Vellai Pookal

The idea of Vivek in a serious role as a cop investigating a succession of disappearances in America is intriguing, but despite some good ideas and the rather more unusual setting of Seattle, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the trailer.  Director Vivek Elangovan and co-writer Shanmuga Bharathi have a story with potential that’s let down by poor dialogue for the inexperienced American cast and a slow introduction that fails to produce the necessary tension. On the plus side, Vivek pulls off his role as a retired detective and there is enough going on to keep the film interesting, even if it lacks enough suspense until near the end.

Vivek plays the role of Rudhran, a police officer in Chennai who investigates crimes by placing himself in the mind of the killer. The opening sequence shows this clearly, if somewhat bloodily, but already there is something just a little off with the screenplay. When Rudhran explains every clue, and conveniently finds the culprit close at hand, it all seems just a little too pat and easy, while the violence of the crime seems unsuited to the perpetrator and the revelation of his reasons. Still, it’s a good introduction and doesn’t show Rudhran as some kind of superhero cop, but rather as someone who relies on his intelligence and his instincts to bring a killer to justice.

This seems to have been Rudhran’s last case before retirement, and at the urging of his Deputy Inspector General (Gajaraj), he heads off to Seattle to visit his estranged son Ajay (Dev). Despite a friendly welcome, Rudhran still seems to have an issue with Ajay, but all is revealed when they arrive home to Alice (Paige Henderson), the white American woman Ajay has married. If his reaction to Ajay is chilly, Rudhran is positively glacial towards Alice, and practically refuses to acknowledge her existence. Later, we learn that this animosity isn’t simply because Alice is white, or even as a result of her attempts to speak Tamil, but rather is due to Ajay jilting the girl he was to marry in India just a few days before the wedding. Rudhran struggles to cope with Alice, the American food and the smart fridge featuring photos of the couple, all of which I found fairly relatable to be honest.

But Rudhran also complains about Seattle being too clean and quiet for him during phone calls to friends back home, as he misses the noise and chaos of Chennai and the excitement of police investigations.  Luckily, Ajay’s work colleague Ramya (Pooja Devariya) live with her parents, Bharati (Charle) and Meena (Sudha Rajasekaran) who quickly establish a relationship with Rudhran.

The neighbourhood isn’t as quiet as Rudhran thinks since first Ajay’s next-door neighbour, and then a neighbourhood kid both vanish under mysterious circumstances. Various characters are offered up as potential suspects but the issue is confused by occasional scenes of an abusive man, his bedridden wife and traumatised daughter. When Ajay joins the ranks of the missing the case becomes more than an interesting puzzle for Rudhran and he has to overcome his fears for Ajay before he can focus his skills as a detective.

The bones of the story are good but unfortunately there is too much that is predicable, especially in the long and drawn out set-up to Ajay’s disappearance. Most of the suspects are cliched characters too – there is a black drug dealer, Mona’s muscled boyfriend and a shady and uncommunicative Pakistani neighbour who all fall under Rudhran’s suspicions. This necessitates various plots and diversions by Bharati to allow Rudhran to investigate each suspect, but these don’t all work and mostly seem forced into the story to allow Vivekh and Charle a chance to revert back to their usual comedy schtick. We never get a good feel for the characters of Ajay and Alice, while the investigating police officers are drawn in very broad strokes, seemingly only included to get in Rudhran’s way and demonstrate 70’s TV cop clichés at every turn.

Also problematic are the scenes featuring Ethan (Lionel Flynn) and his daughter Nicole (Gabrielle Castronover) which seem ridiculously over the top and exaggerated. Ethan is purely evil and seems to spend his time dealing in drugs and stolen children, brutalising his wife and daughter and wastefully snorting massive amounts of cocaine. The problem with this is that Ethan is such a complete monster, and so removed from the rest of the storyline, that it seems obvious that the disappearances will be linked to him. This ends up removing any real sense of urgency or tension as we know who the real bad guy is and really are just waiting to see when he will cross paths with Rudhran. As it turns out there is a nice twist, but it’s spoiled by Rudhran explaining what has happened with a voice-over rather than just showing us the action. None of the American cast impress at all, with the possible exception of Gabrielle Castronover who has little dialogue but is still effective in getting her emotions across.

