Kalai Arasi (1963)

Kalai Arasi

Post Tik Tik Tik, I’d read a few articles that mentioned Kalai Arasi, which may have a better claim to the title of Tamil cinema’s first space film. Kalai Arasi was released in 1963 and features M.G.Ramachandran, P. Bhanumathi and Rajasree in an adventure that does indeed go to the stars and back (even if the stars look suspiciously like the inside of a film studio). There are some excellent ideas here and good special effects, especially considering the age of the film, but what make it worth watching is a well-told story that ties everything up into a satisfying conclusion by the end. It’s definitely a simpler time as no-one seems to worry about why the aliens all speak Tamil so well, or why they decide to target India either. However with the charming Bhanumathi and MGR in double roles, all you need to do is sit back and watch the space ships fly through the sky and death rays blow stuff up! Note: Kalai Arasi is available on YT, although a number of scenes appear to be missing (in both available versions although the one with the most annoying water mark has 3 more minutes), the quality is poor and of course there are no subtitles, but it’s still watchable and lots of fun.

The film starts with farmer Mohan (MGR) singing on a bullock cart with his sister as they wend their way back home. They come across Vaani (P. Bhanumathi) and her friends whose car has broken down, mainly because Vaani drove it into a pot-hole and ran out of petrol. Needless to say, Mohan is all over the rescue, and it turns out that the pair are already a couple, although all is not plain sailing since Mohan is a poor farmer and Vaani is the daughter of a rich man. Worse still, her father is trying to marry Vaani to her cousin Kannan (P.S. Veerappa) a nasty man with anger management issues, but at least Vaani seems able to cope. There’s a cute scene where she pretends to faint after he shouts at her, and then winks at her maid to let her know she is really OK. Vaani has plenty of personality, and also a great voice which turns out to be her downfall.

A wandering spaceship, on the lookout for musicians to kidnap and take back to their planet happens to see Vaani on their TV surveillance instrument. The leader of the expedition, Thinna (M.N.Nambiar) and pilot Malla decide she is exactly what their planet needs and head off to kidnap Vaani.  On the way they use their ray guns to explode a bear that attacks, emphasising they’re dangerous and aren’t likely to take no for an answer if Vaani resists. Plus ray guns – cool!

The spaceship is really rather wonderful too. It is a bit reminiscent of Flash Gordon but there are lots of panels and dials with flashing lights and mysterious screens.  The space ship’s travels through space are pretty good too, there is even a large asteroid they have to dodge, but who knew that there was so much steam in space! Once in the Earth’s atmosphere the flight becomes a bit shaky but I like how the spaceship is shown flying over temples and fields of workers to show that they actually have reached Tamil Nadu and not some random planet. Scenes shot inside the space ship are jerky with the camera moving erratically as Thinna and Malla walk around stiffly in their shiny and embellished spacesuits. This is explained later. Thinna is wearing a pair of shorts which I don’t think would provide much protection from space, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern, although they are both wearing helmets, goggles and masks.

After kidnapping Vaani, Thinna zooms off in the spaceship while Malla is left behind. Vaani’s disappearance is blamed on Mohan as he was the last person to see her, and Kannan arranges for him to be put in jail. As if this wasn’t enough, Kannan then throws Mohan’s mother and sister out of their house, leading his sister to end up dancing and singing in a brothel. Kannan is also convinced that he’s found Vaani, although he’s really found Valli (Bhanumathi again), a poor mentally ill girl whose father is unable to convince Kannan that she isn’t Vaani. This is Sixties Tamil cinema so Valli is played for laughs, but Bhanumathi is excellent as she portrays Valli’s instability, veering between innocence and violence and always not seeming quite aware exactly where she is or what she is doing. It’s a great performance and a good contrast to her portrayal of Vaani who is confident and poised, even during an alien abduction.

Meanwhile, Vaani has reached the alien planet and is teaching the world to sing, or at least teaching the princess Rajini (Rajasree) dancing and singing. This goes down well with the locals and Thinna heads back to pick up Malla, who doesn’t seem to have done anything useful, so I’m not sure why he was left behind. By this stage Mohan has been released from jail and has also rescued his sister, although his mother appears to have vanished. Thinking that Vaani has married Kannan, Mohan is wandering through the wilderness when he sees Malla and for no apparent reason (there isn’t even any dialogue) he attacks and kills him. I’m presuming that there is a missing scene here, which explains why Mohan attacks and why he assumes Malla had something to do with Vaani’s disappearance. That would explain why he then sneaks aboard the spaceship too, but maybe he just thought it was a good idea.

