Sixty-two years of Kamal Haasan and are there any surprises left? As great an actor, scriptwriter and filmmaker as he is, consider the acting idioms, like an emotion, a voice modulation or an expression, a smile, a turn of the head; these are things the Tamil audience know like the back of their hand. How do you do fan-service for a star whose every tick, every squint and every emotion we’ve encountered already? This could be from that film? But maybe it is not. He’s done it all to an extent that for over 20 years now, when his films have become harder to come by, it’s all referential and reverential.
One such moment comes early in Lokesh Kanagaraj’s (a self-confessed fanboy) Vikram when masked men interrogate Haasan’s character (Kamal Haasan worked in a James Bond-esque Vikram in 1986). The man pulls at his chin, or maybe his lips and Kamal gives out an extended screechy moan. It harks back to—wait for it—a Kamal from an entirely different genre: comedy. He makes the exact sound of pain that he does as Raju when a henchman pulls at his real moustache believing it to be fake and assuming the man to be Madan in Michael Madana Kama Rajan (1990).
That’s why Lokesh Kanagaraj does not try to include tributes. They just happen. This is still Lokesh’s film, which celebrates its most experienced star while falling squarely in the filmmaker’s universe of warring criminals, the government and the police force all latched in a hasp, with some working together and some against each other. The nexus of crime and law and order framework is something Lokesh constantly meddles with. Maanagaram (2017) had two common men colliding head on in a tussle between big- as well as small-time gangsters, with a policeman mediating. Kaithi (2019) is a road movie with a prisoner joining hands with a narcotics bureau officer to safely ship poisoned seniors of the police force to safeguard a ton of drugs that the officer’s team seized. Master (2021) is the story of a villain who uses juvenile correctional facility as a sling shot to commit and cover his crimes. Vikram is a sequel to Kaithi (Stephen Raj, the reference to Vetri Vizha’s (1989) Kamal shows up again as do others) and continues and sets up its intricate plot in the same fashion.
All Lokesh staples show up in Vikram. Right off the bat, there is a call-back to 90s Tamil songs—this time to Mansoor Ali Khan (his first-choice for lead for Kaithi) dancing to Vathikuchi from Asuran (1995), in which the actor reprised his role from Captain Prabhakaran (1991), maybe a sly nudge that this film too follows the tradition of shared universe. There are children at the centre. Maanagaram, Kaithi and Master all had children driving a major plot point and there is a child—a baby, really—limiting the actions of the characters here. A chant repeated three times in the baby’s ear is the most subtle Kamal Easter egg I’ve ever witnessed. It’s a tiny writing marvel.
The film hardly sees daylight, even the few sequences that don’t occur in the night are lit like twilight, Girish Gangadharan’s cinematography sublime in its rendition of eventide vistas. The beams from vehicles anchor chase sequences and Anbariv’s action choreography works best when it is a play of lights rather than a play of guns. The filmmaking is storyboard, a blaze of glory reserved for each of the principal actors—Kamal, Fahadh Faasil and Vijay Sethupathi—with Fahadh grabbing the meatiest part. For large portions of the first half, we hardly see Kamal’s character, he remains what the trailers and the music promised – a ghost. And Fahadh is ever ready to steal the film.
The fanboy touches don’t bog him down and Kamal submits himself completely to the world of a filmmaker after a long time. But some of Lokesh’s ghosts haunt him here too. The plot of seized drugs, missing raw materials, a fridged woman, woman indulging in hand to fork combats, a dead son, a kid with a disorder and and chasing ghosts make for too tangled a knot to not only follow but also untie gracefully. They all work terribly well in isolation. It’s done with style and panache, but the grace goes for a toss about well before three-quarters into the film.
Fahadh is electric as Amar, getting maximum screen time as the outsider pulled into this design. His character undergoes a transformation after taking the course of 1986’s Vikram. Fittingly, he is introduced in silence and without celebration unlike the other two stars. Vijay Sethupathi’s superpower releasing magic bites reminds one of Clarissa Mao in the The Expanse, the only outlandish choice for someone like Lokesh, who is otherwise grounded in 1980s and '90s homegrown actioners. This film is an old man showing he’s still got it and can work under the vision of a young filmmaker with lofty accomplishments so far. The shared universe is coming—no doubt about that—but can the filmmaker mix it up with films without star wattage? And that’s a question not just for Lokesh Kanagaraj.
Aditya Shrikrishna is a Chennai-based critic.