Pudhupettai (2006)

Pudhupettai

Pudhupettai is Selvaraghavan’s ode to gangster life, telling the story of the rise and fall of Kokki Kumar in the slums of Chennai. It’s brutal and violent, and for the most part Selva doesn’t give his ‘hero’ any redeeming features making this a departure from most other Tamil gangster flicks. At the end of the day, the only real priority for Kumar is himself and trying to keep himself alive, which reflects the film’s tagline ‘survival of the fittest’. The film is shot almost like a documentary, following the wandering path of Kumar’s life rather than having a distinct narrative, and it’s this realism and attention to the details of the characters and their harsh lives that makes Pudhupettai such a fascinating watch.

The film opens with Kokki Kumar (Dhanush) in jail. He seems disorientated, perhaps mentally ill, as he shouts out for anyone who might be listening to him. These opening shots feature Kumar in green with contrasting red light from outside the cell, further isolating him and accentuating his odd behaviour. This colour scheme replicates throughout the film, maybe to illustrate Kumar’s almost split personality but it’s also used to highlight important moments in his life. It’s part of how Selva pulls the story together, using images and brief vignettes rather than long drawn out scenes to develop his characters.

The film then moves to a flashback of Kumar’s early life in the slums of Pudhupettai. He seems a typical young man as flirts with girls and is chastised by his mother for dancing in the streets rather than hurrying off to school. However, violence is never far away. His father is violently abusive and finally one night Kumar returns to find his mother has been murdered by his father. Fearing for his own life, Kumar flees onto the streets to try to make his own way in the world.

He’s not terribly successful at this and eventually turns to begging in the streets where he is accidentally picked up by the police during a raid on drug sellers operating under local thug Anbu (Bala Singh). Anbu’s men take Kumar under their wing and introduce him to their boss, managing to secure him a spot in their gang. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi has a small role here as one of the gang, and there are a few other familiar faces including Aadukalam Murugadoss who also pop up in the background.

Kumar gradually learns how to be a gangster and there is some good humour worked into the scenes where he learns how to use a machete and case the scene before a crime. He also has a mean temper and when backed into a corner by a rival gang lead by Murthy (Prudhviraj) he fights back, killing Murthy’s brother and turning Murthy into an enemy for life. The film follows Kumar as he meets and falls in love with prostitute Krishnaveni (Sneha) and subsequently takes over the area from Anbu after killing his former boss in a dispute over his treatment of Krishnaveni.

Kumar has grand ambitions and with the gang behind him he takes Anbu’s place working for corrupt politician Thamizhselvan (Azhagam Perumal). The body count rises as Thamizhselvan commissions murders and Kumar steadily makes inroads into Murthy’s territory. But then Kumar sees Selvi (Sonia Agarwal), the sister of his main henchman Mani, and he falls instantly in lust. Forgetting Krishnaveni he marries Selvi instead of the real groom at her wedding and immediately has another enemy out for his blood. Mani joins forces with Murthy and the two conspire to bring Kumar down.

This is the seedy side of gangster life and Selva shows the grubby political deals and bloody in-fighting between the rival gangs as something to be expected, rather than as exceptions to the rule. No-one comes out of this looking good and Kumar in particular is not a nice man. At first there seems to be some attempt to explain Kumar’s violent tendencies on his early experiences, but during a drinking session with the gang one night, it’s revealed that everyone has a similar story. It’s even a source of entertainment for the gang as they each tell their stories of abuse and murder and decide who has the funniest story.

It then seems as if there may be some compassion in Kumar when he fights Anbu for Krishnaveni’s freedom, but this doesn’t ever seem to be a grand passion or even much of a love story at all, and Kumar tends to treat Krishnaveni more as a possession rather than a lover. He’s able to completely ignore her when he sees Selvi and isn’t at all bothered by Krishnaveni’s attempt to leave him, until she announces that she is pregnant. That of course makes all the difference, and this is the one part of the film where Kumar genuinely seems to care for someone else. The birth of his son is a momentous event in his life, which makes his son’s loss later in the film more effective than expected.

There are signs that Kumar might be a better man than first appears when he takes on cases where the local people have been affected by corruption and crime after overthrowing Anbu. But this appearance of trying to help the poor turns out to be just an easy way to develop a power base and get support – something that Kumar needs if he wants to further his political ambitions and make a name for himself. I love how each time Kumar seems to be acting more responsibly it’s shown to be just another way to make sure he comes out on top. The pragmatism and cunning he shows seem to be reasonable requirements for someone who aspires to be a top politician, while the extreme violence and disregard for human life explain why Kumar makes such a good gangster.

