Raja Rani (2013)

Raja Rani

I didn’t manage to see this in the cinema in Melbourne, but did manage to get a DVD copy with English subtitles.  Rather strangely it was also the only film they had on the bus in Tamil Nadu this year and I ended up watching the opening scenes over 10 times on the way to various villages in TN.  This added exposure gave me enough time to appreciate just how outlandish Nayanthara’s make-up looks, and just how uncomfortable Arya appears in his suit at the opening wedding which is a good precursor to how their relationship develops. In fact, the lead couple are rather uninspiring throughout this film – at least when paired with each other – but thankfully co-stars Jai, Santhanam and Nazriya Nazim are more appealing and their presence does make Raja Rani worth a one-time watch.

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The story starts with the arranged marriage of Regina (Nayanthara) and John (Arya) who are going through the matrimonial motions for the sake of their respective families.  Or so we are told.  Except as the film progresses this wedding seems to make less and less sense.  The couple obviously dislike each other and I cannot see why Regina’s relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan father would agree to marry her to someone like John.  He seems to have neither the requisite high flying job nor appropriate family background for such a match.  However, as completely random as it seems, and despite the lack of any reasonable explanation the wedding goes ahead despite the bride forgetting her prospective partner’s name and both parties complete lack of enthusiasm throughout the ceremony.

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It’s a match that seems doomed to end in divorce.  John spends his days at work and his nights drinking with his friends before returning home, usually to a locked door.  Regina hogs the bathroom, sobs into her pillow at night and generally ignores her husband as much as she can.  It all feels very unrealistic and overly dramatic – after all there is a large couch in the other room where Regina could sleep if she wanted, and surely John could organise a key to their apartment rather than sleep on the doorstep?  All the OTT drama makes it difficult to care about either John or Regina since they are equally obnoxious to each other, and I really had little interest in their relationship.  That’s not to say that Arya and Nayanthara are particularly terrible, but all Arya has to do in the first half hour is pretend to be drunk while Nayanthara doesn’t stop crying or complaining long enough to do anything remotely interesting either.

Thankfully there is relief in sight, but until we get there Santhanam lightens the atmosphere and is mildly amusing as John’s best friend Sarathy.

Finally there is an incident which prompts John to find out a little more about his wife.  There is some very dodgy medicine on display as Regina has an epileptic fit while her husband seems totally incapable of any sensible reaction, although he does eventually manage to call an ambulance.  Needless to say, despite all the thrashing around and foaming at the mouth (sigh – when will Tamil cinema consult a doctor for some plausible medical problems?) Regina manages to come through the whole episode with her make-up and eyelashes intact. That’s a relief!

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However, after being berated by her doctor for not knowing anything about his wife’s condition, John does discover the reason behind her condition.  Lost love – of course!

The film gets much better when we head to a flash-back to Regina’s first love, although to be fair this doesn’t have the best of beginnings either.  Jai is excellent as love interest Surya, an incompetent call centre employee, and finally there are some real emotions and reasons to empathise with one of the characters.  Regina is as obnoxious as before, but the role of spoilt rich brat suits her better when she’s a student and she does seem to be more tongue in cheek with her tantrums.  Sathyan makes an appearance as Surya’s friend Iyappan and his comedy shtick complements Jai’s weedy persona well enough to make a reasonably funny duo. Although the romance is typically filmy there is some chemistry between the two actors and while we can see the unhappy ending coming, Regina never does and is devastated by losing her first love.

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It turns out that John has his own sob story, and although it’s another predictable run of the mill tale, again it’s a more believable romance with good chemistry between the actors.  In particular Nazriya Nazim is scintillating as Keerthana and she is the best thing about the whole film.  She has an excellent introduction and her cheeky impishness lights up the screen whenever she appears.  She has much more personality and is much livelier than in Naiyaandi, which just goes to show the difference between a well written character and one that basically isn’t!

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Arya is also transformed into a younger, fitter John who is more personable and likeable, and again there is some reasonable chemistry between him and Keerthana.  It’s not all good though – Santhanam suffers under the burden of some terribly bad hair which seems to make him more pathetic and less amusing than in the first half, but it works out for the best as Nazriya has the comedy covered too.

