Chennai 600028

Chennai 600028

The opening moments of Venkat Prabhu’s debut film seem to be setting the scene for a retelling of West Side Story, with two rival cricket teams called the Sharks and the Rockets replacing the American street gangs. But surprisingly the rivalry between the two teams isn’t the focus of the story at all. It’s smarter than that. Yes, there is plenty of cricket and even some cross-team rivalry, but Chennai 600028 mainly follows the different players from the Sharks team for one year, with all the highs and lows you’d expect in any character drama. Essentially, it’s a story about an everyday group of friends, connected by locality and a passion for their cricket team.  None of the actors were well known at the time, and they all fit easily into the roles of regular guys, some of whom have jobs and some of who are still at college, but who all hang around together to play gully cricket. With some clever dialogue and good situational comedy, Venkat Prabhu ensures that despite a rather rambling storyline, the film has plenty of laughs and enough memorable characters to make the film an entertaining watch.

The Sharks team live in the Chennai area of the title and are introduced one by one by a narrator who describes them by their cricket skills; although generally some other identifying characteristic is also given. This is incredibly useful as there are 10 named team members and it’s very easy to lose track initially of just who is who and where they fit into the team. The film starts off with the defeat of the Sharks for the fourth time by the Rockets, mainly due to a dismal performance from supposed ‘all-rounder’ but actually terrible player and tail-ender Seenu (Premji Amaran). He’s the bumbling fumbler who cannot take a catch to save his life, but is generally loud and obnoxiously cheery despite his limited cricketing talents. Premji is a little more restrained here than in later films such as Goa, and he’s mostly funny thanks mainly to a good rapport with the other characters and some witty and well written dialogue. I didn’t know that Premji was also a musician, and he is responsible for the background score as well as one of the songs – pretty impressive!

Along with their most recent defeat, the Sharks players all have their own problems, although lack of money is the most regular feature in their discussions. The money is for their regular drinking sessions, which allows them to sit and talk about life, cricket and women, which eventually leads back to money, of course! It all fits in well with their various personalities and since the characters are all engaging and seem to fit well into their roles it comes across as a genuine look at life in the area. Plus we get this song, which perfectly captures the group of friends out drinking and having a good time.

Things change when Rocket team member Raghu (Jai) moves into the Visalatchi Thottam area with his family. Raghu feels that his world has come to an end, nicely illustrated by some excellent histrionics in the bathroom, and this does indeed seem to be possible given his initial reception by the locals. He’s looked on with suspicion and to add to his woes, his old team are too far away for Raghu to make it to regular practices, meaning he’s left out of their line-up for matches.

Raghu is one of the central characters for the story and Jai is excellent here in his first main role. His initial arrival into the new area is hilarious, and in just a few scenes he imbues Rahgu with plenty of charm and appeal, making his eventual acceptance into the rival team seem more plausible. His resemblance to Vijay is also part of the comedy, but best of all are his scenes with Karthik (Shiva Sundaram) starting from when a fight seems inevitable. Karthik is in love with Selvi (Vijayalakshmi) who is the sister of Karthik’s teammate Pazhani (Nithin Sathya) and therefore, for some obscure reason, off limits. Raghu’s father on the other hand is friendly with Selvi and Pazhani’s father, so inevitably Raghu is often seem chatting to someone who does at least acknowledge his existence. Karthik has some wonderful lovelorn expressions as he sees his rival on the field appear to become his rival in love and the interactions between the two potential adversaries are very well done.

Aravind (Aravind Akash) is also in love with a wealthy girl Swetha (Kristine Zedek) who regularly comes in to the coffee shop where he works. This is a rather more implausible romance, which is made more unlikely by the couple mainly only appearing together in song. These romantic songs also slow down the pace of the film and seem somewhat out of place in an otherwise more realistic and upbeat film.  Aravind is fine in his role as part of the cricket team and amusing as a guy in love but Kristine has very little to do and doesn’t impress in her few moments on screen.

