NGK (2019)

NGK

Spoiler alert

I’m a big fan of both Suriya and Selvaraghavan and was intrigued to see how Selva would deal with a main stream hero given his usual character-driven and more unconventional style of film making. As it turns out, Selva has made room for both heroic gestures and quirky plot points in this tale of a young man’s rise to prominence in a political party, although ultimately neither meld particularly well together. In the end, the darkness of the storyline ensures NGK is still definitely a Selvaraghavan film, although only working in parts despite an understated, yet powerful performance from Suriya. There is a lot to unpack here, and I apologise for the spoilers which I haven’t been able to avoid in order to discuss certain aspects of the story.

Nandha Gopala Kumaran aka NGK (Suriya) is an organic farmer, living in a small town with his parents Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Viji (Uma Padmanabhan). He’s married to Geetha (Sai Pallavi) and in the initial scenes both are completely besotted with each other to the point of irritating Viji with their romantic overtures. Kumaran is an organic farmer who has given up his city job to work the land with a group of like-minded idealists, but their livelihood is threatened by local traders and businessmen who want the farmers to buy their chemicals. Kumaran gets the idea of approaching his local MLA (Ilavarasu) from a neighbour Giri (Bala Singh) who works for the party. Giri has been beaten up by party men because he refused an inappropriate request from MLA Pandiyan’s but despite this, Giri still supports the party ideas. Straight from the start, it’s shown that the party elite are corrupt, lacking morals and purely interested in getting and keeping power. Kumaran uses his friend Raja (Rajkumar) who also works for the party to get an audience with Pandiyan, who agrees to stop intimidation of the farmers, but only if Kumaran enters politics and brings 500 of his own supporters into the party.

Interestingly, in these early scenes, Kumaran seems disgusted and repelled by Pandion, and is further antagonised by his bullying and repeated humiliations. But at some point Kumaran decides to kowtow and do everything Pandiyan wishes, including cleaning his toilet and supplying him with home-cooked food. What would help this transformation would be an explanation of why Kumaran decided to conform. Was it because he realised the power of politics and what he could potentially do if he managed to move up the ranks? Or was it simply to stop the humiliation, or perhaps even an attempt to shame Pandiyan into more moral behaviour? Sadly, none of the reasoning behind any of Kumaran’s choices are explained, although there are some pivotal events that we can assume helped shape his actions.

In the course of his transition to political power, Kumaran meets Vanathi (Rakul Preet Singh) who is a UK-educated political analyst tasked with helping the party win upcoming elections. Vanathi is impressed by Kumaran, presumably realising that his earnest demeanour and good looks will make him a good candidate to win over the voting public. Vanathi is an interestingly grey character who’s not above dirty tactics to discredit the opposition, although these are more about revealing the ruling party’s indiscretions rather than fabricating evidence to implicate chief minister Killivazhavan (Devaraj) and his minions. As Kumaran becomes more and more involved with the party, and by implication with Vanathi, Geetha starts to become jealous and finally accuses Kumaran of having an affair. Astonishingly (this is Suriya after all), Kumaran quickly admits his infidelity but it’s all the more shocking because there has been no hard evidence on screen and no real reason for the affair – after all, Kumaran had a wife he was supposedly besotted with waiting for him at home. Then too, his revelation is made somewhat passionlessly, but immediately followed up with a nasty challenge to Geetha asking her what she will do about it. So, was he just scratching an itch because he was away from home? Did he fall in love with the clever and politically sharp Vanathi – a world away from the more innocent Geetha? Or was it a more calculated ploy, to seduce the woman behind the party’s campaign for office for his own ambition?

Rakul Preet Singh is good in a role that starts off well, but which fades quickly once she (sigh) inevitably falls in love with Kumaran, despite her initial tough, woman-of-the-world persona. At least Vanathi has a reasonable character arc and she stays true to her own ideals throughout, apart from an unfortunate lapse during a dodgy romantic song which doesn’t fit with the rest of the screenplay at all. She still has values and these stand her in good stead as Kumaran becomes more manipulative and Vanathi gradually seems to realise what is happening. Sai Pallavi on the other hand doesn’t doesn’t fare as well as Geetha. Her initial interactions with Kumaran are too cloyingly sweet and over the top, while Geetha’s suspicion of an affair seem to come from nowhere, leading to some odd behaviours when she meets Vanathi. Her initial reaction to Kumaran’s affair is also strangely overdone, while the apparent acceptance in later scenes also doesn’t ring true, making Geetha a rather unsatisfactory and jarring presence onscreen. It’s odd since Selva’s female characters normally have strong characters and some reason for what they do, but here the women are all muted and take a very definite back seat to the main story.

