Sangathamizhan

Vijay Chandar’s latest film starts out as a spoof comedy, but ends up as a fairly run-of-the-mill mass entertainer by way of a tired romance and routine ‘villain versus the villagers’ plot. Vijay Sethupathi is always watchable, even in this clichéd action adventure, but the rest of the cast get short-changed by the screenplay, having little to do except either adore or loathe the lead character. There is plenty of action, comedy and even Vijay Sethupathi dancing, but by the end there really is little that makes Sangathamizhan stand out from the rather large pool of similar films.

The opening scene of the film typifies much of the first half. It’s a jumble of mass action and hero-centric plot with a mixed bag of comedy that generally works better than the dramatic dialogue. As aspiring actor Murugan, Vijay Sethupathi has a classic hero entrance before single-handedly reducing a gang of villains to groaning bodies on the floor, while his friend Soori (Soori) cracks a few jokes and performs the usual slapstick side-kick role. It works to some extent as neither Vijay nor Soori seem to be taking any of the dialogue seriously and there are a lot of sideways glances and self-referential jokes in the opening sequences. But the inclusion of a college girl who needs to be rescued from rape, some tasteless jokes about a group of prostitutes and rather humdrum action make this rather more cringeworthy than it needed to be, particularly for the start of the film.

The first half also includes a woeful romance with a truly terrible introduction scene for Kamalini (Raashi Khanna). Murugan crashes Kamalini’s birthday party and then proceeds to scold her for being so generous as to provide him with a free drink at the bar. Somehow this is supposed to make her intrigued by Murugan rather than acting as most women would in this situation and just calling for the bouncer to kick him out of the nightclub. At no point does the love affair between the rich industrialist’s daughter and out-of-work actor seem plausible despite the clichéd and formulaic development of the relationship. The only good thing about their romance is the inclusion of the upbeat and jaunty Kamala (which features men in colourful tutus as backing dancers), even though it doesn’t fit into the narrative at all. In fact, generally the music from Viviek-Mervin is excellent throughout, while the lyrics are beautifully translated by rekhs, who doesn’t just translate the words but makes the lyrics rhyme and scan perfectly. Why doesn’t everyone do this instead of providing literal translations that make absolutely no sense at all?

The plot begins with a courtroom scene where a group of villagers are trying to prevent a copper processing plant from opening in their area. The land appears to have been acquired illegally and for a change the judge seems to be on the villagers’ side, giving the developer just a few weeks to come up with evidence to prove that the factory won’t be a health risk to the villagers. This all becomes much clearer in the second half, which moves into flashback mode to explain the fight between the owner of the copper factory, Kamalini’s father (Ravi Kishan) and the village headman Devarajan (Nassar). Also drawn into the fight is the local politician (Ashutosh Rana) and the rest of Devraj’s family, including his son Sangathamizhan (Vijay Sethupathi).

The tone of the second half is much darker than the first, and from a frivolous romance comedy, it changes into a more dramatic action film. This disconnect between the two halves of the film is jarring as the shift happens suddenly (there is no interval given in Australia) and the mood change is relatively extreme.  Despite this, the second half is actually significantly better since it also includes Nivetha Pethuraj as Thenmozhi, Thamizhan’s romantic interest. Thenmozhi is a better realised character than Kamalini, despite her short time on-screen, with sharper dialogues and actions that actually make sense. Nivetha also has a good on-screen chemistry with Vijay in the romantic scenes between the two characters, which is a significant improvement on the lacklustre interactions he has with Raashi Khanna in the first half. The love story here is also more plausible, making me wonder why so much time was wasted earlier in the film, when the second half has a more convincing story, sharper action and generally improved performances from the entire cast. The main downside is Ravi Kishan’s rather anaemic villain who just doesn’t seem evil or ruthless enough, and Kamalini’s rather bizarre justification for accepting her father’s final fate.

