Vellai Pookal review: A good enough mystery for Sunday home video.

Rudhran has a (not-so) unique investigation technique. He stands in the crime scene, plays the possibilities back in his mind and deducts/detects the crime. When the answer doesn’t fall into his lap, he interrogates suspects in his imagination too. In Vellai Pookal (2019), this is treated somewhat like a cut-away dream sequence — bright lights, minimal backdrop, characters speaking strangely etc.

In one of these scenes, there is a shot of some Agatha Christie novels. It appears so much in passing that, when I went back to find the scene for fact-checking purposes, I had to rewind and forward several times to catch that moment. Yet, when I watched Vellai Pookal the first time, this passing shot recalibrated my expectations, and made me sink deeper into the film’s universe.

From Singam 3 and Saamy 2 at one end to Dhuruvangal Padhinaaru and 8 Thottakkal on the other — I’d consider myself well-acquainted with what passes for police procedurals in Tamil cinema today. If you’ve seen enough of them you’ll realise that there’s a value system among the present crop of crime thriller writers — evil villains, political backing, corporate-funding, violence against women, and most of all unending moralising. Tamil film cops want to be judge, jury and executioner.

So, when I begin watching any cop movie today, I expect the hero to play god in the end. I expect all his vulnerabilities to turn into fuel for greater violence. In fact, most of all, I expect gory death of the perpetrator at the hands of the cop hero.

Vellai Pookal is not that kind of film, it never pretends to be. The hero of the film is a police officer chasing retirement — Vivek shines as Rudhran. He never overplays the body language of a cop, his mannerisms never chest-thumping. Yet, when he pins down a weapon-wielding man, he’s believable. His sidekick is another retired man, Charle plays a supportive father adequately. Both of them move to an unfamiliar milieu in love for their children. Their vulnerabilities are somewhat adorable and their lives relatable.

So, when the crimes begin, it seems rather natural that Rudhran would want to investigate. We are drawn into that investigation from a safe distance, in an Agatha Christie-esque way. Several characters dot the milieu, doing suspicious things, none of them exactly fear-inducing. Until the crime comes into one’s own home, there is no sense of tension — not that I’m complaining. In fact, for much of the first half, Vellai Pookal is more domestic drama than crime thriller. And this tone continues, right till the end, even as it turns into a personal crisis. In fact, in the last scene of Vellai Pookal, when Rudhram tells the murderer, “Naan irukken, naan paathukkaren” (Trust me, let me help you), the film retains its warmth for a story so gloomy.

Yet, the film gives in rather easily to the temptations of sexist jokes and racist proclamations. Bharathidasan, the sidekick plated by Charle, is a creep. The film is peppered with adoring taunts about his ‘weakness’ for women. They keep bringing up Sunny Leone like uttering of the name itself is a singularly power-packed bullet of all the world’s jokes. At one point, an African-American man is arrested without evidence and the media raises issues of racial profiling. Rudhran explains it to the audience this: “Namma oorla jaadhi per solli thappichukkara madhiri, inge race” (like people escape in the name of caste in our country, it is race here). No one raises an objection.

In that sense, even if Vellai Pookal is beautiful dandelion in gaudy commonplace red rose-filled landscape of Tamil police procedurals, I can’t tell that the allergies are worth it. I might have liked to watch Rudhran solve more cases. Vellai Pookal could have opened doors to the return of some plain old investigative storytelling — I think of Andha Naal in nostalgia. But that requires a deeper insight into social inequalities, an intersectional outlook, and a stronger inclination towards social justice that Vivel Elangovan has failed to demonstrate in this film.

But I do hope the bug catches on.