Psycho (2020)

There are certain things you expect from a Mysskin film, an obsession with feet, unusual camera angles and a cast of odd characters, and for the most part Psycho delivers, although parts of the story follow a familiar and more traditional route. Perhaps most shockingly the love story here follows the tired old trope of stalking = true love, but when Mysskin moves outside the basics into the realm of child abuse, Stockholm syndrome and psychosis, the film starts to take some intriguing turns where anything seems possible. Although not his best film, Psycho is bloody, challenging and intriguing on many levels, and seems set to become another deserved success for Mysskin.

The title comes from the film’s protagonist, a psychopathic killer who brutally murders women before leaving their bodies prominently displayed to public view. The film starts with one such murder which is shown in gory detail as we watch the killer, Angulimala (Rajkumar Pitchumani), in action. The body, minus head, is dumped in a public location and the reaction shots are classic Mysskin, first a low shot of victim’s family as they approach and then switching to aerial shots to capture the distress and heartbreak. The murders have apparently been going on for a few years and the police are baffled without any obvious suspects or useful leads. The investigation is led by Muthu (Ram) who has a tendency to sing old Tamil songs at odd moments, but sadly we never find out why and his back story is never explored. The entire police operation is kept superficial and peripheral to the main story and although there are occasional mentions of forensic tests and interviews, these are all simply a background beat to the murders. 

The focus of the film is RJ Dahini (Aditi Rao Hydari) who is the killer’s next victim. Possibly because she talked to a psychologist about psychopaths on her radio show, or maybe just because she fits the killer’s victim profile, being young and female. But Dahini is also being stalked by a blind musician, Gautham (Udhayanidhi Stalin) who turns up with his carer Rajanayakam (Singampuli) everywhere that Dahini goes. She is understandably frustrated and annoyed by Gautham’s inability to take no for an answer, but Mysskin follows this sadly over-used and out-dated trope right to the end, and gradually Dahini starts to rethink her opinion of Gautham. Just in time for her to be kidnapped by Angulimala. 

Dahini is sure that she will be rescued by Gautham and I’m not totally sure whether this conviction is because she has actually fallen in love with him, or just because his stalker tendencies mean he can find her anywhere. Rather improbably, Angulimala gives Gautham 7 days to find and rescue her, although it the break in routine doesn’t stop his need to kill.  Meanwhile Gautham recruits paraplegic ex-cop Kamala Das (Nithya Menen) to help him with the search. Kamala was paralysed after falling down some stairs during the search for the killer, and has her own darkness to overcome to be able to help Gautham through his. With Guatham’s enhanced senses and Kamala’s cop insights they soon get close to the killer, while Dahini’s captivity allows her to understand what drives Angulimala to kill over and over again.

Mysskin has based his film on the Buddhist story of Aṅgulimāla, and even names his psychopathic killer after him. However, this Angulimala has a rather more sordid backstory that ends up allowing Dahini to empathise with her captor. While bringing in the element of institutionalised child abuse and adding the concept of religious sin raises some interesting questions, Mysskin perhaps takes it a little too far here when he suggests that Angulimala is purely a victim of his circumstance and deserving of our sympathy. Perhaps he did have a rough upbringing, but he’s a stone-cold killer and there is more to the making of a murderer than purely nurture alone. On the other hand, Dahini’s apparent Stockholm syndrome does make sense and her reactions to Angulimala’s revelations are neatly written into the story. Aditi Rao Hydari is perfectly cast here and she does an excellent job as a victim and unwilling observer to Angulimala’s executions. She appears fragile and yielding, but is able to demonstrate the inner core of strength that allows her character to survive her ordeal. It’s a great performance and Aditi is compelling in the role. For the most part her reactions are that I would expect from any normal person in the same situation, and her character is well written to capture the different range of emotions. My favourite moment is when, after gaining a little more freedom of movement, she finds a bathroom and immediately makes use of the facilities – it seemed such a perfectly natural and human thing to do.

