Pathaan (2023)

After a long time away from the cameras, Shah Rukh Khan is back on the big screen. And in a completely new avatar too – this time he’s an action hero in YRF’s ‘Spy Universe’, home to previous films Ek Tha Tiger, Tiger Zinda Hai and War. It’s a change of pace for Shah Rukh, but he ably deals with a weak plot, below par special effects and some dodgy dialogue to deliver an entertaining and enjoyable film. The king is back!

The film starts with fight sequences, explosions and plenty of crazy action and that’s pretty much how it carries on too. There is no time to stop and try and work out what is happening – and it doesn’t really matter anyway. SRK is an Indian agent in an organisation for those who have been injured in service. They may be ‘broken eggshells’ as their commanding officer Colonel Luthra (Ashutosh Rana) describes their JOCR agency, but they are still able to act as spies even if their physical ability isn’t what it was. Not that there is any sign of Pathaan (Shah Rukh Khan) being incapable of destroying the bad guys as and when required. And yes, JOCR is pronounced joker although the head of the group Nandini (Dimple Kapadia) tried to ignore the implications of the acronym.

Honestly, the story doesn’t matter. There is a lot of switching between various flashbacks to explain the back story of the characters as well as continent hopping to have pretty locations to blow stuff up. But basically there is a bad guy, ex-RAW agent Jim (John Abraham) who is working for rogue Pakastani general Qadir (Manish Wadha) and is aiming to create as much chaos as possible when India revokes the special area status for Kashmir. Politically I guess writers Shridhar Raghavan and Abbas Tyrewala were trying to offend as few people as possible, but their approach leaves Jim in particular as having a rather weak motivation for his actions. The story is from Siddharth Anand who also directed the film.

Jim’s team consists of people from a lot of alphabet groups, and most are fairly disposable except for Dr Rubina Mohsin (Deepika Padukone) who kicks ass energetically while still managing to look like a supermodel. There is a vague romance between Rubina and Pathaan, which only really heats up in the songs (there are only 2). There is a lot more heat in the look Rubin has while working a big machine gun than in most of the scenes with Pathaan. Thankfully the focus here is firmly on the totally OTT, crazy action which is as fact paced and relentless as any Hollywood blockbuster.

But there are a large number of flaws in the film, which don’t stop it from being enjoyable, but for a big budget film it does seem that money wasn’t always well spent. The special effects for instance don’t always work as well as they should – and there are a lot of them! The fight sequences are beautifully choreographed, but the effects then look even more clunky in comparison. Of course, this isn’t the kind of film where the plot is ever going to be key – it’s all about the action and explosions, but there are a lot of holes and coincidences which keep adding up to a weak story. Pathaan has apparently worked everywhere they need to go, which means he has the contacts and knowledge he needs at every step. Too, the decision by Jim to use biological warfare as his way to create chaos never seems plausible, especially when he relies on Pathaan for a large portion of the plan. One other odd note is the white coat that scientist Dr Sahani (Prakash Belawadi) wears which looks more like a long white fitted evening coat that a lab coat. Surely much more expensive than the genuine article and an odd appearance for someone who has been kidnapped and forced to work on a project against his will. Just another one of those little details that nudged me out of the story but overall doesn’t impact the enjoyment. And anyway, at the end of the day it’s the performances, especially that of Shah Rukh, Deepika and John Abraham, that make the film worth watching.

Shah Rukh has always been generous in sharing screentime with his co-stars, and while Salman Khan’s cameo is a highlight, the fight scenes with Deepika are just as good. Deepika shines here and is amazing in every sequence. Talking too much about her role would give too much away, but basically she does just about everything you would expect from a successful spy – often better than the guys! John Abraham’s rather stilted style of acting plus his boyish charm work well for his character, so even if his motivation is suspect, he makes a convincing villain. His physicality stacks up well against SRK as well, although the overuse of make-up at times to define muscles for both is jarring. It’s also good to see veteran actors Dimple Kapadia and Manish Wadha with no nonsense portrayals of the more serious characters in the story and they do manage to keep some of the silliness in check.

