Yennai Arindhaal

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Gautham Menon’s third and final instalment in his ‘police trilogy’ has a more complex and interesting storyline than the previous two films, although there is still plenty of action and more than a few thrills. This time Menon focuses more on relationships, using these to define top cop Sathyadev (Ajith) and his reactions to various events throughout his life. One of the most important is Sathyadev’s relationship with Victor (Arun Vijay), a thug who ends up running an illegal organ trade, and who has a significant history with Sathyadev. Gautham Menon plays with the similarities between the two men who seem polar opposites but in reality have much in common despite sitting on opposing sides of a thin line.  There is also his relationship with his step-daughter Eesha (Anikha Surendran),  Eesha’s mother Hemanika (Trisha Krishnan) and right at the start, his relationship with his father (Nasser) whose murder is the starting point for that thin line.

The film starts by introducing Thenmozhi (Anushka Shetty), a smart modern woman who works as a software engineer. On a flight back from Boston to visit her sister, Thenmozhi ends up sitting beside a man she describes as the most gorgeous she has ever seen, but since she spends most of the flight vomiting into a sick bag it isn’t the most auspicious of meetings.  Her flight companion is Sathyadev, who is there to protect Thenmozhi from a kidnap attempt from the gang of organ thieves, although she doesn’t discover this until later. Somehow Thenmozhi’s heart has been identified as a perfect match for one of the gang’s clientele and a team of dodgy doctors are ready and waiting to perform the surgery just as soon as they can get their hands on her. Sathyadev’s old rival Victor is leading the gang and the film moves into flashback mode to explain the enmity between the two men and Sathyadev’s involvement in the current case.

The flashback goes right back to the murder of Sathyadev’s father, a moment where he had to decide which path to follow and on which side of the line to fall. The possibilities were there – to become a gangster and seek revenge, or to become a police officer and seek justice. No prizes for guessing which way Sathyadev decided to go, or that the very next scene sees him in jail. Of course all is not as it seems. While inside, Sathyadev becomes friends with Victor and the two escape together allowing Victor to marry the love of his life Lisa (Parvathy Nair) and have a jolly good knees up at the wedding.

After Sathyadev reveals himself as a police officer who has only befriended Victor as a way to get to his boss Matthew (Stunt Selva), Victor is devastated at the double whammy of the betrayal and his bad judgement in trusting Sathyadev. Unfortunately Menon doesn’t spend much time establishing the character of Lisa, but from snippets later on, it’s clear that she is instrumental in much of Victor’s later actions and she has a passionate vendetta against Sathyadev. I really wanted to know more about Lisa and why she was so deeply involved in Victor’s wicked schemes, but she glossed over quickly and her motivation is sadly never explored. Victor too doesn’t get as much character development as I would have liked but since he is basically completely evil maybe there isn’t much else we needed to know. As the tension mounts and his schemes are thwarted by Sathyadev, Victor has a couple of excellent hissy fits that perfectly convey his frustration and anger. Although he doesn’t have much scope, Arun Vijay does a good job with the character of Victor and his screaming, spitting frustration boils off the screen in the final scenes.

Lisa is the love of Victor’s life, and as such is his greatest weakness. For Sathyadev, it’s Hemanika, a Bharatanatyam dancer he meets while working undercover as an auto driver. The romance between the two is sweet and develops slowly, allowing Sathyadev to show a more introspective and human side. Hemanika has a daughter, Eesha, and for all her modern outlook (divorced single mum) she’s strangely reluctant to believe that Sathyadev can really love another man’s daughter as his own. This part of the film is beautifully done and Trisha is superb as she expresses all of Hemanika’s hopes and fears for the relationship.  Her characterisation is subtle but effective and fits perfectly into this more emotive storyline.

Of course we know it’s not going to end well, and as events unfold Sathyadev is left to look after Eesha on his own. Rather than brushing this off as an inevitable consequence of the relationship and using Eesha purely as a bargaining tool against Sathyadev in the later scenes, Gautham Menon instead uses the developing relationship to give deeper insight into Sathyadev’s character. The way Sathya breaks the news of her mother’s death to Eesha is poignant and natural while the road trip the two take to allow Eesha to grieve for her mother is an excellent depiction of Sathyadev’s developing fatherhood, particularly when set against his memories of his own father. These two parts of the film, Sathyadev’s romance with Hemanika and the development of his relationship with Eesha are sweet and gentle and really should be out of place in a rough and tough cop drama, but their inclusion is perfectly done, and adds so much to Sathyadev’s characterisation that instead they feel essential to the story development. These are my favourite scenes in the film and Ajith is perhaps surprisingly good at showing this more tender side. I’m more used to his manic killer persona in films like Vedalam but he does an excellent job with a more introspective character here and is good at displaying compassion in his developing relationship with Eesha. Just as good is his frustration and helplessness as he tries to change to a desk job for her sake and realises he just can’t continue as a police officer if he wants to keep Eesha safe.

