NGK (2019)

NGK

Spoiler alert

I’m a big fan of both Suriya and Selvaraghavan and was intrigued to see how Selva would deal with a main stream hero given his usual character-driven and more unconventional style of film making. As it turns out, Selva has made room for both heroic gestures and quirky plot points in this tale of a young man’s rise to prominence in a political party, although ultimately neither meld particularly well together. In the end, the darkness of the storyline ensures NGK is still definitely a Selvaraghavan film, although only working in parts despite an understated, yet powerful performance from Suriya. There is a lot to unpack here, and I apologise for the spoilers which I haven’t been able to avoid in order to discuss certain aspects of the story.

Nandha Gopala Kumaran aka NGK (Suriya) is an organic farmer, living in a small town with his parents Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Viji (Uma Padmanabhan). He’s married to Geetha (Sai Pallavi) and in the initial scenes both are completely besotted with each other to the point of irritating Viji with their romantic overtures. Kumaran is an organic farmer who has given up his city job to work the land with a group of like-minded idealists, but their livelihood is threatened by local traders and businessmen who want the farmers to buy their chemicals. Kumaran gets the idea of approaching his local MLA (Ilavarasu) from a neighbour Giri (Bala Singh) who works for the party. Giri has been beaten up by party men because he refused an inappropriate request from MLA Pandiyan’s but despite this, Giri still supports the party ideas. Straight from the start, it’s shown that the party elite are corrupt, lacking morals and purely interested in getting and keeping power. Kumaran uses his friend Raja (Rajkumar) who also works for the party to get an audience with Pandiyan, who agrees to stop intimidation of the farmers, but only if Kumaran enters politics and brings 500 of his own supporters into the party.

Interestingly, in these early scenes, Kumaran seems disgusted and repelled by Pandion, and is further antagonised by his bullying and repeated humiliations. But at some point Kumaran decides to kowtow and do everything Pandiyan wishes, including cleaning his toilet and supplying him with home-cooked food. What would help this transformation would be an explanation of why Kumaran decided to conform. Was it because he realised the power of politics and what he could potentially do if he managed to move up the ranks? Or was it simply to stop the humiliation, or perhaps even an attempt to shame Pandiyan into more moral behaviour? Sadly, none of the reasoning behind any of Kumaran’s choices are explained, although there are some pivotal events that we can assume helped shape his actions.

In the course of his transition to political power, Kumaran meets Vanathi (Rakul Preet Singh) who is a UK-educated political analyst tasked with helping the party win upcoming elections. Vanathi is impressed by Kumaran, presumably realising that his earnest demeanour and good looks will make him a good candidate to win over the voting public. Vanathi is an interestingly grey character who’s not above dirty tactics to discredit the opposition, although these are more about revealing the ruling party’s indiscretions rather than fabricating evidence to implicate chief minister Killivazhavan (Devaraj) and his minions. As Kumaran becomes more and more involved with the party, and by implication with Vanathi, Geetha starts to become jealous and finally accuses Kumaran of having an affair. Astonishingly (this is Suriya after all), Kumaran quickly admits his infidelity but it’s all the more shocking because there has been no hard evidence on screen and no real reason for the affair – after all, Kumaran had a wife he was supposedly besotted with waiting for him at home. Then too, his revelation is made somewhat passionlessly, but immediately followed up with a nasty challenge to Geetha asking her what she will do about it. So, was he just scratching an itch because he was away from home? Did he fall in love with the clever and politically sharp Vanathi – a world away from the more innocent Geetha? Or was it a more calculated ploy, to seduce the woman behind the party’s campaign for office for his own ambition?

Rakul Preet Singh is good in a role that starts off well, but which fades quickly once she (sigh) inevitably falls in love with Kumaran, despite her initial tough, woman-of-the-world persona. At least Vanathi has a reasonable character arc and she stays true to her own ideals throughout, apart from an unfortunate lapse during a dodgy romantic song which doesn’t fit with the rest of the screenplay at all. She still has values and these stand her in good stead as Kumaran becomes more manipulative and Vanathi gradually seems to realise what is happening. Sai Pallavi on the other hand doesn’t doesn’t fare as well as Geetha. Her initial interactions with Kumaran are too cloyingly sweet and over the top, while Geetha’s suspicion of an affair seem to come from nowhere, leading to some odd behaviours when she meets Vanathi. Her initial reaction to Kumaran’s affair is also strangely overdone, while the apparent acceptance in later scenes also doesn’t ring true, making Geetha a rather unsatisfactory and jarring presence onscreen. It’s odd since Selva’s female characters normally have strong characters and some reason for what they do, but here the women are all muted and take a very definite back seat to the main story.