Once on the alien planet, Mohan has to deal with different gravity which is brilliantly shown in a sequence where he appears to be almost weightless. This is cleverly done and still looks fantastic, mainly due to MGR’s facial expressions and physical contortions. Even though the background isn’t particularly alien or outlandish, MGR makes it look as if he’s completely out of his depth and struggling – great acting and beautifully filmed too. Luckily for Mohan he meets a minstrel/joker character (also played by MGR) who helps him, and whose place in the palace Mohan is able to take when the joker is unfortunately killed. Once in the palace Mohan finds Vaani, but before they can escape he has to deal with the Princess Rajini’s amorous advances towards him, and Thinna’s murderous tendencies, as well as work out how to pilot the space ship and get Vaani back home.

Kalai Arasi works well because it’s a good story that’s simply been transported into space. The various devices added, such as Mohan’s weightlessness and the aliens’ difficulty with Earth gravity, are cleverly done and show that you don’t need CGI and splashy special effects if you have good actors and clear vision. Some of the things I really liked are that the flunkies on the alien planet rise up onto their toes rather than saluting their superiors, while Rajini has a very impressive suite of furniture that pops out of the wall whenever she presses a button. Director A. Kasilingam keeps everything moving along, as there is a lot to fit in, while writer Raveendar adds some novel ideas that refresh a relatively standard story. There is plenty of good detail, even in the secondary plot lines, which still all reach a satisfactory conclusion by the end. The costume department obviously had a great time dressing the aliens with capes, half capes, shorts, flouncy trousers and lots of embellishments and hair ornaments. I wish this had been filmed in colour to see exactly how OTT everything really was, particularly since Mohan’s borrowed shoes look wonderfully glitzy when paired with the joker’s outfits.

There are couple of really good songs from K.V. Mahadevan, including one featuring Valli and a beautiful duet between Bhanumathi  and Mohan. My favourite though is the very first song with Bhanumathi performing on stage. It’s not all about the singing and dancing either as there is an excellent sword fight and also some standard fisticuffs for those who prefer their fight scenes more traditional.

Although Mohan is the hero of the story, Vaani gets to keep her composure when she’s abducted too. She’s no damsel in distress as she first of all sizes up the situation and then does the best she can. She seems assertive and confident, even on the alien planet and in the end it’s Vaani who successfully pilots the spaceship back to Earth. In fact, none of the women in the story come out of it too badly compared to modern day heroines. Even Mohan’s sister takes action when faced with a life of prostitution, and Princess Rajini may be useless in a sword fight and a drama queen, but she’s sensible enough to lock Mohan in chains when Thinna suggests he might be a flight risk.

It’s not just the women who fare well either. MGR is wonderfully heroic, switching between his simple farmer persona, to confident trickster once on the alien world. His fight scenes are good, and his character is sensibly capable of dealing with every situation as it arises. This is a film where he really does get a chance to show off his acting skills and he nails it every time. I thoroughly enjoyed Kalai Arasi, it’s a real find and I wish someone would consider restoring and re-releasing it with subtitles. Even without the missing scenes it’s a film that does have something for everyone and the space theme is much better than expected. One that’s well worth tracking down if you’re a fan of old B&W movies and want something a little different. 4 stars.

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Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi (2018)

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s follow up to the exceptional Pelli Choopulu suffers a little from second album syndrome. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was left underwhelmed. Tharun Bhascker was so keen to draw us into his nostalgic world that I felt bombarded with descriptions and dialogues, but didn’t really get to know the characters for myself. I would have liked less of the how and what, more who and why.

Karthik (Sushanth Reddy) works as a club manager, hired to keep his own common people away from the VIPs. Vivek (Vishwak Naidu) is a mean drunk, a filmmaker who doesn’t make films, uncompromising and unlikeable. Uppu (Venkatesh Kakumanu) works as a wedding videographer and Kaushik (Abhinav Gomatam) is doing voiceovers for low budget TV comedy shows. All the guys have dreams, or a shared dream, that has pretty much been mothballed since 2007. In the present day, Karthik gets the nod to get engaged to his boss’s daughter. He’ll land a wife, a business, a fancy heirloom engagement ring to hand over, and a ticket to the USA, all as part of the deal. He gets the guys together for a celebratory drink and…hijinks ensue. The guys end up drunk, in Goa, minus the expensive ring, but plus a child relative Kaushik is supposed to be minding. Of course the only way to buy a replacement ring is to enter a film festival and win first prize. But that opens up old wounds and stirs old ambitions. Can the gang go back in order to move on?

