Synopsis: A young man tries to make a case for his neighbouring village, which depends on his village for water. However, the men who call the shots in the place, especially the father of the girl he is in love with, will not give in that easily.
Review: After two impressive films, Kalavani and Vaagai Sooda Vaa, Sarkunam slipped up big time with Naiyyandi. Chandi Veeran is better than that film but this is not a return-to-form by any means. At its best, the film recalls the inventiveness we saw in the director's first two films, though nothing here matches their flair. Even structurally, the film feels like a sort-of Kalavani-meets-Vaagai Sooda Vaa, with the first act and the epilogue trying to humour us the way former did while the central knot — a water crisis — has the gravitas of the latter.
But to get to that, we have to spend quite a lot of time on things that are inconsequential to the plot. Right from his debut film, Sarkunam has shown that he prefers to tell his story in a languid manner. He is not a filmmaker who uses the jump cut as if his very life depended on it. This style suited Kalavani, which was a rural romcom, and in Vaagai Sooda Vaa, it made sense because of the film's setting — the late 60s. But here, the initial setup feels overlong and uninteresting. Too much time is spent over the villagers' attitude towards people who have done time in prisons in Singapore or Malaysia. Too much time is also spent on the been-there-seen-that romance between Paari (a fine Atharvaa) and Thamarai (Anandhi, who smiles a little too much in most scenes), which, while crucial to the plot, never makes us care — they have been attracted towards each other since they were young and start wooing one another as soon as Paari returns to the village after being deported from Singapore.
These scenes are juxtaposed with scenes from the neighbouring village, Vayalpaadi, which depends on the water from a pond in Paari's village, Nedungaadu. But Nedungaadu's big shots, which include Thamarai's father, a rice mill owner (a miscast Lal), and the panchayat president, are against giving water to the village. Thamarai's father actually has got the pond in an auction and pollutes its water on purpose. But Paari, whose father died in a clash between the two villages decade ago, wants to do the right thing — let his neighbours use the water. Things come to a head when Thamarai's father comes to know of their romance. The same day, the panchayat president is attacked by a man from Vayalpaadi and the mill owner tries to use the incident to whip up tension, create a clash between the villages and kill Paari. Now, the young man must use his wits and survive the night to not only save the neighbouring village but also save himself.
The initial portions remind us that Sarkunam has the ability to transport us to the film's setting by creating a lived-in universe. He also shows that he still knows how to pack in little surprises (Paari helps Thamarai win a cycling race but the pay-off happens some time later, when this provides him the opportunity to gift her the mobile mobile that he has been trying to give her) and quirky moments that make us smile (like the scene where the heroine's mother takes a Bluetooth headset for a hair clip). But Chandi Veeran actually feels alive when the actual plot kicks into gear. The various challenges Paari has to overcome to outfox Thamarai's father and stop his villagers from attacking the people of Vayalpaadi keeps us on the edge of our seats. And his final speech — a call for being humane, sharing what we have and shunning violence — to make them see sense is heartwarming, even as the film comes close to being preachy.
The problem is that the film cannot find its tone (it's funny one moment and dead-serious the next) and so, the narration suffers. The filmmaking, too, lacks grace, with hurried camerawork and choppy editing that make the film visually inelegant. We never see the confident Sarkunam of Kalavani and Vaagai Sooda Vaa. Perhaps, the commercial failure of the latter has made him wary of taking risks. Often, we get the feeling that the director has given in to the ghost of failure whispering in his ears to just give what the audience wants — comedy. That should probably explain why we get an epilogue that is tonally far removed from the climax and makes a joke of the intent of the film.