Shatranj (1969)

Shatranj 1969

Shatranj is proud as punch to be another in a long line of ‘so crazy it almost makes sense’ Indian spy thrillers. S.S. Vasan appears to have a healthy aversion to restraint, and with a top notch cast and Shankar-Jaikishan providing the music, there is no reason to be reticent.

Jai (Rajendra Kumar), also known as The Indian is an international man of mystery. He seems to have full time employment searching the globe for Indians being held captive by foreign governments who shall not be named. He is asked to find Meena (Waheeda Rehman) and her mum (Achala Sachdev) who have decamped to Another Country That May Not Be Named and show no signs of coming home. Amir (Mehmood) and Salma (Helen) are on the side of Good, Susie (Shashikala) is a stylish Bad girl and stunts and schemes abound. Jai travels to Hong Kong and thence by boat to The Mysterious Land With No Name. I do wonder where it could be.

Many hijinks ensue as Jai plays merry havoc with his adversaries General Ko Lum, Zing (or Singh, depending on the subtitle team’s mood and level of nationalist fervour), Chang, Lee Jung, the constantly knitting Madame Chun Qing Lee, et al. If only there were clues as to which country this could be set in. Maddening.

I am lacking the Rajendar Kumar Appreciation Gene but he does OK as Jai, generally playing for laughs rather than milking the drama. Jai has a well provisioned den and a comedy sidekick, proof that he is no novice in the international spy game. There is an over reliance on blue contact lenses in lieu of a proper disguise, but the wig department got to de-mothball a few favourites. Rajendra Kumar cannot, nay should not, dance but he is upbeat and energetic which is something I suppose. He has no chemistry whatever with Waheeda Rehman and she knocks herself out trying to emote enough for both of them in the romantic scenes.

Meena is a good girl and both Jai and her mum think that means she is too sweet and dumb to ever tell her the truth. Apart from the picturesque moping, Waheeda gets some excellent dance numbers and that gives her a chance to show Meena as cheeky and energetic rather than the limp tearstained captive. Waheeda has just the right expression of patient misery for Meena.

And her ‘I’m a hot peacock in sparkly pants with an eye for the ladies’ expression is also memorable.

Among the things I love most about vintage spy thrillers are the lengths to which they go to explain things, and the excellent interior design and fashion. There was either a commitment to ensuring mutual understanding  or total lack of imagination going on when they handed out the codenames. Jai was The Indian, the guy in dark glasses is Mr Dark Glasses and Shashikala in her wig is Miss Golden Hair. The plots and doublecrosses are explained loud and clear, often with a side of comedy mime from Mehmood. There are truly excellent telecommunications devices and an amazing screen of secrecy.  Things light up, go whoop-whoop and beep-beep, and stick on moustaches and rubber masks are a dime a dozen. Is it a truly secret lair if people see you ducking in and out via the revolving secret door? Really?

Helen and Mehmood look like they enjoy working together. Maybe they’re just amazing actors.  Mehmood gets to confuse the spies watching Jai, so the real Jai can sneak over to rescue the ladies. I do like that Mehmood always answers the phone and top secret radios with Alooooooo rather than the traditional Hellohellohello. Amir is both a bumbling fool and a competent gentleman’s gentleman (or beloved lackey). I like Mehmood best when there isn’t too much of him and because there is so much everything else, he is neatly contained.

Helen is Salma, a very charming and fun sidekick burdened with the sad fate of loving Amir (Mehmood). On board a ship between Hong Kong and The Unidentifiable Country, Helen flamencos like a mad thing which is an excellent cover as no one seems inclined to enquire too closely as to her career plans or immediate spy type objectives. Jai tells her to go undercover at his hotel, as (what else) a cabaret dancer. When he arranged to be introduced to her as Shin Raz, a businessman, Salma simply purred “A businessman? How boring!” and sauntered away with a cheeky smile. It’s a great fit for Helen, and she doesn’t have to die to be redeemed as she is already on the side of the angels.

