Madras (2014)

Madras

Pa Ranjith’s second film is a gritty and realistic drama that starts well but gets a little lost in the second half when the focus of the story moves more towards a fairly awful romance. However, thankfully the character interactions and underlying political story have enough momentum to bring the story back into focus well before the end. Although Karthi is good in his role as a short-tempered, football loving bloke from a housing project, it’s Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan as his best friend who impresses the most from the generally excellent cast. The notable exception is Catherine Tresa who seems painfully miscast as Karthi’s love interest, and she appears awkward and uncomfortable for most of the film. Madras does drag a little in the second half as a result, but overall the portrayal of life in a housing project in Northern Chennai is convincing, while the political shenanigans add enough complexity and interest to make the film well worth a watch.

MadrasMadras

The story follows the rivalry and competition between two local political parties in Royapuram, a district in northern Chennai. While the politicians have managed to split most of the area amicably between the two factions, there is one wall in the middle of the district which remains in bitter contention. After some initial wrangling, for most of the film the wall features a painting of the deceased leader of one party (Jayabalan), but while his son Kannan (Nandakumar) and followers are determined to keep this image on the wall, Maari (Vinod) and his party want to claim the wall for their own propaganda. Caught in the middle are the people who actually live in the shadow of the wall and for whom the two political leaders talk the talk but don’t actually deliver very much in the way of benefits. This is simply highlighted in the way the women meet every morning to get water from a pump, and in the various fractious meetings between the rival young men of the area and party leader Maari.

The gang in Madras

Anbu (Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan) is the up and coming political activist in Maari’s party, and one of the driving forces behind the campaign to retake the wall. His relationship with his wife Mary (Ritwika) is one of the best I’ve seen onscreen in Tamil cinema and their stolen moments of intimacy have just the right amount of tenderness and humour. Both Kalaiarasan and Ritwika are brilliant in their roles here and I just wish the film had focused more on them and their relationship. Excellent performances from both made it very easy to completely believe in their characters, along with some very good writing and character development. The couple lives in a small apartment with their young son, and despite Anbu’s political drive and aggression, he is still a man who obviously loves his family and wants to do his best for both them and his local area. His best friend is Kaali (Karthi), an IT worker with a very short fuse to his temper, which spills over into violence with little provocation. While Anbu tries to negotiate his way to solutions, Kaali frequently disrupts his careful dialogues, and seems to think of little beyond the moment.

Madras

Kaali is however a staunch and stalwart friend, so it seems natural that Anbu doesn’t give up on their friendship but rather tries to mitigate Kaali’s outspokenness and intervene when he flashes into violence. The relationship between the two is complex and Ranjith is to be commended on writing such a convincing portrayal of two angry young men with such different agendas but who still have plenty of common ground.

Kaali is also looking out for a wife and believes he has found his ideal in Kalaiarasi (Catherine Tresa), the arrogant and opinionated daughter of yet another local politician. I found Catherine Tresa annoying and wooden in Iddarammayilatho and she does nothing here to change my opinion. The character of Kalaiarasi is interesting and has potential, but I’m not convinced by Tresa’s portrayal here at all.  She appears to be obviously ‘acting’ all the time and never manages to develop any rapport with her co-actors.  Perhaps her inclusion was Ranjith’s attempt to make his film more commercially appealing, but her performance definitely doesn’t work for me, and neither does the romance.

Madras

The rest of the story does however work well and despite the fairly obvious plot the first-rate characterisations are enough to keep it believable and interesting.  The various other support actors are effective with Rama as Kaali’s mother having some of the funniest dialogue, while Hari as local eccentric Johnny is cleverly used to further the storyline.  Anbu and Kaali’s friends are also convincing in their roles while the various enforcers used by the two political parties are much more realistic (and therefore believable) than the rent-a-thug gangsters usually used in such roles.

The cinematography by G. Murali is also excellent, with the chase sequences through the narrow streets a major highlight, but everything is perfectly framed to ensure the wall looms over everything and everyone in the area. Although there are a few songs they are used sparingly without long disruptive dance sequences, while the film does include some excellent dancing with the addition of a local area dance troupe who cycle through some of the important scenes and indulge in spontaneous dancing whenever possible. I approve!

Madras Karthik and CAtherine

The escalation of such a small issue as the slogan on a wall into an all-encompassing problem, along with the back-stabbing, petty rivalries and jealousies is well handled and makes Madras a more complex tale than it first seems. It’s the very ordinariness of the characters that ensures the film feels very realistic, while keeping obvious heroics out of the equation gives the film greater impact. Essentially Pa Ranjith has taken an old story and dressed it up into something new, with clever characterisations and good use of locations ending up with a film that’s a cut above the usual political thriller. Madras is definitely well worth a watch for impressive performances and a relatively realistic look at one of my favourite cities.

Pizza

Pizza-Poster

Billed as a supernatural suspense thriller, Pizza is an assured debut by director Karthik Subbaraj. At a relatively taut 2 hours or so, it certainly manages to pack in the suspense and a few twists and turns. I’m going to try and avoid spoilers and will not divulge much of the plot.