But in the end it all comes down to Shah Rukh. Everything is here. The wobbling lip, tear-filled eyes and the blood. So much blood! Including the blood-stained teeth that SRK seems to love in his films. He looks amazing and is in great shape, despite the few digs at his age throughout the film. He has the energy of a man half his age at any rate, and his sheer presences dominates the screen – at least until Deepika appears and then it’s an even split. Pathaan isn’t a good movie, but it does everything you’d expect with the added bonus of an on form Shah Rukh Khan as lead. I loved it, despite all the flaws and will happily watch it again. Make sure you stay until the end credits for an extra bonus too.

Varisu

Vamshi Paidipally is usually associated with films in Telugu but this time he’s worked with Thalapathy Vijay to make Varisu in Tamil. Thankfully, Varisu is better than Vijay’s last film, Beast, although I think it would be difficult to make a worse movie! Although the story here is nothing new and the setting in a rich and privileged family tends to grate, the songs are fun, the action plentiful and Vijay is in top form.

Vijay plays Vijay Rajendran, the youngest son of rich businessman Rajendran (R. Sarathkumar) who has incorporated his other two sons into his mining and shipping business. Vijay has been disinherited for refusing to take part in his father’s succession plans and has managed instead to develop a start-up company distributing food to people in need. His success is apparently down to an MBA degree, which magically seems to give him amazing knowledge and ability in business and ensures that everything he suggests works amazingly well. If only! Meanwhile, Rajendran has set up his other two sons to compete against each other to become his successor and run the business empire he has developed.

But all is not well in the Rajendran family. Eldest son Jai (Srikanth) is married to Aarthi (Sangeetha Krish) with a daughter Ria (Sanjana Tiwari) but is also having an affair with Smita (Nandini Rai). Middle son Ajay (Shaam) is happily married but is struggling with his work looking after his father’s interests at the dock and is in debt to a financier Mukesh (Ganesh Venkatraman) as he tries to develop his own business ideas to impress his father. To add to Rajendran’s woes, his wife Sudha (Jayasudha) is unhappy at the forced separation from her youngest son, and his chief rival Jayaprakash (Prakash Raj) is snapping at his heels at every possible opportunity. When his doctor, family friend Dr Anand (Prabhu) tells him he only has months to live it seems to final blow that will fracture the family beyond repair.

But of course that’s not going to happen – enter Vijay and his amazing business prowess to save the day. Naturally Vijay is also able to defeat thugs at the docks, run off a gang of people smugglers and otherwise destroy any and all attacks on the family, his father and himself. The film settles into the usual ‘Vijay as all conquering hero’ and we know that everything will work out all right. While Vijay saves the business, sorts out his brothers and rescues Ria from kidnappers, there are plenty of fight sequences, numerous songs and a brief romance with Divya (Rashmika Mandanna), Aarthi’s sister.

What works here are the songs and the action sequences. There are a lot of songs, which I suspect is to help offset the thinness of the plot. The music is by Thaman S with lyrics by Vivek, and together they have come up with toe-tapping numbers that fit into the film well. Vijay dances up a storm with Rasjmika and a large number of enthusiastic backing dancers, and the songs are full of energy, bursting with colour, and just lots of fun. Best of all, rekhs has managed to make the translated lyrics rhyme and actually sound like songs, which adds to the overall emotional lift of each number. Unfortunately though, the background music would have benefitted from being turned down a few notches and at times I really couldn’t make much out other than just noise.

The action sequences are also well choreographed and Vijay smoothly eliminates every villain that attempts to stop him on his path to the top. It all looks effortless, which I’m sure means there was a lot of work put into these sequences, and it pays off. Perhaps more surprising are the number of rather odd diversions in the story that appear to have been included solely to allow fight sequences to be added. For a corporate and family drama, there are a lot of moments where Vijay has to fight his way out of a corner and, although these action sequences are impressive, they mostly don’t fit well into the rest of the story.