I think the risk of a “slice of life” is that the viewer has to find some interest in the lives being examined. And some of the characters are not that compelling on their own merits, some are “types” rather than fully realised people in their own right. Vivek sits at one end of the scale, the intensely idealistic artist afraid to expose his work to judgement, and Karthik is his opposite, completely packing his ambitions away in favour of financial security. Uppu and Kaushik occupy the pragmatic middle, and are not the losers they seemed at first glance. They are still doing what they loved but not quite in the way they had hoped. But despite the flashbacks and memories, I felt I was experiencing it all second hand, not actually getting drawn into the story.

The film relies on a high degree of happy coincidence, and people seem to make decisions based on what the plot needs. A drunken truth or dare was framed as a bar promotion, thus introducing Shirley (Anisha Ambrose) as a promo girl who also turned up in Goa and by amazing chance happened to also be a musician who could be their composer. She also had the magical power of making people who wouldn’t have a meaningful conversation with each other agree to spill their guts on film for video content, all for a free drink. Shirley’s Russian friend Dasha just happened to have a great house with room for the guys to crash and she was prepared to act in their short film. The sapphire ring just happened to be sold by only one jeweller, based in Goa. Yes, life does often wave vaguely towards a solution after smashing you with a problem, but it felt contrived.

Sushanth is the nominal hero I guess, one who has packed up his dreams in order to be a good son. Karthik is a pleaser and usually goes out of his way to be inoffensive, which meant Sushanth is also nice but forgettable. I never felt the weight of Karthik’s decisions, or what it cost him. The resolution of his story was neither unexpected nor very interesting.

I am so over the myth of male artists being tortured souls who get a special exemption from behaving decently because of their art. Vishwaksen Naidu gives Vivek a dour intensity but I could take or leave him. Vivek blames his ex-girlfriend for his creative block, and uses aggression to cover his fear of judgement and rejection, literally diving in to a bottle to avoid facing reality. The breakup scene with his first girlfriend (Simran Chowdary) was horribly stilted and packed with clichés of the “it’s not you it’s me” line, all delivered in an expressionless staccato with Vivek grimacing and flexing. I also disliked that his redemption seemed to depend on Shirley, even if she seemed to have a reasonable handle on things.

I found myself barracking for Kaushik and Uppu, the guys who just get on with it. They know they’ll have to compromise to make a living, but they are kind of working on their craft and believe one day they’ll get their break. And they have professional standards, they’re just not obnoxious or precious about them. Venkatesh Kakumanu plays Uppu as pretty chill but with a keen sense of self-preservation and a dash of sarcasm. Abhinav Gomatam gives Kaushik a blend of empathy and shameless self-importance that made me cringe at times, and made him one of the more memorable characters. They are the underdogs in life and in the gang.

I don’t think every story has to have a 50/50 gender balance, but I was disappointed that the few women with any screen time had so little substance. The women – Anisha Ambrose, Simran Chowdhary and the actress who played Dasha – had so little to do apart from enable the men. Even the kid served little purpose other than one cheap potshot at his mother at the end. Karthik’s intended fiancée may as well have been played by a potato.

While the film is easy on the eye, my attention wandered a bit. (To be fair, that could be because of the uncle who spent the ENTIRE movie on a phone call and I think was describing a succession of surgical procedures.)  It’s a pleasant enough timepass, but I wanted more than OK. But. I do keep hoping the Telugu industry makes room for diverse stories that aren’t just mass Hero fodder, and this is certainly in that “something else” category. So please consider seeing this (or Sammohanam if it’s still around) and prove there is a market for story telling, not just spectacle.

Tik Tik Tik

Tik Tik Tik

Tik Tik Tik is basically Armageddon meets Gravity meets Now You See Me set in space. Plus a whole mish-mash of ideas from other HW movies which may have been thrown in as an attempt to hide the planet-sized plot holes, of which there are many. It’s not that you need the usual suspension of disbelief to enjoy this film – Tik Tik Tik requires complete ignorance of scientific knowledge, in fact best to leave any common sense way out past Pluto too, as the film has little logic and few attempts to include anything resembling realistic scientific fact. Now that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if Shakti Soundar Rajan had decided to make a comedy set in space, but despite the presence of Ramesh Thilak and Arjunan as bumbling side-kicks, Tik Tik TIk tries to be a serious space drama and that’s where it ultimately falls down.

