Sarkar (2018)

Sarkar

2018 seems to be the year for political movies, particularly those where the hero is an outsider deciding to run for office. After NOTA and Bharat Ane Nenu, this time it’s Sundar Ramasamy (Vijay) a self-styled ‘corporate criminal’ who decides to take on the corrupt Chief Minister during elections in Tamil Nadu. A.R. Murugadoss has added in some real-life scenarios which help add interest to a plot that otherwise features little more than a routine ‘Vijay saves the world’ storyline. After his recent films supporting education for women and rights for farmers, Sarkar seems to be Vijay’s most overt statement so far that he is considering a career in politics, although I do hope that if he ever does follow through, he has a better campaign manager than Sundar does here.

I’m not sure that being a ‘corporate criminal’, ‘monster’ or ‘the Genghis Khan of the corporate world’ are particularly desirable qualities for the CEO of a company in the USA, but that is how Sundar is described by both his rivals and his colleagues. Sundar himself seems to be more of a wealthy playboy as he runs around Las Vegas with an entourage of women and bodyguards before hopping onto a private jet back to India. Apparently we are to believe that Sundar makes this trip solely to cast a vote in the upcoming elections, which seems fairly extreme and makes him more of an environmental terrorist rather than corporate criminal. However, various CEO’s and company directors are able to breathe a sigh of relief that Sundar isn’t planning a takeover of their company, but is simply a strong believer in exercising his democratic right. Instead, after finding out that someone has already cast his vote due to the corrupt practices of the incumbent political party, Sundar turns his adversarial sights to CM Masilamani (Pala. Karuppiah) and his side-kick Malarvannan (Radha Ravi) aka Rendu.

Vijay is always excellent in these sorts of roles where he has to mix stirring speeches with action and a stern but righteous expression. He still looks incredibly young, but this time sports a salt and pepper beard, which does give him some maturity and suits the more serious situations. However, for the most part his character’s actions are not believable and many of the political issues are dealt with too simplistically to be completely engaging. Still, Vijay has plenty of charisma and is able to carry the film easily.

Sundar gives up his day job to run for office, which doesn’t ring true despite his spirited speech to an antagonist crowd about his lowly origins as a fisherman’s son. However the speech itself is excellent with a well thrown tomato is used as a metaphor for greed and the plight of humble workers. Later, Sundar uses his missed vote as a way to educate everyone about regulation 49-P and to convince his audience that every single vote is important. These are some of the best parts of the film, where Sundar motivates the masses and exposes the corruption at every level of government. When Vijay is in full speechifying mode he is very impressive but when it comes back to individual dialogue the unlikeliness of some scenarios does reduce their impact.

Both Pala. Karuppiah and Radha Ravi excel at traditional-minded, self-serving and corrupt politicians, but their conventional behaviour means that most of the confrontations between Sundar, Masilamani and Rendu follow an entirely predictable path.  As their power, prestige and ability to make millions in easy money is threatened, Rendu employs the police and multitudes of disposable minions to remove Sundar from the public eye. He never considers that every action will be recorded by the common man on his/her mobile phone, and that the media is on hand too to record every shady deal, even going as far as to walk out of a TV interview when Sundar arrives. However, Sundar’s response is also classic underdog reaction and despite all the wonderful slow-motion fight scenes and rousing rhetoric, for the most part Sundar is just as predictable as the politicians he opposes.

Perhaps to counteract this old-school predictability, Murugadoss adds another villain in the form of Komalavalli (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar), Masilamani’s daughter. This could have worked well, except for Varalaxmi’s stilted dialogue and odd expression, as if there is continually a bad smell right under her nose. I can’t understand how such a usually expressive actor is so lifeless here, but then little about her character makes sense. She tells her father not to worry, that while Sundar may be a corporate criminal she has been a criminal since birth, but there is no explanation of why. Why is Komalavalli the brains behind her father’s political career?  Why then was she in Canada instead of Tamil Nadu when the elections were being held? So many questions and absolutely no answers. Instead Komalavalli is a one-dimensional character whose sole reason to exist seems to be to cause general misery wherever she goes. While at least her presence does give Sundar an opponent with the smarts to fight back, she’s too little too late and just too shallow to be a completely worthy adversary.