The main problem I have with Raja Rani is that the relationship between John and Regina never generates any appeal or gives an opportunity to feel sympathetic towards the characters.  There are some interesting issues brought up  here but they are dealt with in a shallow and filmi way which results in a lack of connection between the characters and the audience.  There is no apparent reason for the couple’s actions towards each other, considering that they don’t appear to have met before the wedding, and it seems strange that they would behave so badly to each other right from the start.  The concept of an arranged marriage between two people who have both lost their first love has potential but Atlee wastes it by playing the relationship for laughs and never giving his characters a chance to behave like rational adults.  I found it incredibly frustrating to watch  Arya and Nayanthara appear so wooden and lifeless for most of their on-screen time together, when the difference was so obvious when Arya was partnered with Nazriya and Nayanthara with Jai.  A little more time spent on developing the relationship between Regina and John at the beginning along with a more adult treatment of their problems would have made this a more entertaining watch.  However I did enjoy seeing a better performance from Nazriya and I liked the idea behind the film, even if the execution didn’t quite live up to expectations.  3 ½ stars.Raja Rani


Kanchivaram (2008)

Kanchivaram is a slice of life social drama that largely rests on an excellent performance by Prakash Raj. Priyadarshan eschews the broad almost hyper style more common in his Hindi comedies and delivers a thoughtful and subdued film.

The film opens with a prelude explaining the significance of wearing silk at marriage and on death, and that the weavers were never in a financial position that would allow them to wear the fabric they wove. Vengadam (Prakash Raj) is an exceptional weaver and a natural leader in his community. A visiting writer (Sreekumar) introduces the village men to communism. Vengadam initiates collective bargaining for the weavers, which leads to a lengthy strike. But he had also promised that his daughter would be married in a silk sari, impossible to manage when he is not working. He steals silk, a hank at a time, and secretly weaves the sari he promised her. The conflict between his political and personal ideals and his love for his family is the root of the story.

The story is presented as a series of flashbacks. Vengadam is paroled from jail and travels back to the village by bus, with sounds and incidents on the journey triggering his memories of earlier times. This structure allowed me to concentrate on what was happening now, and to absorb the emotion of the story rather than wondering what would happen. His story unfolds from his marriage, birth of his daughter, the death of his wife and eventually the reason for his incarceration. The breaks in the flow as Vengadam was recalled to himself on the journey just sharpened the contrast between the bluff confident weaver and the broken man on the bus.

Priyadarshan frames the story in the political context of the rise of Communism before party membership was legalised. He efficently sets the scene of the industrial arrangements, the workers dependency on the factory, the clandestine political activism, in just in a few scenes. There are visual cues as to how things stand. The factory owner usually appears sitting or standing on a dais at a higher level than the workers. The communist writer who raises the political awareness of Vengadam and Sarathy skulks around in the dark, fearful of the police.

I’m always interested in industrial relations and the evolution of employee rights and the law so that aspect was appealing. And I particularly liked the villagers reaction to some social theatre – initially passive but on their feet and cheering like any mass movie audience when the ‘blood’ spatter started.

Prakash Raj is wonderful as Vengadam. Whether playing the younger carefree newlywed or the damaged man released on parole he is completely convincing. Vengadam has most of the dialogue in the film but many scenes rely purely on reactions and body language and Prakash Raj nails it. Often political leaders are depicted as single minded zealots, but Vengadam is more human. He understands his why wife is upset by the promise to see his daughter married in silk. He realises his daughter is in love with Ranga and goes to ask for the marriage to be arranged. He knows that when he takes a stand and strikes there will be consequences. And he knows what he is doing when he breaks the strike. Prakash Raj shows these internal struggles and questions and Vengadam’s eyes reflect his turmoil. I’m often intolerant of those who throw their families or friendships under the bus of ambition but this is more complex as Vengadam is not motivated by pure selfishness. He stole silk to weave something beautiful for his daughter, to break the cycle of not having. I could like him even as I rolled my eyes at his obsession with the sari.

Shriya Reddy is excellent  as Annam, Vengadam’s wife. Priyadarshan seems to have a knack for persuading actresses to tone down the glamour (as with Lara Dutta in Billu). Annam is smart, has opinions and politely challenges her husband in private when she thinks he has gone too far. From the initially awkward moments when Annam first comes to her new home, Shriya shows the growing affection and the playfulness in the marriage. Annam doesn’t have much dialogue so much of their closeness and the tensions in the relationship had to be conveyed through glances, the tilt of a head, the set of her shoulders.

