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Ponmagal Vandhal Review: A Strong Premise Morphs Into Another Lecture

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Cast: Jyothika, Parthiepan, Prathap Pothen, Bhagyaraj, Pandiarajan, Thiagarajan, Vinodhini Vaidyanathan

Director: JJ Fredrick

It is another Friday but not one from the darkness of a theatre. After dousing a few fires, Ponmagal Vandhal finally released on Amazon Prime, the first big OTT release for Tamil cinema, big in terms of star value and production.

Produced by Surya and Jyothika’s 2D Entertainment and starring the latter, Ponmagal Vandhal is directed by JJ Fredrick. It might not be the usual Friday in terms of business but in terms of quality, this Friday feels like par for the course in Tamil cinema.

Ponmagal Vandhal, also written by JJ Fredrick, is another film that stands with a stick pointed towards a black board full of bullet point items. It is another lecture in the guise of cinema with the usual tropes ticked off in the checklist.

Ponmagal Vandhal is set in Ooty and the surrounding areas, where Venba (Jyothika) lives with her father Petition Pethuraj (K Bhagyaraj), another version of Ambi from Anniyan, a PIL-happy old man. Venba gets a delayed introduction – we don’t know who she is or what she does – as Fredrick only gives us scenes of her looking lost in thoughts, a hint of trauma on her face.

The courtroom drama is packed with who’s who of Tamil cinema of a particular era. Along with Jyothika are Parthiepan the prosecutor, Prathap Pothen playing the judge (sings En Iniya Pon Nilave to jog our memory), her father played by Bhagyaraj (has the Raghu thatha scene recreated for our revision), Pandiarajan in an inconsequential role as the judge’s former classmate, now subordinate, and with them are Thiagarajan as the wealthy and influential Varadharajan, and Vinodhini Vaidyanathan.

The film begins with some comic undertones which establishes where Fredrick’s politics is at but also adds flab to a film that loses its way quickly. Varadharajan’s casteist nature is unambiguously shown and there is also a caste violence angle to the larger backstory.

Fredrick uses the vast, frigid expanse of the Ghats to build the mood of a thriller but fails to create the atmosphere he is going for. His shots do not linger, there isn’t a cinematic language to make us feel invested in what is happening. There are too many quick cuts and expositions to lend any sort of rhythm to the proceedings, the film always rushing to the warmer interiors of a courtroom.

At one point, as Venba goes on and on about how certain events would have transpired, Rajarathinam (Parthiban) objects and asks what has this got to do with the case and where is the evidence? That is a question we would love to ask of Fredrick. The child abuse story, a woman implicated and castigated as a “vada naatu (North Indian) psycho”, the Sakthi Jyothi whom Venba is defending, the whole diatribe on believing women is all well-intentioned but where is your cinema?

Of course, along with shots of weeping girls, women and courtroom staff, there is also the Tamil cinema patented social media mobilisation scene that would be tiring if not downright hilarious. As a young woman begins typing a #justicefor hashtag, one of the auto suggestions is #justiceforjohnnydepp, a rookie mistake on the editing floor to leave out this famous trending topic related to a complex physical abuse case. There are many such editing mishaps. In an early court scene, we see Venba arguing, she is objected to by Rajarathinam and the next instant she is sitting in her chair.

Ponmagal Vandhal has a strong premise, a woman defending a woman wronged, not today but fifteen years ago. And this goes against the public and media sentiment that existed at the time of the case or any time period, a case that involved abused and killed children. It is the story of Venba who has been readying herself for this opportunity, to be in this punishing, thankless position, for almost half of her life.

This is Mounam Sammadham with a more compelling, juicier emotional core. It could have been tighter, less preachy and rather concentrated on the gradual unravelling of a botched-up case. How did Venba get here? What is her story after her story? Or even more pressing questions like why has Jyothika modelled herself as the preeminent lecturer of Tamil cinema? She’s already played a school principal, now a lawyer, where is the next podium?

There is a stretch where Fredrick freezes time when Rajarathinam literally transports himself to the events from all those years ago. It does not work but it does something to the pace of the film, it is now a thriller again. It makes us sit up and at least feign interest. Ponmagal Vandhal screams for such wild swings but JJ Fredrick cannot decide between Venba’s harsh reality and Rajarathinam’s dispassionate approach to a procedural. This twain shall not meet.

The Ponmagal Vandhal review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.

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