Kanchivaram

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!

Padayappa

Padayappa

Many thanks to regular readers Violet and KB for suggesting Padayappa (1999) when I asked for Ramya Krishnan film recommendations. I believe that director K.S. Ravikumar cast her after seeing Ammoru, and I understand why. Padayappa has an amazing cast, an often incredible story, and all the trappings of a revenge drama custom built for superstar hero Rajinikanth. It also has a strong female antagonist that was perfect for Ramya Krishnan, who won the Tamil Filmfare Best Actress for the role. The support cast includes such talented actors as Sivaji Ganesan and Soundarya, along with Manivannan, Lakshmi, Nasser and even a brief appearance by Prakash Raj.

Padayappa (Rajinikanth) comes home to attend a family wedding. He falls in love with poor but honest Vasundhara (Soundarya) however overseas educated rich girl Nilambari (Ramya Krishnan) decides she must have him for herself. Her branch of the family is riddled with self-serving weaklings and their machinations help hasten the death of Padayappa’s father, played by legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan. Padayappa stays in the village to support his mother and sister, sort out the cheating relatives, and also to try and woo Vasundhara. The conflict between Nilambari and everyone who gets in her way is the main focus, although there are the obligatory comedy tracks and lots of rousing speeches.

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In Padayappa Rajinikanth is Superstar Rajni the Hero rather than using his considerable acting skills for a fully developed character that required any subtlety. The thing I always find admirable about Rajni is that he commits to the role and to the style of film he is in, and that conviction makes even the most preposterous shenanigans seem somehow right.

Padayappa is moral, righteous and has absolutely no self-doubt. He has all the trademark Rajni mannerisms from the snappy salute with whooshing sound effects, the cigar trick, the ability to force his enemies to attack him one by one and at a pace that allows him to win, the power to make multiple cars explode just by looking at them. There is some light and shade as Padayappa gets all silly and tongue-tied around Vasundhara, or as he grieves for his family’s losses but he is less a character and more a personification of Heroic Values.

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Confession – I am so fond of Rajni that I really don’t care that his fight scenes are implausible or his ‘dancing’ quite terrible. But I could have done without the shirtless flexing.

I rarely take issue with the (usually considerable) age gap between Rajni and his heroines. Maybe it’s because I discovered him comparatively recently so to me he has always been an elder statesman of film. And to some extent his reputation overshadows any character he plays.  He’s Rajinikanth!

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Nilambari is compelling yet totally unlikeable. A spoilt girl who never took no for an answer, Nilambari often does things more likely to be done by the hero – she stalks the hero, she grabs him and kisses him in front of everyone at a wedding then saunters off casually, she torments her rival (the lowly Vasundhara) and threatens anyone who tries to obstruct her.

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Ramya Krishnan gave Nilambari a beautiful façade over a twisted and arrogant core. It is great to see an actress capable of such expression and subtlety and who is not afraid to reveal the ugliness of a character’s dark side. She took it up to Rajinikanth and more than held her own in their confrontational scenes.

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Nilambari’s outfits improved but her attitude never did.

There is a village tradition that couples should only marry when both want to, either through love or mutual agreement. Padayappa rebukes Nilambari saying a good woman should be well-mannered and demure, so it’s not exactly progressive but I liked seeing girls get a voice too.

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Vasundhara (Soundarya) is Padayappa’s ideal woman. She is a servant in Nilambari’s household, but her family used to be wealthy. Devout and domesticated as well as very pretty, Vasundhara obviously likes Padayappa too. She and Rajni seem to have nice rapport and the courtship is more about shy conversations and sideways glances. It’s quite cute if predictable. Soundarya does well to build up a character that is only lightly sketched out by the screenplay and dialogue. I did yell at Vasundhara a couple of times to STOP TRUSTING NILAMBARI. Luckily her devotion earns her some snake assisted escapes from near certain death.

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Soundarya also does an excellent job of dancing around Rajni in their songs together. She often has a cheeky smile on her face, so Vasundhara might have a colourful fantasy life to balance her dutiful side.

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The dynamic between Padayappa and Nilambari was interesting as this is an instance where the hero is quite passive. Padayappa doesn’t do anything to torment or punish Nilambari other than be happily married to the one he loves. She is insignificant to him, and that is what drives her insane.

