Sethupathy (Tamil) — A masala cop film that breaks conventions

When I learned about Sethupathy, my initial impression from the posters and initial buzz is to expect a clichéd cop movie like Singam or Samy, even Vijay Sethupathy’s look in the film with his mustache didn’t give me any confidence to expect anything better. I was pleasantly surprised with the overall experience. That is not to say it doesn’t have fiery monologues or masala fight sequences, it does, even with all the usual cop masala flick nonsense, it stands above the fray with its engaging screenplay and nuanced performances from all its actors.

Instead of focusing on the atrocities or vagaries of the police system like the recent Visaranai, Sethupathy zooms in and focuses on an individual police officer. The best thing the film does is avoid tired clichés, it doesn’t depict him as an angry young man fighting against the system, or even as a tired middle aged police officer who accepted the way things are, or even as a sincere police officer who is cunning and learned to work within the system. The film circumvents all these and portrays him as a sincere police officer who is doing his job to the best of his abilities. Is he honest? Of course, he is not on the ‘take’, he is not a IPS topper or anything, he is a hard working police officer who came up through the ranks by doing good police work, working investigations diligently, taking care of his team, working with superiors and treating criminals with a stern but fair hand. SU Arunkumar, the newbie director has taken his time to establish these qualities through a series of vignettes without boring us, Vijay Sethupathy has taken to ‘method acting’ and has totally immersed himself in the character. Sethupathy doesn’t achieve results or gain acceptance by taking shortcuts or breaking rules, but by ‘working the case’, if anything most of the 1st half and a period in the 2nd half can be classified as an investigative thriller, viewers of shows like CSI or Sherlock might be very familiar with this type of screenplay, of course Kamal’s Vettaiyadu Vilayadu really amazed us with it, still it’s very heartening to see it in Tamil Cinema. For those of you who are thinking it’s a boring police procedural, Sethupathy, being true to its mass image, doesn’t spare the fisticuffs or beating up the baddies in a dramatic fashion. Some of the movie, especially the confrontation between the villain and hero and the subsequent drama surrounding the suspension and reprisal reminds us of ‘Kshatriyan (1990 Vijayakanth starrer)’ .

I’ve heard some people say the scuffle between the villain and the hero could’ve been more intense, but I think the underhanded way the film deals with it is apt because we have seen the other type of handling in many films, there’s no need to rehash the same old bits. In fact, Sethupathy doesn’t set out to destroy the criminal empire of the villain (like some other films), rather he handles a case which happens to involve the villain and he deals with it appropriately and handles the complications that arise during his investigation. In fact, we can see that he is an aberration in the system and many of his peers describe him as a psycho or unstable, all because he doesn’t follow their ‘rules’, take bribes and just “phone it in”, they can’t understand an officer who is in line for the next big promotion (breaking the barrier from an enlisted cop to the gazetted rank) behaving as Sethupathy, because, gasp, he is interested in real police work!

Sethupathy also weaves family drama into the movie effortlessly, to start with Sethupathy is not an eligible bachelor who runs around trees singing duets, or participate in the so called group dance orgies (I just don’t understand how an intimate, romantic song can have a bunch of dancers, no disrespect to their dancing skills, but come on!), rather he is married with children, and compartmentalizes his work and life brilliantly and I haven’t seen such mature portrayal in a long time in Tamil films. The closest comparison I could think of Nana Patekar’s character in ‘Ab tak chappan’ (which is another masterpiece) and even the intimate scenes between the protagonist and his wife are handled with nuance, we never get to learn their backstory, we sense there’s some tension between wife’s family and Sethupathy, the story/screenplay provides hints and leaves the rest to our imagination and its laudable.

It’s an excellent treatise on how cop movies or screenplays could be. More than a cop movie it’s an excellent family drama and a character study. That said, the last scene could have been avoided, it stands out as a blemish in an otherwise brilliant film. Enjoy Sethupathy, a film that stands tall in the subgenre, that is tamil cop masala movies.

Written On Feb 25, 2016

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Bhaskar Gandavabi

Bhaskar Gandavabi

I love to build software and write.

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