24 (2016)

24 Poster.jpg

For a science fiction film about time travel there is something more than a little magical about 24. Vikram Kumar has come up with a compelling story and made a technically excellent film with a well-chosen cast who all perform beautifully. Suriya is outstanding, favourites Ajay and Saranya Ponvannan are impressive in rather more substantial roles than expected and the whole film is a wonderful masala mix of action, drama, romance, comedy and mystery. Definitely one to catch in the cinema to fully appreciate the VFX but also well worth watching for the expertly crafted story and first-rate cast.

24 combines many of the usual elements of a Tamil film, but although the ingredients may be commonplace the resulting story is refreshingly novel. First there is the rivalry between two brothers; Sethuraman and Athreya (both Suriya), one a brilliant but obsessed and oblivious scientist working on a device that will allow travel through time, and the other his jealous and coldly calculating elder brother who will stop at nothing to steal the device for himself. Moving 26 years into the present day, there is Sethuraman’s son Mani (also Suriya) who knows nothing of his past, his adopted mother Sathyabhama (Saranya Ponvannan) who has sacrificed everything to keep Mani safe and the evil Athreya still trying to track down the device to try to rewrite his own past. These are all familiar plot elements but here cleverly put together to ensure there are plenty of surprises throughout and just when it seems the next step in the journey is inevitable, Vikram Kumar twists the path and the story heads off in an unexpected direction.

The opening scenes are amazing and although supposedly set in 1990, the steam train, cars, motorbikes and fairy tale-like mansion give an older-world ambiance. This is helped by the lighting which is golden, warm and suggestive of candle-light especially when compared to scenes set in the present day that are lit more brightly with colder, bluer lighting. Sethuraman has converted his entire house into a gigantic laboratory to work on his invention, and in typical mad-scientist style he has secret rooms, hidden passage-ways and odd devices everywhere. Think Wallace (Wallace and Grommit) with a bigger budget. Thanks to the intervention of a CGI eagle, Sethuraman manages to create a watch that will allow time travel but before he can celebrate his success, his elder brother Athreya shows up to steal the invention. Suriya’s Sethuraman is a classic bespectacled and nerdy inventor, right down to his abstraction when his wife Priya (Nithya Menen) tries to get him to help with their young son Manikanden and various dangerous substances inappropriately placed for safety around the room. This of course allows for maximum damage when Athreya shows up but paint a picture of a ‘typical’ scientist which Vikram Kumar then turns on its head as Sethuraman turns out to be more practical than first impressions suggest. The opening scene sets the precedent for the rest of the film – there is a good amount of humour, plenty of action and drama with Suriya drawing all eyes and commanding centre stage throughout.

The film moves 26 years into the future where Mani is grown up and working as a watch mechanic with no knowledge of his past, or just what he has in an unbreakable box that he cannot open. Athreya is still around too, although after the events 26 years ago he is a crippled shadow of his former self getting around in a motorised wheelchair after waking up from a coma. Athreya is as malevolent as ever and with the help of his trusty sidekick Mithran (Ajay) goes about trying to turn back time 26 years to reverse his accident and regain the use of his legs. Again Suriya does a fantastic job with the character of Athreya – he’s confidently wicked in 1990 when he goes after his brother and his family, and wonderfully warped and bitter in 2016 as a twisted figure in a wheel-chair. Suriya brings the character to life and makes him so much more than a stock evil villain.

Mani is more the kind of character Suriya has played in recent films, but with a hint of mischievousness that differentiates Mani from the likes of Massu and Raju Bhai. There are some well scripted moments between Mani and his onscreen mother Sathyabhama which give Saranya Ponvannan more than the usual mother/son dialogues to get her teeth into. As always she’s the quintessential filmi ma, but here she gets to have a back story and separate personality aside from being a mother and she rises beautifully to the opportunity.

There is also a romance – of course – there has to be a romance! Mani falls for Sathya (Samantha) just as he discovers his father’s watch, and the romance is partly an excuse to showcase all the things the watch can do. The love story is the most conventional part of the film but Suriya and Samantha have good chemistry and Vikram Kumar adds in some light-hearted comedy to ensure the romance doesn’t overcome the action. Girish Karnad, Mohan V. Raman and Sudha as members of Sathya’s family add more background and all are good in their respective roles.

