Ka Pae Ranasingam

P Virumaandi’s debut film is based on a real-life story about the difficulty in repatriating a deceased husband back to India. While the content is fascinating, unfortunately what should have been an emotional story centring around Aishwarya Rajesh’s character is instead hijacked by prolonged episodes of backstory and political messaging. As much as I love Vijay Sethupathi, this needed to be much less about his character and more about Ariyanachi as his wife, especially given Aishwarya’s fine performance throughout. 

The film opens with Ranasingam (Vijay Sethupathi) absent from his village as he is working for an oil company in Dubai. His wife Ariyanachi (Aishwarya Rajesh) is looking after the family in his absence and is shown to be the perfect daughter, bringing water to the home, looking after Ranasingam’s parents and sister, and supervising the building of their new house. However, at their daughter’s ear-piercing ceremony, a messenger arrives to tell the family that Ranasingam has died in Dubai during a protest. The family are devastated but unaware that this is only the beginning of their heartache as they try to bring his body back to India.

The film then goes into the first of many flashbacks to explain how Ariyanachi and Ranasingam met when he was dowsing for water on her father’s farm. Ariyanachi’s initial scepticism is gradually worm away by Ranasingam’s amazing ability to find water, and also by his dedication to social issues and equal rights for all. Throughout, despite his propensity for protest and disregard for the local police, Ranasingam, still shows respect for the law and a belief in the political system that at times seems oddly naïve given the obvious corruption at all levels. However, Vijay Sethupathi is on top form here and his portrayal is of an easy going and happy man who knows when to take a stand, but who at heart wants only the best for his family.

Having established the relationship and given some indication of why the authorities may be inclined to believe the protest allegation despite evidence to the contrary, Virumaandi should have left it there and concentrated on Ariyanachi’s struggles to bring her husband’s body home. Instead, the film keeps flashing back to instances in Ranasingam’s life which really don’t add much more to the story. Rather, they detract from the emotional build-up that Aishwarya achieves with each of her scenes and end up mostly just dragging the pace of the film back. Given that the film has a run time of just under 3 hours, there is a lot of unnecessary back story here that could easily have been cut without affecting either the tone of the film or the impact of the story at all.

Thankfully Aishwarya Rajesh is excellent and hits every emotional note just right. Her frustration at her inability to get any answers in palpable and infuses every frame. Although her grief is more restrained, it’s still a poignant backdrop to the second half of the film and Aishwarya gives Ariyanachi plenty of dignity along with amazing resilience and a determination that feels very real. Although it seems perhaps too obvious, the moment where Virumaandi contrasts the return of Sridevi’s body with the interminable red tape and delays that meet Ariyanachi’s every attempt to repatriate her husband’s body does make an impact, more so because he doesn’t dwell on the disparity but moves quickly on to the next problem.

Some parts of the story are overly dramatic which doesn’t seem necessary given that the underlying tale is poignant enough to not need any further embellishment. Many of the flashback scenes refer to farmers rights, but these work much better when shown as part of Ariyanachi’s life in the village. Similarly, the social issues tackled by the film are most effective when part of the story, such as when Ariyanachi struggles to prove that she is indeed married to Ranasingam since the couple have no legal documents to show that the marriage took place. These scenes are where the film really comes to life, and Aishwarya Rajesh ensures that every scene is realistic and completely believable.

Although there are issues with the film’s length and the incessant flashbacks, overall this is one that deserves to be seen. The emotional storyline is carried well by Aishwarya Rajesh and the support cast, while the social issues are clearly important to highlight in these days of increasingly politicised issues around water rights and the increasingly large international workforce. I wish there had been more of a focus on Ariyanachi’s story, but there is still a lot to enjoy in Ka Pae Ranasingam. Well worth watching for Aishwarya Rajesh, Vijay Sethupathi and an introduction to the issues surrounding the death of workers overseas. 3 ½ stars.

Mee Raqsam

Mee Raqsam is a rather sentimental film by Husain Mir and Safdar Mir about a young Muslim girl learning Bharatanatyam in the face of community opposition. Acclaimed cinematographer Baba Azmi directs, and the opening credits explain that the film is a tribute to his father, Kaifi Azmi, who always wanted a film to be made in his home village. Perhaps as a result, the story leans heavily on sentiment and is light on depth, but for those who don’t mind a dash of schmaltz with their melodrama it’s a reasonable time-pass, especially for fans of dance.

