Roja (1992)

Roja

Mani Ratnam’s 1992 film Roja is the first of his so-called ‘terrorist-trilogy’; three films with a romance set against a political background of terrorist activity. Here he takes us to Kashmir, where the Tamil-speaking Roja struggles to plead her cause when her husband is kidnapped by Kashmiri separatists. This is a film primarily about the relationship between Roja and her husband but Mani Ratnam adds in a generous and slightly overdone slice of patriotism as well as providing some insight into the situation in Kashmir at the time. Most interestingly while depriving the Tamil-speaking Roja of a voice in Hindi-speaking Kashmir, the film gives the terrorists an opportunity to explain their thinking and the rationale behind their campaign. In addition to the stunning scenery and compelling story, Roja was the first film featuring a soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and it’s still ranks up there as one of his best. No wonder then that Roja won awards both nationally and internationally, and is still considered a classic today.

The opening credits roll over the sound of gunfire, helicopters and conflict, and the film starts with a bang as terrorist Wasim Khan (Shiva Rindani) is captured by the army in Kashmir. But the action quickly moves to a village near Tirunelveli, introducing Roja (Madhubala) in the beautiful song Chinna Chinna Aasai. It’s an effective contrast between the two worlds, and emphasises how easy it is to forget the violence in the north as we get pulled into the lives of the peaceful villagers in Tamil Nadu.

Cryptologist Rishi Kumar (Arvind Swamy) has come to the village with his mother (Sathyapriya) to meet his fiancée Shenbagam (Vaishnavi). He is first spotted by Roja and her younger sister who are favourably impressed with the sophisticated urbanite Rishi, but Shenbagam isn’t as smitten. She’s already in love with a local boy and persuades Rishi to reject the match – after which he tells Shenbagam’s family that he will marry Roja instead. Since Roja doesn’t know anything about her sister’s true feelings, she is horrified and angered by what she sees as a rejection of Shenbagam. It does seem surprising that Roja isn’t aware of her sister’s secret romance since otherwise they seem to have a good relationship, but perhaps Shenbagam is just very good at keeping secrets. She’s definitely champion of getting her own way, as in the end Roja has no say in the matter and she ends up getting married to Rishi.

Mani Ratnam captures the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu by involving the entire village in the vetting of the bridegroom and subsequent betrothal ceremony. No question is too personal and no subject off limits for the gaggle of aunties and uncles interrogating Rishi when he arrives, and to be fair he deals with their questioning well. Later, the gregarious group of aunties act almost like a Greek chorus as they chaperone Shenbagam and Rishi during their ‘private’ conversation and I love that Mani Ratnam involves them in the entire process, even in this song to celebrate the wedding and first night.

After moving to the city, Roja discovers the truth behind Rishi’s change of mind and her initial anger develops into an appreciation of his good qualities. This understanding deepens into romance, so when Rishi is sent to Kashmir for work, Roja insists on accompanying him rather than wait at home. She doesn’t seem to know much about the political situation in Kashmir, which is shown by her naïve questions to Rishi on their arrival. I find this lack of awareness interesting, and I wonder if this regional isolation can still exist to-day in the age of 24/7 news, Smartphones and the internet? I can’t decide if Mani Ratnam is trying to educate the rest of India about the Kashmir situation with these dialogues, or simply to show how much faith and trust Roja has in her husband, to blindly follow him without any idea of where she is going to end up. Probably both!

Once in Kashmir, the relationship between Roja and Rishi continues to bloom. There is excellent chemistry between Arvind Swamy and Madhubala and the developing romance is hot enough to melt the snow. Mani Ratnam cleverly uses teasing interactions between the two to deepen their relationship and show their obvious enjoyment in each other. But just as everything seems to be falling into place, Rishi is abducted by a group of masked men in a minivan. Roja immediately chases after the van, and it’s only when the van is long out of sight that she falls to her knees – even then, it’s more from disbelief at the situation rather than a gesture of despair. Roja is a woman of action and she’s not going to let the terrorists get away with their abduction.

While Rishi is held by the terrorists, Roja is determined to fight for his freedom, but she immediately runs into difficulties as she doesn’t speak or understand the language. As with Divya’s character in Mouna Ragam, she is also isolated by being so far away from home and familiar surroundings, however Roja has something to fight for and a reason to make herself heard. Eventually she is directed to Colonel Rayappa (Nasser) who is in charge of the search and who handily also speaks rudimentary Tamil. While Roja wants her husband home at any cost, Colonel Rayappa is more aware of the political realities of the situation and exactly what the terrorists demands to free Wasim Khan mean. The political discussions here are excellent, with Roja passionately arguing that the army has a duty to her husband as Rayappa tries to make her understand that the government will not willingly release a known murderer.

