Arunraja Kamaraj directs Jai in this thriller set in North Chennai, and shines the spotlight on those trying to escape the cycle of violence.
North Chennai has for long been vilified on the big screen as a den of all things criminal. It took a filmmaker such as Ranjith to show us what the area was capable of, in Madras — and that beneath the broad strokes they were painted in, there were numerous stories of resilience, strength, sportsmanship and romance.
Now, Arunraja Kamaraj, who has made the inspirational sports drama Kanaa and Nenjukku Needhi, the remake of Article 15 in Tamil, walks into this zone with Label, a relatively taut series on Disney Hotstar, primarily starring Jai, Tanya Hope, Mahendran, Harishankar Narayanan, Arish Kumar, Charanraj, Rama, Sriman and Uday Mahesh.
It launched with three episodes, with a new one being added every Friday. So far, four — God's Hands, No Escape, Salvation and Obsession, The Surrender — have dropped. There are six more episodes — The Crossover, False Victory, Falling Into Hell, Journey To Salvation, Sheer Will and Sky On Fire.
First things first. While Arunraja seeks to speak about the overriding presence of some label, good or bad, in all our lives, and his intent cannot be faulted, this is not a show for the faint-hearted. There’s a lot of death, a lot of knives drawing blood, a lot of malice and hot, mindless anger. Violence is such an everyday occurrence that no one seems to even flinch on screen during a murder. After a point, even you stop caring. And pretending everyone’s a saint in an area that’s the recruiting ground for henchmen would not have sat well, either. So, Arunraja tries the balancing act, but does not quite succeed. This is deeply violent.
Jai is Prabhakaran, the son of doting parents played by Charanraj and Rama, who lands in police custody when he’s nabbed along with some kids who stab someone in the playground. He tells the magistrate he’s innocent, but when he tells him where he’s from — an area called Vaali Nagar — he’s labelled a criminal and sent with the cops.
Prabha is also a studious student who never really is noticed by the teacher, until he answers one day. She speaks to him about the importance of choosing one’s label. He chooses to become a lawyer. And, his aim is to not turn into someone who just helps bring those in criminal gangs out on bail after they commit offences, but to encourage the local children to read, play and visualise a life outside of crime. This role suits Jai well — he’s toned up well and plays Prabha with a mix of earnestness and righteous anger.
Prabha and his group of friends encourage children to expend their energy on the playground, and when someone strays, he tries his best to get them back on track. Enter Kumar (a fabulous Harishankar Narayanan) and Veera (a very effective Mahendran), who are also pushed to the sportsfield, but are among those who fall between the cracks, and almost yearn to be among the criminal labels — a crime committed for either the Ayya or Senguttuvan labels does not anyone in prison, and social capital goes up. But they are torn between their love and gratitude to Prabha and their loyalty to their gang leaders.
There’s an interesting backstory to Prabha featuring his father that I’d like to have seen more of, but will settle for this, considering the short run time of every episode. The elder romance between his parents is lovely too — love is also him stitching a blouse for the wife in secret, and her pretending she does not know to keep his surprise alive.
Arunraja seems in firm control of the proceedings, and I almost stood up and clapped in front of the television when Veera’s mother ticks off his girlfriend when she says she still loves him and that she will “reform” him. “Why is it your job to change him? Is that why you were born? Is this a marriage or prison?” When a neighbour asks her why she spoke thus, she says: “She looks like a goddess. Is it not enough that I tried to ‘reform’ my husband and failed?”
Amid all the searing testosterone, the sisterhood forms a tender backdrop. Gaayathri Krishnan, her face all tender, plays the mother of one of the children who initially goes astray. But, that’s the thing with the label gangs — you can check in but never really check out. Her interactions with Prabha and his parents are endearing. And, she is part of an important plot twist.
There’s a fledgling love story between Prabha and journalist Mahitha (a dignified Tanya Hope), and they even get a song (Music: Sam CS) together. This romance is sensible, and is used to speak about how far journalism has come from where it all began, but does not sit very well amid the proceedings.
Cinematographer Dinesh Krishnan trains the camera into nooks and crannies and on the gleaming blades of steel that can maim or kill.
Does Prabha figure his life and become a judge or does the past come calling? And when it does, will Prabha continue to back non-violence and choose peace over violence? Or will he become one of the yes-men, plagued by the thought of pending bills at home?
Prabha is never really afraid of any of the labels, except when anyone he knows is in possible danger. But when he’s pushed to the wall, he reacts in the only way he knows. Using the books that helped him cross over to the right side. And, that makes for a fulfilling watch. For it is pretty rare, even today, to see someone not give up who they are, because the situation is difficult.