The songs are a sheer delight. Whether used in snippets to set a mood or full on production numbers, the music is a highlight. Even Mehmood gets a share of the musical goodness in one of my favourite dances with Helen, plus a strange mournful dirge about charity that suddenly grows a poppy guitar melody.

And how about that? Yes I know that song is a direct copy of South Pacific but Rogers and Hammerstein missed an opportunity to have the devil bunnies and snake ladies in their musical. Although I’m very OK with missing out on the high pitched screechy ethnic stereotypes. And it even works as part of the narrative, as Meena bemoans her fate as a lonely stranger in a strange land (the one that cannot be identified).

If you only watched the songs you might think this was a film about a man with dozens of children, multiple wives who were all cabaret dancers, and a drunken stalker addicted to bad disguises. So you really need to see the whole thing and appreciate the verve and dedication to the craft of the spy film. Shatranj never fails to put a smile on my face. 4 stars!

Mouna Ragam (1986)

Mouna Ragam

If you’re in the mood for a classic love story with just a touch of mushy sentimentality, you can’t really go past Mouna Ragam. Mani Ratnam’s beautiful 1986 film takes an arranged marriage between a compliant groom and a reluctant bride as the starting point for a look at relationships and how two strangers can learn to live with each other. It’s well worth watching for the excellent performances from the main leads, Mohan, Revathi and Karthik, but also for the simple but effective storyline and wonderful music.

The story follows Divya (Revathi) a fairly happy-go-lucky student whose world is shattered when her family arranges her marriage. The groom is Chandrakumar (Mohan) and even though Divya lists all her worst qualities on their uncomfortable first meeting, Chandra likes her honesty and decides that she will be the perfect wife for him. The opening scenes add to the realistic feel of the film as they illustrate just how young Divya is, playing tricks on her older sister and husband, and showing her simplistic and childish ideas to counteract the unwelcome marriage proposal. However, against all her objections, Divya is pressured into the wedding by that age-old family drama – a threatened heart attack / medical collapse. Divya is just as susceptible as every other film heroine and without further ado her husband whisks her off to a new life in Delhi.

The relationship is shown as difficult right from the start. As Chandrakumar shows Divya around his house in Delhi after the wedding, Divya’s body language makes it obvious that she doesn’t want to be there, while Chandrakumar is clearly feeling the hostile vibes but trying to be as welcoming as possible. This awkwardness seems exactly what I would expect from two strangers suddenly having to live together and Mani Ratnam has captured their uneasiness perfectly. I don’t know, never having been through it, but this seems to be a plausible reaction to the abrupt intimacy between two people who have only just met. It’s thought-provoking and one of the things I love about the film, that just a few moments can invoke such a complicated emotional response from me.

Despite her classy new abode, which is a world away in size and conveniences from her family home, Divya is very unhappy with her marriage. So much so that when asked what she would like most from her new husband, her immediate answer is a divorce. This is a pivotal scene and it’s beautifully played out by Mohan and Revathi. Chandrakumar’s shock and hurt are palpable while Divya appears to be no more than a sulky school girl trying to be as obnoxious as possible.  Needless to say as a rejection it works well, and since she follows it up with more nasty remarks it’s to his credit that Chandrakumar manages to keep his cool. This is the turning point of the film for me with Chandrakumar’s character partly due to his emotional responses (which make me feel sorry for him), and partly because he shows more personality in interactions with his work colleagues. It’s an important change since up until this point he’s fairly bland and unexciting, making Divya’s reluctance to go through with the marriage relatively understandable. But Chandrakumar seems a good catch. He’s got a good job, a nice house and is considerate and understanding, particularly when faced with Divya’s immature taunts. With just a few simple scenes, Mani Ratnam turns the story around, and suddenly it’s Divya’s reactions and inability to make the best of things that become difficult to understand and instead of wanting her to get divorced, I want Divya to fall in love with Chandrakumar and be happy in her marriage.

