Dharma Durai (2016)

Dharma Durai poster

Seenu Ramasamy’s Dharma Durai tells the story of a doctor from a small village, his highs and lows and his final redemption through the love of a good woman – of course! The film has a slow start and even after the main character is established the pacing is occasionally uneven and erratic, but it has excellent performances from the main leads, a good story and plenty of thought provoking themes around social justice, caste, dowry and responsibility. However, it’s not as nearly as heavy as that sounds and even though the story is about an alcoholic, there are plenty of light hearted moments making the film an overall entertaining as well as a thought-provoking watch.

The film starts in the village where Dharma Durai (Vijay Sethupathi) roams around making a nuisance of himself, mainly to the embarrassment and general detriment of his brothers. Dharma is an alcoholic which explains his rather erratic behaviour, although it did take me a while to realise that alcohol addiction was the problem. It’s not immediately obvious and Vijay Sethupathi is subtle in his portrayal of a drunk, so it’s not until a village event that the full extent of his alcoholism is made clear.

Dharma accuses his brothers of cheating the villagers with the chit fund they run and seems intent on making life difficult for them, to the extent that I started to sympathise with the family, even though their method of dealing with Dharma is fairly extreme. The brothers decide to lock Dharma up in a shed until they can decide what to do with him, and the signs are clear that Dharma is not destined for a long and happy life. Dharma’s only well- wisher is his mother Pandiyamma (Radhika Sarathkumar) and in classic filmi style she arranges a way for him to escape his temporary prison.

Once he escapes the village, Dharma goes back to Madurai and the medical college where he had studied to become a doctor. The film moves into flashback as we relive Dharma’s years as a student and his romance with fellow student Stella (Srushti Dange). I would love to know if medical students in India really do wear white coats and stethoscopes round their necks all the time. It seems odd to me but at least means that they are easy to recognise as medical students rather than trainee engineers or something else entirely!

Dharma is a good student despite a tendency to spout poetry at the least provocation, and ultimately he follows his professor’s advice to return home and work for the village. After all, it’s the common people who have paid for his degree so he is morally obligated to go back and serve these people. The ethical message here is hammered home a little too much, and the students are all somewhat unnaturally altruistic, but overall the flashback is a pleasant interlude that shows Dharma is a much better light and starts to explain his past.

Back in the present day Dharma tries to track down his old friends – Stella and her friend Subhashini (Tamannaah) who also had an unrequited crush on Dharma. These were the last people he felt who really cared about him, and eventually he does manage to meet up with Subhashini and relates the series of events which led to him becoming an alcoholic.

This is the best part of the film and the flashback to the love story between Dharma and villager Anbuselvi (Aishwarya Rajesh) is beautifully done. Aishwarya is easily the best of the female leads and her characterisation of a farmer’s daughter is simply perfect. Anbuselvi is more than she first seems and it’s no surprise that Dharma is immediately smitten. Vijay and Aishwarya have wonderful onscreen chemistry and Sukumar’s excellent cinematography makes this golden time appear even more radiant as the two romance each other through song.

What makes Dharma Durai interesting is the clash between new and old. Dharma is college educated but comes back to his old village to work as he feels that is his duty. But once back at home, his modern ideas don’t sit well with his brothers’ ideas of caste and dowry and that leads to the serious conflict between them. There is also the contrast between Dharma’s old love – the beautiful and traditional Anbuselvi, and his new romance with the more modern and well educated Subhashini. Subhashini has a shiny new medical clinic of her own, but also has an ex-husband to deal with and her own share of past issues that make it difficult for her to reach out to Dharma. The only real downside to the story is the contrived and unlikely method that Seenu Ramasamy uses to get Dharma back to the village at the end. It’s all a little too far-fetched and unlikely, but why should we let any of that get in the way of a good ending!

