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.

Jigarthanda

Jigarthanda

It was only the hope that Karthik Subbaraj would manage to at least equal his excellent début film Pizza that got me out of the house on a cold, wet and windy Melbourne night.  But in the end it was totally worth the trek across town to catch Jigarthanda and watch Bobby Simhaa completely steal the show as the slightly unhinged gangster Sethu.  Siddharth, Lakshmi Menon and Karunakaran round out the lead cast with excellent support from a multitude of actors, including a special appearance from Vijay Sethupathi.  It’s quite a long film and I felt that perhaps the final scene wasn’t absolutely necessary, but for the rest of the 2 hours and 50 minutes I was completely mesmerised by a rather different take on the blood and guts gangster film.

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Siddharth is Karthik, an aspiring young film maker who has been given the chance of a lifetime to have his first movie financed by a leading producer (Naren), just as long as it’s an Indian version of the Godfather.  This isn’t quite what Karthik had planned as his début feature, but after his reporter uncle tells him about a particularly psychotic goondha in Madurai, he decides that he has found his perfect muse and heads off to the city that never sleeps to develop his script.

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Luckily Karthik’s friend Oorni (Karunakaran) has space in his house while his pregnant wife is away, and Karthik loses no time in moving in and plotting a way to reach ‘Assault Sethu’.  Given that the opening scenes include a brutal and fairly horrific murder by the gang, this doesn’t really seem to be a very safe plan, but over Oorni’s quite sensible objections Karthik starts to stalk various members of the gang in an attempt to get close to Sethu.  The first half of the film mixes equal parts of comedy and action as Karthik and Oorni bumble around ineffectually trying to discover more about Sethu’s early life, while Sethu and his gang very efficiently do what any self-respecting psychotic Madurai bad guys do to earn a daily crust.  Amid all the mayhem, Karthik runs into Kayal (Lakshmi Menon), who has an interesting side-line which puts her on the shady side of the law, although she mainly helps her mother providing food for the gang.  This potentially gives Karthik a way into Sethu’s world although it doesn’t quite work out the way he plans.

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Siddarth is much better than I was expecting as the rather nerdy and intellectual film maker who is initially childishly thrilled by his exposure to the darker side of life and the excitement of gangsters in the flesh.  The inevitable change to horror as the reality of Sethu’s brutality and unpredictable viciousness becomes only too apparent is also well depicted, while his portrayal of Karthik’s despondency and resigned acceptance in the second half is pretty much perfect.  There is some excellent writing here as Karthik’s character is perfectly represented by the script, and Siddharth adds charm and general likeability along with technical prowess.  Alongside Siddharth, Karunakaran is impressive in a role that seems made for him, and his bumbling friend persona drives much of the comedy with very funny one-liners.  The various gang members also get plenty of one-liners and there is some excellent situational comedy, particularly in the second half, which is frequently unexpected but beautifully written into the main storyline.  The gang seems composed of the usual suspects in such films, but they seem even better than normal here.  Perhaps it’s because they get a chance to be three-dimensional and they have definitive and separate personalities here which helps drive the story and has the added bonus of providing more background to the character of Sethu.

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Lakshmi Menon doesn’t have a very big role in the proceedings but her presence proves to be pivotal in a number of instances and her character is generally realistically depicted.  She makes an impact even with her limited amount of screen-time and definitely holds her own against the rest of the mostly louder and brasher cast.  She’s certainly not just a love interest and I do like the way Karthik Subbaraj includes his female characters as having a definite personality and not just defining them by their relationship with the hero, even if he still doesn’t manage to give them much of a role in the story.

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The real star of the film though is Bobby Simhaa, who growls and menaces convincingly as a cold-hearted killer and somehow manages to genuinely appear unstable.  Some of his best moments are undoubtedly as he narrates his past murders to the camera when he is frighteningly chilling, but Simhaa also delights in scenes where he is attempting to act, or deal with the attempts on his life from other gangsters in Madurai.  He switches effortlessly between drama, action and comedy and so much more besides. It’s an absolutely inspired performance in a cleverly written role which really does encompass almost every possible reaction as the story unfolds.

