Vikram (2022)

2022 is proving to be an excellent year for Indian cinema. Pushpa, RRR, KGF2 and now Vikram have really raised the bar and we’re only halfway through the year! In Vikram, Lokesh Kanagaraj delves back into the world he created with Kaithi and adds more threads to his tale of drug dealing, police corruption and gang warfare. With a who’s who of Southern Indian actors, an engrossing story and fabulous action sequences, Vikram is another ‘not to be missed’ film that deserves to be seen at the cinema.

The story begins with Police Chief Jose (Chemban Vinod Jose) bringing in a ‘black-ops’ team headed by an agent known only as Aram (Fahadh Faasil). The police have been sent a series of videos showing black-masked terrorists murder the local Head of Narcotics Stephen Raj (Hareesh Peradi), ACP Prabhanjan (Kalidas Jayaram) and Prabhanjan’s adopted father Karnan (Kamal Haasan). With the final murder seemingly unconnected, Aram immediately starts investigating Karnan, trying to find any possible link that might explain the deaths. His investigations reveal a man who had turned to drink and prostitutes after the death of his adopted son, but no link to the case Prabhanjan was involved with before his death. However, in the course of his inquiries, Aram discovers a missing shipment of drugs belonging to drug kingpin Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi) and identifies two more men involved with the drug trade who may be in danger. Veerapandian ((Gowtham Sundarajan) and Rudra Prathap (Aruldoss) are both likely targets as they reportedly know the location of the missing shipments, but despite the police, Sandhanam and Aram all trying to protect the men, the ‘men in black’ are hard to evade.

Aram and his men have no boundaries and as such threaten, beat and bully their way to the information required. Oddly, during the investigation Aram also marries Gayathri (Gayathrie Shankar) despite her ignorance about his real job and seeming unconcern about the man she finds being held prisoner in Amar’s offices. Apart from this one glimpse into a possible softer side, Fahadh Faasil’s Amar is as brutal and dangerous as the men he is seeking. As one of the top actors in the South, Fahadh Faasil is always impressive, but he is electrifying here to the point where he almost manages to steal attention away from Kamal Haasan. Fahadh’s body language, expressions and dialogue delivery are simply brilliant throughout and when his life starts to fall apart, his portrayal of a man at the limit of his ability to cope is excellent. One moment that really stands out is his absolute frustration when trying to resuscitate Prabhanjan’s young son which was simply perfect (standard filmi medical miracles aside of course). I also recognised the Queen of Subtitles rekhs as the dubbing voice for Dr Annie on the line assisting Amar with the process which added just the right note to the whole scene.

Vijay Sethupathi has played the role of a demented brutal gangster before, so the character of Sandhanam isn’t a stretch for him, but Vijay gives the character plenty of traits that set the gangster apart from his previous roles. Sandhanam has 3 wives, and there is an excellent montage where we see Sandhanam, his family and one of his wives practicing target shooting, perhaps to show he’s a supporter of equal opportunities for all. He certainly believes in keeping it in the family since his the main members of Sandhanam’s gang producing the drug supply are all from his large extended family, and he is ultra-protective of them, although happily expends his henchmen elsewhere when necessary. Able to switch between fake doctor, urbane businessman and unhinged gangster with a tendency to use his own product, Sandhanam is more complex than first appears and Vijay Sethupathi brings out all of these different facets of his character even with limited screen time.

Kamal Haasan is the focus of the film and despite not appearing much in the first half, his presence is still felt as the ghost manipulating much of the action. He is amazingly agile in the fight scenes, and if he appears rather less sprightly in an early dance sequence, there are reasons behind that which are revealed later in the story. This is another outstanding performance from one of the greats of Tamil cinema and he does not put a foot wrong. There is a good mix of humour in the dialogue too, and the addition of scenes with his family help to break up the actions sequences and add more fuel to the film’s fury. And if you thought Yash had a big gun in KGF2, think again – guns are so passé when you can have a cannon instead! The other support cast are also excellent from Narain reprising his role as Inspector Bejoy to Chemban Vinod Jose, Kalidas Jayaram, Sampath Ram and Ramesh Thilak. My favourite moment in the entire film comes from Agent Tina (Vasanthi) and I also loved the totally unhinged appearance by Suriya, who has a brief appearance at the end.