There is a side plot involving Karthik’s brother Guna (Sampath Raj) but mainly the action revolves around the team members, their relationships with each other and their ambition to finally win the Radio Mirchi Cup.  There are no standout heroes, just a regular group of mates and that’s what appeals most about the film. Venkat Prabhu has captured plenty of camaraderie, but included discord and division to spice up the story and the blend is just about perfect. The cricket scenes are nicely placed in the film too – not too many, but enough to keep focus on the team rather than on just the individuals.  The commentary is also excellent (although that just might be my subtitles) and reflects the general standard of cricket commentary the world over!

Chennai 600028 is an excellent début and a good indication of what to expect from Venkat Prabhu as he uses most of the same ingredients (and often the same actors) in his subsequent films such as Saroja, Goa and Mankatha. Mainly Chennai 600028 is a film about people, their lives and their dreams, and only after those details are fully realised is a story superimposed on top.   It works because of the very ordinariness of the characters – these are guys that can be seen on every patch of ground, anywhere it’s possible to set up stumps and standing around on every street in Chennai. That is the charm of the movie. Recommended for excellent performances, witty dialogue and a film that  captures the intensity and ubiquitousness  of street cricket in India.  4 stars.

 

Haider

Haider

Watching Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film Haider is a visceral and haunting experience, as the gorgeous detail of the film allows every emotion and each drop of blood to be shown in crystal clarity. The story of treachery in Denmark is transplanted to Kashmir at the height of increased militancy in the area in 1995, but still remains tragedy on a grand scale. Bhardwaj and his co-writer Basharat Peer have successfully adapted the bard’s play into more modern-day India, although the pacing is a little inconsistent in places and at times the Kashmiri issue threatens to overshadow the personal drama. The heart of the film is in the performances, and although Shahid Kapoor is excellent in probably one of the best performances of his career, the real stand-out is Tabu who is completely mesmerising in her role as a conflicted mother to Haider and disloyal wife to Dr Hilal Meer. It is compelling cinema and definitely well worth watching in the theatre to fully appreciate the stunning cinematography and spectacular beauty of Kashmir.

Haider (Shahid Kapoor) is a student, safely studying poetry in Anantnag when he learns that his father has disappeared after providing medical aid to a militant leader. Dr Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha) is taken by the army in a truly frightening scene that manages to grasp the sense of hopelessness and terror of a military raid in just a few moments. The grim method of selecting who may go and who is arrested by a balaclava-wearing man in a Jeep is chilling, as is the resignation that makes everyone line up for inspection without any word of complaint. The detail in each frame is incredible, and the performances are very natural, making the film seem almost like a news report direct from the action, rather than a fictional story.

Dr Meer’s family home is also bombed, along with the militant leader still inside, and in a few seconds his wife Ghazala (Tabu) has become a ‘half-widow’ without anywhere to live. As a result, when Haider returns he finds his mother living with his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay Menon), and he is instantly suspicious about their relationship. While rejecting his mother, Haider relies heavily on his girlfriend journalist Arshia (Ahraddha Kapoor) and two friends Salman (Sumit Kaul) and Salman (Rajat Bhagat) as he searches for his father. Since up until this point the film is unrelentingly bleak, it’s a real relief when the comedy appears, and Salman and Salman are an excellent counterpoint to the violence and despair elsewhere.

Haider’s search for his father is heart wrenchingly sad, as he is just another one of many who are searching for their own disappeared relatives. However, interspersed with his search are confrontations with his mother and uncle which fuel Haider’s anger and mistrust. The relationship between Haider and Ghazala is wonderfully nuanced and both actors capture the essence of Shakespeare’s characters and their conflicted emotions well. There is a frisson of sexual tension, heightened since Tabu looks way too young to be Shahid’s mother, but mainly the film focuses on Haider’s sense of betrayal when his mother takes up with his father’s killer. Kay Kay Menon is also effortlessly perfect, juggling Khurram’s political ambitions with his desire for Ghazala and bringing more depth to the Shakespearean character of Claudius than I seem to remember from studying the original play at school.

The romance between Haider and Arshia is also nicely developed, and Arshia has a believable character as a journalist and relatively realistic relationships with her brother Liyaqat (Aamir Bashir) and father (Lalit Parimoo). Shraddha Kapoor is good in her role, particularly in her scenes with Shahid and she’s also credible in her despair when she loses the plot after her father dies. Most of the other characters from Shakespeare’s play appear, although the role of the ghost is changed into a fellow prisoner of Dr Meer who is expertly played by Irrfan Khan.  Most impressive is the ‘play within a play’ which in is depicted as a song. The puppets are wonderful, but even just a glimpse of Tabu and Kay Kay Menon in this clip illustrates just how good they both are in conveying their characters.

