Tamil cinema’s perennial favourites, the amma sentiment and thangachi sentiment, get the European arthouse action film treatment in Rocky, a gloriously violent, superbly shot film. Rather than spoonfeeding, the writing actually drip-feeds information about the past. So, instead of a single-stretch of flashback showing us how things had soured between Rocky and Manimaran, we get a fractured narrative with the past and present overlapping one another. Arun Matheswaran gives us the events of the past in black and white, which helps us instantly make sense of the sudden transitions from the present. And he doesn’t give the events of the past in linear fashion. For example, we see something happening to Rocky’s mother but it is only later in the film that we get the why. And the effect is that of the pieces of a puzzle coming finally together and showing us the beauty of the final picture. We realise how adeptly the director has taken a familiar tale of revenge and made it feel fresh and new-age-y.
Much of the credit for this achievement should go to cinematographer Shreyaas Krishna, who comes up with stunning visuals that elevate the film to art. His imaginative lighting and wide framing don’t let us take our eyes off the screen. The handheld cinematography keeps us alert to the presence of a threat around the protagonist, and the instability in his life. It is only in the action stretches that the camera feels steady, implying Rocky’s confidence with handling violence. The use of frames within frames makes us subconsciously understand how the characters are trapped in circumstances from which they can’t escape. This is especially true of Manimaran, who is often shot within frames. When we see him witnessing the brutal murder of his son, he is behind bars. It is not just Rocky who has been in prison because of his act, but Manimaran as well has been in a prison of his own all these years. And we understand why he is so vengeful towards Rocky and wants to keep him alive so that he can see his world crumbling around him.
The director also makes great use of Darbuka Siva’s score, which involves sharp bursts of music punctuated by lengthy silences that mirror the sudden violence and the slow buildup towards it.
The lead performances match the ambition that we see in the film’s form. Vasanth Ravi, with his skeletal frame, sunken eyes, shaggy beard and deep voice very much feels like a ghost who is on the prowl. He convincingly portrays a guy who can be extremely violent and incredibly compassionate. And Bharathirajaa puts his craggy face to use in a fantastic manner, showing us the evil as well as the pain inside this character. Watch the scene where he becomes a terror to his son and turn rueful in a few minutes while explaining why he had to act so. And the look of resignation he offers in the end makes words unnecessary.
The supporting cast, including Ravi Venkataraman as Saami, a seedy gangster, who is Manimaran’s associate, Ashraf Mallisery as the old man’s fearsome right-hand man Dhanraj, Rishikanth as Manimaran’s son and Jayakumar as Natraj, Rocky’s helper, are perfectly cast. And the women — Rohini, Raveena and Anisha, who becomes the driving force for the second half — ensure that they give the film its emotional heft in the brief moments in which they appear.
And finally, talking about the violence in the film, yes there are certain instances when it feels overdone, but given that Arun Matheswaran provides the action (superbly choreographed by Dinesh Subbarayan) a strong emotional anchor, it doesn’t feel gratuitous. Instead, it shows us the violent ways of these men and how it rules and ruins their lives. Fittingly, the backdrops – dilapidated buildings and barren landscapes – exemplify the quality of their lives. Despite the violence, this is a deeply sentimental film. We see it in the watch that Rocky removes every time he goes into a fight; in his refusal to eat non-vegetarian food; in Amudha’s lonely walk at night to call her brother back; in Manimaran’s howl upon seeing his son’s fate; and in Rocky’s terrific line in the climax that is a nod to Pasa Malar. Rocky might be violent, but also has a beating heart.