Asuran (2019)

Vetrimaaran’s latest film Asuran is a graphic and violent tale of oppression and intimidation of a small landowner and his family, but it’s also a story of revenge, survival and of the fight for justice in an unjust world. Dhanush is in his element, playing both Sivasaamy, an ageing and broken-down small freehold farmer and also his younger self in a flashback that explains how he ended up as a pacifist. The rest of the cast are just as good, including Ken Karnuas as Sivasaamy’s son and Manju Warrier as Sivasaamy’s wife. Asuran seems set to be another Vetrimaaran classic as yet again he has captured the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu while telling a rousing story, this time adapted from Poomani’s novel, Vekkai.

The story starts quietly, with Sivasaamy (Dhanush) and his youngest son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) wading through a river in the middle of the night. Sivasaamy urges caution, explaining to his reluctant son why they are walking in the river, rather than on the road (it’s to hide their tracks). At one point as the water is gradually getting higher, Chidamabaram complains that his bombs will get wet. I thought this was likely a euphemism for something else, but surprisingly, as clearly demonstrated later, what he’s carrying are indeed explosive devices! As the father and son slowly make their way deeper into the forest, Vetrimaran shows the searchers, hunters and police who are on their trail, while in the other direction, Sivasaamy’s wife Pachaiamma (Manju Warrier) and daughter are also running to hide. At this point Sivasaamy seems confident and capable – he knows how to hide their trail and how to keep silent, unlike Chidambaram who seems to be singularly clueless, wandering off, lighting fires and generally making himself far too visible.

Gradually we discover why the family are in flight as, in flashback, the film shows the family’s struggle against the rich Vadakkoran Narasimha (Aadukalam Naren) who wants their small plot of land. This leads to clashes between Vadakkoran’s men and Sivasaamy’s older son Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam) who wants to fight back and cannot understand his father’s servile attitude. Even Pachaiamma grabs up a sickle to defend herself, but Sivasaamy urges caution and tries to ignore the provocations, including the death of one of the family dogs. Murugan is frustrated by his father’s faintheartedness and responds by aggression and violence, although mostly as a result of threats and taunts from Vadakkoran’s men. It’s obvious that neither Sivasaamy’s approach, not his son’s aggressiveness will work against the upper class Vadakkoran who has the law and the power of his money on his side, and this futility underpins all of the action in the film. The violence escalates until Murugan is murdered in a particularly gruesome and bloody manner which starts to tear the family apart. Chidambaram is only 16 and cannot understand the class politics that make his father unable to act, but instead regards him as a coward. As a result, to try and alleviate his mother’s grief, Chidambaram attacks Vadakkoran, leading to the family’s midnight flight.

Dhanush is simply amazing as the older and broken Sivasaamy. His subjugation at every turn is perfectly nuanced to make us feel his pain and despair as Sivasaamy struggles to keep his family safe. His alcoholism is part of the whole picture of a deeply flawed man, while the contempt of his sons and stoicism of his wife is shown to cut deeply. Murugan and Chidambaram deride their father for his cowardice but Pachaiamma and her brother (Pasupathy) have a much better idea of the situation, and although they don’t always approve, they tend to support Sivasaamy’s approach. However, when Murugan is killed, Pachaiamma can no longer support her husband’s viewpoint with matters coming to a head when Chidambaram seeks his revenge. The family drama is beautifully written with the emotions raw and realistic, while the relentless persecution from Vadakkoran seems unnecessarily harsh but also very plausible.

Despite Chidambaram’s low opinion of his father, he’s still young enough to rely on him during their flight. But when they are cornered at the end of the first half, it’s Chidambaram who is shocked when his father finally picks up a stick and fights back in spectacular style. It’s massy, but loads of fun and the fight scene is well staged to make Sivasaamy’s sudden prowess believable.

The second half starts with a flashback to Sivasaamy’s youth, and once again his subjugation by a rich local landlord which ends with the death of his family including his activist brother (Subramaniam Siva) and his fiancée Mariyammal (Ammu Abhirami). This time the divide is more about caste but the outcome is the same despite having lawyer Venugopal Seshadri (Prakash Raj) on their side. While the story is compelling and a bitter statement on the realities of being poor in rural India, it’s the characterisations that stand out in Asuran. Ken Karnuas is fantastic in a role which requires him to be naïve, passionate and impulsive but then have to grow up really fast. Manju Warrier is a rock steady presence beside her husband, until her son is murdered and her world comes crashing down. Her grief roils off the screen in waves of pain in the distressingly realistic scene where Muruguan’s body is discovered. The visuals hit hard, and the acting is simply superb throughout. Although his time onscreen is short, Teejay Arunasalam makes an impact in a powerful performance of a young man determined to defend his family at all costs.

