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.

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Yennai Arindhaal

yennai-arindhaal-poster

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.