Eventually Chandrakumar asks Divya exactly why she is so against the idea of their marriage (possibly something he should have done before the wedding), and she tells him about her first love Manohar (Karthik), who was killed just as they were about to get married. The story of Manohar and Divya is told in flashback and although Karthik only has a small role, he’s an excellent romantic partner for Revathi and the two share great chemistry together.  The difference between the two relationships stands out clearly. Divya and Manohar have a light and happy relationship, their scenes together are full of life and there is a sense of energy that is missing between Divya and Chandrakumar. Karthik is very appealing here as the quintessential ‘bad boy’ who is of course not really bad at all. However, while the romance is well told and Divya with Manohar is happier and nicer person, she also seems quite mature, which seems at odds with her juvenile responses to Chandrakumar, and her earlier carefree attitude as a student.

In the face of such strong contempt from Divya, Chandrakumar tries to arrange a divorce, but the law states that the couple has to be together for a year before they can apply. Naturally over this time Divya comes to see the good side of Chandrakumar and slowly develops feelings for him, while Chandrakumar gets a little of his own back by throwing her earlier remarks back at her and ignoring her attempts to be more friendly. This being a Tamil film it’s not guaranteed that there will be a happy ending, and the developing relationship is compelling viewing as the deadline for the divorce looms.

There is so much to enjoy here. Revathi is excellent in her role as Divya and her self-realisation and development of maturity is captivating. Initially she lets her emotions track across her face just like any young girl and her petulance and hostility is perfectly nasty. Just think of how obnoxious any group of schoolgirls can be – that is exactly what Mani Ratnam has captured here. With Divya’s slow acceptance of her husband there is a softening of her expressions, and when the realisation of what she has done sinks in there is maturity in her actions too. However she is still a young girl at heart, as shown by the tricks she plays on the driver Sanjit Singh. I love the way Mani Ratnam emphasizes her isolation by moving the couple to Delhi where Divya cannot understand the language and is confused by the cultural differences. It adds to the problems she has and ensures that she has to resolve her problems by herself. There is no convenient family or friend to help her, although the lack of interference from Chandrakumar’s family is a little surprising.

Mohan is just as good and although his Chandrakumar initially seems too perfect to be true, he becomes more human and therefore more likeable in the second half. He does an excellent job of portraying a ‘nice guy’ and has just the right amount of revenge on Divya without becoming cruel or spiteful. He’s an ideal contrast to the passion of Karthik, and I kept thinking of the old proverb ‘still waters run deep’ when the camera focused on Chandrakumar’s patience and tolerance.

Although the story is nothing new it’s beautifully told using a simple style with well developed characters and situations. As an added bonus the music by Ilaiyaraaja is excellent and this song Nilaave Vaa, sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam is just beautiful.

Mouna Ragam rightly deserves to be called a classic and despite the fact that I know what is going to happen, I get drawn into the story every time. Each character is perfectly drawn, the actors all fit their roles easily and there is none of the overblown melodrama which usually infects similar love stories of the time.  It’s one of my favourite romances, and I thoroughly recommend watching. 5 stars.

Life is Beautiful (2012)

Life-Is-Beautiful-Poster

I’m not sure whether Life is Beautiful needs to be an hour shorter or about 5 hours longer. Sekhar Kammula’s observational style might play out better as a mini-series than a film as while not a lot really happens, neither do we get much insight into some of the large ensemble of characters. And understanding more about them might have made all the difference when, for want of a better word, things go a bit stupid.

Sreenu, Chinni and Sathya move to a Hyderabad housing development to stay with relatives when their mother (Amala Akkineni) tells them she needs to take a work transfer for a year. It’s clear their aunt just tolerates them, and the rich aunty (Surekha Vani) next door doesn’t want to know the kids. But where Gold Phase has shiny cars and swimming pools, the B Phase colony is rich in characters and goodwill. Money causes all manner of tension, but mostly between those who value work and self-improvement over those take their privilege for granted. In a similar vein, the film contrasts the superficial gated enclosure of Gold Phase with the more organic sense of community in B Phase where sharing is second nature.

