Orange Mittai

Essentially Orange Mittai is a road movie, but this isn’t a typical journey. Here, the vehicle is an ambulance and the trip one to a hospital taken by a cantankerous patient with heart problems who enjoys riling the ambulance driver and EMT. And while the story is about the journey both physically and metaphorically, it’s also a story about fathers and sons, about loneliness and even to some extent about failings within the health system in rural India. Biju Viswanath gently infuses comedy throughout the tale and allows the story to focus on the developing relationship between the EMT Sathya (Ramesh Thilak) and patient Kailasam (Vijay Sethupathi). Along with the gorgeous cinematography, it’s the simplicity of the story and the genuine view of isolation portrayed that make this such a great watch.

The film starts with EMT Sathya and his ambulance driver Arumugam (Arumughan Bala) attending the scene of a car accident. The driver is drunk, and after delivering him to the hospital, the dialogue between Sathya and Arumugam quickly establishes their individual characters and the ongoing tone of the film. Sathya is concerned about the driver and lets us know by a quick conversation with the nurse that he has informed the patient’s family, who are on their way. He also stops Arumugam thieving money and other valuables from their hapless patient in a scene that demonstrates his innate honesty and compassion, but Biju Viswanath also uses this to illustrate the friendship between the two men, despite their widely differing morals and work ethic. It’s a lovely beginning that quickly sets up their relationship, followed by similar brief conversations that give more background to Sathya. His father died a year ago, and when Sathya is praying, Arumugam comments that he could have shown his father this sort of respect when he was alive. It’s a throwaway line in an early scene but it resonates throughout the film, as Sathya ends up dealing with another older man who has issues with his own son.

Keeping to the theme of fathers, early on there is meeting between Sathya and his potential father-in-law (Trichy Manivannan) to begin discussing marriage with Kavya (Aashritha). Initially it appears as if Kavya’s father disapproves of Sathya, but despite misgivings he gives his permission to the marriage, as long as Sathya gives up working as an EMT and comes to work in his business instead. But that’s not what Sathya wants. He’s happy enough with Kavya, but his job means more to him than just his salary, and he’s not prepared to give it up just to appease his father-in-law. He doesn’t argue or explain his motivations, just simply asks for a day to think about it, which exemplifies his conciliatory approach to conflict seen throughout the rest of the film.

Sathya is given the job of collecting a heart attack patient from a remote location and taking him to the hospital. When Arumugam and Sathya finally make their way to the house (it’s inaccessible by ambulance) there is tense music and tilted camera shots through the gate railings and underside of a cart. It all seems to be pointing towards some supernatural event or violent shock, but the reality is rather less dramatic. The house is big, and there are faded pictures on the walls hinting at a past glory, while the rest of the house seems to be slowly decaying. When they finally find him, the man they have come to help is alone and has a grumpy and unconciliatory attitude making him prickly and difficult to deal with. He expects much but is not at all grateful, which alienates both Sathya and Arumugam right away. However Sathya is an expert in dealing with such disrespect – he deals with it every day from his supervisor and the hospital doctors, so he’s able to cope with Kailasam’s orders and quirks, eventually getting him into the ambulance and on his way to the hospital.

Naturally the journey doesn’t go smoothly and there are various interruptions along the way. Throughout it all, Kailasam is difficult, demanding and a typical grumpy old man. Vijay Sethupathi doesn’t quite look old enough for the character despite colouring his hair grey, but he does get the mannerisms spot on. In particular, his nosiness about Sathyam’s relationship is brilliantly written and seems completely natural, as does his general dissatisfaction with the world at large. As the journey unfolds it’s clear that Kailasam has a fractured relationship with his son, and since Sathya is dealing with issues related to his own father, the expectation is that the two will develop a father-son style relationship. To some extent this does occur, but not until later – after Sathya has come to realise it’s easier to feel compassion towards someone he’s not related to, and begins to understand that loneliness is behind Kailasam’s difficult persona.

Ramesh Thilak frequently appears in Tamil films as the friend or sidekick, often in a comedy role, but here he plays the central character which allows him to show a more serious side. Sathya is basically a decent person who just wants to be able to help people, and Ramesh does an excellent job of blending understanding and compassion with frustration, exasperation but also acceptance as Sathya deals with Kailasam, his demanding supervisor and a hospital doctor who has no respect for his skills. He also hits the right note with his girlfriend, even giving her some good advice as he finally tells her what he really wants in his life and that it’s up to her to decide what she really wants too. Unusually, the romance is merely a side note to the film rather than a central plot point –  it’s why Sathya is distracted at work and gives Kailasam an opportunity to give out some advice, but there are no odd duets or long involved romantic scenes. This is a much more down-to-earth film that doesn’t need any of this kind of drama, and the story works much better as a result.

