Raadika Sarathkumar might have very few lines in Gautham Vasudev Menon Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu. But she just might have some of the film’s most passionate. “It’s time for you to leave the land of the fire devil,” she fumes in exasperation, prompting her son to leave the burning Naduvakurichi for a parotta shop in Chembur in Mumbai. But she does not know that she is sending her son from one land of fire to another.
At the heart of Menon’s gangster play is Silambarasan TR’s Muthu, who unwittingly becomes a cog in Mumbai’s dark machine. The film, which charts his meteoric rise to irreverent giving, is set in a milieu with which the Tamil gangster film is more than familiar.
Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu is the latest in a long line of films to chart the Tamil-speaking gang member’s tumultuous rise in Mumbai. The Tamil gangster genre is heavily inspired by the dons of real Tamil immigrants from the underworld of Bombay in the 60s and 80s, such as Haji Mastan. But a prominent figure in this lineage is Varadharajan Mudaliyar, whose life as the kingpin of Dharavi was given a fictionalized version by Mani Ratnam. Nayakan (1987).
An Influential Film in Black Tamil, Nayakan is arguably where the genre’s fascination with the city of Bombay began. After making his first kill in a fit of rage and grief, Velu flees Thoothukudi as a young boy to escape his misfortunes. And where does it land? At Bombay’s Victoria Terminus, which is also where the film’s title card is unveiled – a harbinger of the city’s value in Velu’s life.
Hairy (Kamal Haasan) soon finds a sense of warmth and freedom in the city and its kind strangers, which gives him a reason to live. Between smuggling goods at the port for the poor and fighting for their land rights in the city, Velu quickly goes from being an orphaned miner to Velu Naicker – a heroic outlaw, who finds his family in the community of Tamil immigrants from Dharavi.
He also manages to find love amidst all the grime and violence of the city, a narrative reinforced by PC Sreeram’s viewfinder. Velu confesses his love for Nila (Saranya) at the most postcard-perfect moment in Bombay – amid the flying pigeons at India Gate. The pigeons, with whom the city shares a love-hate relationship, also find a significant metaphor in Nayakanthe one signifying Velu’s devotion to his wife.
Nayakan also portrays the plight of working-class Tamil-speaking immigrants in the city with substance. through montages The extensive recreation of Dharavi by Thotta Tharani, the film establishes its grip on the landscapes and land politics of Bombay.
But despite spending most of his life in the city, Velu refuses to learn or speak a word of Hindi, communicating only through his assistant who doubles as a translator (Delhi Ganesh in a delicious role). Ultimately – ironically enough for a movie set in the Dreaming City – it’s Velu’s restless ambition to further cement his place in the city that will become his downfall. His desire to overthrow a rival Don to become King of the Port, creates bad blood, ultimately breaking his family apart.
If Bombay was a city of resurrection for Velu, it’s a harsh, grimy reminder of a past he wishes to forget for former racing driver Manik Baashha in Rajinikanth’s 1995 film. baasha. Because it is the very city where he loses two people who are dearest to him: his father and his childhood friend.
Even though the film doesn’t give us a detailed, detailed view of the city, it does present us with Baashha’s Bombay, a film steeped in style rather than substance. So when his friend is ruthlessly killed near the bandstand promenade, the Arabian Sea witnesses not only the murder of a Muslim fighting for land rights, but also the birth and wrath of Baashha.
In its own way, Baashha also signifies loyalty, an emotion often associated with the people of Bombay towards their city. “When I came to Bombay as a man with nothing, it was Antony who gave me a living. It was his salt that I grew up eating,” says Vijayakumar (who plays father of Rajinikanth) in a poignant scene, vindicating his allegiance to his crooked boss.
