Madrasapattinam

I picked up Madrasapattinam with a little trepidation; after all Indian historical films featuring a cast heavy on English actors don’t usually bode well. But I was pleasantly surprised as, although there are tinges of Lagaan and a few cringe-worthy moments, overall Madrasapattinam fares somewhat better than expected. There is still the issue of almost uniformly ‘evil English’ and ‘good Indian’ characters, meaning most of the supporting cast are very one-dimensional. However the leads give good enough performances that apart from one notable exception, I could ignore the clichés and just enjoy how beautiful the film looks.

The film begins with the elderly Amy Wilkinson determined to return to India and find a man she last saw some 60 years previously. Ostensibly she wants to return a Thali necklace given to her as she feels it does not belong to her. As she is also quite seriously ill she travels with her increasingly whiney and irritatingly useless granddaughter Catherine who is supposed to be looking after her. To aid her search Amy has a photograph she took in 1945 but little else other than a name.

When they arrive in Chennai Amy starts to relive her time in India, when she was the young daughter of the Governor, and this is when the film really comes alive.  The young Amy is picked up at the station by the Commissioner of Police, Robert Ellis (Alexx O’Nell), and straight away he’s my biggest problem with this film. Why does every English bad guy have to be the most evil and despicable person on screen? It’s very obvious from the first time we meet him that this is a man with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever and it’s difficult to keep watching and not just skip his scenes. In my opinion he could have been made much more interesting if he was just thoughtless and greedy rather than consistently evil, but sadly he’s just vile and repulsive and it’s very obvious from the very beginning how he is going to behave throughout the film.

On the trip to the Governor’s residence Amy meets Parithi (Arya) in classic ‘meet the hero’ style since she sees him running to save a donkey from the path of her runaway car. Parithi works as a dhobi and in his spare time he wrestles with local trainer Ayyakanu; a man with an impressive moustache who isn’t afraid to get down and dirty in the ring himself. Added to Partithi’s ability to run, wrestle and save animals is his most perfect feature – he can iron. Naturally Amy falls in love with her ‘brave man’ as he fights against the English plans to build a golf course on the area where the villagers work and live. It becomes a personal vendetta between evil Robert and Parithi as they are both also competing for Amy’s attention and since they are playing by different rules you know that it’s not going to end well.

Amy and Parithi meet each other in secret, and there are some lovely scenes as they struggle to overcome their language barrier. They have an ingenious if somewhat laborious method of communication, as Amy draws pictures on her clothes of where and when they will meet which Parithi then has to launder off. Amy spends much of her time in the village with her camera, and the villagers seem to love her just as much as she loves them. However when Indian Independence finally arrives it means the end of her romance unless she can escape with Parithi. Their plans are naturally foiled by evil Robert who chases them through the Independence celebrations determined that if he can’t marry Amy then no-one will.

The romance between Amy and Parithi is the best part of the film. Amy Jackson is stunningly beautiful and is convincing as a young English girl in the post-war period. She is nicely restrained in her scenes with Parithi, but charmingly natural with Parithi’s sister Selvi and the village children. Arya is excellent as the strong and mostly silent Parithi who is determined not to back down in the face of the English oppression.

There are many genuinely funny scenes which are well integrated into the narrative, and these help the film from getting too bogged down in all the drama of the fight for the village and the seemingly doomed romance. Tension is well build up in the chase scenes although these could have been cut a little without losing too much of the suspense. Cochin Hanifa as the translator Nambi and Nassar as Ayyakanu are the best of the supporting actors but the story revolves around Amy and Partithi and no-one else has an awful lot to do.

The film does look beautiful with well constructed sets which seem to be representative of 1940’s Madras, particularly to someone like me who’s only ever seen the modern version from 1990 onwards. There are one or two instances of rather dodgy CGI but these are fleeting and don’t really disrupt the story so they are ignorable. The end credits feature old pictures of Madras landmarks followed by their current appearance which really was fascinating. One anachronism for me was one of the actors had an apparent artificial eye. While this was possible from the time period, I don’t really think it’s all that likely that a dhobi would have had access to this especially post WWII where prosthesis were a luxury. But that’s just my obsession and I’ll just see how many people spot him.

