Majili

Majili

Shiva Nirvana’s Majili is a romance that feels oddly dated where the characters make some very strange choices, and the plot harks back to attitudes that might have seemed plausible 30 years ago. Naga Chaitanya plays a cricket player whose life is destroyed when he loses the girl of his dreams, while Samantha is the woman waiting patiently for him to notice her. The film is helped considerably by good performances from the main leads, but it’s the support cast of Posani Krishna Murali, Suhas and Rao Ramesh, who end up making the film more interesting than the story would suggest.

The film begins with Poorna (Naga Chaitanya) as a miserably grumpy cricket umpire who spends his night getting drunk in a specific hotel room. The story behind his descent into the bottle is told in flashback when he was a younger wannabe cricket player, and his father had just given him a year to work at making it into a career. Shortly after landing a place on the Vizag Railways team, Poorna meets Anshu (Divyansha Kaushik), the daughter of a navy officer based in the town and the two start a relationship. It’s a patchy affair right from the start as there is little chemistry between the couple and their social divide makes their meetings awkward and clumsy. That might have worked, except there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Anshu to prefer Poorna over anyone in her own social circle, and after he puts her into a situation where she is almost raped, Anshu’s continued desire to be with Poorna seems even less likely. Although Chaitanya tries his best, this is just another typical love story, with the usual parental opposition and a bad guy in the form of Bhushan (Subbaraju). Divyansha Kaushik is bland and unobjectionable, but the romance is all just too unlikely to make any impression, and the finale that ends with Poorna in a hotel room seems completely implausible and a whimpering end to a supposedly grandiose love affair.

Poorna’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and heartache-induced torpor is also overly extreme for such a lacklustre romance. He wallows in his misery and seems unable to find anything worthwhile to do with his time other than mourn the loss of his ‘one true love’. However, at some point in the intervening years he somehow manages to get married to Sravani (Samantha Akkineni) who puts up with his idleness, drunkenness and morose personality with completely unlikely composure. The story tries to make us believe that she always loved Poorna and is happy simply to be his wife, despite the cold shoulder treatment she receives and his total lack of support – either emotional or financial. In fact, it’s Sravani who supports the family with her job as a railway clerk since Poorna’s father (Rao Ramesh) has retired and Poorna is too busy being miserable.

Thankfully, despite her irritatingly subservient attitude, Samantha breathes life and energy into the film. Her interactions with her father (Posani Kirshna Murali) and Porna’s father (Rao Ramesh) are the perfect mixture of funny and sad, and here at last is the spark that was so sadly missing in the first half. Although Sravani’s attitude to her husband quickly becomes wearing, Samantha somehow manages to keep her character from being completely irritating and despite wanting to shake some sense into her, I felt that her rationale was at least constant and made sense from her character’s point of view. Poorna on the other hand was just a waste of space who didn’t take any of the many opportunities he had to turn his life around. The final piece in the puzzle that leads to Poorna’s redemption is lazy and poorly done, although again it’s Sravani who has the best of the generally weak dialogue and ends up as the only one who acts according to her established persona.

Posani Krishna Murali is brilliant as Sravani’s father and his comedy keeps the film from being totally subsumed in weepy tragedy. Rao Ramesh is also unfailingly sensible and brings some much-needed common sense, as does Suhas who shines in a small role as one of Poorna’s long-suffering friends. Subbaraju is totally wasted in the role of a small-town thug with a political agenda who has no significant part to play other than to be the ‘bad guy’ for Poorna to fight at regular intervals. This would have been a much better film without the usual Telugu commercial elements – removing the dull romance, repetitive fight scenes and glamourous song sequences and adding more of Sravani, her family and her story would have made for a more interesting film. Some explanation for Sravani’s ridiculously self-sacrificing attitude would have helped too other than the wishy-washy enduring love that is used.

Overall, Majili is disappointing. The story isn’t plausible and never comes together to form a coherent whole. The bittiness of the plot transfers to the characters, who also don’t always act in keeping with their role. There simply isn’t enough of the good parts – Samantha, Posani Krishna Murali – but instead far too much insipid romance. Gopi Sundar’s songs though are generally good and Vishnu Sharma’s cinematography captures the claustrophobic feel of the family well in the latter half of the film. I wanted to like this, I like Chaitanya and Samantha and perhaps as their first film together I expected a little too much. Worth watching for Samantha, the support cast and Chaitanya in the second half.

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Super Deluxe

Super Deluxe

Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe is a significant step up from his previous film Aaranya Kaandam, aided by a sumptuous colour palette from P.S. Vinod and Nirav Shah, and the presence of a number of top actors from the South. Included are the likes of Vijay Sethupathi, Samantha, Fahadh Faasil, Ramya Krishnan and Mysskin but the newcomers are just as good and hold their own against the established stars. It’s an interesting story too, although after a good start the middle section does wander and become rather self-indulgent before ending with a stronger finale. It’s still a compelling watch, not just to discover what happens in the various threads, but also to spot influences, note the repeated motif’s and ultimately try to figure out just what Thiagarajan Kumararaja is trying to say. Super Deluxe isn’t for the faint-hearted – the language is strong and there are a number of confronting themes, but the juxtaposition of topical issues and out-and-out fantasy is intriguing even with a close to 3 hour run time.

