‘Ponmagal Vandhal’ review: This legal drama is actually a melodrama

“Debutant director JJ Fredrick’s Ponmagal Vandhal starring Jyotika delivers a strong message about the judicial system, sexual abuse and the trauma that survivors go through. Apart from a few flaws in the screenplay, the film touches upon a sensitive topic that the country doesn’t quite pay heed to.”

Ponmagal Vandhal cast: Jyotika, R Parthiban, K Bhagyaraj, Thiagarajan, Pratap Pothen, Vidya Pradeep
Ponmagal Vandhal director: JJ Fredrick

A long-forgotten case involving the heinous kidnap-murder of a bunch of little girls is re-opened, and skeletons, literally, come tumbling out. Dark secrets are revealed, honourable men are found to be complicit, and the truth sets a woman free.

There was a healthy pre-release buzz around Ponmagal Vandhal because of its A-list credentials: it is toplined by Jyotika and produced by Suriya. But it gathered much more traction because of the decision to open on a streaming platform, not waiting for theaters to open in these uncertain lockdown times, and it’s become one of the first new Indian films to go down the OTT way.

The film opens with a double murder in Ooty that took place 15 years ago. A woman named Jyothi is arrested for abducting and murdering children. Dubbed “Psycho Jyothi”, she’s shot dead in an encounter and the case is closed.Advocate Venba (Jyotika) decides to reopen the case, the first one that she’s arguing in court. Bhagyaraj plays her father, Petition Pethuraj, a man who has the habit of filing petitions on just about anything under the sun.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Venba has a pressing reason to argue this case. However, though we think we know the answer, Fredrick manages to keep the surprises coming. Like an old fashioned investigative thriller, we piece together what must have happened 15 years ago from different accounts — eyewitnesses, affected families, police officers, and yes, a survivor too. But the narrative does not take us to how Venba (and her father) tracked all these people down and how she put together the evidence. Delving into this would have given more weight to the script, and made the film a more satisfying watch.

Jyotika is impressive as Venba, looking confident and in control of the situation at hand. She holds her own in the lengthy courtroom scenes, and though the dialogues may not be what we usually hear in sober real life legal proceedings, the conviction with which she speaks makes us look past that. Her parley with actor Thiagarajan, who is on the witness stand and brings just what is required for the role, is especially enjoyable and gives her some “mass” moments. Arguing opposite Venba is Rajarathinam, a hotshot lawyer played by Parthiban, an effortless actor. His character though gets the short end of the stick — for someone who’s money-minded and used to defending hardened criminals, his capitulation seems sudden and unconvincing. He also makes an important reveal towards the end but there’s no explanation for how he arrived at this truth.

While there are some feeble attempts at comedy (though I must say I giggled when I saw Bhagyaraj getting caned for saying ‘Raghu thatha’), the film mostly sticks to the central plot. But I wish Fredrick had spent more time defining his characters and their lives. What, for instance, is Vinodhini Vaidyanathan’s role? In the flashback, Pethuraj is married to someone else, but in the present, he seems to be married to Vinodhini’s character. In a conversation that Pethuraj and Venba have, he says, “Let’s go home, Amma will be waiting”. But if this ‘Amma’ refers to Vinodhini, it’s strange that she knows next to nothing about Venba. Prathap Pothen, who plays the judge, is also left hanging — his motives and actions are unresolved.

Keeping away the negatives, Ponmagal Vandhal is a film to be treasured, just for its messaging. It isn’t the first film to speak about child sexual abuse. The way the filmmaker provided a platform for the survivor to speak up and made people listen to her deserves much appreciation. For this sole reason, the film should be celebrated.

 

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Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. GICNEWS Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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