Everybody knows everybody in this small town, sub-inspector Sakkarai says. How wrong he is, and how good that is for Suzhal – The Vortex.
The riveting Tamil web series on Amazon Prime Video is set in Sambaloor, or Place of Ashes. By the end of eight nail-biting episodes, the sureties that have characterised Sambaloor for long-time residents like Sakkarai (Kathir) are just that – ashes.
Appropriately enough, the inciting incident is a fire at a cement factory. Charismatic union leader Shanmugam (Radhakrishnan Parthiban), who has been warring with the factory owner for higher wages, is the immediate suspect.
The night is long for Shanmugam, who returns home to find that his 15-year-old daughter Nila (Gopika Ramesh) is missing. A long-running feud between Shanmugam and inspector Regina (Sriya Reddy) means that the police are slow to move on Nila’s case. Regina and her protege Sakkarai initially side with the factory owner Mukesh (Yusuf Hussain) and his arrogant son Trilok (Harish Uthaman).
Sakkarai uncovers a web of secrets, lies and deception that goes far beyond Nila’s disappearance. Sakkarai’s quest touches nearly every major character. Regina, her husband Vadivelu (Prem Kumar) and her son Adhisayam (Fedrick John); Sakkarai and his fiance Lakshmi (Nivedthitaa Satish); Shanmugan and his family, which includes his elder daughter Nandhini (Aishwarya Rajesh) and his brother Guna (Kumaravel) – every one of them is transformed by the truth.
The series has been created and written by the duo Pushkar-Gayatri (Va Quarter Cutting, Vikram Vedha) and directed by Bramma and Anucharan M. Like in Vikram Vedha, Pushkar-Gayatri dazzlingly tap into mythical beliefs to mount a contemporary inquiry into a social evil.
Suzhal is designed as a series of confrontations between the visible and the hidden, tolerance and prejudice, faith and scepticism. The narrative is spread over nine days – also the duration of a religious festival held in honour of a folk goddess. The festival’s primordial rhythms run parallel to the investigation, which takes Kathir to faraway places but also exposes the rot in his backyard.
The staging is remarkably dense but always coherent as it moves between inter-connected events and numerous twists. The writing is expansive enough to accommodate the little details that elevate Suzhal many notches above the average police procedural.
While being the story of a handful of people, the show’s makers ensure that secondary and even tertiary characters will not be forgotten any time soon. Each of the main characters is fully fleshed out to give a solid measure of their personalities.
Kathir’s investigation, aided by Nandhini, take him into uncharted territory.
Shanmugan’s commitment to labour rights has alienated him from his family, but the support he gets from his comrades suggests that unionisation is essential. Regina appears abrasive and blinded by her love for her son, but she too is only human, like everyone else in the show.
Every one of the actors is in terrific form. Kathir, Sriya Reddy, Radhakrishnan Parthiban, Aishwarya Rajesh, Kumaravel and Prem Kumar powerfully convey the difficult journeys undertaken by their characters.
Santhana Bharathi, who makes a late appearance as arson investigator Kothandaraman, is a wise and witty presence. Many of these actors have been in films, but shine extra bright in a long-form format that allows for greater psychological acuity.
Each of the episodes has enough smart ideas to mask the show’s imperfections. In a series in which everything and everyone is soldered together by past actions, some connections are either weaker than others or suppressed in order to deliver the next shocking twist.
The background music is far too melodramatic for a complex narrative that asks difficult questions about the relationship between labour and capital, the biases inherent in policing, and all-round narrow-mindedness. While following the beats of the crime thriller, Suzhal skilfully subverts this type of show’s reactionary impulses ever so often.
Some alert viewers might place Nila’s abductor early on. It’s a testament to Pushkar-Gayatri’s gripping screenplay and the fast-paced direction that we wait with bated breath to see just how Sakkarai will join the dots.