Vada Chennai (2018)

Vada Chennai

Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai is an excellent gangster film and a promising start to his planned trilogy. As with his earlier work, Vetrimaaran’s characters here are complex and their relationships with each other are tangled and multilayered, while the action is more straightforward although often brutally violent. The film lays a solid base for the character of Anbu (Dhanush) but also provides a detailed introduction to a multitude of other characters, all of whom contribute to Anbu’s development and his gradual fall into rowdyism. However, this isn’t a film solely about Anbu, but rather a story about an area of Northern Madras and the people who live in ‘the hood’, which ensures the film delivers more of an impact and gives a larger canvas to develop the main players. With an exceptional cast, detailed characters including strong female roles, and the exemplary performance of Dhanush, Vada Chennai is a compelling story that has all the elements to be a classic of the genre.

The first half of the film switches back and forth in time as various key characters are introduced and their background story revealed in a series of ‘chapters’. Anbu wants to be a carrom player, and Vetrimaaran plays on this throughout the film, using the analogy to show that every small action starts a reaction, the impact of which start yet more reactions, and so on in an ever-widening ripple effect. From that perspective it’s hard to say where the story of the film starts. Is it at the beginning of the film where there is a gruesome murder, or where Anbu saves one of Senthil’s men from being knifed during their registration at Chennai prison? Or is it when Anbu meets Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh) during a thieving spree when a riot breaks out after Rajiv Gandhi’s death? The constant throughout is Anbu’s reluctance to enter into the violence he sees all around, and his desire to succeed as a carrom player, although his ambition seems doomed almost from the start.

Initially the film revolves around the rivalry between two gangsters, Senthil (Kishore) and Guna (Samuthirakani). Both are out to kill each other and they each control separate wings in Chennai prison. However, they don’t start out as enemies and the beginning of the film shows Senthil and Guna along with Velu (Pawan) and Pazhani (Sai Dheena) collaborating in a murder. In a particularly grisly moment, they throw their blood-stained weapons, still festooned with goblets of flesh, onto the table in a restaurant before discussing the recent death of MGR and the likelihood of Jayalalitha replacing him as Chief Minister. After the murder, Guna and Velu go to jail, expecting to be swiftly bailed out by Senthil, but when this isn’t the case, their rivalry is quickly escalated to an all-out war between the two factions.  Vetrimaaran brings politics into the story early, showing that the gangsters are canny enough to use the politicians for their own ends, but also as a foreshadowing that politics; local, gangster and state are behind much of the skulduggery later in the film.

Anbu enters this atmosphere in the prison and after a number of incidents finally manages to fall under the protection of Senthil, with whom he shares a common bond in their love of carrom. Anbu is almost an ‘accidental gangster’ having grown up in a shady area of North Chennai and associated with various gang members for all his life. But it’s after he meets Padma and the two begin their relationship that his problems really start. When local rowdies start to give Padma a hard time, Anbu is moved to protest their actions. One thing leads to another, and Anbu is suddenly running for his life along with Padma’s brother (Saran Shakthi). From here Anbu continually tries to get back to life as a carrom player, but it turns out that the gangsters have another role for him to play.

The rich detail in every part of the film ensures that every character is realistic and the various events occur organically within the plot. Every aspect of prison life seems to be captured by the camera, including the method used by the inmates to smuggle drugs in and out of the jail, while life in the slum area of North Chennai is just as intimately shown. Each character is built up from numerous different interactions along with the flashbacks that add depth and a rationale for their behaviour. Ameer is brilliant as Rajan, a smuggler and gangster who was also a protector of the people and who stood up to the local politicians when they wanted to clear the entire area for their own money-making projects. Rajan is the man who first encouraged Anbu to take up carrom and his influence is felt across the story, although he doesn’t appear until late in the film.

