Visaranai

 

“Give me the pink one. It’s my lucky lathi. Now let’s get them to confess”.

Vetrimaaran’s film takes a journey through the lawless side of law enforcement, where results matter and truth is often unwelcome. Adapted from M. Chandrakumar’s novel which was inspired by his own experiences, there is a relentless sense of doom pervading this story. Don’t get too attached to anyone!

Four Tamil men have come to Andhra Pradesh to work, sleeping rough in a park to save money. One night they are all picked up by the police. They are brutalised over and over but not told what they are suspected of doing and what they must admit to. It’s all a game to the cops but no one told Pandi, Murugan, Kumar or Afsal what that game is.

Afsal (Silambarasan Rathnasamy) is the youngest and weakest. Frightened of being hurt, and generally shy and inarticulate, Afsal triggered the arrests with a confession under duress and wavers most when under pressure. The four boys stick together and try to find a way out, trusting that their innocence will be recognised. Pandi (Dinesh Ravi) and Murugan (Aadukalam Murugadoss) are the stronger ones, with Pandi the more cynical and Murugan the more placid. Kumar (Pradheesh Raj) is injured badly early on and is a quiet, tense presence for most of his scenes.

The boys go on hunger strike and it seems to work. They are released, given money and told to come back to the station to sign a statement. They stop for a meal, eventually laughing at their strange fortunes. But when they go back, the sadistic Superintendent (Ajay Ghosh) says he couldn’t hit a starving man so he tricked them into filling their bellies. The beatings resume, more vicious than before.

I was struck by all the energy that goes into forcing confessions when maybe with the same expenditure of effort they could track down the real criminals. There is a discussion about finding someone else to take the fall but the boss is worried after all the injuries that the men will complain so he decides they must be found guilty. Eventually all the pressure works, especially the emotional blackmail from Pandi’s boss who knows it’s a set-up but encourages Pandi to take the easy way out for everyone’s sake. Including the police. These poor guys are expendable.

Pandi refuses to make a false plea once he is in front of a magistrate although his Telugu is not up to the finer points of his defence. Luckily for him there are Tamil Nadu police in another court so one is called upon to translate, and even more fortunately he recognises Pandi.  Inspector Muthuvel (Samuthirakani) explains the boys have jobs, never admitted fault, there is no evidence, and they’ve been beaten up for days on end. The magistrate knows Superintendent Rao has form for closing cases with false evidence and the boys go free.

Unluckily for Pandi and friends, the Tamil cops need their help in return. Sure enough, they help kidnap a high profile money launder KK (Kishore) from the courts. Back in Tamil Nadu, Kumar gets dropped off along the road but the others are taken to the station along with KK. KK tells Muthuvel that the last move in this game will be to tie up all the loose ends, like Muthuvel himself. And KK is a very smart man. About to leave, the guys are asked to clean the station building before they go. The ominous music says that was a bad idea, and I think Pandi knew it too.

Vetrimaaran mostly sticks with realism, creating a sense of the world just out of sight of the mainstream. The dark side is literally dark, with much of the film shot in night time and dimly lit interiors. The scenes are beautifully composed and I felt immersed in Pandi’s world, and the feeling of being entangled and lost. The spike of fear when the cops start torturing people is visceral, the relief when it stops and the terror of those waiting their turn also feel real. There is a foray into black and white for a couple of climactic scenes that struck me as annoyingly filmi. I wasn’t sure if it was censored because of all the gore or just cleverness, but regardless it was too tricksy. Other more successful visual metaphors were derived from the core of the drama – the movement between light and dark, between high and low places, people up to their necks in muck wading through sewers. The pace drags a little when the boys are hanging around doing the cleaning, and there is a little too much helpful exposition to get everyone on the same page, but these are minor issues.

Dinesh Ravi carries most of the film as Pandi was the enquiring mind, the calculating observer, and the loyal at heart.  His reactions and interactions with Samuthirakani give the story a centre and conflict that held the other strands together. Samuthirakani has gravitas and a wry humour that sparks up when Muthuvel is at ease. He is the cop who knows what is right, wants to be clean, but is coerced by his higher ups. Kishore is also impressive as the sly money man who can’t believe he will run out of friends or dollars. The dialogue is often sparse and meaning is layered through action and reaction. This is a man’s world. There is a budding romance (Anandhi as Shanthi), and a female cop (Misha Ghoshal) who deliberately forgets her phone so Pandi can call for help and that is it. All the supporting performances are good, but there are so many fleeting character appearances that the police dissolve into one huge despicable khaki organism.

I am not really surprised that the film failed to make the Oscars. A dog eat dog world with no hope of justice, and with the police at the heart of the darkness, seemed like a hard sell.

This is an accomplished film with some exceptional performances. It’s not an easy watch due to the casual brutality. It made me question why such a topic is still so current. And there is no moral or redemption to send you whistling on your way. Just death, lies, greed, and a promise of more of the same. 4 stars.

