Mersal (2017)

Mersal

After drought ravaged farmers in Kaththi and violence against women in Theri, Vijay latest crusade is against corrupt medical practitioners in Atlee’s Mersal. There are few surprises in the storyline which follows a standard revenge formula, but the approach is stylish and the addition of a magician does ensure a few unexpected tricks. Vijay takes on a triple role that puts him front and centre for most of the film, which is just as well since it’s mainly his charisma that lifts Mersal above its well-worn story. But there are also energetic dance numbers, excellent special effects and a credible and suitably nasty villain making Mersal a major improvement on Vijay’s last film and worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Vijay plays a triple role – two brothers (one who is unaware of the other’s existence), and then their father in an extended flashback sequence. The story jumps around a lot as well as moving in and out of flashback so it’s deliberately not always clear which character we are watching at any given time. The film starts with the abductions of 4 men, all connected in some way to the same hospital, although it’s takes a while before we find out who they are and why they have been abducted. The police receive an anonymous tip off which leads them to arrest local hero and all round good guy Dr Marran (Vijay) who is known as the ₹5 doctor due to the fees he charges his patients. His arrest almost sparks a mini riot but once Police Officer Rathnavel (Sathyaraj) begins his interview (which for no good reason is conducted in a derelict building on a construction site) the story of the two brothers starts to unfold.

The other brother, Vetri (Vijay), is a magician and uses his powers to take revenge on the men he feels were responsible for his father’s death. It’s never clear how the brothers ended up separated or why Marran is brought up by his foster mother Sarala (Kovai Sarala) in ignorance of Vetri’s existence, but then Atlee seems to prefer focusing on the result rather than bothering with such basic explanations. Vetri is ably assisted in his magic and in his revenge by Vadivu (Vadivelu) who also moonlights as Maaran’s helper. This means Vetri knows exactly where Marran is and can use that information to his own advantage. While in Paris (really Poland, but close enough), Vetri meets Anu Pallavi (Kajal Aggarwal) who is acting as a general gofer for the rather greedy and lecherous Dr Arjun Zachariah (Hareesh Peradi). Dr Zachariah is the polar opposite of Maaran, believing that good medicine is commercial medicine and the only reason to be a doctor is to turn a huge profit and benefit from the misery of disease. Maraan on the other hand is a proponent of universal free health care as a basic human right, although he doesn’t seem to have really thought through exactly how this style of medical care will be funded if his dream is to become a reality.

While Vetri dances his way into Dr Anu’s heart in Paris, Maaran meets journalist Tara (Samantha) during an interview on a TV talk show. Love blossoms through another song but Maaran’s TV appearance has brought him to the attention of Dr Daniel Arockiyaraj (S.J. Surya) who recognises Maaran as being the spitting image of his father. Daniel and Vetrimaaran (Vijay) had an acrimonious history and Daniel immediately sets out to find and destroy the son of his enemy.

The best part of the film is the extended flashback after the interval which focuses on the reasons behind Vetri’s revenge and Daniel’s antipathy. S.J. Surya revels in his role as a conniving and deceitful doctor in wide collared shirts and spectacular flares but Vijay steals the show here with his performance as a villager with a big heart and even bigger muscles.  Nithya Menen is also superb as Vetrimaaran’s wife Aishwarya (aka Ice), although she does have the best of the three female roles. Her Ice is passionate and inspiring in her devotion to the idea of readily available health care in their village, and she gets the chance to really bring out the emotions of her character well. She also has excellent chemistry with Vijay and this is the relationship that works the best out of the three, although to be fair both Samantha and Kajal get little screen time with the hero and little chance to develop their respective relationships.

There are a few oddities in this part of the film though. There is a sudden jump between Ice’s admission into the hospital and her final fate without much explanation of what goes wrong. Also, a potential fight between Vetrimaaran and Daniel’s henchmen is over before it begins with the gang all lying on the ground bleeding and moaning seconds after they approach Vetrimaaran. I’m not sure if these cuts are an Australian specific issue since I haven’t seen any mention of them in any other reviews, but it does seem odd and makes these final flashback scenes seem rushed and a little confusing.

