24 (2016)

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For a science fiction film about time travel there is something more than a little magical about 24. Vikram Kumar has come up with a compelling story and made a technically excellent film with a well-chosen cast who all perform beautifully. Suriya is outstanding, favourites Ajay and Saranya Ponvannan are impressive in rather more substantial roles than expected and the whole film is a wonderful masala mix of action, drama, romance, comedy and mystery. Definitely one to catch in the cinema to fully appreciate the VFX but also well worth watching for the expertly crafted story and first-rate cast.

24 combines many of the usual elements of a Tamil film, but although the ingredients may be commonplace the resulting story is refreshingly novel. First there is the rivalry between two brothers; Sethuraman and Athreya (both Suriya), one a brilliant but obsessed and oblivious scientist working on a device that will allow travel through time, and the other his jealous and coldly calculating elder brother who will stop at nothing to steal the device for himself. Moving 26 years into the present day, there is Sethuraman’s son Mani (also Suriya) who knows nothing of his past, his adopted mother Sathyabhama (Saranya Ponvannan) who has sacrificed everything to keep Mani safe and the evil Athreya still trying to track down the device to try to rewrite his own past. These are all familiar plot elements but here cleverly put together to ensure there are plenty of surprises throughout and just when it seems the next step in the journey is inevitable, Vikram Kumar twists the path and the story heads off in an unexpected direction.

The opening scenes are amazing and although supposedly set in 1990, the steam train, cars, motorbikes and fairy tale-like mansion give an older-world ambiance. This is helped by the lighting which is golden, warm and suggestive of candle-light especially when compared to scenes set in the present day that are lit more brightly with colder, bluer lighting. Sethuraman has converted his entire house into a gigantic laboratory to work on his invention, and in typical mad-scientist style he has secret rooms, hidden passage-ways and odd devices everywhere. Think Wallace (Wallace and Grommit) with a bigger budget. Thanks to the intervention of a CGI eagle, Sethuraman manages to create a watch that will allow time travel but before he can celebrate his success, his elder brother Athreya shows up to steal the invention. Suriya’s Sethuraman is a classic bespectacled and nerdy inventor, right down to his abstraction when his wife Priya (Nithya Menen) tries to get him to help with their young son Manikanden and various dangerous substances inappropriately placed for safety around the room. This of course allows for maximum damage when Athreya shows up but paint a picture of a ‘typical’ scientist which Vikram Kumar then turns on its head as Sethuraman turns out to be more practical than first impressions suggest. The opening scene sets the precedent for the rest of the film – there is a good amount of humour, plenty of action and drama with Suriya drawing all eyes and commanding centre stage throughout.

The film moves 26 years into the future where Mani is grown up and working as a watch mechanic with no knowledge of his past, or just what he has in an unbreakable box that he cannot open. Athreya is still around too, although after the events 26 years ago he is a crippled shadow of his former self getting around in a motorised wheelchair after waking up from a coma. Athreya is as malevolent as ever and with the help of his trusty sidekick Mithran (Ajay) goes about trying to turn back time 26 years to reverse his accident and regain the use of his legs. Again Suriya does a fantastic job with the character of Athreya – he’s confidently wicked in 1990 when he goes after his brother and his family, and wonderfully warped and bitter in 2016 as a twisted figure in a wheel-chair. Suriya brings the character to life and makes him so much more than a stock evil villain.

Mani is more the kind of character Suriya has played in recent films, but with a hint of mischievousness that differentiates Mani from the likes of Massu and Raju Bhai. There are some well scripted moments between Mani and his onscreen mother Sathyabhama which give Saranya Ponvannan more than the usual mother/son dialogues to get her teeth into. As always she’s the quintessential filmi ma, but here she gets to have a back story and separate personality aside from being a mother and she rises beautifully to the opportunity.

There is also a romance – of course – there has to be a romance! Mani falls for Sathya (Samantha) just as he discovers his father’s watch, and the romance is partly an excuse to showcase all the things the watch can do. The love story is the most conventional part of the film but Suriya and Samantha have good chemistry and Vikram Kumar adds in some light-hearted comedy to ensure the romance doesn’t overcome the action. Girish Karnad, Mohan V. Raman and Sudha as members of Sathya’s family add more background and all are good in their respective roles.

A.R. Rahman provides the music, but it’s around an hour in before the first dance number which is the appropriately electronic sounding Kaalam en Kadhali. I loved Suriya’s dancing in this – it was definitely worth the wait! The rest of the songs are more romantic and fit less well into the narrative, although I did appreciate the black and white co-coordinating costumes in Naan Un. The music itself is lovely, but the songs slow down the narrative and really don’t seem particularly necessary to move the story forward.

Although there is plenty of good comedy in 24, it’s kept light and even Sathyan, as Mani’s friend Saravanan, is more restrained than usual. It is still laugh-out-loud funny in parts though which provides a good contrast to the few more violent scenes, particularly one just before the interval which is shocking in its sudden brutality. However that is the exception and most of the fight scenes rely on intelligence rather than brute force.

