Good thrillers seem to be a hard-to-find commodity these days. In 2010 alone, we have had quite a good number of masala movies (Singam, Sura, Asal), a few decent romances (VTV, Odippolama), and a sprinkling of comedies (Thamizh Padam, Goa, Kola Kolaya Mundhirika), but the thriller has been largely ignored. This makes it all the more worthwhile when a movie like Katradhu Kalavu comes along. While it has a plot that has been beaten to death, the taut screenplay, handy camerawork from Nirav Shah, and crisp editing keep things moving at a nice pace, and it represents something of an old wine in a new bottle that is worth drinking.

The film opens with the marriage of con-couple Krishna (Krishna) and Krishnaveni (Vijayalakshmi) in Rameswaram. Their new-found happiness does not last long, however, as trouble comes calling in the form of policeman Stanley (Kalyan) who wants both of them dead. Fearing their lives the couple initially find shelter in the home of flower-vendor Ramanathan (Sampath), who as it turns out is the inspector to whom their case was initially handed out to. Ramanathan takes matters into his own hands and begins interrogating the convicted pair to bring them to justice, even as Stanley orders him to hand them over in return for a large payday.

One of the oldest cinematic techniques used to make thrillers work is moving back-and-forth between the present and the past. Though this technique has been grossly overused many-a-time, Kattradhu Kalavu represents a fine example of how effective it can be when employed properly. The present in question follows Ramanthan’s attempts to coerce the truth out of the couple as to why Stanley wants them dead and what they stole that the latter never wants to be found. The past presents Krishna’s story as he is cheated by banker Ramakrishnan (Santhana Barathi) who steals the former’s idea to land himself a significantly expensive banking contract. Gutted, Krishna decides to follow Ramakrishnan’s every move eventually meeting Krishnaveni in the process. They both see something of benefit in the other. Veni’s glamour could be a potent tool to Krishna in his attempt to get back at Ramakrishnan, while the latter’s slick intelligence could lead the former to her dream of being an air-hostess. And when they realize the potential in their combination after Ramakrishnan has been taken care of, they decide to make hay while the sun shines and pull off a number of elaborate cons, the last of which lands them into their present precarious situation.

As far as the movie’s problems go, the one that stands out most is with the underlying premise. While Krishna and Veni’s meeting of chance has been handled well-enough and the logic behind them coming together also makes sense, the problem begins when they start their con-game. It begs to question as to how someone like Krishna can mastermind some of the more sophisticated cons – such as their final act – the pair is shown to pull off. However, once you get past that, the cons themselves are intelligently scripted and involve some neat tricks, which make viewing them interesting. Another problem is that we never know who we should be rooting for. Though the pair’s reformation is understandable, some of their prior acts don’t exactly lend themselves well to a Tamil cinema hero-heroine pair. Nearly every character has a grey side and I ultimately found myself on the side of Ramanthan, which should say a lot about how the movie unfolds. And though the song sequences highlight Krishna’s good dancing skills, they made me wonder when we are going to see more Tamil movies that do away with them altogether and instead focus on only providing thrills. The only positive aspect of the songs is they highlighted that the director had his thinking cap on because after almost all of them, Sampath would provide a witty comment which definitely produced a wry smile or two out of me.

Krishna follows Alibaba with another thriller where he is on the wrong side of the law. Though he is not a strong actor to begin with, his large eyes work to his advantage in helping him effectively show fear and rage. Vijayalakshmi’s change of image from girl-next-door to glam-doll does not work out as well as she would’ve wanted. The new image does not sit well with her as she is not exactly known for her curvaceous figure, and her acting also takes a hit because of it, making for an underwhelming outing for the actress. ‘Ganja’ Karuppu makes an appearance as the person who is convicted for the central pair’s crimes, and it is definitely one of the comedian’s strong films in recent memory. Kalyan is effective as the story’s antagonist.

Sampath’s casting, along with the cinematographer and editor, is one of the film’s biggest strengths. The actor is already having a strong year as a result of his portrayal of a gay in Goa coupled with another generic role in Asal, and has added to it with another credible performance. The character itself is suitably written as it takes advantage of Sampath’s is-he-good-or-is-he-bad image and toys with the viewers to think about what Ramanthan will do with the convicted pair. The importance of Nirav Shah and the editor Kasi Viswanathan is highlighted in the superb opening sequence which is the one that raises the most tension.

Though Katradhu Kalavu has its share of problems, it adds to what has been a strong few weeks for Tamil cinema. With the removal of a few song sequences (like Mumaith Khan’s item number) and a better characterization of the lead pair, it actually would have made a worthy sophomore effort for Krishna following his debut with Alibaba. As it stands, the movie is definitely a profitable way to spend some time, though one wonders how much of an audience it will get with Raavanan slated to release in a few weeks.