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.

 

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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.

Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo

sahasam-swasaga-sagipo

Gautham Menon’s latest released simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu, but I preferred this version, even though both are identical in terms of story and cast apart from the male lead. Naga Chaitanya is excellent in the lead role in this version, although Simbu is almost as good in the Tamil film, but the story seems to work better with the less physically imposing Chaitanya and the chemistry between him and female lead Manjima Mohan has significantly more sparkage too. Gautham Menon has stuck to his two favourite themes of action and romance but this time with a rather different approach to give a film with two distinct and very different halves. The first half is all about the romance with no indication about what lies ahead except for brief flashes during the opening credits that suggest there may be troubled times at some point, and a message that the film is inspired from a scene in the Godfather – not a film known as a touchy, feely love story! The second half explodes into violence and action just before the interval and the film quickly becomes a thriller with plenty of suspense and good action sequences. Overall the combination works well, although the action part of the film is somewhat let down by unlikely police corruption and a few too many co-incidences. Still, if you can just go with the flow and ignore the implausibility of parts of the plot then Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo is a good entertainer helped along by excellent performances and a better than average soundtrack.

Naga Chaitanya’s character doesn’t get a name until near the end of the film, and since it’s part of the plot I won’t reveal it here but will just refer to him as Chaitanya. At the start of the film we learn that the first love of his life is his Royal Enfield and that he plans to go on a road trip to Kanyakumari and watch the sun rise over the sea. Chaitanya has completed a degree in engineering and an MBA but now has to decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Around the same time his sister finishes her degree and starts an internship along with a friend, who also comes to stay with the family. As soon as Chaitanya sees Leela (Manjima Mohan) he falls in love with her, although he plays it cool and doesn’t immediately say anything. Instead he talks to his friends incessantly about Leela, spends more time at home so that he can see her and spends most evenings chatting to her after everyone else has gone to sleep. They develop a friendship and when Chaitanya finally leaves on his road trip Leela asks to come along too. Chaitanya happily drops his friend Mahesh (Sathish Krishnan) in favour of her company and without telling anyone the two set off on Chaitanya’s Royal Enfield for the South.

The romance is handled with a light touch as Chaitanya is determined to be ‘decent’ and Leela initially seems to think of him as just a friend. However, there are significant glances, chance looks and those late night conversations that slowly develop into significant chemistry between the couple when they head off on the road trip. A.R Rahman’s music provides emotional support to the romance and with that, and the wonderfully evocative sunrise it does seem inevitable that love will bloom before the couple return home. Chaitanya has improved significantly since his role in Ye Maaya Chesave and his performance here is excellent as a young man experiencing his first real love of the non-vehicular kind. He appears more mature and this gives him more plausibility when he talks about his feelings during the voiceover sections of the film. The scenes with his friends are also well written and include some comedy that helps keep the first half light. The combination of family life, friends and developing romance ensure Chaitanya is a likeable character with an easy-going personality and generally upbeat approach to life.

Manjima Mohan looks beautiful and does a good job with her character, successfully combining traditional (her father checking out the family before she starts her stay) with modern (her decision to go on a road trip with a guy she hardly knows) to give an overall picture of a confident young woman who has definite plans and the determination to follow through with them. I liked her in Oru Vadakkan Selfie and she is even better here, appearing very natural and coping well with a role that demands a range of emotions as events start to head out of control in the second half. She seems very natural and was just as good in the light romantic scenes as in the heavy emotional drama where she really got to pull out all the stops and give it her all. I loved her ability to still look amazing even with her make-up running down her face and as always I love it when a heroine contributes to her own rescue, even if she couldn’t quite manage it all by herself.

The action and violence of the second half comes as a real shock after the slow-building love story and everyday characterisations of the lead pair. Suddenly Chaitanya has to deal with situations that are far from his previous experience although as he frequently mentions in the voice-overs, he believes he has the confidence and capability to deal with whatever life throws at him. Luckily for both Chaitanya and Leela this does indeed seem to be the case. The action sequences are fast, frequently very violent and generally unexpected. Dan Macarthur’s camera work ensures these scenes seem full of energy and confusion, just as I’d expect in any real life fight. There is a blurriness and disorientation as the action unfolds which is in direct contrast to the periods of calm where events move slowly and there is a chance to breathe. The contrast is brilliantly done and makes the action sequences stand out even more as completely alien to Chaitanya’s experience and expectation.

Unfortunately, all of this technical excellence is let down by the screenplay which starts to become ever more fanciful, particularly with the inclusion of corrupt police officers led by Kamath (Baba Sehgal). The police appear to do whatever they want without any fear of being caught or held to account for their actions despite these occurring in full view of hospital staff, hotel patrons and numerous other witnesses. Baba Sehgal is ridiculously over the top, almost cartoonish in his portrayal, and this badly impacts the rest of the film, even when the story becomes more rational. The climax too is disappointing with the final events appearing rushed and too opportune and neatly packaged to be fully engaging.

Still, despite the issues with the second half, the film is still engaging. There is plenty of suspense and like everyone else in the cinema I was on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what was going to happen next. In particular, the picturisation of the song Vellipomake is unique and a great way to completely change the direction of the film while the rest of A.R. Rahman’s songs fit well into the screenplay and enhance the romance between the lead couple. Both Naga Chaitanya and Manjima Mohan are excellent, as too is Sathish Krishnan and the various actors who play members of Chaitanya’s family so that even though the story doesn’t always make sense, the actors draw you into their world regardless. Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo has its flaws but there is still much to enjoy despite the dodgy ending. Focus instead on the excellent performances from Naga Chaitanya and Manjima Mohan, enjoy the soundtrack and beautiful scenery, and suspend disbelief enough to appreciate the contrasts and suspense of the second half.