Idi Katha Kaadu (1979)

K Balachander’s 1979 movie is a remake of his own film, Avargal. Jayasudha and Kamal Hassan star and Chiranjeevi plays an important supporting role. It’s a sensitive and even handed look at relationships and standing up for yourself. The film is on YouTube without subtitles so bear with me as I have done my best to interpret what was going on.

Suhasini (Jayasudha) and Bharani (Sarath Babu) fall in love through a montage of the arts – he plays flute and she dances. They have a nice bond, he is laid back and she is very playful. But Bharani leaves town for work and he never replies to her letters. Sugunakar Rao (Chiranjeevi) moves in on Suhasini. He is superficially charming but once they are married he is controlling and abusive. In due course she leaves him and gets a divorce. He is clearly bitter but she leaves town to start her new life with their child. She finds an office job and makes new friends. Her coworker Janardhan/Johnny (Kamal Hassan) is particularly kind and considerate. He’s a ventriloquist so that set some alarm bells off because…just because. But Bharani is still on her mind. And now, he is just across the way as the apartment Johnny helps her find is right near his place. There is definite interest on both sides but she is more cautious and has a child now, and he lacks any sense of urgency and he has his friend Gayatri (Saritha) to consider too. And then Sugunakar Rao is back in the picture as Suhasini’s boss. He wants to reconcile and seems to have reformed. Suhasini has to decide what to do with her life.

I really enjoyed watching Jayasudha’s performance and Suhasini as a character. And on a very shallow note, her print sarees are wonderful too. She’s a lively young woman with a passion for dance and music, but she’s quite happy to get married sensibly because that’s what you do. When Sugunakar turns out to be a total arsehole, she does her best to tolerate him. But when he pushes her too far, she pushes back. In one scene she fantasises about stabbing him in the groin with his darts, and she does tell him to his face what she thinks of his behaviour. When she moves back to Chennai she seems to be accepted and liked in her new circles. Having a child isn’t a barrier to her getting a job and she makes the most of her new start. I got the impression Suhasini is not completely open about her situation but she certainly isn’t hanging on to her past. People, especially women, help each other in both big and small ways. Suhasini acquires a mysterious new maid (Leelavathi), actually her mother-in-law who had never met her.

Chiranjeevi is impressive as the horrible Sugunakar Rao. I think Chiru got on the bad side of the wardrobe team because those pants…He is charming but only as long as he gets his own way. He criticises Suhasini constantly and threatens her, smiling as he throws darts at her head or snarling as he tells her to give up dancing. One thing I always appreciate in these negative roles that Chiru took in his early career is that he doesn’t hold back on showing the full range of emotions, no matter how unlikeable or ugly. He is a fine dramatic actor under all the Megastar trappings. His mother (Leelavathi) finds out from a servant that the marriage was over and that Suhasini and their son were in another city. I couldn’t work out how he managed to keep everyone in the dark but I think he might have told her Suhasini was dead. Anyway, despite the filmi tradition that demands a Ma must support her boy, she is firmly in Team Suhasini and keeps working secretly for her daughter-in-law. That is how bad Sugunakar Rao is. He recognises mild and indecisive Bharani as a threat so he plants a seed that Bharani and Gayatri should marry. He belittles Johnny as he doesn’t compute the nice poor guy could be a rival. When he tries to ingratiate himself with Suhasini again he is almost believable as he clucks over her health and sends her fresh fruits. Almost.

Johnny (Kamal Hassan) has taken a shine to Suhasini too, although she only seems to have eyes for Bharani. Personally I’d pick the one who didn’t have a ventriloqusist dummy as his housemate. But Johnny is sweet and does things to make Suhasini happy without expecting any repayment – he finds her a flat, gets her movie tickets to a house full show, helps with work. He can’t articulate his feelings so he uses Junior to talk about his love. Of course, Suhasini treats it as a joke rather than a heartfelt confession. He’s well liked at work but a lonely soul underneath it all. Kamal Hassan isn’t challenged by the character except that the ventriloquism shtick calls on his physicality and control as he manipulates the doll while appearing to be oblivious to Junior’s shenanigans.

That weird clown song is completely unnecessary but when you have Kamal Hassan I suppose you’d be mad not to. And it lets him work off some energy that might have lead to overacting. His farewell scene with Suhasini was also unintentionally funny as he ran beside her train faster and for much longer than seemed possible, speechifying all the while.

