Mouna Guru (2011)

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Santha Kumar’s 2011 debut film Mouna Guru focuses on a young student and how his life falls apart when he inadvertently becomes involved with a group of corrupt cops. The basic story is simple, but Santha Kumar layers detail upon detail to make an intricate plot with plenty of twists and unexpected diversions. Perhaps the most unexpected is that one of the major characters is a pregnant police officer brilliantly played by Uma Riaz Khan, but the whole film is full of quirky characters that fit perfectly into the screenplay. With an engaging screenplay, great performances and realistic settings, Mouna Guru is definitely one of the better crime dramas I’ve watched recently and one definitely well worth tracking down.

The film starts in Madurai where college student Karunakaran (Arulnidhi) lives with his mother (Sujatha Sivakumar). Karunakaran is generally quiet and studious but socially inept, which means that he is often in trouble when someone challenges his rather literal and single-minded view of the world. After a few clashes his University asks him to leave, but luckily for Karunakaran his brother Amal arranges for him to complete his degree in Chennai. At the same time his mother also moves to Chennai to look after Amal’s new baby which solves the problem of leaving Karunakaran to fend for himself. However, with his mother and his wife’s sister Aarthi (Iniya) also staying in their flat, Amal needs to make other arrangements for Karunakaran. There is a free room in the College hostel but while this solves the problem for Amal and his wife it further isolates Karunakaran from his family. This turns out to be an issue later on when Karunakaran disappears and his family accept everything they are told, even though most of it is blatantly untrue.

Initially things seem to go well, but Karunakaran’s quiet and solitary nature soon sets him up to be bullied by the more popular class members, while his family pushes him further away. His sister-in-law is unwelcoming, his brother too busy and his mother only has time for the new baby. His only consolation is Aarthi who seems to be able to appreciate his (rather deeply hidden) good points. And these are hard to spot – Karunakaran is gruff and uncommunicative; he often appears angry and definitely has none of the usual social graces. However, there is a good side to Karunakaran. The opening song shows him feeding monkeys and rescuing snakes, while he appears to have keen sense of right and wrong that drives him to seek social justice.  He advises Aarthi to follow her dreams and work among the poor if that is what she really wants to do, while his own goal is to enjoy his job rather than make pots of money.  With all his idiosyncrasies, Karunakaran is a dreamer at heart and Arulnidhi does an excellent job of bringing such a complex character to life.

Aarthi is Karunakaran’s complete opposite. She’s friendly, approachable and seems to be doing well in her medical studies. However she’s drawn to Karunakaran and the idealist she sees behind the prickly façade, and slowly the two fall in love – much to Karunakaran’s mother’s displeasure.

Meanwhile corrupt police officers ACP Marimuthu (John Vijay), Inspector Rajendran (Madhu), Sub-Inspector Selvam (Balakrishnan) and Head Constable Perumalsamy (Krishnamurthy) are witnesses to a car crash, but rather than help the victim they steal a large quantity of money and finish the driver off into the bargain. Later ACP Marimuthu receives a blackmail call and eventually the four fix on Karunakaran as the student responsible. Even after they discover that Karunakaran was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, his prospects are bleak as ACP Marimuthu and co-conspirators are determined to silence him and any other potential witnesses.

Luckily for Karunakaran, Inspector Palaniammal (Uma Riaz Khan) is investigating the murder of a prostitute and ends up entangled in Karunakaran’s case. Palaniammal suspects that there is more going on than first impressions would suggest and she works tirelessly to get to the bottom of the case despite her pregnancy and the negative attitude from ACP Marimuthu and other members of the team. Palaniammal is a strong character with a very definite sense of right and wrong – basically the sort of police officer you’d want investigating your case if you were incorrectly accused of a crime. Uma Riaz Khan is excellent as she bulldozes her way through all opposition, compelling respect without ever raising her voice and just generally being a majorly awesome police officer.

There are only three songs in the film and they fit well into the narrative. This is perhaps the most traditional of the three as it develops the romance between Karunakaran and Aarthi. It’s a lovely song by Thaman and suits the mood of this part of the film perfectly.

Every character and each interaction are important in developing the story and while it’s not immediately apparent exactly how everything fits together, it all becomes clear as events unfold. Although there are a number of coincidences, none seems completely unlikely, (except perhaps Aarthi’s discovering Karunakaran after he has gone missing) and mostly the film feels realistic. None of the characters here are anything out of the ordinary and their reactions are natural and seem perfectly reasonable given the circumstances. There are no big fight scenes either – Karunakaran only fights back when someone else attacks him, and his methods are rough and ready rather than filmi stylish. The glimpses of college life and the realities of a mental asylum also appear authentic and I love the conversation between the warden and a student about his choice of hairstyle. Another favourite character is Babu, one of the inmates of the mental asylum who is perfectly played by Murugadoss to evoke pity one moment and then laughter the next. It’s an accomplished performance even though he only appears towards the end of the film but I appreciated every moment.