Udhayanidhi Stalin is fine as Gautham, but his determined devotion to Dahini isn’t convincing, partly due to the way the romance develops but mainly because there is little back story for the character. There is little opportunity for him to develop any real interaction with Dahini before she is taken by Angulimala, and her conviction that Gautham will come for her mainly seems to be driven by his stalker tendencies rather than the true love he insists he feels for her. Udhayanidhi is better in the scenes where he is persuading Kamala to help, or pleading with Muthu to let him be involved in the police investigation, where we can see the reasoning behind his actions even if the motivation is less believable. Probably the most convincing character of the investigating team is Kamala and Nithya Menen is excellent here, ensuring that she gets the mix of bitterness and self-interest mixed with compassion just right. I love her snarky responses and ability to add a lighter touch to what is otherwise a rather heavily emotional thriller. No matter the situation, she can be counted on for a sarcastic quip or bitter diatribe about her situation. I felt that in the midst of all the bizarre happenings and total craziness of Guatham’s investigation, Kamala acted quite rationally for her character and this helped ground the film whenever Mysskin was in danger of being carried away by theatricality.

Another major plus in the film is the wonderful music from Ilaiyaraaja. The melodies are beautiful and haunting, while the background score is atmospheric and fits the film perfectly. Kudos to Sharan Rajan for translating the songs as songs (instead of literal word for word translations) and making the lyrics scan beautifully. Well done too, to the producers for making the subs yellow and for crediting both the subtitler and Subemy, something which unfortunately very few seem to do.

Tanvir Mir does a fantastic job with the cinematography, heightening tension with clever use of lighting in the scenes with Angulimala and contrasting this with the bright sunlit spaces where the bodies are found. I love a sequence where Gautham is driving (yes, really) and the car is a ribbon of light moving across the otherwise black screen. Even an overly theatrical scene where Dahini finds out more about Angulimala’s past is held together by the immaculate staging and imaginative use of light and shadow. There is so much attention to detail here in the set design and every single piece seems to be symbolic in some way. Gautham sits at home underneath a wall sculpture of a spreading tree, the religious imagery is continued by having a hacker listing to Madonna’s Frozen and the turning blades of windmills after watching the killer expertly wield his own knives.

I have to say that Psycho isn’t my favourite film from Mysskin. There are a number of unresolved issues such as how the killer chooses his victims and why he displays them in the manner he does. Also, there are a number of leaps of faith required to believe that Gautham really would be able to track Dahini in the few days he has available, and at the core, I don’t feel that the attempt to pass Angulimala as a damaged child really works. But if you are prepared to put these small issues aside and just enjoy the sheer spectacle, the characterisations and the performances as well as the wonderful music, then Psycho is definitely one for fans of the thriller/slasher genre. For the rest, be warned that it is significantly gory, right from the very first scene which may not be to everyone’s tastes. For the audience in Melbourne, who gave the film a resounding round of applause at the end, it most definitely was.

Pattas (2020)

Anyone who visits CinemaChaat regularly will know that I’m a massive Dhanush fan. Even when a movie is bad, I can usually still enjoy his performance even if everything else is terrible. But for once I can’t even say that Dhanush’s performance saved the film. And it’s not that he’s bad here, not at all, but there is something missing. His energy that usually bursts off the screen seems muted and I just couldn’t connect to his character(s) at all. I’ve had issues with R.S. Durai Senthilkumar films before, and I suspect it’s his style of film-making that basically doesn’t work for me. Ethir Neechal started well, but didn’t sustain its early promise and Kodi was an interesting film that unfortunately didn’t have subtitles, so again I struggled. And for Pattas the subtitles are so bad as to be almost unintelligible. I mostly ignored them because the English made little sense and often didn’t seem to connect with what was happening onscreen.

So is Pattas worth watching? Well, it has some good points – the inclusion of the ancient martial art of Adimurai is interesting although it could have been better explored. It’s rare to see a female character get to take part in the action sequences, so that’s a plus. The music is great and the choreography (both fight scenes and dance moves) is excellent, but realistically, that’s just not enough to make a good movie. 

The film starts with a flashback of Kanyakumari (Sneha) fighting back against a group of men who have beaten her son. She is arrested for the death of one of the men, despite the fact that they have killed her son, and should really have been the ones on trial. The film then switches to the present day where Pattas (Dhanush) and his sidekick Puncture (Sathish) are robbing a kickboxing studio. Switch again and we move to Thailand where Nilan’s son has won a kickboxing tournament and Nilan (Naveen Chandra) announces a big MMA competition to be held in Chennai. Switch again, and we’re back to the prison where Kanyakumari is being released from prison, apparently with vengeance on her mind.