The glue that manages to hold the entire film together (just) is Vijay Sethupathi and his frequent knowing nods to the camera seem to signify that he finds the entire story just as ridiculous as the audience. At times the film dips closely towards satire and throughout the first half I kept thinking that Vijay Chandar was trying to poke fun at the mass genre. But then the second half moves quickly towards more serious topics and the jokes dry up, along with Soori’s virtual disappearance from the screen as the film moves into more straight-up action territory. It doesn’t quite gel there either however as there is too much baggage hanging around from the first half that acts as a distraction. The two characters, Murugan and Thamizhan are also very similar which further undermines the dramatic ‘reveal’ of the finale. The positives are the music, Vijay Sethupathi and rekhs excellent subtitles, but otherwise this is a rather pedestrian and predictable outing that is really one only for fans.

Nene Raju Nene Mantri

 

Radha Jogendra (Rana Daggubati) narrates his story to a film crew as he awaits execution. He was once a simple money lender with a shrewd mind and a moral compass provided by his wife Radha (Kajal). After a couple of years of marriage Radha finally fell pregnant and the happy couple were over the moon. Sadly Radha lost the baby and her ability to conceive again after being attacked for accidentally infringing on the imaginary rights of the village leader’s wife. Yes, I know. Jogendra decides if he was the village head nobody would insult Radha again. So he schemes his way into the role. Then he eyes off the MLA position. Then a ministry. Then the CM gig. He always justifies his ambition as his means of giving Radha the best in life, but he is playing the game for the sake of power too. Can he keep outwitting his opponents? Where will he draw the line? And what does Radha make of it all?

Teja’s “Nene Raju Nene Mantri” is set in the murky world of politics but has all the flair and improbability of a cowboy film. It is great fun if you can ignore the death toll, and I always like a decent comeuppance.

Jogendra (Rana) adores his wife, but everyone else is expendable or interchangeable. He is deceptively simple looking, but his mind is subtle and calculating. Rana dominates his scenes and not just because he is twice the size of anyone else in the film. He is fully at home as the morally dubious but highly effective Jogendra and delivers his one-liners and proverbs with great relish. The action scenes are often brutal but then he switches to a convincing warmth and playfulness in his scenes with Kajal. There’s more complexity to Jogendra than I was expecting, and a lot more of the mass hero hijinks than I expected too. I laughed a lot at Jogendra’s amazing aptitude for killing, and his ability to stay on task.

The wardrobe team came up with a good look for Rana. Well, once I got over my confusion at seeing him in a shirt. There’s lots of monochromatic linens, a slightly modernised traditional look, and a fairly subtle way to emphasise his physique without it looking like his clothes were painted on. What else…Oh yes, there is a hulk-out shirt ripping moment, just to prove the gym sessions haven’t ended.

Radha (Kajal) is on the surface too saintly. But I really liked her chemistry with Rana, and some of her less sweet moments saved Radha for me. I loved when she fired up and told Jogendra she’d forgive so many of his mistakes (like shagging Devika Rani) but not the thing he just said. Or when he chided her for acting childish and she said it was because they didn’t have a child, and they both looked stricken. I didn’t like that everyone except Jogendra saw Radha’s value relative to her having a baby. She had no purpose or context in the script other than “wife”, so I was impressed with Kajal for bringing a bit more to the table. She showed Radha’s growing discomfort with her husband’s actions and her inner conflict because she knew he did it all for her. The wardrobe team dressed her in beautiful sarees that increased in opulence but always suited Radha, and Kajal looked comfortable in her skin. However. Radha was the perfect wife who would sacrifice anything for husband but that final sacrifice was just DUMB. The method struck me as quite improbable. Having said that, I still felt intensely sad when the cortege visited surrounding villages.

