Varane Avashyamund

Anoop Sathyan’s debut film is a slice-of-life romantic comedy that, despite a relatively predictable plot, has plenty of feel-good factor. The story revolves around single mum Neena (Shobana) and her daughter Nikki (Kalyani Priyadarshan), but also dips into the lives of various other residents in their idyllic apartment block in Chennai. With excellent performances from the mostly veteran cast, this is a charming film that’s comforting and just perfect for a cosy afternoon’s entertainment.

Neena and her daughter Nikki live in what appears to be the most harmonious block of apartments ever seen in Indian cinema. The mix of residents all seem happy to help each other out and although the owner’s wife Maami (Meera Krushnan) prefers vegetarian tenants, this seems to be more of a guideline than an enforced rule. Neena and Nikki live on the second floor of the apartment block, having moved to Chennai a few years before. Neena is a single mother who teaches French in Chennai, while Nikki’s main aim in life seems to be to find the perfect partner via a matrimonial service. Despite meeting a number of potential husbands, she is yet to find ‘the one’ but is happily getting on with her life while she continues her search.

Meanwhile, a couple of new tenants move into the block and start to have an impact. First is Major Unnikrishnan aka Major (Suresh Gopi), a retired soldier with alcoholism and anger management issues. His friend Major Athmaram (Major Ravi) convinces him to get help from a local weight management doctor, who also runs a counselling service. Multi-tasking at its best! As the Major gradually begins to come out of his self-imposed isolation, he gradually becomes friends with Neena, even though Nikki disapproves of their developing relationship. Their romance is beautifully handled, and just like real life, it’s hard to say exactly when the friendship begins to turn into something a little deeper. Despite her apparently romantic lifestyle, Neena is incredibly practical and tends to take the world as it comes, accepting people as who they say they are. However, her daughter is much more of a romantic despite her practical approach to the queation of her marriage, and the idea of Neena being involved with the Major threatens to completely derail the relationship Nikki has with her mother.

At the same time, the block is excited by the arrival of Akashavani (K.P.A.C. Lalitha), a TV serial star who moves in with her two ‘nephews’ Bibeesh aka Fraud (Dulquer Salmaan) and Karthik (Arvajith Santosh Sivan). Fraud has his own problems as his relationship with work colleague Wafa (Wafa Khatheeja Rahman) is about to end with her transfer overseas, and he also spends much of his time arguing with his younger brother. There is much to enjoy in their fractious family scenes, while Akashavani’s popularity despite her acerbic personality is a real nod to the lure of celebrity. While all this is going on, Nikki appears to have found the perfect husband in Aby (Rahul Rajasekharan), but it’s really his mother Sherly (Urvashi) with whom she has an ideal relationship, and whom she misses most when the relationship ends.

Shobana and Suresh Gopi are perfectly cast here and it’s so good to see them together again after a long time. Anoop Sathyan doesn’t dwell on the age-aspect of their romance, but rather makes the relationship a natural development as the Major begins to overcome his shyness and Neena reaches out to help. Shobana is simply gorgeous with such energy and passion in her performance that she easily outperforms all the youngsters by miles. Even when she starts to talk about her failed marriage and the domestic violence she endured, her manner is so down-to-earth and realistic that it takes a moment or two for the subject matter to really register. I love the scenes where she dances around her apartment and joins in with a dance lesson on the beach. Just perfect!

Suresh Gopi takes the role of an angry man and exposes his vulnerability with incredible sensitivity and yet with enough comedy to make the Major’s emotional development a real delight to watch. Although some of the scenes are quite serious, they never come across as depressing or over-done. Even a fight scene ends up funny. And throughout it all we can feel the sincerity as the Major tries to overcome his issues. It works because it feels genuine, while the nosiness and interference from the neighbours adds another layer of realism to the plot. Nikki is the central character and her story is woven through with threads of all the other occupants of the apartments. While her relationship with her mother is key, her gradually developing friendship with Fraud is important, but so are the brief exchanges with Maami, Akashavani and the others who live in the apartment block. Kalyani Priyadarshan is fine in the role and is particularly good in the scenes with Urvashi and in the second half as she starts to see her mother in a different light. Dulquer Salmaan is fantastic as always and the rest of the cast are all excellent. Everyone in the story has a small part to play, even the security guard and his family who have to evacuate to the roof when the rains begin. There is a reason for each small vignette and they all serve to build up the picture of this small community and their interlocking lives.