Mouna Guru keeps the twists coming right up to the very end. Karunakaran switches between quietly passive and accepting to explosively fighting back and it’s almost impossible to determine which way he will go at any given point, which ensures that every scene ends up surprising in one way or another. Although the police officers are all fairly standardly corrupt, their individual reactions to the developing situation are all quite different and each emerges as an individual persona as a result. I also love the way all the pieces of the story interlock, finally all coming together like a giant jigsaw puzzle while the final climax keeps changing just as you think it’s all over. Well worth watching for the excellent performances and multi-layered story that feels scarily possible. 4 stars.

Kodi (2016)

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Kodi is an interesting political thriller that sadly did not release in Australia with English subtitles. As the film is dialogue-heavy this meant that I missed most of the subtleties of the film, particularly annoying since the female characters seem to have more substantial roles than usual and the plot appears to be well-developed with unexpected twists. However the basic story is pretty easy to follow and the characters all clearly delineated ensuring Kodi is worth the trip to the cinema. It’s still completely baffling to me that in today’s global market the producers would choose to release Kodi overseas without subtitles, although it does follow the recent trend of not including subtitles on Tamil DVD releases either. Come on Kollywood – lift your game!

Dhanush plays a double role in the movie, portraying twin brothers, Kodi and Anbu. Despite being mute, their father (Karunaas) had political ambitions and was prominent in the local party as an activist and avid supporter of the local leader.  On his birth, Kodi was presented to the leader and from that point on it seems that his father transferred all his political ambition onto Kodi, dragging him around to various political events and giving him speeches to declare on his father’s behalf.

Initially Kodi seems relatively happy to follow the party line, but he is horrified when his father suicides right in front of him in order to highlight mercury poisoning at a local factory. Rather than lessen his passion for politics, this ensures Kodi grows into a hot-headed and passionate politician who craves social justice and presumably the power and prestige such a role would bring. As a young campaigner Kodi seems to have a fairly prominent role in the local party office, although there are grumblings from the older generation about the young upstart who seems to be taking a lead role. Along with the problems Kodi faces from his party, his girlfriend Rudhra (Trisha) is also a wannabe politician, except she’s firmly on the opposing side and the two seem to frequently clash in the public arena. Luckily for their romance, they seem to be able to put their opposing views aside once they are alone together and apart from the hassle of having to keep their relationship secret, Kodi and Rudhra happy together.

Anbu on the other hand is a gentler character who works as a teacher at a local college and is content to let his brother lead the charge for democracy. He finds romance with a local egg farmer Malathi (Anupama Parameswaram) although he isn’t above swapping roles with his more volatile brother when the occasion demands it. Dhanush keeps the two characters separate with ease, and not just because Kodi has a full beard and Anbu a moustache. Kodi is harsher, often appearing stern and forbidding, and only leading down his guard with Rudhra. He is argumentative, struts around combatively and is a typical mass hero when it comes to any fight.  Anbu on the other hand is softer, smiles more and even his posture indicates he’s a man who can be more easily pushed around. In his first double role, Dhanush effortlessly makes the two brothers separate individuals, perhaps even more so than real twins as Kodi appears more like an elder brother, and Anbu the younger.

Anbu  discovers more about the mercury factory which leads his brother to some unsettling revelations and as events unfold, Anbu ends up taking his brother’s place in politics. This is where the characterisation breaks down a little, as Anbu playing Kodi is really just the same as Kodi. It would have been even more effective if there had been some Anbu mannerisms left behind, although it’s possible that I missed some of this through not understanding the dialogue.

While Dhanush is superb as Kodi and Anbu, Trisha is just as good as a young and ambitious female politician. She has to battle against the prejudice of both her gender and her youth to win her place in the party and in doing so displays a ruthless streak that serves her well later in the film. Trisha is regal in sober saris that reflect her political ambitions, but lets her hair down in the romance scenes where she is softer and more likeable than in the rest of the film. There are also glimpses of the continuous rivalry between Kodi and Rudhra as they grew up together, with the childhood flashbacks proving more substance and clarity to the two characters. I love the interactions between the two – both in public as rival politicians and in private as their romance heats up. Writer/director R.S. Durai Senthilkumar has ensured that the female role is just as well-developed as that of the male protagonists, and in some ways Trisha has the more thought-provoking role with a complex and ambiguous character.

The story has a number of twists and turns with the machinations of the two political parties, the plots of the various members and the truth behind the mercury factory all having a part to play. I wish I had understood more of the dialogue as I missed the significance of Kodi and Anbu’s friend Bhagat Singh (Kaali Venkat) and I’m still not sure why Malathi disappeared from the story for most of the second half. This was a shame as Anupama was excellent, as were the rest of the supporting cast. S.A. Chandrasekhar was good in the role of Kodi’s party leader while Saranya Ponvannan was excellent playing the only role she ever seems to do nowadays (but then she does it so well!) as Kodi and Anbu’s long suffering mother. There are only a few songs in the film and these are mostly focused on the two romances, but Santhosh Narayanan’s music seems to fit well, although I did miss watching Dhanush dancing.

