Bigil

Atlee’s latest film is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is Vijay, who shines in a double role despite the rambling and overlong story; the bad is the general misogyny of the screenplay where it takes a man to bring success to a female team who were already heading to the India Finals; and the ugly is some awful fat-shaming which Atlee and fellow screen-writer S. Ramana Girivasan seem to feel is acceptable as motivation. The story follows a retired football player who sets aside his gangster persona to coach a women’s football team, but despite some superficial similarities this is no Chak De. However, getting past the bad and the ugly, Rahman’s music is good, the dancing excellent and there is one part of the story which is more than simply token feminism. For a mass entertainer for the holiday season Bigil isn’t a bad option – it’s just that it’s not anywhere near as good as it could have been.

Michael, aka Bigil (Vijay) is a state level football player who is apparently talented enough to get into the national team. His father Rayappan (also Vijay) is a gangster in Chennai who is savvy enough to push his son towards athleticism and away from rowdyism, recognising that this will inspire others in the neighbourhood. Rayappan is a typical filmi gangster – out to defend the poor and marginalised against everyone trying to exploit them, chief of which is a rival gang, headed by Alex (I.M. Vijayan) and his son Daniel (Daniel Balaji). But neither Rayappan nor Bigil understand the internal politics of football in India which works against his success, and when Rayappan is killed, Bigil gives up his dreams and return to being plain Michael, head of the rowdies in his area and defender of the helpless.

When Michael’s friend and Tamil Nadu women’s football team coach Kathir (Kathir) is injured, Michael is persuaded to take on the task of coach instead. Something the women resent since they blame Michael for Kathir’s injury – which is totally true. The women need a coach in order to be able to compete, but although much of the film takes place in Delhi at the football championships, this is never about the women’s team and their battle to overcome poverty and adversity to win. In Atlee’s film the women are incapable of making it by themselves and need Michael to show them how to train effectively and ultimately goad them towards victory. Michael is able to convince a conservative husband to let his wife compete, persuade Anitha (Reba Monica John) to take off her face scarves and play after she is assaulted with acid and induce Vembu (Indhuja) and Thendral (Amritha Aiyer) to play together as a team. All while simultaneously dealing with gang attacks from Daniel and internal attacks from the Head of the Football association J.K. Sharma (Jackie Shroff). The assumption that the women need a strong and capable man to lead them to victory is condescending and patronizing, but Atlee breezes past this issue so that Vijay can be seen to be a sensitive, caring and motivating kind of guy. Up until he wants Pandiyamma (Indraja Shankar) to get angry out on the field and uses fat-shaming insults to get her there. Not cool at all, and really incredibly disappointing that in 2019 this kind of behaviour is being legitimised by a major star in a big budget film.

That’s the most of the bad and the ugly out of the way – and the rest is the good. Vijay smiles and dances his way through inspirational numbers, kicks a football around the field and beats up the bad guys with plenty of energy and joie de vivre. The fight scenes involve the usual ‘one man-against-the-masses’ sequences, but they are well staged and the stunts are generally impressive. The football action is almost as good, although it does look staged and filmi, particularly compared to films such as Sudani from Nigeria where the action is more realistic.  However Atlee gets points for getting women’s football onto mainstream screens, and for promoting the game as one that everyone can play. It’s also good to see some recognition of the challenges faced by the team members, despite most of these being glossed over and only mentioned in Michael’s motivational speeches. There are two exceptions – Gayathri (Varsha Bollamma) is shown as having to overcome a prejudiced and narrow-minded family situation, although again it’s her husband who makes the decision and allows her to play. Anitha has a much better story as the acid-attack survivor who has to come to terms with her injury and loss of confidence as a result.

The best parts of the film have nothing to do with the women’s team, but instead are focused on Michael and his relationship with his father. As Rayappan, Vijay is simply superb and totally convinces as an older don trying to do his best for his family and his area. The relationship between father and son is beautifully written and the effects well done to allow both Vijay’s to converse together, hug and generally interact as if they were together in reality. The conversations between the two reveal much about both characters, and it’s this emotion that is more truly inspirational than any of the plot around the football team. Here there is some of the best acting from Vijay, where he isn’t a superstar, but instead simply a father trying to do the best for his son (naturally with some great actions sequences too) but there is light and shade to the character and Vijay does an excellent job in portraying these shadows as well as the strengths of the character. Michael is a more typical Vijay ‘hero’ persona, but there is still some depth and again Vijay is excellent in the role.

