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.

Advertisements

Sathuranga Vettai

sathuranga vettai poster

H. Vinoth’s Sathuranga Vettai is an amusing crime caper that follows the exploits of con-man Gandhi Babu as he persuades a large number of gullible people to part with their cash. Naturally, this does not come without consequences and the later part of the film deals with Gandhi’s redemption and his attempts to break free from his life of crime. This is an impressive début for H. Vinoth and despite a tendency to veer into overly dramatic territory towards the end, the film well worth watching for some great dialogue, good characterisations and Natarajan Subramaniam and Ishaara Nair in the lead roles.

The film is divided into different chapters, each describing a con run by Gandhi Babu (Natarajan Subramaniam) and his merry band of helpers, Guru (Dharani Vasudevan), Kumar and Selvam. The first starts with Gandhi and his gang persuading businessman Chettiyar (Ilavarasu) to buy a rare snake which, they tell him, can be sold on at a much higher price. Of course, the snake is a pig in a poke and is anything but rare, but what is more surprising is how superstitious and gullible Chettiyar is, given that he is supposedly a rich businessman with thriving rental and retail investments. I found it hard to believe that he would really believe that a snake could understand him and lose weight because it was homesick, but it did make for some great comedy in the first few scenes. The film also quickly introduces Gandhi’s simple philosophy – the easiest way to deceive people is to find those who are greedy and want to make a fast buck and in his defence, there does seem to be plenty of greedy people out there.

The second con is better realised and seems rather more plausible. This time Gandhi and his followers set up a mass marketing Ponzi scheme selling miracle water to gullible investors. A young woman, Bhanu (Ishaara Nair) approaches Gandhi for a job as she cannot afford to invest in the scheme and Gandhi immediately sees her potential. Her innocence and flair for persuading others to invest makes Bhanu a valuable asset for the gang, but she has no idea that they are all snake-oil salesmen and that their venture is all a con. Gandhi’s seeming altruism leads Bhanu to start to fall in love with the con-artist but once his true activities are revealed, Bhanu is left to deal with the aftermath as Gandhi and his gang skip town with the money.

The next con sees Gandhi arrested and jailed for his crimes. While he is tortured by the police, his gang work hard to bribe the various complainants and ensure Gandhi’s release.

Although their efforts pay off, Gandhi is kidnapped by a gang lead by Vallavan (Vallavan) who have been employed by one of the victims of Gandhi’s previous con. Suddenly the fruits of Gandhi’s criminal past are brought home to cause him more problems and the only way he can escape the gang is to work another con for them. After a convoluted series of deals and double deals Gandhi manages to escape and finds Bhanu who still has feelings for him. But the gang is still on the look-out for Gandhi and his idyllic life with Bhanu is shattered once Vallavan and Senthil catch up with the couple and force Gandhi to carry out one last con.

The story is a good blend of action and drama, with enough comedy to keep the proceedings from ever getting too serious. The final scenes are overly melodramatic as Bhanu goes in to labour while gang member Thillagar (Ramachandran Durairaj) is told to kill her as the rest of the gang force Gandhi to dig his own grave. However, the rest of the film isn’t quite so theatrical, and some of the cons are entirely plausible and seem quite realistically portrayed.

Natarajan Subramaniam is excellent in the lead role and seems perfectly cast as the smooth-tongued salesman with the gift of the gab. He dons different disguises and different accents as part of the role, while his ability to appear cold and calculating works well to give the character credibility. It makes his gradual change of heart once he finds Bhanu and slow realisation that there could be another way of life seem more plausible. H. Vinod gives Gandhi a tragic back story which didn’t seem to be totally necessary but again does make his final redemption more likely, given that up to his meeting with Bhanu his general philosophy is that nothing you do is wrong as long as you don’t feel guilty. His early experiences, described here in animation, do at least give Gandhi an emotional response to work with and overcome his otherwise cold persona. One of the best things about Gandhi’s character is that although he is a criminal, he is totally hopeless when it comes to physical violence. As a change for the usual ‘hero’ in this type of role, Gandhi is regularly beaten up and has no capacity to defend himself whatsoever outside a verbal stoush. That seems quite likely for someone who relies on his wits and ability to run and makes Gandhi a more sympathetic character than expected.

Ishaara Nair is also excellent although at times her character does seem a little too good to be true. She has good onscreen chemistry with Natarajan and the two work well together as a couple, even if for much of the time I felt that Bhanu was much too good for him and deserved more. The rest of Gandhi’s gang are good, particularly as sellers of the miraculous magic pearls, although they have limited screen time. Vallavan and his gang have more to do, and Ramachandran in particular is excellent as a gangster with a heart, even though he keeps it well hidden from the rest of the gang.

Overall this is a clever and rather different film that relies on good writing and excellent characterisations to tell an engaging story. The sheer ordinariness of the characters works in their favour and the simple con schemes are plausible enough to keep the story more realistic than most. The music from Seth Rogan mostly fits well into the narrative with the songs featured on Bhanu and Gandhi’s relationship, apart from one early in the film that’s set in a bar that doesn’t work quite as well. K.G. Venkatesh ensures the film looks good too with plenty of beautiful shots of the countryside surrounding Madurai. H. Vinoth has delivered an excellent first film that delivers in terms of both story and characters. 4 stars.