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.

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Magalir Mattum (2017)

Bramma’s female centric film has a lot going for it, from the fantastic cast to the gentle mood of nostalgia and friendships that transcend time. But if you’re expecting a robust feminist statement, look elsewhere.

Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Prabhavati (Jyothika) arrives on the scene like a hero. She rides a motorbike, wears jeans and t-shirts, calls all the shots with her film crew, abbreviates her elders’ names and speaks casually to all. This is how we know she is a modern, empowered woman. She has a close relationship with her soon to be mother-in-law Gomatha a.k.a Goms (Urvashi). Prabha comes to know that Goms had a couple of very close friends at school but when one of the girls was expelled, the trio went their separate ways and haven’t seen each other in close to 40 years. She decides to use Facebook to track down the ladies, and get the gang back together. Rani (Bhanupriya) is married to a chauvinistic politician (Nasser) and describes herself as a glorified servant, looking after the family in return for food, lodging, and a little bit of affection. Subbu (Saranya Ponavannan) is married to a drunk (Livingston) and stuck at home with his ailing mother, cleaning bedpans and listening to endless complaints. Prabha coerces them all into taking a road trip for just 3 days, time to be themselves.

Bramma uses flashbacks to the friends’ college days and the three young actresses who play Rani, Goma and Subbu are delightful. The dynamic between the women hasn’t really changed, even though their circumstances and lives have forced them into different shapes. They quickly fall back into Rani being the firecracker, Subbu being daring, and Gomathi being timid but refusing to be left out. The links between timelines serve to remind the ladies who they used to be as well as showing the audience.

Prabhavaty eggs them on, wanting these women to live for themselves and stop holding back, to have the freedom she has. She is effusively informal, persuasive, and persistent. I had a bit of a chuckle at her being “like a hero” as, like many male stars, she is only about 10 years younger than her screen mother. I like Jyothika and she looks great and delivers a well-modulated performance as part of the ensemble.

Prabha says “men aren’t the problem, the system is the problem” which neatly overlooks that “the system” is largely constructed and maintained by men for their own benefit. But baby steps. Mainstream Tamil films tend to congregate at the rapey and misogynistic end of the spectrum so this is quite a departure and I’m grateful to the heavy duty star cast for getting this off the ground. Maybe that is the real feminist statement – Jyothika’s continuing film career that doesn’t require her to play Suriya’s mother!

Rani (Bhanupriya) is living a life of determined fortitude. Through the flashbacks we see Rani was the leader, always getting in trouble and loving it. Her husband (Nasser) and son Karthik (Pavel Naganeethan) see her as a fixture, nothing you need to consult or consider. When their ward is designated a ladies ward, Karthik’s political ambition is thwarted and his dad cautions him against letting his wife step out of the house to run for office. They put Rani up as their candidate as they are so confident she will never have an opinion of her own. It’s such a sad waste of Rani’s sharp mind and good heart. She blossoms on the trip away, but is resigned to going back to the status quo. But does she? There are signs that at least her kids learn to see Rani as a human being, and she does take the wheel again. Bhanupriya is elegant but also mischievous and I really wanted to see more of Rani’s story.

Subbu (Saranya) projects a polished and controlled exterior. Her life behind the veneer of her beauty channel set is far less appealing. Her husband drinks constantly, and sprawls around the house singing old love songs until he bursts into pathetic tears in a never ending cycle. While Subbu is immaculate, the house is verging on squalid and there is no sign of pride in her surroundings. Subbu eventually reveals the reason for her disillusionment and anger, and there is nothing that can really fix that. It’s just heartbreak after heartbreak as the women reveal the decisions made for them and how they live with the aftermath. One of the highlights is a sequence where all the ladies tell their story of first love, with the results ranging from tragic to wryly amusing. Saranya plays Subbu as outspoken but with an increasingly warm twinkle in her eye as she casts off the grinding routine. She and Bhanupriya dance and joke around, fire up at each other and then gang up on Urvashi.

Gomatha’s life is not explored as thoroughly as the others, and Urvashi doesn’t have the same complexity of material to work with. Goma was less well off than her friends and struggled to keep up appearances at college. She was more conservative but would follow Rani and Subbu into the fire. She loves her son who works overseas, and worries about her life after the wedding when Prabha will go to live with him. The rapport between Prabha and Goms seems a little forced initially as Urvashi overreacts constantly, but she eases off once the ensemble is in place.