The B Phase kids expect to work to make their own way. Chinni is trying to get into a prestigious English school and Sathya (Rashmi Sastry) is preparing to study medicine. Nagaraj helps new neighbour Laxmi (Zara Shah) to find a job so she can continue her engineering studies, and his lack of education and prospects is a recurring theme. Sreenu (Abhijeet Duddala) soon meets Nagaraj (Sudhakar Komakula) the local cool dude and Abhi (Kaushik Darbha), a sweet-natured geek. Cousin Paddhu (Shagun Kaur) is pretty and confident, and keeps Sreenu on his toes. They’re all good hearted and fundamentally optimistic, and friendship comes easily. It’s not hard to like them and I enjoyed watching them grapple with coming of age and growing responsibility.

I really like that the girls are interested in finding the right life partner not just a hot hero, and that their parents are broadly supportive of their right to do so (if not of their choices). I’m not as happy with some of the films tricks to get the girls to realise who they love. There is an odd decision to make Paru (Shriya Saran) have a gimmicky epiphany, as though she was incapable of understanding her own feelings without a billboard sized clue. And I couldn’t really get on board with her ‘I must win Miss India to fulfil my mother’s dying wish’ thing.  I didn’t think Ajay (Vijay Sai) was really a bad guy, but he had a different view of sex and relationships so Laxmi found herself fleeing what she saw as overly determined advances. It seemed she was being punished for straying from Nagaraj and B Phase. Nagaraj has a reverse snobbery about educated people and blames Laxmi for the encounter. And once a boy has decided he likes a girl, that girl should only do what he says or face harsh criticism. Maybe it is just an illustration of how it is easy to be liberal when you’re comfortable, but how people under pressure can revert to type. Maya (Anjala Zaveri) was being harassed by a sleazy caller so the boys actually use their education to catch the culprit. But then their biggest problem seems to be that he is a Gold Phase guy and shouldn’t be allowed to ogle their local hottie while they may do so at their whim. When Maya comes to bail the lads out at the police station, they seem shocked that women can Do Thinking And Other Good Stuff Too. So it’s a mixed bag but the women are distinct and interesting characters and that was pleasing.

The youngsters various relationships absorb most of the film, but they all have families and other issues to deal with. Sreenu and his sisters find out the real reason for their mother’s absence – a reason that made me furious and considering whether to pull the plug on the movie – and have to think hard about what to do with their lives. On the other hand, Abhi and his mum have a really nice relationship. She knows he is a bit weird and nerdy but she loves him for his quirks, and he is super smart and appreciative of her support. Paddhu is caught between her snobby parents expectations and her own heart, plus a dithering Indian Filmi Boy, but she is not a pushover and nor are they villains. Friends help friends, and sometimes friends force friends to confront things they might try to avoid.

Language is both a conduit and barrier. Chinni is denied a place in school because she doesn’t speak English, although she is eloquent when speaking Telugu. Nagaraj tells new neighbour Laxmi that Telangana speakers aren’t formal, they speak from the heart. I couldn’t pick up on the nuances of language in the conversations about Andhra and Telangana speech, although I assume that would resonate with the local audience.

The cast are largely novices and they generally do quite well. Of the young actors, Kaushik and Shagun Kaur were my favourites maybe because they played sunny characters and seemed genuine. I smiled when I saw them and could easily overlook a couple of wobbly acting moments. Amala Akkineni is the largely absent mother, and while I like her performance a lot I had strong reservations about the plot manipulation tied to her character. Shriya Saran is very natural as Paru, the It Girl of Gold Phase, pretty and a princess. And she shows a different side in her scenes with Abhi and the guys where she is at ease, genuine, and friendly.

I don’t like the songs. Especially the English lyrics in this one. It is Eurovision level bad.