Like his previous films Ethir Neechal and Kaaki Sattai, R.S. Durai Senthilkumar concentrates on telling a good story rather than simply showcasing a star or indulging in mass action scenes. As a result, Kodi is an intelligent and engaging thriller, with excellent characterisations and clever twists in the plot. Dhanush does a fantastic job in a double role, keeping his presence somewhat understated so that the focus really is on the story and not the few fight scenes or dramatic speeches. I really do hope that this one releases on DVD with subtitles as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and I’d love to finally understand all that dialogue.

 

Kaashmora

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Written and directed by Gokul and starring Karthi in a double role, Kaashmora is a full on masala supernatural thriller with an amusing antihero, an evil villain, a beautiful princess, a mystic child, loads of characters with little to do and tonnes of cheesy one-liners. Much more fun than I expected, not as smart as I’d hoped, I still felt I got my money’s worth.

Kaashmora (Karthi) is a successful exorcist whose popularity is on the rise. He acquires a research assistant, Yamini (Sri Divya) who is secretly doing a thesis on fraudulent spiritualists. Eventually, and after many shenanigans, he arrives at a mysterious ruined palace which is haunted by a seriously evil spirit, Rajnayak (Karthi again). His family (including dad Vivek) who share the exorcism biz are also brought there, and they are given a hard deadline to achieve a task. Both Rajnayak and a mysterious child need Kaashmora to lift a curse and allow either a) Rajnayak to leave his confinement or b) long dead Princess Ratnamahadevi (Nayanthara) to finish him off once and for all. There’s not much Why but there is a whole lot of What! I think it’s best to just go see it and let it all roll. Or if you must spoil your own fun, read the usual painfully detailed summary a Wiki killjoy has already published.

Being a supernatural historical thingie, there is a lot of over the top design required from the palace and city through to the armour and other costumes. Overall I would say the design is great but the execution is a little lacking, and if you’re not as fond of dodgy CGI as I am, you may be in pain during some sequences. The old time city and palace are pleasingly epic in scale, and there is a nice commitment to eagles throughout. Ratnamahadevi has an excellent peacock bed, Rajnayak’s armour is hilarious and would probably get him killed or at least badly tangled up, and Kaashmora’s modern day exorcisms have the right blend of stock horror elements. The songs are colourful and their design and costuming ranges from totally unhinged to opulent and over the top. I was particularly taken by the Mad Max inspired Dhikku Dhikku Sir, although it was more “Furry Road” than Fury.

Often the device used to explain a far-fetched thing was not explained at all. Kaashmora is caught in part because of publicity about his Guinness Book of Records exorcism attempt (no, I did not know that was a category either) and naturally, we are to believe that the ghosts read the paper and watch the TV news. This was explained by a man who needn’t have been there except that there was no other way to explain that. So while I kind of liked the ideas, I wish Gokul had a better notion of how to link them together and how to keep moving without so many stops for “as you know Bob” exposition.

It’s not a terribly scary film, although there are a couple of moments that startled me a little. There’s a lot of violence but not so much gore. And despite Rajnayak being at best a sex pest and at worst a serial rapist, there was no depiction of violence or rape and all the ladies (and there were lots) he acquired gyrated around his enormous round bed and kept their spangly draperies firmly in place. Well, except his intended and unwilling bride, Ratnamahadevi, who had other ideas about their future.  Small mercies.

Sri Divya got a raw deal with her character. Yamini must be the worst at research ever. Just the worst. (I feel a bit Trumpesque making that statement.) She was supposed to be doing a thesis but had no idea how to actually do research, not even check Youtube for pertinent clips. And her character was completely pointless, adding nothing to the drama and doing little until a point when other solutions could easily have been written. I would have ditched Yamini completely and used the time to explain why Rajnayak stood around covered in bats.

Karthi is much more effective, and fun, as the slippery and smug Kaashmora than the one note Rajnayak. Kaashmora is serious about his business but his reactions and one liners ranged from droll to dad joke, making the most of Karthi’s comic timing. I was distracted by a continuity issue with a bit of disappearing crud on Rajnayak’s teeth which kept me a bit more interested in him than I might have been. But I was annoyed by the ending a little as it implied that Kaashmora would not learn anything from his near death experience and possibly worse, there might be plans for a sequel.

Nayanthara is both impressive and stunning as Ratnamahadevi. I wish more time had been given to her, not just because her multi-coloured hair looked great, but because I was more interested in her back story and her connection to the mystical child. Her outfits are very fairytale princess, but Ratna is both a warrior and a diplomat, using whatever tactics will be to her advantage. When Rajnayak was pawing at this woman he had coveted for so long, Nayanthara showed both disgust and the determination to seduce him and catch him off guard. And she imbued the final confrontation with a sense of the high stakes and her absolute fury at him. Does anyone know who played the child? She was quite impressive too.

Kaashmora is less grim than Arundhati, and less engaging than Magadheera, but it is good fun in a ripping yarn kind of way. It’s worth seeing on the big screen so you can at least be absorbed in the spectacle. And thanks go to Ajith who was credited with the subtitles – much appreciated!