The comedy in the film also seems to flow naturally, with Ramesh and Arumughan Bala working together beautifully to produce the laughs. Arumughan is the typical hapless idiot who will always do or say the wrong thing, but his relationship with Sathya has more to it than just these comedy interactions, which makes for a more interesting journey.

Although there are a few misses, for the most part the story gently builds a relationship between Sathya and Kailasam, even though the latter is resilient almost to the end. With Kailasam’s estrangement from his son, the friendship that develops with Sathya is bittersweet, which may be why the film is titled Orange Mittai, also referencing the bitter orange sweets Kailasam eats on his journey to the hospital. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi is credited as co-writing the film with Biju Viswanath, who is responsible for the stunning camera work and for editing the film as well as directing. This depth of involvement is perhaps why Orange Mittai at times seems indulgent, for example when Sathya stops to let an exuberant Kailasam dance in the moonlight, but this is only a minor point since overall the story is told simply and with care and attention to detail. I enjoyed the slow development of an unusual friendship and the meandering journey from hospital to hospital with a patient who really just wanted a day out and a break in routine. One to savour and enjoy as a simple reflection on the complexity of human relationships. 4 stars.

Orange Mittai

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NGK (2019)

NGK

Spoiler alert

I’m a big fan of both Suriya and Selvaraghavan and was intrigued to see how Selva would deal with a main stream hero given his usual character-driven and more unconventional style of film making. As it turns out, Selva has made room for both heroic gestures and quirky plot points in this tale of a young man’s rise to prominence in a political party, although ultimately neither meld particularly well together. In the end, the darkness of the storyline ensures NGK is still definitely a Selvaraghavan film, although only working in parts despite an understated, yet powerful performance from Suriya. There is a lot to unpack here, and I apologise for the spoilers which I haven’t been able to avoid in order to discuss certain aspects of the story.

Nandha Gopala Kumaran aka NGK (Suriya) is an organic farmer, living in a small town with his parents Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Viji (Uma Padmanabhan). He’s married to Geetha (Sai Pallavi) and in the initial scenes both are completely besotted with each other to the point of irritating Viji with their romantic overtures. Kumaran is an organic farmer who has given up his city job to work the land with a group of like-minded idealists, but their livelihood is threatened by local traders and businessmen who want the farmers to buy their chemicals. Kumaran gets the idea of approaching his local MLA (Ilavarasu) from a neighbour Giri (Bala Singh) who works for the party. Giri has been beaten up by party men because he refused an inappropriate request from MLA Pandiyan’s but despite this, Giri still supports the party ideas. Straight from the start, it’s shown that the party elite are corrupt, lacking morals and purely interested in getting and keeping power. Kumaran uses his friend Raja (Rajkumar) who also works for the party to get an audience with Pandiyan, who agrees to stop intimidation of the farmers, but only if Kumaran enters politics and brings 500 of his own supporters into the party.

Interestingly, in these early scenes, Kumaran seems disgusted and repelled by Pandion, and is further antagonised by his bullying and repeated humiliations. But at some point Kumaran decides to kowtow and do everything Pandiyan wishes, including cleaning his toilet and supplying him with home-cooked food. What would help this transformation would be an explanation of why Kumaran decided to conform. Was it because he realised the power of politics and what he could potentially do if he managed to move up the ranks? Or was it simply to stop the humiliation, or perhaps even an attempt to shame Pandiyan into more moral behaviour? Sadly, none of the reasoning behind any of Kumaran’s choices are explained, although there are some pivotal events that we can assume helped shape his actions.

