Asuran (2019)

Vetrimaaran’s latest film Asuran is a graphic and violent tale of oppression and intimidation of a small landowner and his family, but it’s also a story of revenge, survival and of the fight for justice in an unjust world. Dhanush is in his element, playing both Sivasaamy, an ageing and broken-down small freehold farmer and also his younger self in a flashback that explains how he ended up as a pacifist. The rest of the cast are just as good, including Ken Karnuas as Sivasaamy’s son and Manju Warrier as Sivasaamy’s wife. Asuran seems set to be another Vetrimaaran classic as yet again he has captured the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu while telling a rousing story, this time adapted from Poomani’s novel, Vekkai.

The story starts quietly, with Sivasaamy (Dhanush) and his youngest son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) wading through a river in the middle of the night. Sivasaamy urges caution, explaining to his reluctant son why they are walking in the river, rather than on the road (it’s to hide their tracks). At one point as the water is gradually getting higher, Chidamabaram complains that his bombs will get wet. I thought this was likely a euphemism for something else, but surprisingly, as clearly demonstrated later, what he’s carrying are indeed explosive devices! As the father and son slowly make their way deeper into the forest, Vetrimaran shows the searchers, hunters and police who are on their trail, while in the other direction, Sivasaamy’s wife Pachaiamma (Manju Warrier) and daughter are also running to hide. At this point Sivasaamy seems confident and capable – he knows how to hide their trail and how to keep silent, unlike Chidambaram who seems to be singularly clueless, wandering off, lighting fires and generally making himself far too visible.

Gradually we discover why the family are in flight as, in flashback, the film shows the family’s struggle against the rich Vadakkoran Narasimha (Aadukalam Naren) who wants their small plot of land. This leads to clashes between Vadakkoran’s men and Sivasaamy’s older son Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam) who wants to fight back and cannot understand his father’s servile attitude. Even Pachaiamma grabs up a sickle to defend herself, but Sivasaamy urges caution and tries to ignore the provocations, including the death of one of the family dogs. Murugan is frustrated by his father’s faintheartedness and responds by aggression and violence, although mostly as a result of threats and taunts from Vadakkoran’s men. It’s obvious that neither Sivasaamy’s approach, not his son’s aggressiveness will work against the upper class Vadakkoran who has the law and the power of his money on his side, and this futility underpins all of the action in the film. The violence escalates until Murugan is murdered in a particularly gruesome and bloody manner which starts to tear the family apart. Chidambaram is only 16 and cannot understand the class politics that make his father unable to act, but instead regards him as a coward. As a result, to try and alleviate his mother’s grief, Chidambaram attacks Vadakkoran, leading to the family’s midnight flight.

Dhanush is simply amazing as the older and broken Sivasaamy. His subjugation at every turn is perfectly nuanced to make us feel his pain and despair as Sivasaamy struggles to keep his family safe. His alcoholism is part of the whole picture of a deeply flawed man, while the contempt of his sons and stoicism of his wife is shown to cut deeply. Murugan and Chidambaram deride their father for his cowardice but Pachaiamma and her brother (Pasupathy) have a much better idea of the situation, and although they don’t always approve, they tend to support Sivasaamy’s approach. However, when Murugan is killed, Pachaiamma can no longer support her husband’s viewpoint with matters coming to a head when Chidambaram seeks his revenge. The family drama is beautifully written with the emotions raw and realistic, while the relentless persecution from Vadakkoran seems unnecessarily harsh but also very plausible.

Despite Chidambaram’s low opinion of his father, he’s still young enough to rely on him during their flight. But when they are cornered at the end of the first half, it’s Chidambaram who is shocked when his father finally picks up a stick and fights back in spectacular style. It’s massy, but loads of fun and the fight scene is well staged to make Sivasaamy’s sudden prowess believable.

The second half starts with a flashback to Sivasaamy’s youth, and once again his subjugation by a rich local landlord which ends with the death of his family including his activist brother (Subramaniam Siva) and his fiancée Mariyammal (Ammu Abhirami). This time the divide is more about caste but the outcome is the same despite having lawyer Venugopal Seshadri (Prakash Raj) on their side. While the story is compelling and a bitter statement on the realities of being poor in rural India, it’s the characterisations that stand out in Asuran. Ken Karnuas is fantastic in a role which requires him to be naïve, passionate and impulsive but then have to grow up really fast. Manju Warrier is a rock steady presence beside her husband, until her son is murdered and her world comes crashing down. Her grief roils off the screen in waves of pain in the distressingly realistic scene where Muruguan’s body is discovered. The visuals hit hard, and the acting is simply superb throughout. Although his time onscreen is short, Teejay Arunasalam makes an impact in a powerful performance of a young man determined to defend his family at all costs.

 

The film looks amazing as Velraj captures the stunning scenery around Tirunevelli. The cinematography emphasises the isolation when Sivasaamy and Chidambaram flee into the forest, but also captures the heart of rural India and the wonderful colours associated with different crops. The film soundtrack from GV Prakash Kumar is also excellent while the songs are perfectly matched to the action on screen. There is also clever use of sound, where during an action scene, all the music stops and there is just the sound of breathing, which works very well to focus attention on the protagonist and let us wonder what is going on in his mind, right at that very second.  Vetrimaaran keeps the romance sections short and the fight scenes bloody and violent, but it all fits snugly into the narrative despite a somewhat rushed feeling of the ending. Thanks are also due to the subtitler for using yellow font and being clear and concise – sorry I didn’t catch who was responsible for these.

Asuran combines father and son relationships with village power politics and the result is a powerful societal film that also has the warmth and intimacy of a more personal story. The performances are all amazing and as always I am stunned by how Dhanush can transform between a feisty young man in his early twenties to an older fifty-plus worn down farmer and be totally convincing in both roles. Wonderful actors, a compelling story and stunning scenery all combine to make this one of the best Tamil movies so far this year. Don’t miss it!

