Visaranai

 

“Give me the pink one. It’s my lucky lathi. Now let’s get them to confess”.

Vetrimaaran’s film takes a journey through the lawless side of law enforcement, where results matter and truth is often unwelcome. Adapted from M. Chandrakumar’s novel which was inspired by his own experiences, there is a relentless sense of doom pervading this story. Don’t get too attached to anyone!

Four Tamil men have come to Andhra Pradesh to work, sleeping rough in a park to save money. One night they are all picked up by the police. They are brutalised over and over but not told what they are suspected of doing and what they must admit to. It’s all a game to the cops but no one told Pandi, Murugan, Kumar or Afsal what that game is.

Afsal (Silambarasan Rathnasamy) is the youngest and weakest. Frightened of being hurt, and generally shy and inarticulate, Afsal triggered the arrests with a confession under duress and wavers most when under pressure. The four boys stick together and try to find a way out, trusting that their innocence will be recognised. Pandi (Dinesh Ravi) and Murugan (Aadukalam Murugadoss) are the stronger ones, with Pandi the more cynical and Murugan the more placid. Kumar (Pradheesh Raj) is injured badly early on and is a quiet, tense presence for most of his scenes.

The boys go on hunger strike and it seems to work. They are released, given money and told to come back to the station to sign a statement. They stop for a meal, eventually laughing at their strange fortunes. But when they go back, the sadistic Superintendent (Ajay Ghosh) says he couldn’t hit a starving man so he tricked them into filling their bellies. The beatings resume, more vicious than before.

I was struck by all the energy that goes into forcing confessions when maybe with the same expenditure of effort they could track down the real criminals. There is a discussion about finding someone else to take the fall but the boss is worried after all the injuries that the men will complain so he decides they must be found guilty. Eventually all the pressure works, especially the emotional blackmail from Pandi’s boss who knows it’s a set-up but encourages Pandi to take the easy way out for everyone’s sake. Including the police. These poor guys are expendable.

Pandi refuses to make a false plea once he is in front of a magistrate although his Telugu is not up to the finer points of his defence. Luckily for him there are Tamil Nadu police in another court so one is called upon to translate, and even more fortunately he recognises Pandi.  Inspector Muthuvel (Samuthirakani) explains the boys have jobs, never admitted fault, there is no evidence, and they’ve been beaten up for days on end. The magistrate knows Superintendent Rao has form for closing cases with false evidence and the boys go free.

Unluckily for Pandi and friends, the Tamil cops need their help in return. Sure enough, they help kidnap a high profile money launder KK (Kishore) from the courts. Back in Tamil Nadu, Kumar gets dropped off along the road but the others are taken to the station along with KK. KK tells Muthuvel that the last move in this game will be to tie up all the loose ends, like Muthuvel himself. And KK is a very smart man. About to leave, the guys are asked to clean the station building before they go. The ominous music says that was a bad idea, and I think Pandi knew it too.

Vetrimaaran mostly sticks with realism, creating a sense of the world just out of sight of the mainstream. The dark side is literally dark, with much of the film shot in night time and dimly lit interiors. The scenes are beautifully composed and I felt immersed in Pandi’s world, and the feeling of being entangled and lost. The spike of fear when the cops start torturing people is visceral, the relief when it stops and the terror of those waiting their turn also feel real. There is a foray into black and white for a couple of climactic scenes that struck me as annoyingly filmi. I wasn’t sure if it was censored because of all the gore or just cleverness, but regardless it was too tricksy. Other more successful visual metaphors were derived from the core of the drama – the movement between light and dark, between high and low places, people up to their necks in muck wading through sewers. The pace drags a little when the boys are hanging around doing the cleaning, and there is a little too much helpful exposition to get everyone on the same page, but these are minor issues.

Dinesh Ravi carries most of the film as Pandi was the enquiring mind, the calculating observer, and the loyal at heart.  His reactions and interactions with Samuthirakani give the story a centre and conflict that held the other strands together. Samuthirakani has gravitas and a wry humour that sparks up when Muthuvel is at ease. He is the cop who knows what is right, wants to be clean, but is coerced by his higher ups. Kishore is also impressive as the sly money man who can’t believe he will run out of friends or dollars. The dialogue is often sparse and meaning is layered through action and reaction. This is a man’s world. There is a budding romance (Anandhi as Shanthi), and a female cop (Misha Ghoshal) who deliberately forgets her phone so Pandi can call for help and that is it. All the supporting performances are good, but there are so many fleeting character appearances that the police dissolve into one huge despicable khaki organism.

