Chennai 600028

Chennai 600028

The opening moments of Venkat Prabhu’s debut film seem to be setting the scene for a retelling of West Side Story, with two rival cricket teams called the Sharks and the Rockets replacing the American street gangs. But surprisingly the rivalry between the two teams isn’t the focus of the story at all. It’s smarter than that. Yes, there is plenty of cricket and even some cross-team rivalry, but Chennai 600028 mainly follows the different players from the Sharks team for one year, with all the highs and lows you’d expect in any character drama. Essentially, it’s a story about an everyday group of friends, connected by locality and a passion for their cricket team.  None of the actors were well known at the time, and they all fit easily into the roles of regular guys, some of whom have jobs and some of who are still at college, but who all hang around together to play gully cricket. With some clever dialogue and good situational comedy, Venkat Prabhu ensures that despite a rather rambling storyline, the film has plenty of laughs and enough memorable characters to make the film an entertaining watch.

The Sharks team live in the Chennai area of the title and are introduced one by one by a narrator who describes them by their cricket skills; although generally some other identifying characteristic is also given. This is incredibly useful as there are 10 named team members and it’s very easy to lose track initially of just who is who and where they fit into the team. The film starts off with the defeat of the Sharks for the fourth time by the Rockets, mainly due to a dismal performance from supposed ‘all-rounder’ but actually terrible player and tail-ender Seenu (Premji Amaran). He’s the bumbling fumbler who cannot take a catch to save his life, but is generally loud and obnoxiously cheery despite his limited cricketing talents. Premji is a little more restrained here than in later films such as Goa, and he’s mostly funny thanks mainly to a good rapport with the other characters and some witty and well written dialogue. I didn’t know that Premji was also a musician, and he is responsible for the background score as well as one of the songs – pretty impressive!

Along with their most recent defeat, the Sharks players all have their own problems, although lack of money is the most regular feature in their discussions. The money is for their regular drinking sessions, which allows them to sit and talk about life, cricket and women, which eventually leads back to money, of course! It all fits in well with their various personalities and since the characters are all engaging and seem to fit well into their roles it comes across as a genuine look at life in the area. Plus we get this song, which perfectly captures the group of friends out drinking and having a good time.

Things change when Rocket team member Raghu (Jai) moves into the Visalatchi Thottam area with his family. Raghu feels that his world has come to an end, nicely illustrated by some excellent histrionics in the bathroom, and this does indeed seem to be possible given his initial reception by the locals. He’s looked on with suspicion and to add to his woes, his old team are too far away for Raghu to make it to regular practices, meaning he’s left out of their line-up for matches.

Raghu is one of the central characters for the story and Jai is excellent here in his first main role. His initial arrival into the new area is hilarious, and in just a few scenes he imbues Rahgu with plenty of charm and appeal, making his eventual acceptance into the rival team seem more plausible. His resemblance to Vijay is also part of the comedy, but best of all are his scenes with Karthik (Shiva Sundaram) starting from when a fight seems inevitable. Karthik is in love with Selvi (Vijayalakshmi) who is the sister of Karthik’s teammate Pazhani (Nithin Sathya) and therefore, for some obscure reason, off limits. Raghu’s father on the other hand is friendly with Selvi and Pazhani’s father, so inevitably Raghu is often seem chatting to someone who does at least acknowledge his existence. Karthik has some wonderful lovelorn expressions as he sees his rival on the field appear to become his rival in love and the interactions between the two potential adversaries are very well done.

Aravind (Aravind Akash) is also in love with a wealthy girl Swetha (Kristine Zedek) who regularly comes in to the coffee shop where he works. This is a rather more implausible romance, which is made more unlikely by the couple mainly only appearing together in song. These romantic songs also slow down the pace of the film and seem somewhat out of place in an otherwise more realistic and upbeat film.  Aravind is fine in his role as part of the cricket team and amusing as a guy in love but Kristine has very little to do and doesn’t impress in her few moments on screen.

There is a side plot involving Karthik’s brother Guna (Sampath Raj) but mainly the action revolves around the team members, their relationships with each other and their ambition to finally win the Radio Mirchi Cup.  There are no standout heroes, just a regular group of mates and that’s what appeals most about the film. Venkat Prabhu has captured plenty of camaraderie, but included discord and division to spice up the story and the blend is just about perfect. The cricket scenes are nicely placed in the film too – not too many, but enough to keep focus on the team rather than on just the individuals.  The commentary is also excellent (although that just might be my subtitles) and reflects the general standard of cricket commentary the world over!

Chennai 600028 is an excellent début and a good indication of what to expect from Venkat Prabhu as he uses most of the same ingredients (and often the same actors) in his subsequent films such as Saroja, Goa and Mankatha. Mainly Chennai 600028 is a film about people, their lives and their dreams, and only after those details are fully realised is a story superimposed on top.   It works because of the very ordinariness of the characters – these are guys that can be seen on every patch of ground, anywhere it’s possible to set up stumps and standing around on every street in Chennai. That is the charm of the movie. Recommended for excellent performances, witty dialogue and a film that  captures the intensity and ubiquitousness  of street cricket in India.  4 stars.

