Asuran (2019)

Vetrimaaran’s latest film Asuran is a graphic and violent tale of oppression and intimidation of a small landowner and his family, but it’s also a story of revenge, survival and of the fight for justice in an unjust world. Dhanush is in his element, playing both Sivasaamy, an ageing and broken-down small freehold farmer and also his younger self in a flashback that explains how he ended up as a pacifist. The rest of the cast are just as good, including Ken Karnuas as Sivasaamy’s son and Manju Warrier as Sivasaamy’s wife. Asuran seems set to be another Vetrimaaran classic as yet again he has captured the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu while telling a rousing story, this time adapted from Poomani’s novel, Vekkai.

The story starts quietly, with Sivasaamy (Dhanush) and his youngest son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) wading through a river in the middle of the night. Sivasaamy urges caution, explaining to his reluctant son why they are walking in the river, rather than on the road (it’s to hide their tracks). At one point as the water is gradually getting higher, Chidamabaram complains that his bombs will get wet. I thought this was likely a euphemism for something else, but surprisingly, as clearly demonstrated later, what he’s carrying are indeed explosive devices! As the father and son slowly make their way deeper into the forest, Vetrimaran shows the searchers, hunters and police who are on their trail, while in the other direction, Sivasaamy’s wife Pachaiamma (Manju Warrier) and daughter are also running to hide. At this point Sivasaamy seems confident and capable – he knows how to hide their trail and how to keep silent, unlike Chidambaram who seems to be singularly clueless, wandering off, lighting fires and generally making himself far too visible.

Gradually we discover why the family are in flight as, in flashback, the film shows the family’s struggle against the rich Vadakkoran Narasimha (Aadukalam Naren) who wants their small plot of land. This leads to clashes between Vadakkoran’s men and Sivasaamy’s older son Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam) who wants to fight back and cannot understand his father’s servile attitude. Even Pachaiamma grabs up a sickle to defend herself, but Sivasaamy urges caution and tries to ignore the provocations, including the death of one of the family dogs. Murugan is frustrated by his father’s faintheartedness and responds by aggression and violence, although mostly as a result of threats and taunts from Vadakkoran’s men. It’s obvious that neither Sivasaamy’s approach, not his son’s aggressiveness will work against the upper class Vadakkoran who has the law and the power of his money on his side, and this futility underpins all of the action in the film. The violence escalates until Murugan is murdered in a particularly gruesome and bloody manner which starts to tear the family apart. Chidambaram is only 16 and cannot understand the class politics that make his father unable to act, but instead regards him as a coward. As a result, to try and alleviate his mother’s grief, Chidambaram attacks Vadakkoran, leading to the family’s midnight flight.

Dhanush is simply amazing as the older and broken Sivasaamy. His subjugation at every turn is perfectly nuanced to make us feel his pain and despair as Sivasaamy struggles to keep his family safe. His alcoholism is part of the whole picture of a deeply flawed man, while the contempt of his sons and stoicism of his wife is shown to cut deeply. Murugan and Chidambaram deride their father for his cowardice but Pachaiamma and her brother (Pasupathy) have a much better idea of the situation, and although they don’t always approve, they tend to support Sivasaamy’s approach. However, when Murugan is killed, Pachaiamma can no longer support her husband’s viewpoint with matters coming to a head when Chidambaram seeks his revenge. The family drama is beautifully written with the emotions raw and realistic, while the relentless persecution from Vadakkoran seems unnecessarily harsh but also very plausible.

Despite Chidambaram’s low opinion of his father, he’s still young enough to rely on him during their flight. But when they are cornered at the end of the first half, it’s Chidambaram who is shocked when his father finally picks up a stick and fights back in spectacular style. It’s massy, but loads of fun and the fight scene is well staged to make Sivasaamy’s sudden prowess believable.