Haider’s eventual descent into madness is dealt with better than the earlier scenes where Shahid sometimes appears a little too distant. But as the film progresses his emotional shifts and internal struggles are mostly well represented and he does genuinely appear to be a conflicted personality by the end. Many of the famous lines from the original Hamlet appear in Haider’s soliloquies, although they are also inserted into various conversations (and the subtitles don’t really do them justice), and there is even a brief appearance of the skull before the final, and very bloody showdown. This is passion, vengeance, despair and madness writ large and the scope of the film truly feels epic.

Haider impresses with fine attention to detail and excellent performances from the entire cast. However the shift to Kashmir means the military conflict looms large in the story and as a result the original tale of betrayal and treachery occasionally gets a little lost. The pacing is uneven, particularly in the first half, but this allows time for the complexity of the characters to fully develop so isn’t necessarily a flaw with the film. It is a bleak story and be warned that some scenes are definitely not for the squeamish as the body count piles up and cinematographer Pankaj Kumar illustrates just how well snow contrasts with blood. Overall Haider is a well crafted and novel interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and one I definitely recommend watching for excellent performances and a rather different view of Kashmir.

Govindudu Andarivadele

Govindudu Andarivadele

Soaring melodrama, fantastically colourful sets and Prakash Raj are the stand-outs from GAV. Add in Charan, who has definitely improved on his emoting, and you have the bones of Krishna Vamshi’s family drama that mostly delivers what it promises. There are plenty of emotional scenes as Abhiram (Charan) attempts to reunite his family in England with the rest of his estranged relations in India, and of course there’s some local trouble and a romance thrown in for good measure. While most of the film seemed to live up to Krishna Vamshi’s preoccupation with family values, there are a few scenes here that seem to be a hold-over from a less pc era, and stand out as glaringly sexist and just plain wrong. However the rest of the film is entertaining enough despite a storyline so overused that the lack of subtitles was really never an issue!

The story opens with a déjà vu from K3G as Abhiram demonstrates just how well he can play rugby when the opposing team fail to follow the rules of the game and actually attempt to tackle. Real rugby players end up covered in mud and crushed under a few tons of Welsh full-back in my experience, but apparently not in Vamshi’s world. Abhiram lives in a very nice pad in London with his father Chandrasekhar (Rehman) and his little sister whose name I didn’t catch. Unfortunately Chandrasekhar misses out on an appointment to be Dean of Medicine at a London University and interprets this as karma due to an old rift from his own father.  No academic politics in Vamshi’s world either then, I presume!

Overnight Abhiram decides that he will be the one to make all right for his father, and heads off to India to do what he can to bring the families back together. Sadly though, he doesn’t take time to remove his rather odd pony-tail which I can only assume must have been an attempt to look ultra-hip and cool – London-ishtyle. Not my favourite look for Charan, but it did grow on me as the movie went on.

GAV - Charan

Things definitely look up once Abhiram makes it to India, does all the usual touristy things, and then heads off to his grandfather’s village. Following the standard family reconciliation template, Abhiram makes contact with the rest of his family anonymously by pretending to be a visiting agricultural student who wants to learn from family patriarch Balaraju (Prakash Raj). Balaraju runs his family and the village with a benevolent but very traditional hand while stopping his brother (Kota Srinivasa Rao) from clearing and developing the area. Living in the wonderfully pink and majorly over-decorated mansion is also Chandrasekhar’s wastrel brother Bangari (Srikanth): a man with an unfortunate propensity for mesh singlets and garish shirts. Oh, and he drinks, gambles and tries to kidnap and rape his potential bride, Chitra (Kamalinee Mukherjee). This is one of those scenes that really should never have made it in to a film in this day and age, and it does feel completely anachronistic with the rest of the story. Equally disturbing is Abhiram’s use of some photographs he has taken of his cousin Satya (Kajal Agarwal) dancing in Western clothes as a way to blackmail her. This is straight out bullying and sexual abuse, and I find it hard to believe this got past the censors in an otherwise ‘family-friendly’ film. Thankfully Satya does manage to effectively deal with Abhiram’s harassment, but it makes their subsequent romance initially less believable and Abhiram appear as a bit of a prat.