 

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Engeyum Eppothum

Engeyum Eppothum

Engeyum Eppothum starts with a fairly gruesome bus crash, so it’s clear straight away that there isn’t going to be a happy ending – particularly since the rest of the film is a flashback of events leading up to the fatal accident.  However the journey to get there is just as important, and on the way to the death and mayhem there are a couple of enjoyable love stories that make you wish that there was actually going to be a happy ending.  One of the stories is set in Trichy, and it always makes me happy to see the city on screen, especially when they seem to have filmed in a number of places I recognise.  It’s the same with the bus station in Chennai, which also looks very familiar, and the whole film brings back memories of travelling by bus in India – although thankfully without the horror ending. One of the buses is a private bus running from Chennai to Trichy, while the other is a government bus travelling in the other direction, and the four main leads are passengers on one or other of the two.  Flashbacks introduce the four and tell their story in the lead up to the accident.

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Amudha (Ananya) arrives in Chennai for a job interview, but is completely at a loss when her sister fails to pick her up due to a family emergency.  Luckily for her though, Gautham (Sharwanand) just happens to be dropping a friend at the bus station and Amudha manages to persuade him to show her to the bus stop.  She’s so totally lost in the city that despite her suspicions of him, Gautham ends up spending the whole day taking her to her interview, waiting for her and then taking her to her sister’s house.

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Ananya plays the mistrustful girl from the country flawlessly here which is mainly why this love story feels so real.  Her mannerisms, and the way she relies on her sister’s instructions rather than believe Gautham when he tells her it is time to get off the bus are perfect ‘small town girl in the big city’ behaviours which I recognise from my own move from the country.  Her reaction when she sees girls in tight Western clothes is just perfect, as is the way she behaves in a restaurant when Gautham finally manages to persuade her that he is really quite harmless.  Her character is very well written to show the awe and trepidation of being somewhere where everything is unfamiliar, and Ananya does a fantastic job of portraying all that angst along with the wonder and amazement.

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Sharwanand seems very wooden and unemotional in contrast, and while that does work to some extent for his character, there is very little emotion, and nothing to suggest that he would go to Trichy to look for Amudha later.  There really needed to be more open engagement with Amudha and at least some reaction to her character which doesn’t occur until near the end of the film when it is all a bit too late.

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Engeyum EppothumThe second romance is set in Trichy where Kathiresan (Jai) watches Manimegalai (Anjali) every morning as she gets ready for work.  I love that this takes place in the back streets behind the Rock Fort Temple and that they meet in Mukkambu Park (both places that I know very well), which makes their romance seem that little bit more real to me.  Kathiresan has a good job, but is also from the country and is rather shy.  Rather than approach Manimegalai, he is content to watch her from a distance and co-ordinate his shirt colour to whatever she happens to be wearing that day.  This is a little known but obviously effective form of courtship, since Manimegalai does indeed notice his wardrobe choices.

Manimegalai doesn’t have the same reticence problem at all.  She is forthright and downright bossy, forcing Jai to skip work to meet her, sign up for organ donation and confront her previous suitor.  Naturally she’s a nurse.  Their story the best part of the film and Anjali steals the show with admirable support from Jai.  He is perfect as the quiet young man, completely swept away by Manimegalai and totally out of his depth.  And yet he still adores her and that comes across plainly in Jai’s body language and facial expressions.

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It’s a fantastic performance but he is still upstaged by Anjali.  She is superb, from her initial domineering persona to the ruthlessly efficient nurse who manages to keep it all together in the aftermath of the crash.  It gives her final breakdown more impact too, and suddenly Kathiresan’s devotion makes perfect sense.  Throughout the romance both Jai and Anjali have good chemistry together, and as their love story develops their characters also acquire depth and back-story which also makes their relationship more convincing.

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Woven through the film are small vignettes about other passengers on the bus which, while emphasising the point that every stranger has a story to tell, do make the film seem more of a road safety video.  Still, the developing romance between two students and the various other interactions between the passengers help round out the film and make the final scenes more engaging.  The bus crash is unnecessarily graphic with severed limbs and gore in abundance, none of which really adds any more to the story.  The crash alone would have been catastrophic enough and director M. Sarvanan does drive home the road safety message with a very big hammer.

Thankfully, with much of the subject matter being the accident, there are no big song and dance numbers and most of C. Sathya’s music is used to move the story forward with montages of the two couples.  The film title translates to Anytime, Anywhere and seems to relate to both romance and tragedy – you can meet your soul mate where and when you least expect to, and disaster can strike in exactly the same way.  As such, the film plays on the very normality of every scene, any of which could happen to anyone at any moment and the characters are all very normal, everyday people.  It’s a simple story and yet insightful, and one that resonates with anyone who has ever sat on public transport and wondered about the stories of their fellow passengers.  4 stars.

