Psycho (2020)

There are certain things you expect from a Mysskin film, an obsession with feet, unusual camera angles and a cast of odd characters, and for the most part Psycho delivers, although parts of the story follow a familiar and more traditional route. Perhaps most shockingly the love story here follows the tired old trope of stalking = true love, but when Mysskin moves outside the basics into the realm of child abuse, Stockholm syndrome and psychosis, the film starts to take some intriguing turns where anything seems possible. Although not his best film, Psycho is bloody, challenging and intriguing on many levels, and seems set to become another deserved success for Mysskin.

The title comes from the film’s protagonist, a psychopathic killer who brutally murders women before leaving their bodies prominently displayed to public view. The film starts with one such murder which is shown in gory detail as we watch the killer, Angulimala (Rajkumar Pitchumani), in action. The body, minus head, is dumped in a public location and the reaction shots are classic Mysskin, first a low shot of victim’s family as they approach and then switching to aerial shots to capture the distress and heartbreak. The murders have apparently been going on for a few years and the police are baffled without any obvious suspects or useful leads. The investigation is led by Muthu (Ram) who has a tendency to sing old Tamil songs at odd moments, but sadly we never find out why and his back story is never explored. The entire police operation is kept superficial and peripheral to the main story and although there are occasional mentions of forensic tests and interviews, these are all simply a background beat to the murders. 

The focus of the film is RJ Dahini (Aditi Rao Hydari) who is the killer’s next victim. Possibly because she talked to a psychologist about psychopaths on her radio show, or maybe just because she fits the killer’s victim profile, being young and female. But Dahini is also being stalked by a blind musician, Gautham (Udhayanidhi Stalin) who turns up with his carer Rajanayakam (Singampuli) everywhere that Dahini goes. She is understandably frustrated and annoyed by Gautham’s inability to take no for an answer, but Mysskin follows this sadly over-used and out-dated trope right to the end, and gradually Dahini starts to rethink her opinion of Gautham. Just in time for her to be kidnapped by Angulimala. 

Dahini is sure that she will be rescued by Gautham and I’m not totally sure whether this conviction is because she has actually fallen in love with him, or just because his stalker tendencies mean he can find her anywhere. Rather improbably, Angulimala gives Gautham 7 days to find and rescue her, although it the break in routine doesn’t stop his need to kill.  Meanwhile Gautham recruits paraplegic ex-cop Kamala Das (Nithya Menen) to help him with the search. Kamala was paralysed after falling down some stairs during the search for the killer, and has her own darkness to overcome to be able to help Gautham through his. With Guatham’s enhanced senses and Kamala’s cop insights they soon get close to the killer, while Dahini’s captivity allows her to understand what drives Angulimala to kill over and over again.

Mysskin has based his film on the Buddhist story of Aṅgulimāla, and even names his psychopathic killer after him. However, this Angulimala has a rather more sordid backstory that ends up allowing Dahini to empathise with her captor. While bringing in the element of institutionalised child abuse and adding the concept of religious sin raises some interesting questions, Mysskin perhaps takes it a little too far here when he suggests that Angulimala is purely a victim of his circumstance and deserving of our sympathy. Perhaps he did have a rough upbringing, but he’s a stone-cold killer and there is more to the making of a murderer than purely nurture alone. On the other hand, Dahini’s apparent Stockholm syndrome does make sense and her reactions to Angulimala’s revelations are neatly written into the story. Aditi Rao Hydari is perfectly cast here and she does an excellent job as a victim and unwilling observer to Angulimala’s executions. She appears fragile and yielding, but is able to demonstrate the inner core of strength that allows her character to survive her ordeal. It’s a great performance and Aditi is compelling in the role. For the most part her reactions are that I would expect from any normal person in the same situation, and her character is well written to capture the different range of emotions. My favourite moment is when, after gaining a little more freedom of movement, she finds a bathroom and immediately makes use of the facilities – it seemed such a perfectly natural and human thing to do.

