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.

Kilometers and Kilometers

Jeo Baby’s romantic comedy Kilometers and Kilometers takes a meandering route with both the screenplay and the road trip that forms the centre of the story. The basic premise is a love story between a rude, privileged American and a struggling Keralan mechanic although the film does briefly touch on a number of different themes including the value of money, Indian patriarchy, family relationships and cultural differences. For the most part though, it’s a fairy-tale style road trip across India that works reasonably well as a light entertainer, mostly due to Tovino Thomas and an excellent soundtrack.

The film opens slowly with the first half hour concentrating on Josemon (Tovino Thomas) and his family. The opening titles charmingly explain the back story of Josemon and his father’s Bullet motorbike which was bought at the same time as Josemon was born. He grew up with the bike, and after his father’s death, the bike has come to be Josemon’s connection to his father, full of good memories and the love they shared. But the family is struggling to pay their debts, and at every turn Josemon is being urged to sell his beloved Bullet to pay the bills. 

At the start of the film everyone is celebrating Onam, with the local festivities being sponsored by a local made good, who has just returned from America. Right away, America is held up as the land of riches while meanwhile Josemon is shown entering every competition in an attempt to get as much of the ‘cash prizes’ as possible. He’s also not above small deceptions such as tampering with the church water pump to get some paid work from the priest when he is asked to fix it. But on the whole, Josemon is a nice guy, trying to do his best for his family and shouldering the usual head-of-the-family burdens. I always thing this is a uniquely Indian view-point, in many ways similar to the UK about 50 years ago, where the head of the family looks after all the finances. Perhaps this really is still the case, but for me this adds to the fairy-tale aspect of the story.

Luckily for Josemon, just when he is about to sell his bike, providence arrives in the form of American tourist Cathy (India Jarvis) who wants a driver to take her on a road trip through India. Cathy has won a heap of money from a casino and is spending all her winnings on a once in a lifetime trip abroad. She’s travelling all by herself and doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to learn any of the local language or tried to fit in with any local customs.  All plausible but none of these fit with my idea of travelling through India. While some of what she says and does is common sense for travellers; not eating from the local stalls, drinking soft drinks instead of water, she seems fairly clueless in many other ways. For instance, at one point she is travelling on the bike and wandering around various tourist sites wearing incredibly micro-shorts, something that jumps out as being incredibly inappropriate even for a dumb tourist. 

Cathy also has a bad attitude initially, berating Josemon for giving all his money to his family and expounding her own personal theory that money is everything while personal relationships are meaningless. At the same time, she is appalled by the dichotomy that is India, seeing children begging in the streets while milk is poured over giant cut-outs of movie stars and being shocked by the need to bribe police. To all of these, Josemon merely says that this is just the way it is, without ever really showing anything other than calm acceptance. I like how Jeo Baby brings out these issues which strike almost every visitor to India, although he doesn’t ever address these as anything other than simply the way life is. I did completely sympathise with Cathy though when she is shocked by Josemon’s attitude to litter, which is something that always shocks me in India. For a country that recycles so much, the attitude to rubbish as something that can be just chucked down in the street anywhere always seems incongruous to me.

The trip dynamic changes when an impulsive decision by Cathy results in a disaster befalling the pair. While Cathy is frustrated by Josemon’s tendency to help everyone he meets on the road, his kindness is rewarded and they fall in with Sunny (Sidhartha Siva) a Malayali living in Punjab. At this point Cathy changes from a typical tourist staying in posh hotels and refusing to share her belongings to a more relaxed persona, happy to spend nights in a concrete pipe and eat simple local fare. It’s a fairly fast transformation, but still not completely unlikely, and the change in circumstance allows a romance to develop between Josemon and Cathy. It’s not all smooth sailing and it never seems likely to be a completely happy ending, but again this all makes sense in the context of the story, and this latter half of the film is smoother and tighter than the earlier scenes. 

The film depends heavily on the on-screen presence of Tovino Thomas and his likeable personality. He oozes charm and his frustration with Cathy is totally understandable. The language barrier is cleverly exploited both for comedic value but also to emphasize the huge cultural difference between Cathy and Josemon and the two actors work well together to illustrate these differences. India Jarvis is also good in her role, but has a harder job since her character is not well developed. She starts as a ‘typical’ foreigner, ignorant and rude, but has to evolve into a more empathetic character while still holding rather odd views about money and family. He idea that money is more important than relationships isn’t a common viewpoint, whatever the background, and it’s a difficult one to reconcile with her change of heart as the film progresses. The kindness Josemon and Cathy meet along the way, while possible is also rather rose-tinted, but also doesn’t seem quite enough to cause such a big change of heart. The pair also don’t have fantastic chemistry, Tovino Thomas seems to get on better with Sidhartha Siva and Basil Joseph as Kuttan his best friend, but mostly this adds to their awkward relationship rather than being a downfall of the film. The other cast members including Joju George, Sudheesh and Pauly Valsan are all good in their small roles.

The other standout of the film is the music. Both Sushin Shyam’s soundtrack and Sooraj S. Kurup’s songs are gorgeous and suit the mood of the film perfectly. While Sinu Siddharth’s cinematography is beautiful with wonderful attention to the lighting, we don’t get to see as much of the different locales in India as I would have liked. The action is all firmly focused on Josemon and Cathy, often on country roads and nondescript fields which could be literally anywhere. I did feel very nostalgic for Mumbai though when the pair finally make it to the city at the end of their journey. 

Although at heart Kilometers and Kilometers is a fairly routine rom-com, adding a foreigner with actual personality is fairly novel, while the contrast of positives and negatives of life in India are rarely shown together in such stark clarity. There is nothing ground shaking here, but despite the slow start and wandering story, I still enjoyed this trip across India by motorbike. 3 stars.

