A reporter (Rohini) researching the death penalty in India is recounted the story of a farm owner Virumandi (Kamal) whose role in a clan feud between Naicker (Napoleon) and Kothalla Devar (Pasupathi) leads him to death row.
As the story unfolds, there is a riot in the jail, and the only one who can get the reporter safely out of the prison is Virumandi.
The film starts with Angela Kathamuthu (Rohini) and her cameraman in Central Jail interviewing prisoners serving life imprisonment and awaiting the death sentence. She meets Kothala Thevar (Pasupathy) who is serving a life sentence. He tells his version of the story that led to his conviction. According to him the root cause of the problem is Virumaandi (Kamal Haasan) - the happy go lucky rogue.
His support to Kothala Thevar in his clash against Nallama Naicker (Napoleon) brings about a bonding between the two. Annalakshmi (Abhirami), the niece of Thevar falls for Virumaandi. Thevar with an eye on the fertile land owned by Virumaandi does not object to the romance. According to Thevar, Annalakshmi was abducted by Virumaandi and raped. A clash between Virumaandi and Thevar takes places in which 24 innocent people are killed.
Now it's Virumaandi's turn to tell his version of the story. He tells of how he fell in love with Annalakshmi and of her influence on him. She taught him to apologize and that forgiveness is a virtue. A clash at the Panchayata infuriates Annalakshmi and she asks Virumaandi to apologize to the elders whom he insulted. He goes to apologize but Thevar and his men, thinking he has gone to take revenge, come in groups and hack down innocents to death.
Thevar uses his clout to get out of the murder charge but Virumaandi who was involved in the bloodbath is disturbed because he had to lie to save Thevar and his kin. As part of the penance he wills his land for the villagers. Annalakshmi asks him to marry her and leave the village. He marries her at the village temple and goes away in the night with the girl and stays with a relative. Thevar's men come and abduct Annalakshmi and forcibly get her married to Thevar's nephew.
This is to ensure that Annalakshmi's property does not go to Virumaandi. Annalakshmi commits suicide. Virumaandi takes revenge by hacking to death Thevar's family. Thevar escapes. Nallama Naicker gives refuge to Virumaandi and sends him off to Chennai. Thevar and his men ask Nallama Naicker to hand over Virumaandi. A battle ensues in which Nallama Naicker is killed. The case goes to court. Virumaandi turns up in court. He finds all evidence is against him. He is convicted of having raped Annalakshmi and killing her and later on killing 26 men of Thevar who inquired into the rape.
Angela Kathamuthu's cameraman discreetly shoots the deputy jailor conspiring with wardens and convicts to bump off the chief jailor (Nassar). A revolt among the jail staff leads to a jail break, the jailor being stabbed and Virumaandi saving the vital evidence and Angela from the deputy jailor and his henchmen. The film ends with a note that the death sentence should be abolished.
At the 2004 Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival held in South Korea, the movie won the International Award for Best Asian Film.
This is perhaps for the first time two southern villages were transported live to the Campa Cola complex in Chennai. The complex was transformed into bustling Theni and Madurai villages with people speaking the local dialect. The sets were so authentic and beautiful that Kamal Haasan received requests not to abandon the sets for at least six months but to throw them open to the public for viewing before the release of the film.
The complex had festivities and fun, frolic and festoons. It was hard to distinguish the sets from the streets. The Jalli Kattu Street was so natural that even people who took part in scores of Jalli Kattu competitions could not believe their eyes and felt that they were in their native village.
Kottala Devar home and Nallamma Naicker palace were artistically built with dexterity that is bound to take people down the memory lane. It was hard to believe that the sets were created in Chennai, be it "Virumaandi" temple, Central Prison or police station.
Two special Kangeyam bulls ever ready to charge were carefully trained with great difficulties for the movie, again a first in the tinsel world. The bulls were kept at Sivaji Gardens and trained. The lead actress Abirami and hero Kamal Haasan did their home work daily and spent time with the bulls as part of the familiarization process.
In all, almost 1,000 persons were brought from Madurai district to give an authentic flavor to the sequences. Several technicians risked their lives to capture live the realism involved in the bull fight which is going to be among the highlights of the film. It is bound to be action personified on the screen.
Art Director Prabhakaran had re-created the typical village that even a local villager who passes by the set would think that he is setting foot on his native land.
Although "Jalli Kattu" is very popular in places like Alanganallur and Tiruchi during the Pongal season, perhaps for the first time it was recorded live with all the accompanying action and bravery of the men for the benefit of the movie goers and for posterity as well. Over 50 choicest rugged bulls known for its toughness were specially selected along with trainers and bull fighters. Not only the trainers, but the villagers who are familiar with the events were transported from the villages to the shooting spot to be part of the epoch-making event.
A constant learner and an experimenter himself, Kamal decided to learn how to drive a moped without using his hands.
Live sound recording system was used and for the first time, the Neuendo machine was kept at the shooting venue. There were special cameras for fight scenes as well. Vadipatti drummers were specially brought to give the local flavor for the movie. Not only Vadipatti drummers but Vadugapatti crackers were used too.
Cinematographer Kesav Prakash was trained in India and the United States was an assistant to Ravi K Chandran in "Marudanayagam" project and Kamal Haasan spotted him. Both Kamal Haasan and Keshav Prakash tried to make the film in high definition mode but had to abandon the project due to some technical snags.
The movie became a super hit performer at the Box Office; as a consequence it was later dubbed to Telugu as "Pothuraaju Cheppinattu".
One of the central concepts highlighted in the movie is the controversy surrounding the death penalty.
The film's narrative is based on the Rashomon effect. They express how they feel about the direction their lives have taken and how they have ended up where they are.
Extensive sets of rural tamilnadu and prison were erected in Chennai. Bulls from Madurai and nearby districts were transported to Chennai for the bull fight sequences .
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