When the tagline for a show is “The Night is Long”, a hunt that is supposed to be time-bound loses its sense of urgency. If characters are being introduced late in the narrative, you know what you need to do: be patient, sit back, and look for the distractions.
Of which, in Mathagam, there are plenty. Prasath Murugesan’s engrossing Tamil-language series for Disney+ Hotstar has one of the most colourful galleries of rowdies since humankind took to crime. Such personages as Coin Siva, Ice Box and Mava Sait are introduced in style, with convincing case files detailing their exploits, down to line-up photographs and newspaper reports. Each of them has distinguishing characteristics too. One likes to sing. Another is an occult practitioner.
These criminals, however distinctive, answer to one man. Padalam Sekar (K Manikandan), also known as the Whale, is assembling Chennai’s entire underworld for a party with an unstated agenda. Padalam’s connections run deep, from an unidentified crime lord in Mumbai to the minister Veeraval (Ilavarasu).
When the high-ranking police officer Ashwath (Atharvaa) decides to go after Padalam, he has to clear the operation with the police commissioner Sayanthika (Dilnaz Irani).
Murugesan’s screenplay is designed like a cat-and-mouse game with a heavy hat-tip to the American series The Wire. Phone surveillance puts Padalam within Ashwath’s sights. The closer Ashwath gets to his prey, the more he understands about corruption in the police force and the government.
Sub-plots include Ashwath’s fraught relationship with his wife Vaideghi (Nikhila Vimal), who is in the throes of post-partum depression. In the middle of organising what is described as the biggest heist Chennai has ever seen, Padalam is able to reconnect with his lover Safi (Dhivyadharshini).
Murgesan converts slack pacing into an opportunity to show off his superb supporting cast. Each of the villains has enough scenes to burnish their bios. Supporting characters on the law enforcement side too have more to do than stand around. The cast includes Gautham Menon as Sayanthika’s bureaucrat husband, who bails Ashwath out of a sticky situation.
Understated performances, on-location shooting and a realistic portrayal of policework compensate for the sometimes maddening indifference to momentum. The slow-burn approach works best in favour of K Manikandan, who is excellent as Padalam.
Mercurial, ruthless and cerebral, Padalam displays his tender side in Safi’s presence, hinting that there is more to him than the chargesheets included in his case file. By contrast, Ashwath is portrayed as watchful, a few steps behind Padalam, which doesn’t give Atharvaa much to do except give instructions on the phone and drop the occasional aphorism in English (“No amount of darkness can hide a spark of light”).
The five-episode series has a built-in cliffhanger, forcing us to wait for the moment when hunter and the hunted will finally meet. Apart from the suspicion that we are in the middle of a movie that became a series to do justice to the supporting cast, Mathagam does a fair job of ratcheting up the suspense. The show’s idiosyncratic rhythms encourage patience. The fine ensemble of actors ensures that this patience is rewarded.