My test for whether a song enhances a film is simple. I imagine the sequence, replacing the filmi song with Boston’s More Than A Feeling – a truly naff song which is all about itself. If it works just as well as the movie song I reckon the film could have done without. Obviously if there is excellent dancing, great costumes, or Chiru, I don’t question the validity of the musical interlude.

The song montages are well put together and do help amplify the mood and inner feelings. The locations and set dressing are lovely to look at and the details help flesh out the characters living in the various houses and streets. C Vijay Kumar has collaborated with Sekhar Kammula on several films and their styles mesh very well. He knows how to get the most out of fields, trees and rooftop terraces.

Kammula uses some cheap and cheesy effects which is at odds with his predilection for slice of life stories featuring the unexceptional middle class. Animated hearts when the scruffy boy dog fell for the ritzy lady dog was mildly funny but then there was the magic at the wedding, the magic at Miss India…the (bad and nonsensical) magic. While David Copperfield need not worry about losing his day job, it was nice to see Anish Kuruvilla acting. And Anish, if you don’t like being a character actor you could always, I dunno, direct another film. Just a thought.

I really like Sekhar Kammula’s films, even though I have a few issues with his horrible taste in music and addiction to animated effects, as he can tell simple stories well. While Life Is Beautiful is meandering and low on drama, I do like the characters and the glimpses into their lives. 3 stars!

Life-is-Beautiful-the moral

Queen (2014)

Queen

It’s heartening that the Indian Film Industry is producing more female-centric movies with the last few years having seen an increasing number of releases featuring a woman as the main lead. Even better, these are strong and independent women who don’t need to be rescued by a hero and can solve their problems by themselves, thank you very much. Queen is another film to add to the list, and a very worthy entrant it is too. In a somewhat similar vein to English Vinglish, Queen tells a story of self-discovery, but in this instance the protagonist is a young bride, jilted just before her wedding. Rather than bemoan her fate, Rani (Kangana Ranaut) packs her bags and heads off to Europe on her honeymoon by herself. It’s a charming look at Rani’s journey, both the physical trip and the metaphorical voyage, that doesn’t follow the expected path despite a number of frustratingly stereotypical characters along the way. I loved Kangana’s quirky take on an innocent abroad and her coming of age story is endearing and at times familiar as she negotiates her  way through the streets of Paris and Amsterdam.

The film opens with the preparations for Rani’s wedding to Vijay (Rajkummar Rao), a rather smarmy and chauvinistic engineer who met Rani in Delhi but is now living and working in London. The initial voice-over, filled with inanities from Rani as she contemplates the celebrations, her family and her approaching first night, is an excellent introduction to her character and is so very common place and normal that straight away you are drawn into her world. Vikas Bahl perfectly captures the excitement, apprehension and happiness of the occasion, and the first song is a lively and appropriate accompaniment to the celebrations.

When Rani is jilted, her family rallies round and is supportive of her decision to go to Europe alone. I was expecting some parental opposition but everyone seems happy to let Rani go, even though she has spent the previous 24 hours hiding and crying in her room.

What wouldn’t be a big deal to anyone else is a huge adventure for Rani and her amazement at the sights of Paris and Amsterdam is infectious, although I did have to wonder that a resident of Delhi had issues crossing a road in Paris. India is a much more confronting place as far as traffic goes!

In Paris Rani meets a young French woman Vijayalakshmi (Lisa Haydon) who introduces her to Paris nightlife and starts to open her eyes to the possibilities of a more independent life. Lisa Haydon is excellent, although her introduction scene is rather more dubious. However, just when you think the film is about to tread a well worth path featuring a shameless Frenchwoman and loud scenes of intercourse, the film switches direction and Vijayalakshmi turns out to be a more interesting character than first impressions would suggest. Of course there is still the stereotypical portrayal of her European loose morals, since she is an unmarried mother who likes to go out clubbing, but Lisa Haydon gives her character plenty of soul and a caring nature, which helps win over Rani’s initial mistrust.

