Thegidi

Thegidi

Writer and first time director P Ramesh offers something a little different in his crime drama that delves into the world of surveillance and private detection in Chennai. Despite what the subject matter might suggest, this isn’t a nail-biting thriller but instead Thegidi is a well-written and intelligently constructed mystery, that eschews car chases and fight scenes to focus on better than usual plot development and realistic characterisations. While that may not sound exciting, it’s actually an intriguing story with enough suspense to hold your attention right up to the very end, and just when you think it’s all over there is a tantalising hint of a possible sequel. P Ramesh keeps it deceptively simple while building a detailed plot and at least with the surveillance angle this time the hero really does have a legitimate excuse for stalking the heroine!

The film starts with some excellent opening titles which are evocative of American comic strips and are a great way to set the scene. From this I was expecting a classic ‘lone gumshoe against the rest of the world’ detective story, and allowing for some modern updates that’s pretty much what I got.

Vetri (Ashok Selvan) is a new criminology graduate who accepts a job offer to work for a private detective agency in Chennai. He’s very wet behind the ears and it’s this inexperience and naiveté that play a large role in the events that follow. Vetri’s bosses at the Radical Detective Agency, Sadagoppan (Pradeep Nair) and Sailash (Jayakumar) set him the task of finding out about some  apparently ordinary people with the implication that they are being investigated by their employers.  As the star pupil from his class, Vetri appears to have little difficulty in carrying out his assignments despite hanging around rather conspicuously in stairwells and spending time observing from his car. Ashok Selvan is generally believable as a nerdy and overly idealistic private detective, although he relies heavily on the same two expressions throughout. He’s still quite wooden and inexpressive, but compared to his previous role in Soodhu Kavvum, his lack of expression here is at least more in keeping with the reserved nature of his character. And he does seem to be trying – there are some good moments between Vetri and his mentor, Govardhanan (Rajan Iyer) which help establish Vetri’s character early on and later on between Vetri and his friend Nambi (Kaali Venkat).

Vetri slips up one night while trying to break into an apartment and is spotted by Madhu (Janani Iyer) who suspects that he is a thief. One brief glance has intrigued Vetri and before long he has managed to meet Madhu, convince her of his innocence and the two are well on their way to falling in love. Only in the movies! Of course things get more complicated when Madhu turns out to be one of the people on Vetri’s list of surveillance subjects, especially since getting close to the target is contrary to one of the cardinal rules of his job. The romance here is beautifully handled with Vetri doing the best he can to mess things up and Madhu keeping everything on an even keel. It works because it does feel true to life and there is some good chemistry between the two leads. Janani Iyer is lovely here and she imbues Madhu with plenty of joyfulness and grace while keeping her as an essentially well grounded character. She perfectly conveys her initial suspicions, gradual acceptance and final mistrust and is very convincing in the romance scenes. P Ramesh does give her a relatively substantial role and uses Madhu as a means of further developing Vetri’s personality and making him rather more vulnerable than he first appears.

Around the same time Vetri realises that the people he has been shadowing are dying from a variety of seemingly unrelated causes. Given that Madhu is on his surveillance list Vetri suddenly has a very pressing reason to work out exactly what is going on before she becomes a target too. He’s helped in these endeavours by Nambi who has a more realistic view of the situation and acts decisively while Vetri gets somewhat bogged down in the investigative detail. Kaali Venkat is excellent and has totally nailed the role of best friend and ‘the sensible one’ who unfortunately doesn’t manage to convince Vetri to follow his advice. However, mainly through a series of mistakes, Vetri manages to bring the case to the attention of Inspector Raghuram (V. Jayaprakash) who is astonishingly tolerant of Vetri’s meddling and unusually receptive to his ideas, while competently managing a police investigation into the suspicious deaths. This is where the story starts to get a little more unrealistic, but that’s not a major issue given that the characters themselves stay true to their initial characterisations. P. Ramesh works on building up suspense but the story is relatively simple and we know by the interval exactly who is responsible for the deaths.  There is still a minor build up of tension around Vetri’s impulsive actions and the uncertainty surrounding Madhu and the fledgling romance which could be over before it’s begun due to Vetri’s uncommunicative nature. P. Ramesh also works on fleshing out the motivations for the crime which is well written but again a little predictable given the nature of the people involved.

