Pudhupettai (2006)


Pudhupettai is Selvaraghavan’s ode to gangster life, telling the story of the rise and fall of Kokki Kumar in the slums of Chennai. It’s brutal and violent, and for the most part Selva doesn’t give his ‘hero’ any redeeming features making this a departure from most other Tamil gangster flicks. At the end of the day, the only real priority for Kumar is himself and trying to keep himself alive, which reflects the film’s tagline ‘survival of the fittest’. The film is shot almost like a documentary, following the wandering path of Kumar’s life rather than having a distinct narrative, and it’s this realism and attention to the details of the characters and their harsh lives that makes Pudhupettai such a fascinating watch.

The film opens with Kokki Kumar (Dhanush) in jail. He seems disorientated, perhaps mentally ill, as he shouts out for anyone who might be listening to him. These opening shots feature Kumar in green with contrasting red light from outside the cell, further isolating him and accentuating his odd behaviour. This colour scheme replicates throughout the film, maybe to illustrate Kumar’s almost split personality but it’s also used to highlight important moments in his life. It’s part of how Selva pulls the story together, using images and brief vignettes rather than long drawn out scenes to develop his characters.

The film then moves to a flashback of Kumar’s early life in the slums of Pudhupettai. He seems a typical young man as flirts with girls and is chastised by his mother for dancing in the streets rather than hurrying off to school. However, violence is never far away. His father is violently abusive and finally one night Kumar returns to find his mother has been murdered by his father. Fearing for his own life, Kumar flees onto the streets to try to make his own way in the world.

He’s not terribly successful at this and eventually turns to begging in the streets where he is accidentally picked up by the police during a raid on drug sellers operating under local thug Anbu (Bala Singh). Anbu’s men take Kumar under their wing and introduce him to their boss, managing to secure him a spot in their gang. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi has a small role here as one of the gang, and there are a few other familiar faces including Aadukalam Murugadoss who also pop up in the background.

Kumar gradually learns how to be a gangster and there is some good humour worked into the scenes where he learns how to use a machete and case the scene before a crime. He also has a mean temper and when backed into a corner by a rival gang lead by Murthy (Prudhviraj) he fights back, killing Murthy’s brother and turning Murthy into an enemy for life. The film follows Kumar as he meets and falls in love with prostitute Krishnaveni (Sneha) and subsequently takes over the area from Anbu after killing his former boss in a dispute over his treatment of Krishnaveni.

Kumar has grand ambitions and with the gang behind him he takes Anbu’s place working for corrupt politician Thamizhselvan (Azhagam Perumal). The body count rises as Thamizhselvan commissions murders and Kumar steadily makes inroads into Murthy’s territory. But then Kumar sees Selvi (Sonia Agarwal), the sister of his main henchman Mani, and he falls instantly in lust. Forgetting Krishnaveni he marries Selvi instead of the real groom at her wedding and immediately has another enemy out for his blood. Mani joins forces with Murthy and the two conspire to bring Kumar down.

This is the seedy side of gangster life and Selva shows the grubby political deals and bloody in-fighting between the rival gangs as something to be expected, rather than as exceptions to the rule. No-one comes out of this looking good and Kumar in particular is not a nice man. At first there seems to be some attempt to explain Kumar’s violent tendencies on his early experiences, but during a drinking session with the gang one night, it’s revealed that everyone has a similar story. It’s even a source of entertainment for the gang as they each tell their stories of abuse and murder and decide who has the funniest story.

It then seems as if there may be some compassion in Kumar when he fights Anbu for Krishnaveni’s freedom, but this doesn’t ever seem to be a grand passion or even much of a love story at all, and Kumar tends to treat Krishnaveni more as a possession rather than a lover. He’s able to completely ignore her when he sees Selvi and isn’t at all bothered by Krishnaveni’s attempt to leave him, until she announces that she is pregnant. That of course makes all the difference, and this is the one part of the film where Kumar genuinely seems to care for someone else. The birth of his son is a momentous event in his life, which makes his son’s loss later in the film more effective than expected.

There are signs that Kumar might be a better man than first appears when he takes on cases where the local people have been affected by corruption and crime after overthrowing Anbu. But this appearance of trying to help the poor turns out to be just an easy way to develop a power base and get support – something that Kumar needs if he wants to further his political ambitions and make a name for himself. I love how each time Kumar seems to be acting more responsibly it’s shown to be just another way to make sure he comes out on top. The pragmatism and cunning he shows seem to be reasonable requirements for someone who aspires to be a top politician, while the extreme violence and disregard for human life explain why Kumar makes such a good gangster.