It’s a check box film. Each character has certain things they need to do to get to the next scene, so they are ticked off, and then we move on. Although this is a revenge drama, rather than focusing on Kanyakumari and her plans, the film instead drifts between characters without ever establishing a strong rapport with any of them. There is a flashback to how Kanyakumari ended up fighting for her son’s life, where Dhanush plays his father, Thiraviyam Perumal, a Adimurai fighting champion. This section is better, but there is still little to draw the viewer into Thiraviyam’s world. Obviously Dhanush has put a lot of work into the part. The slow martial arts moves required look difficult and he manages them well, but there is no real sense of the character outside of his training. We get that he’s something of a pacifist; a nice man who tries his best to help his friend and his training master Asaan (Nasser). But there isn’t much more. As the younger Pattas (aka Sakthi), Dhanush is again wonderfully athletic, but the romance with Sadhana (Mehreen Pirzada) is woeful and again his character seems underdeveloped. The focus is all on the action, but it takes more than kicks and punches to make a film, and the story behind all the fight scenes doesn’t.

Naveen Chandra does well as the protagonist and out of all the characters in the film his role has the most definition. Unfortunately, the character development means that his story is often the weakest as there is no underlying motivation given for some of his actions. There are a group of foreign actors in the flashback who play Nilan’s friends, and every single one of them is absolutely terrible! I couldn’t work out if they were foreigners to emphasise Nilan’s alienation from his home country, or just because R.S. Durai Senthilkumar didn’t want to show Indian men carrying out such dreadful atrocities as are perpetrated here. Whatever the reason, it seems to be a bad choice all round.

The finale of the film revolves around the martial arts competition, where again we have more foreign actors supposedly playing the various competitors. I’m not sure if R.S. Durai Senthilkumar has ever watching any MMA competitions, but one thing you can’t help notice is how supremely fit each competitor is. Not so at this contest, where the competition looks as if they had one biriyani too many before stepping into the ring. It might have been the dreadful subtitles, but I also couldn’t work out why Nilan’s son pulled out of the competition and instead Nilan took on Pattas outside in the parking lot. The whole thing was just so bizarre given that this takes place at a world championship that would presumably have all the usual rules and regulations banning competitors from having side spats just outside the arena. And by this stage Kanyakumari has been sidelined, Sadhana has pretty much vanished along with Puncture and their father Kolusu (Munishkanth), so there is little emotion here despite the supposed revenge for Thiraviyam Perumal’s death.

What does work well are the fight scenes. Dhanush looks fantastic as both Thiraviyam Perumal and Pattas, and the fighting style works well with his smaller frame. Sneha too has great action sequences and these look realistic and exciting onscreen. The songs from Vivek-Mervin are catching and the dance sequences fun and very well executed. Kudos to all the choreographers, Jaani for the dance sequences and Dhilip Subbarayan for the action, who obviously put a lot of hard work into these scenes. This could have been a really great action film, especially since the fight sequences look fantastic, but it needs more focus on the martial art, and a greater exploration of Sneha’s character. Sneha does an excellent job here, but just doesn’t have enough to work with, especially in the scenes in the modern day where she is trying to take her revenge.

One last important point. It’s crucial for an international release to have good subtitles – not the terrible attempt here that just did not make sense, and in fact ruined the story for me. Please, please producers, you need to pay attention to subtitles which really are important, especially if a film is to be successfully screened outside of Tamil Nadu. Rekhs is the best of course and there are good subtitlers out there, so why not use them? I wish I enjoyed this film more – it has all the elements that I usually enjoy, but the weak story, poor use of the actors and awful subtitles made it a bland and disappointing watch. Wait for the DVD or for streaming – the songs and fight sequences are worth it and you can FF the rest.

Darbar (2020)

It’s always a major event when a new Rajinikanth film releases and even though I didn’t get to watch Darbar until the second day, the cinema was still packed for the evening show. But the initial excitement, whistles and cheers quickly faded as Darbar failed to engage the audience. I guess for every hit like Kaala, there has to be balance of a Lingaa and despite the star cast, Darbar ends up as a big miss. Individually each member of the cast is good, but the story just isn’t there, and when you add in some dodgy subtitles Darbar is simply very disappointing indeed.

The basic story is that widower and top police officer Aadhithya Arunachalam (Rajinikanth) is appointed as Commissioner of Police in Mumbai and sent to clean up the city. Why Mumbai? I couldn’t see any reason why this wasn’t set in Chennai, unless it was fear that people wouldn’t like the city being a hive of criminal activity. The opening scenes are of gangland style executions as Aadhithya personally rids the city of various gangsters but each of these seems overly simplistic. When we finally get to see Aadhithya it’s in a standard South-hero-introduction-scene™ where he is completely bullet proof, villains only attack either individually or in small groups, and where the sword proves mightier than the gun. It’s all just very meh, and not even the Rajni factor can elevate this into anything cheer-worthy.