In addition to the well written screenplay and good performances the film also looks fantastic due to the combination of excellent cinematography from Dinseh Krishnan and some rather nifty set design. I love the clocks on the wall, the pipe and magnifying glass on the shelf and the ibis sculptures in the detective office and there are more intriguing sculptures and decor in almost every room. Many of the shots are beautifully framed with good use of the external environment and quite a few actually serve to increase the tension by isolating Vetri’s eyes and increasing his intensity. It’s clever thinking since his eyes are Ashok Selvan’s best resource and he does manage to convey more emotion through these shots than in his otherwise rather static expressions.

The music by Nivas K Prasanna is mainly sweet and melodic, fitting the romantic mood of the songs but also evoking some suspense in the background score. There are no big song and dance numbers and the songs are used to move the story forward, which works well for the screenplay. Keeping it simple seems to be the guiding force behind everything in Thegidi, from the music to the fight scenes to the story itself and it works a treat.

Director P. Ramesh is another winner of Nalaya Iyakunar, the TV show which going by their recent ‘graduates’ seems to be doing a great job of identifying new talent in Tamil cinema. His experience in short films has stood him in good stead as he shows understanding of the benefit of a good storyline and the importance of believable dialogue, something that many filmmakers never seem to grasp. Thegidi isn’t a fantastic thriller but it is a good story and just as importantly, one which is well told. A little more suspense would not have gone amiss but I really liked the fact that the bad guys (and the hero and his friend too) were really so very ordinary. Definitely worth watching for a different take on a detective story and some good interior design ideas! 4 stars.

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Pizza

Pizza-Poster

Billed as a supernatural suspense thriller, Pizza is an assured debut by director Karthik Subbaraj. At a relatively taut 2 hours or so, it certainly manages to pack in the suspense and a few twists and turns. I’m going to try and avoid spoilers and will not divulge much of the plot.

Anu is an aspiring novelist and Michael works in a pizza joint. They live in an outbuilding, relying on bribes to keep the security guards turning a blind eye.  She falls pregnant, and eventually he overcomes his fear of the responsibility enough to propose. While Anu wants a proper wedding, he says they will do that when they can afford it but for now, they should just marry for their own sakes. They dress up in their nice clothes and exchange vows in their yard. So far, so good. On a late night delivery, Michael is waiting for change when the lights go out and he hears noises upstairs in the house. He goes up and sees his customer bleeding from multiple wounds, but no sign of her attacker. Michael runs, trying frantically to find a way out of the house but there are bars on all the windows and the door has been deadlocked. Oh, and the house is full of dolls. And then he hears music from upstairs.

And to find out more about the plot you’ll need to watch the movie. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what happens, may I suggest you avoid reading the painfully detailed plot synopsis on Wiki. I saw it recently when I was checking cast details and wow – way to ruin a suspense film, Wiki-dude.

Pizza-filmi heritage

Subbaraj isn’t shy about using filmi cliché to misdirect or tease the audience, and I’d guess he has watched his fair share of horror and paranormal movies. A lot of the film is set during the night time and between the deep shadows and the rapid changes of point of view and edits, there is often a sense of unease and of being watched or followed. In contrast, the domestic scenes between Michael and Anu are airy and colourful, with a gentle and usually flattering light. I found one extended sequence quite poorly constructed, as though the director was making things up as they went. That became an extremely clever approach once I watched to the point that more was revealed, but it is a risky move as you may lose people when you’re deliberately being obvious before they know why. And there are a few things that really did not work for me. Michael’s boss asks him to deliver a file to his home ahead of an audit. While there, Michael sees a girl who seems to be possessed. She has the clichéd demonic multi-tonal voice effect with the screechy violins of evil and wheezes so heavily I really wanted to pass her an asthma inhaler. It was oddly heavy handed and overdone when some other hints and clues were done deftly.

