Sarkar (2018)

Sarkar

2018 seems to be the year for political movies, particularly those where the hero is an outsider deciding to run for office. After NOTA and Bharat Ane Nenu, this time it’s Sundar Ramasamy (Vijay) a self-styled ‘corporate criminal’ who decides to take on the corrupt Chief Minister during elections in Tamil Nadu. A.R. Murugadoss has added in some real-life scenarios which help add interest to a plot that otherwise features little more than a routine ‘Vijay saves the world’ storyline. After his recent films supporting education for women and rights for farmers, Sarkar seems to be Vijay’s most overt statement so far that he is considering a career in politics, although I do hope that if he ever does follow through, he has a better campaign manager than Sundar does here.

I’m not sure that being a ‘corporate criminal’, ‘monster’ or ‘the Genghis Khan of the corporate world’ are particularly desirable qualities for the CEO of a company in the USA, but that is how Sundar is described by both his rivals and his colleagues. Sundar himself seems to be more of a wealthy playboy as he runs around Las Vegas with an entourage of women and bodyguards before hopping onto a private jet back to India. Apparently we are to believe that Sundar makes this trip solely to cast a vote in the upcoming elections, which seems fairly extreme and makes him more of an environmental terrorist rather than corporate criminal. However, various CEO’s and company directors are able to breathe a sigh of relief that Sundar isn’t planning a takeover of their company, but is simply a strong believer in exercising his democratic right. Instead, after finding out that someone has already cast his vote due to the corrupt practices of the incumbent political party, Sundar turns his adversarial sights to CM Masilamani (Pala. Karuppiah) and his side-kick Malarvannan (Radha Ravi) aka Rendu.

Vijay is always excellent in these sorts of roles where he has to mix stirring speeches with action and a stern but righteous expression. He still looks incredibly young, but this time sports a salt and pepper beard, which does give him some maturity and suits the more serious situations. However, for the most part his character’s actions are not believable and many of the political issues are dealt with too simplistically to be completely engaging. Still, Vijay has plenty of charisma and is able to carry the film easily.

Sundar gives up his day job to run for office, which doesn’t ring true despite his spirited speech to an antagonist crowd about his lowly origins as a fisherman’s son. However the speech itself is excellent with a well thrown tomato is used as a metaphor for greed and the plight of humble workers. Later, Sundar uses his missed vote as a way to educate everyone about regulation 49-P and to convince his audience that every single vote is important. These are some of the best parts of the film, where Sundar motivates the masses and exposes the corruption at every level of government. When Vijay is in full speechifying mode he is very impressive but when it comes back to individual dialogue the unlikeliness of some scenarios does reduce their impact.

Both Pala. Karuppiah and Radha Ravi excel at traditional-minded, self-serving and corrupt politicians, but their conventional behaviour means that most of the confrontations between Sundar, Masilamani and Rendu follow an entirely predictable path.  As their power, prestige and ability to make millions in easy money is threatened, Rendu employs the police and multitudes of disposable minions to remove Sundar from the public eye. He never considers that every action will be recorded by the common man on his/her mobile phone, and that the media is on hand too to record every shady deal, even going as far as to walk out of a TV interview when Sundar arrives. However, Sundar’s response is also classic underdog reaction and despite all the wonderful slow-motion fight scenes and rousing rhetoric, for the most part Sundar is just as predictable as the politicians he opposes.

Perhaps to counteract this old-school predictability, Murugadoss adds another villain in the form of Komalavalli (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar), Masilamani’s daughter. This could have worked well, except for Varalaxmi’s stilted dialogue and odd expression, as if there is continually a bad smell right under her nose. I can’t understand how such a usually expressive actor is so lifeless here, but then little about her character makes sense. She tells her father not to worry, that while Sundar may be a corporate criminal she has been a criminal since birth, but there is no explanation of why. Why is Komalavalli the brains behind her father’s political career?  Why then was she in Canada instead of Tamil Nadu when the elections were being held? So many questions and absolutely no answers. Instead Komalavalli is a one-dimensional character whose sole reason to exist seems to be to cause general misery wherever she goes. While at least her presence does give Sundar an opponent with the smarts to fight back, she’s too little too late and just too shallow to be a completely worthy adversary.

