Kuttrame Thandanai (2016)

After Kaaka Muttai, M. Manikandan’s second film is a crime thriller where the sole witness to a murder is a man who is gradually losing his vision. Despite some dodgy medical diagnoses, the story itself is gripping with the identity of the murderer kept hidden right until the end. With plenty of twists and a great performance from Vidharth in the lead role, Kutrame Thandanai is an interesting film that deserves a second glance.

Right from the start we learn that Ravi (Vidharth) has a problem with his eyes. He has tunnel vision (due to retinitis pigmentosa according to his ophthalmologist), but the retinal image shown does not show the condition, and the symptoms don’t quite match up either. Ravi is told that he needs an eye transplant to ‘cure’ his problem, which is also impossible (there is no possible way to treat the retinal damage from retinitis pigmentosa), but the sum of money he needs for the operation becomes the central point of the story. The camera often shows Ravi’s view to accentuate his limited vision, which works effectively to help understand his very real problems.

Ravi works as a collector for a credit card collection office, where his co-worker Anu (Pooja Devariya) appears to have a crush on him, and as a result smooths his relationship with the manager (George Maryan). As his vision is getting worse day by day, Ravi starts to try and raise the money for his operation. He starts by trying to get a loan at work, but the amount is much too large. A glass-blowing friend (Nasser) is also unable to give him the money he needs, and it seems that Ravi is doomed to eventual blindness with the added misery of no longer being able to drive and at risk of losing his job. But then a girl who lives in his block of flats is murdered. Ravi sees a young man Arun (leave her apartment in a rage, and subsequently meets an older man at the scene. But which is responsible for the murder? 

As first Vijay Prakash (Rahman) and then Arun’s father offers Ravi money for his silence, it seems possible that he might be able to fund his operation at last. But in his search for what he needs, Ravi has to turn his back on justice for the murdered girl, Swetha (Aishwarya Rajesh). It’s a moral dilemma and writers M. Manikandan and Anand Annamalai have built the story around the question of moral ambiguity. Either of the two men could potentially be responsible for the murder, while Ravi is blackmailing them for his silence. There are also questions raised about the morality of the health service, which demands payment in full before even putting Ravi onto a waiting list for his operation. Even the other residents in the building appear to have double standards, being reluctant to speak to the police and get involved, but discussing Swetha’s death among themselves. There is also the issue that Swetha was being visited by several men, with an unspoken but inferred social agreement that she had contributed to her own death. The police are the least morally corrupt in the entire story, as they continue to look for justice for Swetha, despite being hampered by uncommunicative residents of the apartment block, and a general lack of clues. 

The crime is treated rather lightly, and the plot instead focuses on Ravi and the gradual change in his ethics as he becomes ever more desperate for money. Is it OK to demand money for his operation from a man who may potentially be a murder. As more details are revealed, Ravi’s actions become ever more questionable as we find he know who the real murderer is, and yet continues to auction his silence to the highest bidder. His actions also cause consequences for those people that he drags into his scheme, although these are only seen from Ravi’s point of view. Essentially the film shows how selfish we become when faced with a problem such as Ravi’s blindness. Not only is he losing his sight, but he’s also unable to see anything other than his own problems.

Although Kutrame Thandanai doesn’t have the instant appeal of Kaaka Muttai and the plot is also slow to develop, it does have great characterisations. It does take a long time before the crucial murder and the blackmail story also develops later in the plot, but what I like is the moral ambiguity that threads through the entire story. The characters are inherently normal people with the usual mix of corruption and innocence, and what works well is the way that we only tend to see their reactions through Ravi’s eyes. There is a good sense of Ravi’s thought processes and why he decides on blackmail as the solution for his problems, even though this is possibly the worst decision he could make. Vidharth puts in a great performance that ensure we see Ravi as a typical low-income worker who is desperate to save his sight and therefore his livelihood. I really like how he stops driving when told to do so by the doctor, but then makes more questionable decisions when faced with the potential to change his fate. In real life, many patients would not do the former, at least not until they have worked through the consequences, but few would decide to follow Ravi’s later decisions. Here too, Nasser works well as Ravi’s sounding board and source of moral counsel, even though he doesn’t really seem to understand the reality of Ravi’s vision loss. The cast all provide solid support and although Aishwarya Rajesh only has brief appearances, she still makes an impression while Pooja Devariya ensures that her character is memorable for all the right reasons.

Ilaiyaraaja’s background music is beautiful and soars above the grimy streets that M. Manikandan captures so well. The ambiguity of the characters is well depicted and the story raises many questions about morality and how it applies in different situations. Ravi’s tunnel vision is literal, but also applies to many of the other characters in the way they view the world as well as to Ravi’s own interpretation of his situation. Interesting and more complex that it first appears, Kutrame Thandanai is a worthwhile watch and highly recommended. 4 stars.

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.