I am not really surprised that the film failed to make the Oscars. A dog eat dog world with no hope of justice, and with the police at the heart of the darkness, seemed like a hard sell.

This is an accomplished film with some exceptional performances. It’s not an easy watch due to the casual brutality. It made me question why such a topic is still so current. And there is no moral or redemption to send you whistling on your way. Just death, lies, greed, and a promise of more of the same. 4 stars.

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Traffic (2011)

Traffic

When it first released in 2011, Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic was hailed as a new genre in Malayalam cinema and one of the first so-called ‘New Generation’ films. Bobby and Sanjay’s story doesn’t have a traditional heroic-centric plot, but instead uses a collection of everyday characters and a combination of a non-linear first half with a more traditional road movie in the second to come up with a novel action/drama. Despite the more Western style, this is still a very Indian film with references to wide-spread corruption, the power of celebrity and the chaotic nature of the Indian road system at the heart of the story. Interestingly, the film is based on real-life events in Chennai which are referenced in the film, proving that real life is often more dramatic than fiction.

Traffic begins with a car crash, then goes back a few weeks to introduce the main characters and the events that lead to their presence at a particular crossroads at 8.50am on 16th September. First there is Siddharth Shankar (Rahman), a movie star who has little time for his family, wife Shruti (Lena) and daughter Priya (Namitha Pramod). Siddharth has people who do things for him and he expects his celebrity status to smooth his way through life which, for the most part, it does. At one point Siddharth is interviewed while his daughter and wife watch, rolling their eyes at his generic answers which suggest he is a devoted family man. But when Priya gives the interviewer questions to ask about herself, Siddharth obviously hasn’t a clue, stopping the shooting and asking Priya for the answer before repeating it on camera. It’s an excellent example of the disconnect between the actor and his family, and illustrates his complete unawareness of the chasm he has allowed to develop between them. It’s not so much arrogance as a simple belief that he is the most important person in any situation, so when later, Siddharth is attempting to throw his weight around and suddenly realises that here is a situation where all his star-power is useless, it’s a major shock to his ego. Particularly when combined with a few home-truths from his wife in a rousing dialogue where she finally points out his shortcomings and failures as a father. Shruti has some of the best dialogues in the film and Lena does an excellent job in portraying her emotional upheavals as the story unfolds.

Secondly there is Reehan (Vineeth Sreenivasan), who has just scored the job of a journalist at TV station Indiavision and is scheduled to interview Siddharth on the day of the accident. Reehan has some issues with his doctor father (Saikumar) but seems to be finally finding his place in the world with his new job. He has a girlfriend Aditi (Sandhya) who is looking for her second chance at happiness with Reehan. The two seem very much in love although her recently divorced status and different religion mean that Reehan hasn’t told his parents about their relationship. All in all, they are a regular family and their reactions when disaster strikes seem completely normal, even down to Reehan’s mother obsessively replaying the last video she took of her son before his big interview. That interview was rescheduled by Siddharth and to make it in time Reehan asks his friend Rajiv (Asif Ali) to take him in to the studio on the back of his bike. As a result, they both reach the intersection in time for the accident.

Dr Abel (Kunchacko Boban) is a cardiac surgeon driving to pick up a new car for his wife Shwetha’s (Remya Nambeesan) birthday. Abel seems happy and contented with his life, and it seems coincidence that his route to the car show room takes him along the road to the intersection where the accident occurs. It’s not until later in the film that events in the lead-up to the accident become significant and explain his subsequent actions as he escorts a donor heart from Kochi to Palakkad.

Finally, there is traffic policeman Sudevan (Sreenivasan) who is about to restart work after a suspension for taking a bribe. Ironically, he himself has to pay off an official to get his job back and Sudevan is exquisitely aware of the irony of his position. He initially took the bribe to pay for his daughter’s education, but is upset and disappointed that she has little time for her father, preferring to spend time with her friends. It’s a fairly typical teenage situation, but for Sudevan who is smarting under his suspension, her lack of empathy with his sacrifice cuts deep. Sudevan too is on the road at the time of the accident with his wife (Reena Basheer) on his bike, but Sudevan’s involvement comes later when he gets the chance to redeem his reputation if he can pull off the drive of his life.