24 has the look and feel of a Hollywood film without losing any of its Southern Indian roots. If this had been a Western film, no doubt 3 different actors would have been cast in the different roles of Mani, Sethuraman and Athreya, but in part the film works so well here because it is the same actor in all three roles. Watching Suriya play three very different characters is mesmerising all by itself while ensuring the familial relationship forms part of the story. Plus more Suriya is generally a good thing! The visual effects are slick, polished and look amazing, while the cinematography from S. Tirru is excellent, adding another layer to the story and ensuring a sophisticated look to the film.

Vikram Kumar impressed me in Manam with his ability to make a complex story flow easily and he does it again here. Yes, there are a few too many coincidences and no-one seems to worry about what will happen to the future when the past is altered, but these are small issues that don’t seem to matter when the rest of the film is so well done. 24 is an excellent piece of storytelling and the best big budget film of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

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Rana Vikrama

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Time for another adventure without subtitles; this time the Puneeth Rajkumar starrer Rana Vikrama that released earlier this year in India and showed this weekend in Melbourne. Written and directed by Pavan Wadeyar, it’s an action movie that follows a fairly predictable path but is kept moving along by the Power Star’s charismatic presence and some good action sequences. Throw in some better than average songs, a dash of comedy, and Rana Vikrama is a more entertaining watch than the opening scenes would suggest.

The story starts with a rather over the top British Officer in the last days of the British Raj. As expected, the Viceroy (Vikram Singh) is obnoxious, controlling, vindictive and just plain evil, although since Vikram Singh overacts and has been inexplicably dubbed by someone with an East European accent he ends up more comical than villainous. Unfortunately he’s not the only victim of the poor dubbing as a number of later scenes supposedly set in London feature reporters and lackeys also badly dubbed into grammatically incorrect and oddly accented English. Skipping over these technical issues, Vikram Singh chews the scenery for a while and eventually attempts to kill upstart villager Vikrama (Puneeth Rajkumar). Naturally he is no match for the tough local who wins the day despite being beaten, weighed down by chains and shot. Twice. Take note Hollywood – that’s how hard it is to kill a real hero!

The film then flashes forward to the present day where Vikram (Puneeth Singh again) is an aspiring police officer. Despite his obvious physical fitness, he is rejected by the enrolment officer time and time again however Vikram is determined to succeed, somewhat against the wishes of his fiancée Paaru (Adah Sharma) who would prefer him to stay with her. Vikram is thrown a lifeline by the Home Minister (Girish Karnad) who appoints him as a police trainee and sends him off to investigate a missing reporter somewhere in the border between Karnataka and Maharashtra. After a few hiccups Vikram finds the spot where workers in chains are toiling away in what appears to be an open cast mine, and makes short shrift of the numerous thugs and villains overseeing the project in classic filmi hero ishstyle.

The village has been keep secret for many years due to the nefarious dealings of none other than the British Viceroy’s descendant and the richest man in Britain, Jonathan (Vikram Singh again). He’s just as prone to overacting as his grandfather but with less reason, since he’s supposed to be a successful if rather unscrupulous businessman. However once Jonathan discovers that his secret has been discovered he jets in to India and prepares to get rid of Vikram once and for all.

Before we can get to the ultimate showdown however, there is a flashback sequence which explains the opening scene and also exactly why Jonathan’s family wants the land. Vikrama is married to Gowri (Anjali) for this sequence and the couple share good chemistry making this a better pairing than Puneeth Rajkumar and Adah Sharma in the present day. Anjali also gets to swing a sword and her feisty nature fits well into the storyline making her a more memorable and likeable character. I love this song featuring Gowri and Vikrama, which has the added benefit of a gigantic drum as a stage for Vikram’s dance moves. There is always something very special about oversized musical instruments in a dance number!

Generally the songs from V. Harikrishna are catchy and the choreography and picturisations are effective with some excellent costumes and imaginative settings. The songs also fit well into the narrative, something which is often more hit and miss in an action film, but they do work well here. If only such attention to detail had carried over into the dubbing and present day Anjali’s make-up to turn her into Vikram’s grandmother. This basically doesn’t work, and casting an older actress instead would have been a better option given that Gowri has little to do in these sequences other than look old and frail (which she doesn’t) and point dramatically at significant moments in the story. There is also a heavy reliance on clips of TV news reports which dulls the impact of some of the more dramatic scenes, although overall S. Vaidhy’s cinematography is impressive.

Although the film doesn’t cover any new ground and the heroic antics are far-fetched and fairly improbable, Rana Vikrama is still fun to watch. The action sequences from Ravi Verma are well thought out and the Power Star perfectly fits the role of a rough and tough police officer. It’s Puneeth Rajkumar’s film all the way and he does an excellent job of holding the story together despite the caricature of a villain and the rather OTT final sequence. I would have liked a little more care with some of the more technical aspects, but it’s still an entertaining film and one definitely worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Dor (2006)

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Dor is one of those rare gems in Indian cinema – a film with strong female characters and an engaging story that keeps you hooked right to the end. There are excellent performances from all the cast and the visuals are stunning with beautiful shots of Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan.  It’s a story that contains many aspects of love and friendship, but it also shines a light on the life of women in rural India and the harsh realities of losing the protection of a husband in a patriarchal society. 