Even worse though is the inclusion of Keerthy Suresh as Sundar’s love interest, Nila. Nila is Sundar’s sister-in-law, although the marriage between Nila’s sister and Sundar’s brother has broken down. Sundar and Nila restart a relationship seems to be more friendship rather than anything else apart from one dream sequence song. For most of the time Nila follows Sundar around, stands in the background, and then follows him around some more. This type of political film doesn’t need a romance, certainly not a nothing of a romance that doesn’t even deserve the word, and there really seems to be little point in including Nila or her jealous reaction when Sundar dances with someone else.

Sarkar isn’t a bad film, it’s just a surprisingly ordinary offering from a film-maker who normally delivers a more exciting and well-polished story. Vijay is excellent and the film technically looks great with well choreographed fight sequences and good use of crowd scenes. A shout-out to for the generally very good subtitles, although none of the writing (including a very long piece of text at the start of the film) was subbed. Still, good to see other groups using the same style as Rekhs and adding English idiom rather than direct and nonsensical translations. The other departments are all fine too. A.R. Rahman’s music doesn’t particularly stand out apart from Oru Viral Puratchi, but it is well placed in the film and works as a rousing to action song while the others generally blend into the screenplay without disrupting the action.

The support cast, including Yogi Babu and a large number of students, voters and election officials are all very good and the parts of the story that deal with the mobilisation and politicalisation of the ‘common man’ are well handled. It’s really the predictability of the film that brings it back to earth and the knowledge that whatever happens, Sundar will best his political foes. His path to power seems to happen very easy, and very quickly here – there are massive poll swings from 5% to 80% literally in the course of one day, and a voting result that can be swayed in just a few hours. If only it were that simple! Overall, Sarkar is a watchable and reasonably entertaining film that works fine as a political stepping stone for Vijay but just could have been that little bit better. Worth watching for Vijay, Radha Ravi and the idea of what could happen when ‘ common people’ take action!

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Savyasachi

Savyasachi

I have a theory that Indian screenwriters search medical texts for the most bizarre sounding diseases which they then change out of almost all recognition, blend them together and then use this bizarre hybrid as the plot for a film. That might at least go some way to explaining why Vikram (Naga Chaitanya) is introduced as the surviving half of a ‘vanishing twin’ pregnancy, the inaccurate explanation of which is only one of the fantastical medical diagnoses described in the film. That may not have been a bad move if the idea of a separate parasitic twin living through his brother’s left hand was better explored, but Savyasachi doesn’t seem to know if it’s a romance, a thriller or a comedy about alien hand syndrome, and by the end I was no wiser either.

Naga Chaitanya does his best with a terrible script, Madhavan overacts like crazy and it’s not a good sign when the best characterisations come from Vennela Kishore, Bhumika Chawla (who is excellent as Vikram’s sister) and child actor Dishita Sehgal. The other major problem with Savyasachi is truly terrible subtitles which I would ascribe to using Google Translate except that there are many spelling errors. This makes it even more difficult to work out exactly what is going on, when even the actors don’t appear to have any idea. With so much wrong is there any reason to watch Savyasachi? Well, yes. The songs are good, the flash-back and family scenes in the first half are better realised, and even if Madhavan chews the scenery excessively his exploits as a villain are generally entertaining. So not terrible then and given the general incomprehensibility of the subtitles, probably a better watch if you understand more Telugu than I do.

Vikram is the surviving twin while his brother Aditya was ‘absorbed’ into Vikram during their mother’s ‘vanishing twin’ pregnancy. Aditya still lives on as a few neurones in Vikram’s brain and is able to express himself by independent movement of Vikram’s left hand. All this is described in detail by Vikram’s doctor (Rao Ramesh) and his mother Mahalakshmi (Kausalya) which is just as well as this mishmash of a number of different conditions does need a lot of explanation. However, apart from a habit of slapping buttocks and faces, Aditya doesn’t do much else until Vikram is threatened, when Vikram’s left hand suddenly develops uncanny spatial awareness and super-human reaction speed along with the ability to thrash innumerable villains. So, basically the usual hero ability to fight his way out of any given situation. Vikram even manages a bit of hero-style action himself, beating a group of students during a flashback scene at University, with his left hand tied behind his back. Just in case there was any suggestion that Vikram isn’t just as capable as his intangible twin.