Udhayanidhi Stalin is fine as Gautham, but his determined devotion to Dahini isn’t convincing, partly due to the way the romance develops but mainly because there is little back story for the character. There is little opportunity for him to develop any real interaction with Dahini before she is taken by Angulimala, and her conviction that Gautham will come for her mainly seems to be driven by his stalker tendencies rather than the true love he insists he feels for her. Udhayanidhi is better in the scenes where he is persuading Kamala to help, or pleading with Muthu to let him be involved in the police investigation, where we can see the reasoning behind his actions even if the motivation is less believable. Probably the most convincing character of the investigating team is Kamala and Nithya Menen is excellent here, ensuring that she gets the mix of bitterness and self-interest mixed with compassion just right. I love her snarky responses and ability to add a lighter touch to what is otherwise a rather heavily emotional thriller. No matter the situation, she can be counted on for a sarcastic quip or bitter diatribe about her situation. I felt that in the midst of all the bizarre happenings and total craziness of Guatham’s investigation, Kamala acted quite rationally for her character and this helped ground the film whenever Mysskin was in danger of being carried away by theatricality.

Another major plus in the film is the wonderful music from Ilaiyaraaja. The melodies are beautiful and haunting, while the background score is atmospheric and fits the film perfectly. Kudos to Sharan Rajan for translating the songs as songs (instead of literal word for word translations) and making the lyrics scan beautifully. Well done too, to the producers for making the subs yellow and for crediting both the subtitler and Subemy, something which unfortunately very few seem to do.

Tanvir Mir does a fantastic job with the cinematography, heightening tension with clever use of lighting in the scenes with Angulimala and contrasting this with the bright sunlit spaces where the bodies are found. I love a sequence where Gautham is driving (yes, really) and the car is a ribbon of light moving across the otherwise black screen. Even an overly theatrical scene where Dahini finds out more about Angulimala’s past is held together by the immaculate staging and imaginative use of light and shadow. There is so much attention to detail here in the set design and every single piece seems to be symbolic in some way. Gautham sits at home underneath a wall sculpture of a spreading tree, the religious imagery is continued by having a hacker listing to Madonna’s Frozen and the turning blades of windmills after watching the killer expertly wield his own knives.

I have to say that Psycho isn’t my favourite film from Mysskin. There are a number of unresolved issues such as how the killer chooses his victims and why he displays them in the manner he does. Also, there are a number of leaps of faith required to believe that Gautham really would be able to track Dahini in the few days he has available, and at the core, I don’t feel that the attempt to pass Angulimala as a damaged child really works. But if you are prepared to put these small issues aside and just enjoy the sheer spectacle, the characterisations and the performances as well as the wonderful music, then Psycho is definitely one for fans of the thriller/slasher genre. For the rest, be warned that it is significantly gory, right from the very first scene which may not be to everyone’s tastes. For the audience in Melbourne, who gave the film a resounding round of applause at the end, it most definitely was.

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.

Sammohanam (2018)

 

Sammohanam is kind of like Notting Hill (acknowledged by writer/director Mohan Krishna Indraganti), only with a few Telugu film staples and bonus rowdies. I liked it enormously, almost against my better judgement especially when it goes a bit awry in the second half.

Warning! partial spoilers ahead.

 

Film buff Sarvesh (Naresh) and wife Anasuya (Pavithra Lokesh) keep a beautiful and welcoming home, and she keeps the entire neighbourhood in snacks and sweets. Daughter Divya (Harini) is studying, and son Vijay (Sudheer Babu) is determined to be a picture book author. When Sarva is approached to let a film crew use his house, he agrees immediately on just one condition. They have to give him a role. Vijay is disgusted at the idea. He is an intellectual snob who believes while books can transform a mind movies are cheap and do damage. Divya is all for it because the It Girl of the day, Sameera Rathod (Aditi Rao Hydari), is the heroine. Sarva will brook no arguments, and the shoot commences. Sameera overhears Vijay and family mocking her bad Telugu and asks him to coach her. He reluctantly accepts and they develop a friendship that could be something more. After an uncomfortable start, everyone settles down and family and crew fall into a new routine. But they can’t all stay in this happy little bubble forever. What will happen when Sameera leaves? Will Vijay stop pouting? And will Sarva get his big acting break?