Meanwhile, Rishi tries to engage the terrorists by drawing their leader Liaqat (Pankaj Kapur) into conversation. Again, the politics of Kashmir are brought into the dialogues as Liaqat explains the separatists fight for freedom and independence, all of which makes little sense to the staunchly patriotic Rishi. Some of Rishi’s decisions seem quite extreme, such as when he demonstrates his patriotism in a situation where he knows it will only lead to a severe beating, or perhaps even death. Although, since he passionately opposes the release of Wasim Khan, perhaps that is actually part of his intention, but it’s not at all clear. Rather, for much of his imprisonment, the politics take second place as Rishi stares out of his barred window thinking about his wife.

Madhubala is outstanding here and her drive to find her husband along with the passion in their relationship come through very clearly. Her transition from rebellious village girl to determined wife is beautifully done, and she manages to show her character’s resilience tempered with despair exceptionally well. Arvind Swamy is just as good, aside from the brief forays into patriotism where the dialogue and actions do seem rather forced. Best of all are his interactions with Liaqat where the dialogues allow an exploration of the politics surrounding separatist violence in Kashmir. This theme is one that Mani Ratnam expands on much more in his later film Dil Se, but the seeds are sown here with at least glimpses of the separatists’ point of view. Liaqat too is a more sympathetic character than might be expected, although he’s marked as a ’bad guy’ by a rather large mole on his nose, which does at least make him easily identifiable when the terrorists are masked.

Roja has a perfect mix of engaging story, stunning scenery and beautiful music that all combine to produce a classic film. The actors are all excellent throughout and bring their characters realistically to life. Madhubala in particular shines as the central character and provides a strong focus to the story, while the mix of romance, action, suspense and politics is well judged to keep that focus clear.

Mani Ratnam always excels when he films relationships, but here he adds a wider viewpoint as the social problems within Kashmir intrude upon Rishi and Roja’s personal life. The juxtaposition of Roja fighting to reunite with her husband with Rishi’s attempts to persuade the terrorists to embrace a united India acts to bring the personal and the social aspects together and there is effective contrast between Roja’s love for Rishi, and Rishi’s patriotic belief in his country. That doesn’t mean that Rishi doesn’t love Roja, but his fight is to turn the terrorists from their course, while Roja is single-minded in her quest to find her husband. A.R. Rahman’s music is the icing on an already rich cake while Santosh Sivan impresses with his excellent camerawork. I love this film and each time I watch I am amazed all over again by the richness and depth of both the story and the dialogues. Simply brilliant! 5 stars.

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Mersal (2017)

Mersal

After drought ravaged farmers in Kaththi and violence against women in Theri, Vijay latest crusade is against corrupt medical practitioners in Atlee’s Mersal. There are few surprises in the storyline which follows a standard revenge formula, but the approach is stylish and the addition of a magician does ensure a few unexpected tricks. Vijay takes on a triple role that puts him front and centre for most of the film, which is just as well since it’s mainly his charisma that lifts Mersal above its well-worn story. But there are also energetic dance numbers, excellent special effects and a credible and suitably nasty villain making Mersal a major improvement on Vijay’s last film and worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Vijay plays a triple role – two brothers (one who is unaware of the other’s existence), and then their father in an extended flashback sequence. The story jumps around a lot as well as moving in and out of flashback so it’s deliberately not always clear which character we are watching at any given time. The film starts with the abductions of 4 men, all connected in some way to the same hospital, although it’s takes a while before we find out who they are and why they have been abducted. The police receive an anonymous tip off which leads them to arrest local hero and all round good guy Dr Marran (Vijay) who is known as the ₹5 doctor due to the fees he charges his patients. His arrest almost sparks a mini riot but once Police Officer Rathnavel (Sathyaraj) begins his interview (which for no good reason is conducted in a derelict building on a construction site) the story of the two brothers starts to unfold.

The other brother, Vetri (Vijay), is a magician and uses his powers to take revenge on the men he feels were responsible for his father’s death. It’s never clear how the brothers ended up separated or why Marran is brought up by his foster mother Sarala (Kovai Sarala) in ignorance of Vetri’s existence, but then Atlee seems to prefer focusing on the result rather than bothering with such basic explanations. Vetri is ably assisted in his magic and in his revenge by Vadivu (Vadivelu) who also moonlights as Maaran’s helper. This means Vetri knows exactly where Marran is and can use that information to his own advantage. While in Paris (really Poland, but close enough), Vetri meets Anu Pallavi (Kajal Aggarwal) who is acting as a general gofer for the rather greedy and lecherous Dr Arjun Zachariah (Hareesh Peradi). Dr Zachariah is the polar opposite of Maaran, believing that good medicine is commercial medicine and the only reason to be a doctor is to turn a huge profit and benefit from the misery of disease. Maraan on the other hand is a proponent of universal free health care as a basic human right, although he doesn’t seem to have really thought through exactly how this style of medical care will be funded if his dream is to become a reality.

