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Vada Chennai Review: Vada Chennai opens with a murder, but we do not see the murder or the victim. Instead, we get a blood-stained sickle and a conversation between the murderers. These are Guna (Samuthirakani), Senthil (Kishore), Velu (Pavan) and Pazhani (Dheena). The guy they have killed is a big shot gangster and they discuss how they can now take his place. This is 1987. Cut to a year later, and we see that the four men have become rivals – Guna and Velu on one side and Senthil and Pazhani on the other.
The action then shifts to 2000, when we are introduced to Anbu (Dhanush), who is remanded to prison for a minor scuffle with Guna’s henchman Siva (Pavel Navageethan). To save himself from Guna’s gang, which controls one block of the prison, Anbu gets closer to Senthil’s gang, and even earns the trust of Senthil.
Meanwhile, the narrative keeps shifting a few years back and forth – to 1991, when Anbu meets Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh), an intrepid local girl, who he falls in love with; to 1996, when Anbu accidentally commits a murder that makes him indebted to one of the gangsters; to 1987, when we get the story of Rajan (Ameer), a gangster and a do-gooder for his people, and Chandra (Andrea Jeremiah); and finally, to 2003, when Anbu is forced to stand up for his people and take on both Guna and Senthil.
This sprawling nature of the narrative and the various events that impact the lives of the numerous characters make Vada Chennai truly an epic (Santhosh Narayanan’s score is suitably grand). A murder attempt set against the backdrop of a carrom tournament in the prison where the action happens beneath a shamiana, and the murder of major character that is a brilliant play of tension and black comedy are superbly staged and are the film’s highlights.
Vetri Maaran’s rich detailing, be it the life in the prison or outside of it, helps us become a part of the story. The period setting is superbly evoked with the political events of the time (like MGR’s and Rajiv Gandhi’s deaths) providing the backdrop for the events to unfold. The art direction, costume and hair and makeup departments work in tandem to take us to the various time frames.
Anbu is the protagonist, and gets the meatiest scenes. And Dhanush (a rare star-actor), in a role that has shades of the characters he played in Pudupettai and Aadukalam, gets some whistle-worthy masala moments, but like he did with Polladhavan, Vetri Maaran makes them organic and in character rather than give us empty heroism. The director ensures that the other characters have their moments. Ameer’s Rajan appears for only a brief time, but he turns out to be the film’s moral centre and beating heart. Aishwarya Rajesh makes Padma a lovable character despite the cuss words that pepper her lines, while Andrea, who decidedly looks like she doesn’t belong in this setting, manages to make Chandra a strong character.
That said the film does lack the hard-hitting quality and the moral weight of Vetri Maaran’s previous film, Visaaranai. In the second half, we get a sub-plot about the politician-corporate nexus driving people away from their land (something that we have seen in Kaala and Merku Thodarchi Malai this year), but it isn’t forceful enough – for now. The film is intended as a trilogy and this angle (which immediately recalls the controversy over the Salem green corridor) could play a bigger role in the subsequent films as this is what makes Anbu realise his calling. But this gives the director an opportunity to make a nod at an iconic dialogue from another gangster drama, Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan, when Anbu says, “Nammala kaapaathikaradhukku peru rowdyism-na naama rowdyism pannanum”. And the plot points do have the elements that we associate with most gangster films – a reluctant hero, rivalry among gangsters, scheming politicians who use these gangsters for their own benefits, a femme fatale, violence that makes us flinch, expletives that shock – but the layered writing and the confident filmmaking ensure that these familiar aspects feel fresh.