Perennial favorites of Tamil cinema, amma vibes and Thangachi vibes get the European action movie treatment in Rocky, a fantastically violent, superbly shot movie. Instead of spoon feeding, writing is actually feeding information about the past. So, instead of a one-time flashback showing us how things got tense between Rocky and Manymaran, we get a story torn apart with past and present intertwined with each other. Arun Mathiswaran presents us with the events of the past in black and white, which immediately helps us make sense of the sudden turns from the present. It does not give past events in a linear manner. For example, we see something happen to Rocky’s mother but only later in the movie do we get the reason. The effect is that the puzzle pieces finally come together and show us the beauty of the final image. We know how ingenious the director is at taking a familiar revenge story and making it feel fresh and new-age.
Much of the credit for this feat must go to cinematographer Shreyas Krishna, who comes up with stunning images that raise the bar for the film to the level of art. The fancy lighting and wide frame don’t let us take our eyes off the screen. Manual cinematography keeps us alert to the presence of a threat around the protagonist, and the instability in his life. Only in stretches of action does the camera feel steady, showing Rocky’s confidence in dealing with violence. Using frames within frames makes us subconsciously understand how the characters are trapped in conditions from which they cannot escape. This is especially true of Manimaran, which is often photographed inside frames. When we see him witness the brutal murder of his son, he is behind bars. Not only was Rocky who was in prison for his actions, but Manimaran also had been in a prison of his own all these years. We understand why he’s getting revenge on Rocky and wants to keep him alive so he can see his world crumble around him.
The director also makes great use of Darbuka Siva’s score, which includes sharp bursts of music punctuated by long silences that reflect sudden violence and slow buildup towards it.
The groundbreaking performances match the ambition we see in the film’s format. With his skeletal frame, sunken eyes, shaggy beard and deep voice, Vasanth Ravi feels like a ghost in a flood. It convincingly depicts a man who can be extremely violent and incredibly compassionate. And Bharathirajaa puts his rough face to use in a great way, showing us the evil as well as the pain within this character. Watch the scene in which he is terrified for his son and turns sad within a few minutes while explaining why he had to act like this. And the look of resignation he gives at the end makes words superfluous.
The supporting cast, including Ravi Venkataraman as Sami, an abnormal gangster, who is Manimaran’s assistant, Ashraf Malesiri as the fearsome old man right-handed Dhanraj, Rishikanth as Manimaran’s son and Jayakumar as Natraj, Rocky’s assistant, are perfectly cast. The women – Rohini, Raveena and Anisha, who became the driving force in the second half – made sure to give the film its emotional weight in the brief moments it featured.
Finally, speaking of violence in the film, yes, there are certain instances where it feels exaggerated, but given that Aaron Mathiswaran provides the action (adorably crafted by Dinesh Subbarayan) as a powerful emotional anchor, that doesn’t seem gratuitous. Instead, he shows us the violent ways these men rule and destroy their lives. Aptly, the backdrops – dilapidated buildings and barren landscapes – capture their quality of life. Despite the violence, this is a very emotional movie. We see in the watch that Rocky removes it every time he gets into a fight; in his refusal to eat non-vegetarian foods; In Amuda’s only walk at night to summon her brother; in the howling of Manymaran upon seeing the fate of his son; And in the great Rocky line at its peak, this is a nod to Basa Malar. Rocky may be violent, but his heart is beating, too.