Warning: Those of you who haven't seen this movie, but intend to: stay away from reading this until you have (seen the movie). There are PLENTY of spoilers ahead.
There's this particular passage in Mario Puzo's 'The Godfather', where Michael Corleone suddenly stiffens and glares at his brother Sonny who's laughing hard at 'the kid who wants to gun down the police captain, all because he got slapped around in the face a little bit'. Puzo's prose is absolutely rivetting when he describes the change that comes over Michael's persona; a chillness seems to emanate from Michael that fills the entire room.
Justifiably, this scene is not present in Coppolla's own version; nor was it filmed by Mani Ratnam or RGV in their own versions of this masterpiece (I am not even looking at stupid remakes like 'Aatank hi Aatank', 'Abhimanyu' and others of their ilk). Trust cocky Selvaraghavan to take a stab!
As a gang-member repeatedly hurls abuses against Kumar's (enacted magnificently by Dhanush) dead mother, the hitherto meek and obedient Kumar suddenly snarls back: Shut up, #$#@ or else! Of course, the scene falls flat on its feet (as a 'Godfather' tribute, else it is rather decent); Dhanush, not a Pacino, Kamal or a Mohanlal on even his best day, has neither the looks nor the panache to carry off such a scene.
What does Selvaraghavan do now? Well, try again, of course! This time, he resorts to the genius of Yuvan Shankar Raja to provide a lilting bgm as he prises out a nearly perfect scene - as perfect as they can get in commerical Indian cinema, I'd say. As a political hoodlum swings his arm to finish off a battered, staggering and dead-on-his-feet 'Kokki' Kumar, the director - in an astonishing display of film-making savvy - has his gawky protagonist blindly hit out with every iota of strength left in his body. The hoodlum drops down dead, and the 100-odd mob stands by in a shocked silence as a clearly exhausted-but-indomitable Kumar yells out like a maniac for more punishment. Combined with Yuvan's background-score, the scene underlines yet again what tremendous talent this brother-duo possess.
Now, there are a whole lot of people who avoid Selvaraghavan movies, claiming that he makes utterly crass movies about psychopaths. Well, their claims are partly true - his protagonists do exhibit signs of mental illness. But his movies are never crass; he just makes movies on crass people. And that, my friends, is a huge difference. With 'Pudhupettai', Selvaraghavan reaffirms that 'Kathal Kondein' and '7G Rainbow Colony' were no mere flashes in the pan.
'Pudhupettai' tells the tale of 'Kokki' Kumar, who narrates the story of his life from an imaginatively shaded prison cell (was the dual coloring supposed to indicate symptoms of multiple-personality disorder in Kumar? I am not sure, but the thought certainly crossed my mind). Kumar ends up in a life of crime upon his sheltered life being thrown into shambles when his father murders his mother in a murderous fit of rage. The meteoric rise of Kumar from the baby of the gang to a sudden adult is depicted mostly through a series of random scenes - Kumar eating, Kumar having sex with the prostitute (Sneha, who puts in a performance that can be best described as dignified), Kumar surviving an attack by the skin of his neck etc. The pre-interval portion of the movie is a treat to watch.
Post-interval, Selvaraghan resorts to idiosyncratic techniques which are fascinating to watch but do end up spoiling the tempo hitherto established. Moreover, much like in Mahesh Manjrekar's Vaastav, this part of the movie deals with a Kumar drunk on power (as they say, there is no better aphrodisiac than power), and the gradual unravelling of his empire. Unfortunately, Dhanush tends to go overboard in more than one scene, and his gravelling voice is irritating in several sequences. There is also at least one song more than what would have been ideal, and the best song of the album has not been picturized at all. The politics-gangsta' nexus is all very nicely filmed, but evokes strong feelings of deja-vu (RGV's 'Satya', for instance). However, there was an AWESOME scene with Dhanush and Sonia Agarwal (whose sole purpose in the movie was this scene, IMO!), where she almost snidely tells Dhanush that Sneha's child may not quite be his; Dhanush's heartbroken expression and the subtle hardening of his eyes speaks volumes (more than his voice ever could).
Now, for the performances: its the gawky, skeletal Dhanush all the way. Overcoming his looks, the young actor puts in tremendous effort and delivers a powerhouse performance. The only scenes that jar are the ones in which he hams, and thankfully Selvaraghavan does a fine job of reining his brother in most of the time. Sneha does another one of her trademark roles (the beautiful, dignified-in-the-face-of-suffering Indian nari), and she does pack in a lot of screen-presence, one has to admit. Most of the new actors do well. Sonia Agarwal has nothing much to do, except for that great scene.
Selvaraghavan is a tremendous talent, and he will only improve (the guy is just 3 movies old!) as time goes by. One wishes, though, that he stops picturizing those inane dance-numbers even when they clearly do not fit in to the scheme of things. Also, I strongly felt that in 'Puthupettai' the erotic song with Sonia was put in only to underline the fact that he is not a director to shy away from depicting sexuality on screen. However, in his previous outings (namely 'Kaathal Kondein' and '7G Rainbow Colony', though to a lesser extent), the scenes were integrated into the script, whereas here it is NOT. The climax, though perhaps as close to real-life as one can get, is a tremendous letdown (this was the case in his previous movie as well).
Verdict: A firm thumbs up (not for the faint-hearted; there's plenty of sex, violence and abuse).