Vella Raja Review: An interesting core that never quite lands the punch

In many ways, Vella Raja is similar to Sacred Games. If the latter was Netflix’s card for Indian audiences, the former plays the same role for Amazon Prime Originals with respect to the Tamil audiences. Both deal with a mafia don, whose existence is in question. Old cases are being dusted up. There are women officers in charge, calling the shots. However, Vella Raja only seems like a meek slap to the cheek, while Sacred Games was a harder punch to the gut. The series has potential, but not the power to make you quiver.

This isn’t due to lack of form. The first episode opens at its prime location, Bawa Lodge (if the name sounds familiar, it is from Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aaaranya Kandam). After sounds of gunshots, the camera carefully follows the police in to stumble upon an injured woman, whose identity is hidden from the viewer. As you are wondering who it could be, director Guhan Senniappan and editor Philomine Raj cut to the introductory promo. This turns out to be a pattern; quite a clever way to build the suspense, I must say. But the build-up fizzles out as the series sinks its teeth into the narrative. Vella Raja is an ideal cat-and-mouse game between a cop, Teresa (Parvatii Nair) and a don, Deva (Bobby Simha). It is ironic that while other, comparatively smaller characters get well-fleshed out journeys, the big two only get expository dialogues. Teresa ‘narrates’ her 25 transfers and Deva’s story seems to have inspired the introduction animation. Boxed into a single emotion, you don’t get to see them validate the decorated fables they bring as history. Teresa lacks the range of Anjali Mathur (Sacred Games), and Deva that of Ganesh Gaitonde.

Cast: Bobby Simha, Parvatii Nair, Gayathrie
Director: Guhan Senniappan

And Guhan bites off more than he can chew with the stories that do get told. We have a lawyer who is waging a war against an industrial company (a reference to Sterlite maybe?) There are two children who are about to play a game show to raise funds to rebuild their school that was ravaged by natural calamity. These stories ring true, but to what effect? If you look at whether their struggles add more to Vella Raja’s story, the answer is no. There are a few other narratives that don’t particularly make sense and don’t blend into the narrative either. Why waste time on them when more could have been done to establish the characters who actually matter?

The performances don’t really help either. Guhan’s calculative, cold, ruthless, green-tea drinking sophisticated cop is interestingly named Teresa. But Parvatii never quite transforms into the Kaali whom she is framed against in a scene. She partially manages the swagger, but the action shots see her visibly out-of-sync. The dubbing doesn’t help either. Bobby Simha, on the other hand, seems to be getting the same role over and over again as the don who is consumed by greed and ambition. Gayathrie, who plays the lawyer, delivers the most convincing performance of the lot.

Vishal Chandrasekhar’s interesting soundtrack creates the mood more than the screenplay. However, it does ruin the element of surprise at more than one place.

Vella Raja is based on the perennial nature of the battle between the good and the bad. Batons are passed, the soldiers change, but the battle goes on. With several references to spirituality, (one explicit case has a spiritually enlightened character becoming the person who neutralises the war), Vella Raja seems like a folklore that unfolds in the underworld. Now that’s an interesting premise. Too bad it fails to go beyond that.

This was originally written for The New Indian Express.You can find it here.

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