Any time a producer or director offers something fresh and different, that effort deserves to be welcomed
with open arms. And when that effort actually works, its truly time to rejoice. So its time to rejoice
since Imsai Arasan 23aam Pulikesi, produced by director Shankar and directed by debutant
Chimbudeven, is fresh, different and works very well.
The story is a take-off on Sivaji's Uthama Puthiran. Sangilimaayan(Nasser), the queen's
brother, has killed the first 22 sons of the king(Nagesh) of Chozhapuram with the intention of becoming the
next king. But when he learns that the queen(Manorama) has now delivered twins and that one of them will be
easy to control, he plans to bring up the baby as his hand-puppet and orders the other baby to be set afloat
in the river. So one baby grows up to be Pulikesi(Vadivelu), a cowardly king who openly socializes with
the British while his twin brother Ukkirabudhan(Vadivelu), brought up in Kanchipuram, turns into a patriotic
revolutionary who is saddened by the state of the kingdom. When he gets the chance, he switches places with
the king and sets out to set things right.
Right from the first scene where a caption identifies a lizard as an aranmanai palli, the film
announces its intention to be a comedy loud and clear. And as it proceeds it proves to be an almost perfect
mix of verbal and physical comedy. One can laugh at the clever and funny dialogs just as much as one can
laugh at Vadivelu's expressions and all-around ineptness (a poet's first visit to the court illustrates
this combination perfectly as the poet's words and subsequent explanation and Vadivelu's reactions to the
words result in one of funniest sequences in the film). In fact, the entire first half had me laughing
harder than I've laughed in a long time. An additional bonus is that the physical comedy rarely turns
The film also proves to be more ambitious than remaining just a simple comedy. It deftly blends in social
commentary and turns into a satire at more than one place, but does all that without losing its comic touch.
Thinly-veiled jabs at Pepsi and the associated celebrity advertisements, a brilliant segment that draws
associations with a modern-day cricket match(complete with stadium hoardings, tea-breaks and a
'man-of-the-match' award) and potshots at the workings of a government office are all examples of this.
In fact, every aspect of Pulikesi's rule, like his collusion with thieves and the bribery, could be applied
to the workings of a corrupt government today.
Once the twins switch places, the film loses a little of its comic momentum. With Vadivelu correcting his
predecessor's wrongs, the film is forced to play it straight. This is good for the country but not for the
film! And the king in prison (even if it is a very casual one) is not half as funny as the king in court.
But the director himself has recognized this and interrupts Ukkirabudhan's good deeds with a flashback of
Pulikesi on a bear hunt. The long flashback is very transparent as a ploy to keep the comedy flowing but
it works since it is very funny and reminds us that the film is still a comedy.
Its official! Vadivelu has completely grown on me! He is a delight as Pulikesi and his trademark
expressions(when he is insulted or surprised) are hilarious. Ukkirabudhan is probably the more difficult
character since he has to play him straight. Though we laugh initially when we see him, he gradually
overcomes that and makes us accept him as who he is. Thats a big accomplishment. One big reason the movie
works as a historical also(as opposed to just a comedy) is that many of the supporting actors also play it
straight. Nasser is terrific in the role of the Rajaguru. He is adequately villainous in many places and
his performance wouldn't be out of place even in a much more serious film. Ilavarasu is the only other actor
with a big role and he serves as the perfect foil to Vadivelu, insulting him without seeming to do so. A
number of other actors, both old and new, show up on screen in supporting roles.
Technically, the movie is a disappointment. Inspite of Shankar's claims, the movie looks pretty cheap. And
that's a big minus for a period film. The sets look ready to fall down at the next gust of wind and the
costumes for most of the players look like they were borrowed from a stage play. None of the scenes inspire
the sense of awe that period films are supposed to do. The little special effects there are are really bad
and the few scenes where the two Vadivelus share the screen are very clumsily done. Song sequences are
picturized well with Aadi Vaa... being the pick of the lot just because of its liveliness.