Kamal Haasan's latest film Thoongavanam, an adaptation of the French film Sleepless Night, opens rather deceptively with a static shot from the inside of a SUV. The sun seems to be taking its time to rise. Quirky, old melodies are playing on the radio. Hazy streaks of car lights flash through the window pane. Everything is not-so-happening. But, the shot lingers on. The FM moves on to different songs. Still, we are not sure what we are supposed to make of the moment. And slowly, while the first rays of sunshine escape the darkness, it all begins. As the car starts moving, gradually gaining speed, we cut to the next shot from the outside, showing a couple of masked men on the front seats. They hold up a car and whisk a bag full of cocaine. This happens in broad daylight following a conspicuous car chase on the Gemini Bridge, Chennai, indicating rather perfunctory orchestration. We know one of them is CK Diwakar, an IRS officer in NCB, played by Kamal Haasan. But what is he doing in a mask? Gun shots are exchanged. Ghibran's unnerving techno music provides the electrifying mood. Unfortunately, Diwakar is no super-cop. Things get messy. Eventually, the men get their hunt. But, the intended recipient of the shipment nabs Diwakar's son. His ransom is the coke.
Following the original's successful screen strategy of 'Set it up and play it out', the film takes us from this nail-biting set-up through a riveting ride of deception, action and thrills over the course of a single night inside a mammoth night club. If you have to point out one thing that differentiates a good film from an ordinary one in this genre, it must be the smoothness with which the narrative transitions from the set-up point to the payoff. In Thoongavanam, this evolution is almost invisible. Inside the night club, a seemingly infinite labyrinth of watering holes, cooking spaces, restaurants, pool tables and corridors, every well thought out game-plan brutally and unexpectedly blows out into a quagmire of chaos. As two other mysterious cops trail on Diwakar, the stakes become multi-layered, sucking us into the implications.
Thoongavanam's greatest strength lies in the characterization of Diwakar, who convincingly walks the tight rope between posing as the underdog and rising to be the saviour of the day. He is not the kind of valiant hero with a specific set of skills, so often seen in our action thrillers. He doesn't seem to have either the deadly charisma of Aadhinaarayanan or the unique intuition of Raghavan IPS. But, Diwakar is a quick-thinker, the sort of guy who is unnaturally brilliant at desperate improvisation. Many of his ideas fail, but he manages to keep himself alive to conjure up another. Small glimpses of his humanity surface in the scene where he saves a girl from a brash alcoholic. But we are in for a rude shock, when he proceeds to milk the situation for his own good. This sort of unpredictability helps to spice up things whenever the pacing dips, especially, given the closed nature of the happenings. Some deadpan humour also chips in to shake things up occasionally such as when a running gag in the restaurant kitchen sees a junior chef running into the same people again and again, as they burst through hotel doors.
Though the integrity of the main character's actions is kept under wraps for the majority of the running time, having him fight for his son, the one person he loves the most, makes it easy for us to root for him from the edge of our seats. But still, he isn't exactly a 'hero'. Despite the unease it evokes, his irrational use of brute force against Mallika (played convincingly by Trisha) might only be justified as a visual cue that we are indeed watching a man who would do anything for his loved ones. This emotional connect works to an extent, in spite of the minimal screen time devoted for character building. It even motivates us to suspend our disbelief, as characters keep moving through differently furnished closed spaces, battling noisy crowds and bleeding injuries. The carefree youth party is on and boorishly oblivious to all the madness and mayhem. There could be only one probable explanation. The club is jammed with hundreds of inebriated customers who are too drunk to care, with the music pumped up to gun-silencing levels.
As the night grows longer and the characters played by Prakash Raj, Kishore and Sampath become increasingly coherent, the music gets louder, cranking up the tension a little higher. The director Rajesh M Selva and cinematographer Sanu Varghese capture these claustrophobic moments superbly with the use of hand-held camera, abrupt cuts and tracking shots over confined bathrooms and packed staircases. Kamal Haasan, realizing the lack of space for star-showboating in this pressure-steamer premise, comes up with a brilliantly restrained performance as the man on the verge of insanity. The way he professes his love for his son over the phone contributes so much to the tone of the film, that you could call it 'The' defining moment. And the writing, all through, makes sure that he subsequently places himself in situations that constantly test his grit and resourcefulness. That way, the audience is constantly kept on the hook. After all, who would not cheer for a man, who has everything to lose?