Kavan (2017)

Kavan

K.V.Anand doesn’t tread any new ground with his latest film Kavan, revisiting a theme of land and water contamination by big business that’s been seen many times before. But rather than making another ‘message’ or pure action film, here we are firmly in masala territory, and that’s what helps make Kavan such a watchable film. It’s set in the world of television and journalism where breaking news is the key to big ratings and in this new post-truth world of alternative facts, the machinations of one TV station to keep ahead of the competition don’t appear quite as far-fetched as they may have done a few months ago. Writers K.V. Anand, Subha and Kabilan Vairamuthu have come up with an entertaining screenplay and some excellent dialogue that drive the story along despite numerous diversions. With great performances from Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian, Kavan is more engaging and enjoyable than expected, even with the 160 minute run-time.

Vijay Sethupathi is Thilak, the only student in his class who wants to make documentaries rather than work in films or TV which immediately identifies him as someone more interested in facts and the truth than entertainment. However, he ends up working at Zen TV, alongside his former girlfriend Malar (Madonna Sebastian) who doesn’t want a bar of him after their acrimonious break-up. Initially Thilak does well, impressing channel owner Kalyan (Akashdeep Saighal) with his novel approach, but it doesn’t take long until Thilak’s moral stance gets him into trouble. Kalyan is prepared to put anything on-screen as long as it will lift ratings and he isn’t above manufacturing news either. Alongside corrupt politician Dheeran Maniarasu (Bose Venkat) he spins facts out of all semblance of the truth to promote Dheeran Maniarasu’s political career and his own TV channel. The inevitable clash comes about due to Dheeran Maniarasu’s involvement with a chemical company which is polluting the local area.

Activists Mira and Abdul (Vikranth Santhosh) are friends of Malar who fall foul of the politician and his rowdies and their subsequent search for justice sees Thilak and his friends leaving Zen TV for good. They team up with Mayilvaganan (T. Rajendar) who has a small struggling TV channel and start their campaign to broadcast the truth.

Now, initially I found Rajendar’s comedy jarring and out of sync with the slick styling of the rest of the film, but as the story moves on, and Malar and Thilak start to work with Mayilvaganan, his eccentricities become more relevant and I found his scenes to be really funny. His routine may not change, but Rajendar is good at what he does and that can be very effective, especially as here when administered in small measured doses.

The move to Mayilvaganan TV has the added bonus of demonstrating how to renovate on a budget, if you should ever feel the need to know, and of course the new revamped channel starts to become popular as it spreads the true story of Dheeran Maniarasu’s various corrupt practices.

The story plans out exactly as expected but there is a good mix of drama, comedy, action, and just the smallest amount of romance as Malar and Thilak put aside their differences. Despite the total lack of surprises, the film keeps us interested by keeping the story topical – there are mentions of recent events such as demonetisation and the Chennai floods – and adding plenty of good snappy dialogue. Vijay Sethupathi is always very watchable and he excels yet again, ensuring that his character’s belief in truth and honesty in reporting never come across as preachy or too sanitised. No matter how ridiculous the plot (running through woodland carrying a camera chasing a car and still managing to arrive in time to catch the action for instance), it somehow always seems possible in the face of Vijay’s absolute confidence and sincere belief in the role he is playing. He looks the part of a journalist, and I loved the brief glimpse of laser eye-correction surgery to ditch his glasses before he went on-air as a talk show host. Shame though as he looks good in specs!

Madonna Sebastian too is charming and plays the role of a modern career woman well. Her early scenes with Vijay are brilliant and I liked Malar’s gradual realisation that actually Thilak wasn’t such a bad guy after all. For a commercial entertainer this is a better than usual female role where Malar isn’t just the love interest, but has a reasonably substantial part to play in the story too. The romance too is very low-key and more an acknowledgement that the two are in a relationship rather than the more usual excuse for a flurry of songs. This is pretty much all of the romance in the film – nicely condensed into one song from Hiphop Tamizha.

The friends, including a rather subdued Jagan, are all good too, although they don’t have much to do for most of the film. Vikranth Santhosh stands out as the activist and his impassioned appeals for justice come across as more heartfelt and sincere than expected for a masala film.

As in Ayan, Akashdeep Saighal as the villain is the weak link for me, although this is likely due to the sketchiness of his character. All the hair tossing and posing suit the character of a TV mogul better at any rate and his acting has improved slightly, but I didn’t buy into the character of Kalyan at all. Bose Venkat is much better as the corrupt politician and does appear appropriately duplicitous throughout the film. It’s often the villain that lets these films down, but since it’s the policies of Kalyan rather than the character that Thilak and Malar are fighting, it’s not as important that Kalyan fails to make much of an impression.

Basically Kavan is a masala entertainer that doesn’t pretend to be anything ese. There is never any sense that the film is trying to be a serious exposé of the TV industry, or that the various feminist, Hindu-Muslim brotherhood or land right speeches are meant to generate a response; it’s simply a story to enjoy in the theatre with a box of popcorn. It is overlong and there are a number of diversions that aren’t at all necessary but the dialogue is good, the performances generally excellent and the masala mix is just about right. Worth watching for Vijay Sethupathi, Madonna Sebastian and a vision of alternative facts that’s perhaps a tad more realistic than may have been planned.

