Tarpaulin Murugan is a feared name on the highway near Periyakulam, as he steals goods from lorries plying on the route. Sparks fly between Masanimuthu, the crooked new cop who has come to the place, and Murugan, and their hostility increases after they cross swords over Manga, a young dhaba owner.
His debut film
Sillunu Oru Kaadhal
was largely a middling effort remembered mostly for AR Rahman's songs but with
, Krishna shows that the unevenness of that film could have been a case of nerves of a first-time director working with a star. For, this film is certainly a surefooted effort that shows that this director can tell an engaging tale. Like his debut film, this one too is a wistful journey of a character — if it was a man's longing for a lover in the earlier film, this one is about a man's regret over his action.
The setting is the mid eighties and the plot revolves around a ruffian who is a better man than whom he seems to be, an always fashionable conceit in Tamil cinema. Here, it is Tarpaulin Murugan (Aari), a highway robber, who steals from lorries that ply on the highway near Periyakulam. He is so skillful that the lorry owners re-route their vehicles to go through a newly constructed highway, which becomes beneficial for Manga (Shivada), a young and enterprising dhaba owner. Meanwhile, the place gets a new cop, Masanimuthu (Prashant Narayanan), who is as crooked as they come — the kind of cop who will smoke ganja while on duty, demand servitude from a black marketer, Maatu Sekar (Salim Kumar), in exchange for his protection and even plan a robbery.
He lusts after Manga and tries to fuel a tiff between her and Murugan, who loathes him completely, for his benefit. But Murugan double crosses him, and saves Manga from dishonour and this makes her fall for him. This enrages Masanimuthu, who plots his revenge by making Murugan the scapegoat in a robbery involving the goods of a fearful big shot.
From the characterization of the hero (right down to his costumes) to the tragic climax, the shadow of Ameer's
looms large on Nedunchalai, and this is both its strength and weakness. Hewing to the template of that film (a bold girl falling in love with a ruffian and trying to lead him away from his life of crime), with a dash of Subramanipuram (friend turning foe) thrown in, Krishna creates a film that holds your interest despite the predictability. Credit for this is also due to the creepy performance of Prashant Narayanan (who, in certain angles, seems like a cross between Daniel Balaji and Suriya) and Salim Kumar, who, as the slimy Maatu Sekar, is equally remarkable.
Sadly, their performances also make the lead characters less interesting. Aari, who looks radically different from the lover boy in
Maalai Pozhuthin Mayakkathiley
, tries his best to make Murugan a badass but the character lacks charisma and we don't really empathise with him as much as we should. Manga is a little better. She isn't an unscrupulous person (she passes off beef as mutton in her dhaba and in one scene, we see her stealing from a vendor) but her character becomes like that of a typical
heroine when she falls in love with Murugan.
One reason why the film is less effective is that Krishna uses the flashback as the device to narrate his story and considering that the narrator (an old man telling this tale to a couple of lorry drivers during their journey to Delhi) often speaks about what has happened in a remorseful manner, we are not truly startled by the time the climax arrives as we know how the story will unfold. This device also feels redundant because the two lorry drivers, who are essentially the audience stand-ins, have no other use than to utter dialogues that only want to suggest how we need to feel over what we have seen and what we might see next (there is even a reference to Krishna's first film). The climax is a letdown because it feels contrived; the director seems to have decided on how the film has to end and so, the developments don't feel organic. Given that he has shown us Maatu Sekar a man who has no qualms about doing anything as long as it earns him money, we expect him to provide the final twist but Krishna brings in a character who has been in the sidelines for the entire movie to do this task and that makes the end less convincing.