Kumaran gradually changes throughout the story from an all-round nice guy to someone able to plot and scheme his way to success. What I can’t decide is if he turned to the dark side to win power to be able to help his people, or if he truly becomes corrupted to the point where he is prepared to use anyone to achieve his ends. The final scenes with Geetha and his parents suggest the latter, but I need to watch the film again to find more clues to his behaviour. I did pick up some. Selva uses changes in the lighting scheme here as he did in Pudhupettai to indicate some of the personality changes – changing from green to red lighting during a fight scene in an improbably cavernous bathroom, presumably to suggest Kumaran’s move towards more selfish motives. There are also questions around what really happens when Kumaran’s friend Raja dies, and his initial meeting with Vanathi definitely has more subtext, but I was concentrating too much on reading the subtitles to pick up on all the subtleties.

The glue holding the story together is Suriya, who forgoes his usual mass-style hero for an ambiguous character who definitely moves towards the wrong side of politics. It’s a subtle and almost low-key performance, although there is plenty of passion on show as Kumaran makes energetically impassioned speeches about farming and freedom, land and human rights, and inevitably ‘the common man’. Suriya gets across the definite sense that Kumaran is acting in all of his grand speeches, while still leaving his true motivation rather more ambiguous until the end, where his corruption appears to be complete. Here Selva has ensured that the film is very much about the star, and Suriya feels the space completely, including the requisite action scenes, dance moves and compelling charisma that end up defining the character too. Although the rest of the cast are good, they aren’t as memorable as Suriya, with the exception of Ilavarasu and Devaraj who have their own personality quirks.

Sivakumar Vijayan does a good job with the cinematography and overall the production is excellent even down to having readable subtitles in yellow font. Awesome! Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background soundtrack is good, and the few dance numbers are catchy enough, with the only real let down being the inappropriate romance track with Kumaran and Vanathi. It’s not a bad song, just oddly placed and bizarrely shot to show a romantic side to two characters who otherwise don’t appear passionate about each other at all. There are the characteristic dark themes and odd actions that remind you that this is a Selva film, but with Suriya front and centre, this is a more commercial and smoother film than his usual fare. The blend isn’t perfect but there is plenty here to keep you entertained, even enough for repeated viewings to see more of what is going on in the background. No doubt that will provide more clues and a clearer picture of just exactly who is NGK. I really enjoyed this, despite my issues with Geetha and occasional frustrations at not being able to decide exactly all the why’s. But then that is part of the genius of Selvaraghavan, to refuse to spoon feed his audience answers and keep everyone guessing. And even here with a mainstream hero in a more traditionally told story, he very nearly pulls it off.

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Karvva (2016)

Karvva poster

Karvva released earlier this year in India, and we finally got a chance to see the film here in Melbourne last weekend. I’m not usually a fan of horror films but the blurb about Karvva suggested that it was a combination thriller/ghost story, so I ventured out to the cinema in the hope that it may be another RangiTaranga. However Karvva turned out to be a fairly formulaic and not particularly frightening (or even thrilling) film, but despite the inevitability of the storyline there are a few good features that make it worth a one-time watch.

The film is a mix of two separate but related stories, one based on a documentary film crew out to debunk a rumour about a haunted house and the other recounting the kidnap of a rich businessman’s daughter. The connection between the two is the house; is a classic ‘renovator’s delight/fixer-upper’ mansion located somewhere in the Karnataka countryside.

When an NRI attempts to sell his ancestral property he finds that it has a nasty reputation as a haunted house, and in an attempt to improve his chances of a sale he enlists the help of a documentary filmmaker specialising in investigations of supernatural events. The TV crew has some kind of spiritual advisor and a boffin with a machine that measures ghost activity so obviously they’re the right people for the job. However despite all their gadgets and scepticism, the TV crew find more than they bargained for in the abandoned house which lives up to its reputation. Naturally they have to wait for an auspicious time to go back and try to exorcise the spirit which leaves the scene set for the next reckless visitors to the mansion.