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The film also benefits from excellent camera work from Gavemic Ary along with clever use of the different sets to help develop the various characters.  Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack sounds modern and edgy, yet fits perfectly into the film, while the background score enhances the visuals without becoming overpowering.  Generally the songs are used as background for story development with only one full choreographed number in the film – but it is well worth waiting for.  After all, it’s not often you get to experience an Indian brass band playing along with dance performances from a rowdy and cut-throat group of gangsters! Pandi Naatu Kodi makes a brief appearance in this trailer and it is just superb!

Ultimately, Jigarthanda succeeds because of Karthik Subbaraj’s intelligent and well plotted storyline which features plenty of unexpected twists, novel situations and a very funny script.  Although there are distinct differences between the two halves of the film, there is plenty of black humour throughout and the mixture of comedy and action overall works well in delivering an entertaining film.  I still think it could have been 10 minutes shorter and delivered just as effective an ending, but Jigarthanda is definitely one of my top movies of the year so far and I’m already putting the DVD on my wishlist.  I highly recommend watching in the cinema if you can – it’s really that good!

Lady Snowblood

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Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime) is a classic revenge tale, enlivened by an awesome heroine and a gleeful embrace of blood, gore and groovy music. If, like me, you enjoy South Indian revenge masala films or you liked Kill Bill, this is a perfect fit.

Yuki (Kaji Meiko) is born to avenge her parents and brother. Her mother was jailed when she killed one of the men who raped her.  Driven and adamant, Yuki seeks out those who destroyed her family and takes her bloody revenge.

The film is based on a manga and retains the strong visual style and chapter format complete with title cards. Much of the exposition is through narrative voiceover or a character’s inner monologue, again mimicking the graphic novel. The film is set in 1882 but while the costumes and sets are notionally historical in tone, the music and editing is firmly of the 1970s. The excellent soundtrack (by Masaaki Hirao) ranges from lounge to soulful pop with a dash of funk and I felt it worked well in to underscore the action, as well as maybe showing Yuki was out of step with her time. The elements often reflect and amplify the dramatic tone, with crashing waves or howling wind mirroring Yuki’s turmoil and snow is a constant reference. The action is stylised enough that the gory scenes are still exciting but also feel a little at a remove so are less confronting. The fight scenes are heavy on red paint and sound effects that range from the metallic ring of blade through bone to the gluggy suck and slurp of soft tissue torn asunder and the sound of blood escaping from a high pressure hose. Buckets of blood and frenetic fights are contrasted with a lyrical beauty and often meditative pace.

The crime that Yuki is avenging took place before her conception, but she can recall everything from the moment that her eyes first opened. The extent of her mother Sayo’s rage and determination was shown in a darkly humorous montage of her shagging any man with a pulse in any corner of the prison, desperate to conceive the child that would avenge her family. That strong bond with her deceased mother Sayo (Akaza Miyoko) makes this vengeful tale come alive. This isn’t a second hand obsession that Yuki could walk away from. She was raised as a ‘child of the netherworld’ – someone beyond even the compassion of Buddha. Repeatedly told she had no other destiny, she saw no reason to doubt that.

From a distance Yuki is a demure kimono clad figure carrying her trademark parasol, but Kaji Meiko is fierce. Her gaze is direct and challenging as Yuki has no fear or reason to want to outlive her targets, and her voice can be harsh and edgy. Yuki’s emotions are channelled into her mission of revenge and her nihilistic world view doesn’t allow for indulgence or frivolity. But she isn’t immune to softer feelings, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. She acts out of some kindness towards the daughter of one of her victims and that comes back with a sting.

The action scenes are reasonably demanding especially, one imagines, in a dress and she does wear some fabulous outfits. I also loved the way her eyes would light up in some fights, whether that was sheer amusement at the paint splattered shenanigans or as a sign of Yuki not being completely frozen.

