Recently we have seen Kollywood produce some very good young directors who have come out with movies that aren’t your typical run-of-the mill entertainment. Last year it was Venkat Prabhu with Chennai 600028 and the Pushkar-Gayathri duo with Oram Po. These movies were not what you would have expected from Tamil cinema, say, 10 years ago. With today’s producers being ready to take risks with such “independent” films sans big stars, we are starting to see some unknown names from Kodambakkam making it big. This year, it is the turn of M. Sasi Kumar, who has provided us with the year’s biggest surprise in the form of Subramaniapuram.

Subramaniapuram begins in the year 2008 with scenes showing the Madurai Central Prison. As a man is released from jail, he is met by someone with a knife and stabbed. We are not shown who both these persons are. The movie then flashbacks to 1980 with Kasi (‘Ganja’ Karuppu) meeting ex-councilor Somu and his brother, Kanugu (Samudhirakkani) requesting help to get his friends Azhagar (Jai) and Paraman (Sasi Kumar) out of jail. They do the needful and both of them are let out. The importance of these initial scenes is that the former scene is always on the back of our minds as we constantly think about who the person released from jail is and who stabbed him and the latter scene does the important job of establishing the dependency that the three friends have on the men with all the power that make us understand their actions later on.

The movie then goes on to show the day-to-day activities of all of them. Somu is not in any kind of authority anymore and the only people who show him any kind of respect anymore are Azhagar, Paraman, Kasi and their friends. Azhagar and Somu’s daughter Thulasi (Swathi) have feelings for each other which Paraman disapproves of regularly. Soon it comes to the time when another important political position has to be handed out by Somu’s party and it goes to a rival politician which infuriates Kanugu, who then uses his goodwill with the three friends to manipulate them into killing the rival so that the route gets cleared for Somu to come back to power. It is not until Azhagar and Paraman are put in jail that they realize they have essentially been tricked in one big political game and how they exact their revenge forms the rest of the story.

The story has shades of all the recent gangster films like Pattiyal and Pudhupettai. However, while his contemporaries have chosen more modern locales with guns as the platform for gangster films, Sasi Kumar elects to take us back in time to the 1980s to tell his violent tale. It proves to be a very wise decision because that is what elevates Subramaniapuram above most other films. The authentic depiction of 80’s Madurai provides the best platform visually for such a movie with every aspect right from the slang to the dressing and especially the village locales being brought on screen vividly and wonderfully.

Another big difference between the aforementioned gangster movies and Subramaniapuram is the realization of the main protagonists. Pattiyal created a pair of gangsters that we neither cared for nor related with, while Pudhupettai chose to completely antagonize its gangster. In choosing three average Joes, Sasi Kumar has made it sure that we get connected with his heroes. The first half is largely responsible for this with scenes showing the friends looking out for each other and immediately coming to one another’s aid in case of trouble. This helps us empathize with them when they decide to take revenge for the wrongs that have been committed against them. A few dialogues also bring this to the forefront where we realize that this violent life was not one of their choosing and instead has been thrust upon them and they have to live with it if they want to survive in this brutal world.

With every other aspect of the movie falling into place perfectly, the biggest burden falls on the main actors to perform their roles well and while there are no screen-stealing performances, they do get the job done effectively. Jai shows that he still has a long way to go to reach the top with a mixed performance. He overdoes the smile in the romantic portions quite a bit and while his face isn’t suited for the role of the tough guy, he certainly produces a competent and believable performance in the second half. Sasi Kumar is as good on the screen as he is off it and comes out with a very strong performance as the guy with the soft heart inside the rough exterior. ‘Ganja’ Karuppu, whose comedy has been becoming stale recently, shows that there is more to him than just funny one-liners. Samudhirakkani’s solid performance plays a major role in realizing a truly detestable and manipulative villain. Swathi is mostly expected to look innocent with a shy smile which she provides adequately. However, a few scenes near the end of the second half show that she can emote quite well actually which is certainly heartening to see in a new heroine. The actors rounding out the group of friends also come up with decent performances and no member of the overall supporting cast is left wanting.

The off-screen crew (which contains quite a number of new names) provides wonderful support to Sasi Kumar. Cinematographer Kadhir with his effective usage of natural lighting for most of the movie is largely responsible for bringing the 1980s world to life before our eyes. Some newcomers in the form of costume designer K. Natarajan and Art Director B. Rembon are also critical in preserving the overall 80s feel of the movie and are certainly ones to watch out for in the future. Debutante music director James Vasanthan delivers one of the best melodies of recent times in Kangal Irandaal… and the picturization on Jai and Swathi with scenes accompanying the lyrics does not disappoint. Kadhal Siluvayil… contains some good lyrics toying with one’s belief in love and plays right after Jai has been imprisoned. The background score is responsible for elevating the effectiveness of the scene during many places.

In this present day where almost every movie that releases contains some well-known Tamil cinema cliché, it is surprising to note that this film almost contains none and is probably the better for it. With its unflinching portrayal of violence, wonderfully realized characters, strong lead performances and great support from the entire crew, Subramaniapuram is the best movie of the year so far and is worth a watch for anyone who likes entertaining and engrossing cinema.