The story goes like this: there is a giant asteroid hurtling towards the Earth, but somehow no other nation has noticed the impending disaster about to strike. But that’s OK, because it’s apparently a selectively damaging asteroid that’s going to hit the Bay of Bengal and only obliterate Chennai and the rest of Southern India. Naturally the Indian Army have a plan – which is to send a magician-thief and his two mates into space to steal a 200 mega-tonne nuclear warhead. This has been hidden in a heavily guarded space station because where else would you hide a highly illegal nuclear bomb? Then the team need to fire the bomb into the centre of the asteroid, which will split perfectly into two and narrowly avoid the Earth, not causing any problems at all as it easily avoids the Earth’s gravitational pull. Oh, and the team have six days (and a few odd minutes) to find the thief, train him how to be an astronaut, steal the bomb and save the world.

None of that seems too ridiculously far-fetched to be honest – after all, it’s no more ridiculous than the idea that only the USA can deal with any potential planetary threat. It’s what happens once they are in space where the really preposterous stuff starts. The plan to steal the bomb is terrible, badly plotted and riddled with convenient coincidences, although the action sequences themselves are actually quite good. However, rather more problematic is the addition of a secondary plot that includes a villain who tries to sabotage the mission. Unfortunately, the characterisation here is particularly weak and poorly written. The villain’s actions don’t seem likely or credible and there is no justification or good reason (other than the vague mention of money) for them to act the way they do. The introduction of the whole sabotage plot is also rather odd and fails to generate any of the required tension. After plenty of action where imprisoned thief Vasu (Jayam Ravi) is selected for the mission, demonstrates his credentials and learns how to deal with zero gravity, the villain’s addition feels lacklustre and feeble in comparison.

Jayam Ravi is fine a kind of modern-day Robin Hood – using his magic tricks to steal from the wealthy for the benefit of the poor. He’s obviously a nice guy who has been imprisoned by the ‘corrupt system’ and he’s made even more human by his relationship with his son Aarav. Vasu’s wife is dead making him a single father, and there is even a sweet song to show just how special his relationship is with his son. This is important later on, as Vasu is more concerned with keeping his son safe rather than saving the world, which is a major factor in how the mission plays out.

However, Jayam isn’t a natural action hero and although he does well in most of the choreographed action sequences, once in space he seems rather shell-shocked and passive while carrying out General Mahendran’s (Jayaprakash) orders or when attempting to trick the captain of the Chinese space station, Captain Lee (Aaron Aziz). It gives him the appearance at times of almost sleep-walking though some scenes, and ends up removing any tension that the film really needs. After all, the Tik Tik Tik of the title refers to the ticking clock that’s counting down the hours and minutes until the asteroid strikes and over 40 million people are wiped out, but you wouldn’t know that given the often laid-back approach to the mission from Vasu and his friends Venkat (Ramesh Thilak) and Appu (Arjunan).

On the other hand, Nivetha Pethuraj is excellent as Swathi, one of the co-captains running the space mission, and she is efficient and decisive throughout. Thankfully her character is vital for the mission and is shown to be a competent engineer with good reason to be in the story with no hint of any romantic interest at all. The unexpected equality also applies to the Indian army where two of the top generals are also female, as is a large part of the scientific team behind the space mission. It’s also good to see Vincent Asokan in a more heroic role for a change and he works well with Nivetha as the other captain on the space mission, although mostly he is unhappy with the inclusion of a group of scrappily trained thieves on such an important mission. And I have to say he does have an excellent point!

One of the other issues with the film is the lack of suspense and tension, as the time limit before the asteroid crashes into the Earth seems to be forgotten for much of the second half. There is some excitement with Vasu bouncing around in space and with the team fighting the Chinese onboard the space station, but there is none of the background tension that should come from an impending sense of doom if the mission fails. This ends up derailing the plot right when it should be at its most exciting and a ‘twist’ right at the end makes for a very unsatisfying conclusion to the film.

However it’s not all bad. Despite the problematic plot and dodgy science, there is still quite a bit to enjoy in this space heist/disaster movie. The special effects are pretty good and there is a real attempt to make the space mission more than just a glorified reason to roll out said effects. Much of the action during the space scenes is well done while the training and take-off sequences are excellent. The comedy around Vasu, Venkat and Appu trying to adapt to space is funny and both Nivetha Pethuraj and Vincent Asokan are good in their roles as ‘serious astronauts’. While the plot may have huge holes, the film is mostly entertaining and at just over 2 hours it’s also well edited to avoid any unnecessary or overlong scenes. Shakti Soundar Rajan also deserves some credit for attempting the genre and for setting a large portion of the film in space. While it may not be as successful in terms of plot, there is plenty of vision and some good ideas here which hopefully will encourage more filmmakers to aim for the stars.