Kuttrame Thandanai (2016)

After Kaaka Muttai, M. Manikandan’s second film is a crime thriller where the sole witness to a murder is a man who is gradually losing his vision. Despite some dodgy medical diagnoses, the story itself is gripping with the identity of the murderer kept hidden right until the end. With plenty of twists and a great performance from Vidharth in the lead role, Kutrame Thandanai is an interesting film that deserves a second glance.

Right from the start we learn that Ravi (Vidharth) has a problem with his eyes. He has tunnel vision (due to retinitis pigmentosa according to his ophthalmologist), but the retinal image shown does not show the condition, and the symptoms don’t quite match up either. Ravi is told that he needs an eye transplant to ‘cure’ his problem, which is also impossible (there is no possible way to treat the retinal damage from retinitis pigmentosa), but the sum of money he needs for the operation becomes the central point of the story. The camera often shows Ravi’s view to accentuate his limited vision, which works effectively to help understand his very real problems.

Ravi works as a collector for a credit card collection office, where his co-worker Anu (Pooja Devariya) appears to have a crush on him, and as a result smooths his relationship with the manager (George Maryan). As his vision is getting worse day by day, Ravi starts to try and raise the money for his operation. He starts by trying to get a loan at work, but the amount is much too large. A glass-blowing friend (Nasser) is also unable to give him the money he needs, and it seems that Ravi is doomed to eventual blindness with the added misery of no longer being able to drive and at risk of losing his job. But then a girl who lives in his block of flats is murdered. Ravi sees a young man Arun (leave her apartment in a rage, and subsequently meets an older man at the scene. But which is responsible for the murder? 

As first Vijay Prakash (Rahman) and then Arun’s father offers Ravi money for his silence, it seems possible that he might be able to fund his operation at last. But in his search for what he needs, Ravi has to turn his back on justice for the murdered girl, Swetha (Aishwarya Rajesh). It’s a moral dilemma and writers M. Manikandan and Anand Annamalai have built the story around the question of moral ambiguity. Either of the two men could potentially be responsible for the murder, while Ravi is blackmailing them for his silence. There are also questions raised about the morality of the health service, which demands payment in full before even putting Ravi onto a waiting list for his operation. Even the other residents in the building appear to have double standards, being reluctant to speak to the police and get involved, but discussing Swetha’s death among themselves. There is also the issue that Swetha was being visited by several men, with an unspoken but inferred social agreement that she had contributed to her own death. The police are the least morally corrupt in the entire story, as they continue to look for justice for Swetha, despite being hampered by uncommunicative residents of the apartment block, and a general lack of clues. 

The crime is treated rather lightly, and the plot instead focuses on Ravi and the gradual change in his ethics as he becomes ever more desperate for money. Is it OK to demand money for his operation from a man who may potentially be a murder. As more details are revealed, Ravi’s actions become ever more questionable as we find he know who the real murderer is, and yet continues to auction his silence to the highest bidder. His actions also cause consequences for those people that he drags into his scheme, although these are only seen from Ravi’s point of view. Essentially the film shows how selfish we become when faced with a problem such as Ravi’s blindness. Not only is he losing his sight, but he’s also unable to see anything other than his own problems.

Although Kutrame Thandanai doesn’t have the instant appeal of Kaaka Muttai and the plot is also slow to develop, it does have great characterisations. It does take a long time before the crucial murder and the blackmail story also develops later in the plot, but what I like is the moral ambiguity that threads through the entire story. The characters are inherently normal people with the usual mix of corruption and innocence, and what works well is the way that we only tend to see their reactions through Ravi’s eyes. There is a good sense of Ravi’s thought processes and why he decides on blackmail as the solution for his problems, even though this is possibly the worst decision he could make. Vidharth puts in a great performance that ensure we see Ravi as a typical low-income worker who is desperate to save his sight and therefore his livelihood. I really like how he stops driving when told to do so by the doctor, but then makes more questionable decisions when faced with the potential to change his fate. In real life, many patients would not do the former, at least not until they have worked through the consequences, but few would decide to follow Ravi’s later decisions. Here too, Nasser works well as Ravi’s sounding board and source of moral counsel, even though he doesn’t really seem to understand the reality of Ravi’s vision loss. The cast all provide solid support and although Aishwarya Rajesh only has brief appearances, she still makes an impression while Pooja Devariya ensures that her character is memorable for all the right reasons.