The second half starts with a flashback to Sivasaamy’s youth, and once again his subjugation by a rich local landlord which ends with the death of his family including his activist brother (Subramaniam Siva) and his fiancée Mariyammal (Ammu Abhirami). This time the divide is more about caste but the outcome is the same despite having lawyer Venugopal Seshadri (Prakash Raj) on their side. While the story is compelling and a bitter statement on the realities of being poor in rural India, it’s the characterisations that stand out in Asuran. Ken Karnuas is fantastic in a role which requires him to be naïve, passionate and impulsive but then have to grow up really fast. Manju Warrier is a rock steady presence beside her husband, until her son is murdered and her world comes crashing down. Her grief roils off the screen in waves of pain in the distressingly realistic scene where Muruguan’s body is discovered. The visuals hit hard, and the acting is simply superb throughout. Although his time onscreen is short, Teejay Arunasalam makes an impact in a powerful performance of a young man determined to defend his family at all costs.

 

The film looks amazing as Velraj captures the stunning scenery around Tirunevelli. The cinematography emphasises the isolation when Sivasaamy and Chidambaram flee into the forest, but also captures the heart of rural India and the wonderful colours associated with different crops. The film soundtrack from GV Prakash Kumar is also excellent while the songs are perfectly matched to the action on screen. There is also clever use of sound, where during an action scene, all the music stops and there is just the sound of breathing, which works very well to focus attention on the protagonist and let us wonder what is going on in his mind, right at that very second.  Vetrimaaran keeps the romance sections short and the fight scenes bloody and violent, but it all fits snugly into the narrative despite a somewhat rushed feeling of the ending. Thanks are also due to the subtitler for using yellow font and being clear and concise – sorry I didn’t catch who was responsible for these.

Asuran combines father and son relationships with village power politics and the result is a powerful societal film that also has the warmth and intimacy of a more personal story. The performances are all amazing and as always I am stunned by how Dhanush can transform between a feisty young man in his early twenties to an older fifty-plus worn down farmer and be totally convincing in both roles. Wonderful actors, a compelling story and stunning scenery all combine to make this one of the best Tamil movies so far this year. Don’t miss it!

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Vellai Pookal

The idea of Vivek in a serious role as a cop investigating a succession of disappearances in America is intriguing, but despite some good ideas and the rather more unusual setting of Seattle, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the trailer.  Director Vivek Elangovan and co-writer Shanmuga Bharathi have a story with potential that’s let down by poor dialogue for the inexperienced American cast and a slow introduction that fails to produce the necessary tension. On the plus side, Vivek pulls off his role as a retired detective and there is enough going on to keep the film interesting, even if it lacks enough suspense until near the end.

Vivek plays the role of Rudhran, a police officer in Chennai who investigates crimes by placing himself in the mind of the killer. The opening sequence shows this clearly, if somewhat bloodily, but already there is something just a little off with the screenplay. When Rudhran explains every clue, and conveniently finds the culprit close at hand, it all seems just a little too pat and easy, while the violence of the crime seems unsuited to the perpetrator and the revelation of his reasons. Still, it’s a good introduction and doesn’t show Rudhran as some kind of superhero cop, but rather as someone who relies on his intelligence and his instincts to bring a killer to justice.

This seems to have been Rudhran’s last case before retirement, and at the urging of his Deputy Inspector General (Gajaraj), he heads off to Seattle to visit his estranged son Ajay (Dev). Despite a friendly welcome, Rudhran still seems to have an issue with Ajay, but all is revealed when they arrive home to Alice (Paige Henderson), the white American woman Ajay has married. If his reaction to Ajay is chilly, Rudhran is positively glacial towards Alice, and practically refuses to acknowledge her existence. Later, we learn that this animosity isn’t simply because Alice is white, or even as a result of her attempts to speak Tamil, but rather is due to Ajay jilting the girl he was to marry in India just a few days before the wedding. Rudhran struggles to cope with Alice, the American food and the smart fridge featuring photos of the couple, all of which I found fairly relatable to be honest.

But Rudhran also complains about Seattle being too clean and quiet for him during phone calls to friends back home, as he misses the noise and chaos of Chennai and the excitement of police investigations.  Luckily, Ajay’s work colleague Ramya (Pooja Devariya) live with her parents, Bharati (Charle) and Meena (Sudha Rajasekaran) who quickly establish a relationship with Rudhran.

