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!

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Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018)

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Mani Ratnam’s latest is a surprisingly conventional crime drama that pits three brothers against each other as they vie to take over their father’s gangster business. Unusually there is little character development for each of the brothers, so it does take some time to become connected to the film and get to grips with exactly who is who (and who is sleeping with who). However, the finale is excellent and does keep you guessing right up until the end, while Vijay Sethupathi, Arvind Swami and Jyothika are all superb throughout.

Prakash Raj plays the ageing gangster Senapathi who survives an attack by two assassins dressed as police officers at the start of the film. His wife Lakshmi (Jayasudha) is also in the car, and it’s interesting that their conversation prior to the attack mentions Sena’s infidelities rather than introducing the family members or focusing on the crime empire. However, it’s not until the end that this and other snippets of information come together to make a satisfying whole and many of the seemingly throwaway statements are much more revealing than they initially seem.

Sena’s three sons all return home as their father and mother are rushed to hospital and it doesn’t take long until they are all at each other’s throats, arguing over who will take their father’s place. The eldest son Varadan (Arvind Swami) complains that Sena treats him as just another henchman, when he feels that he deserves better and has the best claim to inherit his father’s empire. The middle son Thyagu (Arun Vijay) lives in Dubai where he spends most of his time on a yacht discussing real estate projects with wealthy Arab backers. He seems to be more a businessman than a gangster and his stylish dress and polished wife reinforce that impression. The youngest son Ethi (Silambarasan) is a drug and gun runner currently based in Serbia and definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, a fact he seems to accept without too much rancour.

None of these men appear to have what it takes to run a criminal network as they indulge in petty arguments and spiteful digs at each other. Each has their own flaws that seem to disqualify them for the top job. Varadan is the most like his father but he lacks initiative and follows a predictable and well-trodden path as he pursues his father’s attackers. Varadan immediately accuses his father’s rival Chinnappadasan (Thiagarajan) of being behind the attack but it seems to be the easy option and doesn’t require Varadan to be anything other than the thug he has always been. Thyagu is slick and more polished, but despite his cutthroat business skills, he seems to lack the violent mentality needed to maintain control over the motley collection of gangsters so, despite his egotistical belief that he is the obvious choice of heir, he seems unlikely to survive long in Chennai. Ethi is unpredictable and erratic, and doesn’t seem to have the necessary concentration span to be able to successfully run a crime business.

Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi) is Varadan’s childhood friend, and the two have remained close over the years despite Rasool being a police officer. At the start of the film, Rasool is suspended from the police force for an overzealous attack on a student, so he has plenty of time to help out his friend while attempting to get his suspension overturned. As the brothers squabble amongst themselves, Rasool is always there to help keep the peace, just as long as he stays off the alcohol.

Varadan is married to Chitra (Jyothika) who is loyal to her husband despite his affair with TV reporter Parvathi (Aditi Rao Hydari). She’s an incredibly strong character who seems determined to hold the family together through the sheer force of her willpower alone, but when the brothers finally descend into open warfare all her support is with her husband in spite of everything he as done. At one point I was hopeful that Chitra was going to turn out to be the last one standing, but alas that wasn’t to be and she stays true to her character until the bitter end. Thyagu’s wife Renu (Aishwarya Rajesh) is less supportive of her husband, particularly when she ends up in jail after drugs are hidden in their apartment, while Ethi’s shortlived romance with Chaaya (Dayana Erappa) seems to only be included to act as the catalyst for his later suspicions when Chaaya is shot and killed on their honeymoon.

Initially the brothers unit in their search for the men behind the attack on Sena, but after Sena’s death it turns into a free for all as Ethi and Thyagu team up in opposition to Varadan, while accusations fly as to who was the real culprit behind the assassination attempt. Chinnappadasan is also out for blood after the brothers target his family and kill his son-in-law while the police have also vowed not to stand-by and let the gangster take over the city. The death toll rises inexorably as the brothers get closer and closer to finally determining who will take Sena’s place as head kingpin and their various rivals also close in for the kill.

The problem here is that for most of the film the brothers are only lightly sketched and we don’t know why they have chosen to act as they do. The women in their life are even more broadly drawn with just enough detail to know who they are and how they relate to Sena and his sons. There is a daughter as well, but she appears only briefly during the celebration for her new baby and I didn’t even manage to catch her name. This lack of any real motivation for the brothers makes it difficult to relate to their characters and, since none of them are particularly likeable, it’s also hard to decide who to support in their struggle to take over the top spot. Some of the support cast also appear to be completely superfluous, and it’s not until quite late in the story that the reason for the inclusion of, for example, Parvathi or Chaaya, becomes clear. But once the final twist in the tale is revealed, suddenly everything makes more sense, and many of the scenes with Lakshmi, Chitra and the others take on a deeper meaning. As too does the squabble between the brothers, and that ensures Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a much more intriguing film than it first appears.

A.R. Rahman’s music threads through the screenplay with different themes recurring as the characters come and go, and the songs mostly occur in snippets over pieces of the action. Santosh Sivan is in charge of cinematography and does a very capable job, although what is most interesting is what is not shown except in brief glimpses, almost too fast to catch. In keeping with the twist at the end, the final images of Rasool and the three brothers in a circling jeep at the top of a cliff are the most stunning. The ground is a rich red, while the sky is a vibrant blue and the sea a restless azure, making a vivid contrast between the stark but grandiose scenery and the petty, backstabbing action taking place in the jeep.

This is a film that I want to see again now that I know the ending. I suspect that there are clues scattered along the way although on reflection I can only identify a few, and I know that more will becone clear on a second watch through. I also didn’t catch the music as well as I should as I was concentrating too much on the action. The actors too appear much better on looking back, as the whole point of that lack of characterisation and interaction is only revealed at the end. It’s hard to say much without revealing the final twist but it’s the end that does make Chekka Chivantha Vaanam well worth watching and overall one of Mani Ratnam’s better films, despite the initial slow build.

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.