Advertisements

Delhi Belly

Abhinay Deo loads up Delhi Belly with self-conscious references and imagery of Bollywood and “India”. The opening sequence includes Rishi Kapoor prancing in a blinding white suit from the medley from Hum Kisise Kum Nahin intercut with a slick airport and some slum kids. I wanted to like this. I like the caper genre, I like Guy Ritchie films (of which this is heavily derivative), and I even quite like Imran Khan. But it feels a bit empty, like a film set in India and made for people who have never been there themselves.

Note: I watched the Hinglish version of the film which is heavy on the profanity, with some characters swearing as much as I do. I believe the Hindi version is not quite as graphic.

Tashi (Imran Khan) is a journalist of sorts, interviewing starlets he despises when he isn’t writing up serious crimes. Tashi’s flight attendant girlfriend Sonia (Shehnaz Treasurywala) does a dodgy deal with Vladimir to drop off a package to a local address. Of course the package contains smuggled diamonds. Nitin (Kunaal Roy Kapur) is a perve, and a photographer, as well as Tashi’s sidekick and roommate. The other flatmate is Arup (Vir Das in a terrible wig), the geeky graphic artist charged with making a banana look happier but not too happy. Menaka (Poorna Jagannathan) is a journalist colleague who is there because someone has to have a crazy ex-husband who wants to hunt Tashi down. Tashi tells Nitin to drop off the package to Somayajulu (Vijay Raaz) but Nitin comes down with Delhi Belly, and sends Arup to drop off the package AND his stool sample. Yeah, you can pretty much guess the rest.

The film is stylised, with quirky sound and visual effects emphasising the comedy and dramatic beats. It’s meticulously planned, with all the intersecting plotlines and near misses neatly plotted. And that is one of the problems I have with Delhi Belly. While it is visually accomplished and great to look at, there is not enough fizz or life in the story or the characters.

There is an overabundance of trashy puerile boy humour that might put some people off, but at least it is frank about sex and avoids unnecessary coyness. And as you would expect from the title, there is scatological and toilet humour galore, and that is carried over to Raj Sampath’s soundtrack. The bad language and smutty jokes are largely for shock value and not driven by a genuine insight or moment. That is what I found distasteful and even worse, boring. Making a man run down the street while wearing a burqa is not champagne comedy. One rare comedy highlight is Arup fantasising about breaking up a wedding in his Disco Fighter avatar (and announcing his equal opportunity approach to oral sex) before bursting into song. It’s a little bit Mithun and a little bit Wedding Singer post the break up.

Imran Khan is stuck with a character who doesn’t seem to have much motivation but ends up in an ever more threatening and strange set of circumstances. His nice middle class boy aura never really leaves him, no matter how squalid the surroundings, and I never quite believed in Tashi. I did like his Rajinikanth shirt though. Tashi is apparently acceptable husband material to a wealthy middle class family but he chooses to live in a hovel and not really have much of a career. How does that work?

Imran has no chemistry at all with Shenaz or Poorna which is disappointing considering Tashi gets very hands on with them. Imran and Kunaal Roy Kapur are much more fun together. But despite Kapur’s rambunctious performance and occasional zingers I got so tired of Nitin and his digestive tract that I wanted his scenes to be over NOW. And Vir Das was sort of reprising his role in Go Goa Gone so I felt he was a bit underutilised. And his wig was truly terrible and a great distraction.

Shenaz Treasurywala delivers an entertaining performance in a role that didn’t demand one. Sonia is a confident upper middle class girl. She can afford to be nice to almost everyone because other than choosing a lipgloss she doesn’t have much to tax her brain with. Poorna Jagannathan plays Menaka as more of a world weary cynic, but again she will go out of her way to help a hopeless boy. As mentioned, I couldn’t see the appeal of Tashi to either lady and given they formed a mild love triangle it would have been better if there was more chemistry.

Leading the villains, Vijay Raaz and the gang of henchmen do their best to be OTT. I appreciated their commitment, and some scenes had real tension. But the film couldn’t commit to playing it straight so there were forays into unnecessary slapstick that fell flat. Often literally. A dishonourable mention goes to Rahul Singh as Menaka’s ex. His character was so unpleasant it was hard to believe such a smart confident girl would have married him against her family’s wishes, and his acting was completely suited to the role.

I have to mention Aamir Khan’s appearance as Disco Fighter in the closing song. Aamir is one of the film’s producers and according to the goss, attended some special advance previews to find out why audiences weren’t responding to the film. But his disco antics are there for added box office appeal, not for the film and not for fun. And not because the world needs any more actors in blackface. Jeez. Anyway, it’s not like he needs any more proof he is a terrible dancer so I guess he really likes his nephew.