The modern day scenes are somewhat hampered by an incredibly wooden performance from Lisa Lazarus as Amy’s granddaughter although Carole Trungmar is rather better as the elderly Amy and her periods of abstraction fit her character well. The story is compelling and the final scenes in the present day give a satisfying conclusion. While the soundtrack by G. V. Prakash Kumar is perfectly adequate it doesn’t stand out as particularly memorable. The first song is set in the dhobi village by the river and I’m sure intentionally, is very reminiscent of Ghanana Ghanana Ghir from Lagaan, although in this case they are asking the rain not to come. The rest of the songs have less dancing than I would have preferred but we do get the opportunity to see Arya in an outfit that looks as if he has just escaped from a totally different period film as consolation.

While evil Robert and the standard ‘English opression’ storyline did annoy me in this film, the romance is quite charming and I think the two leads manage to carry the story well. The parts of this film that I like, I really do like very much but the parts that I don’t like, I really do dislike very much. Which means a lot of fast forwarding when rewatching. As far as historical romances go it’s certainly not the worst I’ve seen and I give it 3 stars, although one of those is for a hero who can iron!

Temple says: I don’t have the same issue with evil Robert that Heather does. He shouts, snarls, twitches, bullies his underlings, has a pit full of decomposing bodies in his backyard and constructs overly elaborate revenge plans. In short, he’s like almost every other filmi villain. I do have an issue with the atrocious acting by the guy who plays Amy’s father. Distractingly bad. Given to long….pauses. For no reason. And delivered other lines. Like this. Staccato. Caroline Trungmar was not impressive as the older Amy as she seemed catatonic for most of the film but her Titanic inspired role was mostly to sit and look like she was remembering so I may be a bit harsh in my judgement. The tradition of really bad acting by white extras seems to be alive and well and was embraced by many in this cast.  As they were mostly caricatures rather than fully developed characters I don’t know that a more nuanced performance would have been much help. The Indian supporting cast were all pretty good, and Cochin Hanifa is lots of fun as are Parithi’s friends.

I was more distracted by the indeterminate historical period of the costumes and dialogues. As the film starts in 1945, the European costumes are often very wrong indeed and the dialogue sounds as though some of it was lifted from Dickens rather than a comparatively modern family. And the Europeans’ manners at the dance…well.

But the film is really about Parithi and Amy and if you can enjoy their developing love story, then it is a pleasant enough timepass. Arya is excellent as the strong silent type, prone to flexing and ironing. Who could ask for more? Ok well, if you want more, he also wrestles.  Amy Jackson looked more like a footballer’s girlfriend than a 1940s heroine but I think she is one of the least embarrassing gori love interests in an Indian historical film that I have seen. Their interactions are simple and often Amy follows Parithi about as he works, allowing us to observe the villagers life and see the diverse supporting characters in play. They have a nice rapport, and the scenes with Selvi (Parithi’s sister) are genuinely touching.

The look of old Madrasapattinam is very picturesque and the olden days scenes are pretty and dominated by sepia tones that help keep the mood of past times. The modern city of Chennai is a contrast in grey and blue, cold and confusing. This feels very much like a pastiche of Lagaan and Titanic with a dash of Kisna and it is entertaining rather than informative.

I give this 3 stars – for a good looking film, with good looking stars and a positive message that men who iron are heroes.

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15 thoughts on “Madrasapattinam

  1. You summed it up pretty well: the good parts are really good, but the bad parts are also really bad. But it’s definitely worth seeing for the Arya fan. And I appreciated the irony of Arya having to do so much work to meet his lady love (can you imagine how long it would take him every day to wash all that charcoal from her clothes when she sent him messages??).

    For me the movie was made by the bike scene, the bump in the head and the glorious ending which I did not see coming. Everything else is fast-forwardable :) Unless Arya is shirtless, of course, or smoldering with those unbelievable eyes of his, in which case fast forwarding may be too hasty a decision :P

    And Temple, I was laughing at the same think about the European fashion: mini skirts?? Really? This little lady was more emancipated than her grandchildren, historically speaking. Hm… The thought of my grandma wearing miniskirts just popped into my head… AWAY demon!!