The relationship between the two young women evolves very naturally and doesn’t fall into the plot pitfalls that loom once Vijayalakshmi takes Rani out drinking. My favourite moment is when Rani climbs up onto the bar to dance, and after twirling her cardigan striptease style, rather than toss it away, she stuffs it into her bag instead. Then dances manically to the strains of a remixed Hungama Ho Gaya. It’s such a classic moment and I totally understand what was going through her head right at that moment! It’s a major strength of the film that Kangana is completely immersed in her character and is such a ‘normal girl on her first adventure away from home’, making it easy to relate to her experiences and understand her reactions. It’s not flawless but it feels genuine and Kangana captures that mix of wonderment, elation and confusion perfectly.

Rani moves on to Amsterdam and therefore there are the expected scenes in a sex shop and with a prostitute who of course is working to send money home to her family. But in contrast to these clichéd moments, the developing friendship between Rani and her three hostel roommates is fresh and unexpected, particularly since all three are male! Mish Boyko as Russian Oleksander, Jeffrey Ho as Taka and Joseph Guithob as Tim are an unlikely trio of friends, but they help Rani discover her self-confidence, and support her new-found independence without any schmaltzy romance or unnecessary posturing. I love the interactions between the three as none of them speak each other’s language and also struggle with English, which reminds me of so many incidents in my own travels and keeps the film moving in unexpected directions. The characterisations do threaten to fall into very well-worn stereotypes, but they are spared by the spontaneous feel of the dialogue, and if nothing else, at least they are a hundred times better than the usual portrayal of foreigners in Indian films.

The support cast is excellent, particularly Rani’s family in India (Yogendra Tiku as her father, Alka Badola Kaushal as her mother and Chinmaya Agrawal as her younger brother) but the star here is Kangana, who completely sheds her neurotic persona perfected in previous films. She appears very genuine and natural throughout, with no sense of artificiality in her gradual shedding of inhibitions and development of confidence. The development of Rani’s self-awareness is well written but comes to joyful life with Kangana’s portrayal. She also is credited with writing some of her own dialogues, which, even with subtitles, are encouragingly realistic and non-filmi. Kudos too to Rajkummar Rao who is perfectly shallow, petty and immature in the role of Rani’s ex-fiancé and maintains his obnoxious personality right to the very end.   The music by Amit Trividi is also excellent and the songs are well placed in the narrative, keeping the flow and adding more layers to the story. The late Bobby Singh has also expertly capture of  the streets of Paris and Amsterdam in beautiful detail, although the cities did seem rather sanitised in comparison to my own experiences. Not too sure about the boots with this dress, but this is a beautiful song, and I love the expressions on Rani’s face as she meets and then farewells her friends – perfect!

Queen is a film with much to enjoy, most of it due to Kangana’s portrayal and her character’s travels through Europe, although the writing, direction and editing all perfectly align with the superb cast. The emotional journey is just as entertaining as the physical one, and I love the optimistic and up-beat ending.  Definitely one to watch with girl-friends, but Queen is much more than a chick-flick and I recommend it to everyone who wants to see something a little different. 4 ½ stars.

I (2015)

poster

Shankar is a director who has proved in the past to have amazing vision and a seemingly unending wealth of imaginative ideas. Many of his previous films have been visually stunning with incredible effects and novel concepts, but he seems to have missed the mark somewhat with his latest movie I. He has the benefit of an excellent cast and a potentially interesting story, but somehow the sum of the whole is not as good as each individual part. The film has a few too many cringe-worthy moments to make me want to see it again although Vikram is superb, and Amy Jackson is also impressive despite a rather limited role. However their characters aren’t particularly likeable and the story meanders annoyingly along several inconsequential paths before finally reaching the predictable and cloyingly trite end. I’m not even going to complain about the dodgy medicine since there was so much else that bothered me more about the improbable and often distasteful screenplay, but the ‘science’ is just as far-fetched as the rest of the story. Really the only reason I can give to watch I is Vikram and his impressive ability to transform himself into just about anyone, and that’s not quite enough to justify the 3 hours plus of I.