More problematic though is the rest of the film. For a start there are outdated attitudes on view from most of the male characters, who have little time or thought for the women in their lives. As a result, most of the female characters are thinly drawn and leave little impression although to be fair, all of the cast outside of Vijay have minimal impact on the film. The romance with Rashmika Mandanna is over before it starts and she mainly just looks pretty in the songs. Jayasudha does the usual mom routine, but she’s mostly relegated to serving food and worrying about her husband and family. As the two brothers, Srikanth and Shaam have little to do before the interval and not much more in the second half. Even R. Sarathkumar and Prakash Raj, who should have been tearing up the screen with their rivalry, are both very much side-lined by Vijay and end up appearing ineffectual and almost irrelevant. Everyone except Vijay appears one dimensional, which further erodes any plausibility of the story. While Vijay is excellent, the hero-centric nature of the film even starts to dull his shine and it’s only the energy of the songs that keeps the film moving along. The second half does have more energy than the first, but by that stage I was getting tired of Vijay’s relentless ability to conquer every difficulty so easily. A little more failure would have stopped the character from being quite so insufferable by the end of the film.

In the midst of all this, I do have to mention that at least the subtitles were excellent. During the interval I realised that I hadn’t even realised I was reading subtitles at all for a change! Usually I’m distracted by poor grammar, spelling mistakes and odd phrasing, but rekhs and her team have added subs that are easily readable, accurate and which make total sense. It makes a huge difference to be able to concentrate fully on the action and not have part of my attention diverted by trying to work out what is being said.

This is Vijay’s film from start to finish and he’s in almost every frame. Like most of his more recent films, this is made for fans, and there are plenty of nods to previous Vijay films throughout (thanks rekhs for the handy notes in the subs for those of us who didn’t get all the references!). I enjoyed the songs and the action but the story needed more depth, as did the characterisations of the supporting cast. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s not Vijay’s best, despite his energetic performance. Entertaining for a one-time watch, but wait for streaming if you’re not a Vijay fan.

Ponniyin Selvan 1

I did manage to catch PS1 in the cinema (definitely the best way to watch the film), but wanted to watch it again before posting this review. I loved the epic scale, the fantastic costumes and found the story to be relatively easy to follow, despite the large number of characters and location shifts. There is action, intrigue, double-crosses, mystery and suspense as well as the amazing costumes and jewellery – all well worth the 2 hour 47 minute run time and I can’t wait for Part 2!

The story is an adaptation by Mani Ratnam and Elango Kumaravel of the novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. As I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on whether the plot has been changed much, but I suspect that the story has been simplified to make it fit into 2 parts. It’s still pretty clear what’s going on and who’s who, thanks to the defining performances from the stellar cast line-up. The story starts with a quick overview of the Chola dynasty, their defeat of the Pandyas and the appearance of a shooting star in the sky, which apparently signals bad news for the current royal family. After winning his latest battle, the crown prince, Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) sends Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) on a mission to spy on officials meeting at Kadambur palace and report back to the emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) and Aditha’s sister, the princess Kundavai Devi (Trisha). Vallavaraiyan discovers the chancellor of the Chola kingdom Periya Pazhuvettarayar (R. Sarathkumar) is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Sundar and crown his cousin Madhurantakan (Rahman) emperor instead. That’s a lot of long names, but the characters are all so different, that keeping them all straight isn’t as difficult as it may seem!

Pazhuvettarayar is married to Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), an acclaimed beauty who was previously in love with Aditha. Nandini has her own motives and plans to overthrow the Chola empire, but these are much more convoluted than those of her husband and she has allies such as Ravidasan (Kishore), the leader of the exiled Pandya’s. Also involved is Pazhuvettarayar’s brother Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (R. Parthiban), who is in charge of the fort in Thanjavur and who tries to capture Vallavaraiyan when he meets with the king.

Vallavaraiyan is entranced by Kundavai Devi, but she immediately sends him off to Lanka to bring the younger prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) aka Ponniyin Selvan back to Thanjavur. This involves Vallavaraiyan hitching a ride with Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) across the sea and then fighting with the prince before finally  helping Arulmozhi as he evades Pandya assassins to reach the boat sent by his father to bring Arulmozhi home. Along the way Vallavaraiyan is helped by a poet and temple flower seller, Sendhan (Ashwin Kakumanu) and the rather eccentric Thirumalaiappan (Jayaram). There are various other minor characters who add yet more detail and background into the plot, including chieftains, fiancées, defeated princes and various soldiers, servants, government officials and friends of the main characters. It does take a second watch to sort out exactly who everyone is, but Aditha, Arulmozhi, Vallavaraiyan, Kundavai and Nandini are the main players in this first part of the story.