Advertisements

Phillauri

Anshai Lal’s Phillauri is set in two different timelines, and is a movie of two very different halves. Usually things take a turn for the worse after Intermission, but in the case of Phillauri it is the first half that I found a chore.

Kanan (Suraj Sharma) goes home to India to get married to his longtime girlfriend Anu (Mehreen Pirzada). Just before his engagement he is told he has a problem in his horoscope, and the only way to avoid future calamity is to marry a tree. He is sceptical but does what the families want. Soon after the tree wedding, he is woken by a sparkly spirit hovering above his bed. Shashi (Anushka Sharma) found herself transported to the house, but had no idea how or why. Only Kanan can see or hear Shashi, just adding to his already troubling behaviour. He is ambivalent about marrying Anu, Shashi is unhappy at her lot, and Anu is miserable that the guy she loves is turning out to be a wuss. So it was a huge relief to skip back in time and learn more about Shashi and the love of her life, Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh). Shashi and Anu between them force Kanan to examine his decisions and motivations. Will Kanan and Anu get married? And what happened that Shashi spent 98 years alone, her spirit connected to the tree?

The modern story line is the least interesting by far. It feels glib, done by numbers, and is not helped by some weak performances. Suraj Sharma is particularly flat as Kanan, and terribly unconvincing in scenes where he is supposed to be overcome by fear. Speaking in a weedy falsetto is not enough. Mehreen Pirzada gets almost nothing to work with. Anu has been in love with Kanan since school, she has never had any other plan than to marry him, and I have no idea if she has a job or finished college or anything else. Anu is a weepy, sullen girl which is a bit tiresome although understandable. I did like that she confronted him and demanded he articulate his feelings and make a decision, not just try and passively weasel out as she deserved better than that. There is the usual array of parents and relatives, and a pickled grandmother who starts drinking at breakfast. And there’s a rather nasty “joke” about Kanan being gay and maybe a paedophile. It’s mostly a jumble of clichés, and where the dialogue is a bit more realistic the acting falls over.

The earlier timeline seems to be given so much more love, the writing is more solid, and the performances are stronger. Shashi helps her brother the village doctor, who has raised her since she was young. She is educated but conservative, knowing how a girl from a good family is expected to behave.  Shashi’s one weakness is poetry, and she waits every week to see the poems of Phillauri in the journal. Roop Lal Phillauri (Diljit Dosanjh) uses the same name but his songs are bawdy drinking fare, not the more heartfelt and literary work that Shashi loves. He is a flirt, and she shuts him down when he pretends to have written lines that she knows the real Phillauri wrote. But their mutual love of poetry and music, and of love, brings them together. Anushka and Diljit have a beautiful low key chemistry that makes their scenes together shine. She is expressive even without speaking and he inhabits the role of country layabout turned honest man so comfortably. It was a pleasure to get back into their timeline, and not just for the nostalgic beauty. Shashi’s story served to show how the status of women hasn’t improved significantly in almost 100 years, and was also a sterling example of a relationship built on equality, consent, and honesty.

One of the most understated but surprising scenes was a conversation after Shashi’s affair had been discovered. Her brother (played beautifully by Manav Vij) was furious, and laid into both Shashi and Roop Lal. All typical filmi villain thwarting True Love stuff. But later he took her a drink and spoke to her about how he had raised her like his own child and always wanted her to have everything she deserved, and that he loved her. Not what I was expecting at all, although I may have muttered something about the patriarchy. When Shashi and her best friend Amrit (Nidhi Bisht) were talking discreetly about her virginity situation, the scene was nicely gossipy but also quite sweet and not salacious. I liked seeing Shashi being herself, and having people love her for it, without Anushka taking so much as a step towards the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl line. And I don’t want to spoil the story but there are scenes where Anushka and Diljit show a whole arc of story just through the emotions playing across their faces.

The film’s mythology is a bit patchy. Is technicolour glitter cannon heaven a thing for Sikhs? Does every ghost have tinkerbell sound effects and shed a trail of sparkles? Why did Shashi usually float on an awkward horizontal rather than gliding vertically? Why could she wear Anu’s dupatta but not be seen or felt by anyone other than Kanan? Who knows.

But for all the cheesy effects, there are songs like Dum Dum and Sahiba that take us into the story and reveal more of the rich inner lives of Shashi and her bloke. Anvita Dutt wrote the screenplay and some lyrics, and her dialogues were a highlight in the olden days timeline.

Phillauri is not a masterpiece but it does show flashes of excellence. If Lal had been more disciplined in that draggy first half, and maybe pushed Suraj Sharma to try more nuance in his squeaking, it would have helped. But I liked seeing a full blown romance centred on two people who were genuine, honest, and respected each other. Tolerate the first half and enjoy the second half!