Throughout, Dhanush is excellent despite a tendency to overact in the prison scenes where he has to explain his story directly to the audience. His transformation from a scared adolescent to a violent and cold-blooded criminal is brilliantly achieved, and his tendency to become completely feral when he loses his temper gives the character a chilling authenticity. Here is someone with few morals, who decides what they want and then goes ahead and takes it without worrying about the consequences or the possible price. Sneha does a fantastic job with the character of Krishnaveni and gives her dignity and grace despite her profession and her association with the gang. Krishnaveni seems to genuinely love Kumar, although some of this may be gratitude for helping her escape the brothel, but she brings some normalcy into the storyline and provides a good contrast to all the violence. She’s not completely innocent either and her entrapment of Kumar by mentioning her pregnancy after he marries Selvi is a clever twist, as is Selvi’s nasty dig when she points out that Kumar can’t be sure that the baby is his. It all rings true and despite the buckets of blood and excessive use of knives (check out Kumar’s impressive machete storage cupboard!) this doesn’t seem to be too fantastical a story. The characters all seem plausible too, particularly in the way they let their petty squabbles and problems spill over to affect the whole area.

The rest of the cast are uniformly good too – Sonia Agarwal has less to do than Sneha but she is excellent as the reluctant bride, while Azhagam Perumal has so many backflips that it’s a wonder he can work out which way to look at the camera. Clever writing and good dialogue ensure that everyone has a role to play while the good performances mean it all flows beautifully.

The film is enhanced by excellent cinematography from Arvind Krishna, who makes Chennai look stunningly beautiful one moment and then grimly ugly, just as Selva juxtaposes Kumar’s dreams with the harsh reality of life as a gangster. The songs and background music by Yuvan Shankar Raja also suit the film well with the songs seamlessly flowing into the dialogue and some hauntingly beautiful instrumentals.

At almost 3 hours Pudhupettai is a long film and at times it does tend to drift into indulgent territory, but then it’s so well made that it’s hard to complain. This is a film that seems to get better and better with repeated viewings as more of the story becomes clear. As with most Selvaraghavan’s films, the subject matter is dark and his characters flawed, but the subject matter here suits this type of delivery and as a whole the film works very well indeed. Not one for the squeamish given the preponderance of edged weapons and gory bloodshed but for anyone who enjoys a gangster film, this is one of the best. 4½ stars.

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Naanum Rowdy Dhaan

Naanum Rowdy Dhaan

I’m loving the recent ‘new wave’ in Tamil comedy that seems to be producing hit after hit and some very funny films. Naanum Rowdy Dhaan is the latest release from writer/director Vignesh Shivan and it’s a perfect example of the genre, mixing a good story with great dialogue and brilliant performances from a very competent cast. As an added bonus the film even has grammatically correct English subtitles (I’m going to assume that they were accurate too), ensuring I was laughing at the right moments – or at least along with everyone else.

The story is set in Pondicherry, which is another plus for me since it’s only a few years since I visited and quite a few of the locations were familiar. Pandi (Vijay Sethupathi) first appears onscreen as a young boy (Surya Vijay Sethupathi – Vijay’s son?) sitting in a jail, occupied with filling in the front of a school notebook with his interesting ambition (given his current location) of joining the police force. However all is not as it seems. Pandi is the son of the police inspector (Raadhika Sarathkumar) and the real occupant of the cell is Raja, played by one of my favourite ‘bad guys’, Rajendran. Yay! While waiting for his lawyer and get-out-of-jail-free card, Raja tells the young Pandi a story about a rowdy and a cop, when Pandi asked which is the better job prospect. The subsequent tale has the effect of changing Pandi’s mind about his career choice and he carefully changes the word in his notebook from police to rowdy.

So it’s a little surprising then when we see grown up Pandi to find he is going through a battery of tests to become a police officer, although he spends most of his time telling others how much better rowdyism is compared to law enforcement. But once away from the testing area Pandi is indeed a rowdy. Well, kind of.

Because Pandi isn’t a very rowdy-like rowdy.

Along with his gang of friends he has a lair painted with fluorescent paint on the walls that lists fees for various acts of violence, but when it comes down to it he doesn’t actually do any of these things. Instead the gang enacts a drama, getting people to pretend to have been beaten up or injured and then sending a photo of the ‘injury’ to the client. Pandi’s biggest success is arbitrating in a schoolboy squabble and most of his ‘swagger’ is an elaborate act without any real substance.

But then he meets Kadambari and gets involved in the search for her missing father. Kadambari is hearing impaired after an injury and her father is a police officer on the cusp of retirement. It turns out that the story Raja told at the start of the film was based in fact with the rowdy, Killivalavan (Parthiban) getting the better of police officer Ravikumar (Azhagam Perumal). Kadambari wants her revenge and since true love means killing your girlfriends enemy, Pandi takes on the job. Or at least offers to hold Killivalavan while Kadambari stabs him to death. A true gentleman!

