NOTA (2018)

NOTA

NOTA is a bilingual political /coming of age drama that ends up a step above routine thanks to Vijay Deverakonda’s engaging performance as a reluctant CM. It also helps that director Anand Shankar adds a number of real-life events to Shan Karuppusamy’s story which gives the film more impact. I watched the Telugu version as there were limited shows in Tamil here in Melbourne, and the switch from Tamil Nadu to Telangana didn’t make much difference despite most of the incidents deriving from known political issues in Chennai. The main let-down is the villain of the piece who is poorly realised and under-utilised, however there is enough here to make NOTA worth at least a one-time watch.

The film starts with a song and a drunken pool party for Varun’s (Vijay Devarakonda) birthday. Varun is a video-game designer based in London, but is home to celebrate his birthday and to visit an orphanage he supports. However, on the way back from the party his car is pulled over by the police and rather than being booked for a drink driving offence, instead Varun is rushed home. Varun’s father Vasudev Subramanyam (Nassar) (Vinothan Subramani in the Tamil version) is the Chief Minister for Telangana, but he is stepping down after being prosecuted in a corruption case. Now as an Australian I’m very used to the top political position changing hands frequently, but here the party makes the choice of the new leader. The situation is different in India where the CM gets to choose his successor and Vasudev picks his own son who is intended to be simply a place-holder until the court case is finished. Varun has no interest at all in politics and just wants to be able to head back to London and his life there, but his general fear of his father ensures that he stays in India and does as he’s told.

Mainly this means Varun stays at home, out of the public eye, and signs whatever documents various faceless party men place in front of him. This he does, without even sparing a glance at the documents he’s signing, until everything suddenly comes crashing down after Vasudev is found guilty of corruption. Suddenly it’s no longer a game and real lives are at stake, pushing Varun out of his complacency and bringing him into direct conflict with the party, and his father. This is where a number of those real-life events are brought into the film, such as the Chennai flood, scandals over the fixing of labels to donated meal packets and politicians treated to a stay at a resort. But there are clichés too. Varun gets pulled into the murky world of politics after a riot where a young girl is killed in a bus fire and her mother’s sooty hands leave symbolic marks over his clean white shirt. His response is an impassioned speech which is overly theatrical and to some extent banishes the authentic feel that Anand Shankar manages to create for some of the earlier scenes between Varun and his political mentor, journalist Mahendran (Sathyaraj). For most of the film however, the dialogues and scenarios are appropriate and create a believable character in Varun.

Vasudev Subramanyam was an actor before moving into politics (of course!) and Nasser does an excellent job with his character. Initially it appears that Vasudev is the ‘bad guy’ as he keeps his family under rigid control, but later events paint him in a more ambivalent light which adds interests to the story. Also good is Sanchana Natarajan as Kayal Varadarajan, Varun’s political rival. Her father is the leader of the opposition party and Kayal is determined to bring down the man she dubs the ‘rowdy CM’ by any means possible, regardless of their previous friendship in college. Thankfully Anand Shankar doesn’t burden the film with an unnecessary romance between the two, but instead gives Sanchana free rein to make her character charismatic and a real challenge to Varun, as might be expected in real life.

Sathyaraj is excellent, as is M.S. Bhaskar as Vasudev Subramanyam’s right hand man, only ever referred to as Bhai. What works well here is Bhai’s adherence to the party line and his uncritical support of Vasudev even though he disagrees with his choices. Also telling are the numerous ‘yes-men’ who all abase themselves in front of Vasudev and act much the same way with his son. However a side-plot involving a financial swindle doesn’t fit well into the plot and the entire thread involving the ‘God-man’ who is manipulating Vasudev behind the scenes is clunky and poorly written into the main action. Inevitably these side excursions start to drag down the rest of the film, and despite some good dialogue between Varun, Mahendran and Vasudev, the second half feels stodgy and is hard to digest. Which is a shame as there is much to like in the underlying political story. Varun’s coming of age within the political system is handled well, and his rivalry with Kayal works well to initiate Varun into the dirty side of politics.

There are only 2 songs in the film and both are modern dance numbers, one for Varun’s party and the second at a nightclub where Varun has been drugged.  C.S. Sam’s music is fine but doesn’t particularly stand out and the generic background dancers add even less to the choreography. I’ve added the Telugu version as this is the one I saw in the cinema, but the link to the Tamil version is here.

If the film has stuck more closely to the political issues then this could have been a very good story indeed. Instead the various sub-plots dilute the impact of the political scenes and it’s only the strong performance from Vijay Deverakonda that prevents his character from becoming just another mass movie hero out to save the world. Thankfully there is more backstory and just enough intrigue to make NOTA worth a look, while the real-life political situations do add another level of realism to the plot. The excellent support cast are also well worth catching as they all do justice to their roles. Overall, not a bad début for Vijay Deverakonda in Tamil cinema and another interesting choice for an actor who only seems to be getting better with each film.

