Vetala Panchavimshati, the collection of 25 stories narrated to King Vikramaditya by the zombie? or should I say demon? hmm.. the Vampire Vetal (Betal) rank behind The Mahabharatha as my second favorite literary accomplishment of ancient India. King Vikramaditya is tasked with retrieving Betal from the edge of a cemetery with the rule being if the noble King utters but a word, the body of Betal will fly back to the tree at the edge of the cemetery with the King having to make the journey back to said edge to recover him again.
Why would The King say anything you ask? Well, Betal narrates a story each time the king repossesses him and makes the walk back out of the cemetery. Each story ends with a moral conundrum and if King Vikramaditya does not choose to solve said conundrum whilst knowing how to, his head is set to explode into a million pieces. What a fantastic conceit on the backdrop of which 25 uniquely engaging stories were constructed back in the day. After director Upendra used this conceit and made the 26th story with his classic film Upendra, the directing duo of Pushkar-Gayatri narrate a neo-noir pseudo 27th story with Vikram Vedha.
Vikram Vedha follows encounter specialist Vikram (R. Madhavan) embroiled in Operation Hammer which has been designed to capture or kill the legendary gangster, who once sliced a man’s head in half with a sickle, Vedha (Vijay Sethupati) and his crew. Vikram’s contracted world view is put to the test as his encounters with Vedha open his mind to varying takes on morality.
If there is one thing I always scream out for when I watch movies, it is for characters to have character. I apply my own version of the Beckdale test as I ask myself “Can I describe a character in 5 sentences or more?” More often than not, this test gives me resounding answers as to how well or how poorly characters are etched in narratives. Even though the character work might require a few tweaks, this film possesses two of the most evenly matched characters I’ve seen in cinema since 95’s Heat or 08’s The Dark Knight.
Before Vijay Sethupati’s Vedha makes his almost Kevin Spacey from Seven-esque entrance into the picture, Madhavan’s Vikram and his multiple shades as a character have been established deftly. While we are shown the man as only a knight in shining armor, the film never forgets to plant a seed of doubt in the audience’s mind about Vikram’s frailties. As Rorschach from the seminal Watchmen comes to realise, a monochromatic view of the world is near impossible to justify.
Vedha helps Vikram realise this by means of three stories; each story/flashback resulting in more revelations about the near-mythical Vedha which results in Vikram exploring his own psyche and moral code. A setup so compelling needs actors of equal if not higher magnitude to pump life into it. Vijay Sethupati’s new salt-and-pepper look combined with his heavier frame help him match Madhavan’s physicality. Vedha’s character is decidedly the more interesting of the two and Sethupati does steal the film but without Madhavan playing a more than adequate foil to his eccentricities, the film would have fallen flat.
While the film worships many subtleties in terms of plot and character (which is a welcome change), it forgets to adequately explain Vikram’s motivations to listen to Vedha’s many tales. To its credit, the film has a well-rounded female cast with characters who have shades of their own. These ladies mark their territory with their limited screen time. While there are a few plot threads which would be more intriguing if explored to a higher degree, the film is already dealing with quite an intricate plot of its own through its runtime.
I don’t know how to word this intelligently every time but a specialist sharp shooting team who have storm trooper aim is just annoying in any film, let alone a good one.
While the primary theme and a romance track are catchy and vibrant, the score is overpowering. Not as bad as Baahubali’s score but not too many steps behind. But in the vein of Baahubali, the film does have a series of exceptional shots; shots and costumes that convey the mental state of the characters that inhabit them. The ominous but tender nature of the story being told is expertly conveyed by the crisp editing and shot design.
While taking a step back from the initial wave of excitement the film creates might dim a few of its merits, these dings do not discount the film being a perfect mixture of the raw materials that create a crowd pleaser and thinking man’s detective movie. It warmed my heart when I read that the filmmakers worked on scripting this idea for over 2 years before being happy with the results. Their effort is laid bare for all to see and as much as I like to nitpick, I would always recommend a film like this to a fellow human.