Naturally there is also a romance, this time a physiotherapist who comes with Michael to help the team in Delhi. Angel (Nayanthara) has rejected a number of marriages while waiting for Michael to come to his senses and marry her, but apart from this show of spirit, she’s a typical Tamil filmi heroine who just has to look pretty for the songs and support her man through thick and thin. Nayahthara does what she can with the role, but it’s thin pickings despite some good comedy in her introduction. This would have been a much better film if Nayanthara had been the coach and the gangster thread between Michael and Rayappan a side theme, but I guess that’s a little too much to ask for.

The film does look fantastic and the song sequences in particular are brilliantly picturised. There is plenty of colour and A.R. Rahman’s music fits beautifully into the action. Rekhs (aided by Harini) comes through with brilliantly translated song lyrics and even translations of written signs that are significant for the plot. Directors and producers take note – this is how you subtitle a film for an international audience – it makes all the difference when subs are in idiomatic English and easy-to-read yellow.

Atlee does throw everything into this film, and as a result some of the threads simply don’t work within the larger context of the story. Although Jackie Shroff is the main villain, he’s never very threatening, and Daniel Balaji gets a much better storyline and resolution for his character too. He makes a great villain and his flawless performance is one of the highlights of the film. Meanwhile, Yogi Babu and Vivek indulge in some unnecessary slapstick, but the comedy from G. Gnanasambandam and George Maryan is subtler and funnier as a result. The film is at its best when focused on Vijay and this is where Atlee excels. He knows how to make his leading man look good, and how to keep the action exciting. Worth watching for Vijay, the excellent dancing and action scenes and for the colourful spectacle of it all.

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Mersal (2017)

Mersal

After drought ravaged farmers in Kaththi and violence against women in Theri, Vijay latest crusade is against corrupt medical practitioners in Atlee’s Mersal. There are few surprises in the storyline which follows a standard revenge formula, but the approach is stylish and the addition of a magician does ensure a few unexpected tricks. Vijay takes on a triple role that puts him front and centre for most of the film, which is just as well since it’s mainly his charisma that lifts Mersal above its well-worn story. But there are also energetic dance numbers, excellent special effects and a credible and suitably nasty villain making Mersal a major improvement on Vijay’s last film and worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Vijay plays a triple role – two brothers (one who is unaware of the other’s existence), and then their father in an extended flashback sequence. The story jumps around a lot as well as moving in and out of flashback so it’s deliberately not always clear which character we are watching at any given time. The film starts with the abductions of 4 men, all connected in some way to the same hospital, although it’s takes a while before we find out who they are and why they have been abducted. The police receive an anonymous tip off which leads them to arrest local hero and all round good guy Dr Marran (Vijay) who is known as the ₹5 doctor due to the fees he charges his patients. His arrest almost sparks a mini riot but once Police Officer Rathnavel (Sathyaraj) begins his interview (which for no good reason is conducted in a derelict building on a construction site) the story of the two brothers starts to unfold.

The other brother, Vetri (Vijay), is a magician and uses his powers to take revenge on the men he feels were responsible for his father’s death. It’s never clear how the brothers ended up separated or why Marran is brought up by his foster mother Sarala (Kovai Sarala) in ignorance of Vetri’s existence, but then Atlee seems to prefer focusing on the result rather than bothering with such basic explanations. Vetri is ably assisted in his magic and in his revenge by Vadivu (Vadivelu) who also moonlights as Maaran’s helper. This means Vetri knows exactly where Marran is and can use that information to his own advantage. While in Paris (really Poland, but close enough), Vetri meets Anu Pallavi (Kajal Aggarwal) who is acting as a general gofer for the rather greedy and lecherous Dr Arjun Zachariah (Hareesh Peradi). Dr Zachariah is the polar opposite of Maaran, believing that good medicine is commercial medicine and the only reason to be a doctor is to turn a huge profit and benefit from the misery of disease. Maraan on the other hand is a proponent of universal free health care as a basic human right, although he doesn’t seem to have really thought through exactly how this style of medical care will be funded if his dream is to become a reality.

