Fidaa (2017)

 

Sekhar Kammula’s Fidaa benefits from a talented cast and suffers from some underwritten characters and lazy plot manipulation.

Fidaa bills itself as a love-hate-love story, but I felt it was more about growing up and knowing yourself, identifying where you will and won’t compromise. Medical student Varun (Varun Tej) lives in Texas with his older brother Raja (Raja Chembolu) and younger brother Bujji. One morning they all decide Raja should get married, and minutes later he chooses Renuka (Sharanya Pradeep) on a matrimonial site. Raja goes to India to meet her, but waits for Varun to come and give the final OK. Renu’s younger sister Bhanumathi (Sai Pallavi) is naturally curious and concerned about the man her sister will marry so goes about sussing out her prospective in-laws. She and Varun fall for each other but where Raja and Renuka are easy going to the point of invisibility, Varun wants to stay in the USA and Bhanu cannot conceive of leaving home. They break up without really breaking up or talking about it, and unhappily go on with their lives. But then Renu falls pregnant and develops a mystery syndrome that lasts just long enough for Bhanu to have to go to the USA.

Considering the number of co-directors credited I half expected a lack of cohesion in the direction but not so. Visually this is a beautifully composed film, making the most of natural looking light and locations. Unfortunately the writing relies on half-baked contrivances to move the action along. The characters are not particularly well developed either.

Sai Pallavi should win all the awards for her performance as Bhanumathi. The line between uninhibited and unhinged is tricky to negotiate, but she rocks both the energy and subtlety required. What could have been a mere hair swishing manic pixie dream girl becomes a delightfully quirky and real young lady. I guessed from the audience reaction that a lot of her dialogue is in a regional dialect and there was much cheering at some of her one liners. Bhanu is doing her undergrad degree in Ag Science, and demonstrates this by driving a tractor around one field, just one muddy field, and pointing at different grains. I’d never considered the pros and cons of wearing a half-saree while driving a tractor, but here it looked stylish and appropriate. It’s easy to see when Bhanu is putting on an act but never easy to see that any part of Bhanu is a performance. Her reactions seem spontaneous and her eyes look like there is somebody home. On a shallow note, I also loved that she has minimal makeup on that expressive face, spots be damned. It’s a departure for a mainstream Telugu film heroine. And she can really dance.

Varun Tej is tall, dorky, and may never get all that hair product out. Ever. Not even vigorous frolicking in the rain could flatten that bristly up do. Varun the character is kind of bland and I never found his dreams or change of heart convincing. At first I put that down to his acting but when I considered Bhanu too, I realised that neither character had much explicit motivation or development. The film relies on the actors to make the situations engaging. Varun was just overshadowed a little, playing the slow steady counterpart to the firecracker Bhanu. He was at his most lively in scenes with her, and I liked their rapport. The fight scene seemed out of character, but Bhanu was a huge film fan so I guess that was Varun showing support in a kickarse language that spoke to her. He was less successful in the angry and emotional post breakup phase when Varun keeps taking stupid advice from a comedy sidekick. He’s lucky he inherited the smouldery Mega Eye gene for the crying scenes because it distracted me from wanting to slap him for excessive wallowing. He certainly missed out on the Mega Dance gene…or at least, he got that one from his father not his uncle.

The plot used any old excuse in pivotal moments. Renuka required 3 months of total bed rest, but then was well enough for Bhanu to leave on a roadtrip for a week (judging by the outfit changes), and then turned up heavily pregnant at home in Banswada for a wedding. You or anyone else with a pen and a post-it note could easily write six reasons that were more believable. The roadtrip was beautiful and I’m sure everyone had fun with the drone shots, but if you’re in a hurry perhaps…a plane? Investment in building up characters and relationships was notably lacking. Some of the side characters have no reason to exist other than being a sidekick or whatever. There is also a fair amount of “do as I say, not as I do” advice. It’s disappointing because there’s a whole stack of Kammula films that show he is a keen and empathetic interpreter of human behaviour. This looked like he either couldn’t be bothered or perhaps gave way to an improvised approach that fell over.

