The recent Tamil movie, Vikram Vedha, has taken Kollywood by storm. The cinematic storytelling, the music underscore, the cryptic utterances, and the on-screen performances of the ever-charming Ranganathan Madhavan and the natural Vijay Sethupathi is telling. Once you watch this movie, you are in a war with yourself wondering if it is (morally) “right” to watch the movie a second time (when that amount can be spent elsewhere). You do get the point, don’t you? If not, keep reading on. The movie goes beyond the performances, the dialogues, and the music, for underneath them lies an ethical motif that demands to be seen and understood.
Right from the beginning, Vikram is presented as good (hero) and Vedha (without making an appearance just yet) as bad (villain). That is further symbolically enunciated in their first meet when Vikram, wearing white (generally associated with perfection and goodness), has the light shining on his face while Vedha, wearing black (generally associated with evil and death), seems to be partially hidden in darkness (but one mustn’t forget that this is one the features of neo-noir filming). Moving further, as series of events begin to unfold in the form of narratives, we are led to think that there is something beyond the obvious. The “goodness” in the good begins to depreciate insidiously, merges with the bad, minimizing its maliciousness. Without realizing what has happened, we are left hanging in a muddled state of mind. The lines of morality have suddenly become blurred.
On the one hand, Vikram is seen as an honest and up-right cop who prides in eliminating villains at will, for that is his calling. His justifications of murders by placing a gun in the hand of the dead, to indicate execution as an instinctive act of self-defence, are welcomed by us, the viewers, as a brilliant and shrewd idea. Later, as we are all aware, it is this same idea that goes against him. Vikram’s moral vision is conditioned by a strict demarcation of what is good and evil, and he has his own way of alluding to this idea (pointing to the line on a table). On the other, Vedha is assumed to be a vicious gangster. After all that’s the image we (begin to) have after watching (thirty minutes of) Vikram’s morally sound public façade. In Vedha, there is also a subversion of gangster ideals, and that is evident in his sense of humour (throughout the movie) and also in his ability to ‘entertain’ himself and his compatriots without requiring a woman to do the painfully sexist “item number.”
As the movie progresses, Vedha narrates three life experiences. What Vedha employs is a deliberate methodological inclusion of his experiences into a moral dilemma that not only questions the moral framework he and Vikram are situated within, but also confronts the propriety of moral theories with underside realities. His moral reasoning, a product of his struggle and his social location, questions the moral paradigm of the privileged and the righteous, i.e. the police. When Vikram begins to answer each of Vedha’s questions, at one particular instant he shockingly finds himself to be on the wrong side of the line (notice Vedha’s prior reference to the bark of a tree as a marker separating good from evil). Vedha, masterfully and mysteriously (another meaning attached to the colour black) exposes Vikram’s delusive perception of morality. Vedha, an archetype for those at the bottom of the moral hierarchy, is seen questioning the purity and decency of Vikram, an archetype for the dominant order and culture.
Ethicist, Miguel A. De La Torre opines that, “[…] the privileged are quite adept at convincing themselves that their acts are altruistic […]” Isn’t this somehow reminiscent of Vikram who claims to have always had a peaceful sleep knowing he has put to death a criminal? (I’m reminded of Clint Eastwood who happens to have said something similar in the movie Gran Torino) If Vikram and Vedha are seen as symbolic representations of the opposite poles of morality at the beginning of the movie, at the end of it, it isn’t hard to see that there is a Vedha in Vikram and a Vikram in Vedha. The idea behind the poster and the naming of the movie as Vikram Vedha (as opposed to Vikram and Vedha) becomes rather clear and cogent.
Finally, in most scenes, if not all, Vikram appears on the left end of the screen and Vedha to the right. Again, is their positioning a symbolic reference to (and the universally accepted phrasing of) “good and evil?” We have to wait for the very last scene of the movie to have this order reversed. The movie alludes to the ambiguity inherent in morality and it leaves us wondering whether we must continue to hold on to a moral paradigm having sharp boundaries for good and evil, or can we move forward by holding these moral differences and its blurred boundaries in tension, without necessarily falling into the trap of dualistic binaries of good and evil. In Vikram (and) Vedha, the lines of morality are blurred. In Vikram (and) Vedha, morality is ambiguous.