Soodhu Kavvum (2013)

Soodhu Kavvum

I love this film!  Nalan Kumarasmy’s début calls to mind shades of  Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Shallow Grave, and manages to pack in plenty of comedy, action and general all round craziness in a run time of just over 2 hours.  The film centres on a kidnapping caper but there are so many different ideas tossed in, and the plot development initially seems so haphazard that perhaps the most astonishing thing is how well everything does make perfect sense at the end.  Soodhu Kavvum is essentially a dark comedy where a number of seemingly unrelated people and random happenings are thrown together into what turns out to be a funny and intelligently written storyline. Not all of Kumarasamy’s unconventional ideas hit the mark, but with inspired performances from a great cast, Soodhu Kavvum is one of my favourite films from last year and a definite must watch.

The story follows the exploits of Das (Vijay Sethupathi), his imaginary girlfriend Shalu (Sanshita Shetty) and three friends who become involved in the kidnapping caper.  There is also an ‘honest politician’, his lazy son and a psychotic police officer who never speaks, along with many other slightly off-the-wall characters who each have their own reason to be in the mix.  Each character has a number of strengths and flaws that makes them more interesting to watch, but also to some extent explains their various motivations and why they react as they do to each new crisis. Everyone is introduced in a way to showcase their personality and then slowly Kumarasamy draws all the threads together to make a coherent whole.  It’s cleverly done to keep interest in the main protagonists even when all of them seem quite typically normal, everyday people and none are particularly likeable.

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Vijay Sethupathi is the absolute star of the show here and is completely unrecognisable as Das, a more middle-aged and careful character than I’ve seen him play before.  Das is considered and thoughtful, almost gentle despite his criminal tendencies although he still appears quite manic when required.  Vijay really does appear much older here, it’s his mannerisms and stance rather than just make-up, and he perfectly blends a rational approach to his criminal activities with just a hint of mania as he argues with his non-existent girlfriend – or is she? That’s one of the delights of Soodhu Kavvum – just as you think you have a handle on what is happening and where the story is going, Nalan Kumarasamy sends it off in a completely different direction and introduces new characters seemingly out of nowhere. Except if you were paying attention (or watch it again!), they are there in the background all along.

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Das has developed a strict set of rules for his ‘kednapping’ business but a lack of manpower has caused him to rethink his tactic.  After a chance meeting with three friends in a bar, he offers them the opportunity to join his kidnapping team.  The three friends have their own problems; each is out of work and looking for a way to earn some easy cash.  Pagalavan (Bobby Simha) has moved to Chennai to stay with his friend Kesavan (Ashok Selvan) when he ran into a spot of bother in his native Trichy.  This involved building a temple to actress Nayanthara and the reactions of first Kesavan and then his friend Sekhar to this news speak volumes for their respective characters.  Sekhar (Ramesh Thilak) is an out of work hotel car park attendant who gets up early and gets ready for work every day, but then sits and drinks his way through a bottle of whiskey.   There is a quick blink and you’ll miss him appearance of fellow director Karthik Subbaraj in the scenes that describe how Sekhar lost his job which is pretty cool. Bobby Simha is also excellent and completely unrecognisable from his recent appearance in Jigarthanda, although his performance here is just as impressive.

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Everything goes pear-shaped when Das accepts a commission to kidnap Arumai Pragasam (Karunakaran), the son of inconveniently honest politician Gnanodayam (M.S. Bhaskar). For all of his lauded refusal to take bribes and capitulate to corruption, Gnanodayam is a very grey character as he entraps industrialists hoping to bribe him in the usual fashion, and is also abusive to his wife and son.  Karunakaran is superb in his role as the lazy and dishonest son, and his laconic delivery of his lines is excellent. Just look too at his excellent ‘uncle-dancing’ skills in this song where he celebrates the joys of money.