One other issue is that the story has a few too many stops and starts as it moves from one portion of Dharma’s life to the next and as a result not all the scenes flow smoothly. The moral messages tend to be over-emphasised which also slow down the narrative and move attention away from the characters. However, once the camera is focusing on Dharma and Anbuselvi, or Dharma and Subhashini the film comes alive again and draws us back into the story. Vijay Sethupathi is wonderful throughout, and his Dharma is the absolute essence of a village boy done good for most of the film. Tamannaah is also excellent as Subhashini, although she doesn’t click quite as well with Vijay as Aishwarya, but her depiction of a career woman with a very definite set of values is nicely done. Radhika Sarathkumar is very good as Dharma’s long suffering mother while Rajesh makes a brief but notable appearance as the college professor. The portrayal of village life and a rural clinic is also very well done – I’m sure that I have seen many of those patients in my trips into rural Tamil Nadu on a health camp each year, which probably adds to the whole authentic vibe I got from the film.

Dharma Durai is an interesting story that just needs a little tighter editing to move proceedings along more consistently. The songs are good, the cinematography excellent and both Vijay Sethupathi and Aishwarya Rajesh are on top form, making a perfect match. Worth watching for their performances and for Tamannaah Bhatia and the rest of the cast who all do their part in bringing this fascinating slice of village melodrama to life.

Thani Oruvan

thani-oruvan.jpg

Thani Oruvan pits a dedicated police officer against a corrupt scientist in psychological thriller that has plenty of drama and action. The writing collaboration between director Mohan Raja and Subha results in a cleverly plotted story with some unexpected twists, but the real success lies in the detailed development of the two main characters. Neither is completely black or white, although the shades of grey are relatively muted, while the cat and mouse relationship between the two provides good structure to the film. Excellent performances from the whole team but particularly Arvind Swamy as the villain of the piece ensure that Thani Oruvan is a better than average police drama and one that’s well worth a watch.

You know a film is going to be pretty epic when the story starts with a dramatic birth. Sengalvarayan (Thambi Ramaiah) is a party man through and through to the point where it’s more important to him that he ties flags for his leader’s appearance rather than take his heavily pregnant wife to hospital. The leader senses an opportunity for some good publicity and sure enough, the baby is born in the back seat of the politician’s car leading Sengalvarayan and his new son Pazhani to develop a relationship with the man who will later become Chief Minister (Nassar). The significance of these events doesn’t become apparent until later on but they provide an instantly intriguing start to the film.

After the dramatic opening, the story moves to a group of young police officers in training and their vigilante-style activities against the local criminal community. Despite the group’s best efforts, the crooks never stay in jail and Shakthi (Ganesh Venkatraman), Suraj (Harish Uthaman), Kathiresan (Sricharan) and Jana (Rahul Madhav) all look to their friend and natural leader Mithran (Jayam Ravi) for a solution. Naturally Mithran has a plan, having spent the last few years investigating all known criminal activity and discovering that all crimes are interlinked and ultimately committed by a small group of individuals. As a result he’s made it his mission in life to eliminate one of these top 15 criminals responsible for all of the crime in India, and of course his buddies want in on the action. He has a shortlist of three possible men to choose from; Ashok Pandian (Nagineedu), Perumal Swamy (Madhusudhan Rao) and Charles Chelladurai (Saiiju Kurup) who between them (according to Mithran) account for 80% of the criminal activity in the country.

Mithran’s biggest problem is which one to choose, although I’m not entirely sure why he couldn’t decide to eliminate all three given that he has his whole career ahead of him and could work on knocking off one every 10 years or so. Regardless, while he is working out which one to target, he discovers that all three actually work for a much bigger villain – highly respected scientist and Padma Shri awarded Siddharth Abimanyu (Arvind Swamy). Siddharth is known for his work in the pharmaceutical field but in reality he’s the mastermind behind all sorts of criminal activity and not a nice man at all, despite his designer suits, fashion model wife and impressive collection of University degrees.

Siddharth is of course the grown up young boy from the start of the film and his inept father is now the Health Minister in Nassar’s government, allowing Siddharth to do basically whatever he wishes. Mithran and Siddharth cross paths when an American drug company owner comes to India to open access to lifesaving medications – something that Siddharth and his associates will go to any lengths to prevent. Once Siddharth becomes aware of Mithran and his attempts to put him out of business, the contest between the two begins in earnest with each determined to eliminate the other no matter what it takes.