The film opens with the sudden death of Maryam’s mother Sakina as she is showing off her dancing skills to her daughter. It’s a bit of an odd start to the film to immediately kill off one of the characters and there is also no context to why Maryam’s mother is dancing on the terrace of their home. Subsequent scenes with her family make it unlikely that she ever had any encouragement from them to learn dance, although it’s suggested by Maryam that she copied dance steps after watching them on TV. Sakina’s dancing seems to be purely a device to link Maryam’s wish to learn dance with memories of her mother, but it feels somewhat contrived without any backstory or explanation. 

Maryam (Aditi Subedi) is understandably devastated by her mother’s death but decides that she will go to classes to learn Bharatanatyam since this reminds her of her mother. Her father Salim (Danish Husain) is supportive, mainly because he just wants his daughter to be happy again, and he can’t see any harm in letting her learn how to dance. The simplistic nature of this part of the story is rather frustrating as it all happens so easily. Maryam wants to learn Bharatanatyam., there is a class nearby, and her father is fine with the idea. There is no explanation of how a poor tailor is paying for the classes, or why Salim doesn’t think through the consequences a little more before agreeing to Maryam’s request. However, everything runs smoothly, at least to begin with, and Maryam begins classes under the aegis of dance teacher Uma (Sudeepta Singh). Of course, it turns out that Maryam is a natural, and despite her lack of experience is selected to perform at a local event for the dance school sponsors. One of these is local Hindu bigwig Jai Prakash (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om), who is unimpressed by the inclusion of a Muslin girl in the classes, dismissively calling her Sultana and later, actively campaigning against her inclusion in a dance competition.

Meanwhile, Maryam’s maternal relatives are equally horrified by the thought of her dance lessons and complain vociferously to Salim. Her aunt Zehra (Shradha Kaul) is loud and bossy, but despite her dictatorial ways it is clear that she genuinely wants the best for Maryam It’s just that it has to be her idea of what is best. She drags Maryam out of classes and instead gets her to join a sewing circle, but Salim manages to allow Maryam to continue classes and still appear to be compliant with her aunt’s demands. However, the local Muslim community is also opposed to Maryam’s dance lessons and community leader Hashim Seth (Naseeruddin Shah) organises a boycott of Salim’s store. Poor to start with, Salim and Maryam face even more poverty and even violence, with stones thrown through their windows and threats made directly to Salim when he attempts to attend the local mosque. Everything culminates in Maryam’s performance at a local dance competition where talent scouts from Delhi will be in attendance. With both the Hindu and Muslim communities against her, the question is will Maryam manage to dance at all, let alone make her mark at the competition.

The story is kept simple, and all the characters apart from Maryam and her father are essentially one-dimensional. On one side are the people who are good – Uma who is thrilled to have a ‘natural dancer’ in her classes and doesn’t care who she is or what her family does. Maryam’s cousin (Juhaina Ahsan) is supportive while local auto driver Ashfaque (Kaustubh Shukla) persuades his fellow drivers to buy their ‘designer’ shirts from Salim when he sees how the family is being shunned by their regular customers. There is a vague love story between Ashfaque and Maryam’s cousin, but despite initial promise this doesn’t go anywhere, and adds little to the story. A track involving Jai Prakash’s ‘modern’ daughter Anjali (Shivani Gautam) is also a little odd and appears forced into the story partly to show a modern viewpoint but mainly so that Anjali can save the day at the end. On the other side are the bad guys – Zehra is traditional and narrow-minded, Jai Prakash and Hashim Seth are as prejudiced as each other, and the local communities follow their lead blindly. 

Although the story follows a predictable path, what really makes the film stand out are the performances from Danish Husain and Aditi Subedi. Danish excels in the role of an understanding and sympathetic father who is completely supportive of his daughter’s decisions. He’s kind, resigned to dealing with his wife’s family, but also stubborn when it comes down to doing what is right. Aditi Subedi is charming as Maryam and she nicely blends together conformity with her rebellious desire to learn Bharatanatyam. She gets the emotional scenes just right and does look lovely when she dances. Deepali Salil’s choreography suits her well, and my only complaint about the dancing is that there just isn’t enough of it. Disappointingly, the final dance competition is spoiled by some erratic camera angles, but the dance scenes in Uma’s classes are simply beautiful. I also enjoyed the music here; the background score by George Joseph and Ripul Sharma is excellent and suits the atmosphere of the film perfectly.