Yog Japee turns up in the second half as slightly unhinged police officer K. Bramma. There is an excellent montage of fights to show how he drags information out of the Chennai underworld as he tries to track down the kidnappers. Rather than the usual biffo in more conventional films, this is fast, mean and ugly and fits perfectly into Bramma’s persona. Truly he is the malefic effect of Saturn personified!

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Soodhu Kavvum does have a few moments that don’t succeed, and the sheer number of twists means that it doesn’t work quite as well on a second viewing – although I did get almost as much enjoyment out of spotting the different characters in the background before they appeared in the main narrative. What I do love about this film is that the story is just as important as any individual character, and almost every moment is spent moving the narrative forward.  Each character has a role to play and at that point, they are the most important person in the scene.  I really like that there is no over-blown romance, no idealistically perfect hero and no mass fight scenes. It’s just a good story, well told with excellent actors delivering great performances.  4½ stars.

 

Gharana Mogudu (1992)

Gharana Mogudu

Gharana Mogudu is a step back in time to the Nineties, although it seems more like the Eighties considering the costumes and general shenanigans. The songs deliver the costumes and as for general shenanigans, there is Uma Devi (Nagma) – a boss from hell who plots a marriage with her factory’s union leader to get her revenge for his popularity and force him to fall into line.  Naturally since the union leader is Chiranjeevi, Uma Devi’s plans are never going to work out the way she wants, but there is a lot of entertainment in watching her attempts.  Nagma is wonderfully arrogant and egotistic in a role that lets her be as nasty as possible, but still look stunning as she efficiently crushes anyone who dares to oppose her management style.  Chiranjeevi’s Raju is naturally the complete opposite, kind-hearted and generous, but just as stubborn and quite determined to stand up for his rights and those of his fellow workers.  Of course he also dances up a storm and dishooms when and where required making Gharana Mogudu an excellent celebration of all things Megastar and perfect for this year’s Megabirthday celebrations.

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Before we can get to Uma Devi and her hazardous factory in Hyderabad, Raju is introduced as the dock worker to turn to in a crisis – even if that crisis is getting beaten up at an illegal fight betting ring.  Naturally Raju wins the subsequent show-down but finds that the money he won has vanished – cue the excellent Bangaru Kodi Petta (which was remixed and re-imagined for Rajamouli’s awesome Magadheera ) with Disco Shanti running off with the betting money.

When his mother (Shubha) has a stroke, Raju leaves Vizag and the joys of waterfront employment and heads home to Hyderabad.  After arriving in the city, Raju fortuitously saves local businessman Bapineedu (Raogopal Rao), from a gang of thugs and as a reward is given the opportunity to work in his family factory. This sounds too good to be true, and of course it is, since Bapineedu and the family business are both actually run by his daughter – the boss from hell. Uma Devi has no interest in her workers except as a means to increase profit and make her the top tax payer in India (her ultimate ambition apparently).  She has the union rep firmly under her thumb to ensure that there are no strikes despite her heavy handed treatment and is prone to petulant displays of temper if her will is crossed.  I’m not sure if it’s one of her petty cruelties to make her secretary Bhavani (Vani Viswanath) wear such odd outfits to work but in her own time Bhavani looks much more appropriately dressed, so I have my suspicions, particularly when Uma Devi appears so co-ordinated.

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Uma Devi is just as bad at dealing with people on a personal level and the thugs who attacked her father were actually sent by Ranganayakulu (Kaikala Satyanarayana) after Uma Devi turned down a marriage proposal from his son (Sharat Saxena).  Ranganayakulu and his son are the main villains of the piece and while their response to a marriage refusal may seem a little over the top, to be fair Uma Devi is annoying enough that wiping her from the face of the planet doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.

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Uma Devi’s plan to marry Raju also disrupts the course of true love as Raju and Bhavani embark on an office romance after they meet each other on the way to work. A bicycle ride in the rain leads to this excellent song, with Vani Viswanath keeping up with Chiranjeevi in the dance stakes despite his tendency to attack her with a bicycle – I really did want Bhavanai to dispose of Uma Devi and run away with Raju after this song!