The song picturisations have all the colour and excitement I expected. AR Rahman’s music is a good fit and his use of recurring motifs helps express the characters inner lives.

Minsara Poove sees Nilambari dancing her feelings for Padayappa as he sings for Vasundhara. It’s very pretty, apart from the bits that are happening in Nilambari’s fantasy. She really needed a better dream wardrobe designer. Suthi Suthi is colourful, with giant puppets and lots of costume changes for Soundarya and Rajni. Kikku Yerudhey is a little out of place in terms of the story and I think it was only there to get Rajni prancing about with lots of young girls (Padayappa’s daughter’s school friends) and drunk uncles. Or maybe just to let the director make his trademark cameo appearance.

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There are fight scenes, cars stunts, a murderous cow (not a euphemisism for Nilambari) and all manner of excitement as well as the revenge and drama.

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Padayappa’s friends are largely there to provide comic interruptions but they also do an excellent line in relationship advice and support (and hiding behind trees).

Padayappa-Sivaji Ganesan and Lakshmi

The legendary Sivaji Ganesan had a small but pivotal role as Padayappa’s father and was still quite magnetic. Lakshmi made the most of her big scenes as the surprisingly fierce mother. The always excellent Manivannan made his character despicable and yet pitiful while Nasser was just despicable.

Padayappa-Prakash Raj

And a quite svelte Prakash Raj was a nice bonus as a police officer. The casting budget for this film must have been enormous.

At almost 3 hours Padayappa does drag occasionally but just as I was thinking that surely things must settle down, K.S. Ravikumar would ramp up the action. See it for a classic village family revenge masala style story with a first class cast and loads of colour and movement. 4 stars!

Subramaniapuram

Subramaniapuram

I picked up a copy of Subramaniapuram after being intrigued by the costumes, Brothers’ Gibb hairstyles and excessive facial hair I saw in the songs – which I’m worried says a little too much about how I choose which films I watch!

It all makes a little more sense when it turns out that most of the film is a flash-back to 1980, although I’m not sure that large collars and flares ever made much sense.  This is director M. Sasikumar’s first venture, but he worked with Paruthiveeran director Ameer on a few films previously and appears to have been influenced by Ameer’s true-to-life style of film-making.  The realistic approach suits the gritty storyline, although the screenplay does wander in places with the first half being essentially a long set-up for the action in the rest of the film.  However, there is enough suspense to keep the plot interesting and the attention to detail in the sets makes it an intriguing glimpse into India in the early eighties.

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The film starts with a dramatic stabbing outside Madurai prison in 2008.  To explain who has been stabbed and why, we move back to 1980 and a group of friends who spend their days lazing around the area of Subramaniapuram.  Azhagar (Jai), who my subtitles call Alagar and Paraman (M. Sasikumar) act as security for the ex-councillor Somu and his brother Kanugu (Samuthirakani), although it’s a rather informal arrangement and Somu spends most of his time bailing the friends out of jail.  Along with Kasi, (Ganja Karuppu), Dumka and Dopa, the friends prefer to drink and fight, rather than look for any gainful employment, which is a point of contention for Azhagar’s more successful brother and his long-suffering mother.

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Some comedy is introduced with the goofy looks Azhagar gives Somu’s daughter Swathi (Thulasi), and the way he cannot keep his attention on anything else whenever she is around.  It’s cute, and Azhagar’s attempts at stalking are met with plenty of encouragement, although naturally Swathi expects her man to eventually change his ways.  Thulasi has a great shy and bashful smile which she uses well and she easily fits into the role of a school girl in the first throes of love. Later on she gets the chance to do a little more with her character and is convincing as she tries to reconcile her family’s expectations with her love for Azhagar.

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The first half is slow with considerable time spent on developing the characters of the friends and not much progress with the story.  However, there is a lot going on, but these are mainly background events which gradually combine to give an overall feel for the time and place.  A trip to the cinema at one point for example, illustrates just how much Azhagar values his relationship with Swathi above his friends, which does have implications later on in the story.  It also shows just how easily Azhagar and Paraman erupt into violence for very little provocation and that the Three Musketeers have nothing on Azhagar and his friends when it comes to the ‘all for one and one for all’ concept of fighting.

