The story goes something like this: Ambi (Vikram) is an orthodox Iyengar and lawyer, devoutly observant of all rules, legal, sacred, or secular, in a world where no-one else shares his passion for them, including even his father (the veteran Nedumudi Venu) and the object of his affections Nandini (Sada). The latter in particular is repelled by Ambi's fastidiousness, one might even say his inability to distinguish between different rules: Ambi accords them all equal weight. This is the sort of insufferable fellow who won't even write Nandini a love letter unless he has authorization from her parents -- not the life of the party by any means. A series of incidents -- a commuter spitting in public, a passing motorist refusing to help a dying man on the street, a motorcycle spare parts vendor who won't take rsponsibility for selling defective merchandise, and above all Nandini's contempt -- traumatizes Ambi no end, resulting in the appearance of Anniyan (Vikram), a maniacal killer who commits a string of ritualistic murders, each victim a criminal in Ambi's eyes and punished in the manner prescribed for that sort of transgressor by Hindu scriptures. Ambi has no memory of Anniyan, and just as the audience is digesting this Jeckyll/Hyde duo, it is treated to yet another Vikram, man-about-town Remo, who makes far more headway with Nandini (she herself seems to change from ultra-traditional to clubby at the drop of a hat). Meanwhile, a police officer with a flair for disguises and accents (Prakashraj, in a hugely enjoyable turn) is working overtime trying to solve the mystery of the killer's identity. Ultimately, Ambi himself serves as the unwitting means of implicating the killer (he helps the police decode the scriptural significance of Anniyan's modus operandi), and the truth about Ambi's condition is revealed to the police, in a memorable interrogation room confrontation between Prakashraj and Vikram where the latter flits across all three identities repeatedly, and at a moment's notice. A few sessions with a psychiatrist (Nasser) later, Ambi/Anniyan/Remo is (are?) cured, leaving a more "normal" character in his/their wake. Um, did I say "cured"? Oh well, at least he gets to marry Nandini.
It's a cliche to say that Shankar's films are over-the-top, that is to say while the films might indeed be fairly characterized thus, the generalization does not help prepare one for Anniyan. For this film is so crazy, so unrealistic, so madcap (in a way that takes itself seriously, and is never spoofish), so excessive, it makes previous Shankar films -- such as Gentleman, Indian, and Muthalvan -- seem like models of restraint. Not that you need me to tell you this: mere minutes into the movie, the prelude to the song "Kumari" begins on an Indian street, segueing into a Dutch tulip field that is a riot of what appear to be digitally enhanced floral colours, not to mention Nandini, Ambi and pujari buddies, all in traditional Indian regalia. No word but "spectacle" can do justice to this music video, and it is a word one will resort to time and again over the course of the film, such as when the mellow "Iyengar . . . Azhagi" song is picturized in and around various temples, or when Anniyan runs into what appear to be dozens of East Asian students and fighters at a martial arts institute (a sequence that cheerfully rips off The Matrix while retaining its supremely Tamil action film essence; I could have done with lesser utilization of slow motion though). This is "Cheeyan" Vikram, so you don't need to ask who wins: Anniyan is the last man standing.
To say that director Shankar is well served by his lead actor would be an understatement. While I have never considered Vikram a great actor, his tremendous screen presence, energy, and sheer zest are precisely what the doctor ordered here. While Tamil cinema has more than one larger-than-life hero, only Vikram could have pulled off Shankar's combination here -- overman Anniyan as well as the ridiculously abject Ambi -- and Vikram's conviction and verve more than make up for any lack of acting nuance (heck, Shankar doesn't even do nuance). More talented, or even more reflective, actors might have had doubts in the face of a script and directorial vision as crazy as this. Their loss. But Vikram does falter as Remo, who always seems more pretender than playboy. Remo comes across as caricature, and it isn't at all clear that the effect is intentional (I was reminded of Dilip Kumar playing a young man in Bairaag). Nevertheless, no amount of caviling can take away from the fact that Vikram's is one of the most memorable masala performances in years, displaying a level of commitment that sets a high benchmark indeed.