Sadly Bhavani is much too sweet to be a murderer, so Uma Devi goes ahead with her plan and Raju ends up moving into Bapineedu’s massive mansion with his new bride.  The house is incredible, with statuary everywhere and a huge central imposing staircase, but none of that fazes Raju who continues to work on the shop floor and fight for workers’ rights.

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Now at this point you might think that Raju’s morals and basic decency might start to have an effect on Uma Devi and make her realise the error of her ways, but she’s still just as unpleasant as ever and it takes a drunken night and a lungi dance before she even begins to appear remotely bearable.  Before then there are plenty of great confrontations between Uma Devi and Raju, shifty scheming from Ranganayakulu and Uma Devi’s manager Sarangapani (Ahuti Prasad) and plenty of those fantastic costumes to enjoy.

Chiru is dashing and very much the mega star as he mixes romance, compassion, ethical principles and his stance on workers’ rights with great dancing and action sequences.  Pretty much everything gets mixed into the film and Chiranjeevi really is awesome no matter what he is doing! Nagma is delightfully vile and holds her own against Chiru keeping the focus of the film on Uma Devi and her machinations, while the plots of Ranganayakulu etc are totally overshadowed by her stormy relationship with Raju. She’s almost the classic Disney villainess and it seems obligatory to boo and hiss whenever she appears and naturally cheer for Chiranjeevi and Bhavani. Yes, even when watching on DVD in the comfort of your own living room.

Along with all the drama there is room for some comedy too – Brahmi pops up but unfortunately makes little impression without the benefit of subtitles.  However the rest of the humour is based on interactions between Raju and the other characters, and being more situational comes across better. It’s a true masala film and although the plot is ridiculous and the characterisations over the top, Gharana Mogudu is still completely entertaining.  Excellent performances, great songs and plenty of Megastar style make this definitely one to watch. 4 stars.

Chiranjeevi

 

Vikramadithyan

Vikramadithyan

Vikramadithyan released in late July, but luckily for me it was popular enough for our local distributors to arrange a second showing in Melbourne. This was my first Malayalam film at the Monash cinema and I was impressed! Not only did we have numbered seat allocation (rare, unless at one of the big chain cinemas), but the film even had subtitles – a major surprise given that the friendly crowd had all told me there wouldn’t be any!  But no surprises as to why this film got a second showing.  Vikramadithyan is an all-round family entertainer with a little bit of something for everyone.  There is romance, comedy, action and drama in a well-paced screenplay that alternates smoothly between past and present to tell the story of the two protagonists – Vikram and Adithyan.

The story starts with Adithyan’s mother Lakshmi (Lena) and Vikram’s father Vasudeva Shenoy (Anoop Menon).  Both are police officers, although from the glimpses of Lakshmi at work, she seems to be more of a prison warder to me.  Vasudeva has been trying to get his mother to agree to a marriage with Lakshmi for quite some time but for some unexplained reason she doesn’t like the match.  Lakshmi wants to marry a police officer, and it seems as if any one will do, since she is happily swept off her feet by another police officer she meets – Kunjunni Menon (Santhosh Keezhattoor).  However Kunjunni is a thief and imposter, something which Lakshmi doesn’t realise until too late and the two are already married.  Meanwhile Vasudeva marries someone else (Charmila) and both couples have baby boys at the same time – Vikram (Unni Mukundan) and Adithyan (Dulquer Salmaan).  Kunjunni’s deceit, Lakshmi’s disappointment and Vasudeva’s jealousy are the basis for the rest of the film and act as a rationale for the events that ensue.

Vikramadithyan

The two sons, Vikram and Adithyan, end up at the same school and begin a rivalry that continues throughout their childhood and into their adult lives.  They are both friends with Deepika (Namitha Pramod) who often acts as mediator between the two, and in Adithyan’s case attempts to stop him following in his father’s footsteps.  Vikram seems to have it all as the beloved only child, and in contrast his path to follow his father into the police force seems as smooth as it is inevitable.  It all comes to a head when they both try to join the police force and Adithyan’s comes to have a big impact on his future.