The film starts with a bus crash that causes the death of everyone on board, apart from Vikram, and then promptly ignores this initial mystery for the entire rest of the first half. Instead, writer/director Chandoo Mondeti concentrates on developing a romance between Vikram and businesswoman Chitra (Nidhhi Agerwal), who has employed Vikram’s ad company Artihc to promote her company. Vikram is assisted in making his films by his best friend from school Kittu (Vennela Kishore) and Tenali (Satya) who are aware of Vikram’s ‘vanished’ twin and make allowances for the occasional bizarre behaviour of Vikram’s left hand.

Vikram and Chitra have a history together from their time in college which is shown in a series of flashback scenes. While at college, the two gradually begin a relationship, first as friends, but just as it seems to be developing into something more and Vikram was about to declare his love for Chitra, something happened and he vanished from college, never to be heard from again. Until rocking up to make an ad many years later. Despite this long separation, his sudden reappearance doesn’t generate too much reaction from Chitra, and after accepting Vikram’s rather lame excuses for dropping out of touch, the two rekindle their old romance. There isn’t much chemistry between Vikram and Chitra, but to be fair they don’t have many scenes with just the two of them together, and there is a fraction more sparkage in the college flashbacks. In fact, most of the actual romance happens during M.M. Keeravani’s catchy songs.

The first half also deals with Vikram’s relationship with his sister Siri (Bhumika Chawla) her husband (Bharath Reddy) and daughter Maha (Dishita Sehgal). This part of the film is better, and the family dynamic is well developed as Siri becomes annoyed and objects to Vikram spoiling Maha, allowing her to do whatever she wants, while at the same time appreciating the reasons behind her brother’s affection for her daughter. Bhumika Chawla is excellent as Siri, particularly in later scenes as her character has to deal with a considerable amount of complex emotion.

After all the family background and romance in the first half, the second half of the film totally shifts gear when Vikram returns from a trip to America to find his family has been targeted and his sister in hospital. Suddenly the pace picks up as Vikram struggles to find out who is attacking him, and what has happened to his family. Madhavan is rapidly identified as the villain here, but he plays Arun Raj with such cheerful bonhomie that it’s difficult to take him seriously. Arun also has an oddly weak reason for his behaviour that further undermines his villainous stature, so in the end I felt little investment in the outcome of their struggle. However, Arun does have uncanny ability to be able to find and follow Vikram which is explained by various cloning, cloaking and other electronic wizardry, which at least is slightly more probable than Vikram’s pop-up twin brother’s abilities.

Although the story struggles to keep everything moving forward together, the action sequences work well and there is plenty of energy in the confrontations between Vikram and Arun. While Vikram’s rogue left hand does take over for most of these scenes there is enough variety and challenge to keep them interesting, at least until Arun runs out of disposable henchmen to throw at Vikram. Chaitanya does well to keep his character even vaguely on track, but the uneven mix of comedy, action and paranormal doesn’t blend well, making Vikram appear like a fish out of water for much of the second half. Madhavan’s Arun is too one-dimensional to be anything other than a caricature and his scenery chewing plays into the cartoonish nature of the character. However, Arun is entertaining even if he doesn’t appear particularly villainous and the interactions with his servant (Thagubothu Ramesh) are amusing. On the other hand, Nidhhi Agerwal has little to do and really is just ‘the love interest’ while Vidyullekha Raman and Vennela Kisore play their usual type of characters proficiently and effectively.

I really liked Chandoo Mondeti’s previous film Karthikeya which had a much better mix of action and supernatural, but Savyasachi just doesn’t have a strong enough story and the various side-plots detract too much from the central action. This could have been a better film if the story had stuck to the idea of alien hand syndrome with a better realised villain or a more involved romance rather than trying to add both. This is one probably better watched on DVD or Netflix when you can forward past the slow and confusing set-up and get straight to the action.

NOTA (2018)

NOTA

NOTA is a bilingual political /coming of age drama that ends up a step above routine thanks to Vijay Deverakonda’s engaging performance as a reluctant CM. It also helps that director Anand Shankar adds a number of real-life events to Shan Karuppusamy’s story which gives the film more impact. I watched the Telugu version as there were limited shows in Tamil here in Melbourne, and the switch from Tamil Nadu to Telangana didn’t make much difference despite most of the incidents deriving from known political issues in Chennai. The main let-down is the villain of the piece who is poorly realised and under-utilised, however there is enough here to make NOTA worth at least a one-time watch.