Michel and Anu have that rare thing in Indian cinema – a sexual relationship out of wedlock where no one really judges. When Anu falls pregnant Michael’s first reaction is to think of how difficult it will be to raise a child and he encourages her to have an abortion. But when he tells his friends they all say pretty much the same things – there is never a good time to have kids, and he loves Anu, so why is he hesitating to marry her. Anu’s reaction was to leave a note saying she would no longer do his laundry (as after all, she wasn’t his wife) and coolly set herself up in the yard with a book and some snacks while he ran around the house panicking in case she had left him.

Vijay Sethupathi is generally good as Michael but I felt he overacted or his timing was off in some of the spooky scenes. I do appreciate the challenge of acting with things that may not be there until post production, so it didn’t worry me unduly. But in terms of acting I thought the scenes between Michael and his colleagues or Anu were more engaging. Remya Nambeesan gives Anu a down to earth style that includes a pragmatic approach to relationships and planning for her future. They have the easy rapport of an established couple but can still spike into anxiety and insecurity when the status quo is threatened.

While I liked a lot about their relationship and thought they suited each other well, I didn’t particularly like either character. But I don’t think any of the characters in Pizza are very likeable and it doesn’t matter. They’re interesting, they all have strong connections to other people in the story, and the world of Pizza does feel real. The supporting cast is relatively small and all of the characters play a significant role in Michael’s story. His colleagues Raghavan (Karunakaran) and Srinath (Jayakumar) are also Michael’s only apparent friends, and the ones he confides in about everything going on in his life. Bobby Simha and Pooja Ramachandran are strangers to Michael but have a huge impact on the story.

This is more of an indie style film but there is a vague attempt at incorporating songs. I find the soundtrack bland and dominated by ballads. Ballads are bad enough, but in films they usually signal a boring montage (rather than the more acceptable energetic dancing) and that is what is delivered here.

I was mildly diverted by Anu and Michael cavorting in the rain under a huge plastic sheet but more because I wondered why they didn’t just stay in their perfectly dry house and pash without the risk of suffocation. But, whatever.

Pizza is a film that is better on looking back than it was on first view, but it doesn’t stand up well to repeated watching due to the reliance on suspense. See it if you are interested in an urban Indian supernatural story or just like pacey thrillers with enough to keep you guessing. The cast definitely add to the charm of the everyday scenes and Karthik Subbaraj knows how to play his audience. 4 stars!

Kanchivaram

Kanchivaram (2008)

Kanchivaram is a slice of life social drama that largely rests on an excellent performance by Prakash Raj. Priyadarshan eschews the broad almost hyper style more common in his Hindi comedies and delivers a thoughtful and subdued film.

The film opens with a prelude explaining the significance of wearing silk at marriage and on death, and that the weavers were never in a financial position that would allow them to wear the fabric they wove. Vengadam (Prakash Raj) is an exceptional weaver and a natural leader in his community. A visiting writer (Sreekumar) introduces the village men to communism. Vengadam initiates collective bargaining for the weavers, which leads to a lengthy strike. But he had also promised that his daughter would be married in a silk sari, impossible to manage when he is not working. He steals silk, a hank at a time, and secretly weaves the sari he promised her. The conflict between his political and personal ideals and his love for his family is the root of the story.

The story is presented as a series of flashbacks. Vengadam is paroled from jail and travels back to the village by bus, with sounds and incidents on the journey triggering his memories of earlier times. This structure allowed me to concentrate on what was happening now, and to absorb the emotion of the story rather than wondering what would happen. His story unfolds from his marriage, birth of his daughter, the death of his wife and eventually the reason for his incarceration. The breaks in the flow as Vengadam was recalled to himself on the journey just sharpened the contrast between the bluff confident weaver and the broken man on the bus.

Priyadarshan frames the story in the political context of the rise of Communism before party membership was legalised. He efficently sets the scene of the industrial arrangements, the workers dependency on the factory, the clandestine political activism, in just in a few scenes. There are visual cues as to how things stand. The factory owner usually appears sitting or standing on a dais at a higher level than the workers. The communist writer who raises the political awareness of Vengadam and Sarathy skulks around in the dark, fearful of the police.