The characterisations are the key here and while Mithran doesn’t have all the answers he uses a methodical approach and informed reasoning to work out what Siddharth will do next. Almost too good to be true, Mithran is depicted as a dedicated and passionate police officer with a strong sense of social justice, who is almost hyper-aware of crime in his surroundings. However as he gets drawn into a battle of wits with Siddharth his obsession threatens to take over his life while his friends and allies become tools to use in his fight. His motto is that a man’s capability is defined by the quality of his enemies and by that measure he needs to be very capable indeed. Mithran’s passion for justice is what makes him get out of bed in the morning, so he has none left over for potential love interest Mahima (Nayantara) and as time goes on, little patience to deal with his friend and colleagues either. These shades of grey give Mithran more credibility and offset his tendency to indulge in pompous and long-winded speeches about truth, justice and the rights of all to obtain cheap pharmaceuticals when required. Jayam Ravi is perfectly capable as Mithran but he is very serious and it would have been good to see an occasional smile outside of the obligatory song with Mahima.

Siddharth is a more cerebral villain than usual and uses his political influence to neutralise any threat from Mithran while his quick reactions and scientific knowledge also stand him in good stead to outwit the police officer at almost every turn. He doesn’t throw tantrums, swear vengeance or send out gangs of thugs as Tamil criminal masterminds are wont to do, instead he simply adapts, moves on and changes direction.

Arvind Swamy is excellent as the criminal mastermind, with the beauty of his characterisation lying in just how very ordinary his Siddharth is. He’s rich  – designer suits, trophy wife and beautiful house all attest to how wealthy he is, but on the surface he could be any scientist working on medical breakthroughs with no indication of how cruelly callous he can be when required. Those moments when he casually orders someone’s death or explodes into controlled violence are almost totally unexpected and seem to come out of nowhere, making Siddharth a very effective and chilling villain despite his generally debonair persona.

Nayantara’s character Mahima is interesting too. On one hand she’s the typically dumb love interest who thinks that by following the hero around and declaring her love at every eventual opportunity she will eventually wear him down – and to be fair that is what happens here too. But on the other hand, she’s a forensic scientist who has some good ideas to help Mithran’s investigation, and appears coolly capable and professional in her work. If only Mohan Raja had avoided the ‘love at first sight’ cliché and given Mahima and Mithran a more plausible and realistic romance I would have liked her character more. But Nayantara does give Mahima professional competency and a no-nonsense approach most of the time that fits well with the overall tone of the film.

The rest of the cast are good with Thambi Ramaiah providing some laughs as an inept politician, but mainly giving a further insight into the character of Siddharth. Rahul Madhav is the best of Mithran’s friends, Vamsi Krishna is suitably menacing as Siddharth’s hitman, while Mugdha Godse is good in her brief but important role as Siddharth’s wife. The film looks good too, with effective use of split scenes and an effective mix of technology and good old-fashioned fight scenes. There are a few leaps of faith required but they aren’t too ridiculous and mostly the plot makes sense.

Thani Oruvan is an intelligent thriller with a good mix of action and drama and excellent characterisations. It is a little overlong, but the story keeps moving along at a good pace and like any good page-turner it’s always worth finding out what happens next. Worth watching for Arvind Swamy’s villainous scientist and the psychological cat and mouse game between Siddharth and Mithran. 4 stars.

 

Kabali

Kabali

Pa Ranjith’s Kabali is a film that could have been made in 1986 and that is not entirely a bad thing. Rajinikanth stars as Kabali, a gangster released after 20 odd years in jail. His wife and unborn child are dead, killed by rival gangs. What will he do? It’s a lumbering gangster vs gangster story on a large scale, but with a very traditional approach to conflict resolution. A less extravagant looking film than Rajini’s recent outings, it makes up in international locations what it lacks in CGI pyramids.

Rajini is such a good actor I was pleased to see him in a more pared down movie. When Kabali was speaking to foes or minions he laid on the mass mannerisms with a trowel. But when he was with friends he was more nuanced, even funny, and I could kind of see why people loved and followed him. I liked the slightly anachronistic feel, as though time took a while to get going for Kabali again so he was still acting like it was the 80s. Kabali always wore a suit, and that is explained in more detail than almost anything else in the story. I did like the outfit with the scoop necked double breasted waistcoat and hat. Sidenote – I am pretty sure I saw a guy wearing one of Kabali’s pre-transformation 1970s shirts in a 2016 scene.