While Vetri dances his way into Dr Anu’s heart in Paris, Maaran meets journalist Tara (Samantha) during an interview on a TV talk show. Love blossoms through another song but Maaran’s TV appearance has brought him to the attention of Dr Daniel Arockiyaraj (S.J. Surya) who recognises Maaran as being the spitting image of his father. Daniel and Vetrimaaran (Vijay) had an acrimonious history and Daniel immediately sets out to find and destroy the son of his enemy.

The best part of the film is the extended flashback after the interval which focuses on the reasons behind Vetri’s revenge and Daniel’s antipathy. S.J. Surya revels in his role as a conniving and deceitful doctor in wide collared shirts and spectacular flares but Vijay steals the show here with his performance as a villager with a big heart and even bigger muscles.  Nithya Menen is also superb as Vetrimaaran’s wife Aishwarya (aka Ice), although she does have the best of the three female roles. Her Ice is passionate and inspiring in her devotion to the idea of readily available health care in their village, and she gets the chance to really bring out the emotions of her character well. She also has excellent chemistry with Vijay and this is the relationship that works the best out of the three, although to be fair both Samantha and Kajal get little screen time with the hero and little chance to develop their respective relationships.

There are a few oddities in this part of the film though. There is a sudden jump between Ice’s admission into the hospital and her final fate without much explanation of what goes wrong. Also, a potential fight between Vetrimaaran and Daniel’s henchmen is over before it begins with the gang all lying on the ground bleeding and moaning seconds after they approach Vetrimaaran. I’m not sure if these cuts are an Australian specific issue since I haven’t seen any mention of them in any other reviews, but it does seem odd and makes these final flashback scenes seem rushed and a little confusing.

Although the main focus of the film is Vijay, the rest of the support cast are all good, including Rajendran as an unlikely Health minister and Kaali Venkat as an auto driver whose daughter died due to corruption in the health service. The music from A.R. Rahman doesn’t stand out as anything special, but it does fit into the screenplay well while Atlee places the songs wisely throughout. G.K. Vishnu works wonders with the cinematography and the effects are magical despite the sometimes cheesy nature of the tricks. Watch out for a scene where Vijay fights with a deck of cards – the fusion of the magic storyline into a standard masala tale is a better fit than I expected. Of course the real magic here is that Vijay seems to be growing younger with each new film and he’s just as energetic as ever too.

However Mersal is more than just a revenge drama and there is a definite political slant to the story. To start with, medical negligence and corruption is an emotive topic, that has been much in the news recently with a series of high profile deaths in the Indian medical system. Vetri makes a rather political statement towards the end of the film as he speaks to the crowd outside the courtroom and asking why India can’t fund heathcare as well as Singapore when the Indian government collects a much larger amount of GST. This is much more direct than Vijay’s message about suicidal farmers in Kaththi and does come across as a warning to the current government that they are being judged as lacking leadership in this issue. Vijay underscores the political theme with several nods to MGR, including a scene where Vetrimaaran walks in to a cinema to accuse village officials of corruption just as MGR strides onto the screen in the background. Is this the next stage in Vijay’s political campaign or is he just making the best use of his star power and philanthropic tendencies? Only time will tell, but in Mersal, Atlee has combined politics and entertainment without diluting the message or preaching to his audience- something a lot of Holywood films could do well to emulate.

 

Mom (2017)

Mom

Mom starts out with an interesting take on the step-mother/daughter relationship but takes a turn midway to end as a standard revenge film with a haphazard second half and an overly mawkish finale. Thankfully Sridevi is outstanding as the mother hell-bent on revenge, and Sajal Ali, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and the rest of the cast are all excellent, making Mom better than average, despite the film’s flaws.

The first half of the film explores the tension between Devki Sabarwal (Sridevi) and her step-daughter Arya (Sajal Ali). Arya is the daughter of Anand (Adnan Siddique) and his first wife, and she bitterly resents Devki for taking her father away from her and her memories of her dead mother. Although Devki and Anand have been married long enough to have a child of their own, Arya still isn’t reconciled to her step-mother and the resulting acrimony affects every moment the family spends together. Adding to the tension is the fact that Devki is a teacher and Arya is a student in her class which allows Arya to continue the teacher/student formality even when they are at home by always addressing her step-mother as ‘madam’. The difficulties of dealing with a moody and resentful teenager are compounded by Arya’s animosity towards her stepmother, while Anand is caught in the middle trying to keep the peace. Generally Anand is a passive character who drifts along seemingly not too bothered by his daughter’s rudeness which I presume is to allow Devki the space to take centre stage later in the film. However, the relationship between Devki and her step-daughter is handled well with the family dynamic appearing authentic and the dialogues realistic, and perhaps it’s not too far a stretch that Anand avoids the situation at home rather than getting too involved.