The writer Ashio Ryurie (Kurosawa Toshio) may have sad puppy eyes and tousled 70s hair, but he is more than just a bit of eyecandy. He sees the enigmatic woman and is instantly intrigued. He romanticises Yuki in some ways, but she forces him to confront the truth. She kills because she wants to, feels she has to, and she is good at it. He draws a manga of the mysterious Lady Snowblood and uses it to try and pressure the remaining two targets into revealing themselves. Even under torture he refuses to betray her. Initially she rejects his interest and affection but she does start to think about life after the mission is complete. They have some chemistry but romance is not a priority when there are so many people that require killing. And what self-respecting revenge drama could pass up the opportunity for a birth secret and a dodgy disguise?

Yuki is a loner, but she doesn’t work alone. She was kept on task by one of her mother’s friends from jail and the enigmatic priest Dokai (Ko Nishimura) who trained her to kill. She also recruited Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), a kind of beggar king who uses his network to investigate the whereabouts of Yuki’s intended victims. The cast is quite small but the world within the film is rich.

See this if you like action films with a kickarse lady protagonist, enjoy the skewed manga sensibility with a strong visual punch or just want to know how much of a debt Quentin Tarantino owes to Shurayukihime. 4 ½ stars!

Gunday (2014)

Gunday poster

I missed Gunday in the cinema as I was in Tamil Nadu at the time of the film’s release, and it had finished its run by the time I got back to Melbourne.  It’s a film that I think would show better on the big screen to fully appreciate its boisterous lead men and riot of colourful masala, but it’s still an entertaining watch on DVD.  Ali Abbas Zafar takes us back to the buddy films of the seventies, although doesn’t quite ever manage to reach the same heights as The Shashitabh films of that era.  Still, buffed and oiled leads Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor have a fine bromance while Priyanka Chopra adds glamour and style to the proceedings.  Add in some Irfan Khan and you have the recipe for a vibrant mix that is all the better for not being just another rehash of a Southern India film with a Northern twist.  There are some issues with the film; the excessive amounts of slow-mo and a bit of a lag in the second half being the major offenders, but otherwise there is plenty of colour, glamour and camaraderie to make Gunday well worth watching.

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The film opens as young Bikram (Darhsan Gurjar) and equally young Bala (Jayesh V Kardak) seal their friendship in a Bangladeshi refugee camp when Bala rescues Bikram from a sleazy army guard.  The two mates have their feet set on the road to crime from an early age, acting as gun couriers in the camp and subsequently stealing and selling coal after they reach Calcutta.  Initially I thought that Ali Abbas Zafar was going to shine a spotlight on difficulties faced by Bangladeshi refugees in India, or perhaps focus the drama on child abuse, poverty or displacement due to war, but although he starts with a rejection of Bikram and Bala due to their background, apart from their own statements about the discrimination they have encountered there is little else in the film which follows this theme.  As in many seventies films, anything with the potential to be serious is glossed over and we quickly move forward a few years to the adult Bikram (Ranveer Singh) and Bala (Arjun Kapoor) and their current life of crime.

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While Bikram and Bala may have started small, they have somehow worked their way up in the intervening years to become Calcutta’s biggest gangsters.  Although a gang is occasionally mentioned, their opening scenes show them working with each other to remove a local gangster and steal his coal.  There is no doubt that they are brutal killers, but as a useful side-line they finance schools and hospitals, cementing their ‘lovable rogues with hearts of gold’ personas.  The contrast is clear – dirty deeds are done covered in coal dust, while philanthropy comes courtesy of oiled chests, unbuttoned shirts and sharp white suits.

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So, having established that the friendship between Bikram and Bala is the defining feature of their lives, the scene is set for upheaval when they meet and both fall in love with club dancer Nandita (Priyanka Chopra).  But the romantic rivalry is not the only problem they face.  Assistant Commissioner of Police Satyajeet Sarkar (Irrfan Khan) is on their trail and searching for even the smallest sniff of evidence to lock the boys away for their criminal activity.  It’s a well-trodden path but mostly good performances from the cast make it a fairly enjoyable one to walk, while a few plot twists help maintain momentum.  Irrfan Khan is the standout here, and he is smooth and polished as the ACP while still maintaining a street cop vibe as he pursues Bikram and Bala.