While Vetri dances his way into Dr Anu’s heart in Paris, Maaran meets journalist Tara (Samantha) during an interview on a TV talk show. Love blossoms through another song but Maaran’s TV appearance has brought him to the attention of Dr Daniel Arockiyaraj (S.J. Surya) who recognises Maaran as being the spitting image of his father. Daniel and Vetrimaaran (Vijay) had an acrimonious history and Daniel immediately sets out to find and destroy the son of his enemy.

The best part of the film is the extended flashback after the interval which focuses on the reasons behind Vetri’s revenge and Daniel’s antipathy. S.J. Surya revels in his role as a conniving and deceitful doctor in wide collared shirts and spectacular flares but Vijay steals the show here with his performance as a villager with a big heart and even bigger muscles.  Nithya Menen is also superb as Vetrimaaran’s wife Aishwarya (aka Ice), although she does have the best of the three female roles. Her Ice is passionate and inspiring in her devotion to the idea of readily available health care in their village, and she gets the chance to really bring out the emotions of her character well. She also has excellent chemistry with Vijay and this is the relationship that works the best out of the three, although to be fair both Samantha and Kajal get little screen time with the hero and little chance to develop their respective relationships.

There are a few oddities in this part of the film though. There is a sudden jump between Ice’s admission into the hospital and her final fate without much explanation of what goes wrong. Also, a potential fight between Vetrimaaran and Daniel’s henchmen is over before it begins with the gang all lying on the ground bleeding and moaning seconds after they approach Vetrimaaran. I’m not sure if these cuts are an Australian specific issue since I haven’t seen any mention of them in any other reviews, but it does seem odd and makes these final flashback scenes seem rushed and a little confusing.

Although the main focus of the film is Vijay, the rest of the support cast are all good, including Rajendran as an unlikely Health minister and Kaali Venkat as an auto driver whose daughter died due to corruption in the health service. The music from A.R. Rahman doesn’t stand out as anything special, but it does fit into the screenplay well while Atlee places the songs wisely throughout. G.K. Vishnu works wonders with the cinematography and the effects are magical despite the sometimes cheesy nature of the tricks. Watch out for a scene where Vijay fights with a deck of cards – the fusion of the magic storyline into a standard masala tale is a better fit than I expected. Of course the real magic here is that Vijay seems to be growing younger with each new film and he’s just as energetic as ever too.

However Mersal is more than just a revenge drama and there is a definite political slant to the story. To start with, medical negligence and corruption is an emotive topic, that has been much in the news recently with a series of high profile deaths in the Indian medical system. Vetri makes a rather political statement towards the end of the film as he speaks to the crowd outside the courtroom and asking why India can’t fund heathcare as well as Singapore when the Indian government collects a much larger amount of GST. This is much more direct than Vijay’s message about suicidal farmers in Kaththi and does come across as a warning to the current government that they are being judged as lacking leadership in this issue. Vijay underscores the political theme with several nods to MGR, including a scene where Vetrimaaran walks in to a cinema to accuse village officials of corruption just as MGR strides onto the screen in the background. Is this the next stage in Vijay’s political campaign or is he just making the best use of his star power and philanthropic tendencies? Only time will tell, but in Mersal, Atlee has combined politics and entertainment without diluting the message or preaching to his audience- something a lot of Holywood films could do well to emulate.

 

Theri (2016)

 

Theri Poster

After taking on the plight of farmers in Kaththi, Vijay tackles the topical issues of rape and violence against women in Atlee’s latest film Theri. The dash of social awareness is added in to a familiar story where a once tough and capable man is forced to live a quiet and peaceful existence after suffering a great loss, before being forced to take up the reins of his old life again. Sure, it’s predictable, but Atlee breathes a modicum of life into the well worn storyline and adds enough seasoning to ensure Theri is an engaging and entertaining enough watch.

The film opens with a nerdy Joseph Kuruvilla (Vijay) running a bakery in Kerala while looking after his young daughter Nivi (Baby Nainika). Rather incongruously he’s helped in his endeavours by Rajendran (Rajendran) who looks nothing at all like a baker, while Joseph’s unassuming persona seems very un-Vijay-like. However all is soon explained when the film moves into flashback mode to detail Joseph’s previous life as ruthless and efficient cop DCP Vijay Kumar and Rajendran as his driver.