The jokes come thick and fast from the numerous attempts to kill Killivalavan (or at least get him to apologise) to Raja’s gun that has a silencer that mews like a cat. The dialogue is very funny and the cast all do a good job in delivering their lines for maximum effect. Even Nayantara, who has a brilliantly comedic scene when she is kidnapped by another rowdy (Anandaraj) which had everyone in the cinema in stitches. Generally Nayantara is much better here than she was in Masss, giving her character plenty of personality and managing good chemistry with her co-star. She does well with the comedy too, and shows just what a good actress she can be when given the chance.

Vijay Sethupathi looks amazingly different here from his previous roles such as Soodhu Kavvum or Idharkuthane Aasaipattai Balakumara. Without his beard he appears years younger and seems to have shed some bulkiness along with the age which suits his character well. He still has the same great timing and flair for comedy though, working well with RJ Balaji in the role of Pandi’s long suffering friend. Balaji plays it straight but has plenty of witty comments and his delivery is perfectly timed. Together the two make a great pair and the dialogue between them is written so well as to appear natural and unforced – something which is rare in most comedies. Pandi tries very hard to be a tough guy, and when push comes to shove he proves he can hold his own, but he’d much rather just show the ‘tude rather than court any confrontation, while Balaji wants nothing to do with ‘real’ rowdyism at all.

Anirudh Ravichander provides the music and the soundtrack fits into the mood of the story well. Vijay Sethupathi skilfully avoids any actual dancing, and the songs themselves work well to move the romance story forward. George C Williams is the man behind the cinematography and as in his earlier films, he has a sure touch with the camera ensuring the film looks perfect too. Overall Naanum Rowdy Dhaan is an excellent entertainer combining action and comedy with a dash of romance. Recommended for Vijay Sethupathi, Nayantara and a very funny screenplay.

Dumm Dumm Dumm

The charming and fun Suja of Music to My Ears has been in Melbourne and very kindly invited us over to watch a film. It was so nice to meet her and natter about films we love. Suja was generous in sharing her knowledge of Tamil language and culture as well as music so we got to appreciate a bit more of the subtlety than is possible just from subtitles. And to top it off – she is an excellent cook!

We chose Dumm Dumm Dumm on the basis of the cast, lead by Madhavan and Jyothika, the music by Karthik Raja and the beautiful rural settings. I have seen the film before and it’s one I enjoy because of the charm of the actors rather than the plot, although some intelligent writing makes the rom-com a bit more interesting and believable. The production values are high, as to be expected from a Madras Talkies production (Mani Ratnam also gets a writing credit), and the film looks beautiful.

Suja will be writing in more detail about the music of Dumm Dumm Dumm, so you must go read her blog post. You should read her work anyway if you have an interest in Carnatic music as well as some filmi music.

In a nutshell, Adityan (Madhavan) and Ganga (Jyothika) have their marriage arranged by family but neither is ready to settle down. He has women to chase and true love to find, and she has a seat at an engineering college. In order to avoid family disgrace, they try many ridiculous tactics to have the engagement dissolved. But all the time they spend on plotting brings them close together and when they are separated, they realise they have made a mistake. How this on/off relationship is resolved is the story.

Jyothika portrays Ganga as strong, not a squeaky voiced air head, and she has presence. Ganga is a good girl who doesn’t want to upset her family but she is also determined to make a life for herself and to support her sisters in their education. Her father Veluthambi (Murali) is so proud of his daughter’s academic achievements that it surprises Ganga to find her imminent marriage arranged without her knowledge. Jyothika is a curvaceous but athletic looking woman and this was much commented upon in the film with characters referring to her as a pumpkin girl amongst other interesting epithets. Having Suja on hand certainly gave us more insight! Ganga pushes Adi to take more responsibility in his life and to stand up for what he wants – and to make it clear if what he wants includes her. It was nice to see a female character be fairly low key, nice, intelligent, and handle her life and relationships in a thoughtful way.