What I really liked about PS1 is how real everything appears. Unlike the fairytale landscapes of Baahubali or sanitised forts in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, here everything seems plausible and historical rather than imagined. The battles are sweaty and bloody, while the fortifications look as if they were made to withstand armies and sieges. It’s more Aragorn in LOTR than Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani. The costumes though are detailed and intricate with plenty of shine and shimmer as you’d expect from a story about kings and their empire. The jewellery in particular is outstanding and just gorgeous. At times I wondered just how Aishwarya and Trisha were managing to walk with all that hardware, but it does give them both a very regal appearance. The hairstyles too are amazing and even the men get in on the costume action with their fancy armour and weaponry.

What really stands out though are the performances, especially the two main female leads and Karthi. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is always good with the right director, and here she is perfect as a woman in conflict with herself. It’s clear that she is suffering and that when she says she has deep wounds, we can see that these are with her all the time. The conflict between her previous love for Aditha, her marriage to Pazhuvettarayar and her commitment to the Pandya’s seems impossible to resolve and Aishwarya ensures this is always present as a shadow across her face every time she is on screen. Her eyes show she is a woman in pain, internally conflicted and caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. When Aishwarya is good, she’s very, very good, and here she delivers in every scene. Trisha too is excellent as Kundavai Devi. She’s regal but still able to unbend when speaking to her friends, and conveys the right amount of political savvy that makes her vitally important to the kingdom. There is a wonderful scene when Kundavai returns to Thanjavur and meets Nandini, where the power play between the two in just a few moments ensures we all know who is really in control of the empire, albeit working behind the scene.

I expect Karthi to be good, but here he is outstanding as the rather irreverent friend trying to help Aditha but enjoying himself along the way. He has a great relationship with his horse, and the comedy between Vallavaraiyan, his horse Semba and chance met Thirumalaiappan provides excellent contrast to the more serious scenes with Aditha, his close friend Parthibendran (Vikram Prabhu) and Arulmozhi. Karthi is great in the action scenes but even better in his interactions with Kundavai and Arulmozhi and also with Nandini. He hits just the right mix of action, sarcasm, comedy and quick witted political savvy making sure that Vallavaraiyan is an intriguing character, and in many ways more interesting than the two princes. Although Jayam Ravi is good as Arulmozhi, it’s a more serious role and he doesn’t have quite the same impact as Karthi here. I am expecting more in Part 2, given the film bears his name. As Aditha, Vikram on the other hand vacillates between berserker warrior and manically depressed jilted lover as he thinks about Nandini and their broken relationship. At times he’s brilliant, but then he starts chewing the scenery again, and it’s hard to take Aditha’s pain as seriously as that of Nandini. Vikram is still very good, just a little too OTT at times, and hopefully will be more retrained in the second half – or just stick to the action!

The action sequences are exhilarating and mostly a lot of fun. Battles are fought between armies but also on board ships, in chase sequences and on elephant and horseback. There are loads of actions scenes too, so Mani Ratnam seems to have thrown in every kind of battle you can think of, and almost every single weapon as well. The choreography is well done to keep the action exciting, even though we expect the good guys to win. But there is still plenty of tension and the outcome isn’t always quite as expected.

I also really liked A.R. Rahman’s music, mostly the songs but the background music was also good and effective throughout the film. This is probably my favourite.

When you start with a good story, it should make a good film, but not everyone can manage to take such a complex tale and turn it into a blockbuster. Mani Ratnam can and every aspect of this film shows his skill. The story moves on at a fast pace, the characters are all clear with well described motivations, and even the intrigue is dealt with appropriately so that not everything is revealed by the end of the film. I loved every aspect of the film and I hope part 2 is just as exciting. 4½ stars