The neighbourhood isn’t as quiet as Rudhran thinks since first Ajay’s next-door neighbour, and then a neighbourhood kid both vanish under mysterious circumstances. Various characters are offered up as potential suspects but the issue is confused by occasional scenes of an abusive man, his bedridden wife and traumatised daughter. When Ajay joins the ranks of the missing the case becomes more than an interesting puzzle for Rudhran and he has to overcome his fears for Ajay before he can focus his skills as a detective.

The bones of the story are good but unfortunately there is too much that is predicable, especially in the long and drawn out set-up to Ajay’s disappearance. Most of the suspects are cliched characters too – there is a black drug dealer, Mona’s muscled boyfriend and a shady and uncommunicative Pakistani neighbour who all fall under Rudhran’s suspicions. This necessitates various plots and diversions by Bharati to allow Rudhran to investigate each suspect, but these don’t all work and mostly seem forced into the story to allow Vivekh and Charle a chance to revert back to their usual comedy schtick. We never get a good feel for the characters of Ajay and Alice, while the investigating police officers are drawn in very broad strokes, seemingly only included to get in Rudhran’s way and demonstrate 70’s TV cop clichés at every turn.

Also problematic are the scenes featuring Ethan (Lionel Flynn) and his daughter Nicole (Gabrielle Castronover) which seem ridiculously over the top and exaggerated. Ethan is purely evil and seems to spend his time dealing in drugs and stolen children, brutalising his wife and daughter and wastefully snorting massive amounts of cocaine. The problem with this is that Ethan is such a complete monster, and so removed from the rest of the storyline, that it seems obvious that the disappearances will be linked to him. This ends up removing any real sense of urgency or tension as we know who the real bad guy is and really are just waiting to see when he will cross paths with Rudhran. As it turns out there is a nice twist, but it’s spoiled by Rudhran explaining what has happened with a voice-over rather than just showing us the action. None of the American cast impress at all, with the possible exception of Gabrielle Castronover who has little dialogue but is still effective in getting her emotions across.

Despite these issues, the film is still watchable thanks to Vivek who really gets into the role, particularly when Rudhran the father has to take second place to the Rudhran the detective. He’s also excellent at portraying his frustration with retirement, with the lack of purpose to his days and his discomfort at being in his son’s house without having solved the problems that exist between them. His fear and frustration roil off the screen and in these moments it’s easy to forget that he’s mainly known for his comedic roles. There are some good scsnes too, such as when Rudhran interviews the missing people in his dreams, and interrogates his suspects – insisting that they all speak Tamil because it is his dream, and that is the language he speaks. These are cleverly done and it’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t show the same attention to detail and preciseness of dialogue that are shown here.

According to their website this was the first film from Indus Creations and it seems to be a collaboration among friends with a passion for theatre and film. As such, this is a good first dip into the murky waters of cinema and the team deserve credit for producing a watchable detective film with a difference. Tighter editing, better use of the American cast including less stilted dialogue would have made this a better film, but it’s still enjoyable and it’s probably the most inventive use of dandelions I’ve seen in an Indian film. Worth a one-time watch for Vivek and the inventive storyline. 3 stars.

Sindhubaadh

 

Sindhubaadh

S.U. Arun Kumar previously teamed up with Vijay Sethupathi for the excellent Pannaiyarum Padminiyum and police-drama Sethupathi, both of which had well developed and slightly off-beat stories with an interesting array of characters. It’s disappointing then, that in Sindhubaadh, he’s come up with a disjointed story and characters who don’t seem to know exactly who they are supposed to be. Thankfully, Vijay Sethupathi is excellent and his presence, along with a strong performance from his son Surya Vijay Sethupathi is enough to keep the first half of the film engaging, but things go rather more pear-shaped in the second half.

Vijay Sethupathi is Thiru, a petty street thief who is hearing impaired. He lives with his adopted son Super (Surya Vijay Sethupathi), although the actual story behind their relationship is shrouded in various tales they spin Thiru’s uncle (George Maryan). Thiru’s lack of hearing allows him to sidestep his uncle’s attempts to sell their house to grab some fast cash and their tussles provide some of the comedy in the first half. Thiru is a pretty laid-back guy who doesn’t seem to have too many problems with his deafness and seems happy to continue on his slightly crooked path through life. Super is a perfect side-kick and his high spirits offset Thiru’s more relaxed approach to life.

