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.

 

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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.

Thadam (2019)

Thadam

Magizh Thirumeni’s Thadam takes a little while to get going, but once it does, step by step the film builds into a puzzling conundrum where the identity of a murderer is cleverly concealed until the final big reveal. There are two prime suspects, but which one of them is the murderer and perhaps just as puzzling, why was the victim killed? Arun Vijay is excellent here in a double role that requires him to fight himself (which looks very convincing!), while the story keeps you guessing right to the end. The film does start rather slowly, but there is more going on than first appears and once the investigation kicks in. the twists come thick and fast. Although Thadam initially only had a three day run in Melbourne, it was popular enough to be extended and I’d definitely recommend it as a better than average whodunnit.

The film starts by introducing two men, Ezhil and Kavin, both played by Arun Vijay. First is Ezhil, a successful engineer who runs his own construction firm. He’s chasing after a girl who works in the same building and the first riddle is the correct question he must ask to persuade Deepika (Tanya Hope) to go out on a date. Eventually he works out the critical query and the two quickly becomes an item until Deepika leaves to attend a wedding. Ezhil seems like a nice guy – he’s thoughtful and considerate, has his own successful business, and is prepared to use a bra to illustrate the miracle of engineering that is Howrah bridge. Perhaps not such a great chat-up line!

Kavin, on the other hand, is a crook. He’s a thief and fraudster who, along with his friend and accomplice Suruli (Yogi Babu), cheats anyone and everyone. Kavin is also addicted to gambling which is unfortunate since he seems to be particularly bad at it, losing a large sum of money which Suruli had set aside to repay a debt to a nasty thug. When Suruli can’t pay, Kavin is given a short space of time to organise the funds otherwise his friend will suffer the consequences.

After introducing the two men and their significant others, Magizh Thirumeni throws in a murder. There’s a dark night, a thunderstorm and a vicious attack on a young man in his apartment. SI Malarvizhi aka Malar (Vidya Pradeep) is the chief investigating officer who is initially baffled by the complete lack of clues. No fingerprints, the rain has kept everyone away and the victim Akash doesn’t appear to have any enemies who would want him dead. A chance photograph throws up a potential lead that seems a sure thing once Inspector Gopalakrishnan (Vijayan) recognises the man lurking on Akash’s balcony. He’s had dealings with Ezhil before and is positive that Ezhil is the man in the photograph. But another police station has picked up Kavin and identified him in the photograph too. So, who is the killer? Both men appear identical and the photograph is the only clue Malar has to work with. It turns out that Gopalakrishnan has a personal bone to pick with Ezhil and there doesn’t seem to be anything that links Ezhil to the murder. However, there is a large sum of money missing which leads Malar to suspect Kavin even though she can’t work out how he could have known about the cash. With no answers and only a few days before she needs to either charge or release both men, Malar is desperate to find any link between Akash and either Ezhil or Kavin. Adding to the mystery, Ezhil and Kavin seem to know and despise each other. What is the connection? Why Akash? And who committed the crime?

There are plenty of clues and red herrings alike in this clever story that is actually based on true events. Magizh Thirumeni keeps us guessing as he throws up clue after clue that seem to lead nowhere and Malar’s frustration is beautifully captured as every lead she has turns out to be worthless. I also liked how seemingly meaningless conversations from earlier in the film turn out to be important later on – it pays to take heed of even the smallest comment as almost everything turns out to be significant in the end. This also helps make sense of the first half of the film which is slow and spends a lot of time on the romance between Ezhil and Preethi. There’s also a seemingly pointless con where fraudster Chechi (Meera Krishnan) sets up Kavin as a potential husband for Ananthi (Smruthi Venkat), but both the romance and the con are essential for the reveals in the second half. However, without the benefit of hindsight, the first half just seems overlong and slow until Akash is killed.

On the plus side, throughout the film there is a good mix of action and comedy that helps ensure that the film doesn’t get too lost in the fluffy romance or bogged down in the police proceedings. Yogi Babu has less to do with this than expected and much of the comedy comes from George Maryan as a bumbling police officer and the interactions between Ezhil, Kavin and the cops. Some of this is just too filmi to work in the context of a thriller, but most of the comedy is well integrated into the main story and is genuinely funny. The exchanges between the police and their suspects are also well done but it’s the tangling of the story that really makes this film worth watching as Magizh Thirumeni manipulates us into repeatedly changing our minds as to who is the guilty party.

Arun Vijay is fantastic in the double role, particularly once Ezhil and Kavin have been arrested. The two men look identical but their personalities are different, although similar enough to make both a plausible suspect for the murder. His reaction to the arrest as Ezhil is brilliantly done, while his Kavin is perfectly cocky when brought in for questioning. Also worth mentioning are the excellently done interactions between the two characters. A great job by the special effects team who really made it look as if Ezhil and Kavin were fighting each other, and brilliant acting from Arun who made every interaction between Ezhil and Kavin seem totally natural.

Vidya Pradeep is also excellent as a police officer who has something to prove after being transferred in under a shadow. I really like that she isn’t portrayed as a “female” police officer, but instead she’s simply the main investigator for the murder. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a definite improvement over the more usual insistence that any female lead has to either have a romance track or be a comedic figure of fun. Vidya brings a good mix of seriousness and authority to the role along with some lighter moments that ensure her character appears likeable and as approachable as can be expected for a police officer in a murder investigation. Tanya Hope on the other hand has little to do except be romanced by Ezhil, but Smruthi Venkat has a more nuanced role and is good in a small but important role. Less successful is a flashback sequence featuring Sonia Aggarwal as Kavin’s mother that feels overdone in comparison to the rest of the film and doesn’t work as well as it could to explain Kavin’s motivation.

This is a clever whodunnit that keeps its cards close to the chest and doesn’t give anything away until the end. The final reveal is excellent and not wrapped up too neatly which allows some room for reflection. Arun Vijay is brilliant, as too is Vidya Pradeep, but better still is the execution of the idea and the twists and turns along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed Thadam and highly recommend it as a murder mystery that’s shrewdly plotted to be delightfully baffling. Make sure you don’t miss the true stories mentioned at the end too.