Oru Mexican Aparatha

Oru Mexican Aparatha

I don’t know much about Indian politics and even less about Indian politics in the seventies, but that didn’t stop me enjoying Tom Emmatty’s directorial debut, Oru Mexican Aparatha. In fact, the political agenda of both groups involved in this college based drama seemed mostly irrelevant, as the film is more about the clash of personalities rather than any large differences in manifesto or ideology, despite the mainly Communist theme. What stands out about the film are the strong performances from Tovino Thomas, Roopesh Peethambaran and Neeraj Madhav, who rise above a somewhat patchy screenplay to deliver a passionate tale of student elections at Maharaja College in Kerala.

The film starts with a flashback to the seventies and the time of Emergency when students were among those involved in protests against the government. The government responded with lethal force resulting in the death of Kochaniyan (Tovino Thomas), leader of the student political party SFY. The flashback is overly dramatic and a little hard to understand for someone who doesn’t know the history, but it is an effective way to introduce the idea of revolution and the passion associated with student ideals.

Back in the present day, SFY has all but been eliminated from Maharaja college as KSQ, led by charismatic leader Roopesh (Roopesh Peethambaran), holds sway. KSQ are a more conservative party and they have numerous petty ordinances including bans on long hair and wearing lungi’s on campus that they use to let the party faithful throw their weight around. Mostly though, KSQ just want to hold on to power and keep their status as big frogs in a rather small pond. Roopesh and his friends decide who will compete in the annual college cultural festival, which is a major source of discontent in the college and seems to be the spark that will start a new revolution.

Paul (also Tovino Thomas) is a first year who shares a shabby hostel room with his friends Subhash (Neeraj Madhav) and Jomy (Vishnu Govindhan). He’s reasonably apolitical but notionally belongs to the SFY party, mainly due to Subhash’s dedication to the Communist cause. Subhash is a committed party member and is determined to bring SFY back to power in the college, despite a general lack of support and an obvious uphill struggle.  His main manifesto appears to be a protest against the bullying tactics of Roopesh and the members of KSQ rather than a strong socialist agenda and apart from a few pictures of Che Guevara and a tendency to brandish red flags the group as a whole initially appear to have only a glancing acquaintance with communism. Paul and his friends are concerned with the usual college activities and their opposition to KSQ seems more to do with Sharks and Jets style rivalry rather than any serious political leanings.

Subhash on the other hand is a socialist and is committed to the communist party which gives him some legitimacy in his fight against KSQ. His strong political beliefs start to affect the other members of the group, especially when they are pushed around by Roopesh and his cadre. Once college elections are announced, what started off as a push-back against a group of bullies escalates into a full-blooded revolution as the walls of the University ring with chants of ‘Vote for Change’ and blue starts to make way for red around campus.

The first half of the film meanders, sometimes rather aimlessly, as the different characters are introduced. For the most part the friends spend their time drinking, chasing after girls, getting up to the usual college mischief whenever the opportunity presents and then drinking some more. Paul is chilled and laid back, and cares more about his budding romance with Anu (Gayathri Suresh) than changing the world, or even just his small corner in Kerala while Jomy is just trying to cope with studying in general. For a political drama it takes a long time for the politics to be introduced and many of the scenes revolve around the friends sitting and drinking but discussing anything of significance. The romance between Paul and Anu also seems rather pointless, while the inevitable break-up is bland and also serves no purpose. I was expecting a spark of some kind to set off political leanings in the group, but neither the romance, nor the break-up achieve anything other than dissatisfaction with the poorly realised character of Anu. Tom Emmatty seems to have an aversion to writing female characters since the few that do appear have little to do and even less impact on the story, to the point where their non-participation is noticeable and impacts negatively on the story. Perhaps making Maharaja college single-sex rather than co-ed would have been a better decision since the focus is all on the male characters anyway.

The second half is much better when the fight between KSQ and SFY begins in earnest and the candidates for the elections are decided. Roopesh Peethambaran is excellent as the scheming leader of KSQ who will stoop to any lengths to hold onto power. His facial expressions are perfect and capture his fleeting thoughts as he plots and plans in response to SFY’s attempts to gain voters, while ensuring that he does display some good qualities and an inner strength that explain his hold on power in the college. Tovino Thomas is suitably charismatic as he runs for college president and his transformation from apolitical student to passionate believer in SFY is very well done. It’s another stellar performance from Tovino after his excellent work in Guppy and it’s impressive just how different he appears here.  Neeraj Madhav is just as good as the idealistic leader of SFY who has to put aside his own political ambitions for the good of the party. Again he gets every nuance just right, and his indecision as he puts his friend in danger is realistic and convincing. Together these three along with Manu, Vishnu Govindan and Jino John bring campus politics alive and infuse the film with the spirit of the revolution so that the lack of response from the college authorities and even the local police doesn’t even register until the final credits start to roll. What it lacks in the beginning, the film more than makes up for in the final scenes with impressive performances from the main leads and excellent dialogues that reverberate with the fervour of revolution.

The story and screenplay of Oru Mexican Aparatha may not be consistent but the three main leads are, and it’s their passion in their respective roles that makes the film so exciting in the second half. More emphasis on the politics and less on the usual college escapades and drinking in the hostel would have made for a more even storyline but the drama of the second half and excellent characterisations make the film well worth watching. One to enjoy as a different take on college life and a reminder that a revolution can start anywhere.