Ponmagal Vandhal declares at the outset that justice is best served by heeding evidence and logic rather than emotion – and then proceeds to ignore its own advice.

The production is slick, the pacing swift and the acting controlled. And yet, the Tamil movie, which is being streamed on Amazon Prime Video, is unable to advance its main concern – about the rape and sexual abuse of children – without resorting to astonishing plot twists.

The movie opens in 2004. A woman named Jothi has been killed by the police while resisting arrest for a pair of murders and serial child abuse. Closed-circuit television footage shows Jothi grabbing a little girl and then shooting two men who seem to be trying to prevent her from getting away. Jothi is said to have killed scores of children.

Nobody mourns the death of the woman known as “Psycho Jothi”. So when freshly minted advocate Venba (Jyotika) stands up in a courtroom and argues that Jothi is innocent, protestors come out in full force.

Venba is the daughter of Ooty busybody Pethuraj (K Bhagyaraj). His civic activism and fondness for public interest litigation have earned him the nickname “Petition Pethuraj”. The father and daughter have the reputation for fighting the good fight, but their latest campaign seems to be a lost cause. The entry of hot-shot lawyer Rajrathnam (Parthiban), who is representing the influential father of one of the murder victims, poses further obstacles for Venba.

Jyotika in Ponmagal Vandhal (2020). Courtesy 2D Entertainment/Amazon Prime Video.

Venba’s early days in court give the sense that first-time director JJ Fredrick has crafted a cautionary tale about lynch mobs influencing police work and prosecution. The 123-minute film initially makes a case for relying on cold logic to determine whether people accused of dastardly crimes are actually guilty or the authorities have been swept along by the public mood. Doubt, one of the cornerstones of the justice system, is raised. So far, so good.

The rigour is short-lived. A film meant to be a legal drama quickly slips into melodrama as Fredrick piles on the twists, plays fast and loose with legal procedure, and reaches into his magician’s hat ever so often to produce tricks that move the plot along to a foregone conclusion. It comes to the point where Venba tells the judge that she has “nothing to submit as evidence except truth and tears” – a sign that the movie has lost the battle as well as the war.

The performances anchor the narrative even as it thrashes about. Jyotika is solid and compelling as the crusading advocate. The cast is packed with veteran Tamil actors and filmmakers, including Prathap Pothen as the judge, Pandiaraj as the court clerk, Bhagrayaj as Venba’s supportive father, and Thiagarajan as the sinister Varadarajan, whose son may not be innocent after all. Parthiban is astutely cast as the preening lawyer who dismisses Venba as a flake. Their collective experience salvages this saga about a miscarriage of justice from collapsing into a miscarriage of moviemaking.

Ponmagal Vandhal (2020).

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