Satyam Rajesh’s Ali is one character who added no value to the proceedings. And the kid who played Bujji did nothing to diminish my dislike of high pitched overly peppy kid actors. Of the supporting actors I most enjoyed Sai Chand and Sharanya Pradeep as Bhanu’s dad and sister. I still get irritated when people in possession of all their faculties and full mobility sit and wait for their daughter to come and give them their daily essential medication, but whatever. He was a caring and quite progressive father in many respects. Renu had a masters in psych but there is no indication she will ever get to use it, or wanted to. Another why???? element in the script. But Sharanya Pradeep was calm and lovely, playing Renuka with a maternal solidity.

Shakthi Kanth Karthick’s songs were diverse enough in style that they meshed with the key scenes rather than being a musical interruption. Vachinde was suitably flirty and hectic, setting the scene perfectly. I was pleased to see both the dialogues and songs were subtitled, although the quality of the English subs was atrocious. I hope that is reviewed before a DVD release. Unless there really is a w in hellow. And I’m pretty sure Fidaa doesn’t directly translate to “flat”.

Fidaa is well worth seeing for the charm of the actors and the beautiful visuals. Just prepare to suspend your disbelief a bit. On the bright side, there were no CGI talking lizards!

Advertisements

Vikram Vedha

Vikram Vedha

It’s rare that a Tamil film gets a round of applause from a Melbourne audience, but that’s exactly what happened at the end of Vikram Vedha last night. And well-deserved applause it was too. Pushkar-Gayathri’s crime drama pits a righteous police officer against a ruthless criminal, but the line between the two rapidly becomes blurred with a series of moral dilemmas that throw Vikram’s beliefs into question. Both Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi are outstanding and with a well-written story, clever dialogue and insightful characterisations, Vikram Vedha is an absolute gem of a film and definitely one not to be missed.

Madhavan’s Vikram is a member of a police task force whose mission is to remove notorious gangster Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi) and his men from the streets. Vikram is totally convinced that he is on the side of the angels and that the men he kills deserve to die, which as he continually states, means that he has no problem sleeping soundly at night. However, almost immediately Vikram hits some dodgy moral ground when he shoots in cold-blood one of the gangsters who tried to surrender and then reworks a crime scene to his team’s advantage. Already Vikram doesn’t seem quite as shiny white as he wants the world to believe, although as a police officer he stills stands on the right side of the law.

Vedha continues to elude Vikram and his men, resulting in a planned raid into the area of North Chennai where Vedha is rumoured to be hiding out. As the numerous police officers and riot police are gearing up, ready for action, Vedha calmly walks into the police station and surrenders. As entrances go, this has to be one of the best, particularly since no-one seems to recognise the gangster until he sets off the metal detector alarm as he walks into the building. Vijay Sethupathi is always good in the role of a gangster, but his swaggering Vedha is brilliantly executed here with exactly the right amount of confidence and bravado to suit a character who calmly surrenders to a room full of armed police.

Vedha’s surrender seems like sure suicide, but he’s planned everything well in advance, and without any evidence the police can’t hold him. However once faced with Vikram in a cell, Vedha starts to tell him a story which ends with a moral conundrum. The question posed at the end starts to lead Vikram to realise that the world isn’t as black and white as his and Vedha’s respective shirts, and that sometimes the identity of the bad guy is not as clear-cut as first seems.

Vedha is released by his lawyer who happens to be Vikram’s wife Priya (Shraddha Srinath) which leads to another moral dilemma for Vikram. What do you do when your wife is representing the criminal you’re trying to kill in an encounter? Priya is a strong character who won’t back down and refuses to let her husband destroy her first chance to make a name for herself in Chennai. The scenes where the two work to resolve their fundamental differences in opinion and approach to Vedha are brilliantly written and work well as another factor in Vikram’s gradual realisation that good and bad are just relative terms.

As the film progresses, Vedha manages to tell Vikram another two stories, always ending with a question about what is the ‘right’ action to take in each situation and that Vikram struggles to answer. The situation becomes more and more tense after Vikram’s best friend Simon (Prem) is killed during the investigation and Vikram is desperate to know why Simon died. But as Vedha’s tales seem to be leading Vikram to a greater understanding and may hold the clue to why Simon died, they also add more and more grey into his previously monochrome view of the world.

