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.

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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.

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.