The rest of the film is much better, and that’s mainly due to excellent performances from Prakash Raj and Charan. Prakash Raj is perfect as Balaraju and he knows exactly how to play the strict but compassionate head of a large family. He never puts a foot wrong and wrings every possible drop of emotion out of his time on screen. He even manages to make stick fighting and motorbike riding emotional events, as he unknowingly bonds with his grandson. Jayasudha is just as good as Abhiram’s grandmother, and again she manages to take her overly emotional scenes and tame them down to something more realistic and believable.

Charan gets a chance to show that he can play more than just an action hero and he definitely rises to the challenge. His Abhiram has more shading than other characters I’ve seen Charan play, and he conveys plenty of emotion and feeling in his speeches, even though I couldn’t understand a word! Despite the initially rocky start, there is plenty of chemistry and some major sparkage in the romance between Abhiram and Satya. Charan is one of the few actors that interacts well with Kajal in this respect and their romance really does light up the screen. Charan does manage to stick close to his real love though, as seen in this song mainly set in and around Petra. I wonder if it’s written into every contract that he must get at least one scene with horses? Kajal gets rather short-changed in the choreography here, although Charan doesn’t actually get to dance much either and sadly most of the songs have more emoting than dancing.

The rest of the cast are all capable and fit well into their roles. Rao Ramesh, Posani Krishna Murali and Adarsh Balakrishna are part of Kota Srinivasa Rao’s opposing family but never feel terribly menacing. Adarsh’s character is mainly just very shouty and aggressive, and the various fight scenes, which appear to have been structured around rugby tactics, aren’t up to Peter Hein’s usual high standard. The film looks gorgeous though. The pink palace is amazing – Satya has a stunning peacock painting on her wall, and most of the other rooms are similarly adorned with fantastical artwork and gorgeous furniture. I would live there!

GAV - the pink palace

The emotional quotient does head into overload at times and the ending is particularly excessive, but that doesn’t really seem to matter since the whole point of the story is overblown sentiment. As a straightforward family drama GAV works well enough despite the cliché-ridden storyline and the strong performances help push it over the line. Well worth watching for Prakash Raj and Charan, particularly when you can marvel at the wonders of the pink palace as a bonus.

Memories (2013)

Memories

Before the release of his blockbuster Drishyam in 2013, director Jeethu Joseph had a hit with this thriller/crime drama starring Prithviraj as a cop on the trail of a serial killer. Despite the tag of crime thriller, Memories is more than just a simple tale of a murder investigation with the requisite suspects, dead ends and clues that gradually lead to the killer. Although all of that is still there, the film focuses more on the character of the lead investigating officer and his day to day struggles to deal with his difficult past. It’s a good attempt to deliver a more Hollywood-style drama but in the final scenes the film is let down by a rather unbelievable protagonist and a few plot holes that develop as a result. It’s still well worth a watch though for a number of excellent performances, most notably from Prithviraj, and an effective build-up of suspense in the first half of the film.

Sam Alex (Prithviraj) was a successful police officer before the fall-out from a raid on a criminal gang impacted his own family life. As a result, Sam continually relives the moments where he lost his wife Teena (Meghana Raj) and young daughter to an escaped member of the gang, and through flashbacks, the film gradually builds a picture of his happy past.  There is only one song in the film which is used to show a series of montages of Sam’s previously happy life. Yes, it’s a little over the top and maudlin, but it is a lovely song and since it’s the only part of the film where Sam gets to smile, it’s worth a look.

To deal with his memories, Sam drowns his sorrows in the demon drink, and although he hasn’t been thrown off the force, he is physically and mentally unable to continue with his police work. Luckily for Sam, he lives with his mother Marykutty (Vanitha Krishnachandran) in a rather swish house and seems able to spend all day drinking at the local watering hole without any obvious financial problems. In addition, his police chief, IG Menon (Vigayaraghavan) looks on him as a kind of ‘godson’ and is prepared to offer him every possible opportunity to get his life back on track. However, Sam prefers to wallow in his own misery, and it takes a direct plea from his mother (ah – the power of an Indian ma!) to finally get him involved in the murder investigation.