Despite these issues, the film is still watchable thanks to Vivek who really gets into the role, particularly when Rudhran the father has to take second place to the Rudhran the detective. He’s also excellent at portraying his frustration with retirement, with the lack of purpose to his days and his discomfort at being in his son’s house without having solved the problems that exist between them. His fear and frustration roil off the screen and in these moments it’s easy to forget that he’s mainly known for his comedic roles. There are some good scsnes too, such as when Rudhran interviews the missing people in his dreams, and interrogates his suspects – insisting that they all speak Tamil because it is his dream, and that is the language he speaks. These are cleverly done and it’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t show the same attention to detail and preciseness of dialogue that are shown here.

According to their website this was the first film from Indus Creations and it seems to be a collaboration among friends with a passion for theatre and film. As such, this is a good first dip into the murky waters of cinema and the team deserve credit for producing a watchable detective film with a difference. Tighter editing, better use of the American cast including less stilted dialogue would have made this a better film, but it’s still enjoyable and it’s probably the most inventive use of dandelions I’ve seen in an Indian film. Worth a one-time watch for Vivek and the inventive storyline. 3 stars.

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Saaho

I didn’t read any reviews before I went to see Saaho, but I’d seen comments on social media that were mostly negative. So I wasn’t expecting great things from the film, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Sure there are plenty of flaws, including a confusing story, poorly developed villains and far too many songs, but I loved the action, all the special effects and especially the imposing presence of Prabhas. Think standard Telegu Mass on VFX steroids, and that’s pretty much what you get with Saaho. Logic has never been high on the agenda for these kinds of films, not when directors can just blow up, beat up or shoot up everything in the hero’s path and writer/director Sujeeth follows he standard formula here. Nonsensical yes, but entertaining – definitely!

Let’s talk about the negative aspects first. The film opens with a confusing array of characters, not helped by long, complicated sentences of subtitles which vanished off the screen too quickly for me to read them. Then, the introduction scene for Prabhas is surprisingly poorly executed. Who is the man he is trying to rescue from a bad situation with a gang of thugs? There is some by-play about a whistling pressure cooker to give Prabhas a set time to carry out the rescue, but then there are no whistles – why set this up and then fail to deliver? And when this character reappears, his part in the finale is so rushed and poorly subtitled that I have no idea what exactly he was supposed to be doing. So, we’re off to a bad start, which is compounded by key events being rushed through and important characters appearing and disappearing without any clear idea of who they are and what role they play in the plot. It’s not helped by the subtitles which sometimes took me some time to work out and even with my bad Telugu I could tell that they missed a lot of information. The list of bad guys grows longer and longer, on top of which their alliances change, there are numerous double crosses and their relationships to each other are poorly described, so after a while the best idea is to stop trying to figure it out and just enjoy all the mayhem!

And the mayhem is what works very well here. This is where all the money was spent, and the result is slick and fast paced action with excellent fight scenes and lots of explosions. There are fast cars, motorbikes, even chase scenes with heavily armoured trucks and excavators but perhaps the most ridiculous involve men wearing mechanical flying suits and Prabhas carrying out some do-si-doing with a helicopter. At one point, at the end of a song, for no apparent reason there is a tank that drives over a couple of cars. It’s like they had a few thousands of dollars left and decided that adding a tank would complete the line-up of transport options! Throughout it all Prabhas is a tower of strength and stays true to the Telugu hero ‘code of conduct’ by endeavouring to single handedly take down all his enemies, be impervious to bullets, indestructible regardless of whether there are crashes, explosions or he leaps off a cliff without a parachute (more on that later), and of course still find time to romance the girl, talk tough and always, always look ultra-cool!

