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.

 

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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.

Raja Rani (2013)

Raja Rani

I didn’t manage to see this in the cinema in Melbourne, but did manage to get a DVD copy with English subtitles.  Rather strangely it was also the only film they had on the bus in Tamil Nadu this year and I ended up watching the opening scenes over 10 times on the way to various villages in TN.  This added exposure gave me enough time to appreciate just how outlandish Nayanthara’s make-up looks, and just how uncomfortable Arya appears in his suit at the opening wedding which is a good precursor to how their relationship develops. In fact, the lead couple are rather uninspiring throughout this film – at least when paired with each other – but thankfully co-stars Jai, Santhanam and Nazriya Nazim are more appealing and their presence does make Raja Rani worth a one-time watch.

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The story starts with the arranged marriage of Regina (Nayanthara) and John (Arya) who are going through the matrimonial motions for the sake of their respective families.  Or so we are told.  Except as the film progresses this wedding seems to make less and less sense.  The couple obviously dislike each other and I cannot see why Regina’s relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan father would agree to marry her to someone like John.  He seems to have neither the requisite high flying job nor appropriate family background for such a match.  However, as completely random as it seems, and despite the lack of any reasonable explanation the wedding goes ahead even with the bride forgetting her prospective partner’s name and both parties complete lack of enthusiasm throughout the ceremony.

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It’s a match that seems doomed to end in divorce.  John spends his days at work and his nights drinking with his friends before returning home, usually to a locked door.  Regina hogs the bathroom, sobs into her pillow at night and generally ignores her husband as much as she can.  It all feels very unrealistic and overly dramatic – after all there is a large couch in the other room where Regina could sleep if she wanted, and surely John could organise a key to their apartment rather than sleep on the doorstep?  All the OTT drama makes it difficult to care about either John or Regina since they are equally obnoxious to each other, and I really had little interest in their relationship.  That’s not to say that Arya and Nayanthara are particularly terrible, but all Arya has to do in the first half hour is pretend to be drunk while Nayanthara doesn’t stop crying or complaining long enough to do anything remotely interesting either.

Thankfully there is relief in sight, but until we get there Santhanam lightens the atmosphere and is mildly amusing as John’s best friend Sarathy.

Finally there is an incident which prompts John to find out a little more about his wife.  There is some very dodgy medicine on display as Regina has an epileptic fit while her husband seems totally incapable of any sensible reaction, although he does eventually manage to call an ambulance.  Needless to say, despite all the thrashing around and foaming at the mouth (sigh – when will Tamil cinema consult a doctor for some plausible medical problems?) Regina manages to come through the whole episode with her make-up and eyelashes intact. That’s a relief!

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However, after being berated by her doctor for not knowing anything about his wife’s condition, John does discover the reason behind her ‘illness’.  Lost love – of course!

The film gets much better when we head to a flash-back to Regina’s first love, although to be fair this doesn’t have the best of beginnings either.  Jai is excellent as love interest Surya, an incompetent call centre employee, and finally there are some real emotions and reasons to empathise with one of the characters.  Regina is as obnoxious as before, but the role of spoilt rich brat suits her better when she’s a student and she does seem to be more tongue in cheek with her tantrums.  Sathyan makes an appearance as Surya’s friend Iyappan and his comedy shtick complements Jai’s weedy persona well enough to make a reasonably funny duo. Although the romance is typically filmy there is some chemistry between the two actors and while we can see the unhappy ending coming, Regina never does and is devastated by losing her first love.

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It turns out that John has his own sob story, and although it’s another predictable run of the mill tale, again it’s a more believable romance with good chemistry between the actors.  In particular Nazriya Nazim is scintillating as Keerthana and she is the best thing about the whole film.  She has an excellent introduction and her cheeky impishness lights up the screen whenever she appears.  She has much more personality and is much livelier than in Naiyaandi, which just goes to show the difference between a well written character and one that basically isn’t!

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Arya is also transformed into a younger, fitter John who is more personable and likeable, and again there is some reasonable chemistry between him and Keerthana.  It’s not all good though – Santhanam suffers under the burden of some terribly bad hair which seems to make him more pathetic and less amusing than in the first half, but it works out for the best as Nazriya has the comedy covered too.

The main problem I have with Raja Rani is that the relationship between John and Regina never generates any appeal or gives an opportunity to feel sympathetic towards the characters.  There are some interesting issues brought up  here but they are dealt with in a shallow and filmi way which results in a lack of connection between the characters and the audience.  There is no apparent reason for the couple’s actions towards each other, considering that they don’t appear to have met before the wedding, and it seems strange that they would behave so badly to each other right from the start.  The concept of an arranged marriage between two people who have both lost their first love has potential but Atlee wastes it by playing the relationship for laughs and never giving his characters a chance to behave like rational adults.  I found it incredibly frustrating to watch  Arya and Nayanthara appear so wooden and lifeless for most of their on-screen time together, when the difference was so obvious when Arya was partnered with Nazriya and Nayanthara with Jai.  A little more time spent on developing the relationship between Regina and John at the beginning along with a more adult treatment of their problems would have made this a more entertaining watch.  However I did enjoy seeing a better performance from Nazriya and I liked the idea behind the film, even if the execution didn’t quite live up to expectations.  3 ½ stars.Raja Rani