The film consists of a number of different threads which don’t interconnect as such, but instead superficially intersect and occasionally influence each other. The first involves a cheating wife Vaembu (Samantha) and what happens when her husband Mugilan (Fahadh Faasil) discovers her infidelity when her lover has the bad taste to die during their lovemaking session. Next there are a group of schoolboys who arrange an elaborate plan to bunk school and watch porn movies. Their problems start when one of the four recognises his mother Leela (Ramya Krishnan) in the movie and the ripples from his subsequent actions have far-ranging consequences. Part of this sparks an existential crisis for Leela’s husband Dhanasekaran (Mysskin) who has become a faith healer after surviving the tsunami by holding on to a statue of Jesus. The other boys end up in trouble when they try to raise the funds to buy a new TV and end up in a truly out of this world experience. And then there is the story of Shilpa (Vijay Sethupathi), a transgender woman trying to reunite with the wife and young son she left behind many years before. It’s a fascinating blend of narratives and some of the stories work better than others. Or perhaps it’s more that some parts of each story are simply brilliant (and brilliantly simple), but then at times Thiagarajan Kumararaja and his co-writers seem to get carried away and try just that little too hard to be edgy and confrontational.

As well as a lot of swearing, there is a lot of sex in this film. Vaembu is first seen in bed with her lover, the teenage boys are obsessed with sex (although that’s not surprising) and there’s a creepy cop (Bagavathi Perumal) whose rapacious tendencies provide an important plot point in two of the stories. One of these is nasty but effective, while the other is too drawn out and staged to be convincing. In those parts where the film is subtle and suggests rather than shows, it is more chillingly real and packs more of a punch compared to the more filmi scenes with Vaembu, Mugilan and SI Berlin. Perhaps it’s a consequence of too many writers (Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K. Sekar and Thiagarajan Kumararaja are all credited with the screenplay), but Vaembu and Mugilan’s story is the least successful for me, despite fine performances from the two actors. Their relationship just doesn’t ring true and the characters are an odd mix of modern and traditional that doesn’t seem plausible. However, I appreciate that the fallen woman gets a shot at redemption and isn’t permanently tainted by her infidelity. Something which is also the case with Leela who is proud of her film achievements and sees no reason to disavow her presence in a porn movie. It is refreshingly different even if at times there is a feeling that some of the dialogue has been written by grubby little boys sitting and sniggering at the mere mention of sex. That may be more to do with the subtitles though as I have read a number of comments that some concepts weren’t translated accurately, particularly in respect to Ramya Krishnan’s character.

The most successful thread is that of Shilpa, and despite all the issues around a cis male actor playing a trans woman, Vijay Sethupathi is much more here than just a man in a wig. The issues here feel true to life, shocking as they are, as Shilpa tries to navigate a brief visit to her son’s school and faces prejudice and abuse at almost every turn. Ashwanth Ashokkumar is outstanding as her son Rasukutty and although Gayathrie has very little screen-time as the abandoned wife, she makes a strong impact as her facial expressions say so much more than any dialogue could possibly manage. Vijay transforms himself yet again and adds many layers and nuances to his character, alternating between comedy and tragedy but still providing a sense of the underlying weakness that drove Shilpa to abandon her family.

The first half has a lot of well-written comedy but immediately after the interval the film shifts into more serious territory. The pace is also more uneven in the second half, and the labyrinthine feeling of diving down a rabbit hole, so well done in the first half, falters as the frenetic pace slows. There is still a lot going on though, and with the richness of the visuals the film at times becomes almost overwhelming. There are close-ups of ants running up and down a door frame for example – the implication initially seems fairly straight forward, but is it really? There are so many questions and possible explanations for even the simplest shot and it seems that every single part of the set could have a secondary meaning. This is a film that I think does need multiple viewings, and I’m sure that I will see more detail each time.

There are plenty of film references here too – to both Indian and Western films and probably a lot more cultural references that completely passed me by. Despite the variability in the second half this is definitely a film that I’d recommend for the sumptuous visuals, excellent performances and intricate story. Thiagarajan Kumararaja has built a complex world that tries to encompass the natural, unnatural and everything in between. The best part about Super Deluxe is that he so very nearly succeeds.