Throughout, Dhanush is excellent despite a tendency to overact in the prison scenes where he has to explain his story directly to the audience. His transformation from a scared adolescent to a violent and cold-blooded criminal is brilliantly achieved, and his tendency to become completely feral when he loses his temper gives the character a chilling authenticity. Here is someone with few morals, who decides what they want and then goes ahead and takes it without worrying about the consequences or the possible price. Sneha does a fantastic job with the character of Krishnaveni and gives her dignity and grace despite her profession and her association with the gang. Krishnaveni seems to genuinely love Kumar, although some of this may be gratitude for helping her escape the brothel, but she brings some normalcy into the storyline and provides a good contrast to all the violence. She’s not completely innocent either and her entrapment of Kumar by mentioning her pregnancy after he marries Selvi is a clever twist, as is Selvi’s nasty dig when she points out that Kumar can’t be sure that the baby is his. It all rings true and despite the buckets of blood and excessive use of knives (check out Kumar’s impressive machete storage cupboard!) this doesn’t seem to be too fantastical a story. The characters all seem plausible too, particularly in the way they let their petty squabbles and problems spill over to affect the whole area.

The rest of the cast are uniformly good too – Sonia Agarwal has less to do than Sneha but she is excellent as the reluctant bride, while Azhagam Perumal has so many backflips that it’s a wonder he can work out which way to look at the camera. Clever writing and good dialogue ensure that everyone has a role to play while the good performances mean it all flows beautifully.

The film is enhanced by excellent cinematography from Arvind Krishna, who makes Chennai look stunningly beautiful one moment and then grimly ugly, just as Selva juxtaposes Kumar’s dreams with the harsh reality of life as a gangster. The songs and background music by Yuvan Shankar Raja also suit the film well with the songs seamlessly flowing into the dialogue and some hauntingly beautiful instrumentals.

At almost 3 hours Pudhupettai is a long film and at times it does tend to drift into indulgent territory, but then it’s so well made that it’s hard to complain. This is a film that seems to get better and better with repeated viewings as more of the story becomes clear. As with most Selvaraghavan’s films, the subject matter is dark and his characters flawed, but the subject matter here suits this type of delivery and as a whole the film works very well indeed. Not one for the squeamish given the preponderance of edged weapons and gory bloodshed but for anyone who enjoys a gangster film, this is one of the best. 4½ stars.


Udaharanam Sujatha

Udaharanam Sujatha

Udaharanam Sujatha tells the story of Sujatha, a hard-working single mother, and her attempts to ensure her daughter Athira studies and passes her year 10 school exams. Sujatha has big plans for her daughter, but the problem is that Athira isn’t interested in studying and rather than thinking about her future, her dreams involve movie stars instead. Phantom Praveen has directed this Malayalam remake of Hindi film Nil Battey Sannata by Ashwini Iyer Tiwari (who has also remade the film herself in Tamil), with a more Kerala-centric screenplay from Naveen Bhaskar and a few changes to the lead characters. It’s a simple story that focuses on the mother-daughter relationship and features excellent performances from both Manju Warrier and Anaswara Rajan as her somewhat rebellious daughter. I did have a few issues with some parts of the film, but the overall feel good factor and balanced mix of drama and humour ensures Udaharanam Sujatha is well worth a trip to the cinema.

Sujatha (Manju Warrier) gets up well before dawn to start her seemingly endless round of jobs to raise enough money to pay for her daughters education. Sujatha herself left school after 9th standard which she feels has severely limited her choice of occupation, and as a result, she resolves that her daughter needs to do well at school. However Athira (Anaswara Rajan) doesn’t care at all about her studies and has no thought for her future. She lives in the present, watching music videos on TV, playing with her friends and day-dreaming about Dulquer Salmaan. Athira doesn’t appreciate the long hours that her mother works to fund her education and even tells Sujatha that a doctor’s daughter will be a doctor and an engineer’s daughter will be an engineer, so since she is the daughter of a kitchen maid, that is all that she will become. Since Athira also regularly and quite spectacularly fails her tests at her school it seems unlikely that Sujatha’s grand plans will succeed no matter how hard she pushes Athira.

For one of her jobs, Sujatha works for prominent script writer George Paul (Nedumudi Venu) who listens to her daily recitation of her worries and fears about Athira with a surprising amount of tolerance. He finds a friend (Alencier Ley Lopez) who runs a tutoring service and who is willing to offer Sujatha a substantial discount, but only if Athira scores more than 50% in her maths exam. When Sujatha complains to George about the unlikeliness of Athira reaching this target, he suggests that Athira needs some competition and persuades Sujatha to go back to school herself and complete her Year 10 education.