The set-up for the mystery is solidly executed and, up until near the end when the killer is revealed, each step in the investigation is well plotted with appropriately puzzling twists.  Initially a man disappears from a car park after a shopping expedition with his wife, and his tortured body is found tied to a tree a few days later.  A second grisly discovery sees SP Vinod Krishna (Suresh Krishna) trying to find a serial killer in all the wrong places and it’s at that point IG Menon decides that Sam could be just what the investigation needs. Certainly he couldn’t manage to do a worse job than the hapless SP Vinod! Needless to say SP Vinod is not best pleased to have his inquiry lumbered with a has-been who spends all day drinking. Literally.

To add to their woes, a local journalist is giving the police a hard time about the murders, and the body count keeps getting higher while the list of possible suspects gets smaller. The build-up of suspense keeps the momentum of the story going and for most of the film the investigation is relatively realistic – at least as far as any fictionalised crime drama ever manages to be.   The problem comes later in the film where the final motivation of the killer doesn’t reach the same level of plausibility, and the climax ends up a little too predictable and overly melodramatic. However, unlike similar Hollywood stories, there is admirably less focus on the blood and gore, and more attention paid to the psychology of the killer even if he’s still just a little too superficial in the end.

Prithviraj is excellent in the role of the alcoholic cop who just wants to be left alone with his memories. I really like the characterisation and the way that Sam only takes part in the police investigation on his own terms. Going back to the job he blamed for the death of his family is just one of the many issues dealt with, and the ripple effect of Sam’s alcoholism and the impact on his brother and mother is a constant undercurrent to his work. I also like that getting back into a police investigation isn’t a quick fix for Sam’s issues and he keeps drinking throughout the investigation, while any rehabilitation from alcoholism is shown as a long and difficult struggle. The focus on his flaws, the difficulties he has in dealing with the families of the murder victims and his co-workers are all cleverly used to draw his character in more detail.  The role is absolutely central to the film and Prithviraj carries it off with ease while ensuring plenty of empathy for his character, even though he’s really not particularly likeable and remains relatively self-centred throughout.

The support cast are all quietly capable in their roles.  Rahul Madhav is effective as Sam’s semi-estranged brother, and Vijayaraghavan, Suresh Krishna and the rest of the police officers provide strong support as the investigation unfolds. Mia George appears as an investigative journalist who initially gives Sam a hard time about his drinking habits and berates SP Vinod for his ineffectiveness, but she effectively disappears from the story once she becomes more supportive. I’m not convinced that her role was strictly necessary and the plot would have been sharper without her inclusion.

A few things made me smile, Oddly the chests of the murder victims are pixilated during the autopsy scenes, despite the fact that this contains an important clue. It is laid out in detail later, but even a brief view would have helped to understand why Sam was so fixated on a number of pieces of paper and photographs. I’m really not sure if this censorship was due to modesty or the gore factor, but it was bizarre.  The subtitles are also rather interesting, including the idea that the killer tried to procrastinate the murder, although I think what they really meant to say was delay the death. Procrastination sounds much less terminal! And there is good use of a map – always a handy tool for murder investigations and I do appreciate good use of a prop.

While there is nothing ground-breaking about Memories, it is a good story with all the requisite elements for a crime thriller. The murders and their subsequent investigation do tend towards formulaic but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and everything is well pieced together to make a mostly convincing story. The psychology behind the main character is more interesting and it is this detail that moves the film from average to noteworthy, particularly when that main character is played by Prithviraj. Solidly entertaining and one of the better films from last year, Memories is definitely well worth a watch and a good addition to the crime genre. 3½ stars

 

Madras (2014)

Madras

Pa Ranjith’s second film is a gritty and realistic drama that starts well but gets a little lost in the second half when the focus of the story moves more towards a fairly awful romance. However, thankfully the character interactions and underlying political story have enough momentum to bring the story back into focus well before the end. Although Karthi is good in his role as a short-tempered, football loving bloke from a housing project, it’s Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan as his best friend who impresses the most from the generally excellent cast. The notable exception is Catherine Tresa who seems painfully miscast as Karthi’s love interest, and she appears awkward and uncomfortable for most of the film. Madras does drag a little in the second half as a result, but overall the portrayal of life in a housing project in Northern Chennai is convincing, while the political shenanigans add enough complexity and interest to make the film well worth a watch.