Meanwhile Venba (Anjali) has returned from Malaysia where she’s been working in a rubber plantation to pay off family debt. Her family are trying to arrange her marriage but Venba’s loud strident voice puts off potential suitors. For the hearing impaired Thiru though, she’s the one person he can hear easily and he instantly falls in love with her voice. But Venba isn’t interested in marrying a thief, leading Thiru to try and change her mind by the tried and trusted method of stalking and harassment. And, as only ever happens in the world of movies, this tactic works – and now it’s Venba’s family who aren’t impressed with the prospect of a thief for a son-in-law. By this stage though Venba is quite prepared to sacrifice her family for a man she despised only a song or so ago, and she returns to Malaysia just to finish up her job there, promising to be back in a couple of days.

Unfortunately for Venba, the corrupt owners of the rubber plantation where she was employed are involved with a much larger criminal gang. When she arrives back in the country she’s sold to a consortium who are involved in the skin trade, with a more literal meaning than usual. Venba manages to get word to Thiru who sets off for foreign shores using the name Sindhubaadh in his fake passport with Super in tow. But this is where the story starts to break down. There are way too many coincidences that are used to patch over the gaping plot holes as Thiru crosses Thailand and into Cambodia in the search for Venba. Along the way, Thiru just happens to meet people who can both speak Tamil and point him in the right direction, including Vivek Prasanna who is trying to buy back his daughter from the same gang. There’s also a Tamil speaking police-man and the chief villain, Ling (Linga) coincidentally is a Tamilian adopted into the Thai gang.

Ling is a typical caricature of a bad guy who has a big build up as a vicious and remorseless killer, but ultimately ends up fairly ineffectual, resorting to screaming threats and petulant displays of bad temper. The mullet really doesn’t help either. Also strange is Thiru’s sudden emergence as a mass-style hero who can easily vanquish the thugs who stand between him and Venba. He’s a one-man army as he develops sophisticated traps, kills his opponents with a quick twist of the neck and survives everything that is thrown at him. At one point, Super throws a stone at a 4WD which flies through the window, hits the driver and causes the entire car to flip over. And that’s not even the most ridiculous part of that entire scene. It’s just all too much of a change from the easy-going persona of the first half and the continual coincidences just make the story even more ridiculous.

There are some good points though. Despite the clichéd romantic plotline, Anjali and Vijay have excellent chemistry together, and Anjali is good as the capable but loud Venba. It’s unfortunate that she has less to do in the second half, but she excels at looking terrified and at least she does get a chance to fight back. The best relationship though is that of Thiru and Super, and there is a wonderfully joyful camaraderie that shines out of everything they do together. Their father/son dynamic translates well into the story and Surya is developing into a fine actor. His comedic timing in particular is fantastic here, and his cheeky grin perfectly suits his character. In reality it’s this dynamic and the scenes between father and son that keeps the film from total disintegration in the second half.

Another plus point is a brief but well written scene with a prostitute who was one of the women seen working with Venba earlier in the film. She has information for Thiru and unexpectedly S.U. Arun Kumar treats their interaction sensitively with reactions from Thiru that are much more in keeping with his earlier persona. Sadly, it doesn’t last, and we’re quickly back to the mayhem and slaughter, but it does show that there are some good ideas here despite the lack of overall cohesion.

I really wanted to like this film. There is the makings of a decent story hidden under all the unnecessary travels across SE Asia, poorly utilised hearing impairment and extravagant Thai gangster plot. Vijay, Surya and Anjali are all excellent and make their characters engaging despite the inconsistencies in behaviour. It’s also encouraging to see a film about people trafficking that isn’t voyeuristic but gets across the horror of being treated like a commodity and the fear that prevents escape, even if that’s mostly subsumed under the action adventure. Technically too, the film has been well put together and the subtitles by Aarthi are clearly visible and grammatically correct.  What lets the film down is the screenplay which just doesn’t come together once the story leaves India and all the extra threads to the story that mainly just add confusion. Sindhubaadh ends up as a formulaic mass action film that isn’t terrible but doesn’t have any of the magic expected from the pairing of Arun Kumar and Vijay Sethupathi. Worth watching once for the father and son relationship that genuinely lights up the screen.