The Suriya-produced whodunnit has great moments of acting, mass scenes and punch dialogues. It takes on social issues head-on, but falls short of becoming an entertainer 

Well before its release Jyotika’s Ponmagal Vandhal, produced by her husband and Tamil actor Suriya and directed by the debutant JJ Fredrick, had triggered a controversy in the south Indian movie industry over its choice of platform for release. The film’s producers had decided to release it on Amazon Prime, an over-the-top (OTT) platform, considering the Covid-19 crisis and the resultant lockdown, which forced theatres to down shutters since the last week of March and there was no likelihood of them reopening any time soon. The issue, obviously, split the Tamil film industry into two camps, for and against mainstream films being released on OTT platforms. 

Expectedly, the controversy had helped the film grab some good pre-publicity while putting a lot of pressure on the producers as its success or failure would influence the future of similar releases in the Tamil industry and beyond. So on May 29, Ponmagal Vandhal became the first mainstream feature film to be premiered via an OTT platform in India.

An old shut case

Produced by 2D Entertainment, which is owned by Suriya (Jyotika is also credited as a producer in titles), Ponmagal Vandhal revolves around a murder mystery that happened in Ooty in 2004. Venba (Jyotika) and her father Petition Pethuraj (K Bhagyaraj) share a difficult past — a fatal incident had turned their life upside down. The past is all tense. A woman, Jothi, who lost her husband as a result of honour killing, used to stay with Pethuraj and his wife. Jothi’s minor daughter was abducted and the events that followed end up in Jothi getting billed as a psycho killer from North India who preyed on children. Now, 15 years later, Pethuraj and Venba are trying to dig out the truth behind the horrifying incidents. Whether they win the legal wrangle by overcoming the powerful and the vested interests forms the crux of the two-hour movie. 

Currently, Venba is a lawyer and she debuts with the old case, which is being reopened on permission granted by the Madras High Court on a petition filed by Pethuraj. In the first half, we get some clarity on why Venba is keen to find the truth about the case — she has a personal connection with it. Her determination to get a clean chit to Jothi even after 15 years is commendable.

The story has references to several of the sexual abuse cases in India in which wrong persons are arrested initially and, later, others are booked by different investigation agencies. Ponmagal Vandhal features a similar scapegoat — a lower-class person. Juxtaposing the character with the fact that two-thirds the total number of prisoners in Indian jails are Dalits, tribals and people from other backward classes, according to Prison Statistics 2018, you get the drift. 
Going social 

Ponmagal Vandhal discusses a bouquet of burning social issues, from honour killing, child abuse and rape to the social stigma women face in a patriarchal society. Ahead of the release of the movie, Jyotika had told the media that she had to do justice to her children’s expectations while acting in a socially committed movie. Indeed, the actress has a strong role here, as a lawyer who takes up a 15-year-old case which was closed by an influential businessman using his clout in the government. She wants the real culprits to be put behind the bars not only for their crimes but also for wrongly punishing an innocent lady for crimes she never committed. 

The film takes its potshots at the judiciary — a strict judge played by Prathap Pothen is seen seeking favours for his daughter’s marriage from the accused, Varadharajan (Thiagarajan). The role of Pethuraj’s partner-in-action played by Vinodhini Vaidyanathan, an actress of impeccable credentials, thanks to her unique roles in films such as Aandavan Kattalai and Game Over, does not do justice to the actress’s calibre and is overshadowed by Jyothika’s performance. Jyotika as Venba is indeed good but has shades of her character in the film Thambi, in which she paired with brother in law Karthi. In Ponmagal Vandhal, Jyotika has given her voice for her character, instead of using Savitha Radhakrishnan, her regular on-screen voice. 

Undoubtedly, this film aims to be an action-packed adrenaline-pumping court-room drama. In fact, if released in theatres, it would have invited claps for Jyothika’s “mass” courtroom scenes and dialogues countering Varadharajan during the trials. Jyothika has also helped bring in a major twist in the plot towards the end. In sum, this is a swashbuckling Jyothika-starrer, and Venba is a role tailor-made for the effervescent Tamil actress who has been donning socially-responsible roles in her second innings, whether it is 36 Vayadhinile or Raatchasi. Clearly, her popularity among the family audience has helped her in Ponmagal Vandhal, which also shares the name with an extremely popular soap opera Tamil serial running on Vijay TV. 

Interestingly enough, as an antidote to the theme of the melodrama television series, Ponmagal Vandhal waxes eloquent of women empowerment and the director’s choice of Jyotika to play the lead role reflects her image as an empowered woman on and off-screen. Evidently, Ponmagal Vandhal is a slap on male chauvinism and dominance and boldly takes up gender issues, even though such attempts are limited by the dynamics of mainstream Tamil cinema. 

Missing in action

Director Fredrick’s script visibly and subtly dissects masculinity to expose its myriad features. R. Parthiban and Thiagarajan — the two major male characters in the movie — are good examples. Parthiban’s Rajarathinam, the high-profile lawyer who appears in Jothi’s case as a special prosecutor, is shown as an efficient lawyer who goes the extra mile to win cases. But Thiagarajan’s character, Varadharajan, is a male chauvinist. Venba’s arguments with Nagarajan where the female character dominates the male in letter and spirit is a rare gesture in mainstream Tamil cinema.

Fredrick’s directorial dexterity keeps the audience hooked to the plot, but the script fails to impress after the interval. The script fails to show the intentions of the judge, who is not seen helping any of the two involved in the case. The script proves to be the Achilles Heel of the film. Even after the mystery is revealed, the film takes its own sweet time to end the course as it’s busy delivering social messages. A tighter and well-crafted script could have dealt with such blemishes and taken the film to a different plane. But Ponmagal Vanthal, in spite of a great theme and sparkling moments of acting brilliance, remains a work in progress and falls short of becoming a complete entertainer and ends up a drag of sorts. Frankly, the genre demands such a wow factor.

On the technical side, Ramji’s cinematography has captured the idyllic beauty of Ooty fairly honestly. The cameraman has displayed his skills in the courtroom sequences as well. Music by 96-fame Govind Vasantha is soothing. The seemingly short length of the movie, two hours, is a reasonable duration for the new-age movies.

Arjun Ramachandran, film critic and blogger

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