This is not a show that should be watched in one go. Every episode concludes on insane cliff-hangers, and it’s sad that viewers will just click next, instead of savoring what they’ve just witnessed. Every episode should be discussed and dissected for a whole week before moving to the next one, and streaming platforms like Prime Video should use the weekly release model for their best shows and not just for their tentpole properties. This raises the question: what is “Suzhal: The Vortex” really about? As mentioned earlier, it’s an assault on the principles of a small town, which is serving as a microcosm of India right now. Communism, capitalism, police brutality, bribery, sexism, religion, the othering of people who identify as queer, and the trauma that comes with it all is tightly packed into this eight-episode series. Despite being in this small area, people are divided due to their religious beliefs, their professions, their gender, their sexual preferences, their professional motives, and most importantly, their personal ambitions. Sakkarai thinks his proximity to the town gives him comfort because he can navigate it. The problem with that thinking is, unlike Nandini, he has seen the town through a keyhole only. So, when his eyes are opened, he finds the town overwhelming. The same can be said about Shanmugam and Regina, two characters whose lives are so intertwined with their work that by the time they realize the world around them has changed, it’s too late.
There are certain aspects of “Suzhal: The Vortex” that can seem a little too simplistic. But they are not (as per my limited knowledge) that simple. The show’s politics appear very idealistic in nature, as it paints everyone who has been touched by any form of political ideology to be evil. But, in the real world, the rate at which apparently Left-leaning politicians are jumping over to the Right, those on the Right are transferring to the Left, and, apart from a few, every country’s leader is showing fascist tendencies, makes it seem that the show’s interpretation of it isn’t far off. The Mayana Kollai festival makes for a hypnotic, loud backdrop, and the story of Angala Parameshwari has some parallels with that of “Suzhal.” That’s the most basic take you can have. However, when you see how it ties into the main antagonist’s duality, it becomes a commentary on how fiends use religion to appear pious while being absolute monsters. The fire in the factory looks like a red herring. And it both is and is not, as it factors into the story in a significant manner. Sakkarai’s transformation into a “good cop” seems to be at odds with the show’s constant critique of police brutality. But we see that it’s all too little, too late.
As for the craft on display, “Suzhal: The Vortex” is stunning to look at. The wide shots, the unmotivated lighting, the festival scenes packed with people, the kinetic camera movement, the buttery smooth editing, the lived-in feeling that every street, building, and object gives off, the color grading, and the costumes make for such a satisfactory viewing experience. The diegetic music, on top of all this, makes for an immersive and sometimes hypnotic viewing experience. Especially when some of the percussion instruments are juxtaposed with the dancing sequences, you feel like you are going into a trance. The same can be said about the title sequence. So, a big round of applause to cinematographer Mukeswaran, editor Richard Kevin, production designer Arun Venjaramoodu, costume designer R. Poornima, and sound designers Sachin Sudhakaran and Hariharan M. The only problem is the background score by Sam C.S. It always feels like it is at odds with the vibe of the story. It starts and cuts off in an awkward fashion. Maybe you’ll ease into it while watching the show.
The performances from the cast are excellent. Parthiban Radhakrishnan, Sriya Reddy, Kathir, and Aishwarya Rajesh are the faces of the show. The plethora of emotions that they display is worthy of all the applause in the world. They play off of each other extremely well. And all four of them get their moments to shine, and they make the most of them. But the supporting cast is equally mind-blowing. Prem Kumar, Harish Uthaman, Kumaravel, Indumathy Manikandan, Latha Rao, Venkatesan, Yusuf Hussain, Prasanna Balachandran, Santhana Bharathi, Soundarya, literally everyone is firing on all cylinders. However, it’s Gopika Ramesh as Nila and FJ as Adhisayam who take the cake. These two give such mature and steady performances that it’ll undoubtedly shake up the A-listers in the industry. Although it feels like I’ve said a lot about “Suzhal: The Vortex,” it is not the case. The show has layers upon layers, details within details, and nuanced depictions of every fabric that makes up the quilt we call a society. Please take your time while watching it. You’re not going to get an award if you finish it first and spill the spoilers on Twitter and Instagram dot com. As you can decipher, I am happily blown away by the show, largely due to the subversive nature of the story. After watching so many twisted crime thrillers, I was under the impression that I was good at predicting stories in this genre. But this show has humbled me and told me that I still have a lot to learn. So, if it’s not clear yet, “Suzhal: The Vortex” comes highly recommended. Please don’t sleep on it.