Leelavathi and Sarath Babu are both good in their roles. But Bharani is so mild and understanding to the point of not seeming to care that he doesn’t give Suhasini any confidence and he kind of fades compared to Chiru and Kamal Hassan. Leelavathi’s Ma is an interesting woman who is prepared to believe evidence rather than continue to idolise her son. She makes decisions that are about how she wants to live her life and what she thinks is important. She’s a crier, but she gets things done. And she is the one to finally free Suhasini from her connection to her son.

Balachander uses some camera gimmicks and the ping pong analogy, and some shots are a little too composed to be natural, but generally the style of storytelling is low key and credible. Even the final comeuppance. Although I wish I understood the symbolism of the lion mask and the Mona Lisa. Oh well.

See this for some early career Megastar, a pared back and heartfelt performance from Kamal Hassan and a lovely role for Jayasudha. 4 stars!

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Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018)

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Mani Ratnam’s latest is a surprisingly conventional crime drama that pits three brothers against each other as they vie to take over their father’s gangster business. Unusually there is little character development for each of the brothers, so it does take some time to become connected to the film and get to grips with exactly who is who (and who is sleeping with who). However, the finale is excellent and does keep you guessing right up until the end, while Vijay Sethupathi, Arvind Swami and Jyothika are all superb throughout.

Prakash Raj plays the ageing gangster Senapathi who survives an attack by two assassins dressed as police officers at the start of the film. His wife Lakshmi (Jayasudha) is also in the car, and it’s interesting that their conversation prior to the attack mentions Sena’s infidelities rather than introducing the family members or focusing on the crime empire. However, it’s not until the end that this and other snippets of information come together to make a satisfying whole and many of the seemingly throwaway statements are much more revealing than they initially seem.

Sena’s three sons all return home as their father and mother are rushed to hospital and it doesn’t take long until they are all at each other’s throats, arguing over who will take their father’s place. The eldest son Varadan (Arvind Swami) complains that Sena treats him as just another henchman, when he feels that he deserves better and has the best claim to inherit his father’s empire. The middle son Thyagu (Arun Vijay) lives in Dubai where he spends most of his time on a yacht discussing real estate projects with wealthy Arab backers. He seems to be more a businessman than a gangster and his stylish dress and polished wife reinforce that impression. The youngest son Ethi (Silambarasan) is a drug and gun runner currently based in Serbia and definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, a fact he seems to accept without too much rancour.

None of these men appear to have what it takes to run a criminal network as they indulge in petty arguments and spiteful digs at each other. Each has their own flaws that seem to disqualify them for the top job. Varadan is the most like his father but he lacks initiative and follows a predictable and well-trodden path as he pursues his father’s attackers. Varadan immediately accuses his father’s rival Chinnappadasan (Thiagarajan) of being behind the attack but it seems to be the easy option and doesn’t require Varadan to be anything other than the thug he has always been. Thyagu is slick and more polished, but despite his cutthroat business skills, he seems to lack the violent mentality needed to maintain control over the motley collection of gangsters so, despite his egotistical belief that he is the obvious choice of heir, he seems unlikely to survive long in Chennai. Ethi is unpredictable and erratic, and doesn’t seem to have the necessary concentration span to be able to successfully run a crime business.

Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi) is Varadan’s childhood friend, and the two have remained close over the years despite Rasool being a police officer. At the start of the film, Rasool is suspended from the police force for an overzealous attack on a student, so he has plenty of time to help out his friend while attempting to get his suspension overturned. As the brothers squabble amongst themselves, Rasool is always there to help keep the peace, just as long as he stays off the alcohol.

Varadan is married to Chitra (Jyothika) who is loyal to her husband despite his affair with TV reporter Parvathi (Aditi Rao Hydari). She’s an incredibly strong character who seems determined to hold the family together through the sheer force of her willpower alone, but when the brothers finally descend into open warfare all her support is with her husband in spite of everything he as done. At one point I was hopeful that Chitra was going to turn out to be the last one standing, but alas that wasn’t to be and she stays true to her character until the bitter end. Thyagu’s wife Renu (Aishwarya Rajesh) is less supportive of her husband, particularly when she ends up in jail after drugs are hidden in their apartment, while Ethi’s shortlived romance with Chaaya (Dayana Erappa) seems to only be included to act as the catalyst for his later suspicions when Chaaya is shot and killed on their honeymoon.