Vikram Vedha

Each story is told in flashback and introduces a number of key characters including Vedha’s younger brother Puli (Kathir) one of the men shot by Vikram in the raid at the start. Varalaxmi Sarathkumar plays Puli’s wife Chandra, another strong character whose behaviour as a child is an excellent foreshadowing of her actions as an adult. I loved her character, particularly when her immediate reaction to Puli slapping her was to slap him back straight away, and her down to earth attitude was wonderfully normal in the middle of all the intrigue and drama associated with Vedha and his gang.

Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi work together brilliantly and the chemistry between the two is the main reason why the film works so well. Madhavan is perfect as the gravel-voiced cop who strongly believes that he is always right (and good), while Vijay Sethupathi completely gets into the skin of a Chennai gangster out for revenge. The short flashbacks are beautifully put together to highlight the main clues, but there are so many twists that the final outcome is kept relatively obscured until close to the end. Kudos to the make-up team who successfully aged the characters naturally and the wardrobe team who managed to find so many different shades of grey for Vikram and Vedha as the story progressed! The shift in clothing sounds really obvious, but it’s done subtly and is more effective than it sounds, particularly as the changes echo the shift in Vikram’s thinking. The premise of what is good, what is bad, and how can we really tell is intertwined throughout every part of the film which also works well to highlight the change in perception Vikram undergoes as he learns more about Vedha and his life.

It’s not just the storyline and the performances that make the film so watchable. P.S. Vinod’s cinematography is excellent while the background score by Sam C.S. enhances the action without becoming intrusive. The songs fit surprisingly well into the narrative without disrupting the action and of course  it’s always a treat to watch Vijay Sethupathi shake a leg – especially as part of a drunken gangster party!

Vikram Vedha is such a clever film, but Pushkar-Gayathri never get too carried away by their own brilliance and keep the underlying story simple. The mixture of morality, crime thriller, action and suspense are expertly blended together without making the central debate of good vs bad either preachy or clichéd. I totally enjoyed every single minute of Vikram Vedha and it’s definitely a top contender for my favourite film of the year. Simply perfect!

Thirakkatha

 

Ranjith’s Thirakkatha is supposedly inspired by the relationship between Srividya and Kamal Haasan. I have zero interest in the love lives of celebrities but this is also a thoughtful look at the film industry, it’s a reasonably sane romantic drama except when it isn’t, and Priyamani steals the show.

Warning, spoilers ahead! There are some things that struck me so hard I don’t want to omit them.

Young gun director Akbar Ahmed (Prithviraj) is awarded for his first film hitting 100 days. He is given a trophy by industry legend Ajayachandran (Anoop Menon). Ajay’s internal monologue is all about himself and how he fought the odds to become a star. Certainly judging by some of the chatter amongst other guests, he is not universally loved. Akki is inspired to make his next film on the story of Ajay and his ex-wife, the star actress Malavika (Priyamani). She hasn’t been seen in years and nobody really knows much about her, despite all the gossip. Akki obtains diaries and letters written by director Aby Kurivilla (Ranjith himself) from his son Appu (Vineeth Kumar), and starts to piece their story together from both the private and public sources. The film unfolds through a series of flashbacks, interspersed with Akki telling the story as he knows it to his crew. When it seems that a story is all they have, they locate Malavika. Now terminally ill and alone, her life is a far cry from Ajay’s success and acclaim. What happened, and why?

Anoop Menon had to battle with some unflattering wigs and 80s attire that did an excellent job of obscuring his alleged charms, but Ajay’s determination is loud and clear. His break came playing a villain opposite Malavika and some producer’s nondescript son. He fell for Malavika at first sight, his heightened emotions helping him deliver a convincing performance. Whether shyly flirting with Malavika or pushing his career agenda, he didn’t back down when reminded of what people saw as his place. Ajay is obsessed with success and Malu was a lucky charm for his films. After a secret registry office wedding, Malu fell pregnant and planned to stop acting and be a mum. Ajay had been in a string of flops and was relying on Malu’s box office pull for their next movie to rescue his career. He told her she was ruining his life in favour of an unborn child and persuaded her to have an abortion, triggering events that ended their marriage. When Ajayachandran finds out about the movie, he tries to divert Akki to making a film with him rather than about him. Even Ajay’s wife thinks he’s a selfish bastard. Ajayachandran’s father was a makeup artist and people are snide about his lowly beginnings even now he is a legend. He became a big hero, but sometimes petty villain seems more his calling. Anoop Menon is most convincing as the selfish Ajay with his ambition and inferiority complex driving him. He benefits from a kind of halo effect in scenes with Priyamani, but seems lacking in the emotionally complex moments.