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Iru Mugan

Iru Mugan.png

Vikram is on fine form playing a dual role in Anand Shankar’s latest action thriller, but the film is hampered by oddly placed songs, gaping plot holes and a meandering screenplay. There are some plus points – the action sequences are good, Nayanthara looks stunning and plays an interesting character, but none of it is quite enough to overcome the lack of suspense and surprising dullness of the storyline. Iru Mugan is a thriller without many thrills despite the best efforts of the cast, make-up department and stunt crew.

At least the start of the film is excellent. We see an old man queuing for a visa in the Indian Embassy in Malaysia, but rather than wait his turn, instead he uses a rather unique way of demanding attention. The result is classed as a terrorist attack against India and when the link is made between the pharmaceutically enhanced actions of the terrorist and über-villain Love, ex-RAW agent Akhilan Vinod (Vikram) is called back into service to discover exactly what is going on in Malaysia. Akhilan’s last action before he left RAW was to kill an illegal drug manufacturer by the name of Love (also Vikram), however Love is the chef suspect behind these latest attacks and Akhilan has a personal reason to find out if Love is really dead or not. Love was the man behind the death of Akhilan’s wife Meera (Nayanthara), although Akhilan has systematically slaughtered anyone else who was involved – hence the ‘retirement’ from active service.

Vikram’s Akhilan is a dour and haunted man with major anger management issues. He believes that violence is the answer to any problem no matter – whether he’s dealing with a suspect, a fellow agent or his boss. However, Malik (Nasser), head of RAW decides that his best option is to send Akhilan to Malaysia along with rookie agent Aayushi (Nithya Menen). So far so good, but Akhilan is the stereotypical ‘lone-wolf’ agent and displays every single hackneyed characteristic possible. Even worse, Aayushi is just as clichéd as a young inexperienced female agent. Her main role is to dress as a prostitute in order to get into a drug manufacturing lab. Really? That was the best option they could come up with? It’s trite, unoriginal and basically a complete waste of Nithya Menon’s acting skills.

Along with the frustration of watching a good actress in a badly written part, the first half suffers from a never-ending plague of flashbacks to Akhilan’s happier time with his wife. Unfortunately, these mainly occur as songs which act as effective speed breakers for the plot and completely destroy any tension that Anand Shankar has finally managed to build. The switch from drug labs and chemically enhanced violence to sundrenched beaches and Nayanthara in skimpy outfits is awkward and makes the film feel dated. Adding to this general late 90’s vibe is Thambi Ramaiah as a bumbling and inept Malaysian police officer and Riythvika as an exploited sex slave.

Vikram also plays the villain Love, a gay/transgender pharmacist who has managed to create a drug that gives superhuman strength and reaction time, but only for 5 minutes. Love is flamboyant and frequently feminine while maintaining his ruthless attitude and determination to cause mayhem with his invention. Although at the end of the day it’s the money that matters, selling the drug to terrorist organisations who will use it to attack governments worldwide is a bonus Love can’t pass up.

Despite all the clichés, it’s Vikram’s performance here as the two separate characters that makes Iru Mugan worth watching. The contrast between surly Akhilan and extravagantly ostentatious Love is excellent and although the two characters are somewhat extreme stereotypes, once both are together on-screen the deficiencies of each seems lessened. Perhaps this is where the ‘two faces’ of the titles comes in, since each character is ruthless in their own way and both are equally quick to jump to a lethal solution for any perceived problem. Nayanthara also makes an impression with her role as another RAW agent and does a good job with both her romantic and more action-orientated scenes, although her character would have better with just a little more depth. But then again Akhilan has very little backstory and Love even less, all of which adds to the scrappiness of the plot. It would have helped to have some idea how Love became such a genius pharmacist and why he decided to fuel international terrorism rather than turn his skills to more altruistic uses since there is a reason given for Akhilan’s excessive use of violence.

There are some more positives; the film looks slick and R.D. Rajasekhar makes the most of the Malaysian backdrop, both in the songs and for the chases through the city. Vikram’s transformation into Love is well done, and the fight choreography is impressive although it does get somewhat repetitive after a while. And although the placement could have been better and the picturisations a less abrupt change of pace, Harris Jayaraj’s songs are catchy and generally the soundtrack is good.

Overall Iru Mugan isn’t a terrible film, it’s just a lot duller than expected given the potential in the storyline. A drug that makes ordinary people into super-soldiers for 5 minutes should have made for a more exciting film than Anand Shankar ends up with here. Worth watching for Vikram, Nayanthara and the Malaysian backdrop, but go in prepared for the slow exposition and numerous plot holes.