Minnal Murali (2021)

Basil Joseph’s 2021 superhero film puts an Indian spin on the genre with Tovino Thomas donning a costume and vaunting his superpowers in a small village in Kerala. The film is a slow burn, with the first half setting the scene and carefully developing the characters of Jaison (Tovino Thomas), his nemesis Shibu (Guru Somasundaram) and their various friends and neighbours in Kurukkanmoola. The film is as much a character study as an action adventure, and the beauty of Minnal Murali is that works as both. There is no Hollywood-style pure good and evil here either, just shades of grey that move and shift as circumstances change and events unfold, which makes for a more interesting film.

The story starts with a fire at a festival where a theatre group is performing in front of the village. A young boy sees his actor father consumed by the fire in front of his eyes which foreshadows the spectre of fire that returns a number of times in the film. In the present day, Jaison is a tailor living with his adopted family father Varky (P. Balachandran), foster sister Jesmi (Arya Salim), her abusive husband PC Siby Pothan (Aju Varghese) and their son Josemon (Vasisht Umesh). Also working in the tailor shop is Daasan (Harisree Ashokan), who is struggling to look after his sister Usha (Shelly Kishore) and her daughter who needs expensive medical treatment. Usha has recently returned to Kurukkanmoola after separating from her husband and there are mixed reactions in the village to her presence. Most of the men look at her as a prospective partner and approach Daasan with various proposals. In his turn, Daashan tries to barter Usha to the highest bidder, however this is to pay off her medical bills so Daashan isn’t quite as heartless as he might appear. 

Initially Jaison is planning to head to the USA, and is getting some photos for his passport application when he is lauded on his fashion sense – which includes chinos and a crucifix earing. I’m guessing that either the village is stuck in a timewarp or the film is set in the eighties, as Jaison doesn’t fit the bill as a ‘fashion icon’ by today’s standards, and probably not in the eighties either! Jaison is in love with Bincy Antony (Sneha Babu) but her father vehemently disproves of the match and in the process of telling Jaison how unsuitable he is, reveals that Jaison is an orphan and that it was his father who was killed in the opening sequences. Since Bincy’s father is in charge of the local police station, this leads to further harassment and ridicule of Jaison from the police force as SI Antony (Baiju) continues to warn him away from his daughter. What is strange is that Bincy doesn’t seem in the slightest bit bothered by this dismissal of her beau, and immediately arranges to marry Aneesh (Jude Anthany Joseph), who himself is the ex-boyfriend of Jaison’s friend ‘Bruce Lee’ Biji (Femina George). Bincy’s motives and true feelings are kept opaque, and in fact she practically disappears from the film in the second half. The interconnectedness of the village relationships works well to showcase the problems of living in a small town where everyone knows (or thinks they know) everything about everyone else. Despite the superhero aspect, this keeps the characters all grounded in reality, while the village mentality ensures that even superpowers can’t get Jaison what he really wants.

Shortly after the revelation about Jaison and his dismissal as Bincy’s suitor, Jaison and Shibu are both struck by lightning. This is the event that gives them their superpowers but there are distinct differences in what happens after they are struck. Shibu is alone, while Jaison is rushed to the hospital by his family. This proves key in how they each develop and use their powers in the events that follow. While both men are orphans with grievances centred in the village, the path they each follow diverges rapidly when they are suddenly given the power to make things happen. They both initially use their powers for selfish reasons, but it doesn’t take long for Jaison to realise he can actually become a hero, while Shibu seems unable to see anything but Usha and will do anything to ensure she becomes his.

Naturally superheros and villains need to have costumes, and this again defines the personalities of the two men. Initially Shibu conceals his identity using a mask taken from a scarecrow, which later becomes his supervillain costume. Jaison has the advantage of being a tailor, but it still takes him a while to develop his costume and therefore his identity, which echoes his uncertainty about which path to follow. Eventually though he gets it right with a nifty red and blue skin suit that echoes the heroes he has seen in American comics. 

While Tovino Thomas is excellent as Jaison, Guru Somasundaram is simply brilliant as Shibu. He brings a subtle blend of vulnerability and instability to the character and makes it clear that the abuse and treatment he is subjected to by the villagers shapes his actions. He’s dismissed by the other villagers as essentially ‘other’ – Tamil, insane, orphan and generally troublesome, which explains why he fights back when he realises that suddenly, he is the one with power. The flashbacks to his past are used to garner sympathy for his character, despite his actions in the present, and these work well to give an understanding of why Shibu acts the way he does. It’s a great performance and Guru Somasundaram succeeds in making his mostly unappealing character more sympathetic than first appearances would suggest. Tovino’s Jaison on the other hand hasn’t had the same level of prejudice but instead has to deal with a significant amount of immaturity and selfishness to become the hero of the hour when needed. The transformation is well done and Tovino Thomas does a good job in showing his emotions during all of the upheavals his character faces, all with plenty of charm.