 

The film looks amazing as Velraj captures the stunning scenery around Tirunevelli. The cinematography emphasises the isolation when Sivasaamy and Chidambaram flee into the forest, but also captures the heart of rural India and the wonderful colours associated with different crops. The film soundtrack from GV Prakash Kumar is also excellent while the songs are perfectly matched to the action on screen. There is also clever use of sound, where during an action scene, all the music stops and there is just the sound of breathing, which works very well to focus attention on the protagonist and let us wonder what is going on in his mind, right at that very second.  Vetrimaaran keeps the romance sections short and the fight scenes bloody and violent, but it all fits snugly into the narrative despite a somewhat rushed feeling of the ending. Thanks are also due to the subtitler for using yellow font and being clear and concise – sorry I didn’t catch who was responsible for these.

Asuran combines father and son relationships with village power politics and the result is a powerful societal film that also has the warmth and intimacy of a more personal story. The performances are all amazing and as always I am stunned by how Dhanush can transform between a feisty young man in his early twenties to an older fifty-plus worn down farmer and be totally convincing in both roles. Wonderful actors, a compelling story and stunning scenery all combine to make this one of the best Tamil movies so far this year. Don’t miss it!

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Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019)

Surender Reddy’s history inspired epic is indeed epic. The sets are impressive, the set pieces are huge, the cast includes almost everyone working in Telugu films plus some ring-ins. And to top it off, Chiranjeevi. Very few things will compel me to see a movie at 7am. Chiru is one of those things.

It’s hard when you want to cram a lot of exposition into a ripping yarn, and Reddy fumbles the pace. Pawan Kalyan narrates,  Anushka Shetty makes a welcome yet probably unnecessary cameo as Rani Lakshmibai, using the story of Narasimha Reddy (Chiranjeevi) to inspire her outnumbered troops. And eventually we get to the main event – Narasimha Reddy, all grown up and ready to rumble. From there the remainder of the first half is about the local battle against Jackson, a sadistic white supremacist. The second half has to regain momentum for the final conflict with the even more revolting Cochrane, wearer of bad hats and owner of a mysterious black panther just to ram home his villainous leanings. Along the way Narasimha Reddy is mentored by his guru, supported and challenged by his peers, and adored by all women. But he is always hated by the Brits and he returns their enmity in spades. The film jumps around visually and looks amazing, the geography is frequently mystifying, but the narrative is dead linear and predictable. With lots of repetition for the people who decide to make important phone calls or switch seats several times during the movie.

Reddy does some things to perfection, and he gives Chiranjeevi some impressive hero entrances. He balanced the spiritual and the legendary heroic aspects along with the Megastar obligation to provide something familiar yet extraordinary with each return. But there are also some poor directorial choices and I really do have to get this off my chest now. I know this is a ye olden days film, I know they made some gestures towards historical accuracy….but no dancing?!? Chiranjeevi NOT DANCING AT ALL?!! Seriously. Walking around and pointing during a song is not enough. Could he not get his folky festival appropriate groove on with his people just once? Some of the fire twirling guys looked understandably nervous so maybe they could have used some Megastar spark instead.

 

Surender Reddy uses tight closeups on Chiranjeevi’s face as Narasimha Reddy absorbs news or prepares to roar inspiration or threats. Chiru goes all in, whether he is comforting a child or dismembering an enemy. It’s all about that commitment and the Mega charisma that makes you believe that people would follow him into a war, believing he is a chosen one. The action scenes allow him to kill in varied ways and with great gusto, busting out the athleticism and grace we don’t get to see in a dance (yes, I’m bitter about it). I especially enjoyed Jackson’s comeuppance as it drew upon earlier skills demonstrated so there was a pleasing blend of “oh, of course!” and WTFery. Despite being at a 7am show there was vocal appreciation of the gore and creative ways of killing. The special effects around the actors and stunt performers in the war and fight scenes worked pretty well, but some other effects were a bit amateurish and made what should have been impactful look silly. That was a blessing in parts, as if the CGI was better a couple of scenes would have been seriously traumatising.