After the initial confusion the film settles down with Prabhas as an undercover cop who has been seconded to an investigation team after a series of burglaries in Mumbai. Amritha (Shraddha Kapoor) is the nominal female detective who is continually shunted aside by her boss Shinde (Prakash Belavadi), while tech specialist David (Murali Sharma) and Goswami (Vennela Kishore) round out the team. The police think they spot the thief (Neil Nitin Mukesh) on CCT and the team then devise a super complicated plan to bring him in. This involves convincing him to steal a ‘black box’ which is vital to open a vault full of money and gold in the gangster city of Waaji.

Waaji is a super high-tech city run by the Roy corporation headed by Narantak Roy (Jackie Shroff). After his assassination, Devraj (Chunky Pandey) is poised to take over the cartel when Roy’s previously hidden son, Vishwank (Arun Vijay) appears and thwarts his plans. The various cartel members are each trying to take over the top spot, but key lieutenant Kalki (Mandira Bedi) supports Vishwank, although his position is far from secure and he needs the black box to be able to pay off the various cartel members. The action moves to Waaji in the second half after the black box is stolen and Saaho (Prabhas) becomes involved in the power plays by Devraj and Vishwank.

Most of the Southern Indian actors play their usual kind of roles well here. Tinnu Anand is good as Devraj’s disabled father and Arun Vijay does well as Vishwank despite the dodgy writing while Supreeth and the cast of support thugs are suitably OTT. Mahesh Manjrekar has a reasonable role as one of the cartel members, but Madira Bedi is probably the best realised of these characters and I love her smooth operator approach to playing a gang member. The rest of the Hindi actors are a bit hit and miss. This might be more due to the language problem as they were better when speaking in English. Jackie Shroff is probably the best of the lot, possibly because he has only has a small role to play and little dialogue. Neil Nitin Mukesh seems uncomfortable throughout and Chunky Pandey desperately overacts every time he appears. To be fair, Shraddha Kapoor is pretty good in a more action-based role and she does have reasonable chemistry with Prabhas in their romance scenes. The problem is the songs, which don’t fit well into the narrative and don’t add anything to the story. This is an all action film, and the songs act as speed breakers, taking the audience out of the story. Probably the best is the Jacqueline Fernandez item number, which is just ridiculous enough to fit the plot, with the previously mentioned tank, machine guns, and lots of scantily glad women in a swimming pool.

Sujeeth however is equal opportunity in objectifying his stars, and Prabhas gets to jump off a cliff wearing nothing but ripped jeans, but only after he throws his parachute off the edge first. It’s that kind of film. Shraddha Kapoor actually comes off pretty well in the costume stakes, wearing generally sensible clothes, apart from in the songs. Prabhas looks uber-cool wearing cropped pants and trendy loafers once he gives up the denim and leather look of the first half.

Saaho is a fairly typical Telugu action hero film. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense and the cast of thousands list of characters is confusing, but there are some good ideas in there that would have worked better if they’d been kept simpler. Having lots of special effects doesn’t hide the limitations of the story, but it does make it fun to watch. I saw the Telugu version at a fairly full theatre in Melbourne, and most of the audience seemed to be enjoying the film as much as I was. We did all laugh at scenes that I think were supposed to be dramatic and tense, but there was plenty of applauding and cheering whenever Prabhas got to obliterate (literally!) the bad guys. All up, Saaho is simply entertaining and a fun piece of visual theatre. One for fans of Prabhas, mayhem and OTT mass action.

Mahira (2019)

Mahesh Gowda’s debut film is an interesting take on the crime/thriller genre with a story about an undercover agent on the run. The twist here is that the agent is female and she’s on the run with her daughter who knows nothing of her mother’s previous life. Although the pacing is uneven and the story does occasionally falter, overall this is an entertaining watch and if not quite ‘edge of your seat’ it does keep your attention right to the end.