Some years previously Vijay Kumar investigated the case of a gang-rape victim and took the law into his own hands when he found the culprit – the son of minister Vanamaamalai (J. Mahendran). In revenge, Vanamaamalai kills Vijay’s wife Mithra (Samantha) and his mother (Raadhika Sarathkumar), and believes he has killed Vijay and his daughter as well. However Vanamaamalai doesn’t follow the maxim that if you want something done properly you should do it yourself and Vijay escapes with his daughter to a life of anonymity in Kerala. Living as meek and mild-mannered Joseph Kuruvilla though doesn’t come naturally, so it’s no surprise that Vijay’s cover is blown and Vanamaamalai discovers the truth, leading to the inevitable final showdown between the two.

There is a lot that works well in Theri, but there are also a few aspects that don’t. Atlee has done a good job of revitalising the story, but there are few surprises and each step along the way is almost exactly as expected. However, there is a sweet romance between Vijay and Mithra which is well developed and doesn’t quite follow the usual conventions. Samantha too has a better role than most Tamil heroines, Mithra is more than just a decorative love interest and has an important part to play in the story. She has strong opinions of her own, and also commands her husband’s respect since it’s at her request that Vijay buries his desire for revenge and concentrates on ensuring his daughter’s well-being. One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Mithra has a conversation with Vijay’s mother which doesn’t involve the hero, or her wish to be a good wife/mother/daughter-in-law.  Although the content is overly emotional and it’s a very filmi moment, I like the way this scene makes Mithra her own person and not simply an extension of the hero. Samantha is excellent in her role, convincing even when she practically comes back from the dead to make her final plea to Vijay and as always she looks gorgeous throughout.

My biggest problem with the flashback sequence, and in fact the film in general, is the songs. They are particularly frustrating in the first half when they suddenly appear from nowhere and add no real value to the storyline. Not that the songs always have to move the story forward to be worthwhile, but here they have little impact other than to pause the action and don’t even have the benefit of a catchy tune or outstanding choreography to make their inclusion palatable. About the best thing I can say is that they are very colourful – very, very colourful in some cases, and Vijay is competent even if he doesn’t get the chance to bust out too many impressive moves. Eena Meena Teeka is a little better as Baby Nainika is very cute and along with Vijay she hams it up for the camera nicely, but I expect better from a Vijay film!

I have long suspected that Vijay has access to a time machine since as he is as young-looking as ever, even when gleefully bashing goons heads into various parts of a building, and impressively athletic in the action scenes. As Vijay Kumar he appears strong, confident and powerful, but allows a softer side to show during the romance scenes. However, he’s a little less successful as Joseph Kuruvilla, perhaps because docile Vijay seem to be against the natural order of things. He is good in the scenes with Baby Nainika and plays the part of a devoted father well, but very awkward with Amy Jackson in her role as Nivi’s school teacher. That may be because Amy herself looks incredibly ill at ease in a dreadful wig, while her character is so under-developed it takes some time to realise that there is actually a romance developing between the two! I can’t decide if Amy Jackson is just incredibly wooden here, or if her terrible portrayal is due to inadequate writing of her character, but whatever the reason this is the worst performance I’ve seen from her so far.

The support cast are all good. Baby Nainika is cute and appealing, without being too bratty when she demonstrates that she has a tough side too. Mahendran is great on the other side of the camera and is a credible adversary for Vijay, mainly because he is so very normal in every aspect. Like many rich men in politics, he has a sense of privilege and a belief that his wealth gives him a right to power and to do whatever he wants. He has no affectations or megalomaniacal schemes which makes him all the more chilling and a very plausible villain. I always feel a film is improved with the addition of some Rajendran and along with Vijay he provides most of the comedy in the film.

Although the story of Theri isn’t particularly original and Vijay as a cop is also nothing that hasn’t been seen many times before, there is enough action and drama to make the film an entertaining watch. The addition of a stronger female role in Mithra is a bonus and Atlee deserves praise for adding in a child actor without making her cloyingly sweet and too good to be true. The action scenes are all well shot and choreographed, and the film comes together well with a satisfying conclusion and well executed revenge. I would have preferred better songs and no romance with Nivi’s teacher but otherwise I enjoyed Theri and recommend watching for Vijay, Samantha and Mahendran.