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GundayGundayRanveer and Arjun have good chemistry together but individually Ranveer impresses more in his role as Bikram.  That’s partly due to Bikram’s more shaded character and Ranveer certainly has more opportunity to show off his acting skills, but he also has so much energy that he seems to explode off the screen.  It’s noticeable in the songs that Ranveer is putting in more oomph than Arjun, and the difference in energy levels causes a lull in the second half when the focus moves onto the characters as individuals rather than as a pair and attention is focused on Bala.

Bala is a more two-dimensional character and is limited by his depiction as headstrong and angry without a sense of burning injustice or any tempering balance to offset his constant rage.  There’s also a certain inevitability to Bala’s actions while Bikram seems to be more in control of his own destiny and frequently stops Bala from rushing off to do something stupid.  Bala comes across as just plain angry and Arjun’s performance occasionally slips into simply bratty and petulant in contrast to Ranveer’s slightly more mature and definitely more nuanced reactions.  However in the scenes with the two together, Arjun and Ranveer do make a likeable pair and the film relies on their jodi to keep the masala quotient high.

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Priyanka Chopra looks amazing as the sultry singer Nandita, and Ali Abbas Zafar cleverly develops a contrast between her on stage persona and sari-clad and demure appearance when out shopping in the market.  It makes her seem more of a real person and less of a clichéd love interest although she doesn’t have much else raison d’être initially.  However as the story unfolds and she becomes more involved with Bikram and Bala there is more scope for her as an actor and she makes the most of her role in the second half.  Along with Irrfan Khan she appears as a very polished performer, while support stalwart Saurabh Shukla is effective in his small role.  The two young actors who play the gangsters as children are also impressive, hamming it up for the camera and generally fitting well into the seventies vibe.

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The masala feel of the story is enhanced by references to Sholay and Mr India, including a memorable fight scene to the backdrop of the later, while songs from Pakeezah and Disco Dancer in the background help settle the film firmly into its adopted era of the seventies.  The costumes also add to the cheesiness of the film, and Ranveer and Arjun are given plenty of opportunity to show off their manly chests in a variety of gaudy shirts.  Nothing to complain about there!

Although Gunday falls somewhat short of ‘classic’ masala it’s a good attempt to recreate the magic of seventies Bollywood and gives me hope that the genre is still alive and kicking.  Although the elements are all there, they don’t quite gel together to give the complete package despite good performances and plenty of onscreen chemistry between the main leads.  A little more depth to the characters would have helped, but Gunday is still a rollicking yarn that delivers plenty of action mixed up with a serving of dosti and betrayal – and that is plenty to be going on with. 3 stars.

Velaiyilla Pattathari

Velaiyilla Pattathari

I laughed, I cried, I clapped and cheered along with everyone else in the cinema, and finally I left with a big grin on my face.  Dhanush hits all the right notes in his 25th film with a full mass entertainer that has something for everyone.  This wasn’t the film I expected after seeing the trailer and despite a rather predictable storyline I was completely captivated by the infectious energy Dhanush brings to the screen.  Writer/director Velraj seems to have started with a blend of a number of previous Dhanush roles (he does seem to play the part of an unemployed layabout quite frequently!), but as the story develops the differences become clear and in any case, with the quality of the actors, any similarity ceases to matter.  What starts out as a family drama evolves into a full action adventure featuring snappy dialogue and perfect performances from pretty much the entire cast.   I loved every moment, from Raghuvaran riding his dorky cycle taking his brother to work, to the final shirtless fight scene and even the clichéd pre-interval ‘shock’ which segues into a perfect emotional response from Dhanush.  Paper-thin plot aside, this is a film to savour.