Although the main focus of the film is Vijay, the rest of the support cast are all good, including Rajendran as an unlikely Health minister and Kaali Venkat as an auto driver whose daughter died due to corruption in the health service. The music from A.R. Rahman doesn’t stand out as anything special, but it does fit into the screenplay well while Atlee places the songs wisely throughout. G.K. Vishnu works wonders with the cinematography and the effects are magical despite the sometimes cheesy nature of the tricks. Watch out for a scene where Vijay fights with a deck of cards – the fusion of the magic storyline into a standard masala tale is a better fit than I expected. Of course the real magic here is that Vijay seems to be growing younger with each new film and he’s just as energetic as ever too.

However Mersal is more than just a revenge drama and there is a definite political slant to the story. To start with, medical negligence and corruption is an emotive topic, that has been much in the news recently with a series of high profile deaths in the Indian medical system. Vetri makes a rather political statement towards the end of the film as he speaks to the crowd outside the courtroom and asking why India can’t fund heathcare as well as Singapore when the Indian government collects a much larger amount of GST. This is much more direct than Vijay’s message about suicidal farmers in Kaththi and does come across as a warning to the current government that they are being judged as lacking leadership in this issue. Vijay underscores the political theme with several nods to MGR, including a scene where Vetrimaaran walks in to a cinema to accuse village officials of corruption just as MGR strides onto the screen in the background. Is this the next stage in Vijay’s political campaign or is he just making the best use of his star power and philanthropic tendencies? Only time will tell, but in Mersal, Atlee has combined politics and entertainment without diluting the message or preaching to his audience- something a lot of Holywood films could do well to emulate.

 

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Kodi (2016)

kodi-poster

Kodi is an interesting political thriller that sadly did not release in Australia with English subtitles. As the film is dialogue-heavy this meant that I missed most of the subtleties of the film, particularly annoying since the female characters seem to have more substantial roles than usual and the plot appears to be well-developed with unexpected twists. However the basic story is pretty easy to follow and the characters all clearly delineated ensuring Kodi is worth the trip to the cinema. It’s still completely baffling to me that in today’s global market the producers would choose to release Kodi overseas without subtitles, although it does follow the recent trend of not including subtitles on Tamil DVD releases either. Come on Kollywood – lift your game!

Dhanush plays a double role in the movie, portraying twin brothers, Kodi and Anbu. Despite being mute, their father (Karunaas) had political ambitions and was prominent in the local party as an activist and avid supporter of the local leader.  On his birth, Kodi was presented to the leader and from that point on it seems that his father transferred all his political ambition onto Kodi, dragging him around to various political events and giving him speeches to declare on his father’s behalf.

Initially Kodi seems relatively happy to follow the party line, but he is horrified when his father suicides right in front of him in order to highlight mercury poisoning at a local factory. Rather than lessen his passion for politics, this ensures Kodi grows into a hot-headed and passionate politician who craves social justice and presumably the power and prestige such a role would bring. As a young campaigner Kodi seems to have a fairly prominent role in the local party office, although there are grumblings from the older generation about the young upstart who seems to be taking a lead role. Along with the problems Kodi faces from his party, his girlfriend Rudhra (Trisha) is also a wannabe politician, except she’s firmly on the opposing side and the two seem to frequently clash in the public arena. Luckily for their romance, they seem to be able to put their opposing views aside once they are alone together and apart from the hassle of having to keep their relationship secret, Kodi and Rudhra happy together.

