"Madha Yaanai Koottam" has one of the most notably structured opening scenes in recent memory. If Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" begins with a wedding and introduces us to the various members of the Family, "Madha Yaanai.." instead uses a funeral to similar effects. A patriarch is dead and the wake organized for him is so grand it could be mistaken for a wedding - if not for the long faced men and the wailing women. We get acquainted with the various members of the family - both immediate and extended - and slowly learn about the simmering differences prevailing in the household.
Director Sukumaran takes the bigamy dynamic that's so largely prevalent in India and turns it into a grand family feud. We learn that the patriarch has two wives, each bearing him a son and a daughter. Shattered after her husband's second marriage, the first wife (played by Viji Chandrasekaran) continues to remain estranged from him. His sudden demise opens up a can of worms when the elders of the first family refuse to allow the members of the illegitimate family to attend the funeral. With the help of some towering performances from a largely unknown supporting cast, the film whips some sharp drama.
A man who for years wouldn't look his sister's husband in the face for deserting her still says, "antha manushana raasa mariyathai oda anupanum", when it comes to arranging the funeral. Rooted in old values and embroiled in customs, these people cannot help but look down upon the second family - the chinna veedu. What those illegitimate children might have went through when their father was alive is not the film's focus; the interest is on the aftermath- what could happen between two families when the tissue holding them together ceases to exist. The scars run so deep it dwarfs any trouble that brews outside the family.
Sukumaran masterfully creates a family that feels surprisingly real and alive, and everything is fine as long as the camera stays within the household giving everyone equal importance. But when the film pushes the son Parthiban to the forefront, things start weakening. Kathir is adequately well matched to portray the character of a hurt, illegitimately born son. As is expected of his character, he gets lost in a sea of faces; it wasn't until the interval that I even realized that he was the story's protagonist. His love story with Oviya is quite visibly the film's weakest link- something that threatens to bring everything else down to mediocrity. Then comes a time when Parthiban is expected to rise up from being a scapegoat and actually act heroic. Here's where Kathir misfires big time and makes you wonder if he was completely miscast. He doesn't deliver the intensity which his lines beg for and you watch in horror as the film's most pivotal scene collapses right in front of your eyes. His threatening to take on a dozen henchmen in spite of looking like Ghutka Mukesh doesn't quite sell the moment. The stunning final shot, which probably works great on paper, fails to make any impact because of the bad taste left by the scene it followed.
Despite a miscast lead, the completely disposable love story and missing a few beats near the end, "Madha Yaanai Koottam" is still mostly riveting. You have to hand it to the director for the kind of performances he has extracted from the terrific ensemble. The cinematography is one of the year's best (but they could have gone easy on those lens flares; even JJ Abrams would agree that they went overboard) and I have only good things to say about the editing. I assumed GV Prakash had scored the music, but turns out it is some other composer. A word of advice: if you are going to rip of Beethoven, remember to use one of his lesser known pieces of music, not Für freakin' Elise. Final word. Vikram Sukumaran. Remember the name.