Essentially Subramanipuram is a story of betrayal.  Kanugu feels betrayed when his political party appoints someone else into the role he has been coveting, and uses the unquestioning loyalty of Azhagar and Paraman to get his revenge.  It’s also a story about the betrayal of Azhagar and Paraman who expect Kanugu to come to their rescue yet again and are spurred into action by Kanugu’s failure to get them out of jail after they remove his rival. There are many other betrayals along the way, which serve to highlight the few characters that do remain completely faithful. It’s an interesting look at how each small act of disloyalty starts another in a chain reaction that doesn’t intensify, but rather just keeps perpetuating in an endless cycle.  Whether it’s about jobs, relationships both professional and personal or friendship, the betrayals come thick and fast throughout the community.

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After the interval the story moves much faster as Azhagar and Paraman escalate their violence from petty fights to actual murder.  The friends’ initial decision to kill Kanugu’s rival seems naïve, especially when Kanugu is so very obvious about his manipulation.  However, their
subsequent actions quickly demonstrate how violence breeds yet more violence and that having killed once, it’s much easier to kill again.  One of the most realistic scenes of the film does illustrate that it takes a fair amount of determined hacking to chop off someone’s head, so be warned that this isn’t a film for the squeamish (even though most of the aforementioned chopping does take place off-screen).

While Sasikumar does well at directing, he is rather more one-dimensional as Paraman, and even though Paraman has the potential to be an interesting character, he somehow never quite gets there.  Jai has a little more material to work with as Azhagar, and does a great job of expressing every emotion from infatuation to terror and finally despair as the final betrayal hits home.  It’s an impressive performance and enough to make me have a look for some of his other films, where thankfully he appears to have shaved off most of the truly excessive beard.

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Ganja Karuppu is suitably annoying as the perpetually drunken Kasi, and when he does get the opportunity to do something more than just mug at the camera, he proves that he is a very credible actor when given the chance.  Best of all though is the actor playing the disabled Dumka, who is wonderfully matter-of-fact and keeps the whole film grounded with his pithy observations and practical solutions. The character is well written, but the actor does justice to the role making Dumka memorable even though it’s only a small part.  I haven’t been able to find out anything about him, but I hope he gets the chance to appear in more films in the future.

The costumes are also fantastic and all those shirts did conjure up some hideous memories of the late seventies.  I have no idea how accurate this vision of 1980’s Madurai actually is, but it seems to be scarily reminiscent of 1980’s fashion in the UK (excepting the lungi’s of course).  The music by James Vasthanan seems to fit the time period well and this is probably the best song which features plenty of those goofy grins and bashful glances between Azhagar and Thulasi.

Subramaniapuram starts out like any typical Tamil film, veers off into more novel territory with some good ideas, but is a little let down by patchy pacing of the action.  Excellent performances and the dedication to recreating an early eighties feel make the most of the storyline although it’s not a film I’d recommend for the faint-hearted.  Worth a watch though if you like a more realistic style of film and don’t object to the occasional outbreak of gory violence. 3 ½ stars.

Theeviravaathi: The Terrorist

Theeviravaathi The Terrorist DVD cover image

Santosh Sivan’s 1998 film is a lyrical study of one person’s journey towards being a suicide bomber. It’s a surprisingly moving film as it takes a very personal and internalised view of ‘the terrorist’.

Malli (Ayesha Dharker) is a member of an unnamed rebel army. She has a reputation for being focussed and ruthless, and is the sister of a famous martyr to the cause. Chosen from a number of young female volunteers, Malli sets off on a journey to infiltrate an event in order to kill the VIP guest of honour.

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Athey Kangal (1967)

Athey Kangal DVD

Athey Kangal (The Same Eyes) is loads of fun. My DVD has this fabulous teaser leading up to the menu. How could you resist?

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After a funky track over animated titles, the story kicks off with a bang. A spin on the country house murder mystery, AC Tirulokchandar opens with a murder staged to look like a suicide, a further murder attempt and a complement of suspects on the spot. A voiceover in the film asks that viewers refrain from spoiling the film for others so I will do my best to comply.

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The suspects include landlords Kamalanathan (S.A Ashokan), Vimalanathan (Ceylon Manohar), a visiting doctor friend (K Balaji), Nair the cook, and their resident physician. Things are further complicated when their niece Suseela comes home from college for a holiday, bringing a gaggle of girlfriends. Who will be next? And whodunit?