Ilaiyaraaja’s background music is beautiful and soars above the grimy streets that M. Manikandan captures so well. The ambiguity of the characters is well depicted and the story raises many questions about morality and how it applies in different situations. Ravi’s tunnel vision is literal, but also applies to many of the other characters in the way they view the world as well as to Ravi’s own interpretation of his situation. Interesting and more complex that it first appears, Kutrame Thandanai is a worthwhile watch and highly recommended. 4 stars.

Shamitabh

Shamitabh

Shamitabh is the third film featuring Amitabh Bachchan from writer/director R. Balki and it’s definitely my pick of the three. I may however be somewhat biased, given that this film also stars my favourite Tamil actor Dhanush, who never fails to impress with his performance and delivers yet again in Shamitabh. I’ve found that while Balki’s previous two films Cheeni Kum and Paa have clever and overall engaging ideas, the execution doesn’t always live up to expectations. And to a lesser extent it’s the same with Shamitabh, although here there is more hit than miss and the film succeeds in humorously poking fun at a number of different aspects of the film industry. There are a few too many contrivances to make the plot really gel and the dodgy medical science is a drawback, but the central theme of two warring egos against the backdrop of the superficial and glamorous world of Bollywood is compelling enough to ensure an entertaining watch.

The film opens with a success event for début actor Shamitabh (Dhanush), and the impact on the room of invited guests is much the same as for the film audience when Dhanush opens his mouth and the voice of Amitabh Bachchan rolls out. The contrast could not be greater and it’s this combination of actor and voice that has made Shamitabh such a success in his first film. But before the phenomenon that is Shamitabh there was Daanish, a mute boy so obsessed with films that he dreamt of running away to Mumbai to be a hero. I don’t know who the young actor is who plays the young Daanish but he is absolutely brilliant, particularly when his exasperated teacher makes him act in front of the class. The anguish in his portrayal of despair at the supposed death of his mother is incredible and from that point it does seem possible that perhaps Daanish could be a hero despite his lack of a voice. However once he grows up and does make it to Mumbai, it’s evident that no matter how good an actor Daanish is, he will never be able to make it into the film industry without a voice.

Enter a young and ambitious AD Akshara (Akshara Haasan) who is impressed by the aspiring actor and decides to try and help him gain his dream. There is a wonderful irony in the rejection of an actor because he cannot speak in an industry that relies heavily on dubbing, which is of course the whole point. In one of those plot contrivances, Akshara’s father is a doctor whose laryngologist friend just happens to have heard about revolutionary new surgery in Finland. Somehow Akshara convinces her father to send Daanish for the surgery, which involves implanting a device in his throat which can store and then play back someone else’s speaking voice. As Bollywood medicine goes it isn’t the most ridiculous I’ve seen, but it’s certainly close and it’s probably best not to dwell on the lack of logic or the major holes with the technology and just go with it for the sake of the plot.

Naturally then, given the choice of absolutely anyone who could become his ‘voice’, Daanish decides to go with an older alcoholic who doesn’t look as if he will make it to the interval before succumbing to liver failure, let alone the entire career span of a young and upcoming actor. Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) came to Mumbai years before with a similar dream of being a hero, but was rejected because of his deep and powerful voice, ending up in the gutter where Daanish and Akshara find him. Despite his shabby and homeless appearance Amitabh lives in a graveyard, symbolism definitely intended, and doesn’t take too much persuading to sign up as the voice of Daanish. The idea is that he will in some way get his own back on the industry that denied him a chance at success, although he settles for a small proportion of Daanish’s earnings and the position of valet to hide his real occupation.