Kumaran gradually changes throughout the story from an all-round nice guy to someone able to plot and scheme his way to success. What I can’t decide is if he turned to the dark side to win power to be able to help his people, or if he truly becomes corrupted to the point where he is prepared to use anyone to achieve his ends. The final scenes with Geetha and his parents suggest the latter, but I need to watch the film again to find more clues to his behaviour. I did pick up some. Selva uses changes in the lighting scheme here as he did in Pudhupettai to indicate some of the personality changes – changing from green to red lighting during a fight scene in an improbably cavernous bathroom, presumably to suggest Kumaran’s move towards more selfish motives. There are also questions around what really happens when Kumaran’s friend Raja dies, and his initial meeting with Vanathi definitely has more subtext, but I was concentrating too much on reading the subtitles to pick up on all the subtleties.

The glue holding the story together is Suriya, who forgoes his usual mass-style hero for an ambiguous character who definitely moves towards the wrong side of politics. It’s a subtle and almost low-key performance, although there is plenty of passion on show as Kumaran makes energetically impassioned speeches about farming and freedom, land and human rights, and inevitably ‘the common man’. Suriya gets across the definite sense that Kumaran is acting in all of his grand speeches, while still leaving his true motivation rather more ambiguous until the end, where his corruption appears to be complete. Here Selva has ensured that the film is very much about the star, and Suriya feels the space completely, including the requisite action scenes, dance moves and compelling charisma that end up defining the character too. Although the rest of the cast are good, they aren’t as memorable as Suriya, with the exception of Ilavarasu and Devaraj who have their own personality quirks.

Sivakumar Vijayan does a good job with the cinematography and overall the production is excellent even down to having readable subtitles in yellow font. Awesome! Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background soundtrack is good, and the few dance numbers are catchy enough, with the only real let down being the inappropriate romance track with Kumaran and Vanathi. It’s not a bad song, just oddly placed and bizarrely shot to show a romantic side to two characters who otherwise don’t appear passionate about each other at all. There are the characteristic dark themes and odd actions that remind you that this is a Selva film, but with Suriya front and centre, this is a more commercial and smoother film than his usual fare. The blend isn’t perfect but there is plenty here to keep you entertained, even enough for repeated viewings to see more of what is going on in the background. No doubt that will provide more clues and a clearer picture of just exactly who is NGK. I really enjoyed this, despite my issues with Geetha and occasional frustrations at not being able to decide exactly all the why’s. But then that is part of the genius of Selvaraghavan, to refuse to spoon feed his audience answers and keep everyone guessing. And even here with a mainstream hero in a more traditionally told story, he very nearly pulls it off.

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3 thoughts on “NGK (2019)

  1. HI Anu,

    I did watch NGK last Sunday driven by my own curiosity to get the feel of Mr. Selvaraghavan’s arc of his craft and deep characterization. But as you said you were too engrossed in watching the subtitles rather than following the subtleties of the film, I was too occupied in following the layers of the film, since the film appeared to shift the plots too early and this being my second experience of watching Mr. Selva’s craft after his Kadhal Konden film, I was struggling to connect the dots of the plot.

    I commented to my nephew after watching the film that the film appeared to pander to the stardom of Mr. Suriya and at that level I am disappointed with the narrative flow of the film No, I don’t have any feelings of dislike for Mr. Suriya, but rather I have reservations in watching a mass hero film. Of course, Mr. Suriya has done a commendable performance.

    You know, the film was taken out of the screens in Chennai, going by the news-piece that I got to read today.

