Director: S.P. Jananathan
Cast: Arya, Shaam, Vijay Sethupathi, Karthika
Rating: Two and a half stars
In an egalitarian society where individual egos can be moderated by education and exposure to a wide range of human behaviors, capital punishment can seem very archaic and medi-evil in its exacting. Fighting this malady requires quite the combination of seriousness and ironic poignancy. With Purampokku, director S. P. Jananathan has captured this essence with delicacy and style. The medium of expression has also allowed him to expose the morally deficient arguments presented by the supporters of this inhumane practice, behind which are often lies and subterfuge to support one’s own prejudices and political agenda.
Balusamy (Arya) is a communist with a revolutionary temperament. After witnessing rampant inequality, suffering, and dire food shortages amongst the remote areas of India, he feels obliged to act and change the situation by whatever means necessary. After killing the conductor and changing the direction of a local train carrying food and other valuable commodities, Balu lands in trouble with the police when he attacks the Indian Army as a suicide bomber and gets caught. He’s charged with murder and other crimes, and is then placed on death row.
Meanwhile, we come across Yemalinggam (Vijay Sethupathi,) or just Lingam, a railway kalasi who is a good for nothing and yapping drunkard. Fate can sometimes have a way of choosing the most unlikely of candidates for highly challenging missions. Lingam, by virtue of birth, happens to be the son of a distinguished hangman who now is no more. Heavy politics is in play here: the state wants to keep its prestige and thus appoints Lingam to conduct the hanging, predominantly for PR purposes. While the head officer of the Madras prison, Mecaulay (Shaam) briefs Lingam of the task at hand, another communist caomrade headed by the strong and sublime Kuyili (Karthika Nair) intercepts Lingam and provides him with the other side of Balu’s tale. Lingam personally doesn’t want any role in hanging or dolling out capital punishment, and he is won over by the manifesto forwarded by this commune. Thus now having access to the prison through Mecaulay, he is on a quest to help save Balu, while all the time pretending to prepare for his execution. With arresting rhythms and impeccable pacing, Jananathan and crew have managed to forge a film that produces clarity through conflict.
Although Vijay Sethupathi takes a large portion of the screen presence, this movie really doesn’t have one overarching character. Instead, through intermingling of lives, all characters have been given grave responsibility in this highly divisive topic involving pride, power, prejudice, and vanity. Nonetheless, Vijay Sethupathi’s mix of crybaby despair, unrefined witticism, and an illiterate brand of ‘street-smart’ is certain to make you frown and delight in equal proportions. Arya as the death row prisoner brings in the intensity that this film demands. It is also one of the bests in his career. Shaam shines as the firm police officer who communicates an essay through facial expressions and body language. And strangely, Shaam and Karthika as heads of rival parties with opposing views on the death penalty have a lot in common with their smooth conduct and decision-making intelligence.
With regards to the technical aspects, N.K. Ekambaram’s cinematography has captured some of the most beautiful pictures. The movie also has a lighting that is predominantly overcast, and it helps create the dark undertones of the film. Varshan on the music has contributed songs only when the timing seemed apt, so that the narrative moves forward.
Perhaps due to the simplicity of the politically charged plot, the movie overall can seem to lack a layer or two. But be not so demanding – by presenting the conflict involved in a death sentence verdict and avoiding much obvious didactics, Purampokku will keep you engaged and might make you take up a cause worth fighting for.