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It’s a simple story but well told with great performances from the cast and good songs that fit so snugly into the narrative they seem to be part of the dialogue.  Jomon John provides some stunning images including a wonderful moment where Adithyan is sitting contemplating his disintegrating life when a squirrel pops up on the rock behind him and appears for a second in the shot.  This song also has some beautiful imagery and makes the most of the background scenery too.

Unni Mukundan plays it fairly straight as the morally upright son of a policeman and he has plenty of opportunity to flex his muscles and look faintly superior while Adithyan toys with a life of crime.  He’s a fairly straightforward character but Unni does manage to give him some light and shade and provides Vikram with more depth than I was initially expecting.  Dulquer Salmaan has perhaps an easier job with Adithyan as the characterisation is shaded more grey from the beginning and there is plenty of opportunity to develop the darker side of his character.  He still does an excellent job and manages to make Adithyan sympathetic, despite his flaws and tendency to blame his problems on the lack of a father.

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The other cast members are all just as good, including the child actors who play the roles of young Adithyan, Vikram and Deepika, but Lena and Anoop Menon stand out as star performers in roles that require them to rely mainly on facial expressions and mannerisms.  They are both an absolute joy to watch and are the glue that holds the younger actors together.  Namitha Pramod’s Deepika doesn’t work quite as well as she seems a little too forgiving and accommodating, and smiles just a fraction too much in some of the more serious moments.  However she provides the requisite balance between Vikram and Adithyan and for the most part Namitha does a good job with what she is given to do.

Vikramadithyan

Vikramadithyan deals with loyalty and friendship, but also touches on honesty and morality without becoming overly righteous or too preachy.  The benefits of hard work and getting a good education are emphasised while the old cliché that blood will tell is aptly refuted.   There is nothing outstanding about Vikramadithyan, which is exactly why it works so well.  The actors are all well balanced with no-one trying to outdo anyone else, and director Lal Jose makes each scene look effortlessly natural.   While the film does occasionally stray into rather idealistic territory, it’s still a good story and one that simply entertains.

Anjaan (2014)

Anjaan

Lingusamy has delivered some good action thrillers in the past, so teaming up with Suriya for this latest venture certainly sounded like a good move.  However Anjaan trundles along a fairly predictable path interspersed with a few too many fight sequences (as excellently choreographed as they are) and oddly placed flashbacks that disrupt the narrative flow.  The film is saved to some extent by good performances from the main leads – Suriya is effortlessly charismatic and instils life into his often routine character, while Samantha is cute and bubbly despite having to dance like a maniac.  Sound acting cannot completely compensate for a plot which, while frequently formulaic, fails to present a believable chain of events in a convincing way.   I also can’t see why it was necessary to set the film in Mumbai as it didn’t seem to have any relevance to the story, and the resultant dubbing of the Hindi actors is noticeably out of sync. Anjaan isn’t terrible but in comparison with other recent commercial films, it doesn’t come anywhere near the same standard of storytelling, and really should have been much better.

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The film starts with Krishna (Suriya) heading to Mumbai from Chennai to try and find his missing brother, Raju (also Suriya).  He’s armed with an elbow crutch and a laptop, but doesn’t seem to have much to go on apart from a handful of names and addresses which take him, along with comedy stalwart Soori as his reluctant taxi driver, to some very dodgy places.  It doesn’t take too long for Krishna to discover that his brother was a notorious gangster who revelled in the name Raju Bhai and after a few false steps he finally tracks down one of the gang members to find out more about his brother.  Baashka (Joe Malloori) is able to fill in the blanks and the film moves to flash-back mode to tell the story of Raju and his best buddy Chandru (Vidyut Jamwal).