Malavika is a reluctant star, with a pushy ex-star stage mum (Mallika Sukumaran) and a loyal, almost silent assistant, Valarmathi (Surabhi). She’d rather get a job after graduating, but her mum hit Malu with a guilt trip of how she had to dance on film to raise her family and now the alcoholic dad is gone there is no money. Malavika is an assertive girl with everyone but her mother. I like the way she firmly shooed Ajayachandran away when she needed a moment between scenes. The flashbacks show all the drama behind the scenes as well as the vintage acting and dance styles of the early 80s.

Priyamani is just gorgeous, deftly showing Malavika’s star quality (the camera loves her), and her more pragmatic everyday personality. She berated Ajay for learning to kiss from watching local films, cheerfully telling him classic French films were the best reference. I loved Malu’s confidence in herself and her growing understanding of her power in the film industry. She has a drink with a producer but when he makes a pass she is comfortable and articulate turning him down. She doesn’t want to change who she is and she won’t be pressured or made to feel ashamed. Priyamani’s performance kept me invested in the story through even the most melodramatic plot contortions.

Major spoiler(s) – highlight to read:

Malu is told that during the abortion they found a growth that had to be removed. Later on her doctor friend Vasanthi tells her that Ajay lied – He requested that her tubes be tied so she won’t fall pregnant. It turns out this is not exactly true but that did nothing to quell my outrage. Firstly, bullying her into an abortion when she clearly wanted the child – BAD. Not telling Malu about the medical situation and not getting her consent or allowing her to have any part of the decision – BAD. Persuading the doctor to keep a cancer diagnosis from Malu so she would make another film instead of perhaps getting treatment that may have saved her life – BAD. Ajay believing that he was right because he wanted her to be happy and she would be happy when he was happy and he would be happy when he was a big star – BAD. Akki bringing Malavika to his place to recuperate although she didn’t know him at all, which is a nice gesture but once again there was no consultation with the actual patient, so therefore – BAD. The doctor who let Akki take a terminally ill stranger away just because – BAD. Everyone including Malavika apparently forgiving Ajay because he felt so sorry (for himself) – WTAF?!?

/rant

Ranjith is disparaging of some practices in his industry, calling out examples and mocking the results. Akki is very much the guy who got there because of his passion for film making. He’ll sign with a producer but he won’t let them dictate what he does. The line between life and story fodder is also explored through Akki as he grows closer to Malavika and has to decide how and if he will use her story for his career.

Prithviraj is low key and generally likeable as Akki. He is hampered a bit by the narrative structure that uses his character as an agent of voiceover, and from being in the modern day part of the story which is for me the least interesting. He works with a small group of trusted friends, running a restaurant with them in between films. Akki is prone to the unilateral decision, and most of his friends are followers. I was sometimes annoyed despite his good intentions just because he was so self-righteous. Akki and his capable girlfriend Devayani (Samvrutha Sunil) have a no fuss relationship and make a nice couple. As Malu and Ajay’s romance is explored, they realise maybe they need to think about theirs.

The songs (by Sharreth) fit better in the flashback. Onnodu is a random and quite uncoordinated song between prologue and titles, perhaps just there for the Prithviraj fans.

There is so much that I liked, but the flaws are equally striking. Some of the discussions about film making felt out of synch, but I liked the extra layer about interpretation and storytelling. Ranjith handled the multiple timeline structure more deftly in Paleri Manikyam, but the 80s flashback section is a highlight. 3 ½ stars! (BIG deduction for the medical ethics)