Anu is an aspiring novelist and Michael works in a pizza joint. They live in an outbuilding, relying on bribes to keep the security guards turning a blind eye.  She falls pregnant, and eventually he overcomes his fear of the responsibility enough to propose. While Anu wants a proper wedding, he says they will do that when they can afford it but for now, they should just marry for their own sakes. They dress up in their nice clothes and exchange vows in their yard. So far, so good. On a late night delivery, Michael is waiting for change when the lights go out and he hears noises upstairs in the house. He goes up and sees his customer bleeding from multiple wounds, but no sign of her attacker. Michael runs, trying frantically to find a way out of the house but there are bars on all the windows and the door has been deadlocked. Oh, and the house is full of dolls. And then he hears music from upstairs.

And to find out more about the plot you’ll need to watch the movie. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what happens, may I suggest you avoid reading the painfully detailed plot synopsis on Wiki. I saw it recently when I was checking cast details and wow – way to ruin a suspense film, Wiki-dude.

Pizza-filmi heritage

Subbaraj isn’t shy about using filmi cliché to misdirect or tease the audience, and I’d guess he has watched his fair share of horror and paranormal movies. A lot of the film is set during the night time and between the deep shadows and the rapid changes of point of view and edits, there is often a sense of unease and of being watched or followed. In contrast, the domestic scenes between Michael and Anu are airy and colourful, with a gentle and usually flattering light. I found one extended sequence quite poorly constructed, as though the director was making things up as they went. That became an extremely clever approach once I watched to the point that more was revealed, but it is a risky move as you may lose people when you’re deliberately being obvious before they know why. And there are a few things that really did not work for me. Michael’s boss asks him to deliver a file to his home ahead of an audit. While there, Michael sees a girl who seems to be possessed. She has the clichéd demonic multi-tonal voice effect with the screechy violins of evil and wheezes so heavily I really wanted to pass her an asthma inhaler. It was oddly heavy handed and overdone when some other hints and clues were done deftly.

Michel and Anu have that rare thing in Indian cinema – a sexual relationship out of wedlock where no one really judges. When Anu falls pregnant Michael’s first reaction is to think of how difficult it will be to raise a child and he encourages her to have an abortion. But when he tells his friends they all say pretty much the same things – there is never a good time to have kids, and he loves Anu, so why is he hesitating to marry her. Anu’s reaction was to leave a note saying she would no longer do his laundry (as after all, she wasn’t his wife) and coolly set herself up in the yard with a book and some snacks while he ran around the house panicking in case she had left him.

Vijay Sethupathi is generally good as Michael but I felt he overacted or his timing was off in some of the spooky scenes. I do appreciate the challenge of acting with things that may not be there until post production, so it didn’t worry me unduly. But in terms of acting I thought the scenes between Michael and his colleagues or Anu were more engaging. Remya Nambeesan gives Anu a down to earth style that includes a pragmatic approach to relationships and planning for her future. They have the easy rapport of an established couple but can still spike into anxiety and insecurity when the status quo is threatened.

While I liked a lot about their relationship and thought they suited each other well, I didn’t particularly like either character. But I don’t think any of the characters in Pizza are very likeable and it doesn’t matter. They’re interesting, they all have strong connections to other people in the story, and the world of Pizza does feel real. The supporting cast is relatively small and all of the characters play a significant role in Michael’s story. His colleagues Raghavan (Karunakaran) and Srinath (Jayakumar) are also Michael’s only apparent friends, and the ones he confides in about everything going on in his life. Bobby Simha and Pooja Ramachandran are strangers to Michael but have a huge impact on the story.

This is more of an indie style film but there is a vague attempt at incorporating songs. I find the soundtrack bland and dominated by ballads. Ballads are bad enough, but in films they usually signal a boring montage (rather than the more acceptable energetic dancing) and that is what is delivered here.

I was mildly diverted by Anu and Michael cavorting in the rain under a huge plastic sheet but more because I wondered why they didn’t just stay in their perfectly dry house and pash without the risk of suffocation. But, whatever.

Pizza is a film that is better on looking back than it was on first view, but it doesn’t stand up well to repeated watching due to the reliance on suspense. See it if you are interested in an urban Indian supernatural story or just like pacey thrillers with enough to keep you guessing. The cast definitely add to the charm of the everyday scenes and Karthik Subbaraj knows how to play his audience. 4 stars!

Soodhu Kavvum (2013)

Soodhu Kavvum

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

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

Soodhu KavvumSoodhu KavvumSoodhu KavvumSoodhu Kavvum

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

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

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

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

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

 

Anjaan (2014)

Anjaan

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

AnjaanAnjaan

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

Anjaan

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

Anjaan

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

Amjaan

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

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

Anjaan

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.

JigarthandaJigarthanda

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.

Jigarthanda

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.

JigarthandaJigarthanda

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.

Jigarthanda

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.

JigarthandaJigarthanda

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.

Jigarthanda

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!