A.R. Rahman provides the music, but it’s around an hour in before the first dance number which is the appropriately electronic sounding Kaalam en Kadhali. I loved Suriya’s dancing in this – it was definitely worth the wait! The rest of the songs are more romantic and fit less well into the narrative, although I did appreciate the black and white co-coordinating costumes in Naan Un. The music itself is lovely, but the songs slow down the narrative and really don’t seem particularly necessary to move the story forward.

Although there is plenty of good comedy in 24, it’s kept light and even Sathyan, as Mani’s friend Saravanan, is more restrained than usual. It is still laugh-out-loud funny in parts though which provides a good contrast to the few more violent scenes, particularly one just before the interval which is shocking in its sudden brutality. However that is the exception and most of the fight scenes rely on intelligence rather than brute force.

24 has the look and feel of a Hollywood film without losing any of its Southern Indian roots. If this had been a Western film, no doubt 3 different actors would have been cast in the different roles of Mani, Sethuraman and Athreya, but in part the film works so well here because it is the same actor in all three roles. Watching Suriya play three very different characters is mesmerising all by itself while ensuring the familial relationship forms part of the story. Plus more Suriya is generally a good thing! The visual effects are slick, polished and look amazing, while the cinematography from S. Tirru is excellent, adding another layer to the story and ensuring a sophisticated look to the film.

Vikram Kumar impressed me in Manam with his ability to make a complex story flow easily and he does it again here. Yes, there are a few too many coincidences and no-one seems to worry about what will happen to the future when the past is altered, but these are small issues that don’t seem to matter when the rest of the film is so well done. 24 is an excellent piece of storytelling and the best big budget film of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

Thiruda Thiruda

thiruda thiruda poster

Thiruda Thiruda is a 1993 action film from Mani Ratnam that follows the exploits of two thieves when they inadvertently become involved in a major bank robbery. It’s a real ‘action’ film as almost every scene involves either a fight or a chase of some kind (using nearly every single kind of transport you can imagine), and the heroes are always on the move. At almost 3 hours, the film is rather long, but there is so much happening on screen that it’s an entertaining if not completely edge-of-your-seat watch. However the real reason to watch the film is the excellent music from A.R. Rahman which mixes opera, disco and electronic music with more traditional themes to give one of his best and most interesting movie soundtracks.

The film starts with the printing of new bank notes, destined to be sent all over India in specialised containers that require a computer card to gain access. For added security the containers also require a password, but since this is printed on the computer card, there may not be quite the level of protection the Finance Department think they’ve achieved. The card looks more like a plastic credit card than the key to a sophisticated locking system, but maybe it looked like modern technology back in 1993 and does mean it’s easily transferred between the various thieves. The card is also amazingly impervious to damage and works even after prolonged submersion in water – that does also apply to the truck carrying the money and the container full of money too though so perhaps it’s the water that has the special properties!

Criminal mastermind T. T. Vikram (Salim Ghouse) has various lackeys in India who steal the money for him, but his chief accomplice Ashok (Ajay Ratnam) is quickly apprehended and arrested by CBI chief Laxminarayana (S. P. Balasubramaniam), prompting a rather juvenile temper tantrum from the boss. However after an unpromising start, Salim Ghouse settles into the role of evil mastermind and enjoys himself immensely as he executes people who displease him after he heads to India to find his money. I like that his gang mange to arrange themselves artistically before starting to menace their targets and even the initial robbery is carried off with precise timing and a pleasing display of acrobatic moves on a moving train.

Before his arrest, Ashok manages to send the vital computer card and a cryptic message to singer Chandralekha (Anu Agarwal) who skips out before the CBI manage to arrest her too. Meanwhile petty crooks Kathir (Anand) and Azhagu(Prashanth) are on the run from the police after looting a safe belonging to one of the rich men in their village. During the robbery they stop Rasathi (Heera Rajagopal) from committing suicide, but rather than being grateful she decides to go with them to reclaim her share of the jewellery they have stolen.  Kathir and Azhagu don’t want to be burdened with a village girl so they unsuccessfully try to dump Rasathi, until they learn that she is escaping from an unwanted marriage with her uncle and become sympathetic to her plight.

