Kaththi

Kaththi

AR Murgadross and Vijay last got together for the excellent action adventure Thuppakki, but although Kaththi has a good storyline and Vijay is at his best, it doesn’t quite manage to re-create the same magic. This time Vijay appears in a double role that allows him to explore a more restrained character as well as his more usual action hero, and he manages both with aplomb. However the film suffers from variable pacing and odd song placement, while the inclusion of a poorly developed romance adds to the general unevenness.  Still, double the amount of Vijay, the absolutely brilliant older men who make up the support cast and the inclusion of some of the best conceived fight sequences I’ve seen so far this year all ensure Kaththi is definitely well worth a look.

Vijay plays Kathiresan, a thief on the run after engineering a clever escape from jail. Kathiresan’s path crosses that of his lookalike Jeevanandham (also Vijay) when an attempt is made on Jeevanandham’s life. Jeevanandham is an activist, fighting against a multinational company for the water rights of his small drought-stricken village, although his fight is one being waged through the courts rather than anything more physical. Despite being forced off the road and shot several times, amazingly Jeevanandham survives, and Kathiresan makes the most of their identical appearances by switching identities with his unconscious double. This ensures Jeevanandham is sent back to jail, while Kathiresan is free to make good his escape before the authorities find out the truth. You’d have thought that perhaps changing identities with a man who obviously had problems of his own might have been a bit risky, but Kathiresan doesn’t seem in the least bit worried as he happily takes on Jeevanandham’s identity.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long before Jeevanandham’s troubles come calling on Kathiresan. After leaving Jeevanandham in hospital, Kathiresan spends some time as his alter identity and ends up staying at the old people’s home run by Jeevanandham. As a result, he gradually gets drawn into Jeevanandham’s fight against the company trying to force the villagers off their land. Nasty company owner Cedric (Neil Nitin Mukesh) tries a little blackmail, and when that fails to work, resorts to basic intimidation tactics. Of course the thugs are expecting the more passive Jeevanandham rather than escaped convict Kathiresan and his friend Dhanu (Satish), so things don’t work out quite as Cedric plans.  In addition to foiling the attempts on his life, Kathiresan and Dhanu concoct various schemes to help the villagers win the pending court case, or at least bring their plight to the attention of the media. It’s not all fighting and mayhem and there are some clever plans and ideas that make Kathiresan a more three dimensional and interesting character. Of course when it is fighting and mayhem Vijay is in his element and the inventively staged fight sequences work well to keep things moving along. There are some very clever ideas and just the right amount of comedy here, and it’s frustrating that less attention to detail has been given to other important aspects of the film.

Part of the problem I have with the film is with the character of Cedric and his multinational company.  Cedric is very one-dimensional and his company is painted as unethical and completely evil without any redeeming features or basic humanity. While that is perhaps plausible twenty odd years ago or so, I cannot see such a company surviving long without coming up against an activist group somewhere – this is supposed to be a multinational company after all. There is the same old-fashioned and redundant feel to Cedric (I kept thinking of old black and white silent movies with men in long black cloaks twirling their moustaches and laughing while tying hapless women to train tracks – he’s that kind of villain) and this only serves to make  his threats appear cartoonish and completely unrealistic. Neil Nitin Mukesh doesn’t get the chance to do anything other than sneer and attempt to look menacing which doesn’t really convince with his floppy hair and oversized sunglasses, so he’s relatively ineffectual as a villain.

Also on the minus side is the really quite pointless romance between Kathiresan and Ankitha (Samantha) which never really gets going although the couple initially do look good together.  Samantha appears to be added in to the cast solely as a ‘reason’ for the songs, but even there she is relegated to wandering around and posing, while Vijay dances up a storm in the background. It’s such a waste of a good actress, and frustrating since the romance just makes a long film longer without actually adding anything worthwhile to the story. At least the songs from Anirudh Ravichander are enjoyable and the choreography suits Vijay’s energy and style even if their placement often feels random.

One other issue I have with the film is the manner in which A.R. Murugadoss uses the serious social issues of farmer displacement, difficulties with land ownership and water rights and industry encroachment on farming areas for the purpose of light-hearted entertainment. It’s hard to define exactly why this made me uneasy but it’s the main reason why I didn’t enjoy this film quite as much as expected.  I am sure that A.R. Murugadoss had the best motives in wanting to shine a light on the problems faced by farmers in India, but the treatment of their plight here is rather too heavy handed to be entirely comfortable.  The farmers’ problems are somewhat overshadowed by the exploits of the hero as he deals with the corporate villain in typical masala style, which seems to reduce the real life day to day difficulties of surviving drought, debt and corrupt officials down to a well-choreographed fight scene and some snazzy special effects. It could be argued that anything that raises awareness of the problem is beneficial, but I feel that the treatment of their plight here is rather too simplistic. These are heavy and very real issues and I doubt that such an easy and fast resolution is possible in the real world. However, there is a good rousing speech by Kathiresan which highlights the social injustices faced by the farming community – not just in India but the world over – and perhaps that is enough of a start in the right direction.

Despite the issues I have with the film, it’s still an entertaining watch. The story is well thought out and I like that Kathiresan has to use his brains and not just hammer his fists through any opposition. It’s clever and there is some good comedy incorporated into the story with nary a comedy uncle in sight.  The support cast of old men who make up the displaced villagers are uniformly excellent and Satish is good as Vijay’s side-kick. Vijay is of course the main reason to watch the film and his milder but still passionate performance as Jeevanandham highlights just how good an actor he is when given the opportunity. Perhaps Kaththi doesn’t quite hit the highs of Thuppakki but it’s almost there and hopefully means we will see another A.R. Murugadoss and Vijay collaboration soon.

