Jagame Thandhiram (2021)

I’ve been a fan of Karthik Subbaraj’s previous films, even his venture with Rajini, but he seems to miss the mark this time. Despite an excellent cast and some good ideas, Jagame Thandhiram fails to engage as it should, mainly due to its over 2 ½ hour run time. But there is also a clash of themes, with the first half of the film being a typically violent gangster film with flashes of comedy that doesn’t mix well with the political ideology and humanitarian motif in the second. The supposed redemption of the lead character is also problematic, but at least Dhanush has enough charm to induce a whiff of plausibility to the change.

The film sets the scene with a violent murder in the streets of London before moving back to Tamil Nadu and introducing a local rowdy Suruli (Dhanush). Suruli’s reputation is such that his bride prefers to leave him immediately after the ceremony rather than go through with the marriage, but when a London gang is looking for a murderer for hire, they decide that Suruli would be the ideal fit. Lured away from his parotta restaurant by the promise of vast sums of money, Suruli finds himself working for a white supremacist by the name of Peter (James Cosmo) while his childhood friend Vicky (Sharath Ravi) translates Peter’s demands. This actually works well as a device to show that we tend to hear what we want to hear and not what is actually being said. However, with so much else going on, the translation issue tends to get pushed to the background.

Peter’s target is a Tamil gangster Sivadoss (Joju George) who was behind the murder of one of Peter’s men in the opening scenes. Sivadoss is a smuggler, primarily trading in guns for gold, but he also is involved in assisting refugees to settle in the UK. As a bigoted anti-immigrant, Peter is violently opposed to immigration and decides to use a brown man, Suruli, to solve a brown man problem – Sivadoss. So far so good, with Peter’s over the top posturing not too unrealistic given similar behaviour has actually occurred far too frequently in real life recently. But just when everything seems to be settling in for a nicely violent gangster film, Karthik Subbaraj decides to introduce a secondary theme that ultimately derails the film.

On one of his outings with Vicky, Suruli spots Attilla (Aishwarya Lekshmi) who is singing in a bar. There follows the usual tired and very outdated love at first sight trope that really needs to be allowed to rest in peace, but at least Attilla does push back – at first anyway. The whole romance feels like a bad fit with the rest of the film, and more like a nod to appeal to a mass audience rather than a genuine attempt to add something different to the screenplay. But in the second half, Attilla shares her past which moves the story in a different direction although unfortunately, none of this proceeds in a way that fits with the previous storyline or is even slightly believable. Added to that, both leads look uncomfortable with each other, which ensures the romance never takes off either and makes the final point of using Attilla as Surali’s redemption a step too far that misses by a mile.

Although the story fails to deliver to Karthik Subbaraj’s usual standard, the cast mostly fit well into their roles. It’s just a shame they are all acting in a different film to each other. Dhanush has played this type of gangster film many times before and perhaps that’s why he seems less than thrilled with some of the scenes. The action sequences are great, but he seems as bemused by the romance as I was, and it’s really only the scenes where he is double-crossing anyone and everyone that genuinely come alive. Joju George and James Cosmo are both very good in their roles but of the two, Joju has the better role. The character of Peter is one-dimensional to a point that makes him almost a cartoon figure, while at least Sivadoss has more shades and better dialogue. The various other gang members are mostly interchangeable and superfluous with even Vicky being relegated to the background as the violence heats up. Aishwarya Lekshmi is totally wasted in a role that probably looked good on paper, but doesn’t work at all within the context of the rest of the film. 

What does work well are the action sequences which are beautifully choreographed and flow easily into the storyline. The music from Santhosh Narayanan is also good and the songs also fit well into the film. It was also good to see parts of London on screen and the usual chilly British weather ensuring everyone (apart from James Cosmo) looked suitably frozen in any outdoor scene. James Cosmo benefited from a rather warm looking coat and cashmere scarf and so looked much more comfortable, but then as a Scot is probably more used to the cold anyway! And if you’ve ever wondered how Scottish dancing would look with Tamil music, wonder no more.