I also really loved the character of Biji, and Femina George is excellent as the kick-ass heroine who can fight her own battles. It’s more unusual to have a female lead who takes no BS, especially one who literally kicks her cheating fiancée out of her dojo and fights her own battles, but Biji fits into the storyline well. I love how it’s Biji who fights back whern she find out about Aneesh and Bincy, while Jaison is the one who collapses in a sobbing and incoherent mess. Biji is key to defeating Shibu’s plans, and I really like that it takes the superhero and the ‘normal’ woman working together to defeat evil. Thank you too to writers Arun Anirudhan and Justin Mathew who didn’t add a romance between Biji and Jaison, which wouldn’t have worked at all. Their camaraderie is more natural and fits much better into the storyline as they work together to combat Shibu’s destruction. 

There isn’t a lot of action in the film and it does take a while for Shibu and Jaison to meet and face off, but that leaves more time for the character development which adds more layers to the story. I really enjoyed Minnal Murali and recommend it as a film that reconsiders who are the real villains and heroes in the story. 4 stars.

Acharya (2022)

A movie starring both Mega Star Chiranjeevi and Mega Power Star Ram Charan was always going to be a ‘must watch’ film with the question being would it be as good as anticipated. The answer to that question is ‘sort of’ as Koratala Siva at least partially delivers with plenty of action and dancing featuring the two Mega Stars. But the story is less successful, following a predictable and rather pedestrian path. I still enjoyed the spectacle of father and son together on screen and with good choreography for both the songs and the action sequences, there is enough here to make Acharya a worthwhile trip to the cinema.

The film opens with a fairly long animated sequence explaining the history behind the twin villages of Dharmasthali and Padaghattam. At least I think that was what was happening, because the subtitles were difficult to follow and mostly didn’t make sense. But from what I could gather, the village of Dharmasthali developed after the goddess Gattamma came to Earth to defend the tribal people of Padaghattam. The villagers built a temple in her honour and continued to live a peaceful existence until the people of Dharmasthali became corrupted. In contrast the tribal village of Padaghattam still followed the traditional way of life, and still do today, producing ayurvedic medicines that they take across the river to Dharmasthali. However life is becoming more difficult for them as Dharmasthali becomes a hotbed of crime and violence and the goddess seems to be allowing her people to be attacked.

Excitingly for me, CinemaChaat favourite Ajay is playing the role of Vedanna, the leader of the Padaghattam people. Their belief in Dharma means that they are peaceful and won’t fight back when threatened, leaving them vulnerable to the corrupting influence of local bigwig Basava (Sonu Sood). I really enjoyed seeing Ajay in this more pacific role where he gets the chance to emote, conveying emotion using just his eyes and facial expressions instead of just being thug #1. I thought he was excellent here and kept smiling ecery time he appeared onscreen.

Basava is working with businessman and developer Rathod (Jisshu Sengupta) to mine the mineral resources of the region, mainly located in the virgin forest of Siddhavana. Rathod is vicious and nasty for no apparent reason, but Koratala Siva does at least give Basava a sort-of back story that involves a bad hairstyle and humiliation by the people of Padaghattam. He’s also a generally nasty character who enjoys inflicting terror and controlling everyone else around him. Basava has risen up to become the municipal chariman, which gives him control of Dharmasthali, although he still has a bad hairstyle which demonstrates that money isn’t everything as it hasn’t allowed him to find a better hairdresser.

Against the heightening tension between the temple and Basava’s thugs, a stranger arrives in town and sets up a carpenter business in Dharmasthali. Acharya (Chiranjeevi) at first seems to be a do-gooder who sets out to help the people affected by Basava’s greed, but it becomes clear that there is a deeper reason for his involvement. The second half reveals the story of Siddha (Ram Charan) and why Acharya is working to save the people of Padaghattam and Dharmasthali.

It’s a fairly standard story for SI cinema and Kortala Siva doesn’t add anything new to the tale. The hero arrives, the bad guy’s motivations are explained, and then they fight. Mix in a lot of discussion of Dharma, a dash of Temple festivals, Ayurvedic medicine and Naxalite freedom fighters and there you have it. The first half has gorgeous sets from production designer Suresh Selvarajan and cinematographer S Thirumavukkarasu makes the most of the sumptuous colours and beautiful scenery. I loved the first song  Laahe Laahe, featuring the stunning Sangeetha Krish, which bursts with colour and energy against the backdrop of the temple. And of course, add in Chiru dancing and it’s a total winner!