 

 

Chennai 600028

Chennai 600028

The opening moments of Venkat Prabhu’s debut film seem to be setting the scene for a retelling of West Side Story, with two rival cricket teams called the Sharks and the Rockets replacing the American street gangs. But surprisingly the rivalry between the two teams isn’t the focus of the story at all. It’s smarter than that. Yes, there is plenty of cricket and even some cross-team rivalry, but Chennai 600028 mainly follows the different players from the Sharks team for one year, with all the highs and lows you’d expect in any character drama. Essentially, it’s a story about an everyday group of friends, connected by locality and a passion for their cricket team.  None of the actors were well known at the time, and they all fit easily into the roles of regular guys, some of whom have jobs and some of who are still at college, but who all hang around together to play gully cricket. With some clever dialogue and good situational comedy, Venkat Prabhu ensures that despite a rather rambling storyline, the film has plenty of laughs and enough memorable characters to make the film an entertaining watch.

The Sharks team live in the Chennai area of the title and are introduced one by one by a narrator who describes them by their cricket skills; although generally some other identifying characteristic is also given. This is incredibly useful as there are 10 named team members and it’s very easy to lose track initially of just who is who and where they fit into the team. The film starts off with the defeat of the Sharks for the fourth time by the Rockets, mainly due to a dismal performance from supposed ‘all-rounder’ but actually terrible player and tail-ender Seenu (Premji Amaran). He’s the bumbling fumbler who cannot take a catch to save his life, but is generally loud and obnoxiously cheery despite his limited cricketing talents. Premji is a little more restrained here than in later films such as Goa, and he’s mostly funny thanks mainly to a good rapport with the other characters and some witty and well written dialogue. I didn’t know that Premji was also a musician, and he is responsible for the background score as well as one of the songs – pretty impressive!

Along with their most recent defeat, the Sharks players all have their own problems, although lack of money is the most regular feature in their discussions. The money is for their regular drinking sessions, which allows them to sit and talk about life, cricket and women, which eventually leads back to money, of course! It all fits in well with their various personalities and since the characters are all engaging and seem to fit well into their roles it comes across as a genuine look at life in the area. Plus we get this song, which perfectly captures the group of friends out drinking and having a good time.

Things change when Rocket team member Raghu (Jai) moves into the Visalatchi Thottam area with his family. Raghu feels that his world has come to an end, nicely illustrated by some excellent histrionics in the bathroom, and this does indeed seem to be possible given his initial reception by the locals. He’s looked on with suspicion and to add to his woes, his old team are too far away for Raghu to make it to regular practices, meaning he’s left out of their line-up for matches.

Raghu is one of the central characters for the story and Jai is excellent here in his first main role. His initial arrival into the new area is hilarious, and in just a few scenes he imbues Rahgu with plenty of charm and appeal, making his eventual acceptance into the rival team seem more plausible. His resemblance to Vijay is also part of the comedy, but best of all are his scenes with Karthik (Shiva Sundaram) starting from when a fight seems inevitable. Karthik is in love with Selvi (Vijayalakshmi) who is the sister of Karthik’s teammate Pazhani (Nithin Sathya) and therefore, for some obscure reason, off limits. Raghu’s father on the other hand is friendly with Selvi and Pazhani’s father, so inevitably Raghu is often seem chatting to someone who does at least acknowledge his existence. Karthik has some wonderful lovelorn expressions as he sees his rival on the field appear to become his rival in love and the interactions between the two potential adversaries are very well done.

Aravind (Aravind Akash) is also in love with a wealthy girl Swetha (Kristine Zedek) who regularly comes in to the coffee shop where he works. This is a rather more implausible romance, which is made more unlikely by the couple mainly only appearing together in song. These romantic songs also slow down the pace of the film and seem somewhat out of place in an otherwise more realistic and upbeat film.  Aravind is fine in his role as part of the cricket team and amusing as a guy in love but Kristine has very little to do and doesn’t impress in her few moments on screen.

There is a side plot involving Karthik’s brother Guna (Sampath Raj) but mainly the action revolves around the team members, their relationships with each other and their ambition to finally win the Radio Mirchi Cup.  There are no standout heroes, just a regular group of mates and that’s what appeals most about the film. Venkat Prabhu has captured plenty of camaraderie, but included discord and division to spice up the story and the blend is just about perfect. The cricket scenes are nicely placed in the film too – not too many, but enough to keep focus on the team rather than on just the individuals.  The commentary is also excellent (although that just might be my subtitles) and reflects the general standard of cricket commentary the world over!

Chennai 600028 is an excellent début and a good indication of what to expect from Venkat Prabhu as he uses most of the same ingredients (and often the same actors) in his subsequent films such as Saroja, Goa and Mankatha. Mainly Chennai 600028 is a film about people, their lives and their dreams, and only after those details are fully realised is a story superimposed on top.   It works because of the very ordinariness of the characters – these are guys that can be seen on every patch of ground, anywhere it’s possible to set up stumps and standing around on every street in Chennai. That is the charm of the movie. Recommended for excellent performances, witty dialogue and a film that  captures the intensity and ubiquitousness  of street cricket in India.  4 stars.

 

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.

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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.

Soodhu KavvumSoodhu KavvumSoodhu KavvumSoodhum Kavvum

 

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.

Soodhu KavvumSoodhu KavvumSoodhu KavvumSoodhu Kavvum

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!

Soodhu KavvumSoodhu KavvumSoodhu KavvumSoodhu Kavvum

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.