Even worse though is the inclusion of Keerthy Suresh as Sundar’s love interest, Nila. Nila is Sundar’s sister-in-law, although the marriage between Nila’s sister and Sundar’s brother has broken down. Sundar and Nila restart a relationship seems to be more friendship rather than anything else apart from one dream sequence song. For most of the time Nila follows Sundar around, stands in the background, and then follows him around some more. This type of political film doesn’t need a romance, certainly not a nothing of a romance that doesn’t even deserve the word, and there really seems to be little point in including Nila or her jealous reaction when Sundar dances with someone else.

Sarkar isn’t a bad film, it’s just a surprisingly ordinary offering from a film-maker who normally delivers a more exciting and well-polished story. Vijay is excellent and the film technically looks great with well choreographed fight sequences and good use of crowd scenes. A shout-out to for the generally very good subtitles, although none of the writing (including a very long piece of text at the start of the film) was subbed. Still, good to see other groups using the same style as Rekhs and adding English idiom rather than direct and nonsensical translations. The other departments are all fine too. A.R. Rahman’s music doesn’t particularly stand out apart from Oru Viral Puratchi, but it is well placed in the film and works as a rousing to action song while the others generally blend into the screenplay without disrupting the action.

The support cast, including Yogi Babu and a large number of students, voters and election officials are all very good and the parts of the story that deal with the mobilisation and politicalisation of the ‘common man’ are well handled. It’s really the predictability of the film that brings it back to earth and the knowledge that whatever happens, Sundar will best his political foes. His path to power seems to happen very easy, and very quickly here – there are massive poll swings from 5% to 80% literally in the course of one day, and a voting result that can be swayed in just a few hours. If only it were that simple! Overall, Sarkar is a watchable and reasonably entertaining film that works fine as a political stepping stone for Vijay but just could have been that little bit better. Worth watching for Vijay, Radha Ravi and the idea of what could happen when ‘ common people’ take action!

SPYder

SPYder wants to be a clever cyber spy thriller but is more a vigilante story with some bells and whistles. Mahesh is a compelling presence, and Rakul Preet Singh is a good match for him. But AR Murugadoss seems to have lost his own plot in the second half

Warning: Some mild-ish spoilers follow.

Shiva (Mahesh) is wildly overqualified to be an intelligence officer, tapping phones illegally albeit with a government mandate to break that law in order to proactively stop people who may break other laws. Hmmm. He is also a genius software developer. One of his inventions analyses calls for signs of fear and pleas for help. When Shiva gets the bat signal he may go rescue people himself, or call on supporters who know of his sideline. On one call he “meets” Charlie (Rakul Preet Singh), a medical student interested in finding a friend with benefits. Through another call he unwittingly sends a friend to her death. Sickened by the consequences of his outsourcing, he finds proof the murderer is a serial killer. Shiva sets out to find him and obtain closure for himself and for all the victims. What starts out driven by data and psychological profiling soon turns into a series of tactical encounters.

Shiva is judge, jury, and executioner as he knew once people went into the legal system it was pointless. Mahesh plays Shiva as focussed, and kind of grim. And Shiva does so much talking – dialogues, voiceover, exposition… Despite the high stakes cat and mouse game, there are times a lighter touch would have been welcome. The scene where he chased Charlie’s auto, jumped in and asked her two questions, then jumped out and ran away had a nice flavour of deadpan absurdity. But when he ran towards the evil Bairavudu, the fierce emotion and torment he was feeling was palpable. Mahesh is a seriously good actor and I was a little disappointed the material let him down.

For those tracking Mahesh’s reluctant acquiescence to the shameless skinshow, he did wear tshirts, and flashed a glimpse of ankle in some manpris. I feel that the costume designer has been watching a bit of Kpop lately, with asymmetrical tailoring supersized to fit Mahesh’s lanky frame. I am grateful he went the mesh shirt (over a tee) and let the dancers don the mesh pants. He hasn’t varied his dance style from rhythmic hopping and emphatic pointing.

Mahesh, maaaate, it’s not the 90s anymore. The songs make a visual statement but musically they do little to lift the movie. And the English lyrics in Achcham Telugandham are woeful…hopefully deliberately!