I watched Varane Avashyamund one grey Melbourne afternoon, and it was as warming and cheering as my cup of hot tea and accompanying ginger biscuits. I miss Chennai and India, and this was such a treat to see the city portrayed so well on screen. The story follows a few months in the lives of Neena and Nikki while exploring love and loss, the effects of violence – government sanctioned, street and domestic, relationships of all kinds and the sense of community that can be difficult to find in the world today. There is drama, a social message and plenty more besides, but it’s all done with a light touch and entertainingly, ensuring that Varane Avashyamund is perfect as a feel-good film whenever you need one. 4 stars.

Alidu Ulidavaru

Arvind Sastry’s Alidu Ulidavaru is a psychological thriller that has some interesting horror overtones that make it a cut above the usual. There are quite a few creepy moments in the first half, but unfortunately the film runs out of steam near the end, and the climax suffers from some dodgy special effects. However, the basic idea is good and the story flows well with some interesting social commentary making Alidu Ulidavaru well worth a watch.

Sheelam (Ashu Bedra) is the host of a TV show called Kaarana that investigates ghost stories. We join him at the start of Case 99 as he is investigating a reportedly haunted guesthouse where a number of people have died. Sheelam is his own researcher and also his own cameraman, and throughout the course of the night he spends in the guesthouse we see him setting up remote cameras and even sending up a drone for some aerial shots. The point he wants to make is that there is no such thing as a ghost, and despite some scary moments, Sheelam is able to debunk the stories and prove every time that there is a human agency behind the reported hauntings.

Sheelam works for TV5, where his boss (B Suresh) is only concerned about ratings and wants to know what he will do for his 100th case – sure to be a hit for the TV station. At the same time, rival network boss Rajeev (Arvind Rau) has been set an ultimatum – improve ratings or lose his job, so he’s out to poach Sheelam to boost his audience numbers. But Sheelam has other problems too. His girlfriend, self-defence instructor Amrita (Sangeetha Bhat) wants him to give up ghost-hunting to get her parents approval for marriage. It seems strange that her parents are happy with her day job (teaching women how to fend off attackers), and yet seem to baulk at the idea of a TV presenter son-in-law, who has a good steady income and a popular fan base. But when Sheelam and Amrita are set upon by a group of thugs, her father blames Sheelam and his job, although there really isn’t any corroborating evidence. What’s great here is that Amrita gets to fight alongside Sheelam and show off her self-defence expertise in a real-life application of her skills. But overall the relationship doesn’t feel particularly real, mostly because Sheelam and Amrita are awkward in their scenes together and have little chemistry. Their exchanges frequently appear stilted and there doesn’t seem to be any passion in their relationship at all, which makes some of the scenes later on feel forced and unlikely because the underlying relationship hasn’t been developed in a meaningful way.

Sheelam also gets drawn into a live dispute with Guruji (Dinesh Mangaluru), a colleague at the station who presents a spiritual counselling show. While the two are friendly, they have quite different philosophies on life and their conversations are used as a way to try and draw out theories on spiritualism and the conflict between science and belief systems. What works well in these scenes is the glimpse into the world of TV chat shows. I’ve seen that India has a lot of these ’talking head’ shows where various people appear to shout over each other and argue about political and social issues of the day. I’ve always found them baffling, and more like WWF where it’s all a show for the punters rather than any attempt at meaningful discourse and according to this film, I’m totally correct! Here, the arguments are shown to be all completely contrived, with the presenters actually complimenting each other on inventive insults and clever put-downs during the ad breaks. Adding controversy is purely a device to increase ratings and Arvind Sastry gets this obsession with audience numbers and rating across well as we see the various machinations that go on behind the scenes to ensure ‘the numbers’ are kept high.