The unlikely trio cross paths with Chandralekha and get drawn into the race to find the money while trying to stay one step ahead of the law and simultaneously avoid T.T. Vikram and his merry band of thugs. Things move along quickly with a little romance and some attempt at comedy, but mainly there are chase sequences (many, many chase sequences), as Kathir, Azhagu and Rasathi escape from the police, Rasathi’s uncle and his henchmen, the CBI and Vikram and his gang, although not all at the same time. Mostly these are well choreographed with bicycles, motorbikes, cars, horses, buses, trucks, trains and even elephants being used at some point or another, while the art of disguise and misdirection are also used to good effect.

The action sequences ensure that the film keeps moving along at a fast pace, which may be why the various characters are relatively under developed and the script somewhat lacking at times. Kathir and Azhagu should have had an easy camaraderie given that they are two thieves who have been working together since childhood, but here their relationship is clunky. This is particularly noticeable when a love triangle develops between the two thieves and Rasathi and there is little rapport or emotion during their scenes together. It may be the fault of the subtitles but the dialogue between the two is also awkward and fails to deliver the idea of two great buddies out to con the world together.

Heera Rajagopal is much better as Rasathi and even manages a bonding session with the sophisticated Chandralekha which gives Anu Agarwal the chance to make her character more sympathetic than she first appears. Despite her overdone entry scene, I really liked Heera and her portrayal of Rasathi. Every time I felt she was in danger of becoming a typical heroine, moping around and waiting for someone else to save the day, she actually got up and did something about her situation instead. Anu’s Chandraleka was also a much stronger character than anticipated and although the two female leads have less to do than the men, they give the film some much needed shading and depth. S.P Balasubramaniam is in fine form as the CBI officer chasing after the thieves, and fares better than the leads as far as characterisation goes. He has more of a back story and shows good rapport with his co-workers while showing off his excellent interviewing skills. His Laxminarayanan is one of the more interesting characters along with Malaysia Vasudevan as the police inspector, while Ajay Ratnam, Madan Bob and the rest all provide good solid support throughout.

The music really is the stand out performer in Thiruda Thiruda and A.R. Rahman changes from full chorus and orchestral score for the big production numbers to the evocative and very effective a capella song Rasathi, and pretty much everything in between. The mixture of Western and Indian music works well here and it’s probably my favourite Rahman soundtrack just because it is so varied. The accompanying cinematography from P.C. Sreeram is also excellent and the staging of the songs ensures each fits fluidly into the storyline. This is probably my favourite though – a lovely song, beautifully sung by Shahul Hameed with simple but powerful picturisation.

While there are a many Indian films that feature bank robberies, I haven’t seen many that follow this style of heist caper more typical of Hollywood films. It doesn’t work as well as it should due to the lack of rapport between the two male leads, but the various chase sequences are fun to watch and the storyline does have a few reasonable plot twists. For a film that does have so much action, there isn’t much suspense but the characters are likeable, the songs enjoyable and overall the film does entertain. Worth watching for the songs, Heera Rajagopal and S.P Balasubramaniam. 3 ½ stars.

Thiruda Thiruda

O Kadhal Kanmani

O Kadhal Kanmani

Mani Ratnam’s latest film is a modern take on romance that works primarily due to the charisma and energy of the two main leads. Dulquer Salmaan and Nithya Menen breathe life into their respective roles as an ambitious game developer and an aspiring architect in Mumbai, and are helped along with excellent support from Prakash Raj and Leela Sampson. The romance is light and breezy for much of the first half, but the film falters a little in the second when events seem a little too contrived. However the relationship is sweet and beautifully developed, the characters are engaging and the ‘feel good’ factor is high making OK Kanmani simply a very watchable romance that lets you leave the theatre with a smile.

The film is set in Mumbai and Aadi (Dulquer Salmaan) immediately wins support for developing a new game set in Mumbai and made specifically with the denizens of that city in mind. I do like a good idea for the opening titles and OK Kanmani has an excellent start with the credits shown over an animation based on Aadi’s game.  Aadi’s initial enthusiasm is a bit of a worry, but he soon settles down to show his zest for life balanced with genuine care and compassion when he moves in as a lodger with Ganapathy (Prakash Raj) and his wife Bhavani (Leela Samson). Initially Ganapathy allows Aadi to move in under sufferance and presents him with a confronting list of rules and conditions. However Ganapathy’s gruff exterior hides a softer heart and it’s not long before Aadi comes to respect Ganapathy and appreciate the love and tenderness he shows for his ailing wife. The relationship between Ganapathy and Bhavani is the central core of the film and becomes the yardstick against which Aadi and Tara (Nithya Menen), and ultimately the audience, measure the strength of their own relationship.