The story revolves around Lingesan (Vikram), a body builder from the back streets whose ambition in life is to win the Mr India competition. Be warned, there is a lot of flexing and posing in the first half hour of the film, while Lingesan tries to win the Mr Tamil Nadu crown from a large number of other over-muscled and over-oiled men in very skimpy bathers. It’s quite impressive that Vikram managed to achieve this look, but it’s not attractive and I was much happier once he put his clothes back on and backed off on the oil. Unfortunately he doesn’t really stop the flexing and posing even when fully clothed.

There is also a ridiculous fight scene backstage at the Mr Tamil Nadu championships with Lingesan managing to fight off multiple opponents including his arch-rival Ravi (M. Kamaraj). Ravi is a much better contender for the title of Mr Tamil Nadu so it’s a little surprising that he takes Lingesan as an opponent so seriously, but at least there is a relatively valid reason for the ongoing enmity between the two men, even if it does seem unlikely.

Lingesan is also obsessed with model Diya (Amy Jackson) to the point where he purchases absolutely anything she has endorsed, and I do mean absolutely everything. It’s quite creepy initially but does move out of stalker territory once Diya and Lingesan meet and Lingesan starts behaving like a 13 year old besotted schoolboy instead. It’s not a lot better but at least it’s funnier. Santhanan provides the rest of the comedy as Lingesan’s brother Babu, and for the most part he’s reasonably amusing, although a comedy track really wasn’t needed given just how ridiculous the plot becomes in the second half of the film.

From body builder to model is apparently as simple as getting a haircut and shaving off a moustache and with that Lingesan transforms into successful model Lee on the basis of one ad campaign and a romance with his muse Diya. However to get to this point Lingesan has pissed off quite a few people including the obnoxiously sleazy model John (Upen Patel) who is furious at being foiled in his attempts to get Diya into bed. Diya’s transgender make-up artist Osma (Ojas Rajani) also falls in love with Lingesan and is hurt and vengeful after his rather forceful rejection of her advances. John’s behavior is fairly gross but nothing unexpected for a masala movie, but the ‘romance’ between Osma and Lee is badly developed and feels more homophobic and derogatory than necessary. I can’t decide if Shankar was trying to be clever here and make a point about how the world views people who are transgender given that the film is based in the advertising world and uses image and ideals of beauty to develop the plot, or if this really was just a bad piece of writing, but it’s hard to watch whatever the reasoning.

Interspersed with the frothy romance are flashes to the present day where a hunched and grossly deformed Lingesan has kidnapped Diya on her wedding day, and the story gradually shifts to a tale of vengeance and medical improbability. Here at least the idea of image and beauty does get a little more developed although the masala element is still very much to the fore. Lingesan seeks revenge on the people who have caused his illness and as scientific reality goes out the window the story gets ever more ridiculous until the Beauty and Beast song seems quite normal and believable by comparison. It’s also a pleasant relief from all the disfigurement and maiming, although like other songs in the film it’s not well integrated into the narrative.

There are a number of more mundane inconsistencies such as the sudden turnaround in Diya’s treatment of hunchback Lingesan and Lingesan’s continued strength and agility given his deformed body. Not that any of the rest of it makes any more sense, but there is too much that is implausible and the story becomes too far-fetched to take seriously. However there are also far too many scenes where the people variously handicapped as a result of Lingesan’s revenge are ridiculed and mocked for their appearance and disability. It’s part of the plot sure – these are people who now look as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside, but I found this really quite shocking and abhorrent, particularly as it’s meant to be part of the comedy and is anything but funny.

This is definitely Vikram’s show and he does do an amazing job in portraying the two different faces of Lingesan.  Amy Jackson is much better than I expected, and the rest of the cast are all good given that they are all overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Vikram. The special effects by Weta Workshop are also very well done, and it’s such a shame that the story doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the visuals of the film. Of course it’s a story set in a world where image is all and appearance trumps substance at every stage so perhaps that’s not too surprising after all.