I’m always interested in industrial relations and the evolution of employee rights and the law so that aspect was appealing. And I particularly liked the villagers reaction to some social theatre – initially passive but on their feet and cheering like any mass movie audience when the ‘blood’ spatter started.

Prakash Raj is wonderful as Vengadam. Whether playing the younger carefree newlywed or the damaged man released on parole he is completely convincing. Vengadam has most of the dialogue in the film but many scenes rely purely on reactions and body language and Prakash Raj nails it. Often political leaders are depicted as single minded zealots, but Vengadam is more human. He understands his why wife is upset by the promise to see his daughter married in silk. He realises his daughter is in love with Ranga and goes to ask for the marriage to be arranged. He knows that when he takes a stand and strikes there will be consequences. And he knows what he is doing when he breaks the strike. Prakash Raj shows these internal struggles and questions and Vengadam’s eyes reflect his turmoil. I’m often intolerant of those who throw their families or friendships under the bus of ambition but this is more complex as Vengadam is not motivated by pure selfishness. He stole silk to weave something beautiful for his daughter, to break the cycle of not having. I could like him even as I rolled my eyes at his obsession with the sari.

Shriya Reddy is excellent  as Annam, Vengadam’s wife. Priyadarshan seems to have a knack for persuading actresses to tone down the glamour (as with Lara Dutta in Billu). Annam is smart, has opinions and politely challenges her husband in private when she thinks he has gone too far. From the initially awkward moments when Annam first comes to her new home, Shriya shows the growing affection and the playfulness in the marriage. Annam doesn’t have much dialogue so much of their closeness and the tensions in the relationship had to be conveyed through glances, the tilt of a head, the set of her shoulders.

She dies after being trampled in a crowd out to see the landlord’s new car, another symbol of the gulf between the workers and owners. Her final anguish is over whether Vengadam will be able to raise their daughter and he does his best to reassure her in his own way.

Family and village ties are revealed in many small interactions so the supporting cast are important and most are very good. I particularly like Jayakumar as Sarathy, Vengadam’s friend and one-time political ally. His rapport with Prakash Raj was excellent, and their friendship felt believably warm. I liked their stilted meeting to discuss getting their children married to each other that ended in affectionate hugs and relieved laughter. The deterioration of their relationship was shown simply but the pain on both sides and the definitive nature of the break was clear. Shammu is engaging and likeable as Vengadam’s daughter Thamarai. I do a certain amount of teeth gritting when I see little daughters made to replace their dead mothers in the home, but Thamarai was a distinct person and not just a household slave. She went to school for a while, then took sewing lessons, and her dad wanted her to be happy. So for a filmi girl in 1948 with no Ma, I thought she had it pretty good. Until things went wrong.

Kanchivaram-Bad actor lovely sariThere is an English character played by a truly bad actor. Well, I am not sure if the brightly over-enunciated yet almost expressionless dialogue delivery is his own style or was required by the director. There are so many good actors working across many Indian film industries yet the ‘English’ are almost uniformly laughable and seem to be reading at a pre-school level.  Who is casting these people?

The colour palette is simple and very effective throughout. The day to day scenes are muted and mostly use neutral and earth tones. The bus trip is drenched in the pale blues and grey of rain and twilight. Scenes at night are touched with the golden flicker of lantern flames. The flash of opulent silks highlights the gulf between the weavers and the eventual owners of those stunning garments, and punctuates the drama with bursts of saturated jewel tones. There are recurring motifs like the sickle, used as an emblem of communism and as a blade. Thiru’s camerawork uses lots of tight close ups of the actors and despite the dark interiors and low lighting in some scenes he catches every expression and gesture.

Despite the period and politics of the setting, Kanchivaram can be watched as a personal and intimate story rather than a didactic message film so I was impressed by his handling of those elements. But I’m not completely sold on the ending. The sensitivity of the characterisation and performances is what stands out for me. The film is available on YouTube with subtitles. 3 ½ stars!