The second part of the story focuses on Thilak, a spoilt, rich kid who lives the high life but who is brought down to earth when he loses a lot of money at a casino. He tries to get some money out of his father (Devaraj) by pretending he needs cash for a business deal, but his father decides that enough is enough and refuses to bail Thilak out. Anisha Ambrose is Thilak’s sister, who tries to persuade her dad to cough up some money for her brother, but before she can achieve very much she is kidnapped and a ransom note sent to Devaraj. The kidnappers choose Thilak to deliver the ransom money and the directions he follows take him to an abandoned mansion somewhere in the Karnataka countryside. Yes – this is the same Raja bungalow that we’ve already seen is haunted by a vengeful ghost, but Thilak is only concerned about finding his sister and isn’t too concerned by his surroundings. He also approaches the house from the back which looks much less creepy and isn’t quite as festooned with cobwebs as the front of the house either.

Events conspire to leave Thilak, his sister and three friends stuck in the house overnight. As the ectoplasm starts to swirl and the friends find out the history behind Raja bungalow it’s clear that they’re not going to have a peaceful night and indeed may not even last until morning.

The basic plot is a fairly standard ghost story but there are a few twists, particularly in the second half which make the film more interesting. Unfortunately, although the visual effects are good, each even remotely spooky moment is accompanied by loud screechy music and distorted screams that quickly remove any suspense from the scene. There are numerous points where one of the characters is shown from behind with the suggestion that someone (i.e. the ghost) is creeping up behind them. It would have been so much more effective to cut out all the noise altogether, or even go for some slightly more clichéd breathing rather than the loud cacophony that occurs every time someone turns their back on the camera. More effective are the shots where a vague figure appears when the lights go out, and where there are half seen flickers in the periphery, but as the film goes on the effects get more and more obvious and subsequently less and less frightening. The inclusion of a comedy track of sorts with Vijay Chendur reduces any suspense that might have built up with the initial ghostly effects while the loud soundtrack and OTT make-up towards the end mean that the final scenes are funnier than I think they were meant to be.

The actors are occasionally overshadowed by the effects, but Thilak is fine as the sceptical and stalwart hero of the hour. Mostly he just has to ignore all the odd happenings and boldly go forward to investigate the latest black-out, noise or other unusual occurrence, but he does so with a reasonable amount of attitude and is good at the end when everything is explained. However RJ Rohith as one of Thilak’s friends is rather wooden and inexpressive although some of this may be due to his rather dour character, which doesn’t give him scope to do much else. Anisha Ambrose and Anu Poovamma are both good and escape the usual fate of female characters in a horror movie by being braver than seems plausible, while Vijay Chendur is funnier than expected and makes an impact despite only having a short time on-screen.

Navaneeth wrote and directed the film and there are some good ideas in there, even if the ghost story and horror element is somewhat formulaic. The NRI desperate to sell his house works well and there are some satisfyingly scary moments with the TV crew as they search for clues. The initial kidnap scenes are also well thought out and the events when the friends first find themselves stuck in the house are effectively written. However as the horror part of the story kicks in the film starts to lose its novelty and the final explanation can even be partly anticipated given the events of the night in Raja bungalow. Still, the cinematography by Mohan is excellent, there are a few good spooky scenes and I like that the female characters are braver than some of the men! Worth watching for the set-up in the first half, the twists in the second and a good performance from Thilak Shekar.

Lakshyam

Lakshyam is a highly entertaining mishmash of romance, comedy, action, politics and family drama. It succeeds largely because of the casting – Jagapathi Babu, Gopichand and Anushka in particular do a fine job – and some skilful writing and direction that balance all the elements.

The film opens with a girl running away from her own wedding. She looks so pretty and pristine as she scoots off across town, eventually making a rendezvous with a bloody and battered man. I was intrigued by the look of happy pride on her face when he efficiently blew up a car, shot a policeman and then hopped on the back of her moped. I wondered how they got to this point, and what was going to happen next. With a bit of time travel, we get to the chronological start of the story. The film is very well constructed, and the flashback and current day sequences flow well. There are some pleasingly playful references to filmi clichés and the cast seem to enjoy the improbable shenanigans.

Anushka is Indu, a modern uppity type of college girl. She has a very specific list of demands for a prospective husband and seems to think it is perfectly reasonable to share this with a young child on the train. Pinky immediately decides to set Indu up with her uncle, Chandu. He has his own, very different, list of required qualities and even the kid knows it’s not likely to work.

Anushka is one of my favourite current day actresses (yes, actress not ‘heroine’), and she is quite good in this role. Her character has some silly and selfish moments, but underneath it she is a likeable young woman. At the very least she knows when to apologise for her mistakes, so she is not too bratty. Indu is a Telugu heroine so of course if anything goes wrong she is reliant on any and every man within 20 metres of her for help and a solution. But the helpless female act is balanced with Indu cheekily pretending to be a gangleader’s sister and using his name to get her own way. This leads her into conflict with the cool dude on campus, Chandu. So she calls her little train friend’s uncle to sort him out. Yes – Chandu again. So there is a romantic comedy of errors as Chandu takes on Chandu and tries to bluff his way through. The silliness is increased with Brahmi and Venu Madhav battling each other for control of the student canteen.