Raja Rani (2013)

Raja Rani

I didn’t manage to see this in the cinema in Melbourne, but did manage to get a DVD copy with English subtitles.  Rather strangely it was also the only film they had on the bus in Tamil Nadu this year and I ended up watching the opening scenes over 10 times on the way to various villages in TN.  This added exposure gave me enough time to appreciate just how outlandish Nayanthara’s make-up looks, and just how uncomfortable Arya appears in his suit at the opening wedding which is a good precursor to how their relationship develops. In fact, the lead couple are rather uninspiring throughout this film – at least when paired with each other – but thankfully co-stars Jai, Santhanam and Nazriya Nazim are more appealing and their presence does make Raja Rani worth a one-time watch.

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The story starts with the arranged marriage of Regina (Nayanthara) and John (Arya) who are going through the matrimonial motions for the sake of their respective families.  Or so we are told.  Except as the film progresses this wedding seems to make less and less sense.  The couple obviously dislike each other and I cannot see why Regina’s relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan father would agree to marry her to someone like John.  He seems to have neither the requisite high flying job nor appropriate family background for such a match.  However, as completely random as it seems, and despite the lack of any reasonable explanation the wedding goes ahead even with the bride forgetting her prospective partner’s name and both parties complete lack of enthusiasm throughout the ceremony.

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It’s a match that seems doomed to end in divorce.  John spends his days at work and his nights drinking with his friends before returning home, usually to a locked door.  Regina hogs the bathroom, sobs into her pillow at night and generally ignores her husband as much as she can.  It all feels very unrealistic and overly dramatic – after all there is a large couch in the other room where Regina could sleep if she wanted, and surely John could organise a key to their apartment rather than sleep on the doorstep?  All the OTT drama makes it difficult to care about either John or Regina since they are equally obnoxious to each other, and I really had little interest in their relationship.  That’s not to say that Arya and Nayanthara are particularly terrible, but all Arya has to do in the first half hour is pretend to be drunk while Nayanthara doesn’t stop crying or complaining long enough to do anything remotely interesting either.

Thankfully there is relief in sight, but until we get there Santhanam lightens the atmosphere and is mildly amusing as John’s best friend Sarathy.

Finally there is an incident which prompts John to find out a little more about his wife.  There is some very dodgy medicine on display as Regina has an epileptic fit while her husband seems totally incapable of any sensible reaction, although he does eventually manage to call an ambulance.  Needless to say, despite all the thrashing around and foaming at the mouth (sigh – when will Tamil cinema consult a doctor for some plausible medical problems?) Regina manages to come through the whole episode with her make-up and eyelashes intact. That’s a relief!

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However, after being berated by her doctor for not knowing anything about his wife’s condition, John does discover the reason behind her ‘illness’.  Lost love – of course!

The film gets much better when we head to a flash-back to Regina’s first love, although to be fair this doesn’t have the best of beginnings either.  Jai is excellent as love interest Surya, an incompetent call centre employee, and finally there are some real emotions and reasons to empathise with one of the characters.  Regina is as obnoxious as before, but the role of spoilt rich brat suits her better when she’s a student and she does seem to be more tongue in cheek with her tantrums.  Sathyan makes an appearance as Surya’s friend Iyappan and his comedy shtick complements Jai’s weedy persona well enough to make a reasonably funny duo. Although the romance is typically filmy there is some chemistry between the two actors and while we can see the unhappy ending coming, Regina never does and is devastated by losing her first love.

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It turns out that John has his own sob story, and although it’s another predictable run of the mill tale, again it’s a more believable romance with good chemistry between the actors.  In particular Nazriya Nazim is scintillating as Keerthana and she is the best thing about the whole film.  She has an excellent introduction and her cheeky impishness lights up the screen whenever she appears.  She has much more personality and is much livelier than in Naiyaandi, which just goes to show the difference between a well written character and one that basically isn’t!

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Arya is also transformed into a younger, fitter John who is more personable and likeable, and again there is some reasonable chemistry between him and Keerthana.  It’s not all good though – Santhanam suffers under the burden of some terribly bad hair which seems to make him more pathetic and less amusing than in the first half, but it works out for the best as Nazriya has the comedy covered too.

The main problem I have with Raja Rani is that the relationship between John and Regina never generates any appeal or gives an opportunity to feel sympathetic towards the characters.  There are some interesting issues brought up  here but they are dealt with in a shallow and filmi way which results in a lack of connection between the characters and the audience.  There is no apparent reason for the couple’s actions towards each other, considering that they don’t appear to have met before the wedding, and it seems strange that they would behave so badly to each other right from the start.  The concept of an arranged marriage between two people who have both lost their first love has potential but Atlee wastes it by playing the relationship for laughs and never giving his characters a chance to behave like rational adults.  I found it incredibly frustrating to watch  Arya and Nayanthara appear so wooden and lifeless for most of their on-screen time together, when the difference was so obvious when Arya was partnered with Nazriya and Nayanthara with Jai.  A little more time spent on developing the relationship between Regina and John at the beginning along with a more adult treatment of their problems would have made this a more entertaining watch.  However I did enjoy seeing a better performance from Nazriya and I liked the idea behind the film, even if the execution didn’t quite live up to expectations.  3 ½ stars.Raja Rani