The film tells the story of Zeenat (Gul Panag) and Meera (Ayesha Takia), two completely different women in matters of personality and culture, and how their lives become intertwined.  Despite their many differences the two women also have some commonality as they are both recently married and their husbands have left to work in the Middle East.  In the opening scenes, director and writer Nagesh Kukunoor uses similar events in the lives of the two women to illustrate differences in their temperament and situation which rather neatly gives the bare bones of the plot, as well as introducing the characters.

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Gul Panag suits the character of Zeenat and perfectly captures her stubborn independence.  Zeenat is a Muslim woman from a small town in Himachal Pradesh who is determined to live life on her own terms and maintain her freedom.  For example, when her suitor Aamir (Rushad Rana) comes courting Zeenat rejects his advances in favour of repairing her house – personally I would have put him to work! This down-to-earth practicality and lack of sentimentality is repeated throughout the film which has the effect of making the few romantic moments much sweeter as a result of their rarity.

Despite her independent nature, Zeenat does love Aamir and when word comes that he has been detained in prison for the suspected crime of killing his room-mate, she immediately springs to his defence.  Zeenat is convinced that the death must have been an accident and is dismayed to learn that Aamir has been sentenced to death unless she can obtain a pardon from the wife of the dead man.  Zeenat has a close relationship with the local Imam and takes his advice on how to track down the young woman who may be the means to Aamir’s freedom. 

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Although she doesn’t know anything about the woman’s whereabouts, Zeenat heads off to Rajasthan with a small bag, a photograph of the two men and a huge amount of determination and optimism.  Her faith in the universe seems to be answered when she meets up with a Behroopiya (Shreyas Talpade) despite the fact that at their first meeting he tricks and robs her.  However it is the Behroopiya who does manage to lead her in the right direction to find Meera. 

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Throughout the opening scenes with Zeenat, we are also introduced to Meena and her very different outlook on life.  Meera is happily married to Shankar (Anirudh Jaykar) and has no problems living within the confines of a strictly traditional family in Rajasthan.  Ayesha Takia portrays Meena as young and innocent, flirting as she dances joyously for her husband, and becoming upset that he is leaving to work abroad.  Her youth is also shown in her pride that it is her husband who is earning the money which will buy back the family’s ancestral home.  However as the story progresses and Meena finds out that Shankar has been killed, she exhibits maturity along with strength and resilience as her world crumbles around her.

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Ayesha Takia is very impressive in a role that demands  her character go through a major upheaval in her life and cope with the aftermath.  She makes the transition from young wife to virtual living non-entity as a widow very naturally and brings out every emotion as Meera has to deal with her new status in life.  Her reaction to the suitcase of her husbands clothes is perfectly nuanced and her moments of joy as she discovers friendship are beautifully acted.  It’s not surprising that she won a number of awards for her performance here.  One of my favourite moments is when she dances in the desert with Zeenat and the Behroopiyah – perfect!

Although at times the contrasts between the two women seems a little too contrived, for the most part the juxtaposition of their different lives works well. The grief and devastation shown by Meera for the double blows of the death of her husband and her loss of freedom is realistically portrayed while Zeenat’s self-contained grief is tempered with her determination and drive to save her husband at all costs.  Both actors seem very well suited to their roles, and Shreyas Talpede adds just the right amount of comic relief as the Behroopiya.  This character appears to be some kind of a guardian angel or possibly just an embodiment of Zeenat’s subconscious, as he watches over Zeenat and gives her advice.  It’s effective, especially when added into the more dream-like landscape of Rajasthan. 

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DorThere is one misstep in the film with the director playing a sleazy businessman who is renting the house in Rajasthan.  His repellent suggestion to Meera’s father in law feels filmi and false compared to the rest of the screenplay, although otherwise both Girish Karnad and Prateeksha Lonkar are excellent in the roles of Meera’s in-laws.

The background score by Salim – Sulaiman Merchant is beautiful and although there are no song and dance numbers the dancing within the film is spontaneous and just wonderful. This is another excellent song which shows Zeenat’s journey from Himachal Pradesh along with Meera’s symbolic journey from wife to widow.

Although not credited, Dor is based on a Malayalam film Perumazhakkalam which perhaps explains the quality of the story.  I’m still trying to track down a copy of this original film with English subtitles as it also won numerous awards and I’d like to compare the two.  However, Dor is still an enchanting film and the two leads ensure that the quality of the acting is as impressive as the screenplay and Sudeep Chatterjee’s gorgeous cinematography.  Although there is an underlying theme relating to the plight of women and their lack of value in some parts of India, it’s counterbalanced by Zeenat’s fierce independence and fighting spirit, so Dor never feels too preachy or morally worthy.  it’s a simple tale, beautifully told and I thoroughly recommend it.  4 ½ stars.

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