City recalls the pain of another Tamil movie mafia boss, though not the best film of its kind – Ajith’s Joan (2004). Like Baashha, Jana (Ajith) is haunted by her thug past. In the film Shaji Kailas, it continues to have flashes of the city, especially that of India Gate, but the monument in this case does not find any deeper meaning in the film. Jana is yet another savior of the city’s masses, but her territory is not limited to Dharavi. “Bombay la Jana oda kaal padatha edamum illa avar kai padaatha rowdyum illa: there is no place in Bombay that Jana’s feet did not touch, and no rowdy in Bombay that her hands did not beat “, a person assumes his past. The fight sequences also get an urban update in the film, moving away from the nooks and crannies of the slums towards the shopping complexes of Malad.
Even though some storylines have remained unchanged over the years, the portrayal of Mumbai keeps up with the times. Vijay’s Thalaivaa (2013) picks up on the aging Dharavi don trope, with sprawling shots of the Bandra-Worli sea link (a structure that sprung up in 2009), symbolizing a new Mumbai in the process. Mumbai’s modern quirks find delightful appearances in the film’s otherwise mundane storyline. The local trains, in this case, are not romanticized, but rather used for a great action sequence, evoking a feeling of suffocation.
With Lingusamy Anjaan (2014), the streets of Dharavi are put to rest, and the focus is instead on Andheri and its underworld. Suriya plays Raju Bhai aka Kingpin Andheri or Andheri puli (as Asif Basra frequently reminds us in the film), who drives around with his ragtag band cleaning up the city in posh Range Rovers and Mercs. But when egos and rival gang fights get in the way, Raju loses his way. “There is as much darkness in the city as there is light,” we are told.
But perhaps the most poignant portrait of modern Mumbai and Dharavi is found in Pa Ranjith’s 2018 Kala. While Ranjith uses Rajinikanth to shine a light on the land rights of the poor in Dharavi towns – a subject that has been the focus of many such gangster films – he consciously avoids treating the neighborhood with savior complexes. Karikalan is not a white knight, who Safe his slums, but a second-generation Tamil immigrant, leaving his people to fight their own battle. Consider the lyrics of the superstar’s intro song – ‘Semma Weightu’ -“Kaiya katti vaaya pothi ninna kaalam pochu. Etti vandhu ninnathellaam vaanathila yethiyachu. Dharavi area enga. Inga kaala saet thaan. Avaru munna vera yaaru. The focus of the song, which is written by Dharavi-bred Tamil rapper, Tony Sebastian, is Dharavi, of which Kaala is a part, and not the other way around.
In Kala, Mumbai and its land are not only symbols of power, but also of life, as Karikalan angrily points out when he clashes with politician Hari Dada (Nana Patekar). As with films of the genre, everyone wants a piece of Dharavi, and Kala is no stranger to it either. But the Dharavi of Ranjith – is not represented from a place of filth, helplessness and impurity, but from a place of strength and perseverance. Unlike Velu Naicker, Karikalan does not only speak Hindi, but usually uses the language to convey the power of his community.
In one of the film’s best stunt scenes, Kaala fends off a power-hungry politician with an umbrella amid torrential Mumbai rains and the flyover of Marine Drive. And in this scene, a wide-angle floor plan tells us all there is to know about the film and the city it attempts to explore. While Kaala stands on the side of the flyover that heads towards the coast of Mumbai, his rivals stand on the other side, amid towering skyscrapers.
In this line, Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaaduwhich comes 35 years after the Mumbai Tamil film godfather don Nayakan, is also a surprising outlier in the genre. The Bombay of VTK is never idealized. The very shores of the Dadar Chowpatty where his friends are washed up on after a murder is where the film chooses to frame Muthu and Paavai’s heart-to-heart about their future in another scene. The city’s crowded matchbox chains aren’t cleaned up, but actually used to push a song forward in innovative ways.
Even though Muthu finds love, life, and wealth in the city, he is silently repelled by the blood in his hands. “My hands, my legs and my body are stained with the blood I took,” he recounts in one scene, bursting out to escape the system and the city. And as the epilogue suggests, it finally does. Only time will tell if this will be the case for future donations to come.