One of the downsides to the film is that the initial introduction to the characters fails to create enough interest. Adya (Chaithra Achar) is a perpetually angry schoolgirl, but there is no explanation as to why she picks a fight with one of her classmates, or why she has such an obstreperous attitude. One scene in particular where she insults a customer at her mother’s restaurant shows Adya as simply rude and obnoxious, which I don’t think was the writer’s intention. Certainly later, she seems to be characterised as more independent and capable, but at least at the start of the film she’s just a spoilt and irritating brat. Maya (Virginia Rodrigues) is better drawn and in just a few scenes we get that she runs a beach-side café, is generally happy and that her daughter is the centre of her world.

It’s quite a shock then when a group of armed men turn up to take her prisoner, just when the Indian Intelligence Department also has their sights set on capturing Maya. Her sudden metamorphosis into a kick-arse agent is reasonably believable and well portrayed on camera, although the reason for her unmasking is a little too trite.

Once Maya is off and running, the film gets much better, particularly as Adya is less feisty and more believably in awe of her mother’s kick-boxing talents. There is a good mix of drama and action as the reasons for Maya hiding away from her former colleagues are gradually revealed. Throughout it all, Virginia Rodrigues does well in the action sequences. After all, if we can believe that a hero can beat up endless gangs of hoodlums, then it’s not much of a stretch to think that a well-trained woman could fight her way out of the various situations Maya finds herself needing to escape. Chaithra Achar is also given greater depth here and truly becomes the emotional support that Maya needs to keep going.

I last saw Raj B. Shetty in Ondu Motteya Kathe where he was excellent as a man desperately in search of a wife. Here, he plays Intelligence Agent Pratap, the man charged with finding and bringing in Maya. Shetty uses his appearance for a few laughs since he doesn’t quite look the part of an agent, but there is little comedy in his dialogue and for the most part he plays Pratap fairly straight. Somehow though he never really fits well into the character despite some good interactions with his boss (Balaji Manohar) and fellow agent Apoorva Soma Saakre. Gopalkrishna Deshpande is excellent as Kashi, a previous colleague Maya turns to for help. He gets the geeky data specialist role spot on and provides just enough information to start the revelations about who Maya really is.

The background score is occasionally too intrusive, but the songs from Nilima Rao and Rakesh U.P. are lovely and fit well into the storyline. The first is beautifully set against the background of Maya and Adya at home by the beach and is a lovely introduction to their relationship, although it takes some time before Adya’s character mellows into the happy daughter seen in the song. What I enjoyed most about the film though was Chethan Dsouza’s excellent action sequences. The fights are well done and kept simple with basic moves that suit the characters. The only miss is a boat chase that doesn’t actually go anywhere and could easily have been skipped.

I love that Virginia Rodrigues isn’t a young, superfit model, but instead looks like she really could be an ex-agent with a teenage daughter. She is excellent in the role, mainly because she can be chillingly ruthless when she has to be, but that is nicely balanced by her maternal side as she takes care of her daughter. I presume that Adya’s belligerence in the opening scenes is meant to be a tribute to her mother’s ‘take no shit’ attitude, but while it doesn’t work for Chaithra Achar’s character, Virgina Rodrigues is able to pull it off easily with just a fleeting glance at whoever has raised her ire. She is just as good in the more emotional scenes too, and it’s her performance that pulls the audience into the otherwise fairly routine story.

Although the story follows a fairly standard path, there are just enough twists to keep things interesting and the eclectic mix of characters also produces a few surprises. There are a few plot holes – mainly around the 4 year timeframe when Maya disappeared which doesn’t seem long enough for Adya to have grown up quite so much – but this could possibly have been a translation error? (I suspect not though, since the subtitles were mostly very clear and easy to read, but sadly the credits didn’t mention who was responsible for subtitling). Overall Mahira is worth watching for excellent performances from the entire cast and Mahesh Gowda’s rather more unusual take on the thriller genre.