It’s a clever but ultimately joyless effort. The film lacks the verve of proper masala embodied by Rishi’s performance in the opening visuals. Great masala films crackle with the energy and velocity of dodgem cars and roller coasters, not the methodical progression of chess. 2 ½ stars!

Phillauri

Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is set in two different timelines, and is a movie of two very different halves. Usually things take a turn for the worse after Intermission, but in the case of Phillauri it is the first half that I found a chore.

Kanan (Suraj Sharma) goes home to India to get married to his longtime girlfriend Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Just before his engagement he is told he has a problem in his horoscope, and the only way to avoid future calamity is to marry a tree. He is sceptical but does what the families want. Soon after the tree wedding, he is woken by a sparkly spirit hovering above his bed. Shashi (Anushka Sharma) found herself transported to the house, but had no idea how or why. Only Kanan can see or hear Shashi, just adding to his already troubling behaviour. He is ambivalent about marrying Anu, Shashi is unhappy at her lot, and Anu is miserable that the guy she loves is turning out to be a wuss. So it was a huge relief to skip back in time and learn more about Shashi and the love of her life, Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh). Shashi and Anu between them force Kanan to examine his decisions and motivations. Will Kanan and Anu get married? And what happened that Shashi spent 98 years alone, her spirit connected to the tree?

The modern story line is the least interesting by far. It feels glib, done by numbers, and is not helped by some weak performances. Suraj Sharma is particularly flat as Kanan, and terribly unconvincing in scenes where he is supposed to be overcome by fear. Speaking in a weedy falsetto is not enough. Mehreen Pirzada gets almost nothing to work with. Anu has been in love with Kanan since school, she has never had any other plan than to marry him, and I have no idea if she has a job or finished college or anything else. Anu is a weepy, sullen girl which is a bit tiresome although understandable. I did like that she confronted him and demanded he articulate his feelings and make a decision, not just try and passively weasel out as she deserved better than that. There is the usual array of parents and relatives, and a pickled grandmother who starts drinking at breakfast. And there’s a rather nasty “joke” about Kanan being gay and maybe a paedophile. It’s mostly a jumble of clichés, and where the dialogue is a bit more realistic the acting falls over.

The earlier timeline seems to be given so much more love, the writing is more solid, and the performances are stronger. Shashi helps her brother the village doctor, who has raised her since she was young. She is educated but conservative, knowing how a girl from a good family is expected to behave.  Shashi’s one weakness is poetry, and she waits every week to see the poems of Phillauri in the journal. Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh) uses the same name but his songs are bawdy drinking fare, not the more heartfelt and literary work that Shashi loves. He is a flirt, and she shuts him down when he pretends to have written lines that she knows the real Phillauri wrote. But their mutual love of poetry and music, and of love, brings them together. Anushka and Diljit have a beautiful low key chemistry that makes their scenes together shine. She is expressive even without speaking and he inhabits the role of country layabout turned honest man so comfortably. It was a pleasure to get back into their timeline, and not just for the nostalgic beauty. Shashi’s story served to show how the status of women hasn’t improved significantly in almost 100 years, and was also a sterling example of a relationship built on equality, consent, and honesty.

One of the most understated but surprising scenes was a conversation after Shashi’s affair had been discovered. Her brother (played beautifully by Manav Vij) was furious, and laid into both Shashi and Roop Lal. All typical filmi villain thwarting True Love stuff. But later he took her a drink and spoke to her about how he had raised her like his own child and always wanted her to have everything she deserved, and that he loved her. Not what I was expecting at all, although I may have muttered something about the patriarchy. When Shashi and her best friend Amrit (Nidhi Bisht) were talking discreetly about her virginity situation, the scene was nicely gossipy but also quite sweet and not salacious. I liked seeing Shashi being herself, and having people love her for it, without Anushka taking so much as a step towards the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl line. And I don’t want to spoil the story but there are scenes where Anushka and Diljit show a whole arc of story just through the emotions playing across their faces.

The film’s mythology is a bit patchy. Is technicolour glitter cannon heaven a thing for Sikhs? Does every ghost have tinkerbell sound effects and shed a trail of sparkles? Why did Shashi usually float on an awkward horizontal rather than gliding vertically? Why could she wear Anu’s dupatta but not be seen or felt by anyone other than Kanan? Who knows.

But for all the cheesy effects, there are songs like Dum Dum and Sahiba that take us into the story and reveal more of the rich inner lives of Shashi and her bloke. Anvita Dutt wrote the screenplay and some lyrics, and her dialogues were a highlight in the olden days timeline.

Phillauri is not a masterpiece but it does show flashes of excellence. If Lal had been more disciplined in that draggy first half, and maybe pushed Suraj Sharma to try more nuance in his squeaking, it would have helped. But I liked seeing a full blown romance centred on two people who were genuine, honest, and respected each other. Tolerate the first half and enjoy the second half!