Master (2021)

I loved Lokesh Kanagaraj’s last film Kaithi, and was interested to see how he would approach having a big name star for his latest movie. Not that Kathik isn’t a star (he definitely is!), but there are certain fan expectations for a Vijay film and as might be expected Lokesh follows most. However Master is more than simply another star vehicle and thankfully there are some touches that make this a cut above the usual Vijay mass film. For instance, the villain here is just as important as the hero – in fact he has more of a backstory and quite frankly a more interesting story arc. The obligatory ‘romance’ is practically non-existent and here Vijay plays a more dislikeable hero with more flaws than I’ve seen before. It’s not a perfect movie, but better than I was expecting and with both Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi on screen together, a real treat for fans of both.

The film opens with a young Bhavani (Master Mahendran) being menaced by his father’s enemies after they have murdered his family. He’s thrown into a juvenile detention centre where he is beaten and bullied, leading Bhavani to develop a tough persona and his own ‘superpower’ from years of pounding his fist into the wall. Moving forward to the present, and the now adult Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi) has taken control of the trucking industry using the young inmates of the detention centre as his criminal associates. Most notably he uses them to take the blame for his various illegal acts, while plying the youngsters with drugs and alcohol to keep them compliant.

Meanwhile, a college teacher John Durairaj aka JD (Vijay) is struggling with his job. Although he is loved by the students for his stance on student rights, the headmaster and other staff dislike him, possibly due to his popularity with the students, although this doesn’t ring true. When a contest for a new student president descends into violence, JD is quickly ousted from his job and moved to the juvenile detention centre to take charge of the facility as the new ‘Master’. JD quickly discovers the facility is beset by corruption and after a distressing incident involving two of the inmates, he starts to make changes in his own life. The idea seems to be that to change the facility he first has to change himself. After discovering links between Bhavani and his juvenile pupils, he sets out to destroy Bhavani and redeem the inmates.

So far so good, the story is engaging if rather predictable, and the addition of a good and personable villain really helps. As expected for a Vijay film, the action sequences are well choreographed and executed to a high standard. Those involving Bhavani and the various people who stand between him and the coveted Union leader’s position are made even more awesome by his ‘super-power’, which harks back to those hero fight scenes where the hero can manage to defeat hundreds of men without even breaking a sweat! There is a terrific extended sequence with JD in a police station, and it’s clear that all these small fight scenes are leading up to the big finale between JD and Bhavani, which also does not disappoint. While I would have liked a few more fight scenes with Vijay, overall, in terms of action, Master gets the recipe just right. The songs too are excellent. The energy and exuberance in this opening number with Vijay is simply spectacular!

What also works well is the development of Bhavani as a villain. Initially the character evokes sympathy for the way he was treated, and in many other films this would be the track that turns someone into a hero. But not here. Instead, after being powerless as a teenager, Bhavani becomes corrupt and willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone for his ambition.  Lokesh uses Vijay Sethupathi’s voice for the young Bhavani, I think modulated to sound younger, and it’s works well to anchor Bhavani’s persona in what he experienced as a youth. Vijay Sethupathi uses his physicality to really dominate in the film and I loved that here was a villain that I could really enjoy. There is some comedy and naturally lots of cool mannerisms that meant I was rooting for Bhavani in every single fight (well, the people he was fighting were just as corrupt) at least until he locks horns with Vijay. I am a big Vijay Sethupathi fan, and it was good to see him as the villain of the story for a change.

Interestingly, Vijay’s character JD had much less character development, although there is a long sequence at the start that introduces him and deals with his issues in the college where he works. This part of the film does drag and it also introduces characters that don’t add anything much to the story. Although they do appear at the end, by that stage I’d forgotten who they were and why I should care about their fate. Indeed, the entire introduction sequence only had 3 points of note, all of which could have been established in a fraction of the time. 

JD’s introduction sequence does feature new teacher Charu (Malavika Mohanan) who has a crush on JD. But s is so often the case in these big hero films, there was simply no point to Charu’s character and unfortunately, she adds little to the story. Her crush doesn’t go much further and attempts to bring her into the story using ‘connections’ in the detention facility fall rather flat. The only part of her story I enjoyed was when young inmate Undiyal (Pooviyar) manages to save her from a gang of thugs while JD is unable to do anything but watch. That felt much more like a Lokesh Kanagaraj touch. The best scenes are those with Vijay and the kids in the detention facility, and in these the mix of comedy, action and tension is just right. The contrast between Bhavani’s scenes of menace and destruction are used well to contrast with the gritty but still lighter scenes in the facility. I just wish there had been more of this and less of the ‘fluff’ and window dressing,

The good parts of the film; the fight scenes, Anirudh’s music and Vijay Sethupathi as a villain, are all excellent. Vijay is awesome in the fight scenes and his interactions with the kids in the detention facility are really cute. But where Master really falls down is the length. The film is really long and there is much that just feels unnecessary and indulgent. The screenplay seems loose and at times not coherently put together with a number of side alleys and diversions that should have been curtailed. The additions and distractions slow down the plot and the film only comes back to life when either JD or Bhavani are centre stage without all the extra padding weighing them down. An action film with Vijay should be tight and exciting from start to finish but sadly, Master isn’t, not quite. But it’s still a fun watch and I did enjoy watching Vijay Sethupathi as a villain and Vijay’s foray into the educational system. Thanks to rekhs and her excellent subtitles the film is also easy to understand while the production is slick and polished. I wish I’d been able to watch this in the cinema with a huge crowd, which would have helped get through some of the slow sequences. But even at home, Master is still a good film and definitely a better than average watch.