The supporting cast is excellent but the roles are sketches with minimal detail or depth. The men are either jerks or SNAGs, nothing much in between. I was delighted to see Maddy as Suri, Prabha’s fiancé. I quite like slightly unkempt and stubbly Maddy and liked that Suri wasn’t a manscaped picture of perfection. He’s a nice bloke who appreciates Prabhavati, and that is perfect. Nasser, (who Goms describes as looking like an eagle with diarrhoea), and Pavel Naganeethan are very effective at being horrid, and Livingston as Subbu’s husband Mangalamurthy is the kind of man who is nice but such a deadweight that he has the same effect as a total bastard.

Bramma gets a bit bogged down in a sub plot, and doesn’t really carry all the good ideas through into action. But the film looks great, the acting is generally top notch, and it’s a rarity to see female friendships celebrated on screen.

See this to enjoy the presence and fine acting of some wonderful female actors, and for the emotional resonance of their friendship and shared memories.

Mozhi

Mozhi starts with some beautifully animated music unfolding across the screen and it’s an excellent lead in to a romantic comedy that never hits a flat note. With a cast featuring Prithviraj, Jyothika, Prakash Raj and Brahmi along with very competent support actors it’s an absolute treat to watch and the story, although simple, provides plenty of scope for their combined talents.  There are plenty of genuinely funny moments along with a few tear-jerkers, but it’s the characters and in particular the bromance between Prakash Raj and Prithviraj that really stands out and makes this film something special. The two have great chemistry here and whether they’re at work together or out celebrating, their relationship feels warm and genuine, and this sincerity underlies the entire movie.

The film tells the story of the romance between Karthik (Prithviraj) and Archana (Jyothika) but woven through is the relationship between Karthik and his best friend Viji (Prakash Raj) as well as glimpses into the lives of other people in their apartment block. Karthik and Viji work in the film industry under Vidyasagar; also the name of the real-life music director and composer for the film. I love that Tamil cinema uses the film industry as part of the background setting without making it glamorous or over dramatic, but instead portrays the work as just another job – albeit rather a well-paid one. Karthik and Viji are seen adding music to a film clip and director Radha Mohan uses this opening scene to beautifully illustrate the difference when a silent scene is set to music. This becomes significant later on as the story develops and it’s a technique throughout the film to add more depth and layers to the characters.

Karthik and Viji move into an apartment together in a block of flats managed by V. Ananthakrishnan (Brahmi), and almost straight away they are at odds with the flat manager as he informs them that bachelors are strictly not welcome. This sets up some of the comedy in the film but for a change Brahmi’s role is fairly substantial and he’s not the main focus of the humour. Instead Prakash Raj and Prithviraj handle most of the comedy between them, and they do an excellent job. One of my favourite scenes is where they both repeatedly crack-up in a lift after visiting Brahmi in hospital, but there are so many funny scenes with the two together and they both seem to be having a great time. This is such a good song with both of them dancing and again, they seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.

Another bonus comedy moment is watching Prakash Raj wearing only a towel dancing in gay abandon to the strains of Hava Nagila,the consequence of which also gave me a new Indian idiom to add to my vocabulary! Apologies for the poor quality of the screen caps, but the film quality isn’t great and Prakash Raj just doesn’t stop!

Dismayed at the prospect of losing their flat which they have very snazzily decorated with some fantastic sculptures, the two conspire to get round Ananthakrishnan. The obvious answer is for one of the two to get married, but Karthik is a romantic and believes that he will see lights and hear bells when he finds his true love. While Viji is more sceptical he’s not in any rush to get married either so the two try various strategies to ingratiate themselves with the landlord.  Along the way they meet some of the other characters in the building and with each vignette more of their personalities are revealed. It makes for an air of realism in the film as the various other inhabitants go about their usual daily routines. The security guard (Balaji), Ananthakrishnan’s level-headed wife Janu (Sriranjani) and his gluttonous son add some more comedy along with Preethi (Neelima Rani) who has eyes only for Karthik. M.S. Bhaskar plays the role of a professor whose mind has been stuck in the eighties since experiencing a personal tragedy and his sad story is used to reveal more of Karthik’s own generous nature.  Everyone’s little idiosyncrasies are all used to good effect and each character has something to add to the story.

Karthik first sees Archana in the street beating up a vegetable seller for abusing his wife. It’s an unusual introduction and as well as being the only fight in the whole movie, it’s a pleasant change for the hero to admire the heroine’s dishooming capabilities. Karthik gets his lights and bells and immediately falls in love with Archana which is one of the few totally filmi moments.