A scene where Athira discovers her mother’s plans and attempts to cajole her mother with promises of improved study interspersed with pleas and general teenager angst is brilliantly written and perfectly performed by Anaswara. Her mother’s response is just as good and gets to the heart of the relationship between the two. Sujatha is determined to make her daughter succeed in life and is willing to go through the humiliation of going back to school to force her daughter to study. Athira’s subsequent tantrums and her refusal to acknowledge her mother’s presence in the classroom are also well handled, while Sujatha’s gradual acceptance by the other students seems plausible given her ability to cook! The good points though are mixed up with some terrible clichés such as the bespectacled nerd of the class who helps Sujatha understand maths, and the horribly abusive teachers who seem out of place in a film about the benefits of education.

Also problematical is the inference that doing a job such as working in a factory or as a maid is somehow shameful and to be avoided at all costs. While I can sympathise with Sujatha’s desire that Athira gets a good education and has options to choose from, it doesn’t follow that working in these jobs is wrong. Every parent wants the best for their child and particularly would prefer to see that they have a comfortable life, but this doesn’t mean that a house maid should be looked down on, just because of her occupation. However, aside from these points, the rest of the story is a heartening tale of the importance of a good education and how Sujatha manages to change her daughter’s attitude. It’s surprising that Sujatha manages to attend school at all, given her busy schedule of work but Naveen Bhaskar doesn’t let logic get in the way of a good story and after all, perhaps Sujatha has a time-turner hidden away somewhere.

The star here is undoubtedly Manju Warrier who is excellent as the harried mother desperate to wake some ambition in her daughter. Her work ethic is amazing and well portrayed, but what really stands out is the love she has for her daughter and her strength of will to make sure that nothing will get in the way of her dreams. She is fantastic as a concerned mother and completely inhabits the character of a cook/pickle-maker/house-maid/cleaner from a slum area of the city. Anaswara Rajan is also excellent as the bratty and ungrateful Athira who resents her mother’s interference in her life. Her whining is brilliantly irritating and her self-absorption typical of a teenager who naturally knows better than her mother. Together the two actors make a formidable team and it’s the warmth of their relationship that takes the film up a level to make it more than a simple moral tale about the value of education.

Udaharanam Sujatha

The other characters all have a small but significant part to play in the drama, and do it well. Joju George is excellent as Sreekumar, the headmaster and maths teacher who reluctantly agrees to take Sujatha on as a student. His role provides much of the humour, but he also succeeds in making his eccentric character more sympathetic than first appears and he plays a part in assisting Sujatha to further her own dreams. Nedumudi Venu is excellent throughout and he also adds some more light-hearted moments as does Sujatha’s potential suitor while Abhija Sivakala provides drama as a coconut seller who has lent Sujatha money and wants it paid back. Mamta Mohandas is also good in a small role as the local collector who takes on the task of bringing a supply of drinking water to Sujatha’s area and acts as the inspiration for Sujatha’s dreams.

The songs from Gopi Sundar are generally upbeat and suit the mood of the film, but one or two in the second half slow down the narrative and could have been excluded without losing anything from the story. Technically the film looks good, although Manju Warrier’s face is distractingly shiny at times, presumably due to the lack of make-up to give her character more authenticity. The moral message is hammered home a little too heavy-handedly at the end, but for the most part it’s the drama between mother and daughter that takes centre stage and gives the film its appeal. I like that Sujatha has the confidence to go back to school to improve her prospects and that she sees education as vitally important to secure her daughters future. It’s also heartening that she doesn’t need a man to prove her worth and prefers to manage alone despite having a suitor with a good job who could make her life easier. There are enough good points here to balance out the few negatives, and even if the dialogue is occasionally a tad shaky the performances are excellent and the story captivating. Recommended for Manju Warrier, Anaswara Rajan and a reminder that it’s never too late to follow your dreams.


Zinda Laash (1967)


You’re at Friday night work drinks, listening to someone passionately advocating the merits of Jeetendra (but we all know he has none), and a colleague casually says they thought this Pakistani Vampire film was so awesome they named their band after it. What would you do? Luckily the film is on YouTube in a terrible print, but with subtitles. And as a tribute to the subtitle team on the copy I watched, I will also use a capital V whereVer that letter appears.

Khwaja Sarfraz’s film is also known as Dracula in Pakistan but rather than a supernatural road moVie, it is a fairly faithful adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Just set in Pakistan. With lots of Very familiar music in the soundtrack. And some excellent and quite dramatic 60s eye liner. It’s not a film for nuanced acting, so I’ll stick to the plot points and things I found interesting.