Also excellent are Samuthirakani and Kishore as Guna and Senthil, while Daniel Balaji is another standout in his role as Thambi. In contrast to Vetrimaaran’s previous films, he has two strong female characters here who also have important roles to play in the story. Aishwarya Rajesh’s Padma bursts onto the screen as a foul-mouthed thief, but her interactions with Dhanush are brilliantly done, with the romance between the two always feeling realistic and plausible. The scene where Anbu goes to ask her father for her hand in marriage is a rare spot of comedy in a generally dark film, but it still fits well into the narrative, as does Padma’s insistence that Anbu shaves before his wedding. Unfortunately the gangsters intervene and it seems as if Padma will also take a second place with her husband.

Andrea Jeremiah is also superb and has an almost Shakespearean role as first Rajan’s and then Guna’s wife, Chandra. She has a godmother who interprets various omens and predicts the future, most notably proclaiming Anbu as ‘the one’, while Chandra herself is a complex character whose dialogues always seem to have a number of meanings. Andrea Jeremiah initially seemed out of place, but as the film develops and her character evolves she ends up fitting perfectly into the role and her initial aloofness makes perfect sense. Dhanush is perfect as Anbu and completely fulfils the role of a gentle man, driven to violence by events outside his control. He easily slips into the role of a teenager but his real strength lies in the more complex older Anbu who has to deal with his time in prison where everyone seems out to get him. The gradual development of Anbu’s character over the course of the film is brilliantly done and Dhanush captures each facet of his personality and slowly allows the persona to develop. It’s another masterful performance and it’s only at the very end where the change from gangster to ‘voice of the people’ seems rather too abrupt, perhaps because the rest of the characterisation has been so slow and detailed in development.

This rushed feeling at the end is really the only downside to the film. In interviews Vetrimaaran has said that he initially had over 5 hours of film which he has condensed to 164 minutes, which may account for the hurried feeling and the final fast metamorphosis of Anbu. However, despite this, the detail included in the film is comprehensive and the layering of events and characters is a major plus that works to build the entire world of North Chennai inhabited by the characters. There are also some stand-out action scenes in the midst of all the character development. A fight that breaks out at a carrom competition in the jail is beautifully filmed as the protagonists battle it out while simultaneously holding up the shelter over their heads. The initial murder, which is shown in detail later on, is also excellent with a brilliant build-up of tension in the moments leading up to the actual attack. Velraj perfectly captures all the action and despite the dark tones, his cinematography paints a surprisingly colourful picture of life in the area, while some scenes, such as a pursuit though lines of hanging washing are excellent in their picturisation.

Although there are a number of songs in the film, these are used only in short bursts to highlight a particular scene, but Santhosh Narayanan’s background score is perfect and thoroughly enhances the film without being intrusive. Some of the melodies are beautiful and it seems a shame that they aren’t heard in full in the film, but there really is no opportunity for any love songs or dance numbers and with so much else in the film, they really aren’t missed.

After working together on Polladhavan and Aadukalam, Vetrimaaran and Dhanush have again produced another excellent collaboration in Vada Chennai. As the first part of a trilogy there is inevitably a lot of time spent on setting up the story, but here that is so detailed with numerous interwoven threads, that the film is almost complete in itself. The strong cast and compelling storyline ensure that even at almost three hours the film doesn’t feel overlong and the final scenes deliver plenty of anticipation for the next instalment. Hopefully there won’t be too long to wait!

 

 

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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.

Dharma Durai (2016)

Dharma Durai poster

Seenu Ramasamy’s Dharma Durai tells the story of a doctor from a small village, his highs and lows and his final redemption through the love of a good woman – of course! The film has a slow start and even after the main character is established the pacing is occasionally uneven and erratic, but it has excellent performances from the main leads, a good story and plenty of thought provoking themes around social justice, caste, dowry and responsibility. However, it’s not as nearly as heavy as that sounds and even though the story is about an alcoholic, there are plenty of light hearted moments making the film an overall entertaining as well as a thought-provoking watch.

The film starts in the village where Dharma Durai (Vijay Sethupathi) roams around making a nuisance of himself, mainly to the embarrassment and general detriment of his brothers. Dharma is an alcoholic which explains his rather erratic behaviour, although it did take me a while to realise that alcohol addiction was the problem. It’s not immediately obvious and Vijay Sethupathi is subtle in his portrayal of a drunk, so it’s not until a village event that the full extent of his alcoholism is made clear.