Now free, Kabali has flashbacks to seeing his wife. He would see Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte) around the house and familiar places, chiding him then breaking into a loving smile. The way he drifted back to his past or lost track of where he was during these visions made his love and the depth of loss evident. Although his future and present never quite seemed as clear or in focus.

Radhika Apte had the small but important role as Kumudhavalli. Their relationship was established back in the day when Kabali was getting started as a community leader, and she left everything to marry him regardless of their class or caste differences. Unfortunately Pa Ranjith has little idea of how to structure a narrative taking place in multiple time periods and does a lot of telling before showing a flashback, then more telling again. Their scenes together are really nice and Radhika gives her character enough spirit to make an impression even in a limited time. She is 30 playing as a contemporary of a 65 year old, but the make-up team did what they could to remove those differences and Rajini’s wig guys got to trot out some old favourites.

I liked Dhansika as Yogi, although her character went off the boil once she had established her true identity. I couldn’t quite believe an ice cold mercenary could so quickly forget how to deal with a stranger at the door, and her kill rate dropped alarmingly. But Dhansika played her with more edge than I’m used to seeing, and I liked her performance. I also liked the guy assigned to look after them in Chennai who believed there was never not enough time to flirt a bit with the hot gun toting chick.

Kabali is a leader of a gang that only did good deeds (for Tamil people only, of course), but still killed his enemies without hesitation. He was a hero to Tamilians living in Malaysia and committed to helping them stay and thrive, but his views on other races in Malaysia went way past pro-Tamil jingoism and into bigotry on a number of occasions. And how was he going to actually make any money to keep things going? He had rules about not getting into drugs or hookers, but no clear business plan.

Kabali-Winston Chao

Rival (and Evil) Gang 43 had a business plan (import ALL the drugs), and a leader who may have been auditioning to be a Bond villain. Tony Lee (Winston Chao) had an inexhaustible supply of brocade jackets and contrasting bowties (I liked the high buttoned big lapelled peacock blue ensemble best, or maybe the pink), a robust vocabulary of curse words in multiple languages, and a desk shaped like a komodo dragon. Winston Chao looks like he is having a ball and really goes for it in the big moments, while generally being cool and psychotic. He and Rajini play off each other well and despite Tony being utterly despicable I looked forward to his scenes.

Santhosh Narayan’s soundtrack is firmly of the present day, and it suits the fast and crunchingly aggressive world of the story. Also I liked the blending of hip hop and more usual blokey Tamil hero dance styles. Rajini stuck to enigmatic walking and meaningful pointing.

Pa. Ranjith didn’t quite solve the problem of how to reveal the various twists so he had a crack at everything multiple times. Rajini did most of his acting sitting down, which made this quite a talky gangster flick. And these two things combined to make this a bit slow, and not as suspenseful as it should have been. There is a distinct lack of logic that means people and things are there or not there just because. I gave up wondering if the school actually did anything education related! All any student seemed to learn was The Free Life Salute which I don’t believe would be very useful. The fight scenes felt quite slow and sometimes repetitive. A better fight director or sharper editing might have made the difference, and at least given more variety of ways to splash the fake blood around.

The supporting cast is almost a who’s who. Nasser, John Vijay, Kalaiyarasan and hyperactive Dinesh Ravi are among the ranks of the notional “goodies”. The baddies boast Kishore, Mime Gopi (yes he was a mime) and a host of others. But remember this is a Tamil gangster movie so don’t go getting attached to anyone. That’s all I’m saying.

The subtitle team did a great job (thanks rekhs and harini!). Maybe because there wasn’t much challenge in the dialogues, there were also some descriptive captions of all the many types of laughter Kabali had at his disposal. Some of my favourites were: “Smug chuckle”, “Sarcastic laughter” and “Tickled pink laughter”. Yours?

If the film was a little shorter, and some of the show and tell had been show OR tell, Kabali could have been very good indeed. See it if you miss the mid 80s gangster genre, or you enjoy watching a larger than life on screen superstar. When it’s good it’s good, and when it isn’t you still have Rajini and Winston Chao…and those natty outfits. Magizhchi!