It centres round Virumaandi, his carefree attitude and acts of bravado earning him the nickname of Sandiyar. Kothala Thevar a local bigwig, with an eye on Virumaandi’s land, which has plenty of water, schemes to get his hands on it. Even going to the extent of promising the hand of his neice Annalakshmi to Virumaandi, knowing Virumaandi’s glad eye for her. Kothala Thevar uses the unsuspecting Virumaandi as a pawn in his running feud against a rival Nallamanaicker. Taking advantage of all the chaos is inspector Peykkaman, fanning it further, changing colours faster than a chameleon. In the violence and bloodshed that follows, many innocent lives are lost. Hauled up for the murders, Kothala Thevar gets away with life imprisonment, while Virumaandi finds himself sentenced to death. Most of the story unfolds in flashback, as told by the two convicted men to Angela, an opponent of capital punishment, who comes to the prison to do research work on the subject.
It is a daring experiment by Kamal Haasan as a director-producer, touching new heights, with the promise of taking Tamil cinema to a more enviable level. The back and forth narration with its double-narrative style, to depict Kothala Thevar’s version (half-truths) and Virumaandi’s story (the whole truth) that fills in the gaps, is a unique style rarely seen in Indian Cinema. Kamal’s admiration for Kurosawa’s Rashomon is evident here. The nativity and local flavour is maintained throughout, in the dialect and the scenes and characters.
But then, the dialect and the double narrative style may well leave a section of the audience a little confused. Further, the film has its lagging moments and needs some trimming. Like some of the earlier acts of bravado of Virumaandi, like the bee-hive scene, the use of graphics is very obvious and poor here. The jail-outbreak too is a bit drawn-out. The closing scene of Angela and Virumaandi on TV ,and the discussion on capital punishment, seems hypocritical and a hogwash, considering the violent acts that went before. Ironical, that the director who takes up issue against the state’s ultimate violence against a convicted person, has himself resorted to extreme violence to lead to his point! If violence is a necessary ingredient of the story-(it is here)- he would have done better to have left issues out!
Kamal Haasan has yet again given a splendid performance as Virumaandi, the show-off, with his reckless attitude, his alcoholism and bravado, the humour and the pathos. The actor goes through the various moods and nuances with effortless ease. The scene-stealer is undoubtedly Pasupathi ('Dhool'), excellent as Kothala Thevar, unscrupulous and scheming, the actor giving a new definition to villainy. A fascinating performance, easily the best in the film.
Shanmugharajan, not a familiar face to viewers, is convincing and credible as Peykkaman, a cop with no abiding loyalty, whose sole aim is survival. Napoleon is dignified as Nallamanaicker. Rohini makes a come-back as Angela, though her character gets more footage than it warrants. Poor Nasser has been short-changed, hardly getting a real good scene for himself.
Finally, there is Abhirami in a role of a life-time. Her expressions are a delight to watch, the actress bringing to life the character of Annalakshmi, intelligent, bold and decisive, probably the only sane and sensible character amidst all the chaos. Surely a turning point for the actress.
To be commended are the authentic-looking sets (M Prabhakaran) where most of the story takes place. Ilaiyaraja’s music fits in well with the narration, the songs situational. Debutant cinematographer Keshav Prakash (apprenticed with Ravi K Chandran) shows promise, his imaginative angles and lighting giving a wide-canvas look to the scenes shot within confines of a set. Well-choreographed and realistic are the fights and action scenes (Vikram Dharma). In fact a bit too realistic for the faint-hearted, with its violence and gore, sprouting blood, slashed necks, maimed bodies and pierced backs!
Finally, Sandiyar or Virumaandi, what’s in a name! It would have been as rivetting in its violence with one title or the other! But one has to agree that the film yet again reveals Kamal Haasan’s undying passion for cinema, his desire and boldness to experiment, irrespective of commercial viability.