The second half of the film looks at what happens when Sheelam goes to investigate a supposedly haunted house where a number of people have recently died. The ideas here are really clever and initially well presented, but later on the special effects don’t work well which derails the narrative just when it needed to be sharp and well presented to achieve the required effect. There is also some dodgy medical diagnosis which is always frustrating since it seems to me to be used as a cop-out, when better writing could have produced an alternative solution. But regardless, the themes of jealousy and the sacrifice of morals to ensure good ratings for the TV show are well presented. I also liked how Arvind Sastry tries to illustrate the emotional burdens of trying to reconcile career, relationships and ethics with each other and how these impact on health and wellbeing. These are complex ideas and themes that for the most part he gets across well even if the final conclusion is rather less satisfying. It’s still a good attempt and the story is compelling as a result.

I did find Ashu Bedra to be rather stiff in his portrayal of Sheelam. I’d expect someone with his ghost-busting tendencies to be either wildly enthusiastic or else just a bit nerdy, and he isn’t any of these. Instead he basically comes across as just another reporter doing his job. There wasn’t any of the passion I expected – either for his chosen profession or for Amrita, and not even for all the various gadgets he uses in the course of his investigations. His lack of emotion makes it difficult to connect with the character, and hard to feel much empathy with his predicament. The problems he has to deal with in the second half really needed a more emotional portrayal to be effective and this is part of the reason why the film starts to lose steam by the climax. The rest of the cast are all fine. Sangeetha Bhat doesn’t have a lot to do, but Arvind Rau and B Suresh fare much better as the two rival TV bosses. Atul Kulkarni is good as the mildly lecherous police officer investigating suspicious deaths at the haunted house while Pawan Kumar makes an effective appearance as the owner of the haunted house

Aside from those special effects towards the end, the film looks good and there are some genuinely eerie moments enhanced by excellent use of lighting and camera angles. The background music from Midhun Mukundan is perfectly evocative and works well to add atmosphere to the narrative. I like how there is a good contrast between the artificial world of TV5 and Sheelam’s own reality, which ironically is all about unmasking fraudulent spiritual activity. If only there had been the emotion and sense of drama and theatricality that was needed to ensure the characterisations matched the intensity of the storyline the entire film would have worked much better. However, the uniqueness of the story and the blend of horror and intrigue make for a better than average watch and it will be interesting to see what Arvind Sastry come up with next. 3 ½ stars.

Oh My Kadavule

What happens when you marry your best friend? Ashwath Marimuthu’s début film aims to answer that question in his fun romantic comedy Oh My Kadavule. While there are a few of the usual tropes associated with a love story, a road trip and a disapproving father among them, for the most part this is a fresh and interesting take on romance. Ashok Selvan and Ritika Singh are excellent as the two best friends who embark on marriage together and with the addition of a fantasy element and extended cameo roles for Vijya Sethupathi and Ramesh Thilak, Oh My Kadavule is a funny and entertaining watch.

The film starts with a celebration for Arjun (Ashok Selvan) who has finally managed to clear his college exams. This means drinks at a bar for Arjun and his two best friends, Anu (Ritika Singh) and Mani (Sha Ra). During the course of a number of tequila shots, Anu asks Arjun to marry her and since he cannot think of any reason why not, he agrees to the plan. Although Anu’s father (M.S. Bhaskar) initially had plans to marry Anu to a family friend, he’s not at all averse to the match since he knows Arjun and thinks he will look after his daughter well. It’s Arjun’s father (Gajaraj) who is more sceptical since he thinks Arjun lacks ambition and Anu could do much better for herself than Arjun as a life partner. I really like how it’s Anu and her father who call all the shots here, and Arjun just gets carried along. The opening scenes cleverly establish the personalities of the three friends and the discussion around Anu’s marriage cements their relationship while giving us a glimpse into how Arjun, Anu and Mani each see themselves. 