The wig department is there for Chiru every step of the way. He has his fluffy Romance Hair, and two variants of Action Hair (one with man bun, one without). His outfits are detailed but not overwhelming or fussy, and avoid the period costume trap of looking like he’s been upholstered rather than tailored. He sported a nicely woven war sandal so I was pleased to see some appropriately statement footwear too.

Nayanthara had the clumpy eyelashes of a perpetual crier while Tamannaah had perfect eyelashes for flirting or murderous rages. And there’s about all the character development you get. Both actresses deliver what they can, but all the women in this story are required to do is support and/or sacrifice. Tamannaah plays a dancer but mostly sings, exhorting people to join the rebellion. She has a lovely, very sad, scene that made me sad because there was no room in the film for her acting ability. Nayanthara plays Sidhamma as shy and hopelessly worshipping her man. Again, she added some delicate touches to her characterisation but that may have been professional pride because I suspect the direction was “Stand there. Then go stand there. And cry.”

The gang of chieftains are largely undifferentiated, but a few make more substantial contributions. Mukesh Rishi got no love from the wig department so the hat team went all out for him. Brahmaji does his usual furious faces. Ravi Kishan got an economy wig and no moral compass to speak of. Jagapathi Babu is quietly compelling as Veera Reddy, a believer grappling with the consequences of betrayal. My favourite was Sudeep’s Avuku Raju. He dripped disdain, his silent reactions were anywhere from menacing to hilarious, and his frenemy dynamic with Narasimha Reddy was absolutely beautiful. The biggest supporting cast cheer was for Vijay Sethupathi as Tamil leader, Raja Paandi. Amitabh Bachchan as the lugubrious Guru Gosayi Venkanna got no response at all. I actually disliked his character. Mentoring is one thing but being a manipulative puppet master is something else.

The European actors range from adequate to terrible. It doesn’t require great subtlety to be a despicable cartoonish villain, so the patchy acting and clunky dialogues didn’t bother me too much. I did like that the film doesn’t pussy-foot around the British attitude that dark skinned people were inferior, and that nobody pretended the conflict was about anything but money and resources. The patriotic aspects of Narasimha Reddy’s fight got a great response from the audience and we all enjoyed seeing the white guys get what was coming to them.

The subtitles are largely OK but there are some strange errors. The subs express asking for forgiveness or offering an apology as asking for an apology regardless of context, which was confusing. Some things were overly literal and not meaningful. I particularly liked the subtitles that explained an accomplishment as “He is a great man. He has mastered the art of holding his breath in water”. Greatness may await us all, friends! And whoever was on spell checking left us with gems like “Your’s Sincerly”. Such a big budget film, and so little respect for the dialogues. Sigh.

Yes, there’s a story. Yes, there’s some History. Yes, there is a huge cast. Yes, it’s a film on a massive scale. And yet it all rests on Chiranjeevi. He delivers so much of the success of the film but can’t quite overcome the flaws. One to see on the big screen if you can, just to appreciate the grandeur, the guyliner, and the wigs.

Vellai Pookal

The idea of Vivek in a serious role as a cop investigating a succession of disappearances in America is intriguing, but despite some good ideas and the rather more unusual setting of Seattle, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the trailer.  Director Vivek Elangovan and co-writer Shanmuga Bharathi have a story with potential that’s let down by poor dialogue for the inexperienced American cast and a slow introduction that fails to produce the necessary tension. On the plus side, Vivek pulls off his role as a retired detective and there is enough going on to keep the film interesting, even if it lacks enough suspense until near the end.

Vivek plays the role of Rudhran, a police officer in Chennai who investigates crimes by placing himself in the mind of the killer. The opening sequence shows this clearly, if somewhat bloodily, but already there is something just a little off with the screenplay. When Rudhran explains every clue, and conveniently finds the culprit close at hand, it all seems just a little too pat and easy, while the violence of the crime seems unsuited to the perpetrator and the revelation of his reasons. Still, it’s a good introduction and doesn’t show Rudhran as some kind of superhero cop, but rather as someone who relies on his intelligence and his instincts to bring a killer to justice.