The film starts with a song and a drunken pool party for Varun’s (Vijay Devarakonda) birthday. Varun is a video-game designer based in London, but is home to celebrate his birthday and to visit an orphanage he supports. However, on the way back from the party his car is pulled over by the police and rather than being booked for a drink driving offence, instead Varun is rushed home. Varun’s father Vasudev Subramanyam (Nassar) (Vinothan Subramani in the Tamil version) is the Chief Minister for Telangana, but he is stepping down after being prosecuted in a corruption case. Now as an Australian I’m very used to the top political position changing hands frequently, but here the party makes the choice of the new leader. The situation is different in India where the CM gets to choose his successor and Vasudev picks his own son who is intended to be simply a place-holder until the court case is finished. Varun has no interest at all in politics and just wants to be able to head back to London and his life there, but his general fear of his father ensures that he stays in India and does as he’s told.

Mainly this means Varun stays at home, out of the public eye, and signs whatever documents various faceless party men place in front of him. This he does, without even sparing a glance at the documents he’s signing, until everything suddenly comes crashing down after Vasudev is found guilty of corruption. Suddenly it’s no longer a game and real lives are at stake, pushing Varun out of his complacency and bringing him into direct conflict with the party, and his father. This is where a number of those real-life events are brought into the film, such as the Chennai flood, scandals over the fixing of labels to donated meal packets and politicians treated to a stay at a resort. But there are clichés too. Varun gets pulled into the murky world of politics after a riot where a young girl is killed in a bus fire and her mother’s sooty hands leave symbolic marks over his clean white shirt. His response is an impassioned speech which is overly theatrical and to some extent banishes the authentic feel that Anand Shankar manages to create for some of the earlier scenes between Varun and his political mentor, journalist Mahendran (Sathyaraj). For most of the film however, the dialogues and scenarios are appropriate and create a believable character in Varun.

Vasudev Subramanyam was an actor before moving into politics (of course!) and Nasser does an excellent job with his character. Initially it appears that Vasudev is the ‘bad guy’ as he keeps his family under rigid control, but later events paint him in a more ambivalent light which adds interests to the story. Also good is Sanchana Natarajan as Kayal Varadarajan, Varun’s political rival. Her father is the leader of the opposition party and Kayal is determined to bring down the man she dubs the ‘rowdy CM’ by any means possible, regardless of their previous friendship in college. Thankfully Anand Shankar doesn’t burden the film with an unnecessary romance between the two, but instead gives Sanchana free rein to make her character charismatic and a real challenge to Varun, as might be expected in real life.

Sathyaraj is excellent, as is M.S. Bhaskar as Vasudev Subramanyam’s right hand man, only ever referred to as Bhai. What works well here is Bhai’s adherence to the party line and his uncritical support of Vasudev even though he disagrees with his choices. Also telling are the numerous ‘yes-men’ who all abase themselves in front of Vasudev and act much the same way with his son. However a side-plot involving a financial swindle doesn’t fit well into the plot and the entire thread involving the ‘God-man’ who is manipulating Vasudev behind the scenes is clunky and poorly written into the main action. Inevitably these side excursions start to drag down the rest of the film, and despite some good dialogue between Varun, Mahendran and Vasudev, the second half feels stodgy and is hard to digest. Which is a shame as there is much to like in the underlying political story. Varun’s coming of age within the political system is handled well, and his rivalry with Kayal works well to initiate Varun into the dirty side of politics.

There are only 2 songs in the film and both are modern dance numbers, one for Varun’s party and the second at a nightclub where Varun has been drugged.  C.S. Sam’s music is fine but doesn’t particularly stand out and the generic background dancers add even less to the choreography. I’ve added the Telugu version as this is the one I saw in the cinema, but the link to the Tamil version is here.

If the film has stuck more closely to the political issues then this could have been a very good story indeed. Instead the various sub-plots dilute the impact of the political scenes and it’s only the strong performance from Vijay Deverakonda that prevents his character from becoming just another mass movie hero out to save the world. Thankfully there is more backstory and just enough intrigue to make NOTA worth a look, while the real-life political situations do add another level of realism to the plot. The excellent support cast are also well worth catching as they all do justice to their roles. Overall, not a bad début for Vijay Deverakonda in Tamil cinema and another interesting choice for an actor who only seems to be getting better with each film.