Initially the brothers unit in their search for the men behind the attack on Sena, but after Sena’s death it turns into a free for all as Ethi and Thyagu team up in opposition to Varadan, while accusations fly as to who was the real culprit behind the assassination attempt. Chinnappadasan is also out for blood after the brothers target his family and kill his son-in-law while the police have also vowed not to stand-by and let the gangster take over the city. The death toll rises inexorably as the brothers get closer and closer to finally determining who will take Sena’s place as head kingpin and their various rivals also close in for the kill.

The problem here is that for most of the film the brothers are only lightly sketched and we don’t know why they have chosen to act as they do. The women in their life are even more broadly drawn with just enough detail to know who they are and how they relate to Sena and his sons. There is a daughter as well, but she appears only briefly during the celebration for her new baby and I didn’t even manage to catch her name. This lack of any real motivation for the brothers makes it difficult to relate to their characters and, since none of them are particularly likeable, it’s also hard to decide who to support in their struggle to take over the top spot. Some of the support cast also appear to be completely superfluous, and it’s not until quite late in the story that the reason for the inclusion of, for example, Parvathi or Chaaya, becomes clear. But once the final twist in the tale is revealed, suddenly everything makes more sense, and many of the scenes with Lakshmi, Chitra and the others take on a deeper meaning. As too does the squabble between the brothers, and that ensures Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a much more intriguing film than it first appears.

A.R. Rahman’s music threads through the screenplay with different themes recurring as the characters come and go, and the songs mostly occur in snippets over pieces of the action. Santosh Sivan is in charge of cinematography and does a very capable job, although what is most interesting is what is not shown except in brief glimpses, almost too fast to catch. In keeping with the twist at the end, the final images of Rasool and the three brothers in a circling jeep at the top of a cliff are the most stunning. The ground is a rich red, while the sky is a vibrant blue and the sea a restless azure, making a vivid contrast between the stark but grandiose scenery and the petty, backstabbing action taking place in the jeep.

This is a film that I want to see again now that I know the ending. I suspect that there are clues scattered along the way although on reflection I can only identify a few, and I know that more will becone clear on a second watch through. I also didn’t catch the music as well as I should as I was concentrating too much on the action. The actors too appear much better on looking back, as the whole point of that lack of characterisation and interaction is only revealed at the end. It’s hard to say much without revealing the final twist but it’s the end that does make Chekka Chivantha Vaanam well worth watching and overall one of Mani Ratnam’s better films, despite the initial slow build.

Parugu

Parugu

Parugu is Bhaskar’s 2008 follow-up to his hit film Bommarillu and despite a rather hit and miss screenplay the movie ended up being a hit, was remade in various other languages and scored a number of awards. While the story might be nothing new and labours under every single film cliché imaginable (love at first sight, stalking = love etc), both Prakash Raj and Allu Arjun are excellent and work well together to make Parugu more watchable than the synopsis suggests. Plus the film starts with Bunny on roller skates – how can you not appreciate that!

I particularly love this song since when I can tear my eyes away from Bunny dancing, I recognise many of the locations. Plus, as always Bunny’s energy and enthusiasm is incredibly infectious, making for a great start to the film.

Sadly, the film doesn’t manage to keep the energy for long as the story moves to a village where local big-wig Neelakanta (Prakash Raj) is presiding over the marriage of his daughter Subbalakshmi (Poonam Bajwa). However, not all goes to plan as Subbalakshmi elopes with local villager Erra Babu which sets her father and his army of goons off on a rampage to find her. As part of their investigations, they pick up all of Erra Babu’s friends from the village and soon widen their search to include Sharma (Saptagiri) from Kakinada, Seenu (Chitram Srinu) in Nellore and Krishna (Allu Arjun) in Hyderabad.