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    • Thanks Dolce,

      I agree with you about the best scenes – the bike scene is fabulous!
      Arya makes it a perfectly re-watchable film as long as I can fast forward past evil Robert and his nasty scheming, all done with such a surly sneer! In fact this is probably the film that made me an Arya fan – I do like the strong and silent type :)

      Heather

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  2. Ooooh. We should do a post on annoying (and not) gori love interests (though I would have to include modern stories too as the only two historical films with them I know are this one and Lagaan).

    Filmiholic, who is my go-to for opinions on Tamil films, has said very good things about this one to me and I’m glad to hear…well, not negative, anyway, things from you both as well. On to the list it goes!

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    • Thanks Beth,

      Great idea! I haven’t seen many films at all where there is a gori love interest. I suspect that’s because so few are actually any good! The actors always seem so stiff and lifeless compared to the Indians. At least in the historical films that works better since the English upper class were so reserved. Hm – I may have to go and actually watch some others – although that would include Marigold I guess and I’m not sure I could sit through that!
      Do watch Madrasapattinam though – it’s really worth a look and you might not find evil Robert quite as objectionable as I did. Arya is very good at the brooding silent stare, and I can put up with a bit of grimacing from evil Robert for those shirtless scenes of his! :)
      The irritating grand daughter isn’t on screen much and the love story itself works really well. Amy Jackson is much less annoying than Rachel Shelley in Lagaan if nothing else, and is probably the only (fairly) non-annoying gori love interest I can think of :)
      Heather

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      • Other gori love interests include Stephanie in Salaam-e-Ishq and…uh, Sarah, I think her name is in Rajneeti. The latter is the best-written I’ve seen, though the acting…not so much. Being horrible seems to be the requirement for most white bit parts!

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  3. I’ve heard a lot of good things about this film, so Heather’s comments on the English characters here surprise me a little. As Temple says, was it specifically “English character as one dimensional villain”, or was it the “generic one-dimensional filmi villain who happens to be English”?

    LOL about the mini skirt wearing English woman in 1945, but how could the filmmakers give up a chance to show a young English woman in revealing clothes? (since, you know, all white women are always showing off their bodies) The interesting thing is that, I think I read somewhere that the actress Amy Jackson is actually Indian?

    BTW, I think Lisa Lazarus was the one who acted in Salman Khan’s Veer? I didn’t think much of her acting there, though she didn’t have much to do, and did look very pretty. If you want anachronistic clothes, Veer is a treasure trove of them, though, if you can get past that, I think it’s a good and interesting movie. (examples are Lisa Lazarus wearing trousers in an India circa 1865 – or was it 1885?, and female highland dancers with skirts above their knees in the same time frame in England — though at least they weren’t mini skirts) (And also Salman’s jeans, while all the other men were in dhotis. Sigh)

    A film that I’ve seen recommended as a good example of Indian-foreigner romance is Dil Jo Bhi Kahey…, though I can’t remember how good the (white) heroine’s acting was supposed to be.

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    • Veer mm VEER? Oh that was a treasure trove of many things, but I don’t think I would describe any of them as good….I did enjoy the wardrobe a lot. But overall I found it unengaging and the acting was lacking, especially Mithun. I had forgotten Lisa Lazarus completely! The costumes in this were sometimes much more old fashioned than they should have been, and then they would switch to an off the shoulder above the knee frock.
      Regarding the villain in this film I think his motivation was mostly personal and his animosity was directed at anyone who stood between him and what he wanted. There were some racially based elements but they also seemed to be part of the ‘historical’ window dressing and these behaviours and attitudes (to different degrees) were scattered around the cast of Anglo characters. Most of the supporting characters were pretty one-dimensional, but for me the lack of depth is always more noticeable in an unsympathetic character. Cheers, Temple

