The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir

Ken Scott directed this joint English/French film based on Romain Puertolas’s best-selling novel with the even longer title: ‘The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe’. Dhanush stars as Ajatashatru Lavash Patel, aka Aja, a con-man from India who embarks on a fantastic adventure across Europe while trying to get back to Paris. The film is a feel-good fantasy that’s occasionally a little too sweet and simplistic, but the colourful locations and an engaging performance from Dhanush ensure that it’s entertaining throughout. The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir released in Melbourne as part of the Indian Film Festival after debuting in France earlier this year, and is slated for a summer release in Australia.

The film starts in India where young Aja (Hearty Singh) lives with his mother Siringh (Amrutha Sant) and drives her to distraction with constant questions about his missing father. Siringh works in the dhobi ghat and to supplement their meagre income, Aja cons tourists on the streets of Bombay. Along with his two cousins, he steals wallets and picks pockets by distracting tourist with his magic tricks. Perhaps Aja’s greatest revelation occurs when his school lessons teach him that he is in fact poor, something that had previously never occurred to him, and which totally changes his view of the world. Another critical moment comes when he picks up an Ikea catalogue in the doctor’s surgery and instantly finds the perfect ideal for his imagination. He pictures his neighbourhood just like a catalogue page and has memorised every collection despite the difficult Swedish names. Naturally then when he discovers that his father was actually a street performer from Paris, part of his wish list is to visit Ikea and finally see all the marvellous collections for real. His mother had always talked about going to Paris, so when she dies, Aja decides to finally make the trip.

Aja’s father had sent love letters to Siringh, and armed with these, his mother’s ashes and his new passport, he sets off for Paris to find his father, and to visit Ikea. By chance he meets Marie (Erin Moriarty), an America ex-pat living and working in Paris, and immediately falls in love. They arrange to meet the next evening at the Eiffel tower, but with no money, Aja elects to stay in the Ikea store overnight, and that’s where his troubles begin. He hides in a wardrobe which is subsequently shipped off to England with Aja inside. The wardrobe is part of a load in a lorry which also contains a group of illegal immigrants and reality starts to encroach on the fantasy as they describe some of their experiences and the sad fates of others who had started the journey with them.

Aja is picked up by English customs, who then send him to Spain, along with many other displaced persons they want to deport. They all end up stuck in the no-man’s land of the airport since the Spanish authorities also deny them entry. Ken Scott keeps up the whimsey with Aja but still manages to convey the despair and hopelessness of the refugees stuck in limbo while various governments argue their fate. It may be a rose-tinted version, but the rows of sleeping bags still speaks to a problem that is all too real and still current across many countries.

Aja manages to escape and travels to Italy where he meets film star Nelly (Bérénice Bejo) before falling foul of pirates and ending up in Libya. Here, he reunites with Somalian refugee Wiraj (Barkhad Abdi) before finally making his way back to Paris. His travels are all by the most unlikely methods – a suitcase, hot-air balloon and of course by wardrobe, which keeps a fantastical atmosphere to the story, while Aja’s ability to always land on his feet adds a fairy-tale quality to the tale. Dhanush keeps the child-like innocence portrayed so well by Hearty Singh, but adds some street smarts and an ability to engineer his way out of every difficulty. It’s his warm-hearted portrayal of a rather naïve con-man that makes the story magical and more than just a series of mishaps and contrived co-incidences.

There is plenty of comedy included in the adventures as Aja struggles to cope with officials, foreign customs and occasionally his own ineptitude while trying to make it back to Paris, and Marie. Dhanush is charming and perfectly cast as the well-meaning and kind-hearted magician who seems to strike bad luck at every turn. Until he improves his karma, of course. He fits into the role well, and as always puts his heart and soul into the performance, making us all want him to get back to Paris and win the girl, even though she’s rather drab and dull in comparison. Erin Moriarty is pleasant enough as the love of Aja’s life, but there is little life or sparkle in her character and it’s her friend Julie (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse) who makes more of an impression, despite a dodgy storyline about her attempts to embrace an alternative life-style. Bérénice Bejo is much better as the Italian star and she even gets a dance routine with Dhanush, who burns up the dancefloor in his usual signature style.

Cinematographer Vincent Mathias splashes colour across the screen and makes Paris look magical, as we see it though Aja’s eyes. Italy gleams in the bright sunshine, and even Libya is colourful with all the migrants scattered across the sand dunes. There is a richness and vibrancy to every scene and the story is appealing with a good mix of comedy, adventures and magical fantasy. It is overly naïve at times, and there are rather too many chance meetings and lucky breaks for Aja, but if you want an amusing and non-taxing adventure with a feel-good storyline and charming lead, you won’t go far wrong with The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir.

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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.