The primary purpose of the rest of the cast is to revolve around Vikram, which it does adequately enough (don't believe me? Check out the "Remo/Romeo" song; it isn't often that Yana Gupta is mere appendage to her male co-star in an item number). Sada's character is annoying, and so poorly characterized I am unable to gauge how good or bad an actress she is. It is a sign of the structural sexism of much of our mainstream cinema that her most memorable aspects in this film are her bee-stung lips. Prakashraj is entertaining, but I cannot help but feel a twinge of regret: he really is too good to be playing the sorts of roles seems to all too often. Vivek (who is both Ambi's friend as well as Prakashraj's sidekick) is not his usual comedic self, and is somewhat wasted. Harris Jayaraj's music isn't bad, but I found myself missing A.R. Rahman: granted no Rahman/Shankar album is among my favorites, but individual songs from those albums certainly are, and there is no "Kappaleri Poyacheh" (Indian) or "Usilambatti" (Gentleman), and no "Azhagana Ratsasiye" (Muthalvan) here, not by a long shot. Indeed the music here is nowhere near Jayaraj's own best (as heard in Minnale, Samurai, and Kaakha Kaakha).
If there were no more to be said about Anniyan, it would remain a hugely entertaining masala film, and one that its audience couldn't take especially (or at all) seriously. Indeed that's precisely what one would have expected from this sort of film. But there's more. A whole lot more.
Shankar has spent years feeding the public over-the-top vigilantes in films like Gentleman and Indian, but it would be a mistake to think of Anniyan as more in the same vein. For in an era where uncritical celebration or endorsement of vigilante violence as a legitimate form of socio-political engagement abounds, not only in scores of masala movies but also critically acclaimed ones like Rang de Basanti and Dombivli Fast (being remade in Tamil as Evano Oruvan), Anniyan is possibly the most subversive movie in this "genre". For in Shankar's film, the avenger from hell is manifestly the result of a psychological disorder given human form, and even more strikingly, his violence is explicitly presented to the viewer as out of all proportion to the crimes being punished, and is simply deranged. That is to say, whereas in the likes of Citizen, Gentleman, Samurai, and Big Brother, the victims of the hero's wrath are guilty of monstrous crimes, and hence have no claim to our sympathy, in Anniyan it is difficult to accept that the selfish swine who won't help a dying man on the street, or the chap who sells unhygienic food, "deserves" to be brutally tortured and killed. One shifts a bit uneasily in one's seat: where, logically, will Anniyan stop? The answer, driven home to us when Anniyan attacks Nandini, seeking to kill her for the sort of petty illegality that is part of the very texture of Indian life (at least as far as interactions with the Indian state are concerned) is: he won't. In other words, the over-the-top, cartoonish Shankar here displays greater psychologically acuity than more (supposedly) "serious" filmmakers, with a surer appreciation of the logic of violence conceptualized as a solution. The idea that the vigilante need use no more violence than is necessary to eliminate "evildoers" is puerile; the figure of Anniyan shows that there is no shortage of transgressors, and if eliminating sinners is the way to go, no-one will be able to sleep easy. After all, who hasn't jaywalked, broken the speeding limit, or littered? For Anniyan, each of these is likely punishable by death, and his program, taken to its logical end, is a cleansing and genocidal fantasy.
The fact that Anniyan is a psychological problem (albeit one given supernaturally literal form) is also significant for another reason. By presenting Anniyan and Remo as the alter-egos of Ambi, the film stresses the potential, and intimate, link between the rules-obsessed upstanding citizen and the violent maniac. Rules and right order are almost Ambi's only thought, and his ideal world is recognizably Anniyan's, namely one where no-one could get away with spitting on the street or ignoring traffic regulations, let alone more serious infractions. The role of the citizen, according to Ambi, is to follow the rules and regulations, and to the minutest extent. Anniyan is the maniac that Ambi already is, merely shorn of all timidity. Remo, very much the third in this trinity, should not be overlooked: while as a character he is by far the weakest link in the film's schema, as a concept he is crucial. For Remo incarnates every transgression of decorum and social propriety, and ostensibly ought to have no link with Ambi. But Shankar knows better: the fact that Remo is yet another manifestation of Ambi's psyche shows that he is not very far from Ambi either, and in fact represents Ambi's own transgressive fantasies. The extreme quality of Ambi's and Anniyan's engagement with the world becomes clearer thanks to Remo. Ambi would secretly like nothing better than to himself transgress every boundary that he seeks to enforce, and Anniyan is the hysterical manifestation of his own guilty conscience. In short: once Anniyan is done cleansing the world, he would have to kill himself, as perhaps the guiltiest party of all. As this film knows, a project founded on such murderous notions is not only unspeakably violent, but absurd. It is a lesson many other filmmakers, and many in the audience, have yet to learn.