Dharma accuses his brothers of cheating the villagers with the chit fund they run and seems intent on making life difficult for them, to the extent that I started to sympathise with the family, even though their method of dealing with Dharma is fairly extreme. The brothers decide to lock Dharma up in a shed until they can decide what to do with him, and the signs are clear that Dharma is not destined for a long and happy life. Dharma’s only well- wisher is his mother Pandiyamma (Radhika Sarathkumar) and in classic filmi style she arranges a way for him to escape his temporary prison.

Once he escapes the village, Dharma goes back to Madurai and the medical college where he had studied to become a doctor. The film moves into flashback as we relive Dharma’s years as a student and his romance with fellow student Stella (Srushti Dange). I would love to know if medical students in India really do wear white coats and stethoscopes round their necks all the time. It seems odd to me but at least means that they are easy to recognise as medical students rather than trainee engineers or something else entirely!

Dharma is a good student despite a tendency to spout poetry at the least provocation, and ultimately he follows his professor’s advice to return home and work for the village. After all, it’s the common people who have paid for his degree so he is morally obligated to go back and serve these people. The ethical message here is hammered home a little too much, and the students are all somewhat unnaturally altruistic, but overall the flashback is a pleasant interlude that shows Dharma is a much better light and starts to explain his past.

Back in the present day Dharma tries to track down his old friends – Stella and her friend Subhashini (Tamannaah) who also had an unrequited crush on Dharma. These were the last people he felt who really cared about him, and eventually he does manage to meet up with Subhashini and relates the series of events which led to him becoming an alcoholic.

This is the best part of the film and the flashback to the love story between Dharma and villager Anbuselvi (Aishwarya Rajesh) is beautifully done. Aishwarya is easily the best of the female leads and her characterisation of a farmer’s daughter is simply perfect. Anbuselvi is more than she first seems and it’s no surprise that Dharma is immediately smitten. Vijay and Aishwarya have wonderful onscreen chemistry and Sukumar’s excellent cinematography makes this golden time appear even more radiant as the two romance each other through song.

What makes Dharma Durai interesting is the clash between new and old. Dharma is college educated but comes back to his old village to work as he feels that is his duty. But once back at home, his modern ideas don’t sit well with his brothers’ ideas of caste and dowry and that leads to the serious conflict between them. There is also the contrast between Dharma’s old love – the beautiful and traditional Anbuselvi, and his new romance with the more modern and well educated Subhashini. Subhashini has a shiny new medical clinic of her own, but also has an ex-husband to deal with and her own share of past issues that make it difficult for her to reach out to Dharma. The only real downside to the story is the contrived and unlikely method that Seenu Ramasamy uses to get Dharma back to the village at the end. It’s all a little too far-fetched and unlikely, but why should we let any of that get in the way of a good ending!

One other issue is that the story has a few too many stops and starts as it moves from one portion of Dharma’s life to the next and as a result not all the scenes flow smoothly. The moral messages tend to be over-emphasised which also slow down the narrative and move attention away from the characters. However, once the camera is focusing on Dharma and Anbuselvi, or Dharma and Subhashini the film comes alive again and draws us back into the story. Vijay Sethupathi is wonderful throughout, and his Dharma is the absolute essence of a village boy done good for most of the film. Tamannaah is also excellent as Subhashini, although she doesn’t click quite as well with Vijay as Aishwarya, but her depiction of a career woman with a very definite set of values is nicely done. Radhika Sarathkumar is very good as Dharma’s long suffering mother while Rajesh makes a brief but notable appearance as the college professor. The portrayal of village life and a rural clinic is also very well done – I’m sure that I have seen many of those patients in my trips into rural Tamil Nadu on a health camp each year, which probably adds to the whole authentic vibe I got from the film.

Dharma Durai is an interesting story that just needs a little tighter editing to move proceedings along more consistently. The songs are good, the cinematography excellent and both Vijay Sethupathi and Aishwarya Rajesh are on top form, making a perfect match. Worth watching for their performances and for Tamannaah Bhatia and the rest of the cast who all do their part in bringing this fascinating slice of village melodrama to life.