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Petta (2019)

petta

Karthik Subbaraj is a self-confessed Rajinikanth fan (he even mentions this in the movie credits) and his latest film can best be described as a fan’s ode to the Superstar. Petta is a step back in time to the classic Rajinikanth of the nineties with punch dialogues, trademark poses and bucket loads of swagger and attitude. The mass style brings the superstar persona to the forefront and, particularly in the first half, relies heavily on Rajni’s charisma and screen presence to deliver an action-packed masala adventure. Although there are still plenty of twists and turns, the first half of Petta is a departure from the previous style of film making from Karthik Subbaraj and the characterisations and detail of the story suffer as a result. But with Petta being such a marvellous return to form for Rajinikanth, the film is still an absolute treat for fans.

The film follows the exploits of Petta (Rajinikanth), a man who comes to take up the position of hostel warden at a boarding school on the recommendation of the local minister. He gives his name as Kaali and immediately goes about restoring law and order in the hostel by evicting a group of bullies terrorising new students. Chief of these is Michael (Bobby Simha), the son of a local rowdy (Aadukalam Naren) who is also involved in various black-market schemes in the area. Petta brings order and structure to the hostel while at the same time assisting one of his students Anwar (Sananth Reddy) with his love affair. The results in a brief romance with Mangalam (Simran) and elicits some excellent advice – when faced with a problem, first play your favourite music and dance before making any decisions. The perfect maxim to live by!

The first half of the film sets up the character of Petta as a righteous man who is willing to do what it takes to win, but who is ultimately on the side of good. Classic Tamil hero stuff and Rajni plays the tough hero persona with his usual flair. Along the way he plays old Tamil movie songs on an ancient radio and indulges in trademark Rajni antics with cigarettes, sunglasses and various other props. Many of his poses recall his earlier blockbuster films while the dialogue is sharp and on point, raising plenty of cheers from the audience in Melbourne. Karthik Subbaraj has written the character to recreate the perfect storm that is SuperStar Rajinikanth, but this means that the other characters have little back story and even less time in front of the camera. Petta is front and centre of every frame – beating up bad guys, making the perfect dinner and setting the world to rights – just as we want him to do, but the lack of a build-up or real motivation for Petta makes some of these scenes just a bit too predictable.

Petta has a mysterious past and eventually it catches up to him in the second half necessitating a move to Uttar Pradesh. Here the plot starts to thicken and Karthik Subbaraj remembers to add his signature twists to the storyline. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Singaaram, a long time enemy of Petta who is out for blood and determined to get rid of Petta once and for all. His son Jithu (Vijay Sethupathi) is well placed to take on the task as he’s the chief rowdy in charge of Singaraam’s various dubious enterprises and has no issues at all with either murder or mayhem.

While he’s a fantastic actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui seems a bit too pathetic and weedy to be an effective villain in a Tamil movie. Although his personality is bitter and twisted, his lack of physicality doesn’t play well, and his reliance on guns and explosives rather than his bare fists somehow seems to be cheating. Or maybe I just watch too many mass films! Vijay Sethupathi on the other hand is excellent and his entrance provoked just as many cheers from the audience in Melbourne as did Rajinikanth. He is perfect as a vicious thug who is still able to think on his feet and the scenes between Vijay and Rajinikanth are simply superb. The various twists and turns add more interest to the story and it helps that Jithu and Singaraam get more backstory with a flashback sequence and some good dialogues.

Rajinikanth looks amazing in this film and he moves more freely here in the dance and fight sequences than in his other recent films. S. Thirunavukarasu’s (Thiru) lighting and cinematography is beautifully done to maximise the different settings, particularly when the action moves north and the characters are surrounded by a festival in the streets. Peter Hein’s action sequences work well and the various locations too. The different areas of the hostel, a street market and a warehouse full of chairs allow him to create some novel situations and moves while a sequence with Petta practising with nunchucks in front of a fire is brilliant. Anirudh’s music fits well into the style of the film, especially with the wonderfully upbeat Aaha Kalyanam and SP Balasubrahmanyam appearing on the track Marana Mass. Sadly there was no credit given for the subtitles, but these were generally OK, although again very much of the literal translation type, so didn’t always make sense. Also in white which was frequently made illegible by the background. However at least the subtitler made the effort to identify the various classic songs used so that was a win – and as always, I’m very grateful for subtitles, full stop.

Unlike Karthik’s earlier movies like the excellent Iraivi, the female roles here are all of the ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ variety and despite the additions of a couple of romances they are totally superfluous to the plot. Malavika Mohanan has the best realised role while Trisha, Simran and Megha Akash have very little to do. The flashback sequence has a brief appearance by Sasikumar and J. Mahendran and the usual ensemble of support actors make up the various gang members on one side or other of the conflict.

What really works about Petta is the interplay between Rajinikanth and the various characters in the second half. The mixture of violence, punch dialogues and occasional comedy all fit perfectly into a plot that keeps changing tack. Singaraam may not be the best chief villain, but his nasty weaselly ways are novel and Nawazuddin Siddiqui has some great expressions as he flits between giving orders to kill and worrying about where Petta will pop up next. While it’s fantastic to see Rajni in such good form, it’s in this part of the film where everything comes together – star, story and support cast, to produce an almost perfect whole. This probably is a film that has something for everyone, with enough old-school Rajni to please his fans, a good character driven story in the second half for those who prefer his later incarnations in films such as Kaala and some characteristic Karthik Subbaraj storytelling for fans of the director. All this and Vijay Sethupathi too – highly recommended!