Kaithi review: A near-perfect thriller with phenomenal performances, but something still nags me about it

My biggest grouse with Maanagaram (2017)—Kaithi-director Lokesh Kanagaraj’s debut film—is that it makes the idea of ‘new life in a new place’ an entirely male endeavour. It hero-fies the stalker; makes violence-against-women a plot device, only to show us the depths to which the aforementioned stalker will plunge, ironically used to depict his redemption—both are these are distinct problems, surely. But in a film that’s about how the Metropolis treats its guests, women are mostly unwelcome.

Unlike Maanagaram, Lokesh Kanagaraj’s second film Kaithi doesn’t have such grand aim as to reintroduce the Metropolis to its people, and therefore the obvious sausage fest isn’t a representation problem—it’s a natural part of the world-building. So much so that the filmmakers proudly announced that there is no ‘heroine’ in the film—as if the ‘heroine’ is a bane of Tamil cinema much like foreign duets, farmer-issues and punch dialogues. While I don’t personally buy into a world like that, I’m short of reasons to object to it in this film.

***

Kaithi begins with a fantastically written and shot prologue setting up the premise, introducing the characters and laying out the film’s central conflict. This part of the film is so tightly made that you could blink and miss key information—for instance, Hareesh Peradi’s character is introduced in a passing shot. But the prologue is also one of those sequences where it tells us so much, even as its showing so little—for instance, the IG worrying about his legacy, even as he’s bleeding from the ear is so telling!

In fact, this prologue is all the ‘explanation’ we ever get—this is the ‘why’. When the credits roll, after this extended prologue, we involuntarily sit up, expecting something new, something unlike anything we’ve seen before. And Kaithi delivers, for the most part.

The writing of Kaithi is stellar. From tiny conflicts, like the lorry-owner Kamatchi’s passive aggressive navigation in the beginning, to the mounting piles of bodies towards the end, the film escalates tension in tactful measures. The film’s emotional angle also unravels itself in similar measures, almost perfectly in parallel—even if sometimes too perfect for my liking.

Even with so many characters and their expansive lives, the writers give us something to understand each person. George Maryan, who plays Napoleon, takes a detour to wear his uniform when commissioned to duty, despite running into dire straits. The woman stuck in the commissioner’s office pulls out the safety pin that’s folding her dupatta up to attack the enemy—immediately after, her dupatta is used to tie up another. The telephone conversation between Dilli and the watchman at his daughter’s orphanage is a thoughtful moment in an ‘action’ film. On paper, the film must have been a riveting read.

On screen, the film comes alive. Every dialogue, every performance, every stunt sequence is pitch perfect. The foreshadowing is serendipitous. The jokes are few, but most of them land in the right place—the one about how the world has changed in ten years is a delight. The ongoing dig on the law enforcement is a pleasure. Some alcohol-related-college-humour feel juvenile, but hey, maybe that’s what the youth of these days enjoy.

The film works owing in no small part to Karthi’s retrained performance—he’s the ‘hero’, if you will, with the mass scenes, build up, backstory and things. But he doesn’t let that overpower him. He stays true to being Dilli, which I hear is a big deal in and of itself among Tamil stars these days.

Not just Karthi, the casting throughout the film is fitting. George Maryan as Napoleon is the one person you can’t not root for—in the dark grey world. Dheena as Kamatchi brings a fair share of vulnerability and comedy into the film, where everyone else is putting up a brave face. Narain swings between being the desperate cop and the wannabe captain of the ship with great relatability. Kanna Ravi as the undercover rookie makes us take notice.

But the best part of Kaithi is Philomin Raj’s superlative editing. He deftly stitches together the various parallel tracks, gradually building up to the climax. He cleverly even matches the tempo of the restless anxiety of a ten-year-old girl anticipating a guest and the drug-induced paranoid anxiety of the drug lord. Sam CS provides an exceptional company.

***

In spite of all the brilliance I saw on screen, there is something that still nags me. Lokesh Kanagaraj relies so heavily on femininity to bring emotion into his action film. Dilli’s wife, Viji, we’re told is the reason for his reform. Dilli’s daughter, Amudha, we’re told is the reason for his return. His parole officer—Malavika Avinash makes an interesting appearance—we gather is his current nurturer, meant to keep him in his reformed ways. The only man with a girlfriend in the film is destined to die—he dies just as she says ‘I love you’ to him. The men talk to each other about “pondaatti, kudumbam” more than once. In that, women of Kaithi are a tool, like the gun or the lorry. They are there and they’re unavoidable, but they can do nothing by or for themselves.

It is too soon to tell—this is merely his second film—but I’ll bite: Lokesh Kanagaraj is building the quintessential man’s world. While he acknowledges the existence of women and has even developed an eye for their experiences—there is a stark improvement from women of Maanagaram to women of Kaithi—he’s involuntarily erasing their existence by making them the emotional anchor. And this for me, continues to be the gripe with this undeniably skilful filmmaker’s work.

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