Seethakaathi

Seethakaathi

Vijay Sethupathi is known for his tendency to choose rather more unconventional roles and for his 25thfilm he takes on the character of an ageing theatre actor in Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Seethakaathi. The film is a refreshing mix of theatrical performances, comedy and drama underlying a satirical look at the film industry and despite only appearing for roughly forty minutes of the almost three hour run time, Vijay Sethupathi is the heart and soul of the film. Mouli, Rajkumar and Sunil Reddy play the other major characters, perfectly blending comedy and drama as the story moves through the world of theatre, into the film industry and finally ends up in a court room. It’s a novel tale that’s difficult to discuss without revealing the core idea that makes it such a wonderfully quirky and offbeat film, but it’s well worth investing the time to watch Seethakaathi in the cinema to appreciate the attention to detail and sheer inventiveness of the story.

The film starts with a series of scenes from theatrical performances featuring acclaimed actor Ayya Aadhimoolam (Vijay Sethupathi). These begin with his early career and progress through the decades via various classical scenes before ending with the elderly actor performing the lead role of Aurangzeb. As the actor ages, the setting for the plays changes too, starting with an outdoor performance under the stars, moving to a packed house in a new theatre and finally to a sparsely attended show with the theatre hall shabby and showing its age and lack of funds. Watching from the wings is Ayya’s friend Parasuraman (Mouli), while his fellow actors revere Ayya and provide partisan support for the performances. This opening section is focused firmly on Ayya as the lead actor in each theatrical vignette and Vijay Sethupathi is simply incredible, holding the audience attention though long classical speeches and in truth being the mesmerising and captivating theatre actor he plays. The ageing process is well done too and the prosthetics and make-up ensure Vijay is convincing as an elderly man, although it’s his posture and slow, considered movements that authenticate his portrayal.

Despite his success, Ayya lives simply and uses an auto to get to and from the theatre. He is shown as caring deeply about his grandson and takes care of his extended family of actors and theatre workers too. Early on in his career when he is offered film roles, he declines saying that he prefers to work in front of a live audience, however, with the theatre becoming less popular, Ayya is convinced firstly to advertise his shows in the local paper, and then later to ‘appear’ in films. However, when he fails to show, first in Director Sundar’s (Bagavathi Perumal) film with Saravanan (Rajkumar) and then later for producer/actor Dhanapal (Sunil), Ayya and Parasuraman are drawn into a court case.

Balaji Tharaneetharan adds his quirky brand of comedy to the scenes set within the film industry and there are cameos from film directors Mahendran and Bharathiraja along with some other unexpected faces. In Balaji’s cinematic world, directors are shown as having the short end of the stick; having to pander to their lead actor’s whims while placating their producers and walking a fine line between creativity and farce. The producers on the other hand are more unethical and grasping, with profit being the only interest for most, while fame and fortune quickly corrupt even the most innocent of actors. Adding Ayya into this world produces some wonderful comedy and Sunil in particular is excellent in his début role. His comic timing is superb and with some excellent slap-stick added, he really has some of the funniest moments in the whole film.  The difference between the slowly decaying artform of the theatre and the brash and opportunistic world of cinema is used to good effect, both for comedy and drama.  Even the courtroom scenes have plenty of humour which helps to keep the action moving along, despite the overall length of the film.

The female roles here are more peripheral with Archana having little to do as Ayya’s wife Lakshmi while Ramya Nambeesan, Gayathrie and Parvathy Nair all have one or two important scenes, but then they move into the background for the rest of the film. However, on the plus side there are no unnecessary romances and none of the female roles are there solely for glamour – in fact quite the opposite, despite the setting of the film industry. A few other faces appear briefly including Karunakaran as a lawyer but the action in the second half is mainly focused on Sunil and Mouli.

The story is enhanced by Govind Vasantha’s music which fits well into the general ambience of the film and provides contrast between the worlds of the theatre and the film industry without ever being too intrusive. Cinematographer T.K. Saraskanth provides plenty of warmth and nostalgia in the theatre scenes, well-seasoned with a patina of age, while the film shoots are brighter in keeping with the more brash attitudes and modern outlook. The pace of the film changes too. The early theatrical scenes are allowed to run as they would do in a conventional theatre without any chopping and changing, but as the story moves into the present day and into the film industry the pace picks up and humour is added. Just like in any film, action moves from one location to another instead of the steady and unchanging location of the theatre. It’s another contrast that highlights the differences between the two worlds, despite both being involved with acting and the telling of stories. Another plus point are the subtitles which are grammatically correct and in beautifully visible yellow font. Thanks to Aarti Sivakumar for following in Rekhs footsteps and enhancing the dialogue by making it easily read and totally understandable.

Overall, Seethakaathi is a novel story told in an unconventional way. The early slow-paced drama eases into more commonplace action although the premise behind the plot is still unusual and one that raises further questions about the nature of art. The disappearance of the main lead so early is a bold step that pays off thanks to the good writing and accomplished performances from the rest of the cast, while Vijay Sethupathy’s performance, although short, is so amazing and incredible that the memory infuses the rest of the film. I loved every minute of this film and was surprised to realise the length as I never felt that it was dragging or that anything was unnecessary to the plot. I would have liked more Vijay Sethupathi (of course!) but the rest of the cast are simply excellent and the story works incredibly well as is, while I felt the whole point was to have the impact of the early theatrical scenes overlay the rest of the film. I haven’t seen Balaji Tharaneetharan’s earlier film Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom as I’ve never been able to find a copy with subtitles, but I will definitely be looking out for his next release. Highly recommended for Vijay Sethupathi, the exemplary cast and an offbeat approach to an unconventional story.