The idea of the story is interesting, and I must admit I hadn’t ever thought about the difficulties of learning Bharatanatyam aside from how complex and physically challenging it appears to be. I’ve always thought of it as a quintessentially Indian dance and it’s fascinating to see it through the lens of religion rather than simply as an art form. The prejudices and conservative mindset of both the Hindu and Muslim communities are well portrayed, although it would have been even better if there had been some more shading of the characters rather than leaving everything quite so black and white. However, the scenes of family disagreement are better and give more of an insight into the difficulties facing Maryam and her cousins as modern attitudes clash with traditional values. Mee Raqsam may not be as ground-breaking a film as it could have been, but it’s a different take on the clash between cultures and that makes it well worth a look. 3 ½ stars.

Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom

After tracking down a subtitled copy of Balaji Tharaneetharan’s début film, it took a little while to get around to watching the film. The synopsis wasn’t terribly inspiring; ‘a young man experiences retrograde amnesia after a cricket incident two days before his wedding’ and so, despite the presence of Vijay Sethupathi, I didn’t put it straight to the top of the pile. But I really should have known better. While not quite as good as Balaji Tharaneetharan’s later film Seethakaathi, NKPK has plenty of quirky humour and the story is much better than the one-line summary suggests. It’s funny, well told and best of all, the film is actually based on a true story that actually happened to one of Balaji Tharaneetharan’s friends. In fact the real-life Prem is the film cinematographer C Prem Kumar, while Bagavathi Perumal plays his real-life role as Prem’s desperate friend.

The plotline of the story really is as simple as the synopsis suggests, and yet there is so much more happening as Prem’s friends hide his amnesia from his bride-to-be and her family. And yet, the funniest part of the film isn’t the absurd lengths his friends go to in ensuring that no-one knows Prem has lost his memory. Rather it’s the baffled expressions on Prem’s face as he struggles to understand what is going on, and his repeated dialogue of the last few moments he can remember before he hit his head that raise the biggest laughs. Medulla oblongata has never sounded so funny!

The film starts with Prem discussing his problems with his friends, Bugs (Bagavathi Perumal), Saras (Vigneshwaran Palanisamy) and Balaji (Rajkumar). It’s a couple of days before Prem’s wedding and he’s worried because his fiancée’s family don’t like the match, his bike’s been stolen and he’s having problems with his boss. To take his mind off his woes, the friends decide to go and play a game of cricket, which Bugs takes far too seriously, while everyone else struggle to even hit the ball. But then, when running back to take a catch, Prem falls and hits his head. He seems fine, but as the friends are heading back home, Saras realises that something might be wrong. Prem keeps repeating the same thing, over and over again, with exactly the same phrasing and timing. He can’t remember that his bike has been stolen, and worst of all, he has no idea who his fiancée Dhanalakshmi (Gayathrie) is.

Because it’s a love marriage and the parents don’t approve, Bugs, Saras and Balaji spend the next few days doing absolutely everything they can to make sure no-one finds out and stops the wedding. They take Prem to a doctor who tells them that Prem could regain his memory at any time, or could potentially never remember, which means that they are continually on tenderhooks, waiting for that moment when Prem finally regains his memory. But instead, he just keeps going back to the moment when he falls and hits his head.

The friends are absolutely sure that Prem will be devastated if the wedding doesn’t take place, which seems a strange motivation for the extremes they go to, which even includes Saras jeopardising his own potential romance. But at the very end, there are stills of the actual wedding that the story is based upon, and by that stage it really does all make sense.

Vijay Sethupathi is simply amazing here, and brilliantly shows his internal confusion as he tries to work out what is going on, before losing the struggle and going back to the moment when he fell. His facial expressions are perfect, and I don’t know how he managed to keep repeating the same dialogue over and over again without cracking up laughing. The moment when he sees his bride and thinks she looks dreadful in all her makeup is sad and funny all at the same time. The writing is so well done that it’s possible to really feel for Dhanalaksmi and understand her hurt at Prem’s reaction, while still finding Prem’s comments hilariously funny.

Gayathrie doesn’t have very much to do, except stand beside Prem during the wedding, but she is such a talented actress, that even with little dialogue she gets across Dhanalaksmi’s love for Prem and also her despair at his attitude on her wedding day. The friends all have their own personalities, but it’s Vigneshwaran Palanisamy as Sara who really stands out as being the driving force behind the various schemes to shield Prem.

This is simply inspired and a very funny story which has been put together very well. The entire film only covers three days, a cricket match and a wedding, but despite being a little slow to start, once Prem loses his memory, there is a lot to enjoy. There are so many jokes, both visual and in the dialogue, but through it all, it’s Vijay Sethupathi who really stands out as a terrific performer. There is some real tension because the outcome of the wedding, Prem’s future and even his relationship with his friends is always in doubt, right p to the end. This is just a fun film and I recommend it to anyone who needs something to make them smile. 4 stars.