Devika Rani (Catherine Tresa) is a badly dressed avatar of media whoredom. Her painfully high silver wedge sandals and the almost there skirts were hideous. I guess the wardrobe team can’t love all their cast members equally. While it is good that Devika Rani was shown to be a confident woman I was concerned that none of her social media strategies were sound. Never hire anyone who says their plan is to send everything viral. And her character made little sense. But it does speak to the thinking around campaigning and media manipulation, with clicktivism and slacktivism getting a passing nod even if I am not sure that is what Teja was aiming at. Her major achievement in the film might have been that she had zero chemistry with Rana. What was probably supposed to be a titillating scene was just awkward and cold, with Rana looking like he was resigned to an invasive medical procedure. Catherine has some convincing moments in solo scenes, but as soon as Rana or Kajal shows up her lack of acting skill is all too evident.

The villains are unfortunately quite familiar types from everyday life. The cop who takes bribes (Ajay), the gangster turned politician (Padeep Rawat), career politicians with no objective beyond lining their pockets (Tanikella Bharani, Ashutosh Rana, Posani Krishna Murali). All of these performances were solid, and there was some genuine menace and just nastiness in their interactions with Jogendra. Rana looked like he was having the time of his life threatening Ajay. Ashutosh Rana’s character didn’t know if he was coming or going sometimes, with a wry use of proverbs to explain how proverb-spouting Jogendra could beat him. I quite liked the one that went “if the cat is blind a mouse can hit it with a stick”. A convenient morality permeates the film. If Jogendra kills someone (or a hundred someones), don’t take it to heart. They were all bad so he was doing a good thing. Well, except for one. Navdeep wasn’t given much to do as Shiva but he managed to make an impression as one of the only people who held Jogendra morally accountable.

Anoop Ruben’s soundtrack tends towards the anthemic, which suits the purposeful journey Jogendra is on. They didn’t make Kajal and Rana dance which is also a blessing. There was a bit of convulsive twitching in one song but then lots of walking (him) and a bit of frolicking (her). Good decision dance team! I loved the special appearance by dance master Shiva Shankar. There is some dodgy VFX but realistic effects could have been overwhelming in the gory bits. And there is a sound effect for everything. There’s nothing new or outstanding in the direction but I feel the pace was pretty well managed until the finale which was a little drawn out. The dialogues contain proverbs and local sayings and I think the subtitlers did a good job of conveying some of the flavour.

It’s an engaging story with Rana and Kajal coming up with the goods and a decent support cast. I should be more concerned about the body count, the gender roles, the apathy surrounding politics, the problem solving preferences of a sociopathic charmer. But I was highly entertained and amused by the machinations and mayhem. Because he is Jogendra.

Vettai

After a lot of confusion about the date Vettai would actually release in Melbourne, the film finally made it onto a screen in one of the chain theatres on Saturday night. And it was well worth the wait! For anyone a little unsure, there are at least 3 reasons to see this film.

  1. Madhavan and Arya onscreen together (surely the perfect pairing!).
  2. English subtitles – even the songs (something that not even every Hindi film can manage).
  3. And the absolute winner – there are no comedy uncles!

It’s a really funny film with great one-liners but no separate comedy track since the humour comes from the two main leads. From some of their previous films I knew that both actors were good in comedic roles, but the two of them together make for some of the best and funniest comedy I’ve seen in a Tamil film. Add in two very strong female characters and an assortment of stalwarts in the support cast, and it all adds up to some great masala entertainment.

It’s a tale of two brothers. Madhavan is Thirumurthi, the elder of the two, and basically a wuss. He is upset by violence and is unable to stand up for himself in a fight. Luckily he has his younger brother Gurumurthi (Arya) to do this for him. No matter what the situation, Guru will come running to his rescue at the call of ‘Thambi’ but especially if it involves the chance to be involved in a major punch up. It’s a twist on the more usual story where the elder brother rescues the younger, and their relationship forms part of the comedy in the film. Although Madhavan could have played Thiru as a total coward, he makes him more timid and sensitive rather than just frightened, while Arya’s Guru is more caring and perceptive than first appearances would seem.