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      • There were a lot of philosophical underpinnings to the conflicts in Veer, which is what I liked, besides giving powerful roles to women, which seems to be a constant complaint of various Bolly bloggers. However, it’s also true that those philosophical references may have gone unrecognized by many (including the many Indians who didn’t like Veer :) ) For instance, the whole conflict for Zarine Khan’s character (the heroine), as well as Veer’s, were framed as conflicts of dharma, and that is a concept that is sadly lacking in current Indian conversations. But that’s what attracted me, precisely because it is so rare. Another film which is supposed to deal with this kind of question (which I have yet to see) is Eklavya. The question of conflicting dharmas for an individual is central to the Mahabharata, and is indeed the basis for the Bhagavad Gita. These texts were explicitly and implicitly invoked in the film, but for those viewers who are not familiar with them (again including many Indians), the references may have been completely missed.

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      • I am staring at your comment, waiting for a recollection of any philosophical moments in Veer….no, not happening. You almost tempt me to watch it again, but I don’t think I’ll fall for it. Not while I have so many snake revenge films in The Pile, demanding my attention.

        Are you referring to the relatively recent Hindi film of Eklavya (Amitabh Bachchan and Saif Ali Khan)? I was extremely unimpressed by it. It was a potentially really interesting narrative ruined by hammy acting, pedestrian direction and strange choices in the production design (plastic flowers stapled to a trellis in a supposed garden scene – that kind of thing can really annoy me in a ‘serious’ film). I did like the relationships and the conflict that the opposing loyalties and history brought about but there was too much scenery chewing. I’m not a fan of Saif and find he is more effective in ensembles than as a lead so that was definitely a factor. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on it anyway. I always suspect there is a lot I am missing as I don’t recognise all the references to historical/religious/mythological characters and what they represent. But that brings me back to Veer…Cheers, Temple

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    • Hi mm,
      There are plenty of good points :) – Arya springs to mind as one!
      But I found the English characters to be unrelentingly evil without any of the usual filmi villain craziness. So for example when Amrish Puri is Mogambo in Mr India he’s crazy and wacky but also has charisma which makes him such a good villain. Here the other characters cheer Evil Robert on when he’s torturing his prisoners and no-one seems to object. It wasn’t what I was expecting in a ‘semi-’ historical drama. If they had gone totally filmi villain it may have worked better, but just making the characters less one dimensional would have been a start. I just feel it was lazy film making and that more thought could have gone into these characters to make them more interesting – and then I wouldn’t just hit the fast forward button every time Evil Robert appears :)

      I have never seen Veer, not have I any intention of doing so – although the anachronisms in the costuming may make it worth a look :P

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  4. I actually loved this movie (esp as it had good Tamilian screenwriter), but yes i was put off by the extreme characterizations of British Colonization as I feel to depict in a film even it it’s to portray the plight of Indians it is does not provide a solution to the hate unless it’s factually based for a specific event, but just perpetuates the notion hatred should always be justified. Its understanable for Indians to hate British over colonization, but unless its factually based on certain episode fabricated violent events just adds to general public anger over this sensitive issue. I think (better than Lagaan) Madrasapattinam showed how quickly Amy iced Parthi’s hatred for the British by showing her heart, intelligence, and obviously beauty (in Lagaan it took longer and you did see rachel charactor develop much). I loved the script of this movie great dialogue i only liked two songs in it the rest should have been excluded to provide a better sequence of events and more room for the developments of supporting actors. About your suggestion Robert was evil than just a antagonist well i guess he was drawn up to be loathed by the audience for more support for Parthi (I wonder if its difficult to act that way and not go overboard-esp for salvaging chemistry between the main actors). Yes i wish Robert was less evil did not enjoy seeing his evil actions towards good supporting Indian actors as i would have enjoyed seeming them til the end instead of them having a fateful fall that was difficult to watch ( only thing robert did not do is urinate on the local Indian people to piss the audience off). In some ways ( violent actions and basic plot) Madrasapattinam is trying to match Lagaan and Titanic (historical romance), but for the most part as far as dialogue, being set in colonized Madras (loved the before and after visuals of Colonized Madras-Chennai in the end credits as well), being visually stimulating start to finish, and having unique charactors it’s very original-but in general its about love like most Indian movies. This is why i loved Sivaji movie (loved your review btw) the plot is not just about love its about corruption and it’s depicted factually-Chennai and all of India is extremely corrupt as how business is conducted in India is very realistic (Indians are very crafty and the deceptive ones know how to swindle you well). I think there should be more open discourse about racism in movies (why i prefer documentaries) instead of action and comedy getting in the way of explaining something that needs a postive resolution (negative perceptions just perpetuate hate). happy holidays Kavin.