Jagame Thandhiram could have been a really good gangster film, or a really good refugee film, but it can’t be both. The combination storyline makes for an overly long running time and the two halves never gel together. As a result Suruli’s character is also problematic, having made too many bad decisions in the first half for any of the events in the second to ring true. There are lots of good ideas, but for once Karthik Subbaraj fails to bring them all together and the usual deliciously wicked humour is totally missing. Perhaps if it had been a 4 episode web series it might have had the space required to fully develop the story, but even with two and a half hours, there just isn’t enough time to make it work here. 2½ stars.

Hero (2021)

Hero was written and directed by M.Bharath Raj and filmed during the pandemic lockdown in India with a total cast and crew of reportedly only 24 people. It’s pretty amazing that they managed to pull everything together with such a small crew and despite a rather scrappy and overly violent screenplay, Hero is a quirky comedy that mostly works well. The standout performance comes from Ganavi Laxman in her first film role, but Rishab Shetty is also very watchable and Anirudh Mahesh is excellent in his comedic role.

None of the characters in the film have any names but instead are referred to simply as the hero (Rishab Shetty), heroine (Ganavi Laxman) and villain (Pramod Shetty). They are all broad caricatures who mostly behave as expected although there is the odd twist or two which tend to provide much of the comedy. The hero is a barber who was devastated when his girlfriend (the heroine) dumped him. In response he turned to alcohol and with his continual state of intoxication and depression affecting his work, the hero decides he has to kill the heroine to be free of her once and for all. Luckily for the hero, his boss is heading out of town, and as a result despatches his drunken employee to the local villain’s house to give him a haircut. It just so happens that the villain is married to the heroine, and ther hero takes this as his chance to get his revenge. But when he arrives at the house, the situation is not as he thinks, and he quickly gets tangled up in the heroine’s problems.

The villain is introduced as a larger than life vindictive and viciously evil man. He delights in torture and laughs as his henchmen beat a couple of thugs they have intercepted trying to gain access to his mansion. One of the thugs is killed, while a key group of henchmen head off into the countryside with the final thug to find his boss, thought to be the son of key arch-rival of the villain, Tiger Ponnappa. Meanwhile a doctor (Anirudh Mahesh) arrives at the mansion and is shocked to discover that his patient is not quite as expected. When the hero arrives at the mansion, he finds the doctor desperately trying to fulfill the demands of the villain, his henchmen roaming around and generally menacing the doctor and the hero, and his ex-girlfriend desperately trying to conceal her actions from earlier in the day. Throughout all of this, the villa’s cook (Kiran Kinna) keeps making biryani for the various thugs and rowdies and generally manages to avoid the mayhem.

What make the film work is the eccentricities of each of the characters and the way that they stay true to themselves throughout the rambling story. The villain is evil through and through and his mean and petty nature is taken up by the various thugs in his employ. Each of the henchmen too have some kind of quirk that makes them distinctive and most of these are played for laughs as they try and chase down the hero and the heroine towards the end. Anirudh Mahesh as the doctor is probably the best at maintaining his character as a terrified but strangely determined man who manages to conquer his fear when offered some food, but each of the characters has a specific role to play in the story and a reason to be there.

Some of the comedy works very well, such as the thugs throwing bombs randomly into the jungle as they hunt the escaping hero and heroine. The heroine’s unfailing competence in the face of the hero’s bumbling and general incompetence is also really well done and Ganavi Laxman is simply excellent at making even the simplest facial expression very funny indeed. She has some of the best lines and truly is the real ‘hero’ of the story. Meanwhile, Rishab Shetty is also very funny but the excessive amounts of violence in the story tend to make some parts of his performance rather darker than perhaps were intended, and in the end his final scenes with alcohol are pitiful rather than in any way amusing. However, he still is excellent in the role and works well with Ganavi Laxman to deliver some very funny comedy, especially in the first half. Pramod Shetty is so over the top villainous and such a caricature that even his excessive violence towards a butterfly seems in character – thankfully there is a disclaimer at the start that no animals were harmed! 

Hero is basically a love story where the hero and heroine try to escape from an isolated villa while being chased by a band of bloodthirsty thugs. The first half has plenty of laughs but the film does start to drag in the second half when the chase sequences are overly long and the jokes start to become repetitive. Still, for a film written, filmed, and completed in the middle of a pandemic it’s not bad and I do think it’s hilarious that the crocodile roars. 3 stars.