The action sequences here by Anbariv are excellent and Girish Gangadharan captures the effects beautifully. The scale of the film is huge with wide shots over the city of Chenni, massive gunfire and explosion sequences and then a total change to close-ups of Sandhanam’s gold teeth. Girish ensures it all looks stunning regardless. Even at 3 hours of runtime, nothing in the film drags and with Anirudh’s soundtrack underpinning the action and emotions of the film, the balance is perfect. Thanks to rekhs who has subtitled the entire film with perfect English although the use of ‘shucks’ and ‘crap’ as substitutes for the actual dialogue did make me smile. I’m assuming there is a censorship reason behind the change since the original words are clearly audible. Thanks too for the yellow font which is much more readable than white.

Vikram is high octane action with plenty of plot detail and connections that make the plot intriguing as well as exciting. The performances are uniformly excellent and I honestly think the film is many times better than anything I’ve seen from Hollywood in recent times. While a number of the characters from Kaithi resurface, Vikram is a self-contained story that can be enjoyed without having seen the earlier film, and the references aren’t so obscure that it’s impossible to work out previous links. I’m looking forward to the next instalment and seeing just what Lokesh Kanagaraj comes up with next in his mad and crazy world of drug lords and special agents.

Kaathvuvaakula Rendu Kaadhai

Vignesh Shivan’s latest film with Vijay Sethupathi is a romantic comedy with the ‘twist’ that Rambo is equally in love with two girls. In any other film, this would be called two-timing or cheating, but here we are supposed to feel sorry for Rambo and support his attempts to commit bigamy. For all of that, there are some entertaining moments, and all three leads put in good performances. But at the end of the day, Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhai is a one-time watch with an unsatisfying love triangle.

The film starts with a TV show called ‘Real or Reel’ that’s explaining how Rambo ended up with two loves. There is a flashback to the story of young Rambo (Kamalesh) and his unlucky family. None of the family are able to marry due to their reputation for bad luck until the day Rambo’s father decides to wed Minah Kaif (Divya Pillai). Thinking their luck has turned, the family celebrates, but on the day he is born, Rambo’s father names him as Ranjankudi Anbarasu Murugesa Boopathy Ohondhiran (aka Rambo), which you would think would be bad enough luck all by itself. But then his father dies, and Rambo’s mother has a stroke that leaves her bedridden. From here, nothing goes well for Rambo. His mother becomes more unwell when he nears her bed, and as soon as he walks out into the rain it stops. Saddest of all, he can never manage to buy a chocolate ice-cream and the entire village considers him to be unlucky. Despite all this Rambo manages to grow up and back in the present day has 2 jobs and a nice apartment, so he can’t be all that unlucky all the time – just with rain and ice-cream.

By day Rambo is a driver for Ola cabs, and this is how he meets Kanmani (Nayanthara). She is looking for a husband and uses Rambo’s cab to travel to meet prospective grooms and their families. Kanamani has two siblings, her younger sister Minmini (Dipika Kothari) and her brother Bhargav (Bhargav Sundar) who has Downs syndrome. Part of her problem is that she needs to marry to regain ownership of the house her father left her, but she also wants to be sure that any prospective husband will also look after Minmini and Bhargav. This appears to be a major sticking point as none of the families she visits are willing to accept Kanmani along with her siblings. However, in her journeys with Rambo, Kanmani finds him to be kind and accepting of her brother and sister, while in turn they both accept him too. Slowly Kanmani starts to think of Rambo as a potential life partner and eventually she proposes to him.

By night, Rambo is a bouncer at a nightclub and there he meets Khatija (Samantha), the rather reluctant girlfriend of club owner Mohammed Mobi (S. Sreesanth). Mobi is a drunken rich prat who is abusive and generally unpleasant, so when he slaps Khatija, it’s a relief to see him get his comeuppance from Rambo. Naturally Rambo and Khatija become friends and he keeps her safe when Mobi starts stalking Khatija and generally behaving in a threatening way. Both Kanmani and Khatija declare their love at the same time leaving Rambo at a loss of what to do as he loves them both equally and decides he cannot give up one for the other.

It’s bad enough that Rambo is two-timing the two women, but the story takes a turn for the worse when Kanmani and Khatija both fight over Rambo after they all end up moving into Kanmani’s house together. It gets even more problematic when Rambo’s friend (Lollu Sabha Maaran) tries to convince both women to marry Rambo since their love has turned his life around after his tragic childhood. Frustratingly it’s left to the women to ‘save’ Rambo, who really does not need saving at all given he is gainfully employed, has a number of friends and a family who care about him. Regardless, Kanmani and Khatija have to put their differences aside to soothe Rambo and ignore their own distress at finding out he has been two-timing them with each other.

