Saaho

I didn’t read any reviews before I went to see Saaho, but I’d seen comments on social media that were mostly negative. So I wasn’t expecting great things from the film, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Sure there are plenty of flaws, including a confusing story, poorly developed villains and far too many songs, but I loved the action, all the special effects and especially the imposing presence of Prabhas. Think standard Telegu Mass on VFX steroids, and that’s pretty much what you get with Saaho. Logic has never been high on the agenda for these kinds of films, not when directors can just blow up, beat up or shoot up everything in the hero’s path and writer/director Sujeeth follows he standard formula here. Nonsensical yes, but entertaining – definitely!

Let’s talk about the negative aspects first. The film opens with a confusing array of characters, not helped by long, complicated sentences of subtitles which vanished off the screen too quickly for me to read them. Then, the introduction scene for Prabhas is surprisingly poorly executed. Who is the man he is trying to rescue from a bad situation with a gang of thugs? There is some by-play about a whistling pressure cooker to give Prabhas a set time to carry out the rescue, but then there are no whistles – why set this up and then fail to deliver? And when this character reappears, his part in the finale is so rushed and poorly subtitled that I have no idea what exactly he was supposed to be doing. So, we’re off to a bad start, which is compounded by key events being rushed through and important characters appearing and disappearing without any clear idea of who they are and what role they play in the plot. It’s not helped by the subtitles which sometimes took me some time to work out and even with my bad Telugu I could tell that they missed a lot of information. The list of bad guys grows longer and longer, on top of which their alliances change, there are numerous double crosses and their relationships to each other are poorly described, so after a while the best idea is to stop trying to figure it out and just enjoy all the mayhem!

And the mayhem is what works very well here. This is where all the money was spent, and the result is slick and fast paced action with excellent fight scenes and lots of explosions. There are fast cars, motorbikes, even chase scenes with heavily armoured trucks and excavators but perhaps the most ridiculous involve men wearing mechanical flying suits and Prabhas carrying out some do-si-doing with a helicopter. At one point, at the end of a song, for no apparent reason there is a tank that drives over a couple of cars. It’s like they had a few thousands of dollars left and decided that adding a tank would complete the line-up of transport options! Throughout it all Prabhas is a tower of strength and stays true to the Telugu hero ‘code of conduct’ by endeavouring to single handedly take down all his enemies, be impervious to bullets, indestructible regardless of whether there are crashes, explosions or he leaps off a cliff without a parachute (more on that later), and of course still find time to romance the girl, talk tough and always, always look ultra-cool!

After the initial confusion the film settles down with Prabhas as an undercover cop who has been seconded to an investigation team after a series of burglaries in Mumbai. Amritha (Shraddha Kapoor) is the nominal female detective who is continually shunted aside by her boss Shinde (Prakash Belavadi), while tech specialist David (Murali Sharma) and Goswami (Vennela Kishore) round out the team. The police think they spot the thief (Neil Nitin Mukesh) on CCT and the team then devise a super complicated plan to bring him in. This involves convincing him to steal a ‘black box’ which is vital to open a vault full of money and gold in the gangster city of Waaji.

Waaji is a super high-tech city run by the Roy corporation headed by Narantak Roy (Jackie Shroff). After his assassination, Devraj (Chunky Pandey) is poised to take over the cartel when Roy’s previously hidden son, Vishwank (Arun Vijay) appears and thwarts his plans. The various cartel members are each trying to take over the top spot, but key lieutenant Kalki (Mandira Bedi) supports Vishwank, although his position is far from secure and he needs the black box to be able to pay off the various cartel members. The action moves to Waaji in the second half after the black box is stolen and Saaho (Prabhas) becomes involved in the power plays by Devraj and Vishwank.