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As the title suggests, Dhanush is the out of work loser in his family, with a father who fails to understand his ‘difficult’ son.  His younger brother Karthik (Hrishikesh) is taller, has a job and is held up to be the ideal son in stark contrast to Raghuvaran (Dhanush).  Samuthirakani plays their father and his disapproval is wonderfully understated, so that it’s hard to tell if his condemnation is genuine or simply masking concern for his jobless son.  Samuthirakani has a perfectly gruff and irritable exterior and escapes stereotype by the realistic alternation between criticism and approbation of his eldest son.  Meanwhile, Saranya Ponvannan is a stereotypical Southern Indian ma, but she is perfect in her role and makes much more of her character than seems possible at first glance.  In particular, her reaction to Raghuvaran’s fight with some hired thugs in her front yard is hysterical!  Again it’s little touches and Saranya’s ease of expression that lifts her role out of the stale and mundane, while such attention to detail in the characterisation ensures the appeal of the characters and bolsters the time-worn storyline.

Velaiyilla Pattathari

The first half of the film focuses on the family dynamics and Raghuvaran’s dreary days as he spends his time filling in job applications and doing the household chores.  There are plenty of lighter moments though as Raghuvaran looks after his dog Harry Potter, and tries to catch a glimpse of his new, reportedly attractive next door neighbour.  Velraj mixes small every-day occurrences with more significant events to gradually build a picture of Raghuvaran’s ambitions, morals and general mind-set which in turn sets up the rationale for the action in the second half.  Raghuvaran is determined to get the job he wants and not just take any work for the sake of becoming employed.  The only thing which seems to have any power to change his mind is his attraction to Shalini (Amala Paul) and their budding romance.

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Amala Paul doesn’t have a large role in the film, but she turns in a good performance and has plenty of onscreen chemistry with Dhanush.  Their romance is sweet with Shalini taking the more aggressive role, and it’s a pleasant change to have a film where the hero isn’t a creepy stalker. Or at least not as soon as he gives up his telescope to his mother!

The second half follows Raghuvaran’s fortunes once he does find a job, and the whole dynamic of the film changes to more hero-centric action with slickly choreographed fight scenes and the requisite villain.  Vivek pops up in a fairly subdued role to add some mildly amusing comedy, and there is a second heroine (Surabhi) although her storyline peters out when the action ramps up.

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Amitesh is Arun, the villain of the piece.  He’s a rich boy given control of his father’s company despite a lack of talent and what I would call nounce, and for various petty reasons and sheer spitefulness decides to eliminate his competitor in the world of building development.  It’s a tad far-fetched but I did like the rather brattish and petulant character of Arun which was a respite from the typical brutal world-domination style villains usually encountered.  Amitesh doesn’t really match up to Dhanush in terms of acting skills and it’s fairly obvious who is going to win any encounter, but the various plots and counter-plots are fun.  I also appreciated the fairly accurate representation of a visit to the optometrist and an eye examination in the second half since attention to eye health is rarely featured in movies!

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I’ve been listening to the soundtrack since it was released, and the songs are even better in the context of the film.  Dhanush dances up a storm and the choreography is well suited to the characterisation.  Udhungada sangu is probably my favourite but Anirudh Ravichander’s music and Dhanush’s lyrics (yay for subtitles!) are well matched to the screenplay and the songs are sensibly placed in the narrative.

The entire cast are all excellent but with a strong screen presence, Velaiyilla Pattathari is very definitely Dhanush’s film through and through.  He nails the role of Raghuvaran and as always I am completely amazed by his ability to make me believe 100% in his character, no matter how improbable or unlikely.  The interactions with his co-stars are flawless and when it gets to a long and simply brilliant monologue his facial expressions, body language and delivery all combine to make it one of my favourite scenes this year.  The mixture of comedy, action and drama, plus superb performances makes this one of Dhanush’s most entertaining ‘commercial’ films in recent times and I’ll definitely be heading back to the cinema to catch it again.  Highly recommended – I loved it!