Anjaan

There is never any explanation of how Raju Bhai and Chandru Bhai have gained their fearsome reputation or even any detail about their criminal activities, which is part of the problem with the rest of the story.  The big revenge plot which follows doesn’t have much credibility when there isn’t any solid foundation for the story and the other characters are too one-dimensional to impact.  Vidyut Jamwal was impressive in his previous roles as a villain but he’s just not on screen enough here to make much of a mark.  His Chandru appears to be borderline ASD with many obsessive behaviours and signs that he doesn’t communicate well with others – hard for Vidyut to make much impact when most of his role involved moody silences and brooding looks.  However he is excellent at these, and I just wish there had been more for him to get his teeth into here.  Luckily for Chandru he has Raju to deal with the rest of the world for him, and although Vidyut Jamwal and Suriya make a good ‘bhai’ pairing and appear to be on the cusp of some good chemistry, it never quite manages to get going before the camera whisks away to yet another fight scene.

Anjaan

Suriya totally rocks his casual gangster style and cool spiky hair.  He’s just as comfortable as a violent gangster as he is in the more cerebral role of Krishna.  He also has some good chemistry with Samantha at the beginning of their romance although this vanishes later in the film when Samantha is relegated to the usual Tamil heroine status, only appearing in the songs or as a damsel in distress.  Her opening scenes are good and I did have hope that she would have a chance to be more than just eye candy but in the end that seems to be the only reason for her inclusion.  Sadly she’s also short-changed in the wardrobe department for many of the songs and much of her choreography seem to be of the ‘dance like no-one is watching’ variety.  As if that wasn’t bad enough there is a particularly sleazy item song in the second half and a very unnecessary and totally unfunny appearance by Brahmi.  All very seem to be added in to fulfil the standard checklist for a commercial mass masala film, and all are completely superfluous to requirements.

Amjaan

The fight scenes, although excellently choreographed and filmed are also repetitive and strangely soul-less given that the supposed motive is revenge.  Manoj Bajpai is a bit of a nonentity as the smarmy villain of the piece Imran Bhai, while Murali Sharma and Chetan Hansraj are more effective in their negative roles.  Santosh Sivan’s cinematography at least makes the film look great but there are a few too many close-ups of Samantha’s coloured contact lenses for my liking – I really don’t need to see the printed iris pattern that clearly outside of my optometry practice!

Although Linguswamy seems to have checked his Big Masala Cook Book and added all the right ingredients he seems to have forgotten the seasoning and ends up with a bland dish that veers into tasteless all too often.  Suriya makes Anjaan worth a one time watch if you’re a fan, but by the end even he seems to be resigned to the monotonous gangs he has to beat his way through every 5 minutes.  For all Anjaan’s big budget effects and slickly packaged action scenes at the end of the day nothing can cover up the lack of a story or the absence of engaging dialogue, and that really says it all.

Anjaan

Bachchan (2013)

Bachchan

Bachchan was recommended to me by numerous people when I went to watch Ugramm a few weeks ago, and since I read that the film had won a number of awards in India plus it starred the usually pretty awesome Sudeep Kiccha I thought it would be worth tracking down on DVD.  But when I started to watch it I was very disappointed.  After about 20 minutes I just couldn’t watch any more relentless and seemingly pointless violence or blatant sexism and had to give up.   It took another two attempts before I managed to get more than 30 minutes into the film, and I spent most of that time wondering why this film had been recommended to me! But then I got further in, finally reached the excellent second half, and realised exactly why this film had appealed to so many people – even me eventually.  It does get immeasurably better in the second half, and looking back the opening scenes make more sense in retrospect, although I still feel a less chauvinistic approach would have made them easier viewing. However, if you can make it past the first thirty minutes, there really is a lot to like about Bachchan.

The film opens with a slugfest between Bharat (Sudeep Kiccha) and various members of the police force in a small police station. No-one is able to stop him as he smashes his way through the police station and ultimately kills Inspector Mahesh Deshpande (Ashish Vidyarthi) before escaping on a police bike.  Bharat then easily outwits the chasing police cars and heads to a hospital where he proceeds to defenestrate one of the doctors, Dr. Srinivasa Iyengar (Nasser) and escapes yet again.  This time though, we know he is going to get caught just as soon as a lorry full of water bottles appears in the middle of the shot.