After the death of their father, Thiru allows himself to be ‘persuaded’ to become a police officer and thus follow in the family tradition. After his training, he is posted to Thoothukudi district where two gangs of rowdies are feuding with each other and generally terrorising the town. As the newest police officer, Thiru gets roped into dealing with Annachi (Ashutosh Rana) and Mari (Gaurav) although in reality it’s Guru who takes care of his assignments while Thiru basks in the praise of his fellow officers.

Sisters Vasanthi (Sameera Reddy) and Jayanthi (Amala Paul) are introduced by an excellent song where they discuss the ideal husband – no pencil thin moustaches and no big bushy historical ones either seems to be quite a reasonable requirement to me. It’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Nirav Shah and it’s great to have a song with just the two lead actresses by themselves. Vasanthi meets Guru after an incident in the street and despite their initial clashes Guru advises his brother that she would make him the ideal wife. Meanwhile Guru falls in love with the rather less acerbic Jayanthi although the two have to negotiate the obstacle of a potential NRI groom (Rajeev Ravindranathan) picked out by Vasanthi for her sister.

The second half is a little darker and the fight scenes become more intense and threatening as Annachi and Mari try everything they can to get rid of Thiru. Annachi attempts to terrorise Vasanthi which doesn’t work at all, and his next ploy to kidnap Guru and force Thiru into submission backfires as spectacularly as expected. The final showdown is brilliantly executed and it’s great to see the two heroines with important roles to play in the climax rather than being shuffled off or used solely as victims.

Although the story itself is fairly predictable and there are some rather large plot holes, overall Vettai is great fun. Madhavan and Arya have fantastic chemistry together as the on-screen brothers and both seem perfectly cast. Madhavan looks slightly over-weight and’ soft’ which befits his character although later on in the film he does buff up a bit as he starts to fight back. And yes, I did enjoy those scenes! Madhavan has some great expressions as he shows how flattered Thiru is by the respect he gets purely as a result of his uniform and contrasts it with his horror at the violence he sees around town. He gets it just right to make Thiru a sympathetic character rather than solely a figure of fun as he tries to dodge the rowdies and accept the lavish praise from his boss.  Nasser is hilarious here in a cameo role as Thiru’s over enthusiastic superior officer and makes the most of his short time onscreen.

Arya is literally a one-man army and looks amazing as he punches his way through entire gangs of rowdies, but still has time to rescue an injured dog. What style! He keeps his facial expression very deadpan during some of his funniest dialogues, but there is a gleam in his eye and he totally looks the part of the ultimate bad boy. He’s a force to be reckoned with in every respect. Guru’s protectiveness of his older brother is really very sweet and underneath the tough exterior it’s obvious that he really cares. The brothers’ relationship is very well written by Lingusamy, but it’s the performances that make it come to life and give the film such a solid base to build the story.

Sameera Reddy and Amala Paul are both very good in their roles. Sameera’s Vasanthi is a very strong and forceful character and she manages both the comedy and the drama equally well while establishing good chemistry with Madhavan. Amala Paul was very impressive in Mynaa (the only other film I’ve seen with her) and she’s equally good here. Her character has excellent rapport with Guru and there is plenty of sensuality in her portrayal without resorting to skimpy outfits. There is one song where she had Western clothes but the hemlines are kept reasonable and the outfits fairly respectable (by film standards at least!). Other than that, both sisters have some stunning outfits and look absolutely beautiful throughout.

I really like the songs by Yuvan Shankar Raja and they seem to suit the overall feel of the film. Sadly Madhavan really only dances in the first song, but Arya more than makes up for that with some great moves in the others.  Amala Paul just manages to keep up with him. The fight scenes are well choreographed, and although Ashutosh Rana isn’t a very villainous villain, his various side-kicks and henchmen are plenty vicious and nasty instead. Vettai is a film that balances the action, comedy and romance very well, and the star power of the leads makes it a step above a standard masala flick. I loved it and thoroughly recommend watching!