Professor Tabani (Rehan) was a scientist trying to find the elixir of immortality. He tested the brew on himself and there is a cautionary tale in there about proper test protocols.  The next day his assistant spotted his “dead” body. He had thoughtfully written some notes before drinking his elixir of life. She popped him in the coffin in the basement as instructed (how handy!), and seemed to think no more of it. She awakes to see him in her room, seemingly hypnotised as he moVes in with fangs at the ready. Then the titles launch oVer a montage of women screaming so I guess he was well on the way to being able to feed himself. Eternal life of one sort.

A car driVes down a long country road to the tune of La Cucaracha. A man enters the old mansion and starts exploring, unnerVed by the spooky art, gloomy lighting, and general air of unease. A man in a cape appears – yes, Professor Tabani. They greet each other cordially enough although seem to be strangers, and Aqil Harker (Asad Bukhari) is shown to a guest room to stay. Tabani spouts some classic Dracula lines as he listens to the children of the night, then tells his guest to make himself at home. Aqil is there on a mission, as he keeps writing notes about his host in a diary. Later he relaxes by the fireplace, but hears tinkly laughter in the distance. When he looks for the source of the laugh he finds a “seductiVe” woman (Nasreen) ready to launch into a low cardio dance of loVe to Peace Pipe by The Shadows.

To be fair, I’d struggle to rise elegantly from reclining on that coffee table too. She is thwarted by Tabani who has arriVed home in time for dinner. He throws what looks like the body of a small child at his lady friend, and she runs away. Tabani is tempted by the unconscious man but dawn sends him running for safety too. Aqil wakes up and decides to try and kill the eVil Vampire before fleeing. He finds their coffins in a spooky cellar and stabs the lady Vampire repeatedly. But Tabani gets the better of him.

Another jump, now to a club number about youth and liVing life and not feeling obliged to dress up eVen if you are the designated item girl (Cham Cham). A man (Habibur Rehman) arriVes at the inn, asking for his brother, the missing Dr Aqil. The manager tells him about the scary house. He also sets out for the mansion, this time to a jaunty piano based arrangement of The Wooden Soldier and the China Doll. He finds Aqil’s belongings, including his diary. He also finds the lady Vampire and sadly, Aqil. Not so jaunty now.

Then another abrupt cut to a young lady, Shabnam (Deeba Begum), at her family home. Aqil’s brother, who doesn’t seem to haVe a name, is Visiting but says they shouldn’t tell her of Aqil’s death as it would be too upsetting for a delicate young woman to cope with. Her brother and sister in law refuse to belieVe what happened to Aqil. So he proposes to take them there to proVe his story is true. But when they arriVe, all the coffins are empty. Now I think a basement full of coffins is weird enough, whether they are full or empty, but Mr ParVez (Ala Ud Din) insists this proVes it’s all just a fantastical story.

Back at home, Shabnam goes on a picnic with her friends and they frolic in the sunshine. The melody here is El Rancho Grande which is Very not what I expected. [Sidenote: One of my friends and I consistently sing this with the wrong lyrics. Our Version goes “Oh it’s the song about cattle…something something something CAAAAAAATtle” and that is what I was singing as Shabnam was doing her thing]. Shabnam disappears mid-chasey. She is found unconscious, with no memory of what happened to make her faint. Her family are sensible enough to call a doctor but he has no explanation for her symptoms. Her niece senses a change in Shabnam and is a little afraid of her. Shabnam is in thrall to Tabani, waiting impatiently like a loVer and an addict for his return nocturnal Visit. She dies and nobody wants to belieVe she might be a Vampire. But when a child is found dead, drained of blood, and Shabnam’s graVe is open and empty, Mr ParVez agrees to go look for himself with the doctor. EVentually Shabnam turns up, intent on taking her niece. Her brother is stunned, and is nearly a snack himself. But Aqil’s brother stabs Shabnam in the heart, and releases her soul.

The men decide they haVe to saVe their respectiVe families by killing the king Vampire Tabani. They start by going back to the Golden Crown and haVing a further conVersation with the inn keeper, this time as a number called Shish-Kebab is playing in the club. He tells all and just in time as Tabani has now targeted ParVez’s wife Shirin (Yasmeen Shaukat). Will they saVe Shirin? Will there be any more strangely upbeat songs?

Zinda Laash is not bad as a straight up remake, with a strong Gothic flaVour in the lighting and composition of scenes. The acting is Variable, with the word wooden appearing quite a lot in my notes. Also the note “great eyeliner”. But the oVerall combination of serious psychological horror, Vampire mythology, and cheesy soundtrack is somehow much more than the sum of its parts without really being Very good at all. Mystifying. But Very entertaining. 3 stars!