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    • Hi Kavin,
      Thanks for your comment :)
      I’m quite sure there were attrocities on both sides. and there could very well have been someone as evil as Robert, but I think the British army were often more cruel just by plain ignorance rather than deliberate malice. At least most of the time. Making one character so evil and the other so good was too simplistic I thought, and I found the actor who played Robert to be a little too wooden, although I guess that’s very typically ‘British’ from that period!
      I do like the love story though and Arya is excellent in this film. There could certainly have been inspiration from Lagaan and other historical films, but I think that’s good and I would like to see more, and more realistic historical dramas.
      Cheers
      Heather

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  5. Another similar movie is Kisna. The gori girl isn’t that bad as the one in Lagaan. Kisna also stars Vivek Oberoi in the lead. Arya and Amy were amazing in Madrasapattinam. I hated Robert, too. I also hated the step-mother. I loved the ending how they met up in heaven. Interesting that she died right after she saw his memorial or grave. Heather and Kavin, I agree that there were atrocities on both sides. I’m Telugu and this was my first Tamil movie. I really loved every second of this movie. After I watched the Tamil version I saw that they made a Telugu and a Hindi versian and I have seen parts of those and hopefully when I have more time I will finish those two versions of the movie. I really hope that in the future there will be more love stories similar to Madrasapattinam, Kisna, Veer and Lagaan. Parthi, Kisna, Veer, and Bhuvan are amazing men in their own ways. Out of these movies, Kisna is the only one that also includes the partition riots that happened during 1947. Eklavya was a somewhat interesting movie. There was also another movie that I watched a few years ago that took place around Partition. It consisted of a Muslim heroine who was fleeing India and going to Pakistan with her family. They arrived in Punjab unfortunately the train coming back from Pakistan carrying Hindus was attacked by the Muslims and all were killed. So when the Hindus and Sikhs saw the Muslims on the way to Pakistan they started attacking for revenge. She had a mother, father and two brothers. The heroine’s father was killed, she ran off into the forest and was separated from her family who survived the journey to Pakistan. The hero who is Sikh found her in the forest, rescued her and brought her into his house. He protects her, they fall in love, get married, and she gives birth to a son. She gets news from her husbands friend, whose brother he was in the army with but left the army after his British boss died, that her brothers and mother made it to Pakistan and they are looking for her. She decided to go to Pakistan to visit them. She goes by her self and is locked up in her room by her brothers when they realize that she wants to go back to her family. Her husband tries to go to Pakistan only to be told that only Muslims or British citizens are allowed in the country. He converts to Islam, goes to Pakistan, and rescues his wife only to die when they are escaping from the train station. She goes to England with her son and the gori memsahib.

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    • Hi Sirisha
      Thank-you for your comment. I have Kisna in the pile of films to watch, but since it didn’t get brilliant reviews I haven’t been in too much of a rush to get to it. I liked the ST though, so I will watch it at some stage :)
      I really like the more historical dramas although I haven’t seen very many at all. I have seen both Lagaan and Eklavya from the ones you mention above. While I think Lagaan is a good film, and it’s one I recommend to people as an ‘entry’ film to BW, I found Eklavya to be rather dull. It was very slow, and the main point I remember about the film is how beautiful the interiors were rather than anything else! I have resisted Jodhaa Akbar because I just cannot see Hrithik as an action hero and Veer didn’t appeal to me at all.
      The story you mention is one I have read as a novel, although I cannot remember who was the author. I will keep an eye out for the film you mention though.
      Heather

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