Mandela (2021)

Madonne Ashwin’s political satire takes an election in a small village in Tamil Nadu as the backdrop for issues of caste, corruption and electoral rights. It’s mostly framed as a comedy, but there is plenty of emotional drama in the final scenes, and for all the jokes, the issues still come across as serious problems for society. Yogi Babu shines in the lead role, playing a low caste barber with easy humility and plenty of charm. G.M.Sundar and Kanna Ravi get to snarl at each other across the village divide, while Sheena Rajkumar is excellent as the level headed postmaster adding sanity to the proceedings.

The story is based around the fact that the village of Soorangudi is divided in two with a fierce rivalry between those who live in the north and those who live in the south. The rivalry is caste based and to try and keep the peace, the village leader has two wives, one from each faction in the village. But Devi, from the north, wants her husband to favour her son Rathinam (G.M. Sundar) while southern Valli stands up for her son Mathi (Kanna Ravi). As a result, while the arrangement may be to try and create peace in the village it has the opposite effect for the leader’s household. All the president’s attempts to improve the village founder at the feet of the village rivalry and there is no peace for anyone in the village while Rathinam and Mathi each try to make their mark.

The film starts with the kidnap of a man heading out into the woods for his morning ritual dump. His presence is needed at the unveiling of a new toilet in the village to ensure that the northerners enforce their ownership and block any southerners from trying to use the new facility. But the southerners also turn up in force, and in the ensuing chaos the toilet is smashed, ensuring no-one, north or south, is able to use the hygienic solution to public defecation. The scene sums up the problem in a microcosm. There is the leader, trying to forge a centralist path, but harangued on either side by his two wives. The women of the village look on in horror as the men once again destroy something that would have made their lives much easier, while the village barber Smile (Yogi Babu) is humiliated and belittled for no other reason than his lower caste status. It’s perfectly done and an excellent introduction to the various characters and their place in the village hierarchy.

When the village president suffers a stroke, his two sons each vow to stand in the election, pitting north against south in a race to win precedence. The votes are equally split between the two brothers until Smile, with his new name Nelson Mandela, is the recipient of a brand new voter card. Suddenly Mandela has the deciding vote in the election and no expense can be spared to buy his favour.

The basic idea here is excellent, and for the most part the film lives up to the introduction, poking fun at numerous societal issues within the village which afflict the greater population on a more general scale. Having been in Tamil Nadu a few years ago while local elections were being held, I well remember the mania that seemed to ensue, and writer director Madonne Ashwin captures the hysteria around the election perfectly. At the same time, each scene references a political issue. Whether it be caste, the lack of local education, poor roads and public defecation, all are brought to light as the brothers focus on what their (male) supporters want and ignore the needs of the village completely.

What works well is how Mandela reacts when Rathinam and Mathi each try to buy his vote with favours. It’s very natural that he accepts everything he is offered and tries to get as much as he can out of the two warring brothers. As the situation escalates and the bribes become threats, Mandela’s bafflement with the way he is treated is clearly depicted although there is still the same resigned acceptance that this is just his lot in the world. Mandela’s attitude is contrasted with that of his apprentice, Sideburn, who quickly sees that nothing has really changed, and the villagers still don’t respect Mandela or what he does for them. It takes an act of violence for Mandela to understand he is still at the very bottom of the village hierarchy, and realise that he will be discarded just as soon as the election is over.

Another excellent piece of writing sees Mandela get his name from the postmistress Thenmozhi (Sheena Rajkumar), who arranges an account for him along with an ID and voter card. Thenmozhi is a person who gets things done. She fixes the broken door to the post office herself and extends a helping hand to anyone who needs it. Her character is the breath of fresh air that the village needs, but refuses to take, while she is the only person who seems to show Mandela any respect. It’s always refreshing when there isn’t a female romantic lead, and in fact Thenmozhi is the absolute opposite. She’s from another village so doesn’t buy into the north/south divide and has no prejudice to overcome. I loved her firm, no nonsense attitude and Sheena Rajkumar does an excellent job with her character.

Mandela is a clever look at the political system that pokes fun at the leaders, their followers and even the issues that fuel political debates. It’s funny and charming at the same time, mainly thanks to Yogi Babu, but there is a serious message that still gets across despite all the laughs. Definitely one to watch and an excellent addition to the genre. 4 stars.