Anbu on the other hand is a gentler character who works as a teacher at a local college and is content to let his brother lead the charge for democracy. He finds romance with a local egg farmer Malathi (Anupama Parameswaram) although he isn’t above swapping roles with his more volatile brother when the occasion demands it. Dhanush keeps the two characters separate with ease, and not just because Kodi has a full beard and Anbu a moustache. Kodi is harsher, often appearing stern and forbidding, and only leading down his guard with Rudhra. He is argumentative, struts around combatively and is a typical mass hero when it comes to any fight.  Anbu on the other hand is softer, smiles more and even his posture indicates he’s a man who can be more easily pushed around. In his first double role, Dhanush effortlessly makes the two brothers separate individuals, perhaps even more so than real twins as Kodi appears more like an elder brother, and Anbu the younger.

Anbu  discovers more about the mercury factory which leads his brother to some unsettling revelations and as events unfold, Anbu ends up taking his brother’s place in politics. This is where the characterisation breaks down a little, as Anbu playing Kodi is really just the same as Kodi. It would have been even more effective if there had been some Anbu mannerisms left behind, although it’s possible that I missed some of this through not understanding the dialogue.

While Dhanush is superb as Kodi and Anbu, Trisha is just as good as a young and ambitious female politician. She has to battle against the prejudice of both her gender and her youth to win her place in the party and in doing so displays a ruthless streak that serves her well later in the film. Trisha is regal in sober saris that reflect her political ambitions, but lets her hair down in the romance scenes where she is softer and more likeable than in the rest of the film. There are also glimpses of the continuous rivalry between Kodi and Rudhra as they grew up together, with the childhood flashbacks proving more substance and clarity to the two characters. I love the interactions between the two – both in public as rival politicians and in private as their romance heats up. Writer/director R.S. Durai Senthilkumar has ensured that the female role is just as well-developed as that of the male protagonists, and in some ways Trisha has the more thought-provoking role with a complex and ambiguous character.

The story has a number of twists and turns with the machinations of the two political parties, the plots of the various members and the truth behind the mercury factory all having a part to play. I wish I had understood more of the dialogue as I missed the significance of Kodi and Anbu’s friend Bhagat Singh (Kaali Venkat) and I’m still not sure why Malathi disappeared from the story for most of the second half. This was a shame as Anupama was excellent, as were the rest of the supporting cast. S.A. Chandrasekhar was good in the role of Kodi’s party leader while Saranya Ponvannan was excellent playing the only role she ever seems to do nowadays (but then she does it so well!) as Kodi and Anbu’s long suffering mother. There are only a few songs in the film and these are mostly focused on the two romances, but Santhosh Narayanan’s music seems to fit well, although I did miss watching Dhanush dancing.

Like his previous films Ethir Neechal and Kaaki Sattai, R.S. Durai Senthilkumar concentrates on telling a good story rather than simply showcasing a star or indulging in mass action scenes. As a result, Kodi is an intelligent and engaging thriller, with excellent characterisations and clever twists in the plot. Dhanush does a fantastic job in a double role, keeping his presence somewhat understated so that the focus really is on the story and not the few fight scenes or dramatic speeches. I really do hope that this one releases on DVD with subtitles as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and I’d love to finally understand all that dialogue.

 

Maari (2015)

Maari

After watching the trailer for Maari I nearly give the film a miss, as apart from the obvious draw of Dhanush in a collection of garish shirts the film didn’t really look like my cup of tea. How wrong could I be! Maari may be a standard mass story at heart, but Balaji Mohan has thrown in a number of good ideas that, along with the star presence of Dhanush, deliver a film better than expected. There are a few misses, including a lacklustre heroine and a relatively uninspiring final fight scene but overall Maari is an easy and often very funny watch.

Maari

Maari (Dhanush) is a small time gangster who works for a local don based somewhere in Triplicane, Chennai. Along with his small gang of Sanikilamai (Robo Shankar) and Adithangi (Kalloori Vinoth), Maari extorts money from the shopkeepers in his area, forces people to dance for his entertainment and generally throws his rather insubstantial weight around. As a result everyone in the area hates Maari and his gang, so when a new sub-inspector (Vijay Yesudas) moves into the police station his attempts to arrest Maari seem to be the perfect solution for the area. There is a rumour that Maari was involved in the murder of another gangster some eight years previously and SI Arjun is determined to find a way to prove Maari’s guilt and lock him up for good.

