Vadham, MXPlayer Tamil series led by Sruthi Hariharan, overplays its 'masculine' female cop
Vadham is such a 'safe' show that one might even look at the female protagonist as a token character.
A mistake many (Indian) mainstream filmmakers make when it comes to 'female cop' films, is how they base them so comprehensively on the male counterparts. These filmmakers are so satisfied with the 'subversion' of their protagonist's gender, that they don't even bother imbuing them with a distinct personality. Instead, these characters are also given the same aviators, big biceps, slow-motion entry sequences, and a whole lot of punchy dialogue. As a result, Ajay Devgn's Bajirao Singham is none too different from Rani Mukerji's Shivani Shivaji Rao (a portion of her name being borrowed from her co-star in Nayak: The Real Hero feels deliberate) in the Mardaani films. In MXPlayer's Vadham, Sruthi Hariharan's Sakhti (meaning power, lest we forget she's a 'mass' character) presence looks consistently borrowed from her predecessors. Most of these filmmakers might have you believe that these choices are 'empowering', however, there's a case to be made about how it's just pure laziness. These films/shows stick to familiar archetypes, because otherwise they would have to dig for the truth.
Directed by Venkatesh Babu, Vadham as the name suggests is about a murder. Usually used to imply the slaying of demons, Vadham understandably begins with a murder. A lecherous man, who promises to 'launch' a young female actor, is schooled about #MeToo during their post-coital conversation. He rebuffs her mild threats, and cockily extends his phone to her. "Go ahead, complain to whomsoever you feel like..." he tells her. There's some heavy-handed symbolism in a painting above the headboard, and a statue that has a finger on its lips. The titular murder takes place in the very next scene, that seems loosely inspired from the opening moments of Primal Fear. A cleaver is repeatedly used to slash the man's neck, a gruesome scene that shook us in the 1998 film. However, in Vadham, it seems to be trying really hard to not make it look staged. The illusion of this "shocking" act of violence never really forms, and as a result the rest of the show is predictably iffy.
Sakthi, a reasonably ranked female cop, gets a heavily contrived introduction scene. In it, she's dressed in a saree like an 'everywoman', riding a scooty to meet some kidnappers. She seems like a petite, scared mother, asking about the abducted child. Once she finds out that the child is fine, Sakthi goes into action-hero mode. The scene has the same kind of patronising tone that most 'massy' films tend to adopt - look at how the Indian woman can play the meek one, and also kick ass. An interesting tangent emerges from Sakthi's introduction scene after she successfully apprehends the kidnappers, but her male colleagues steal half the ransom. Even though she seems to be of a similar designation as her male colleagues, Sakthi's protests are feeble. In spite of being of a similar rank, Sakthi struggles to raise her voice against the crooks within her department, because of her age and (most probably) her gender too.
All of Sakthi's colleagues at the all-women police station are given a similar introduction scene. Where their role as the 'home-maker' is underlined, before we see them in the cop avatar. It's the same kind of scene that 'marvels' at female characters, who make breakfast for their husbands in the morning, before cutting to their work-station where she's building rockets. There's a smugness in these scenes, which seem to be politely suggesting — "Here's your huge round of applause, now... reheat the dinner for the husband, won't you?"
Vadham is so 'true' to its genre, that one might even accuse it of being derivative. Sakthi's father is a retired policeman, so she is expected to 'live up' to his high standards. There's an agonising mother-in-law figure, who keeps harping about how Sakthi will have to give up on her dreams of working in law enforcement, if she has to marry her son. Predictably, we get a scene where she's implicitly 'proud' of her future daughter-in-law. There's the politician who asks the police officer "Do you know who I am?" after being chucked into jail. There's the infamous phone ring inside a police station, as soon as a powerful man is chucked into jail. Much like a vintage Suniel Shetty or Sanjay Dutt, Hariharan's character is not just fighting the 'system', but also a widespread chauvinist belief that she doesn’t deserve the uniform she has donned. There could have been some pulpy fun to be had here, but all these sequences seem rehashed out of one's lack of imagination, rather than as a tribute to a bygone era.
Once the protagonist is made in-charge of the murder investigation, many mishaps happen one after the other. Her evidence box is stolen, witnesses turn hostile with a comical background score, individuals are locked up and beaten based on the protagonist's hunch. Sakthi’s credentials as a lead cop are in doubt, much like the showrunner’s. Vadham's intentions to be a solid cop procedural are overrun by the makers’ need to be 'entertaining'. Sruthi Hariharan is a good presence in a show, which never challenges her apart from showcasing conviction in front of punching bags and heavy dudes (same thing, though).
It needs to be said though, that an important reveal of the show (somewhat reminiscent of John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) is... interesting. There is the promise that the makers will reach beyond the obvious 'gender subversion', and go on to rewrite the playbook around cop thrillers. Sadly, Vadham lacks assurance to try anything new, resting on the tried-and-tested formulae, even going so far to endorse custodial deaths. There's none of the awareness or the intent of, say, Netflix's Unbelievable, which opened a whole new dimension of how these shows could be made. Vadham is such a 'safe' show that one might even look at the female protagonist as a token character.
(All images from the show's trailer)
Vadham is now streaming on MXPlayer. Watch the trailer here —
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