Don’t get too caught up in the murder mystery. The characters only give it occasional attention and they are easily distracted from the sense of impending doom. Despite the death toll, the tone is generally light and the romance between Bhaskar (Ravichandran) and Suseela (Kanchana) takes the centre stage. They meet, they like what they see and love blooms.

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Bhaskar is a jolly and uncomplicated hero except for pretending to be married (to Nagesh in drag) so he could rent a room reserved for married couples. He is working as a musician at the Hotel Emerald and seems happy with his life and prospects.

Suseela is equally straightforward. When she found out her true love was already ‘married’, she severed communication with him. But when he stalked her and produced both his wife and the explanation, she forgave him and enjoyed the absurdity of the situation as much as I did.

One of the best things about having a boyfriend in a hotel band appears to be access to the dress up department for New Year celebrations. This is such a demure can-can and yet it does provide the obligatory riot of colour (and a glimpse of tinsel trimmed bloomers)

There are abundant clues and red herrings. A cigar stub is found near all the victims, a mysterious lady in white flits around, Kamalanathan goes on ‘out of station’ journeys and just how many pairs of two tone wing tip shoes can there be? The aunty who survived a strangling attempt is unhinged and in danger. Following her near-strangling she also develops a fear of knives, loud noises and tomato sauce. Suseela starts to receive death threats over the phone and Bhaskar finds himself drawn into the hunt for the killer. This is good as the police have a sporadic and not very productive involvement in the case. Everyone seems to have been told to maintain an ominous expression with the intent to keep them all as viable suspects.

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Suseela puts on a brave face and surrounds herself with her friends but the threats escalate and so does her fear. The girls stay with Suseela and while they have very little dialogues, they do have excellent outfits and accessories which give them some individuality. I was tickled by their idea of suitable attire for social work in a village. Susi’s friend Julie is another bright spark although why why why would you look upon Nagesh and find insta-love?

The costume team reserved their best efforts for the ladies, and maybe Nagesh. I cannot think of a good reason for his pale pink satin dress with red velvet dragon applique but I am pleased they came up with it.

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AC Tirulokchandar has opted for a broad, slightly over the top, style from his actors. Ravichandran looks like he is having a fine time in most of his scenes and gives the dancing a decent try.  While there should be a question mark over this plausible stranger he is just too nice to be the real killer. Kanchana is bubbly and a good match for Ravichandran, although thankfully her dancing is better. I did wonder at Suseela’s ability to seemingly forget that her life was in danger but maybe it takes more than a gunman mortally wounding her birthday cake to rattle Susi. It was nice to see a heroine who isn’t a total panic merchant. Nagesh is reminiscent of Jerry Lewis, and that stops me from liking him wholeheartedly. To be fair, he does enliven some scenes very nicely especially the dances or musical breaks.

Veda’s music is wonderful. Borrowing heavily from the James Bond theme at times, the tone is jazzy big band and brassy. The songs are beautifully filmed and have an exuberant and cheeky humour. There is a wonderful scene where Suseela and the girls are scared at home alone. As a way of whistling in the dark they put on a record and the dramatic percussion is a very funny counterpoint to their increasingly fearful faces.

The visual design is a delight from start to finish. The main mansion set is crammed with sculptures and taxidermy, just the thing to create startling shadows and get the nerves jangling. The interior designer loved feature walls with elaborate mouldings. There is excellent use of windows and niches framing shots, giving a sense of people lurking. I like the way the windows in the aunt’s room look like eyes gazing down at her. No wonder she was a basket case.

I like the relationship between Bhaskar and Suseela as they seem to have similarities in their approach to life and are equally committed to song interludes wherever possible. The comedy is painful at times and I just don’t think fat or wearing a dress is an automatic joke. But the hijinks are in keeping with the rest of the tone so while I could wish away the comedy uncles they aren’t a total disruption to the narrative. The supporting actors, and iMDB is useless for naming them, are mostly fine.

There are a few vague similarities to Teesri Manzil in the Bhaskar and Suseela romance and the murder mystery, but the story is different in some details and the level of angst is considerably lower.  Often with older films I find myself taking lots of notes or making diagrams and charts to keep track of who’s who. I just sat back and enjoyed Athey Kangal immensely. 4 stars!