After the accident one of the casualties is left in a coma and not expected to survive. There is an ethical dilemma to overcome as the victim’s heart may be transplanted and used to save a life, but only if the family agrees. Naturally, there is plenty of drama as the family want to wait until the very last minute, even though there is no hope for recovery. On the other hand, the doctors know that time is critical and they need an answer as soon as possible if they are to have any chance to donate the victim’s heart.

Then there is the issue of getting the heart from Kochi to Palakkad, a distance of 180km with only 2 hours to make the journey over congested roads. Police Commissioner Ajmal Nazar (Anoop Menon) has to weigh up the risks to his men as they attempt to reach the hospital in time with the benefit of saving a life and racking up some good PR for his department. In the end, it’s head surgeon Dr Simon D’Souza (Jose Prakash) who manages to convince the Commissioner that he has the choice to make history if he can accomplish the journey. Obviously, a convincing argument as Ajmal uses it on his men too, with the result that Sudevan steps up to drive the heart and Dr Abel to the hospital in Palakkad.

From here on it would seem to be smooth sailing, bar some excitement as the car tries to traverse roads that weren’t built for speed or easy overtaking. But there are more unresolved issues that mean the car goes AWOL en route and the final outcome remains in doubt almost up to the final frame. Rajesh Pillai succeeds in keeping the tension mounting with the search for the missing vehicle and continues to build suspense even after the car is found, as the delay means that they may not reach the hospital in time.

The hyperlink approach of the first half reveals snippets of each character, establishing some sense of their personality and giving an explanation of why they are on the road at the time of the accident. Jumping from one character to another also sets up the foundation for various links between the characters that are revealed as the story progresses. Despite the piecemeal approach, the relationships are all well-defined and the very normalness of the characters ensures they are relatable and generally understandable in their subsequent actions. In fact, the only part of the story that seems overly contrived is the reason for Sudevan and his vehicle to drop out of contact but that is balanced by the use of Siddharth’s star status to get his fans to help with clearing the roads – a nice touch that seems entirely plausible and works well as a result.

The road trip follows a more linear storyline with a relatively predictable path, although Rajesh Pillai does generate thrills by adding crowded streets and poor road conditions to the mix. There are some flashback sequences that break up the journey too and keep the story from dragging. However, the end is quite abrupt and sadly not all the stories get a conclusion, notably the fate of the young woman who caused the crash in the first place and the outcome for Dr Abel and his wife. However, the resolution for Siddharth and Sudevan is nicely done and the idea of redemption through being given a second chance is explored well. I also don’t think it’s necessary that all the stories are brought to a final conclusion – this is more of a brief snapshot into the lives of a group of strangers and as such not everything needs have a clear-cut ending.

The attention to detail in the parallel stories at the start ensures the film gets off to a good start and the good mix of believable drama, well-portrayed emotion and plausible action keeps it engaging throughout. It’s a major plus that so many of the women are strong characters- Shruti, Aditi (and yay that her divorced status isn’t a major issue, just part of her backstory) and Fathima Babu as Reehan’s mother. The rest of the cast are all excellent in their roles and the background music from Mejo Joseph and Samson Kottoor suits the screenplay well. There are only a few songs and while they aren’t terribly memorable themselves, they are used well in the narrative giving more insight into some of the relationships and characters. Subsequent films have further developed the New Generation genre but Traffic still has plenty to recommend it and well deserves its reputation as a trend-setter. 3 ½ stars.

Delhi Belly

Abhinay Deo loads up Delhi Belly with self-conscious references and imagery of Bollywood and “India”. The opening sequence includes Rishi Kapoor prancing in a blinding white suit from the medley from Hum Kisise Kum Nahin intercut with a slick airport and some slum kids. I wanted to like this. I like the caper genre, I like Guy Ritchie films (of which this is heavily derivative), and I even quite like Imran Khan. But it feels a bit empty, like a film set in India and made for people who have never been there themselves.

Note: I watched the Hinglish version of the film which is heavy on the profanity, with some characters swearing as much as I do. I believe the Hindi version is not quite as graphic.