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So once in custody for committing two murders (no mention of the destruction to property and general menace to society he represents) Bharat proceeds to tell his story to the investigating officer Vijay Kumar (Jagapathi Babu).  Seen in flashback, previously Bharat was a nice, happy (although rather patronising) real estate agent who was trying to be a force for good in the world, when he found himself hounded by a superstitious police officer and an obsessive doctor.  Inspector Deshpande fuelled jealousy in Bharat’s fiancée Anjali (Parul Yadav) by pointing out Bharat’s interest in a client’s daughter at every opportunity.  To be fair, Monica (Tulip Joshi) does seem to turn up everywhere and does show an unhealthy interest in a man whose attentions are otherwise engaged, but Bharat claims that this harassment was his motivation behind killing Despande.  Meanwhile Dr Iyengar sealed his fate when he refused medical assistance to Anjali and Bharat decided that he too had to die.

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The problem I have with these opening scenes isn’t that the story is trite and clichéd, but that it’s all so completely overdone.  Both Despande and Iyengar are terrible caricatures while Anjali appears as a woman with absolutely no self-worth.  Bharat bribes her with chocolate when she accuses him of being rude to her at work (which he was), and when she accuses him of spending time with Monica, he has only to click his fingers and she immediately forgives him all.  There is a reason behind all of this but since it’s not explained until much later in the film, it does make for uncomfortable viewing first time round.

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The first half isn’t all bad though.  There is a novel threat to a collection of flower pots, which is a welcome touch of humour and Sudeep is eminently watchable even when he’s being a complete pillock.  P. Ravi Shankar is also mildly amusing as the thug attempting to muscle in on Bharat’s business, and there is also plenty of excellent dorky uncle dancing in this song.

The film starts to improve when it’s gradually revealed that the story Bharat has told the police is a complete fabrication – hence the terrible characterisations in the first half.  The real Anjali proves to be a perfectly sensible and normal woman, while the other characters are nicely ambiguous until the real truth emerges.  There are plenty of twists and turns before we get there though and the second half turns out to be the out and out action thriller I was expecting from the start.  Throughout it all, Sudeep outclasses everyone else with chameleon-like changes of his character, and his performance is just enough to make up for the dodgy dialogue in the first half.  He does bring to life the film’s ‘Bachchan’ in Big B angry young man persona, although there is more to his character than just a generalised grudge against the world.  I’m presuming that director Shashank wanted to make a kind of homage to Amitabh Bachchan as there are many mentions of Big B and his films throughout, but he’s probably most referenced in this song with the bewilderingly badly dressed Tulip Joshi.  Poor Tulip – she really doesn’t come out of any of this well at all.

Bhavana makes a brief appearance as Anjali’s sister Ashwini, but probably the best performance from the three romance interests is from Parul Yadav.  Her character is more developed and despite the terrible beginning she does make a better showing in the second half.  Most of the rest of the support cast are fine but they are mainly there either to provide fodder for Bharat’s rage or to add layers of confusion to the plot, and are never any more than two-dimensional at best.  However the fight scenes are well choreographed even if they lean heavily towards standard Southern Indian tropes and the climax is satisfyingly OTT.

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The concept of Bachchan is good, but it is let down by the script in the first half (or perhaps just very bad subtitles) and a tendency to rely on standard filmi clichés.  Although the second half of the film is entertaining and very watchable, sitting through the first half to get there requires patience and perseverance.  Still, if you can make it through the first half hour, the rest up to the interval is ridiculous enough to be amusing and it is worth hanging in there to reach the excellent second half if you can.  I’d give the first half of Bachchan 2 stars and the second half 4 stars which gives an average of 3 – that seems about right overall.  Worth watching for Sudeep but I’d recommend leaving your brain behind for the first hour.