Most of the Southern Indian actors play their usual kind of roles well here. Tinnu Anand is good as Devraj’s disabled father and Arun Vijay does well as Vishwank despite the dodgy writing while Supreeth and the cast of support thugs are suitably OTT. Mahesh Manjrekar has a reasonable role as one of the cartel members, but Madira Bedi is probably the best realised of these characters and I love her smooth operator approach to playing a gang member. The rest of the Hindi actors are a bit hit and miss. This might be more due to the language problem as they were better when speaking in English. Jackie Shroff is probably the best of the lot, possibly because he has only has a small role to play and little dialogue. Neil Nitin Mukesh seems uncomfortable throughout and Chunky Pandey desperately overacts every time he appears. To be fair, Shraddha Kapoor is pretty good in a more action-based role and she does have reasonable chemistry with Prabhas in their romance scenes. The problem is the songs, which don’t fit well into the narrative and don’t add anything to the story. This is an all action film, and the songs act as speed breakers, taking the audience out of the story. Probably the best is the Jacqueline Fernandez item number, which is just ridiculous enough to fit the plot, with the previously mentioned tank, machine guns, and lots of scantily glad women in a swimming pool.

Sujeeth however is equal opportunity in objectifying his stars, and Prabhas gets to jump off a cliff wearing nothing but ripped jeans, but only after he throws his parachute off the edge first. It’s that kind of film. Shraddha Kapoor actually comes off pretty well in the costume stakes, wearing generally sensible clothes, apart from in the songs. Prabhas looks uber-cool wearing cropped pants and trendy loafers once he gives up the denim and leather look of the first half.

Saaho is a fairly typical Telugu action hero film. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense and the cast of thousands list of characters is confusing, but there are some good ideas in there that would have worked better if they’d been kept simpler. Having lots of special effects doesn’t hide the limitations of the story, but it does make it fun to watch. I saw the Telugu version at a fairly full theatre in Melbourne, and most of the audience seemed to be enjoying the film as much as I was. We did all laugh at scenes that I think were supposed to be dramatic and tense, but there was plenty of applauding and cheering whenever Prabhas got to obliterate (literally!) the bad guys. All up, Saaho is simply entertaining and a fun piece of visual theatre. One for fans of Prabhas, mayhem and OTT mass action.

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Thadam (2019)

Thadam

Magizh Thirumeni’s Thadam takes a little while to get going, but once it does, step by step the film builds into a puzzling conundrum where the identity of a murderer is cleverly concealed until the final big reveal. There are two prime suspects, but which one of them is the murderer and perhaps just as puzzling, why was the victim killed? Arun Vijay is excellent here in a double role that requires him to fight himself (which looks very convincing!), while the story keeps you guessing right to the end. The film does start rather slowly, but there is more going on than first appears and once the investigation kicks in. the twists come thick and fast. Although Thadam initially only had a three day run in Melbourne, it was popular enough to be extended and I’d definitely recommend it as a better than average whodunnit.

The film starts by introducing two men, Ezhil and Kavin, both played by Arun Vijay. First is Ezhil, a successful engineer who runs his own construction firm. He’s chasing after a girl who works in the same building and the first riddle is the correct question he must ask to persuade Deepika (Tanya Hope) to go out on a date. Eventually he works out the critical query and the two quickly becomes an item until Deepika leaves to attend a wedding. Ezhil seems like a nice guy – he’s thoughtful and considerate, has his own successful business, and is prepared to use a bra to illustrate the miracle of engineering that is Howrah bridge. Perhaps not such a great chat-up line!

Kavin, on the other hand, is a crook. He’s a thief and fraudster who, along with his friend and accomplice Suruli (Yogi Babu), cheats anyone and everyone. Kavin is also addicted to gambling which is unfortunate since he seems to be particularly bad at it, losing a large sum of money which Suruli had set aside to repay a debt to a nasty thug. When Suruli can’t pay, Kavin is given a short space of time to organise the funds otherwise his friend will suffer the consequences.