This is the central problem with the story, and it leaves a really bad taste behind. The rest of the comedy with Rambo’s aunt (Kala Master) and uncles desperately trying to get him to marry to lift their own ‘curse’ feels tacked on to give a reason for the idea of Rambo marrying two women, while the drama with his (now older) mother (Seema) seems superficial and again a device solely to promote Rambo’s wedding. 

And yet, there are parts of the film that do work well. Despite the rather low-key nature of the two romances, there are couple of standout scenes. One on a bridge with Rambo and Khatija trying to get to know each other is written to bring out Rambo’s vulnerability while a sequence with Kanmani in the cab demonstrates his kindness and thoughtfulness. I also like how cinematographers S.R. Kathir and Vijay Karthik Kannan change the lighting to show the difference between Kanmani and Khatija. The lighting for Khatija is bright and fluorescent, with scenes shot in the nightclub and on neon-lit city streets, while Kanmani is shown during the day in more natural lighting. The women are divided in their clothing as well with Kanmani depicted as traditional, wearing sari’s and Indian clothing while Khatija frequents night clubs and only wears Western clothes. To continue the dichotomy, Kanmani is Hindu while Khatija is Muslim. Other examples include Kanmani having a job in a show shop while Khatija is wealthy enough to give Rambo money without asking him any questions and Kanmani having 2 siblings while Khatija appears to be an only child. It becomes farcical when Kanmani tells Rambo she prefers plain shirts, while Khatija votes for patterned, which leaves Rambo wearing a hybrid of the two to try and keep both women happy.  

While Vignesh Shivan has focused on the issue of Rambo’s supposed jinx and his inability to choose between Kanmani and Khatija, he adds odd details which never go anywhere. When Kanmani and Rambo meet there is a log dialogue about her being Bengali but after this scene, her heritage is never mentioned again. The house Kanmani’s father left her is being used as a film set and a rather unpleasant relative is living there, but again this is never explained, nor this relative’s brief supposed interested in Kanmani as a potential wife. There are just as many unexplained questions about Khatija. For instance, she tells Rambo she wants to be a singer, but after this we hear nothing more about her career. It’s also never explained why she puts up with Mobi, apart from some vague mention of not wanting to make her father ill. A further exploration of any of these points, and just 1 heroine would have made this a more interesting and satisfying film to watch, but instead Vignesh is determined to go stick with his two-timing hero.

While Vijay Sethupathi, Nayanthara and Samantha are all fine in their roles, the romances are sterile and there is little passion between Rambo and his two fiancées. Of the support cast, Redin Kingsley and Kala Master fare the best and S. Sreesanth is nicely repulsive as Mobi. Thankfully Anirudh is back on form after the woeful Beast soundtrack, and his songs here are a mix of sweetly sentimental and upbeat dance numbers that all sound great. However at 2 hours and 39 minutes, Kaathuvaakula Rendu Kaadhai quickly outstays its welcome and despite the music, performances and general all round greatness that is Vijay Sethupathi, this really is one just for fans. 3 stars.

Minnal Murali (2021)

Basil Joseph’s 2021 superhero film puts an Indian spin on the genre with Tovino Thomas donning a costume and vaunting his superpowers in a small village in Kerala. The film is a slow burn, with the first half setting the scene and carefully developing the characters of Jaison (Tovino Thomas), his nemesis Shibu (Guru Somasundaram) and their various friends and neighbours in Kurukkanmoola. The film is as much a character study as an action adventure, and the beauty of Minnal Murali is that works as both. There is no Hollywood-style pure good and evil here either, just shades of grey that move and shift as circumstances change and events unfold, which makes for a more interesting film.

The story starts with a fire at a festival where a theatre group is performing in front of the village. A young boy sees his actor father consumed by the fire in front of his eyes which foreshadows the spectre of fire that returns a number of times in the film. In the present day, Jaison is a tailor living with his adopted family father Varky (P. Balachandran), foster sister Jesmi (Arya Salim), her abusive husband PC Siby Pothan (Aju Varghese) and their son Josemon (Vasisht Umesh). Also working in the tailor shop is Daasan (Harisree Ashokan), who is struggling to look after his sister Usha (Shelly Kishore) and her daughter who needs expensive medical treatment. Usha has recently returned to Kurukkanmoola after separating from her husband and there are mixed reactions in the village to her presence. Most of the men look at her as a prospective partner and approach Daasan with various proposals. In his turn, Daashan tries to barter Usha to the highest bidder, however this is to pay off her medical bills so Daashan isn’t quite as heartless as he might appear. 