Tashi (Imran Khan) is a journalist of sorts, interviewing starlets he despises when he isn’t writing up serious crimes. Tashi’s flight attendant girlfriend Sonia (Shehnaz Treasurywala) does a dodgy deal with Vladimir to drop off a package to a local address. Of course the package contains smuggled diamonds. Nitin (Kunaal Roy Kapur) is a perve, and a photographer, as well as Tashi’s sidekick and roommate. The other flatmate is Arup (Vir Das in a terrible wig), the geeky graphic artist charged with making a banana look happier but not too happy. Menaka (Poorna Jagannathan) is a journalist colleague who is there because someone has to have a crazy ex-husband who wants to hunt Tashi down. Tashi tells Nitin to drop off the package to Somayajulu (Vijay Raaz) but Nitin comes down with Delhi Belly, and sends Arup to drop off the package AND his stool sample. Yeah, you can pretty much guess the rest.

The film is stylised, with quirky sound and visual effects emphasising the comedy and dramatic beats. It’s meticulously planned, with all the intersecting plotlines and near misses neatly plotted. And that is one of the problems I have with Delhi Belly. While it is visually accomplished and great to look at, there is not enough fizz or life in the story or the characters.

There is an overabundance of trashy puerile boy humour that might put some people off, but at least it is frank about sex and avoids unnecessary coyness. And as you would expect from the title, there is scatological and toilet humour galore, and that is carried over to Raj Sampath’s soundtrack. The bad language and smutty jokes are largely for shock value and not driven by a genuine insight or moment. That is what I found distasteful and even worse, boring. Making a man run down the street while wearing a burqa is not champagne comedy. One rare comedy highlight is Arup fantasising about breaking up a wedding in his Disco Fighter avatar (and announcing his equal opportunity approach to oral sex) before bursting into song. It’s a little bit Mithun and a little bit Wedding Singer post the break up.

Imran Khan is stuck with a character who doesn’t seem to have much motivation but ends up in an ever more threatening and strange set of circumstances. His nice middle class boy aura never really leaves him, no matter how squalid the surroundings, and I never quite believed in Tashi. I did like his Rajinikanth shirt though. Tashi is apparently acceptable husband material to a wealthy middle class family but he chooses to live in a hovel and not really have much of a career. How does that work?

Imran has no chemistry at all with Shenaz or Poorna which is disappointing considering Tashi gets very hands on with them. Imran and Kunaal Roy Kapur are much more fun together. But despite Kapur’s rambunctious performance and occasional zingers I got so tired of Nitin and his digestive tract that I wanted his scenes to be over NOW. And Vir Das was sort of reprising his role in Go Goa Gone so I felt he was a bit underutilised. And his wig was truly terrible and a great distraction.

Shenaz Treasurywala delivers an entertaining performance in a role that didn’t demand one. Sonia is a confident upper middle class girl. She can afford to be nice to almost everyone because other than choosing a lipgloss she doesn’t have much to tax her brain with. Poorna Jagannathan plays Menaka as more of a world weary cynic, but again she will go out of her way to help a hopeless boy. As mentioned, I couldn’t see the appeal of Tashi to either lady and given they formed a mild love triangle it would have been better if there was more chemistry.

Leading the villains, Vijay Raaz and the gang of henchmen do their best to be OTT. I appreciated their commitment, and some scenes had real tension. But the film couldn’t commit to playing it straight so there were forays into unnecessary slapstick that fell flat. Often literally. A dishonourable mention goes to Rahul Singh as Menaka’s ex. His character was so unpleasant it was hard to believe such a smart confident girl would have married him against her family’s wishes, and his acting was completely suited to the role.

I have to mention Aamir Khan’s appearance as Disco Fighter in the closing song. Aamir is one of the film’s producers and according to the goss, attended some special advance previews to find out why audiences weren’t responding to the film. But his disco antics are there for added box office appeal, not for the film and not for fun. And not because the world needs any more actors in blackface. Jeez. Anyway, it’s not like he needs any more proof he is a terrible dancer so I guess he really likes his nephew.

It’s a clever but ultimately joyless effort. The film lacks the verve of proper masala embodied by Rishi’s performance in the opening visuals. Great masala films crackle with the energy and velocity of dodgem cars and roller coasters, not the methodical progression of chess. 2 ½ stars!