The answer in short is that people have their hearts broken, and some are mended. Sarva gets all ready for the movie premier only to find he was left on the editing room floor. He is devastated but his love for film cannot be killed. When Vijay was depressed over Sameera, his mum told him that rejection wasn’t the end of the world and that just because someone doesn’t return your feelings, that doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of love or that nobody else will love you. Don’t take it out on them, try and be there for them as it’s a hard time for both of you. It was done with warmth and a little bit of humour that made her advice relatable.

Aditi Rao Hydari delivered a good performance, although sometimes she was left with nothing to do but make doe eyes. Sameera’s character was well developed with respect to her work as an actress. She made it clear that while some producers (and co-stars) expected her to be little more than a prostitute, she was proud of her skills and training and wouldn’t sell herself out. There were many small moments and reactions where you could see Sameera subtly navigating the constant intrusion by Kishore the star kid. I liked when the family and loser mates started treating her more like a person, not a star, even when she was wearing one of her micro-skirts. She blossomed in their house, with people around who seemed genuinely to care for her, not for her status. But when her Dark Secret threw a spanner in the works, Mohan Krishan Indraganti reverted to film cliches. Sameera was being abused and gaslighted by an old friend and refused to tell anyone except her friend and assistant Ramya (Hari Teja). This led to lots of scenes with Aditi just staring at Vijay as he worked himself into a welter of negative emotions. She is made responsible for her own misery because apparently all she had to do was tell Vijay – easier said than done. Also why does a man have to physically threaten another man before a woman can consider herself safe? It felt a bit cobbled together to please the intended audience, and to allow the hero to take over.

Sudheer Babu is competent but bland. In part that is due to the writing as Vijay is introverted, but subtle emoting doesn’t seem to be in Sudheer’s wheelhouse. I felt that the scenes that worked best between Sameera and Vijay were because of Aditi’s energy which he could reciprocate or bounce off and they flowed nicely. But when the characters were at odds she seemed effortlessly in the moment and he was Acting. Of course he is the hero so getting the girl of his choice is a foregone conclusion, but there was a little emotional growth on the way that was a good sign. Vijay’s scenes with his dad are also nicely done and that brings me to the real star of the film.

Naresh. His performance as Sarva is beautiful. He is everything that comedy uncles try, and fail, to be. Whether he was crying at an old film, flirting with his wife (how shocking!) or throwing a tantrum over being denied his chance at stardom, I loved every moment. Even in the incredibly daft scene where he helps Vijay and the boys deal with Sameera’s problematic associate, he was hilarious. Naresh plays Sarva as a heart on sleeve kind of guy, and some of his scenes were unexpectedly touching. His rapport with Anasuya (Pavithra Lokesh) is really nice, and I enjoyed her performance too. They have a couple of scenes talking about the kids where you can believe they respect each other and rely on each other’s judgement. Unless it’s about films.

Harini is lively and natural, and I enjoyed her expressions as she swanned through the chaos of the shoot. She’s a capable and competent girl who seems able to sort the wheat from the chaff. When Vijay starts barking orders at Divya, Divya shouts back for him to stop moral policing her, she’s not an idiot. Their parents respect both kids’ positions and negotiate with each of them accordingly. There is no sense that Divya’s opinion is less valid than Vijay’s.

Of course Vijay has to have some friends with no purpose in life but to follow him around and be shorter and less atttractive. Murthy (Rahul Ramakrishna) is sleazy and dumb, and Seenu (Abhay Bethiganti) seems a little nicer and a bit more dim. Hari Teja has little to do as Ramya until one loooong piece of exposition. The always reliable Tanikella Bharani plays a small but significant role, and there are some cameos to spot.

The look and feel of the film is very appealing. But the story wasn’t as strong in the second half when it switched from character driven to plot driven action. The subtitles by rekhs and crew were a delight. They were idiomatic and clear, and the jokes translated well. When Sarva watches a character actor shouting his lines, he observes “He speaks Tegulu not Telugu”. I snorted as I suspect I may be picking up Tegulu from movies too. And there is a series of digs at heroes who get their break because of family connections. The soundtrack is almost completely forgettable, but emo balladeering is my least favourite genre so I probably just blotted it out.

The second half doesn’t live up to the very engaging start. But it’s still a refreshing and well considered film in many aspects, with a couple of great performances. Come for the romance, stay for the parents!