Siddha turns out to be the son of a Naxalite leader who was raised by the people of Padaghattam after his parents were killed. Acharya was tasked by Siddha’s father to raise his son in the movement and when Siddha is injured fighting against corruption in Dharmasthala it’s the perfect opportunity for him to go back to his roots. Ram Charan is excellent and his eyes are brilliantly expressive as he shows Siddha to be a true follower of Dharma. There are so many emotions conveyed between Siddha and Acharya just using their eyes that there is an entire section of the film that just focuses on their eyes for a good few minutes. I was in heaven! Although the story may be not be anything new, the interactions between Ram Charan and Chiranjeevi continually made me smile and lifted the energy of the film. 

The scenes where Ram Charan is dancing with Chiranjeevi are spectacular and feature plenty of Mega Star patented moves that Ram Charan performs under the approving eye of his dad. It’s really effective and I wanted to see more! The action sequences too are mostly well choreographed, apart from the finale which doesn’t work as well as the earlier pieces. In terms of spectacle and production, the film looks amazing and each set is obviously well designed and beautifully filmed. But essentially the film lacks depth. The reason for Acharya to be in Dharmasthala is revealed too late and so Chiranjeevi’s character lacks motivation for most of the first half. The second half is better and benefits from the interplay between Ram Charan and Chiru, but the finale could have been so much more if Kortala Siva had taken better care of his characters and thought more about Acharya’s motivation. 

Seasoned actors Nassar, Tanikella Bharani, Ravi Prakash and Vennela Kishore also put in an appearance and are all excellent in the type of roles they have played many, many times before. I’m not sure why Rathod’s main henchman Khilla (Shatru) had to have a deformity, but the bad guys are mostly faceless and evil because that’s what bad guys just are. Sonu Sood does his usual villain schtick effectively despite limited screentime and those dreadful wigs. But poor Pooja Hegde. After Beast I was hoping she would have a bigger role here, but she has even less to do here. Her character is mostly used as the reason for Acharya to explain Siddha’s history and apart from a song and a brief romance she barely appears in the film. 

I did enjoy Acharya and loved watching Ram Charan and Chiranjeevi together on screen. It’s unfortunate that the story doesn’t deliver the same emotional impact, but the songs from Mani Sharma are good, the action well choreographed and the dancing awesome! The worst part of the film is the subtitles which appeared to have been translated literally, and then misspelled (golry instead of glory, their instead of there – seriously did no-one check?) so that I was actually better trying to decipher the Telugu from my very limited vocabulary rather than rely on the subs. For a film with otherwise high production values, it seems such a shame to be let down so badly internationally for something like bad subtitles. So is Acharya worth watching – absolutely! Sit back, enjoy the performances and revel in the pairing of Mega Star Chiranjeevi and Mega Power Star Ram Charan.

Beast

I really was in two minds about posting this review. I usually really enjoy Vijay films and can find something to like about almost any film, but I just couldn’t find much that was redeeming about Beast. The film tries to be an action thriller comedy but fails on every one of those 3 aspects. There are a few good action set pieces, but just as many poorly thought-out scenes that just don’t work. The comedy is often inane, and the real laughs come from the attempts at making this a thriller, which are so bad they are funny. Nothing about this film worked for me except perhaps the first action sequence and Selvaraghavan as a security advisor attempting to negotiate the release of hostages. I really wanted to like Beast, but sadly I didn’t enjoy it at all.

I’ve previously watched Nelson’s début film Kolamaavu Kokila which was pretty good, so it is really disappointing that Beast is such a disaster. There are so many problems that it’s difficult to know where to start, but essentially the plot never engages or makes any kind of sense, while the supposed hilarity of terrorists being stabbed/shot/decapitated in front of young children is just grotesque. Beast starts well enough with RAW agent Veera (Vijay) capturing the terrorist Umar Farooq (Lillput) in typical ‘one-man-army’ style. The action sequences are good here and it doesn’t matter that none of them are realistic because it’s the usual fare expected from a Vijay action movie. But then a young girl is killed when Veera’s intelligence officer decides that it’s more important to capture Farooq than to save any civilians in the area and the plot starts to unravel.