MadrasMadras

The story follows the rivalry and competition between two local political parties in Royapuram, a district in northern Chennai. While the politicians have managed to split most of the area amicably between the two factions, there is one wall in the middle of the district which remains in bitter contention. After some initial wrangling, for most of the film the wall features a painting of the deceased leader of one party (Jayabalan), but while his son Kannan (Nandakumar) and followers are determined to keep this image on the wall, Maari (Vinod) and his party want to claim the wall for their own propaganda. Caught in the middle are the people who actually live in the shadow of the wall and for whom the two political leaders talk the talk but don’t actually deliver very much in the way of benefits. This is simply highlighted in the way the women meet every morning to get water from a pump, and in the various fractious meetings between the rival young men of the area and party leader Maari.

The gang in Madras

Anbu (Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan) is the up and coming political activist in Maari’s party, and one of the driving forces behind the campaign to retake the wall. His relationship with his wife Mary (Ritwika) is one of the best I’ve seen onscreen in Tamil cinema and their stolen moments of intimacy have just the right amount of tenderness and humour. Both Kalaiarasan and Ritwika are brilliant in their roles here and I just wish the film had focused more on them and their relationship. Excellent performances from both made it very easy to completely believe in their characters, along with some very good writing and character development. The couple lives in a small apartment with their young son, and despite Anbu’s political drive and aggression, he is still a man who obviously loves his family and wants to do his best for both them and his local area. His best friend is Kaali (Karthi), an IT worker with a very short fuse to his temper, which spills over into violence with little provocation. While Anbu tries to negotiate his way to solutions, Kaali frequently disrupts his careful dialogues, and seems to think of little beyond the moment.

Madras

Kaali is however a staunch and stalwart friend, so it seems natural that Anbu doesn’t give up on their friendship but rather tries to mitigate Kaali’s outspokenness and intervene when he flashes into violence. The relationship between the two is complex and Ranjith is to be commended on writing such a convincing portrayal of two angry young men with such different agendas but who still have plenty of common ground.

Kaali is also looking out for a wife and believes he has found his ideal in Kalaiarasi (Catherine Tresa), the arrogant and opinionated daughter of yet another local politician. I found Catherine Tresa annoying and wooden in Iddarammayilatho and she does nothing here to change my opinion. The character of Kalaiarasi is interesting and has potential, but I’m not convinced by Tresa’s portrayal here at all.  She appears to be obviously ‘acting’ all the time and never manages to develop any rapport with her co-actors.  Perhaps her inclusion was Ranjith’s attempt to make his film more commercially appealing, but her performance definitely doesn’t work for me, and neither does the romance.

Madras

The rest of the story does however work well and despite the fairly obvious plot the first-rate characterisations are enough to keep it believable and interesting.  The various other support actors are effective with Rama as Kaali’s mother having some of the funniest dialogue, while Hari as local eccentric Johnny is cleverly used to further the storyline.  Anbu and Kaali’s friends are also convincing in their roles while the various enforcers used by the two political parties are much more realistic (and therefore believable) than the rent-a-thug gangsters usually used in such roles.

The cinematography by G. Murali is also excellent, with the chase sequences through the narrow streets a major highlight, but everything is perfectly framed to ensure the wall looms over everything and everyone in the area. Although there are a few songs they are used sparingly without long disruptive dance sequences, while the film does include some excellent dancing with the addition of a local area dance troupe who cycle through some of the important scenes and indulge in spontaneous dancing whenever possible. I approve!

Madras Karthik and CAtherine

The escalation of such a small issue as the slogan on a wall into an all-encompassing problem, along with the back-stabbing, petty rivalries and jealousies is well handled and makes Madras a more complex tale than it first seems. It’s the very ordinariness of the characters that ensures the film feels very realistic, while keeping obvious heroics out of the equation gives the film greater impact. Essentially Pa Ranjith has taken an old story and dressed it up into something new, with clever characterisations and good use of locations ending up with a film that’s a cut above the usual political thriller. Madras is definitely well worth a watch for impressive performances and a relatively realistic look at one of my favourite cities.