My reason for picking this film a while ago was that I hadn’t seen Gopichand in a lead role and I was curious. He does well and seems to be a good generalist in terms of Hero Skills. He can act a bit, dance a bit, fight a bit, and has an engaging onscreen presence. His introduction scene is vintage hero stuff – he is chained and dangling upside down in a police lockup. But with a single bound he frees himself and escapes to wreak havoc. The college romance scenes don’t work quite so well as the later more energetic action sequences but he and Anushka do have chemistry and he gets right into hamming it up. And let me applaud a song with a backup dancing Spiderman.There is not enough of it around.

Chandu and Indu eventually fall in love and actually tell each other so they then just have to deal with all the usual obstacles – telling his family, her disapproving dad, and of course a crazed psychopath who happens to be a mad inventor. Chandu also gets caught in the fallout of his brother’s activities. He is a man of action, and takes a direct approach to solving problems. Although I did like that he sometimes cowed his opponent just with a graphic description of what he would do, so had no need of the actual biffo. You can have your cake and eat it too – a non-violent solution that incorporates a violent fantasy sequence. Gopichand is well able to match the changing tone of the film from the fluffy  romance to the revenge driven action and drama.

Chandu’s brother is Inspector Bose – Jagapathi Babu. He is an honest, crusading policeman and of course is wildly unpopular with the underworld. Newly transferred to Hyderabad, Bose takes on Section Shankar, Indu’s ‘brother’, a thug protected by senior police. I like Jagapathi Babu and this role is a good fit for him. Bose is a cop but also a family man and has a competitive relationship with his brother and his journalist father (Kota Srinivasa Rao) so there is lots of scope for his offbeat style.

The brothers have different approaches but are not forced into a separation or battle for whose philosophy should win, and I really liked seeing that more natural sibling rivalry. They were great mates as well as brothers, and the family scenes were fun. Bose and his wife (Kalyani) have a very affectionate relationship, and it is a nice domestic environment. But Bose also has a kickarse side and Jagapathi Babu gets his own action sequences, including some excellent use of coconuts as both defense and offense. He is also the victim of one of the most elaborate assassination attempts I can recall seeing. I was muttering “What? He’s not dead – yet? What!” as the drama kept unfurling.

It’s interesting that once again the law is shown as helpless in the face of crime and they rely on people like Chandu to get things done. Dharmavarapu Subramanyam is cast as an honest cop, and his comedic skills are used to help the story as a bumbling but good guy. Even Ashish Vidyarthi as the DIG makes it clear that the police need to rely on subterfuge to even compete let alone succeed, so there is an oddly defeatist note to the brother’s battle with Section Shankar and his corrupt cop associate (Devaraj).

I was moderately alarmed when I read the long list of ‘comedy uncles’ in the cast, but Srivas and writers Gopimohan and M Rathnam do an excellent job of balancing the story elements and allowing a lot of the humour to emerge in a more natural style. Kota Srinivasa Rao is in good form as the newsman father who believes he might possibly be in charge of his household. Venu Madhav and Brahmi have a running battle which keeps them from bogging down the rest of the story, and when they do interact with the rest of the characters it is usually fun. And there are some amusing touches – a fixer for Section Shankar has gunfire as his ringtone, one rowdy knocks himself out in a fight, and there are lots of little reactions and one-liners that liven things up.

The song picturisations are nothing out of the ordinary and neither is Mani Sharma’s music, but they are executed and placed well. Anushka is not much of a dancer although she does give her dance performances some energy and excellent facial expressions. I would say Gopichand’s natural genre might be ‘uncle dance’ and he does it pretty well. He certainly looked like he had fun dancing, and it added another degree of contrast to his vengeful brother aspect. And he seemed quite unperturbed by some of the shirts bestowed upon him.

Lakshyam does strain the credibility muscles more than a few times, but it is such an entertaining and well paced effort that I just go with the flow. The cast are good and are given characters with a little bit more depth than I expected. There are convoluted schemes, a deathtrap, peculiar decision making – all the trappings of a good potboiler. The writing is clever and kept me smiling if not laughing out loud. And the baddies got their various comeuppances in suitable style. It was all quite satisfying.

Give it a go! 3 ½ stars.