Veera is devastated by his actions and immediately leaves RAW but is still traumatised some 11 months later. In what initially appears to be a very progressive move, he goes to see a therapist (Prudhvi Raj) but bizarrely the therapist cracks a few terrible jokes at Veera’s expense and then drags him to a wedding. There he meets Preethi (Pooja Hegde) and after a brief conversation and a quick bop they decide they are in love and get engaged. They ignore the small problem of Preethi’s current fiancé Ramachandran (Sathish Krishnan) who is still infatuated and refuses to believe that Preethi doesn’t want to marry him. This is somehow supposed to be funny, but it’s just plain stupid, while Ramachandran’s antics are consistently irritating and infantile. In an attempt to add even more puerile comedy, Yogi Babu and Redin Kingsley pop up as two inept mall workers but nothing they do is amusing at all. 

Preethi introduces Veera to her boss Domnic (VTV Ganesh) who runs “Domnic and Soldiers”, a security company so bad they are only employed by 1 shopping mall – which has just decided to terminate their contract. Veera goes along with Preethi and Domnic to the mall for further discussions, but just as they are leaving, the mall is hijacked by a group of terrorists led by Umar Saif (Ankur Ajit Vikal). Right from the start the hijack seems doomed to fail since the terrorists don’t appear to know what they are doing. Most seem to be roaming around the mall paying no attention to their surroundings, and only 2 are tasked to guard all the hostages. Naturally Veera’s spidey senses started tingling before the hijack started and he manages to find a hideaway along with Preethi, her boss and her ex-fiancé.

There are a number of action sequences set in the mall as Veera fights back against the terrorists and attempts to free the hostages. The problem is that none of these work very well, and some, such as Vijay fighting on roller blades, are just awkward. We have the usual 1 indestructible man against many and since Veera has no armour but the hostages are wearing excessive amounts of protective gear, the fact that bullets magically miss Veera while his always strike home makes for rather dull viewing. The whole hijacking sequence seems to be played for laughs except that it’s really not funny to watch Vijay chop up gunmen in front of children. The first decapitation is quite funny though. After that, the action is predictable (notwithstanding the bizarre decision to use roller blades) and there are a few quite horrific moments that are particularly jarring when set into comedy sequences. 

While the hostage situation is going on there is a corrupt politician (Shaji Chen) trying to play both sides, and this is where the film picks up pace adding some amusing scenes with National Security Advisor Althaf Hussain (Selvaraghavan). Who knew one of my favourite Tamil directors could act so well? His comedic timing here is good, and he stands out as one of the best performances in the film. As much as I want him to keep making films as a director, I do hope we get to see more of him in front of the cameras was well.

To be fair, it’s not that Vijay puts in a poor performance – in fact he’s livelier and more enthusiastic here than in his last outing Master, but the role is too schizophrenic to succeed. Jolting from lean, mean, killing machine to rollerskating comedian is a step too far and not even Vijay’s natural charm can save the character. Veera is always just Vijay acting and so nothing feels real – not the initial trauma of the mission gone wrong, the contrived romance or even the idea that he can take on all the terrorists by himself. There is a distinct lack of empathy in the character which is odd given his supposed issue with killing a child, and habit of hearing wailing children at odd moments. However, at no time during the hijack situation does Veera seem to even think of the hostages as people, and they are just the bargaining chip to let him kill terrorists in ever more bloody ways.

The rest of the cast don’t fare well either. Pooja Hegde is completely wasted in a role where she has nothing to do although Aparna Das makes more of an impression in her brief appearance as the politician’s daughter. Shaji Chen chews scenery at every opportunity and while Ankur Ajit Vikal is appropriately cold, he doesn’t get enough screen time or dialogue to make him a convincing opponent. It doesn’t help that the songs are woeful as well, with nonsensical lyrics and bizarre costuming that distracts from the choreography. The final song is called Jolly O Gymkhana (!) and features the backing dancers, Vijay and Pooja in tropical costumes wandering from a beach into a snowstorm for no apparent reason. Nonsense music, nonsense lyrics and nonsense choreography I guess all go together but the result is a mess. I noticed the backing dancers more than the main leads since they seemed to be having a much better time, but none of the songs were enjoyable at all. 

Thanks to rekhs for at least supplying subtitles that made sense even if nothing else about the film did. I can’t even mention the finale sequence which was jaw-droppingly terrible although the special effects were pretty good. The main problem with Beast is a lack of consistency in Veera’s character, added to a storyline that makes no sense. The jumble of action, comedy and political thriller needed a taut and well defined storyline with crisp action, but there is almost the complete opposite here. I left the cinema disappointed and sad because I wanted to like Beast, but there was little for me to enjoy. Maybe wait for streaming when it’s possible to watch the first sequence, Selvaraghavan and ignore the rest.