Madras gets off to a clunky start, with some lengthy exposition explaining the history of a political rivalry in a north Chennai neighbourhood. The rivalry is centered around a large wall, where one of the political parties has painted a mural of their deceased leader, while the other political party plots to paint over it with their own propaganda. After introducing numerous neighbourhood characters during the opening credits, we finally meet our hero Kaali (Karthi) an educated young man with a white-collar job and a short temper. Kaali’s best friend Anbu (Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan) is active in one of the political parties and as a result Kaali gets drawn into the rivalry between the two parties over the wall.
About two-thirds of the movie deals with this political storyline while the remaining third is devoted to a romantic storyline between Kaali and Catherine Tresa Alexandar (previously seen by me being hugely annoying in the Telugu stinker Iddarammayilatho) as neighbourhood girl Kalaiarasi. As much as I enjoy watching Karthi smirk at a girl over the handlebars of his motorcycle, I didn’t much care for the romance in Madras as the get-together-fight-breakup-reconcile cycle they enact doesn’t really appeal to me.
Despite the clunky start and unromantic romance, Madras is overall a good political drama. It sees the return of the furious and vengeful Karthi that we saw in the second half of Naan Mahaan Alla. I really enjoyed the music used in the movie, both the songs and the score. But what I liked best of all was the atmosphere of the north Chennai neighbourhood where the movie is set – where people live cheek-by-jowl in tiny, dilapidated apartments, constantly filling colourful plastic tubs with water from a pump in the street because they have no running water in their homes, and where everyone is all up in everyone else’s business, so that news of Kaali’s latest fight reaches his mother at home faster than he does. And over all this looms the mural of the deceased politician, staring out over the neighbourhood like Dr Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby. The movie does a good job at making the wall seem genuinely sinister.
There’s a message shoehorned into the end of the movie, about the need for rationality in politics, which I felt was unnecessary and lessened the impact of the previous scene (which, again, strongly recalled Naan Mahaan Alla). Despite these imperfections, the strong performances from Karthi as Kaali and Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan as Anbu, as well as the atmospheric setting and fairly unique topic, make Madras worth a watch.