    By the way, I feel while it may be Mr. Selva’s way of craft – not to spoon-feed his audience about his narrative arcs but this film is a really let-down on how to connect the dots, since you need to have the facility of stopping the film midway if you have the luxury of using a remote control to do the guesswork of the subtleties or layers or motifs involved and then what you could make sense of the flow, you could resume the movie watching and keep repeating the cycle. But that apparently kills the joy of cinematic experience of watching the film in a theatrical settings.

    This review by Mr. Annamalai Kasi does his best to fill the guesswork for us to understand the film’s flow – https://www.behindwoods.com/tamil-movies-cinema-fans-column/why-is-ngk-the-best-selvaraghavan-movie-ever.html.

    However, I share the grouse with famed film critic, Mr.Bharadwaj Rangan on his musings about the missing WHYs in this NGK film: https://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com/2019/06/01/ngk-ccv-kaatru-veliyidai-and-the-why-question-in-mainstream-cinema/.

    My original impulse was to not to comment about this NGK Film but to share a opinion with you through any of the reviews you have made recently. Please do find time to read about this link: https://www.filmcompanion.in/southern-lights-a-film-critics-open-letter-to-director-ram-baradwaj-rangan/. Especially these lines in the link: “In the absence of this, the only people who will be able to write the kind of “film appreciation” are hobbyists and the lucky few freelance writers who have the luxury of committing to one project at a time” made me recollect your way of reviews, one who reviews film after watching the movie for 2 or more times to write about it at length as a mark of film appreciation, in the sense Director Mr. Ram desires and emphasizes in the English media concerning the film review. I often use to wonder how do these reviewers make a mention of so many aspects about the film on day one of film release day itself and what it takes of them to do such a clinical analysis.

    Cheers Anu!!

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  2. I am sorry Ms. Heather Wilson! I came to this blog through the link contained in Ms. Anuradha Warrier’s blog. I was naturally under the impression that this review was indeed by Ms.Anu. Only this morning, I could see it for myself that this blog has been run by you and you have penned reviews for many films.

    By the way a big Hi to you!

    Cheers!

    Like

    • Hi Thandri R N,
      I thought you had mixed me up with Anu, but in fact, it’s rather flattering to be confused with someone who writes such excellent reviews!
      I’m based in Melbourne, Australia and am lucky enough to be able to watch mainstream new SI film releases here. I wish it could be more but unfortunately real life tends to get in the way!
      Thanks for your link to Mr Bharadwaj’s site. I do follow him (have his books too) and love his reviews, but I don’t remember reading this particular response to director Ram. But I can certainly agree with his sentiment. I don’t have any time pressure to write, but often I’ve only been able to see a new film release once which does make it difficult to draw out nuances and themes which take a good few watches to really get and understand. Particularly with Selva’s films, since he tends to have many layers, and a lot of symbolism in his work. I think I watched Pudhupettai at least 5 or 6 times before I really got to grips with the story, for instance.
      With NGK I was frustrated in the cinema with the lack of ‘why’, as Bharadwaj puts it. The story seemed clinical and I really wanted to know more about the different motivations for each character. But the more I reflected on the story, the more complex it seemed. I’ve read a few more analyses since I wrote my review and I like the suggestion that what we are seeing is Kumaran’s view of the story – which he has ‘cleaned up’ for his TV interview. I can’t remember who wrote that unfortunately but it would explain some of the sudden changes – from being besotted with his wife and being an ultra do-gooder (the notion of giving Giri money for instance) to the Kumaran who has an affair and is a more duplicitous character by the end. I wonder if this really was pandering to Suriya, given the storyline of the affair and so on, or was it more Selva’s awareness that he was dealing with a big star with a huge fan following. I’m sure that would be fairly restrictive even if the actor was more open to a more ‘different’ role. And I do think Suriya was good in this – for me it was the other characters who were less well described and who had more restricted roles compared to Selva’s other films. I probably won’t get a chance to watch it again until it releases online, but I definitely will watch it again and have a chance to really focus on what is happening in the background 🙂
      If you haven’t seen it I would recommend Selva’s Pudhupettai. It’s a similar story, except this time with a gangster rather than a politician and the minor characters have a lot more development and importance in the action.
      Thanks for your comment and for stopping by our blog.
      Cheers, Heather

      Like

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