Perhaps the only misstep in the film is the character of Thenmozhi . Although she starts off as a strong and independent character, once she meets Sathyadev she seems to lose all reason and self-respect, propositioning him despite overhearing what appeared to be an intimate conversation he had with someone else. As the film progresses she becomes more and more of a doormat and seems to lose all of her gumption as the threat to her life increases. Anushka does the best she can but her character is too much a victim to allow much sympathy for her plight.

Along with the mostly excellent characterisations, the more mass elements of the film are also well done. The fight choreography works well and there is a good mix of different styles – knife fights, good old fisticuffs and a number of gun battles. Stunt Selva has cameo as the gangster Matthew and Gautham Menon himself pops up as a police intelligence officer. The film looks stunning too, and the cinematography by Dan Macarthur (an Aussie – yay!) is excellent, particularly during the scenes with Eesha and Sathyadev travelling around India. Harris Jayaraj’s music works well too and is a perfect soundtrack for some of the most poignant moments in the film, such as Eesha showing Thenmozhi her mother’s picture and Sathyadev braiding Eesha’s hair before she goes to school. A word too about Anikha Surendran who is very good as Eesha and conveys many emotions throughout the film simply and easily and perfectly suits the role of Sathyadev’s adopted daughter.

Yennai Arindhaal shows just how good an action thriller can be when there is more to the story than just the action. The characterisations are excellent and provide motive and the reason for Sathyadev and Victor to act the way they do. There is so much happening in this film and yet it is still the story of a cop and a villain and a plan to illegally harvest organs. Well written, well acted and beautifully put together this is definitely one to savour. 4½ stars.

Inji Iddupazhagi

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Ever since she was a little girl Sweety has been collecting fortune cards from a machine, all of them telling her that happy is beautiful, and goodness and a genuine smile will win the day.

Grown up Sweety (Anushka Shetty) still collects these fortunes, and believes that her value is more than the size of her thighs. Her mother Rajeshwari (Urvashi) wants to see her married off, and blames Sweety’s size for her single status. While Sweety remains resilient under family pressure, and rejects many an unwanted match, she does tire of all the BS. Sweety meets fitness freak Abhi (Arya) and while the pair turn down the proposed match, a friendship develops. Sweety realises she actually has feelings for him, but clueless Abhi chooses skinny model looking do-gooder Simran (Sonal Chauhan) as his girlfriend. Sweety knows she missed her chance, and starts to believe that if she slims down, cute boys will like her. When her friend Jyothi (Pavani Gangireddy) becomes seriously ill from treatment at the dodgy Size Zero clinic, Sweety takes on Satyanand (Prakash Raj), the clinic owner and nominal villain.

Sweety is a fantastic character and I am so happy Anushka took the risk and did this film. I also love that she didn’t go the fat suit route, and probably had to eat like a non-celebrity for months and months to get Sweety’s physique.

All too often the fat chick in films is socially inept, asexual, and a charity case – but Sweety is sexy, funny and confident.  She isn’t desperate to get married and will not pretend to be someone she isn’t just to please some bloke and his mother. She has some good friends, enjoys her work, loves food, and has an eye for a hot guy. She also has a rich fantasy life, a temper, she makes mistakes, and makes amends. I loved that family pressure all about looking better for boys did little to budge Sweety, but when she found her own motivation she was sensible and healthy in the changes in her lifestyle. And she never became a stick insect. I also love that this is a South Indian film that revolves around a woman and there is no revenge or rapeyness in the plot. It’s a really simple, engaging, character driven story and Prakash Kovelamudi and Kanika Dhillon give their great cast the material to bring it to life.

Arya is a bit of a weak link. He is very personable and looks good but I never got any emotional development from Abhi, and Anushka’s more nuanced performance overshadowed him. And also – Abhi is a bit of an idiot. Sonal Chauhan is a good pair for him as she is also adequate without being interesting as Simran.