In the course of his transition to political power, Kumaran meets Vanathi (Rakul Preet Singh) who is a UK-educated political analyst tasked with helping the party win upcoming elections. Vanathi is impressed by Kumaran, presumably realising that his earnest demeanour and good looks will make him a good candidate to win over the voting public. Vanathi is an interestingly grey character who’s not above dirty tactics to discredit the opposition, although these are more about revealing the ruling party’s indiscretions rather than fabricating evidence to implicate chief minister Killivazhavan (Devaraj) and his minions. As Kumaran becomes more and more involved with the party, and by implication with Vanathi, Geetha starts to become jealous and finally accuses Kumaran of having an affair. Astonishingly (this is Suriya after all), Kumaran quickly admits his infidelity but it’s all the more shocking because there has been no hard evidence on screen and no real reason for the affair – after all, Kumaran had a wife he was supposedly besotted with waiting for him at home. Then too, his revelation is made somewhat passionlessly, but immediately followed up with a nasty challenge to Geetha asking her what she will do about it. So, was he just scratching an itch because he was away from home? Did he fall in love with the clever and politically sharp Vanathi – a world away from the more innocent Geetha? Or was it a more calculated ploy, to seduce the woman behind the party’s campaign for office for his own ambition?

Rakul Preet Singh is good in a role that starts off well, but which fades quickly once she (sigh) inevitably falls in love with Kumaran, despite her initial tough, woman-of-the-world persona. At least Vanathi has a reasonable character arc and she stays true to her own ideals throughout, apart from an unfortunate lapse during a dodgy romantic song which doesn’t fit with the rest of the screenplay at all. She still has values and these stand her in good stead as Kumaran becomes more manipulative and Vanathi gradually seems to realise what is happening. Sai Pallavi on the other hand doesn’t doesn’t fare as well as Geetha. Her initial interactions with Kumaran are too cloyingly sweet and over the top, while Geetha’s suspicion of an affair seem to come from nowhere, leading to some odd behaviours when she meets Vanathi. Her initial reaction to Kumaran’s affair is also strangely overdone, while the apparent acceptance in later scenes also doesn’t ring true, making Geetha a rather unsatisfactory and jarring presence onscreen. It’s odd since Selva’s female characters normally have strong characters and some reason for what they do, but here the women are all muted and take a very definite back seat to the main story.

Kumaran gradually changes throughout the story from an all-round nice guy to someone able to plot and scheme his way to success. What I can’t decide is if he turned to the dark side to win power to be able to help his people, or if he truly becomes corrupted to the point where he is prepared to use anyone to achieve his ends. The final scenes with Geetha and his parents suggest the latter, but I need to watch the film again to find more clues to his behaviour. I did pick up some. Selva uses changes in the lighting scheme here as he did in Pudhupettai to indicate some of the personality changes – changing from green to red lighting during a fight scene in an improbably cavernous bathroom, presumably to suggest Kumaran’s move towards more selfish motives. There are also questions around what really happens when Kumaran’s friend Raja dies, and his initial meeting with Vanathi definitely has more subtext, but I was concentrating too much on reading the subtitles to pick up on all the subtleties.

The glue holding the story together is Suriya, who forgoes his usual mass-style hero for an ambiguous character who definitely moves towards the wrong side of politics. It’s a subtle and almost low-key performance, although there is plenty of passion on show as Kumaran makes energetically impassioned speeches about farming and freedom, land and human rights, and inevitably ‘the common man’. Suriya gets across the definite sense that Kumaran is acting in all of his grand speeches, while still leaving his true motivation rather more ambiguous until the end, where his corruption appears to be complete. Here Selva has ensured that the film is very much about the star, and Suriya feels the space completely, including the requisite action scenes, dance moves and compelling charisma that end up defining the character too. Although the rest of the cast are good, they aren’t as memorable as Suriya, with the exception of Ilavarasu and Devaraj who have their own personality quirks.

Sivakumar Vijayan does a good job with the cinematography and overall the production is excellent even down to having readable subtitles in yellow font. Awesome! Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background soundtrack is good, and the few dance numbers are catchy enough, with the only real let down being the inappropriate romance track with Kumaran and Vanathi. It’s not a bad song, just oddly placed and bizarrely shot to show a romantic side to two characters who otherwise don’t appear passionate about each other at all. There are the characteristic dark themes and odd actions that remind you that this is a Selva film, but with Suriya front and centre, this is a more commercial and smoother film than his usual fare. The blend isn’t perfect but there is plenty here to keep you entertained, even enough for repeated viewings to see more of what is going on in the background. No doubt that will provide more clues and a clearer picture of just exactly who is NGK. I really enjoyed this, despite my issues with Geetha and occasional frustrations at not being able to decide exactly all the why’s. But then that is part of the genius of Selvaraghavan, to refuse to spoon feed his audience answers and keep everyone guessing. And even here with a mainstream hero in a more traditionally told story, he very nearly pulls it off.

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.