After introducing the two men and their significant others, Magizh Thirumeni throws in a murder. There’s a dark night, a thunderstorm and a vicious attack on a young man in his apartment. SI Malarvizhi aka Malar (Vidya Pradeep) is the chief investigating officer who is initially baffled by the complete lack of clues. No fingerprints, the rain has kept everyone away and the victim Akash doesn’t appear to have any enemies who would want him dead. A chance photograph throws up a potential lead that seems a sure thing once Inspector Gopalakrishnan (Vijayan) recognises the man lurking on Akash’s balcony. He’s had dealings with Ezhil before and is positive that Ezhil is the man in the photograph. But another police station has picked up Kavin and identified him in the photograph too. So, who is the killer? Both men appear identical and the photograph is the only clue Malar has to work with. It turns out that Gopalakrishnan has a personal bone to pick with Ezhil and there doesn’t seem to be anything that links Ezhil to the murder. However, there is a large sum of money missing which leads Malar to suspect Kavin even though she can’t work out how he could have known about the cash. With no answers and only a few days before she needs to either charge or release both men, Malar is desperate to find any link between Akash and either Ezhil or Kavin. Adding to the mystery, Ezhil and Kavin seem to know and despise each other. What is the connection? Why Akash? And who committed the crime?

There are plenty of clues and red herrings alike in this clever story that is actually based on true events. Magizh Thirumeni keeps us guessing as he throws up clue after clue that seem to lead nowhere and Malar’s frustration is beautifully captured as every lead she has turns out to be worthless. I also liked how seemingly meaningless conversations from earlier in the film turn out to be important later on – it pays to take heed of even the smallest comment as almost everything turns out to be significant in the end. This also helps make sense of the first half of the film which is slow and spends a lot of time on the romance between Ezhil and Preethi. There’s also a seemingly pointless con where fraudster Chechi (Meera Krishnan) sets up Kavin as a potential husband for Ananthi (Smruthi Venkat), but both the romance and the con are essential for the reveals in the second half. However, without the benefit of hindsight, the first half just seems overlong and slow until Akash is killed.

On the plus side, throughout the film there is a good mix of action and comedy that helps ensure that the film doesn’t get too lost in the fluffy romance or bogged down in the police proceedings. Yogi Babu has less to do with this than expected and much of the comedy comes from George Maryan as a bumbling police officer and the interactions between Ezhil, Kavin and the cops. Some of this is just too filmi to work in the context of a thriller, but most of the comedy is well integrated into the main story and is genuinely funny. The exchanges between the police and their suspects are also well done but it’s the tangling of the story that really makes this film worth watching as Magizh Thirumeni manipulates us into repeatedly changing our minds as to who is the guilty party.

Arun Vijay is fantastic in the double role, particularly once Ezhil and Kavin have been arrested. The two men look identical but their personalities are different, although similar enough to make both a plausible suspect for the murder. His reaction to the arrest as Ezhil is brilliantly done, while his Kavin is perfectly cocky when brought in for questioning. Also worth mentioning are the excellently done interactions between the two characters. A great job by the special effects team who really made it look as if Ezhil and Kavin were fighting each other, and brilliant acting from Arun who made every interaction between Ezhil and Kavin seem totally natural.

Vidya Pradeep is also excellent as a police officer who has something to prove after being transferred in under a shadow. I really like that she isn’t portrayed as a “female” police officer, but instead she’s simply the main investigator for the murder. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a definite improvement over the more usual insistence that any female lead has to either have a romance track or be a comedic figure of fun. Vidya brings a good mix of seriousness and authority to the role along with some lighter moments that ensure her character appears likeable and as approachable as can be expected for a police officer in a murder investigation. Tanya Hope on the other hand has little to do except be romanced by Ezhil, but Smruthi Venkat has a more nuanced role and is good in a small but important role. Less successful is a flashback sequence featuring Sonia Aggarwal as Kavin’s mother that feels overdone in comparison to the rest of the film and doesn’t work as well as it could to explain Kavin’s motivation.

This is a clever whodunnit that keeps its cards close to the chest and doesn’t give anything away until the end. The final reveal is excellent and not wrapped up too neatly which allows some room for reflection. Arun Vijay is brilliant, as too is Vidya Pradeep, but better still is the execution of the idea and the twists and turns along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed Thadam and highly recommend it as a murder mystery that’s shrewdly plotted to be delightfully baffling. Make sure you don’t miss the true stories mentioned at the end too.

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.