She dies after being trampled in a crowd out to see the landlord’s new car, another symbol of the gulf between the workers and owners. Her final anguish is over whether Vengadam will be able to raise their daughter and he does his best to reassure her in his own way.

Family and village ties are revealed in many small interactions so the supporting cast are important and most are very good. I particularly like Jayakumar as Sarathy, Vengadam’s friend and one-time political ally. His rapport with Prakash Raj was excellent, and their friendship felt believably warm. I liked their stilted meeting to discuss getting their children married to each other that ended in affectionate hugs and relieved laughter. The deterioration of their relationship was shown simply but the pain on both sides and the definitive nature of the break was clear. Shammu is engaging and likeable as Vengadam’s daughter Thamarai. I do a certain amount of teeth gritting when I see little daughters made to replace their dead mothers in the home, but Thamarai was a distinct person and not just a household slave. She went to school for a while, then took sewing lessons, and her dad wanted her to be happy. So for a filmi girl in 1948 with no Ma, I thought she had it pretty good. Until things went wrong.

Kanchivaram-Bad actor lovely sariThere is an English character played by a truly bad actor. Well, I am not sure if the brightly over-enunciated yet almost expressionless dialogue delivery is his own style or was required by the director. There are so many good actors working across many Indian film industries yet the ‘English’ are almost uniformly laughable and seem to be reading at a pre-school level.  Who is casting these people?

The colour palette is simple and very effective throughout. The day to day scenes are muted and mostly use neutral and earth tones. The bus trip is drenched in the pale blues and grey of rain and twilight. Scenes at night are touched with the golden flicker of lantern flames. The flash of opulent silks highlights the gulf between the weavers and the eventual owners of those stunning garments, and punctuates the drama with bursts of saturated jewel tones. There are recurring motifs like the sickle, used as an emblem of communism and as a blade. Thiru’s camerawork uses lots of tight close ups of the actors and despite the dark interiors and low lighting in some scenes he catches every expression and gesture.

Despite the period and politics of the setting, Kanchivaram can be watched as a personal and intimate story rather than a didactic message film so I was impressed by his handling of those elements. But I’m not completely sold on the ending. The sensitivity of the characterisation and performances is what stands out for me. The film is available on YouTube with subtitles. 3 ½ stars!

Vishwaroopam (2013)


I left Hyderabad the day Vishwaroopam opened and of course it was then banned while I was in Tamil Nadu, so I didn’t get to watch the film until its DVD release.  But it was definitely well worth the wait! Vishwaroopam is a slick and well-made spy thriller which features excellent performances from the entire cast.  The only downside comes in the last 20 minutes or so when everything is tied up a little too conveniently for my liking, and unusually for a Tamil film not everyone dies!  The last few scenes set everything up for Vishwaroopam II, and perhaps there will be some bigger fireworks and a more impressive ending for the ultimate finale.  The plot revolves around the ‘war on terror’ and in style and delivery is reminiscent of various Hollywood spy thrillers, combining overlapping story lines and interweaving time frames to ensure the film stays gripping right to (almost) the very last minute.

The film opens with Nirupama (Pooja Kumar) explaining how she has an arranged marriage with Vishwanath (Kamal Haasan), a middle aged classical dance teacher, which enabled her to come to America and obtain her PhD in nuclear oncology (this I couldn’t believe – 3 years and she’s finished already?!).  Despite her marriage, Nirupama is attracted to her boss, Deepak (Samrat Chakrabarti) so she hires a private detective to stalk her husband in the hope that the detective will uncover a reason for her to divorce.  Of course she does – this is New York after all.  Somehow in the process of chasing after this mild mannered dance teacher, the detective stumbles onto a terrorist cell, which leads to the terrorists tracking down Nirupama and her husband.

Now, I ask you, does this look like a man who can counter terrorists?








Especially considering he’s just demonstrated this:


Well, you’d better believe it.  Vishwanath, or as he later reveals his real name Wisam Ahmad Kashmiri manages to take out the terrorists in a piece of action that’s so good we get to see it twice. It really is worth it though!