Everything changes one night when 18-year-old Arya goes to a Valentine’s Day party at a farmhouse and doesn’t return home. She is abducted by four men in a black four-wheel drive, and Ravi Udyawar brilliantly builds and maintains the tension as he switches between a frantic Devki desperately trying to contact Arya by phone and horrifically effective overhead shots of the vehicle slowly cruising along deserted roads. The soundtrack adds to the sense of menace and there is a chilling, heart-stopping moment as the car stops and the men change who is driving. It’s horrifying because we know what is happening but all the more effective as nothing is ever shown of the violence until Arya is dumped at the side of the road.

Reading about the film and watching the trailer I was worried that Mom might go down the route of so many films about rape but Ravi Udyawar gets this part of the film totally right and sensitively handles an assault which is too often inappropriately sensationalised or set up to blame the victim. The anguish and despair felt by Devki is also well portrayed, as is Arya’s reaction, while for a change the police are rather more sympathetic although the process of gathering evidence does seem fatally flawed.

When the courts offer little in the way of justice, Anand puts his faith in an appeal and a more rigorous series of tests, while Devki has a more practical approach to her daughter’s rapists gaining their freedom. Anand’s reaction here does seem rather less plausible, but to some extent does fit with his earlier ‘ostrich in the sand’ approach to his daughter. Devki is aided by a private detective, Daya Shankar Kapoor aka DK (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who is sympathetic to her mission. But with detective Mathew Francis (Akshaye Khanna) suspicious of Devki and Arya still as distant as ever, it seems that Devki has set herself an impossible task when she sets out to seek revenge.

Devki is shown as a strong character right from the beginning. She promptly and efficiently deals with an unpleasant incident in her classroom and appears determined to break down the barriers between herself and Arya, despite her step-daughter’s frosty attitude and carefully maintained distance. Sridevi looks radiant too while the scenes between her and Adnan Siddiqui have a genuine warmth and easy affection that speak of a good relationship. After the assault, her reaction to her daughter’s injuries is wonderfully histrionic but perfectly apt for the situation while her trepidation and uncertainty come across clearly as she embarks on her revenge. However, the screenplay doesn’t help here as DK insists that they meet in secret and the pair then proceed to arrange rendezvous in conspicuous public places where they speak to each other without seeming to take any precautions at all. Even the association with DK seems rather unlikely given their first meeting, but Nawazuddin Siddiqui runs with it regardless and manages to give his character plenty of appeal despite his slightly disreputable appearance. His DK is a more sympathetic character than first appears and he is excellent at conveying his own horror and understanding of the situation to Devki. The dialogue between the two tries to give some rationale for Devki’s actions and there is plenty of symbolism included during their meetings, but it’s really the performances from the two actors that allow any suspension of disbelief and make it even vaguely possible that Devki could act as she does.

Akshaye Khanna does the best he can with the role of the police officer assigned to Arya’s case but his character has little to do and doesn’t seem to know which side he should be on either. Mathew Francis seems to be a capable enough office but his investigations are only shown briefly and he never seems to be a serious threat to Devki’s plans. I also have some issues with the portrayal of transgenders and the completely evil nature of Abhimanyu Singh as one of the perpetrators which seems too over the top in a film that already has plenty of extreme emotion.

Anay Goswamy’s cinematography is excellent and the music from A.R.Rahman evocative and perfectly suited to each mood of the film. Where the film falls down is in the predictable nature of the second half and its failure to address the topical issue of violence against women except by suggesting the usual vigilante payback as the way to go. Naturally it makes for a more exciting film this way, but it would have been more satisfying to see more of the family’s reaction, more of Arya’s own story and her father’s struggle for justice. Better too, if Ravi Udyawar had stuck to the fractured relationships and the impact of assault, rather than following the well-trodden path of failed justice and pay-back. Even the scenes of revenge (as clichéd as they are) are glossed over swiftly and the police investigation relegated to a few brief dialogues with a bizarre about-face by Detective Mathew Francis appearing out of the blue, just in time for the film climax. Sridevi is always worth watching, but her co-stars here are all equally good, even though Girish Kohli’s screenplay limits their contribution to the story. Worth watching for the excellent performances, technically good presentation and well executed first half, just don’t expect anything more than a typical masala ending.