Velaiilla Pattadhari (VIP) 2

VIP Poster

Sequels are always tricky. Returning to a popular character or scenario is fraught with unfavourable comparisons, and finding a new story that works while retaining the aspects that made the original film so popular is another minefield to cross. There are a few sequels that turn out better than the original film but they are the exception, and sadly VIP 2 isn’t one of them. However, while it may not be the best sequel ever made, it’s certainly not the worst and as an all-round entertainer, it fares reasonably well. Most of the success is due to Dhanush who carries the film over some occasionally rough ground, but Kajol makes a better than average adversary while the presence of many of the original cast (including Harry Potter) ensure good continuity with the first film.

After dealing with Arun in VIP, the sequel opens with Raghuvaran (Dhanush) still working for Ramkumar (M.J. Shriram) at Anitha Constructions and winning the Engineer of the Year award. This brings him to the attention of Vasundhara Parameshwar (Kajol) who runs the biggest engineering firm in South India. Raghuvaran’s dismissal of her offer of employment rankles, but not as much as his admonishment to be less arrogant when Anitha Constructions wins a big contract over Vasundhara. A self-made woman who has clawed her way up from the bottom, Vasundhara makes it her mission in life to squash Raghuvaran like the bug she perceives him to be, but of course it’s not going to be as simple as she believes.

All the elements are there from the previous film, Raghuvaran’s beloved cycle, his dedication to the memory of his mother, and his unfortunate tendency to drink too much when faced with a problem. What doesn’t work quite so well is the change in Shalini (Amala Paul) from a sensible romantic interest to a shrewish and nagging wife. Supposedly this is due to giving up her job and taking over all the household chores, which to be perfectly honest is enough to drive anyone to grumpiness, but the constant bickering wears thin very fast. Worst still, Shalini’s nagging is supposed to be funny, but it’s just as irritating to the audience as to Raghuvaran’s family.

Kajol is a huge improvement over Arun and his father as the villain of the piece. Her entrance is more typical of a hero as the first glimpse is of her stylish and very pointed stiletto hitting the ground as she arrives at the Engineering awards ceremony. In fact, the crowd reaction was just as loud and enthusiastic for Vasundhara’s entrance as it was for Raghuvaran’s first appearance on screen. Kajol totally owns the role and her arrogance and confidence are a perfect balance to Raghuvaran and Ramkumar’s humility and attention to detail. And yet she’s not evil or out to destroy the poor of society, simply determined to push though her own ideas and methods regardless of anyone standing in her way. However, after a great start, her repeated attempts to get the better of Raghuvaran start to seem petty and churlish rather than decisive and it seems unlikely that someone who had the strength and ability to run a successful company would be quite as petulant and narrow-minded. Still, Kajol is stunning as she sweeps around in her tailored suits and stylish sunglasses, while her menacing dialogues are surprisingly effective.

Raghuvan’s father (Samuthirakani) is a more supportive figure this time round, but his brother Karthik (Hrishkesh) barely gets to say a word and most of the VIP boys suffer the same fate. Without any substantial input, they become a faceless mass without any of the charm or appeal that allowed a connection to develop to these characters in the original film. The film is significantly more focused on Dhanush, who has the acting chops to carry it off, but at the expense of a more coherent storyline. The plot wanders as story and screenplay writers Dhanush and Soundarya Rajinikanth try to include as many of the characters as possible from VIP 1, but run out of things for them all to do. Saravana Subbiah pops up as an unscrupulous developer while Vivek reprises his role as Raghuvaran’s side-kick Azhagusundaram. While both are fine in their roles, the characters seem to be added in, one for comedy and one to have a reason for the fight scenes, rather than have a true background and reason to be in the script. The final confrontation between Raghuvaran and Vasundhara is also a little disappointing although otherwise the chemistry between Dhanush and Kajol is excellent and the atmosphere between the two crackles at each meeting.

Sean Roldan’s music is perfectly fine but the songs don’t have the same anthemic qualities as Anirudh’s previous tunes, a fact underscored every time the original theme for Raghuvaran plays in the background. However, the choreography is slicker than in the first film and the fight scenes are also of a high quality.

If this was a stand-alone film, I would have rated it as a good action movie with an interesting concept and two excellent characters in Raghuvaran and Vasundhara. The addition of a strong and powerful female character works well here, and Dhanush emphasizes gender equality a number of times throughout the film, although it doesn’t quite gel with his wife having stopped work to look after the family home. The problem is that this is a sequel, and while the original elements are cleverly arranged to form the foundation of the film, too much feels to be added simply because it was part of the first film, while VIP2 doesn’t have a strong enough identity to pull away and succeed without that original scaffolding being firmly in place. It is however much better than I expected and both Dhanush and Kajol turn in strong performances under Soundarya’s direction to make VIP2 more than just a film for fans, but one that’s unlikely to reach quite the same cult status as the original movie.