Neelakanta and his brother Chinnabbayi (Subbaraju) keep the men in a shed while they continue the search for Subbalakshmi and Erra Babu, although this seems likely to backfire when Krishna engineers an escape. However, just before making it to the train and freedom, Krishna is brought up short by a girl he sees in the morning mist. He falls instantly in love and resolves not to leave the area until he discovers her identity. Naturally, the girl Krishna has fallen for is the youngest daughter of Neelakanta and she’s already having a number of issues due to the fall-out from her sister’s elopement. Through a window in the shed she pleads with Krishna and the rest of the detainees to reveal her sister’s whereabouts but instead she gets caught in a blackmail trap and agrees to help Krishna find the girl of his dreams. While the audience know that Meena (Sheela Kaur) is the girl he has fallen in love with, neither Krishna nor Meena realise until well into the film that she is the one Krishna is trying to find.

There is some comedy in the first half as Krishna hatches up various schemes to search for the girl in the woods, while Sunil and Srinavasa Reddy add some slapstick to further lighten the mood. Prakash Raj does his usual ranting as an enraged father but Bhaskar aims to show him as a more sympathetic figure and changes tack with the character in the second half.

As Krishna discovers that the girl he loves is Neelakanta’s daughter, Neelakanta finds out that it is Krishna who has helped Subbalakshmi vanish and he tortures him to find out where his daughter is hiding. This results in everyone – Neelakanta, Chinabbayi, all the various thugs, Krishna and Erra Babu’s other friends and Meena, haring off to Hyderabad on the trail of the missing couple. Krishna takes advantage of every opportunity to speak to Meera and starts to manipulate her feelings for her father to his advantage.

Meena doesn’t instantly fall for Krishna, but rather tries to keep her distance and is generally upset and confused by his attentions. Sheela plays Meena as nervous and afraid, although also somewhat gullible and impressionable. Bhaskar has given Meena and her father the same nervous mannerisms which does help link the two as a family, but Neelakanta’s decision to bring Meena with him still stands out as odd. There is some attempt to have meaningful conversations between the two, but these don’t work as well as they could, and the relationship between Meena and her father seems cold and impersonal as a result.

Meena genuinely seems scared and anxious for most of the film – afraid of her father and his goons, afraid of the men in the shed, particularly Krishna and afraid of falling in love. There is a rather bizarre song where Krishna is dressed as a mad priest and chases Meena though the canyons of Petra before she wakes up to realise it’s a dream. Bhaskar isn’t as clear here as he could have been that stalking is not the best way to a girl’s heart and for all his cheer and mostly sunny personality at times Krishna’s behaviour is quite predatory, making Meena’s fear seem quite rational. There really isn’t any good reason for Krishna to continue his pursuit of such a reluctant object of his affections, and very little basis for Meena to change her opinion. So Meena’s gradual acceptance of Krishna doesn’t seem realistic and even when she does start to warm to him, the romance generally has little sparkage. It’s left to Arjun and Prakash Raj to provide the chemistry that keeps the film going, and they both do that magnificently!

As Neelakanta gets more and more desperate, Krishna starts to realise that it’s his love for Subbalakshmi and his concern for her welfare that is driving her father to such desperate lengths. Although the change from concern about reputation and prestige to concern about his daughter is uneven and not always convincing, the change in Neelakanta does make the point that families suffer in a myriad of ways after a runaway marriage and provides the families point of view rather than the usual romantic picture of an elopement. Strangely, neither Krishna nor Meena use this opportunity to approach Neelakanta about their own love affair, which draws out the already overly long screenplay even further without adding any more substance to the plot. However it’s the interactions between Krishna and Neelakanta that make the film interesting, and both actors work well together to make their conversations and gradual acceptance of each other the best part of the film.

This is a Bunny movie and so there are plenty of opportunities for him to shake a leg and demonstrate his dancing skills. This is one of the best although the location and costumes could have been better.

Prakash Raj is in his element here. He has plenty of material to work with – all the rage and fury when his daughter runs away, slow burning anger at the men who are hiding her whereabouts and plenty of angst and remorse as he starts to fear that he as lost her forever. However, Bunny matches him step for step and together the two bring credibility to their roles that the romance and hunt for Subbalakshmi fail to deliver. It may be predictable with a total lack of empathy for any of the female roles (for which I’ve deducted a star), but Parugu does have strong performances from Bunny and Prakash Raj and the idea that elopement isn’t the solution to every problem is at least a little different from the norm. Parugu is worth watching for Bunny (of course!), Prakash Raj and the excellent dance sequences, but best to consider as an action/drama rather than as a romance to avoid disappointment. 3 ½ stars.