Abhi did engineer the right of reply for Sweety to give her version of a foxy item, the direct retort to Size Zero Clinic’s skanky advertisement. I wish Anushka was a better dancer, but again I am so happy they just went for it. It isn’t all that long ago that Jayamalini and Jyothilaxmi were shaking it for all it was worth, but the trend towards downsizing female bodies makes Sweety’s sassy dance seem quite startling.

Prakash Raj is more of a sleazy used car salesman than true villain. He makes the most of his big speeches and I did like his dedication to himself as the brand and the brand as himself. Adivi Sesh is suitably puppy-eyed as smitten Shekhar, the nice rich man who falls for Sweety as she is. There are comedy uncles, but they actually more or less serve a purpose. And Master Bharath plays a decidedly not size zero young lad. Rao Ramesh makes a short appearance as Sweety’s dad who died while she was still a child. Impish Mouli Thatha (Gollapudi Maruti Rao) loves his granddaughter and is more likely to feed her a jalebi than make her run a lap of the park. Urvashi is note perfect as Sweety’s grumpy but loving and ultimately supportive mother. You can really see where Sweety gets her backbone from, and understand why they clash.

The film is quite fanciful but stays within my tolerance for whimsy – more like Chungking Express (which gets a name check) than Amelie levels of whimsy. It’s beautifully filmed and has a fairytale air in some scenes. The camera freezes some moments, and then explores the scene layer by layer. There’s a device of cheesy but sincere fortune cookie messages that Sweety writes, a nice extension of her fondness for the positive messages she collected for herself. And there was a nice pay it forward demonstrated with said fortune cookie. If I am being picky I have an issue with the choice of wafer as a stand-in for the fortune cookies as they are what one friend calls “povo wafers” – the cheap ones you get in rubbishy gift hampers. I am not as strongly opposed to the cylindrical wafer as she is, while I agree they’re a bit sad. But I digress.

In lieu of any of the traditional action elements, the film loads up on star cameos and a massive spin class with special effects. The film community gets their lycra on to support Sweety’s campaign against Size Zero. Rana is hilariously Hulk like, flexing as as his avatar goes all Bhallaladeva on his animated foes. Tamannah has her game face on and looks like she is set for days. Other familiar faces included Jiiva, Nagarjuna, Revathy and Kajal Aggarwal. All of this is juxtaposed with dodgy animation and effects and some excellent Prakash Raj scenery chewing. So that replaced the usual car explosions and dismemberings quite nicely.

I missed out on seeing Size Zero on its two (yes two!) shows in Melbourne, but luckily the Tamil version, Inji Iddupazhagi, is easily available online and with English subs. (Thanks SakhiSpeaks for the HeroTalkies tip! And you can read her review here.) I love this movie and hope it reaches a wide and appreciative audience. 4 1/2  stars!

Rudhramadevi (2015)

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If Rudhramadevi had been made in 1956 I’d have loved it, no question. But Gunasekhar struggles to realise his grand vision and the ripping story drags at times. The main cast give their all, but they can’t compensate for some poor directorial decisions and sloppy execution.

The first thing that hit me was the VFX. I thought it was maybe a deliberate stylistic choice as there are animated montages that look like a childs picture book. But it is just shonky quality, used too liberally, and with poor judgement. At least it distracted me from wondering what Marco Polo’s stuck on beard was made of. And why Marco Polo was in the film.

The story is so interesting this should have almost written itself. A girl is raised as a boy and keeps up the pretence to protect her kingdom for as long as she can. But Gunasekhar spends far too much time with the various enemies and uses loads of clunky “As you know Bob” exposition. I felt that there were some holes in the film and Gunasekhar was trying to paper over those gaps with other techniques including a Mega voiceover and a peasant who announced every new character with bio as well as voicing the people’s dissatisfaction with their rulers.

Anushka owns every frame she is in. She adjusts her posture and facial muscles so there is a clear distinction between Rudradeva and Rudhramadevi and is convincingly commanding. She has some weird darkening makeup on as a boy, but it does allow her to look stunningly radiant when she girls up.