The composite of Daanish and Amitabh as ‘Shamitabh’ (a necessary change to deal with numerology issues) is instantly successful and Balki throws in plenty more digs at Bollywood clichés including product placement (the film is called Lifebuoy) and the inevitable romantic song. These, along with camero appearances by the likes of Rekha and Karan Johar keep the audience smiling despite the underlying tension and hostility between the ‘actor’ and his ‘voice’.

The relationship between Daanish and Amitabh is not a happy one, as Daanish struggles to deal with his unpredictable partner and Amitabh becomes ever more resentful of the fame and recognition heaped on Daanish. Daanish for his part is determined to prove that his charisma and acting skill is enough and the voice irrelevant, while Amitabh strives to prove that without his voice Daanish would be nothing. Akshara is forced to be the mediator in the middle, a role she neither wants nor fully accepts which leads to further tension and discord.

Amitabh has a tendency to ham it up as the gruff and grumpy alcoholic, particularly when he is the main focus of a scene, but he is excellent in his interactions with Dhanush and their mutual enmity boils off the screen when they face off against each other. Dhanush is as amazing as ever in a role where he never speaks but still conveys frustration at his predicament or excitement with his success with consummate ease.  The two actors work well together and their relationship is perfectly nuanced as they battle it out despite the occasionally forced and laboured storyline.

Akshara Haasan is also good and holds her own beside two such good performances from Dhanush and Amitabh. She has her own obsession and I like the way her character holds true to this dream, refusing to be merely the bridge to success for Shamitabh or even worse just a passing love interest. Her character is more interesting than that and Akshara is impressively successful in bringing her ambitious assistant director to life.

Although the relationship between the two men is well captured some of the story veers into ridiculous a little too often. I don’t understand the Bollywood obsession with toilet humour, and here Balki adds so much bathroom based comedy that I can’t be sure if he’s being satirical or whether he does actually think this is funny. Some of it works, but like Amitabh’s continual references to whiskey and water as similes for himself and Daanish, it does wear thin after a while.

Although the first half is excellent, the film falters towards the end, with the climax in particular being drawn out and almost clumsy in execution. By the end, neither Amitabh nor Daanish are particularly likeable as the success of their composite Shamitabh brings out their worst qualities, so it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for their plight, although the relationship itself is fascinating as it self destructs. However the rest of the film more than makes up for the clunky end, and the excellent performances from the three main leads ensure that the good idea of the story isn’t lost somewhere behind the dodgy medicine. Worth watching for a satirical look at the Bollywood film industry and an unusual relationship that is cleverly drawn and intelligently developed despite the manipulations required to start it in the first place. 3 ½ stars.

Nandalala

Nandalala

I’m a big fan of Mysskin and have been slowing working my way through his earlier films whenever I can track them down on DVD. However I put Nandalala at the end of the queue, since it’s a change of direction from his more usual crime thrillers and didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But I should have known better. Nandalala is still very much a Mysskin film with a focus on the dark side of human nature, although this time there are some lighter moments scattered among the social commentary of the film. Even better, Mysskin himself makes an appearance in this film as one of the lead characters and does almost as good a job in front of the camera as he does on the other side.

Essentially Nandalala is a road-trip film with a young boy and a mental patient who has escaped from an asylum both searching for their mother, although their reasons for doing so are very different. Aside from their own journeys, both physical and metaphorical, along the way they meet up with an interesting mix of characters that serve to illustrate the joys and the difficulties of life in rural India. Although it does move at a slow pace, perhaps to go along with the walking pace of the journey, Nandalala is a beautiful film with a heartfelt screenplay and is very well worth a watch.

The story opens with Akhilesh, commonly known as Agi (Ashwath Ram), waiting outside his school. There are 15 seconds of silence while other pupils and their parents’ stream past his downcast head, which is an incredibly effective way to describe his isolation and give a general idea of his circumstances. When Agi does walk home, it’s to a greedy servant and his blind grandmother, both of whom need him for their own reasons. While it’s obvious he doesn’t live in abject poverty, there is little affection and no joy in Agi’s life. His most precious possession is a photograph of himself with his mother as a baby and he takes advantage of a school trip to set off on a journey to find her. Agi seems well prepared with his mother’s address, her photograph and a relatively full wallet, but he doesn’t have any real idea about how to find her. Just to make matters worse he is robbed in the local town and left without the means to buy anything let alone a bus ticket to Annaivayal. His journey seems to be over before it has started but he chances to meet up with Bhaskar Mani (Mysskin), a mentally disabled man who has escaped from an asylum and is trying to find his own mother. Bhaskar is searching for answers, wanting to know why his mother abandoned him to the mercies of the hospital staff and has never visited or contacted him. Despite their many differences, they make a good team as they travel together to find their respective mothers.