After the Kathak teacher shows us just why it doesn’t pay to mess with a dance master, the story is off and running as Wisam takes us on a flashback into his past in Afghanistan.  Here we see a completely different character since Wisam is a jihadist, living with, and training Al-Qaida terrorists along with Omar (Rahul Bose) and his sidekick Salim (Jaideep Ahlawat).  Wisam is as different as it’s possible to be from Vishwanath and yet Kamal Haasan makes it easy for us to believe in the transition by ensuring both characters show the same amount of passion for their beliefs.













Rahul Bose is also excellent as a more fanatical jihadist and the interactions between the two men are a wonderful mixture of camaraderie and suspicion.   There is plenty of symbolism too, which is occasionally a little heavy handed as the point is made in a number of different ways that in every conflict the ones who really suffer are the children.  There are some well thought out glimpses of life in a mujahedeen training camp as the scenes move between day to day life, terrorist activity and attacks by the Allied Forces.  Writer/director Kamal Haasan doesn’t pull any punches here and the depiction of the attacks and the killing of prisoners are reasonably graphic and quite gruesome in parts.  But then again, it’s nothing we haven’t all seen on news reports over the last few years.  From that alone the film does appear to be very realistic.  Cinematographer Sanu Varughese does a fantastic job in capturing the vibe of New York along with some spectacular scenery in Afghanistan, interlaced with claustrophobic shots of the terrorists in their hideouts and caves.

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The first half is full of action as the film moves from the training camps in Afghanistan back to the present day and Omar’s current plans to blow up a dirty bomb in New York.  Best of all for me, Omar now has a glass eye, and there are some excellent shots where it’s very obvious that both eyes aren’t looking in the same direction.  I admire that level of dedication to the character! Occasionally Rahul Bose almost topples into caricature with Omar’s limping shuffle and virtually incoherent whisper due to his physical ailments, but he still manages to keep an aura of menace in most scenes.

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After all the bomb blasts, rocket launchers and gunfire it’s inevitable that when the action moves back to New York there has to be some explanation and investigation which slows things down a little.  However the tense momentum of the first half isn’t sustained in the much shorter second half of the film.  In addition to the slower pace, the answers seem to be found just a little too readily and the explanations are just a little too glib.  Still, these are minor points and overall the story is complex and absorbing.  It’s a spy thriller so of course no-one is quite as they seem, except perhaps poor Nirupama who is caught up in her work to the exclusion of everything else and in typical research scientist mode doesn’t see what seems to have been right under her nose all the time.  Andrea Jeremiah, Jaideep Ahlawat and Shekhar Kapur are also good in their supporting roles.








As a spy thriller Vishwaroopam fulfils everything expected – there’s a convoluted story featuring plenty of twists, great action spanning fight scenes, car chases and plenty of explosions, and even a hint of romance.  The star of the show is definitely Kamal Haasan who is brilliant as his character morphs from one persona to the next, but Rahul Bose is close behind in the acting stakes, and Pooja Kumar does an excellent job with her portrayal of Nirupama.   Overall it’s an enthralling watch and bodes well for part II. 4 ½ stars.

Chithiram Pesuthadi


Chithiram Pesuthadi is the first Tamil film I’ve seen that thanks a roller skating stadium in the opening credits.  So – possibly not one of director Mysskin’s typically dark stories based on crime and murder then?

Well, no.  Chithiram Pesuthadi is billed as a love story, but even in this first film from Mysskin there are plenty of fights, numerous gangsters and an underworld theme added into the plot.  The features that I’ve come to expect from Mysskin’s film are also present, although less frequently here than in his subsequent films, but his trademark low angle shots of feet and a few odd camera angles from above still appear.  Despite the underworld theme, in many ways this is typical love story where a boy from the wrong side of the tracks falls in love with a middle class girl and there are numerous obstacles to overcome. However there are enough fresh features to keep the story interesting, while Narain and Bhavana share good chemistry together, which makes the love story a little more believable than usual.