Maddy plays that familiar character – the good middle class boy that every mother wants as a son-in-law. Adityan is self centred but not unpleasant – just a bit privileged and aware he is a catch. He does take to manipulation like a duck to water (he is a lawyer after all) but he lacks the necessary commitment to letting people believe the worst of him so most of his plans fall through. Adi is all talk for most of the story, and what action he takes seems to go awry. Maddy does very well at showing the change in Adi’s feelings for Ganga over time, and their relationship grows as they get to understand each other. Ganga sees a less confident and polished side of Adi emerge, and begins to appreciate him. While this is a typical nice guy role, it did give him the opportunity to show many moods of Madhavan. Here is a little sample for you – feel free to ‘name that mood’ via the comments section.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The schemes and obstacles to the relationship fall into filmi cliché but the story keeps things moving along even when the limits of coincidence were straining. Vivek as Adi’s friend Jim is annoying, goes slightly evil and is rarely (intentionally) amusing. Manivannan as criminal lawyer Sivaji is very good, playing it for laughs but also providing some quiet common sense at times. His performance is well modulated and he seems to have fun tormenting Adi. The various family members are all quite good, and the dynamic between the two fathers is interesting. Ganga’s father has moved up in village social ranks and was treated courteously by his senior, Adi’s dad (Delhi Kumar). They were friendly until an incident, and following that Veluthambi was seen as getting above his station. There were layers of resentment that were exacerbated by the engagement. This back story made things feel vaguely credible. The theme of arranged versus love marriage was woven in, but the film doesn’t belt you round the ears with one viewpoint. Director Azhugam Perumal takes a more discursive approach to some social questions and it is all the more engaging for that.

The minor supporting characters are all good, and many of them are familiar as That Uncle, That Friend, That Guy from other films. Pattamma, played by Kalpana is a standout.

She is a comedy aunty and the butt of many jokes which is par for the course. But she features in one of the prettiest song picturisations (which also blends farce and drama), and her character gets a sweetly romantic moment too.

And that’s what makes this film such a pleasure. The detail and respect in the characterisations and writing extends to the minor players as well. There are people bustling around, having side conversations and going about their lives and chores. Suja recognised so much of the activity around the wedding preparations, confirming the realism of those domestic scenes, and it really does feel like you’re a fly on the wall at times.

The cinematography by Ramji is a highlight. The lush green countryside and rich earthy tones in the village are beautiful. The rural settings have a luminosity that is lost once characters relocate to Chennai and the lighting becomes sharper with more contrast. The wardrobe for the ladies is quite nice, and the colour palette is intense but muted so there is a lovely harmony in group scenes. Ganga switches from a half saree to a salwar kameez when she is in the city, and the characters’ appearance reflect their background whether they are townies like Adi or from the country. Ganga was slightly scandalous in the village as we noted her lack of upper cloth on more than one occasion – that would never have got past Suja’s grandmother!

The songs are fun, and the country folks get the best melodies. Desingu Raja has stunning locations (at Thanjavur) and costumes, and Maddy doing excellent drama hands – plus that moustache!

The subtitles on my Ayngaran DVD are very special indeed. They range from the literal to the completely mystifying. No nipping out for a cuppa on this subtitle team’s watch! Suja confirmed some of them are very literal translations and quite correct but others were less helpful.

Dumm Dumm Dumm is a fun film to revisit, and seeing it with someone who knows the language and culture was an added bonus. I’ll never understand the nuances of dialect or accent so those subtleties usually escape me. The performances help the film stand up over repeated viewing and the cast work very well as an ensemble. The comedy is easily ignored when it is not integral to the scene and Vikek as Jim was slapped and beaten repeatedly so I had some vicarious revenge. It has nice scenery, good music and likeable actors in a not-too-stupid romance. 3 ½ stars!

Heather says: It was lovely to meet up with Suja and watch a film together.  We had a fantastic time chatting about Indian cinema and music, and as Temple says got a very useful insight into what we miss because of inaccurate subtitling of Tamil DVD’s and not getting the regional variations.

Dumm Dumm Dumm has excellent music, a fun romantic storyline and very beautiful cinematography particularly in the first half. I really like the characters of Ganga and Aditya as they are realistically drawn and their initial dislike of each other which slowly develops into attraction is well portrayed. Jyothika is excellent as the feisty girl who is determined to make it to college. I love the way she rolls her eyes as Aditya ineptly tries to follow along with her various plots to derail their proposed marriage. I also like that she doesn’t just have a hissy fit and refuse to get married but instead has a plan and tries to stop the marriage without actually hurting her parents’ feelings. She is a more successful schemer as well, so her frequent frustration with her co-conspirator is understandable. Madhavan has a flair for comedy and he puts it to excellent use here. His committed bachelor is a character with plenty of charm and his dramatic changes in expression were excellent.  Jyothika’s Ganga is more serious and more committed to her studies and I liked that her chosen profession was engineering rather than something more fluffy. I do like Jyothika as an actress and she really does seem suited for these roles where she has something to get her teeth into and isn’t merely a passive heroine.

The first half of the film is a different take on romance with the depiction of two people trying to get out of an arranged marriage, but it is back to more usual territory for the second half of the film. What started off so promisingly does become a little more of a routine love story with an irritating comedy track once the characters move to the city. However both Madhavan and Jyothika keep their characters entertaining and the love story is sweet enough to want them to finally succeed in reconciling their families. 3 ½ stars from me.