A scrap of cloth at the scene of the double murder had traces of blood from 8 more people. And then a character said “and three of them were men”. Yeah it’s not like 7 women had also been killed. Someone think of the men! Also the stalking trope is given a twist but it is still stalking. Charlie confronts Shiva early on but as his mate Varun (under-utilised but highly likeable Priyadarshi) says, she noticed what he was wearing so of course she must have fallen for him. The “but she secretly wants it” explanation left a bad taste as did her cheerful acceptance that it wasn’t a big deal if it was Shiva tapping her phone.

Despite all the macho BS, the ladies fare quite well. Charlie wants sex without silly romantic shenanigans and decides Shiva is just right. She says to his mum “I’m 21. My parents have been married 20 years. I take after my mother!” and wins maternal endorsement to try her luck. Rakul Preet Singh has pep without being a manic pixie. Charlie was assertive and still a bit girly, and it was a pity after the boulder incident when it seems everyone forgot she was in the movie and ran off to the next scene without her. Charlie just gets to stand around in the background a lot despite all the likely issues with professional ethics, police procedure, and common sense. It was a waste of a competent actress.

In one of the best sequences of the film, a bunch of neighbourhood mums and aunties are persuaded to help Shiva in a dangerous rescue. He is in a van driving through traffic as he gives each of them a task, and they get shit done in magnificent style and to great music. The aunties not only saved the day but probably booked in coffee catch-ups and shopping trips as they climbed up poles and leapt across balconies. The audience, including me, cheered.

There’s some glossing over and leaps of faith required to buy in. Technology that can record, analyse, prioritise calls in real time from all across Hyderabad whether on analogue or digital networks and presumably in any language sounds great. But I can’t even get a Google doc to load on my work laptop! Shiva just happened to have a green screen handy when he needed to interrupt an evening soap. And he always knew exactly which of all the variables to choose, just on his gut instinct.

Bhairavudu (SJ Surya) is a nihilist and a sadist. He has no objective other than killing for the sake of it, and feel entitles to inflict pain. He is a creature of death and hatred, born in a graveyard. Surya is effectively menacing when he is passing through crowds or observing his intended victims, a cold hunger emanating from him. But when he starts with the capering and shrieking, it’s just acting crazy and it doesn’t ring true. What was with the hessian gimp mask? He could have done with more restraint, and Mahesh could have boiled over a little more and I think the second half would have been more compelling.

Jayaprakash is Shiva’s sensible dad and I think Dheepa Ramanujam plays Shiva’s sensible mum. RJ Balaji and Priyadarshi Pulikonda play Shiva’s down to earth work mates, both low key with the occasional laugh arising from their reactions to their heroic friend. I think the villains were instructed to overact because Bharath tries to get his teethmarks into the scenery.

You’d expect anything Santosh Sivan does to look amazing, and SPYder is very stylish. There are some good, and some dodgy, CGI effects, and the action sequences are full throttle. AR Murugadoss had a good idea but didn’t work through the detail to ensure the finale was as satisfying as the start of this larger than life conflict. Nevertheless there is plenty to enjoy, especially for the Mahesh fans.

Kaththi

Kaththi

AR Murugadoss and Vijay last got together for the excellent action adventure Thuppakki, but although Kaththi has a good storyline and Vijay is at his best, it doesn’t quite manage to re-create the same magic. This time Vijay appears in a double role that allows him to explore a more restrained character as well as his more usual action hero, and he manages both with aplomb. However the film suffers from variable pacing and odd song placement, while the inclusion of a poorly developed romance adds to the general unevenness.  Still, double the amount of Vijay, the absolutely brilliant older men who make up the support cast and the inclusion of some of the best conceived fight sequences I’ve seen so far this year all ensure Kaththi is definitely well worth a look.