Her closest female friends are Nithya Menen as her wife Muktamba and Catherine Tresa as The Other One Who doesn’t Wear Much, and there is a lightness and ease in the way Anushka moves as she drops the pretence and heavy armour undershirt to dance in the “Yay! I’m a girl” numbers. She did her damnedest in the tandav but while her expressions told a powerful story, her dancing was not as compelling. Rudhramadevi used Veerabhadra’s feelings for her to get him back on task, but she evinced far more concern about Muktamba’s reaction and wellbeing. That ruthlessness and emotional intelligence wasn’t really explored and I felt the film needed to reveal how she ruled, not just show a sequence of events.

 

I put that clip in just for some shirtless Rana. He looks so chuffed when he is prancing almost in time.

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I knew a “Zorro” moment was nigh when Rudradeva wore a blue tunic done up with pink princess ribbons, and the gender reveal is a bit ho-hum. Veerabhadra took the whole “Dude, you’re not a dude” revelation quite well, all things considered. There is little sexual chemistry between Rudhramadevi and Veerabhadra, but the actors have a nice rapport, like childhood friends. I enjoyed moments like when Rana playfully tweaked Anushka’s nose as he said goodbye. While the writing skimmed the surface of characters emotional lives, the actors added their own flavour.

Gona Ganna Reddy (Bunny) and his horse seem to have ridden in from a different film; something more gothic perhaps or even a KPop music video (Jaejoong’s stylist may be moonlighting as a Telugu horse costume designer).  Bunny plays his character as unrelentingly dour and with one facial expression, but his one liners got the audience cheering. And he rarely blinks. It’s intense and unsettling after a while.

Rudrama Devi Posters

The support cast is huge. Hari Hara Devudu (Suman) and Murari Devudu (Aditya) are the Statler and Waldorf of villains. They sit back and critique everyone else but rarely do anything themselves, unless you count letting their allies die horrible deaths. Their brother Naga Devudu (Baba Sehgal) shows commendable willingness to really go for the snake theme. Nithya Menen is underutilized as Muktamba. I enjoyed her scenes with Anushka and thought her decision to respect the sacrifice and say nothing was interesting. This contrasted with the shouty peasants who just flat out refused to accept a woman, despite a rousing Prakash Raj girl power speech. Prakash Raj is in good form as Shiva Devaiah, the mastermind of the scheme that sees Rudhramadevi raised as the boy Rudradeva. Villain Mahadeva (Vikramjeet Virk) spends most of the film prancing atop a phallic tower made of polystyrene. Amusing, but you know a great hero or heroine deserves a genuinely scary bad guy and he is not the real deal no matter how many people he kills out of spite. Hamsa Nandini is slinky and duplicitous, the Bond girl of courtly spies.

Gunasekhar’s massed set pieces lack richness. If you arrange a formation of extras with one or two carefully out of position people for randomness, but then use that same formation scores of times over it ends up looking ridiculous with the pattern repetition of those supposedly random bodies. A critical battle scene started with a cool idea – one army emerging in a serpent formation as their opponents attacked in an eagle formation. But it went on forever and looked far too fake. I was reminded of the similar but excellent lotus and arrow scene in Magadheera.

One of the few actors I could imagine would happily rappel down a structure (possibly without even checking there was a rope), Bunny was plagued with dodgy wire work. Anushka was also caught so that her feet didn’t quite hit the ground or was frozen in awkward and unconvincing poses in midair. Maybe it was supposed to look good in 3D but I can’t imagine it would. And too many fight scenes and chases were sped up to slapstick comedy pace.

There is abundant weird CGI, possibly a workaround for the 3D version, although I should have remembered the effects in Okkadu. For example, when a drawbridge is being lowered they faked the cogs and ropes too which you’d think would be doable and cheaper for real. The climax scene as Rudhramadevi and elephant bring doom upon her enemies should be thrilling but it is just opportunity to crank up the bad CGI. The use of CGI elephants seemed unnecessarily frequent especially when in many scenes there was no obvious risk of physical harm to an animal – why not use a real one? And there seemed to be a bit of tusk whitening done in post production that was distractingly odd.

A big shoutout to the helmet and armour department. No design was too silly or impractical for them to try. I really wish I could find a picture of Bunny’s Glomesh helmet from the final battle, but you will just have to make do with Rana’s special dressing up armour.

Despite the negatives I really appreciate seeing Anushka as the lead with so much screen time in an awesome story. Bunny and Rana bring more interest to their characters than the screenplay demands. I would have liked to see more relationship development generally, and especially between the ladies given the story is of a woman pretending to be a man. I really wish the film had been better executed as I can see what it might have been, and the gap between what was delivered and that potential is frustrating.