Since Arjun doesn’t have a job, he ends up working for Anu’s father (M.S. Bhaskar) as a quality tester in the family ceramic factory, a job that requires him to test out the strength of the toilets they produce. This is played for laughs, but there is a serious side to the business and Ashwath Marimuthu does a beautiful job in incorporating this into the story in the second half. 

While marrying your best friend might sound like a match made in heaven, it turns out to be anything but. Arjun has no romantic feelings for Anu at all and when he tries to kiss her, he bursts into giggles, while living together doesn’t turn out anything like either Arjun or Anu expected. The couple decide to let the relationship develop at its own pace, but it isn’t long before they are scrabbling and fighting, and when Anu sees Arjun behaving more kindly towards his high school crush Meera (Vani Bhojan), it’s the last straw in a relationship that was already teetering towards divorce. But at the family court, events take an unexpected turn, and Arjun ends up seeking the advice of the Love Court. This leads to a sliding doors moment when Arjun meets Kadavul (Vijay Sethupathi) and is given a golden ticket that allows him a second chance. This time round when Anu asks him to marry her, Arjun says no, and instead is able to start a relationship with Meera and follow his dreams of becoming an actor.

It’s one of the real strengths of the film, that the second half takes brief scenes from the first half and twists them slightly to reveal a whole new meaning. It sounds simple, but probably very difficult to do without being heavy handed and very obvious. But everything here is handled with a light touch and even the familiar development of a romance is given new life with a few different shades added to the relationships. What also works well is the relationship between the three friends. Arjun calls Anu noodle head and there is real affection and happiness in their friendship, which makes it understandable why they would go ahead and get married. The change in Arjun’s perception of their relationship is also neatly done in the second half, while the development of his romance with Meena is also nicely done.

Ashok Selvan continues to improve as an actor and he has more expression and empathy here than I’ve seen in his previous roles in Thegidi and Soodhu Kavvum. He does really well at showing the camaraderie and fondness in his relationships with Anu and Mani, although the romance with Meena is rather more conventional. Vani Bhojan is fine, although there isn’t a lot of scope in her role as Meena. However, Ashwath Marimuthu gives her character some attitude and she does a good job with this while still displaying moments of vulnerability in her scenes with Arjun. The best performance though comes from Ritika Singh who is excellent as Anu. I loved her in Aandavan Kattalai, and here she combines feistiness and compassion perfectly to paint a realistic picture of someone who is doing her best with a difficult situation. It’s a compelling performance and I totally believed in her characterisation of Anu at every stage. One of my favourite moments in the film is when Mani comes in to the divorce court to speak to Arjun, but then moves to sit with Anu, giving the explanation that she is his friend too. It’s this balance of emotions that works so well to make the film more than just another romantic comedy. I also loved Vijay Sethupathi and Ramesh Thilak as the God and his minister who turn Arjun’s life upside down. It’s a role just made for the uber-cool Mr Sethupathi and as always he does an excellent job.

I really enjoyed Oh My Kadavule and really appreciated the care that went into aligning the second half with the first. The mix of characters is great, and for once the comedy friend is used for more than just cheap laughs. The supernatural element adds a rather different twist, and I loved Anu’s character and the way she dealt with Arjun. The only issue with the version I watched was some very dodgy subtitles and a total lack of subs for the songs, which was a shame. I’m not sure if that was an issue with the streaming platform, but at least the subs were yellow and easily visible. Overall, this is a fun film, better than I expected and with the added draw of Vijay Sethupathi it’s definitely well worth watching online if you missed it at the cinema. 4 stars!