But of course it’s not as simple as that, and once Maari is arrested the locals suddenly find out why they might have been better to stick with the devil they knew. It all ends up, as such things must, with much biffo and a few dodgy CGI effects, but thankfully Maari remains true to himself and is still the same unredeemed petty gangster at the end.

Dhanush plays Maari with plenty of swagger, bravado and a rather impressive moustache. In classic gangster ishtyle he mainly walks in slow-mo with his own personal wind machine for those moments when it’s essential to have a breeze wafting his perfectly styled hair around. Add to that those wonderfully loud shirts, a pristine white lungi, small round sunglasses and a truly terrible chain-smoking habit to make up the classic Tamil gangster package. Of course like every true gangster there has to be a chink in his armour somewhere and for Maari it’s pigeons – he’s a fanatical pigeon racer and the death of one of his pigeons is apparently the reason for his rumoured foray into murder a few years ago.

However there is more to Balaji Mohan’s gangster than first appears and he gives Maari a characterisation that is not particularly deep but does break away from the typical Tamil hero. The first indication occurs when Maari first sees Sridevi (Kajal Agarwal) who has just moved in to the area with her family to open a boutique. The action goes on around Maari as he stares at Sridevi while music swells in the background, and I fully expected there to be the usual ‘love at first sight’, bad guy reformed by good girl storyline. But instead the music stops and Maari threatens to slap Sridevi for her disrespect for him, moving into full extortion mode rather than anything even vaguely lover-like. There is none of the stalking as love aspect either – Maari is only interested in Sridevi as a source of income and even when she starts to help feed his pigeons in an effort to make him fall in love with her he is very reluctant to get involved. He even points out in an evening discussion with Sridevi that he is a safe guy to be around as “real men don’t rape”. It might be a blatant attempt to appeal to the female audience, but this scene got a round of applause from the packed house in Melbourne with even the fanboys in the front row adding their approval.

Sadly Sridevi is a more confused character. She hates Maari for his interference in her boutique but while her attempts at revenge are in character, her later change of heart is rather insipid. I’m not sure who dubbed for Kajal but the voice doesn’t match her appearance although that may be as I’m more used to seeing her in Telugu films. Kajal seems to almost sleep-walk through the part too and there is little energy in her performance with absolutely no chemistry between the lead pair. How is that even possible when Dhanush is at his charming best? Thankfully however the relationship between Maari and the members of his gang more than makes up for the lack of any romance. Robo Shankar is excellent as the wing-man for Dhanush and he mostly has the best comedy lines while Kalloori Vinoth makes an impression in a small role.  Kaali Venkat is good in his role as a police officer and the other actors playing Velu and ‘Bird’ Ravi are solid in these roles. Vijay Yesudas is an unusual choice of villain for a Tamil gangster film, but I found his portrayal of a corrupt and slimy personality quite appropriate and he did a good job in the role. It’s another one of those little departures away from more usual characterisations in commercial films and I appreciate Balaji Mohan’s attempt to do something a little different.

The film looks good with plenty of colour although there aren’t as many full-out dance numbers as I expected. A little disappointing since Dhanush is such a good dancer. Still Anirudh Ravichander’s songs fit well into the storyline, even if at times his background music is rather too loud and distracting.

Maari isn’t a perfect film by any means – the fight scenes aren’t particularly inspiring and the story wanders a little too much – but it’s still an entertaining blend of comedy and action that allows Dhanush full rein to express his ‘bad’ side. I fully enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for mass masala that has the added benefit of fine performances from Dhanush and Robo Shankar, Maari is definitely well worth a watch.