‘Por Thozhil’: lessons in mentorship in the face of chilling murders

Some have it, some don’t. Some are energized by the perficient future it offers; others see the drudgery of a pontificating tunnel that’s a time suck. Some see it as expanding their mishpocha; others view it as an intrusion into their solitude and focused work pattern. Which is why some are mentors, others tormentors.

In the splendid Por Thozhil (The Art of War), cop Loganathan (Sarath Kumar) disabuses us of any notion of any gene variants of mentorship that we hope they possess to guide the hapless and bumbling DSP trainee Prakash (Ashok Selvan) who has the misfortune to be pushed under the former’s shadow. It’s funny about ‘shadowing someone’ or ‘being under their shadow’ to be guided toward one’s path of— hopefully impending—a culminant professional position. Shouldn’t it have been in ‘the bright steering light’ or ‘sharing the same vision’ or some such luminant phrase? How can you guide someone who’s hovering in your looming shadow? Unless you want them to remain there, a permanent penumbratic fixture. 

Sarath Kumar: smoky details.

Loganathan has no time for such nonsensical management musings, as a gruesome murder in the woods of Trichy needs his immediate attention: that’s what Additional Director General of Police (ADGP) Mahendran (Nizhalgal Ravi) seems to think, much to the local police’s chagrin. He also thinks Prakash needs some attention, much to Loganathan’s dismay. Predictably, Loganathan is all for the first task and couldn’t bother flicking the latter’s existence off his experienced chip. But get along the two must—this delightful Guttenberg hemispheres attached at the center of a killing that soon turns into a serial killing spree—is a trope exploited and juiced out in movies and TV shows across generations. But in director Vignesh Raja’s—co-writing with Alfred Prakash—assured debut, this genre gets a delightful spin of its own, layered as it is with the gloam of cinematographer Kalaiselvan Sivaji’s frames that hover over the story, a black robe of constant anxiety and danger that follows the duo at a distance. That the writing and the scenes ensure that this is more a gut feeling we develop without actually seeing any furtive figures adds to the cinematic joy of feeling that exuberant chill. A well-done crime mystery acts as a lightning rod to deliver mild buzzes of shocks that occasionally turn into a high-voltage jump-in-the-seat, and Por Thozhil succeeds superbly on both counts.  

Ashok Selvan, Sarath Kumar: respectful investigations.

The disparate duo is aided by technician Veena (a warm, effective Nikhila Vimal), who’s worked with Loganathan and is partly bemused by the naif Prakash’s sparkling ability to walk around despite having a foot in his mouth during most conversation starters. Ashok Selvan plays Prakash with an endearing, chuffed-up vibe that connects beautifully, for which one of us hasn’t stumbled and made an ass of ourselves as we strutted around with newly acquired degrees that, much to our dismay, melted like immaterial wax in the face of real-time corporate heat? Here, the stakes are much higher and deadlier. As the duo circle around, connecting the dots, tracing the killings and motives, there’s a finely crafted scene at a railway crossing where Loganathan directs one of his team members over whispered wireless to lay a trap for a suspect in a car: the premise being a movie that the suspect says they’d gone to watch. It’s a masterful, tight sequence, the tension building up as inevitably as the high-velocity train zipping nearer. There’s a time-sensitive element here, as across the movie: the killer must be stopped before the next kill. And yet, it all must make sense. In its nearly 2-and-a-half-hour run, the film never flags, the cat-and-mouse taking a sinister turn in a supermarket, elevated by a chilling turn by the late Sarath Babu. There’s a claustrophobic house next door, boxed in by grilled windows, and the mise en scene is a perfect setup for the twists that the plot hurtles into. The lack of action—except for the climactic encounter—adds to the angsty build-up, and composer Jakes Bejoy adds layers of haunting, thick synth sounds à la Jóhann Jóhannsson’s cloudy score for Sicario

Nikhila Vimal: caught in technicalities.

Sarath Kumar’s turn as the gruff, coldly analytical cop is top-notch. His dry repartee style is deadpan and impatient, much like a mentor who could do without a seemingly idiotic mentee’s constant nudge and tug. Kumar’s slanty, piercing stare keeps the daunted Prakash on edge, his place nothing but chopped liver on his mentor’s sparse shelf of humanity. And yet, do those knife-like stares show a modicum of blunting in the face of Prakash’s academic approach to a maddening entropic killing pattern? Or is it a ghost from the cemetery of a haunted past that’s cast its cloud over those glaring eyes? Will there be a sequel? Regardless, if there’s one thing the duo shows us, it’s that there’s no mentorship without empathy. You might as well be a serial killer if you don’t have it. 

Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers. Por Thozhil is streaming on Sony Liv and rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years)

Por Thozhil
Director Vignesh Raja Time 2h 27min
Writers Vignesh Raja, Alfred Prakash
Stars Sarath Kumar, Ashok Selvan, Nikhila Vimal, Sarath Babu