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Thiru (Narain) is an angry man. He’s angry about the bribes he has to try and pay to get a job, he’s angry at his mother because he feels she prevented him from completing his education (which would have helped him get a job) and he’s angry at his sister because she needs money to finish her education (which means he has to get a job).  This rage makes him an excellent an somewhat ruthless fighter, and when he inadvertently rescues local don Annachi’s son from a beating, he ends up recruited as a general enforcer and thug on call.  The job with Annachi (Kadhal Dhandapani) allows him to vent his rage on a variety of hapless victims, although this doesn’t seem to improve his general disposition.  However there is more to Thiru than his frequent flashes of temper suggest.  He has his own code of conduct which he tries to adhere to, he has three loyal friends who respect him and despite his tantrums at home Thiru is trying his best to support his mother and sister.

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Inevitably, Thiru clashes with a girl who is equally angry, although Charu (Bhavana) doesn’t seem to have any real reason for all her aggression.  She lives with her father and works alongside her uncle in an organisation which promotes the health and welfare of orphans. Charu is a crusader and is ready to leap to the defence of anyone she feels might need her support, whether they want it or not. This leads to several clashes between her and Thiru, whom she sees as a nasty vicious thug.

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Thiru on the other hand doesn’t seem to think much about her at all, until finally one day he starts to see her in a different light.  Either that or he develops severe indigestion – it’s hard to decide from his expression but I’m pretty sure he falls in love.  Either way, we end up with this amazing song which, although it’s the ‘falling in love’ song in the film, it doesn’t seem to have anything much to do with love and romance.  Unless of course, I’ve missed some kind of symbolic significance in the way Narain is dressed as a Roman carrying a goat – or the many other bizarre situations in this song!

Naturally Charu also changes her mind about Thiru and without even a sniff of parental opposition the two end up setting a date for the wedding.  Of course Thiru’s decision to give up his life of crime and sell stuffed toys by the side of the road instead may have helped win over Charu’s father. But only, I suspect, if he didn’t actually see Thiru and his friends in these shirts.

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Charu and Thiru appear set for a life of wedded bliss when suddenly Mysskin appears to remember that this is a Tamil film and various tragedies beset the lovers.  But here again, Mysskin diverges from the traditional path and allows both of his characters to behave badly.  Both are selfish and unpleasant, although of the two, Thiru does get painted in a slightly kinder light.

Charu is abrasive, obnoxiously rude to her father and dangerously confrontational throughout.  When her relationship falters, she blames everyone but herself which showcases the immaturity of her character perfectly.  Bhavana does an excellent job and even manages to create sympathy for her character’s challenging persona.  Most importantly she cries convincingly and looks generally unglamorous and suitably ‘girl-next-door’ for the role. I found it quite impressive that she made me care about what happens to Charu (even if only superficially), as I really didn’t like the character at all.

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Narain also puts in a good performance, although he’s helped by the fact that his character is a little more sympathetic. Thiru is a man of contradictions and occasionally Narain splits his personality a little too much so that angry Thiru becomes too much of a caricature.  However his Thiru is likeable despite the angry outbursts and casual violence. Thiru’s loyal friends are equally impressive, with each developing a distinct personality through the use of just a few little quirks in their limited time onscreen.  I love how one of them is always eating – no matter how serious the situation or how inappropriate, he always has some food in his hands.  There are plenty of similar little touches that make the characters feel more real, including the way Annachi rules his area from his banana yard, discussing deals and deaths in between the more mundane day to day activity of selling fruit.

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While the story develops smoothly, the songs seem to be added rather haphazardly and don’t always add to the film.  There are also some very bizarre translations –  I have no idea what assembling eyes with fingers is all about, but it does sound interesting.

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And of course the roller skaters!

Chithiram Pesuthadi

There is a better than usual item number with Malavika, but again it wasn’t really necessary, and most of the songs appear to be used more because songs are expected rather than as a way to further develop the story.

Overall Chithiram Pesuthadi is an impressive début by Mysskin and illustrates why he has gone on to become such a successful director.  He has the ability to spin a good yarn and keep the plot interesting, even with unlikeable protagonists and relatively dark themes.   Good performances, a new twist on an old story and some clever character development combine to make Chithiram Pesuthadi well worth a watch, and definitely a cut above most other first films. 4 stars.