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Puriyaatha Puthir (2017)

Puriyaatha Puthir

Ranjit Jeyakodi tries to sell an important message in Puriyaatha Puthir, but despite a decent performance from Vijay Sethupathi and good camerawork from Dinesh Krishnan, he doesn’t quite pull it off. There are some creepy moments in this thriller, but they don’t compensate for the abundance of plot holes and the slow start that drains much of the excitement well before the interval. This one falls into the ‘could have been better’ box for me, mainly due to the unevenness of the screenplay and unrealistic reactions from the lead characters as the drama unfolds.

Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi) is a musician who also runs a musical shop. He first notices Meera (Gayathrie) on a bus and becomes interested when she turns up in his music store as a customer. Meera is also a musician who works as a violin teacher in a local school, and she has a surprisingly large number of students in her classes. Who knew playing the violin was so popular! The best thing about Meera’s character is that she does actually know how to hold and play a violin, and that is a significant improvement over most actors who seem fairly clueless when handed a musical instrument to play. Although to be fair, Vijay Sethupathi also knows his way around a guitar when he gets to show off his skills later in the film. However, otherwise Gayathrie makes hard work of Meera’s character and generally appears stiff and awkward with little chemistry with her co-star during their romantic interludes.

This may be partly because the romance develops very slowly despite Meera initially asking Kathir to deliver her new violin directly to her apartment and seemingly making the first moves. When they go out together she seems skittish and shy, and doesn’t want to invite him up to her apartment at the end of the night. This leaves her alone at the entrance to her block of flats and cinematographer Dinesh Krishnan makes the most of the shadows and empty spaces to build tension and a feeling of suspense as Meera makes her way up to her apartment.  There is a good sense of menace in these scenes and Meera’s sense of panic feels very real as she suspects someone is following her home.

Although it’s Meera who appears to have a stalker, it’s Kathir who starts to get videos of Meera taken without her knowledge or consent. He’s enraged by shots of her changing in a store changing room, and bursts in to the store like a bull in a china shop, throws around wild accusations and never actually seems to explain to the shop assistants exactly why he is so distraught. I don’t think it was a subtitle issue either, as nothing Kathir said seemed to be any sort of explanation for his wild behaviour, but it’s no wonder that he doesn’t get very far in finding out the source of the videos.

At the same time, Kathir’s friends start to have problems too. An early scene shows Vinod and DJ (Arjunan) explaining to Kathir that nothing is really a crime unless you get caught! Unfortunately for both, that’s exactly what happens. Vinod works for a music TV station, but is a serial womaniser and is having an affair with his boss’s wife. He gets caught on video and ends up losing his job as a result. VJ also is exposed as a drug user on video and is subsequently arrested by the police. Whoever the stalker is, they are well-informed and always manage to be in the right place at the right time. It’s no surprise that Kathir starts to feel that he is under siege.

Although the film as a whole doesn’t quite hit the mark, there are some excellent ideas adrift in the choppy waters of the story. At one point Kathir does the sensible thing and goes to report Meera’s video stalker to the police. However, once there he realises that the police aren’t interested in discovering who is behind the videos at all – they just want to see the images of Kathir’s girlfriend in various states of undress. They appear to be no different from the stalker, in fact seem much worse given that they should be investigating the crime, and Kathir realises he can’t get any help from official sources. Who do you turn to when the people supposed to deal with crime are more interested in perpetuating the assault themselves? A scene where Kathir ends up standing exposed in the rain is also well staged as is the creepy discovery that the messages are coming from the phone of a girl who suicided a few years previously, but unfortunately in between there are too many plot holes that weaken the tension.

Ramesh Thilak appears in a rather bizarre role that doesn’t make any sense. I think he was supposed to be a significant red herring, but instead just seems out-of-place and an unfortunate add-on to the plot. The video’s too become less feasible, while Meera seems either too unconcerned and overly compliant with Kathir’s demands, or bizarrely happy to head back to her apartment alone at night. It takes Kathir finding a diary (sigh) to finally work out what is going, and by that stage I’d really lost interest in the proceedings.

Puriyaatha Puthir was filmed in 2013/2014, back when Vijay had just completed such diverse films as Soodhu Kavvum and Pannaiyarum Padminiyum, and was starting to make a name for himself. Here he carries the film on his shoulders, and it’s only though his intense belief in the story that a number of unlikely scenarios and appear even vaguely plausible. Part of the problem may be that when this film was written there was less media attention and community awareness about the topic of cyber-harassment. Making Kathir appear angry and his reactions so intense probably made sense to get the outrage and sense of violation from the videos across to the audience. Nowadays we are all more familiar with the crime and here Kathir’s confusion and anger seem to be initially misdirected, although blaming the victim for the crime is sadly still something that occurs even now. Vijay Sethupathi is definitely watchable and his anger and despair are well expressed, along with his frustration, but it’s not enough to keep the tension and suspense the film needs to be effective.

The issue of cyber-crime has been addressed in a few films recently, and as a crime with serious consequences it’s a worthwhile topic too, but the treatment needs to be much tighter than Ranjit Jeyakodi achieves here. There are some good moments but the slow romance, flashback sequence and character reactions are at odds with developing suspense. Worth watching for Vijay Sethupathi and some good tunes from Sam C.S, but that’s about it.