Initially Jaison is planning to head to the USA, and is getting some photos for his passport application when he is lauded on his fashion sense – which includes chinos and a crucifix earing. I’m guessing that either the village is stuck in a timewarp or the film is set in the eighties, as Jaison doesn’t fit the bill as a ‘fashion icon’ by today’s standards, and probably not in the eighties either! Jaison is in love with Bincy Antony (Sneha Babu) but her father vehemently disproves of the match and in the process of telling Jaison how unsuitable he is, reveals that Jaison is an orphan and that it was his father who was killed in the opening sequences. Since Bincy’s father is in charge of the local police station, this leads to further harassment and ridicule of Jaison from the police force as SI Antony (Baiju) continues to warn him away from his daughter. What is strange is that Bincy doesn’t seem in the slightest bit bothered by this dismissal of her beau, and immediately arranges to marry Aneesh (Jude Anthany Joseph), who himself is the ex-boyfriend of Jaison’s friend ‘Bruce Lee’ Biji (Femina George). Bincy’s motives and true feelings are kept opaque, and in fact she practically disappears from the film in the second half. The interconnectedness of the village relationships works well to showcase the problems of living in a small town where everyone knows (or thinks they know) everything about everyone else. Despite the superhero aspect, this keeps the characters all grounded in reality, while the village mentality ensures that even superpowers can’t get Jaison what he really wants.

Shortly after the revelation about Jaison and his dismissal as Bincy’s suitor, Jaison and Shibu are both struck by lightning. This is the event that gives them their superpowers but there are distinct differences in what happens after they are struck. Shibu is alone, while Jaison is rushed to the hospital by his family. This proves key in how they each develop and use their powers in the events that follow. While both men are orphans with grievances centred in the village, the path they each follow diverges rapidly when they are suddenly given the power to make things happen. They both initially use their powers for selfish reasons, but it doesn’t take long for Jaison to realise he can actually become a hero, while Shibu seems unable to see anything but Usha and will do anything to ensure she becomes his.

Naturally superheros and villains need to have costumes, and this again defines the personalities of the two men. Initially Shibu conceals his identity using a mask taken from a scarecrow, which later becomes his supervillain costume. Jaison has the advantage of being a tailor, but it still takes him a while to develop his costume and therefore his identity, which echoes his uncertainty about which path to follow. Eventually though he gets it right with a nifty red and blue skin suit that echoes the heroes he has seen in American comics. 

While Tovino Thomas is excellent as Jaison, Guru Somasundaram is simply brilliant as Shibu. He brings a subtle blend of vulnerability and instability to the character and makes it clear that the abuse and treatment he is subjected to by the villagers shapes his actions. He’s dismissed by the other villagers as essentially ‘other’ – Tamil, insane, orphan and generally troublesome, which explains why he fights back when he realises that suddenly, he is the one with power. The flashbacks to his past are used to garner sympathy for his character, despite his actions in the present, and these work well to give an understanding of why Shibu acts the way he does. It’s a great performance and Guru Somasundaram succeeds in making his mostly unappealing character more sympathetic than first appearances would suggest. Tovino’s Jaison on the other hand hasn’t had the same level of prejudice but instead has to deal with a significant amount of immaturity and selfishness to become the hero of the hour when needed. The transformation is well done and Tovino Thomas does a good job in showing his emotions during all of the upheavals his character faces, all with plenty of charm.

I also really loved the character of Biji, and Femina George is excellent as the kick-ass heroine who can fight her own battles. It’s more unusual to have a female lead who takes no BS, especially one who literally kicks her cheating fiancée out of her dojo and fights her own battles, but Biji fits into the storyline well. I love how it’s Biji who fights back whern she find out about Aneesh and Bincy, while Jaison is the one who collapses in a sobbing and incoherent mess. Biji is key to defeating Shibu’s plans, and I really like that it takes the superhero and the ‘normal’ woman working together to defeat evil. Thank you too to writers Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew who didn’t add a romance between Biji and Jaison, which wouldn’t have worked at all. Their camaraderie is more natural and fits much better into the storyline as they work together to combat Shibu’s destruction. 

There isn’t a lot of action in the film and it does take a while for Shibu and Jaison to meet and face off, but that leaves more time for the character development which adds more layers to the story. I really enjoyed Minnal Murali and recommend it as a film that reconsiders who are the real villains and heroes in the story. 4 stars.