In many ways Agi is a typical young boy from a small town. He’s had a sheltered existence and his innocence and loving nature colour his approach to everyone he meets on the road. He is accepting of Bhaskar and his mannerisms, but still manages to become exasperated when Bhaskar does something particularly unhelpful, although this doesn’t change the easy partnership the two share. Ashwath Ram is excellent and plays his part perfectly throughout. His eagerness and excitement as he runs around the village searching for his mother is infectious, while his emotional ups and downs are natural and feel very honest. Agi’s guileless approach to life and his innate practicality are perhaps a little unlikely given his upbringing, but they do mirror a similar innocence and matter-of-fact abruptness in his companion.

Mysskin is surprisingly good as Bhaskar, although he does have a tendency to overact and occasionally over-emphasise some of Bhaskar’s obsessive mannerisms. Initially when in the asylum he continually runs his hand along the wall or the bars beside him in a behaviour pattern that fits well with his character’s mental disabilities, but some of his later actions seem more contrived and don’t fit as well with his mental health issues. However, he does an excellent job of portraying a child-like innocence that has an effect on everyone he meets, and if his sudden rationality at some points seems rather opportune, his moments of insanity never become too over-the-top.

The film is at it’s best when it relies on the situations the two companions find themselves in to drive the narrative, ably assisted by Ilayaraaja’s absolutely beautiful background music. There is little dialogue to draw attention away from the body language, which is much more expressive than any long speeches could ever be, and the songs are equally effective in adding depth and emotion to the film. This is a beautifully sad song that contrasts with the happy attitude of Agi and Bhaskar’s mood swings and general instability. Just perfect.

Snigdha Akolkar appears in the second half as a working prostitute whose presence adds rationality to the story. Initially she is understandably annoyed with Bhaskar and Agi when they drive away her paying customer but later events lead to Anjali accompanying the two on their quest. Her presence allows a glimpse of a softer side to Bhaskar, and gives Agi the opportunity to be just a little boy searching for his mother. It’s a powerful role despite the short screen time and Snigdha is excellent, particularly when she allows glimpses of her characters emotional fragility to escape her seemingly strong and confident presence. Nasser and Rohini also appear in small but very effective roles, and the rest of the supporting cast are all uniformly excellent and perfectly understated.

As with most Mysskin films, there are plenty of odd angles and shots of feet. This is very effective during Agi’s desperate search for his mother but also works to draw attention to the journey itself and the miles walked by Agi and Bhaskar. Mahesh Muthuswami adds his expert touch to make the countryside look sumptuous, whether it’s the plants along the roadside, the luscious green fields or the buildings and villages along the route. It is a beautiful part of the countryside, although Mysskin also points out the shady characters and quick violence that lurks amongst the idyllic scenery.

Nandalala is much better than I expected from the brief description on the DVD. It’s difficult to describe just how emotive the film is without revealing too much of the plot, but as it’s a Tamil film it’s probably obvious that there is no happy ending – or at least not completely. However the film is all about the journey and the relationship between Bhaskar and Agi, and from that point of view it is a resounding success. Mysskin excels in adding small details, such as Bhaskar’s stolen shoes that he wears back to front, that add depth and interest to his story and characters. I love this film just as much as his thrillers and am impressed that Bhaskar can turn his hand to such a different style of story so competently. It’s also commendable that he has not only written and directed the film but also acted in a major role without stealing the limelight or making it all about ‘Bhaskar’s story’. It’s probably not for everyone; there is no ‘action’, no comedy track and no big dance number, but the simple emotions and finely nuanced performances make this one for fans of more character driven cinema. 4½ stars.