 

Ratsasan

Ratsasan

Ram Kumar’s 2018 film Ratsasan is a chillingly dark thriller that has plenty of twists and turns, and a good selection of red herrings added to the mix. Vishnu Vishal is compelling as a police officer trying to track down a particularly vicious serial killer and San Lokesh’s editing ensures the suspense level is high throughout. The only let down is the end, which feels overly indulgent after the tight screenplay up to that point, but it’s a minor issue in an otherwise excellent film that is an edge-of-the-seat watch.

The film starts with one of those twists as what seems to be a horror film resolves into something else entirely. Arun Kumar (Vishnu Vishal) has dreams of making a film about a psychotic killer but struggles to get any interest from the various producers he approaches. Along with the continual dashing of his hopes, his mother and brother-in-law repeatedly advise him to give up his dreams and join the police force. Their logic being that since Arun’s father was a police officer, Arun would be a shoo-in for the job, which made no sense to me but presumably did to Arun! The continual rejections wear Arun down and he finally succumbs and becomes an SI just as a schoolgirl is abducted. The abduction coincides with the discovery of another body, horribly mutilated, wrapped in plastic and dumped in a concrete pipe. Thanks to his immense knowledge of serial killers from years of cutting out news clippings and obsessing about his film, Arun quickly puts two and two together and deduces that there is a psychopath preying on school girls in the area. However, convincing his superiors is just the first hurdle he has to overcome in his search for the murderer.

The early part of the film is used to establish Arun’s dedication and persistence since even when he starts working as a police officer, he doesn’t let go of his dream. Or perhaps his dream won’t let go of him – Arun tries to throw his script away into the sea, but the waves end up bringing it back to him. I like that he’s shown to be a compassionate but practical man, and that despite being on the side of law and order, he’s willing to break rules when he feels it’s expedient, or to argue his point when his senior officers tell him to shut up and go away. These early scenes paint a clear picture of Arun and set up his behaviour for the rest of the film, allowing Ram Kumar to focus attention on the plot and the action. Yes, the characters often behave predictably, but that’s the whole point and it actually adds to the plausibility of the police investigation.

The story moves rapidly between the various abductions, the search for each girl and the final discovery of the bodies while mixing in elements of the investigation.  All of this helps keep the tension high as the audience slowly learns about each new incident along with the investigating team. Ram Kumar also introduces each victim before they are abducted which makes them seem more ‘real’ and ups the suspense level as the police work to find them before they are mutilated and killed.

One well used point of contrast is the day-to-day normality of everything outside of the police case that serves to highlight the tensions within the case even further. Once he joins the police, Arun lives with his school-teacher sister Kokila (Vinodhini Vaidyanathan), her husband Doss (Ramdoss) (who is also a police officer), and their daughter Ammu (Abhirami). All have well written characters and the scenes in their house bring a good family dynamic that keeps the film grounded. There’s even a romance, which is kept nicely low-key to avoid derailing the main story. Viji (Amala Paul) is more than just a love interest though as her job as a teacher brings her into contact with the victims, and she is able to help out with the investigation as a result.

One of the best and most convincing threads is that of a paedophile in the school, well played by Vinod Sagar, with a chilling and shocking conclusion. It’s this mix of good writing, intelligent twists and genuinely surprising shocks that make the film work so well. I did find it quite surprising in a film that’s essentially about a police investigation, that the police don’t come across well at all. There are a lot of beatings, general brutality and forced confessions, while the senior officers seem to be willing to overlook their subordinates’ behaviour simply to have someone in jail for a crime – regardless of whether they are guilty or not. The police even have a secret mortuary used for whenever they need to ‘disappear’ someone, and the officer in charge of the investigation, ACP Lakshmi (Suzane George), is particularly stubborn and short-sighted. I find it hard to believe that anyone could be quite so fixated on their own theories to the point of stupidity, but her incompetence does ensure that naturally Arun will be needed to save the day.

Mostly the film gets it right, but there are perhaps a few too many coincidences, and having Arun as an expert in psychopaths is overdone at times – surely senior police would have heard about famous killers such as Jack the Ripper for instance – but otherwise the plot is well put together and cleverly convoluted. The fast pace, twists and turns keep the momentum going, although the film does slow at the end where the serial killer is unmasked. My main issue though is that the reasoning behind the abductions and mutilations doesn’t quite stand-up at the end. Maybe that’s just my preference for a more true-to-life killer – someone who drifts under the radar and whose neighbours are always shocked by the discovery. However, the reveal and explanation are suitably horrifying and the perpetrator satisfyingly evil with the moment when the last victim realises her predicament really very scary! Ghibran’s background music is effectively used to heighten the tension and P.V. Sankar blends light and shade with the camera as expertly as Ram Kumar does with the screenplay. All the actors perform well in their roles and it’s good to see so many minor characters have more back story and a real presence in the film. I haven’t seen Ram Kumar’s previous film, but if this is anything to go by, he’s definitely a director to watch out for. This is a well written and smartly plotted thriller that’s considerably darker than expected with plenty of suspense. Highly recommended – 4 stars.