Slick, taut thrillers are something of a rarity in Tamil cinema. But even rarer are films that rely completely on certain characters, a logical screenplay sans the formulaic song, dance and fight sequences.
After a string of romantic comedies, director Radhamohan has decided to take a u-turn and indulge in a gripping drama.
The best thing about Silent Movies' latest product, Prakashraj's Tamil film Payanam (Journey) is that it actually works, and even manages to get you to the edge of your seat at the right moments.
Payanam has several neat moments. One of them is right at the beginning, when the principal characters are introduced in a neat array, without room for confusion. The scene is set: a StarJet Flight from Chennai to Delhi gets hijacked in the first 15 minutes, forcing the plane to touch down at the Tirupathi Airport. The terrorists' demands are simple: 100 crores, and the release of uber-terrorist Yusuf Khan from prison.
So you have the following principal passengers, each of whom plays an important role during the perilous journey. There's Sandhya (Sana Khan), a peppy software techie; her sarcastic and unlikely friend Vinod (Rishi); Father Alphonse (M S Bhaskar), always ready to lend a hand to help and with the voice of God in his heart; Colonel Jagadeesh (Thalaivaasal Vijay), a ex-army man eager to find solutions to problems; Subash (Kumaravel) an unemployed atheist who snarks constantly at his seat-mate, astrologer Narayana Shastry (Mano Bala); mimicry artist Gopinath and his friend Afshana; Venkat Ram (Mohan Ram) and his wife, together with fellow-passenger Divya; 'Shining Star' Chandrakanth (Prithviraj), king of masala action movies and his ardent fan, Balaji (Chaams).
On the other end of the spectrum, is the mixture of government bureaucrats who talk riddles in air-conditioned rooms, more concerned about the upcoming elections than the 100 odd passengers stuck on the runway.
Arguing against them, and in favour of swift action is Major Raveendra (Nagarjuna), a commando with the NSG (National Service Guard), who, with his colleague Nawaz Khan (Bharath Reddy) wants to storm the plane and get the passengers out as fast as he can.
Caught in the crossfire, so to speak, is N Viswanath (Prakashraj), IAS, Home Secretary tries to liaison between bureaucrats and action-men, failing and winning by turns. It's a nice touch that he and Major Raveendra have already run into each other before, and joke that they 'never see each other unless there's a crisis.' The last time they met was during the 26/11 tragedy.
Even better is Major Raveendra's casual body-language; these people deal with crises practically every day, and are used to it. They even joke about terrorist-handling on their way to the airport.
The first half moves at a leisurely pace, setting the scene, introducing characters, explaining their motivations and giving the feel of normal people suddenly caught in a fight for their lives. The terrorists are sufficiently menacing and the passengers terrified out of their wits, even as they try to battle everyday concerns like food, water and bathroom breaks.
Meantime, there's a media circus outside the airport, with news channels dishing out whatever they can lay their hands on. The government wrings its hands, trying to negotiate the release of hostages while not giving in to their outrageous demands. Relatives of the passengers wait outside in tears unaware of the exact situation, even as Major Raveendra and Viswanath try to negotiate with the terrorists.
The pace dips in the second half before regaining its footing again. Thankfully, there are no songs to disrupt the proceedings.
Raveendra, after being forced to walk away from the crisis, is suddenly pulled back into the fray, to work out a solution that seems almost impossible in theory.
Nagarjuna, one of Telugu's favourite mass heroes makes an entry in Tamil after a long break, and it's a relief to see someone of his stature attempt a role that's completely devoid of mass-heroics. There are no punch-dialogues and heavy-duty stunt sequences. In fact, he even gets to mock large-than-life movie heroes a good many times, and has obviously had a blast doing it. Even more intriguing is the fact the he doesn't really have a solid presence in the first half; he comes into his own only in the second. In deference to his role, he has delivered a restrained performance. And he certainly looks the part of a trim, fit commando.
Prakashraj is his usual, overwhelming self but thankfully, this is mostly restricted. Every one of the secondary characters, starting from Rishi, to Kumaraval (a Radhamohan favourite), to the mimicry artist has done a neat job.
Special mention must be made of Chaams and Prithviraj, who provide excellent comic relief.
M S Bhaskar, with a surprisingly poignant performance, adds a touch of sentiment.
Telugu's favourite comedian, Bramhanandam, is a hoot.
If anything, it is Sana Khan who doesn't quite gel. Even the terrorists, who are identified only right at the end, have their individual characterizations.
T J Gnanavel's dialogues hit the mark a few times, and you're thankful that it doesn't go overboard with sentiment. Kathir's artwork is excellent, considering how much of the movie has relied on the sets, especially the airport and the plane's interior, where most of the action happens.
K V Guhan's camera-work is neat, sweeping the airport and surroundings when necessary and getting right into the players' personal space, to grab a sense of immediacy. Kishore's editing is adequate; Pravin Mani's background score could have been better.
The real hero of this journey, though, is Radhamohan himself. Attempting a Hollywood-like action-drama is one thing; to do it with the enormous research it requires, even while adding the right local flavour is no mean feat. Despite claims that it's based on the Kandahar hi-jack, Payanam is largely a stand-alone film. The sequences are logical, even while allowing for dashes of humour, soul-searching and feel-good factors; the whole setting has a realistic feel that draws you in.
Movies like these suffer from an overdose of sentiment and emotions; the director draws the line here, and makes sure most of it is shown, not told. Even more than the main story, he excels in drawing miniature portraits of secondary characters.
Yes, Payanam does have minor problems in pacing, but the drama carries you through, right to a nail-biting finish. A must-watch.