This seems to have been Rudhran’s last case before retirement, and at the urging of his Deputy Inspector General (Gajaraj), he heads off to Seattle to visit his estranged son Ajay (Dev). Despite a friendly welcome, Rudhran still seems to have an issue with Ajay, but all is revealed when they arrive home to Alice (Paige Henderson), the white American woman Ajay has married. If his reaction to Ajay is chilly, Rudhran is positively glacial towards Alice, and practically refuses to acknowledge her existence. Later, we learn that this animosity isn’t simply because Alice is white, or even as a result of her attempts to speak Tamil, but rather is due to Ajay jilting the girl he was to marry in India just a few days before the wedding. Rudhran struggles to cope with Alice, the American food and the smart fridge featuring photos of the couple, all of which I found fairly relatable to be honest.

But Rudhran also complains about Seattle being too clean and quiet for him during phone calls to friends back home, as he misses the noise and chaos of Chennai and the excitement of police investigations.  Luckily, Ajay’s work colleague Ramya (Pooja Devariya) live with her parents, Bharati (Charle) and Meena (Sudha Rajasekaran) who quickly establish a relationship with Rudhran.

The neighbourhood isn’t as quiet as Rudhran thinks since first Ajay’s next-door neighbour, and then a neighbourhood kid both vanish under mysterious circumstances. Various characters are offered up as potential suspects but the issue is confused by occasional scenes of an abusive man, his bedridden wife and traumatised daughter. When Ajay joins the ranks of the missing the case becomes more than an interesting puzzle for Rudhran and he has to overcome his fears for Ajay before he can focus his skills as a detective.

The bones of the story are good but unfortunately there is too much that is predicable, especially in the long and drawn out set-up to Ajay’s disappearance. Most of the suspects are cliched characters too – there is a black drug dealer, Mona’s muscled boyfriend and a shady and uncommunicative Pakistani neighbour who all fall under Rudhran’s suspicions. This necessitates various plots and diversions by Bharati to allow Rudhran to investigate each suspect, but these don’t all work and mostly seem forced into the story to allow Vivekh and Charle a chance to revert back to their usual comedy schtick. We never get a good feel for the characters of Ajay and Alice, while the investigating police officers are drawn in very broad strokes, seemingly only included to get in Rudhran’s way and demonstrate 70’s TV cop clichés at every turn.

Also problematic are the scenes featuring Ethan (Lionel Flynn) and his daughter Nicole (Gabrielle Castronover) which seem ridiculously over the top and exaggerated. Ethan is purely evil and seems to spend his time dealing in drugs and stolen children, brutalising his wife and daughter and wastefully snorting massive amounts of cocaine. The problem with this is that Ethan is such a complete monster, and so removed from the rest of the storyline, that it seems obvious that the disappearances will be linked to him. This ends up removing any real sense of urgency or tension as we know who the real bad guy is and really are just waiting to see when he will cross paths with Rudhran. As it turns out there is a nice twist, but it’s spoiled by Rudhran explaining what has happened with a voice-over rather than just showing us the action. None of the American cast impress at all, with the possible exception of Gabrielle Castronover who has little dialogue but is still effective in getting her emotions across.

Despite these issues, the film is still watchable thanks to Vivek who really gets into the role, particularly when Rudhran the father has to take second place to the Rudhran the detective. He’s also excellent at portraying his frustration with retirement, with the lack of purpose to his days and his discomfort at being in his son’s house without having solved the problems that exist between them. His fear and frustration roil off the screen and in these moments it’s easy to forget that he’s mainly known for his comedic roles. There are some good scsnes too, such as when Rudhran interviews the missing people in his dreams, and interrogates his suspects – insisting that they all speak Tamil because it is his dream, and that is the language he speaks. These are cleverly done and it’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t show the same attention to detail and preciseness of dialogue that are shown here.

According to their website this was the first film from Indus Creations and it seems to be a collaboration among friends with a passion for theatre and film. As such, this is a good first dip into the murky waters of cinema and the team deserve credit for producing a watchable detective film with a difference. Tighter editing, better use of the American cast including less stilted dialogue would have made this a better film, but it’s still enjoyable and it’s probably the most inventive use of dandelions I’ve seen in an Indian film. Worth a one-time watch for Vivek and the inventive storyline. 3 stars.