Vijay plays Kathiresan, a thief on the run after engineering a clever escape from jail. Kathiresan’s path crosses that of his lookalike Jeevanandham (also Vijay) when an attempt is made on Jeevanandham’s life. Jeevanandham is an activist, fighting against a multinational company for the water rights of his small drought-stricken village, although his fight is one being waged through the courts rather than anything more physical. Despite being forced off the road and shot several times, amazingly Jeevanandham survives, and Kathiresan makes the most of their identical appearances by switching identities with his unconscious double. This ensures Jeevanandham is sent back to jail, while Kathiresan is free to make good his escape before the authorities find out the truth. You’d have thought that perhaps changing identities with a man who obviously had problems of his own might have been a bit risky, but Kathiresan doesn’t seem in the least bit worried as he happily takes on Jeevanandham’s identity.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long before Jeevanandham’s troubles come calling on Kathiresan. After leaving Jeevanandham in hospital, Kathiresan spends some time as his alter identity and ends up staying at the old people’s home run by Jeevanandham. As a result, he gradually gets drawn into Jeevanandham’s fight against the company trying to force the villagers off their land. Nasty company owner Cedric (Neil Nitin Mukesh) tries a little blackmail, and when that fails to work, resorts to basic intimidation tactics. Of course the thugs are expecting the more passive Jeevanandham rather than escaped convict Kathiresan and his friend Dhanu (Satish), so things don’t work out quite as Cedric plans.  In addition to foiling the attempts on his life, Kathiresan and Dhanu concoct various schemes to help the villagers win the pending court case, or at least bring their plight to the attention of the media. It’s not all fighting and mayhem and there are some clever plans and ideas that make Kathiresan a more three dimensional and interesting character. Of course when it is fighting and mayhem Vijay is in his element and the inventively staged fight sequences work well to keep things moving along. There are some very clever ideas and just the right amount of comedy here, and it’s frustrating that less attention to detail has been given to other important aspects of the film.

Part of the problem I have with the film is with the character of Cedric and his multinational company.  Cedric is very one-dimensional and his company is painted as unethical and completely evil without any redeeming features or basic humanity. While that is perhaps plausible twenty odd years ago or so, I cannot see such a company surviving long without coming up against an activist group somewhere – this is supposed to be a multinational company after all. There is the same old-fashioned and redundant feel to Cedric (I kept thinking of old black and white silent movies with men in long black cloaks twirling their moustaches and laughing while tying hapless women to train tracks – he’s that kind of villain) and this only serves to make  his threats appear cartoonish and completely unrealistic. Neil Nitin Mukesh doesn’t get the chance to do anything other than sneer and attempt to look menacing which doesn’t really convince with his floppy hair and oversized sunglasses, so he’s relatively ineffectual as a villain.

Also on the minus side is the really quite pointless romance between Kathiresan and Ankitha (Samantha) which never really gets going although the couple initially do look good together.  Samantha appears to be added in to the cast solely as a ‘reason’ for the songs, but even there she is relegated to wandering around and posing, while Vijay dances up a storm in the background. It’s such a waste of a good actress, and frustrating since the romance just makes a long film longer without actually adding anything worthwhile to the story. At least the songs from Anirudh Ravichander are enjoyable and the choreography suits Vijay’s energy and style even if their placement often feels random.

One other issue I have with the film is the manner in which A.R. Murugadoss uses the serious social issues of farmer displacement, difficulties with land ownership and water rights and industry encroachment on farming areas for the purpose of light-hearted entertainment. It’s hard to define exactly why this made me uneasy but it’s the main reason why I didn’t enjoy this film quite as much as expected.  I am sure that A.R. Murugadoss had the best motives in wanting to shine a light on the problems faced by farmers in India, but the treatment of their plight here is rather too heavy handed to be entirely comfortable.  The farmers’ problems are somewhat overshadowed by the exploits of the hero as he deals with the corporate villain in typical masala style, which seems to reduce the real life day to day difficulties of surviving drought, debt and corrupt officials down to a well-choreographed fight scene and some snazzy special effects. It could be argued that anything that raises awareness of the problem is beneficial, but I feel that the treatment of their plight here is rather too simplistic. These are heavy and very real issues and I doubt that such an easy and fast resolution is possible in the real world. However, there is a good rousing speech by Kathiresan which highlights the social injustices faced by the farming community – not just in India but the world over – and perhaps that is enough of a start in the right direction.

Despite the issues I have with the film, it’s still an entertaining watch. The story is well thought out and I like that Kathiresan has to use his brains and not just hammer his fists through any opposition. It’s clever and there is some good comedy incorporated into the story with nary a comedy uncle in sight.  The support cast of old men who make up the displaced villagers are uniformly excellent and Satish is good as Vijay’s side-kick. Vijay is of course the main reason to watch the film and his milder but still passionate performance as Jeevanandham highlights just how good an actor he is when given the opportunity. Perhaps Kaththi doesn’t quite hit the highs of Thuppakki but it’s almost there and hopefully means we will see another A.R. Murugadoss and Vijay collaboration soon.