After the delight of finding that Archana lives in his block of flats, Karthik discovers that she is a deaf-mute who has a major chip on her shoulder after her parents’ marriage fell apart. In an effort to learn more, Karthik meets Archana’s friend Sheela and learns sign language to be able to communicate. However the path of true love doesn’t run smoothly and Karthik is left teary and broken-hearted as Archana firmly refuses to entertain the thought of marriage.

This was Jyothik’s last role before she retired from acting and it really seems such a loss when she brings such a rich characterisation to her role as here. Jyothika uses her incredibly expressive eyes and various facial expressions to convey her feelings and nicely avoids the temptation to overdramatise to get her message across clearly. It’s impressive to watch Archana’s character develop as she doesn’t have any dialogue in the film and everything is communicated by expressions and gestures. And yet it’s clear to see Archana slowly evolves from a very angry and bitter young woman into someone who learns to see past her own insecurities. Karthik tries to understand her world and help her understand his, but since he goes about this by having Viji stuff his ears full of cotton wool it’s perhaps not surprising that he ends up totally misunderstanding her.

Apart from her ever present anger and commitment issues, Archana is portrayed as a very normal young woman with a steady job who just happens to be deaf and dumb. It’s a different take on disability and Archana’s perception that she is just a person who ‘speaks’ silence rather than a language of words is interesting.  Karthik’s acceptance of Archana with all her flaws and prickly nature is a measure of his maturity and common sense and if his enthusiasm leads him to make mistakes in their relationship, he is able to rethink and change his approach. All of which makes them seem like any typical young couple which makes it easy to understand and connect with their feelings. While Prakash Raj is excellent as Karthik’s friend, Swarnamalya is perfect as Sheela. Her character’s practicality and common sense serve as a contrast to Archana’s more emotional responses but she is still very sweet and looks beautiful as the romance between her and Viji develops.

There is so much I love about this film. The characters are wonderful and there are so many well-written scenes with clever and snappy dialogue. The songs are beautiful and this is probably my favourite melody while the picturisation neatly sums up the relationship bewteen Archana and Karthik.

Despite only recently having acquired the DVD with subtitles (and a very big thank-you to Temple and Suja for the recommendation), Mozhi has quickly become one of my favourite films and I’ve watched it numerous times already. It’s very funny and it makes me laugh time after time, but there are plenty of poignant moments too which keep the film very balanced. Excellent performances from all involved and an interesting storyline make this a very watchable film that I highly recommend. 5 stars!

Temple says:

There are many things I really like about Mozhi, and one is the very appropriate theme of language and communication. Jyothika in particular is wonderful at conveying so much by expression and sign, showing that language isn’t just about words.  So there are lots of really nice moments of communication and understanding or misunderstanding.

Prakash Raj is a delight, and I always like to see him do a bit more than his usual Prakash Dad or Prakash Bad roles. But this is Jyothika’s film in my opinion. She owns every moment she is on screen, and Archana is such a vivid character as result of her seemingly effortless performance. I was almost annoyed when Archana started to ‘speak’ via voiceover when Karthik found he understood her as she was so good at communicating without words. I’m not convinced by Prithviraj – I find he ranges from bland to adequate, and he only seemed to shift gears in a couple of scenes in this film.  Some of my reservations are down to the writing as everything is a bit too neat and too easy for Karthik. He adapts to people’s quirks and differences with barely a pause for breath, everyone instantly believes him and helps him with Archana, he learns sign language very quickly and with few errors, and almost turns into Mother Teresa. Archana’s personality was so complex and real that Karthik was flimsy in comparison, and he didn’t show much depth until quite late in the film.  Archana’s friend and colleague, Sheela (Swarnamalya) was a much more interesting character. Archana and Sheela were both bright capable women, and were a good balance for each other. The bromance between Viji and Karthik was a bit hit and miss due to me not finding Karthik particularly believable but has its moments. I was much happier when Viji found someone else to love (even if her wedding outfit was completely hideous)!

Unfortunately most of the comedy is dire. I found myself speculating, quite against my will, as to what Brahmi could have seen when Prakash Raj’s towel dropped that would have him almost hospitalised with conniptions. There are fat jokes, Prithviraj hamming it up in a wheelchair and other really dumb schoolboy stuff that was tedious and unnecessary.

See it for an interesting story idea, Jyothika in brilliant form, and Prakash Raj kicking his heels up in a fun role. 3 1/2 stars.