I couldn't catch the director, Arun Matheswaran's Rocky in the cinemas. The way people were raving about the film only got me more determined to see his second venture Saani Kaayidham on Prime Video at the earliest. I remember hearing and reading a lot about Rocky's unapologetically, graphically violent screenplay. I am all for violence. After all, I am a great fan of Quentin Tarantino. However, violence, without context or good writing can become porn. Something similar to what happened in Jai Bhim. With unclear expectations and precarious thoughts, I started watching Saani Kaayidham.
Saani Kaayidham (loosely translated, it means Rough Paper), is the tale of Ponni (Keerthy Suresh) and her quest for justice after her family is ruthlessly destroyed. A classic tale of revenge - a concept that has been beaten to death in almost 100 years of Indian cinema. What makes this film different from a gazillion other run-of-the-mill stories is the way the director Arun Matheswaran dives right into it without wasting too much time in setting up the backstories of the characters. Within the first half an hour of the film, we get to see why and how Ponni becomes a blood-thirsty witch.
I loved the way how two different plot points come in the way of each other. There is this main story where Ponni wants to take revenge against the people who destroyed her family. There is another plot point where there is a man caught in a family feud. One of the yes-men to the owner of the rice mill (where Ponni's husband works as well) gets into a property dispute with his own sibling. I liked how this little family dispute comes in the way of the revenge spree that Ponni and Sangaiya embark on after the fateful escape of the perpetrators.
Arun Matheswaran is a wonderful director. I love the way he framed his characters. Whether it is the frame-within-a-frame style that reminded me a lot of Viswaroopam or the wide-angled shots where there is just one character either in the centre of the frame or at the corner, he is just auteur material. The expansive wide angles with just one character in the frame and nothing else (most often there is nothing else, just the sand or an odd tree at another corner of the frame) felt like he wanted to show how you are all that you have when you go down the path of revenge. There is this beautiful touch in one of the torture/murder scenes where the song "Malarndhum Malaraatha" plays on a distant radio. It is a wonderful touch given the fact that Ponni's daughter died in the film earlier on and she is avenging her death.
While using narration has been very common in violent films, Arun decides to show the back story and the bond between Sangaiyah (Selvaraghavan is absolutely amazing) and Ponni. The distance between Ponni and Sangaiyah is established early on in a scene where a young Sangaiyah follows his stepmother and step-sister from a distance and stops after a while. What better way to convey the emotional distance between the step-siblings than this? The distance continues even after Sangaiyah grows older as most of the interactions between Sangaiyah and Ponni are through her daughter. Even then, at the rare moments that the both of them appear in the same frame they are mostly at the two ends. This was beautiful. I also liked the novelty in each of the murders that happened. There was a psychopathic touch to the murders when Ponni and Sangaiyah use the same technique of killing their wrong-doers.
For all these directing flourishes, the writing of the film is not very consistent. The characters fleshed out are very single-dimensional and are not layered. There are multiple villains (though one of them is an accidental villain), but they don't have much weight. The film is almost a very rooted version of the Quentin Tarantino classic Kill Bill franchise, but the difference between that and Saani Kaayidham is in the way the revenge happens here. There is no sense of danger in the pursuit of revenge. It feels too easy for them - They literally check the boxes of the list that they make. This makes the vengeance distant and unaffecting. There are certain scenes in slow motion that are wannabe artsy but don't really add much to the screenplay. They are just pretty shots with no impetus or purpose.
But what the film lacks in writing is more than compensated by the wonderful camerawork by Yamini Yagnamurthy is fantastic. It is handheld for the most part and gives a documentary-like texture to the film which works. The constant movement in the frame reflects the restlessness in the minds of the leads - Sangaiyah and Ponni. The music beautifully complements the mood of the film too. Most often it is the unusually eerie moan like stretches from the violin. It is only close to the climax that we hear the more conventional instruments.
On the performance front, each of the actors performs really well. My favourite was Keerthy Suresh who once again proved her acting mettle after a long gap since Mahanati. I hope that she continues to choose such diverse stories which bring out the actor in her more. I enjoyed watching Selvaraghavan in shorts and making amazing small talk with the kids and yet turn a monster while murdering people.
To sum up, Saani Kaayidham is an indulgent, overtly bloody revenge drama which could have been better if the writing was as solid as the direction was.