Tara is working as an architect in Mumbai but has plans to attend university in Paris to further her training. Refreshingly she has no desire to get married, although she bases this on the failure of her parent’s marriage rather than anything more radical. However she has dreams and desires that are personal goals to achieve and she doesn’t base her worth on her marriage prospects. Aadi too has no desire to get married but does want a relationship with Tara, at least until she moves to Paris and he realises his dream of moving to the USA. Again, in contrast to most SI love stories, there is no stalking required here. Tara likes what she sees of Aadi and is happy to have a relationship with him until she leaves – no strings attached, just two people enjoying each other’s company.

Mani Ratnam is careful to show that the relationship not a one-sided affair, and that Aadi and Tara have an equal attraction to each another. Both characters have reasons to act as they do, and the equal development of both the hero and the heroine is a welcome departure from many recent films with their expendable and interchangeable heroines. In addition, both Tara and Aadi have a fairly casual attitude to their romance and it’s fantastic to have a female character that isn’t afraid of declaring her desires just as loudly as her male counterpart, and act on them too. Aside from giving both characters equal voices in the romance, Mani Ratnam also perfectly captures the delight and excitement of the early stages of their affair; helped along by the excellent on-screen chemistry shared by the two actors.

Aadi and Tara are independent and both are living away from their families, which gives them the freedom and opportunity to live as they please. They decide to move in together, and given the shortage of housing in Mumbai and the fact that Tara lives in a women’s hostel that means that they have to beard the lion in his den and face Ganapathy. However Ganapathy’s initial objections are overcome by the delight he sees on Bhanvani’s face when Tara sings with her, and as easily as that he agrees to the arrangement.  Naturally Aadi’s brother and Tara’s mother are appalled when they learn of the relationship and find out that the couple are living together. The couple also have to deal with the looming separation as Aadi gets his chance to move to the States and Tara’s date to start University is finalised. Weaving through their struggles is the example set by Bhavani and Ganapathy – proof that perhaps love can be enough.

Both Nithya Menen and Dulquer Salmaan are excellent and fit easily into their roles. Dulquer is a good fit for an enthusiastic but respectful young professional and there is no hint of the obsessive man-child more often seen in Indian romances. Nithya is perfect as the fiercely independent and strong-willed architect and provides a good partner for her co-star without straying into overly glamorous heroine territory. However Prakash Raj is the absolute star performer here and he easily steals the show every time he is on-screen. His facial expressions convey more than the dialogue and he has an easy rapport with Nithya and Dulquer while maintaining a perfect relationship with his onscreen wife. Leela Sampson is also superb and completely nails the quiet confusion required from her character while still maintaining her dignity. The scenes between Ganapathy and Bhavani are some of the most moving I’ve seen in recent times and are a good counterpart to the happiness and excitement of Tara and Aadi’s relationship. This second romance is what lifts the film above most love stories and compensates immensely for the somewhat disappointing end to the film. At least for me.

Spoiler alert – stop now if you don’t want to know how the romance ends and skip down to after the next images.

 

What is disappointing is that the film suggests that Aadi and Tara can only be faithful to each other and maintain their long distance relationship if they are married. I find the assumption that they would drift apart without that commitment a slap in the face for all the wonderful development of their romance that has gone before. I cannot see how marriage is the answer to their problem when they could have done exactly the same thing without getting married and probably had the same outcome – especially when the rest of the film does so well at banishing stereotypes and conventional attitudes. It’s a small point, but one that I found annoying given that it seemed so unnecessary – I have more faith and belief in the characters than it appears their creator does, although I did wonder if this was perhaps just a way to get past the censors given the live-in relationship portrayed – food for thought!

End of spoiler!

Aside from my minor quibble about the end of the story, OK Kanmani is a beautiful romance that perfectly develops a balanced relationship and deals with many of the trials and tribulations of modern life for a young couple. The characters are believable, the situations generally realistic and the performances exemplary from the entire cast. Add in the upbeat and catchy soundtrack from A.R. Rahman and O Kadhal Kanmani is definitely a film I recommend and one I will watch again and again.  Just wonderful!