The reason for the bloodbath is revealed and then there is a long flashback that follows Aadhithya’s arrival in the city showing the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the top criminal Ajay Malhotra (Prateik Babbar). Because of course it’s just one man who controls 90% of the drugs in Mumbai, and naturally no-one else steps in to help the hundreds of addicts seen pleading for help in a ridiculously tone-deaf montage. It’s over-simplified to the extreme with absolutely no depth to the story at all. I seem to say this frequently about A.R. Murugadoss films, but there are good ideas here, it’s just that the execution is very sloppy. Too often there seems to be an assumption that the audience will accept anything just to see their hero in action, but no matter how amazing Rajinikanth is (and he is!) there needs to be a story.  With all the slick production values put into the film, it doesn’t make sense that the narrative is badly under-developed with minimal research into some key plot points. Don’t get me started on the medical mis-information here!

Along with all the usual action sequences, there is a sort-of romance track with Nayanthara, which has some promise but never delivers. Aadhithya wants his daughter Valli (an excellent Nivetha Thomas) to get married, but she doesn’t want him to be left alone and even teases him because he can’t talk to women. So Valli points out this random woman – Lily (Nayanthara) and asks her father to tell her she is beautiful. As the start of a relationship it has to be one of the lamest I’ve seen, and from this unpromising start, the whole romance never gets any better. There is an interesting arc though where Lily reports the creepy man who is following her (Aadhithya), and then later Lily’s cousin (Sriman) has a frank conversation with Aadhithya about the age difference. This is actually well done, but sadly doesn’t evolve any further which I think is a real missed opportunity. For her part, Nayanthara glides through the film looking stunning but also a bit of a fish out of water as her character doesn’t fit well into the storyline at all. 

Nivetha Thomas has the better role as Aadhithya’s daughter, and she brings personality and warmth to the role. Her interactions with Aadhithya feel genuinely those of a father and daughter, and she ensures that Valli’s part in the story does make sense. I really like her here and the scenes between Nivetha and Rajinikanth develop their relationship and bring a human face to the otherwise formulaic action-hero-cop persona of Aadhithya. Rajni too is great in these scenes, and I would have liked more of these emotional moments which could have been used to develop the story, instead of adding the pointless romance.

Also problematic is the villain, Hari Chopra (Suniel Shetty). Suniel Shetty is usually a pretty good villain – he has the sneer down pat and I’ve seen him generate a convincing aura of evil even if he doesn’t have the sheer physicality of some of the other classic bad guys. But he is totally wasted here. His introduction scene is pathetic and seems to be out of a gangster film for kids. I have no idea why he was supposed to be such a big shot, apart from the repeated reference to burning a police station some 20 years previously. Again, there are some good ideas thrown in when Hari first gets back to India and starts his campaign against the police, but all of this is weakened by some nonsense byplay with a knife and then completely destroyed by the ridiculous finale. Nawab Shah is reasonably good as Vijay Malhotra, the father of Ajay who is willing to go to any lengths to save his son, but the rest of the villains are faceless and are mostly of the rent-a-thug variety. Interestingly, they all seem to prefer loudly patterned shiny synthetic shirts which I did appreciate as a distinctive style choice for crooks.

The best part of the film is undoubtedly Rajinikanth, and he strides across the (many) plot-holes with panache, charisma and charm. He’s wonderfully engaging to watch and his supreme confidence is always fun, but there is too much reliance on his hand gestures, sunglasses and winning smile. Yes, he’s excellent, but without good dialogue and a convincing narrative, the film is simply a series of set pieces that could be slotted into any other Rajinikanth film. Still, the action sequences are beautifully shot by Santosh Sivan, Rajinikanth looks awesome throughout and the music is good, although Anirudh’s background score is more memorable than most of the songs. I did enjoy the choreography for these but the subtitles for the songs were dreadful! Some are totally incomprehensible (I suspect too literal translations) and I’m looking forward to the film streaming to screencap a few for Paagal Subtitle. It’s baffling to me how such a big production can fail to deal with essential basics like subtitles for an OS release.

I didn’t have great expectations from Darbar, but the film turned out to be more disappointing than expected. I’m glad I watched it in the cinema with a room full of like-minded fans, but I am frustrated by the apparently careless approach to the story. Come on Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth fans expect better!