Irandam Ulagam

Irandam Ulagam

Selvaraghavan can always be counted on to take a different approach, and this time he heads into fantasy for a tale of love so great that it could transcend worlds.  It all sounds fine, inspirational maybe; except that the love between the characters never feels passionate enough to even inspire a short trip across town, let alone across worlds.  The execution of the story is also clumsy with the action jumping between two love stories without any apparent commonality, except that Arya and Anushka are the two actors in both cases. Irandam Ulagam is disappointing on many levels; even more so because there are flashes of a good story, some engaging ideas and even a few entertaining moments hidden among all the dreary dialogues.  And as if that wasn’t enough, seriously, how is it even possible to make Arya look this bad?

Irandam Ulagam

In this world there is the romance between Madhu Balakrishna (Arya) and Ramya (Anushka). Initially it’s a one-sided affair as Ramya feels that in Madhu she has found her Mr Right, but doesn’t know how to approach him. And then when Ramya does finally ask Madhu to marry her and is gently refused, she immediately decides instead to marry the man her parents have selected. Presumably because giving Madhu a chance to recover from the surprise proposal and perhaps give him time to find out something about her would be too much to expect! Madhu does however eventually fall in love with Ramya, and follows her to a medical camp to try and win her back before her wedding takes place.  After building Madhu up as a wonderfully caring man who looks after his disabled father (one of the best scenes in the film), Selva doesn’t seem to find anything odd in the concept that Madhu would recklessly dump his family responsibilities and job as a lecturer to follow a woman who blows hot and cold and generally doesn’t seem to have any idea what she wants from him.  Ramya is tedious in her indecisiveness and by the time the lifeless romance does manage to reach some form of conclusion it’s hard to care in any way about either Ramya or Madhu.

Irandam Ulagam

In the other world Varna (Anushka again) is a Xena kind of gal, who can swing a sword and take care of herself in a society where woman are definitely second class citizens.  Here Arya is Maruvan, a drunken buffoon who wants to fight in his father’s army, but is woefully inept even when sober.  Inexplicably he decides that Varna is the woman for him and after some heroic action does finally manage to win her as his wife.  Except that it’s not the idyll he was perhaps expecting but is more a constant combat as Varna can’t stand him. So not much love there either.  Not really looking good for a story all about grand passion that can span the stars.

Irandam Ulagam

Both characters played by Arya are wishy-washy with few redeeming features.  Although Madhu is a kind-hearted man, he’s rather dull and has no chemistry whatsoever with his co-star.  Maruvan seems to have been based on Shrek, which at least suits the fairy-tale landscape, but his transition from drunken village idiot to invincible warrior is just a little too instantaneous to be believable.

Irandam Ulagam

Anushka gets a better deal with Varna who at least has some personality, but Ramya is another weak character.  There is nothing endearing about Ramya to explain why Madhu would sacrifice everything to be with her, and nothing about their love story which suggests passion or grand desire. And that’s the problem. To believe in a love so great that it transcends everything there needs to be evidence of that love – and it just isn’t here.

Irandam Ulagam

The soundtrack by Harris Jayaraj is excellent, but the songs are completely out of place and don’t seem to fit the narrative, although that may be due to the rather woeful picturisation.  There are however a few moments where the choreography is different enough to almost work, if there were just a few more steps and a little less awkward shuffling.  Even the background score by Anirudh Ravichander is a disappointment as it’s frequently loud and intrusive, and doesn’t seem to suit the storyline particularly well either.

The special effects are fine, although nothing too spectacular.  They do create a different world, and the creatures such as the amazing ‘lion’ produce a fairy-tale atmosphere, enhanced by the fantastical fighting skills of our hero.  However I did keep thinking that if those planetary bodies were really that close in the sky then the gravitational field would have been completely different – which was a little distracting at times.

Irandam Ulagam

Irandam Ulagam needs a passionate and believable romance to make Selvaraghavan’s concept of true love convincing, but the lack of chemistry and any emotion between the main characters results in a failure to bring the idea to life.  Considering that Selva’s last film Mayakkam Enna was laden with emotional drama and desire, it’s strange that he seems to have missed out on this crucial ingredient here.  The story has the potential to offer more and the concept of a world without love is intriguing, but there is nothing to draw you in and generate interest in the characters. Even the performances by two normally engaging actors are laboured and unappealing.  The only thing I can recommend is the soundtrack, otherwise sadly I have to put Irandam Ulagam down as a miss.