Madras (2014)

Madras

Pa Ranjith’s second film is a gritty and realistic drama that starts well but gets a little lost in the second half when the focus of the story moves more towards a fairly awful romance. However, thankfully the character interactions and underlying political story have enough momentum to bring the story back into focus well before the end. Although Karthi is good in his role as a short-tempered, football loving bloke from a housing project, it’s Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan as his best friend who impresses the most from the generally excellent cast. The notable exception is Catherine Tresa who seems painfully miscast as Karthi’s love interest, and she appears awkward and uncomfortable for most of the film. Madras does drag a little in the second half as a result, but overall the portrayal of life in a housing project in Northern Chennai is convincing, while the political shenanigans add enough complexity and interest to make the film well worth a watch.

MadrasMadras

The story follows the rivalry and competition between two local political parties in Royapuram, a district in northern Chennai. While the politicians have managed to split most of the area amicably between the two factions, there is one wall in the middle of the district which remains in bitter contention. After some initial wrangling, for most of the film the wall features a painting of the deceased leader of one party (Jayabalan), but while his son Kannan (Nandakumar) and followers are determined to keep this image on the wall, Maari (Vinod) and his party want to claim the wall for their own propaganda. Caught in the middle are the people who actually live in the shadow of the wall and for whom the two political leaders talk the talk but don’t actually deliver very much in the way of benefits. This is simply highlighted in the way the women meet every morning to get water from a pump, and in the various fractious meetings between the rival young men of the area and party leader Maari.

The gang in Madras

Anbu (Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan) is the up and coming political activist in Maari’s party, and one of the driving forces behind the campaign to retake the wall. His relationship with his wife Mary (Ritwika) is one of the best I’ve seen onscreen in Tamil cinema and their stolen moments of intimacy have just the right amount of tenderness and humour. Both Kalaiarasan and Ritwika are brilliant in their roles here and I just wish the film had focused more on them and their relationship. Excellent performances from both made it very easy to completely believe in their characters, along with some very good writing and character development. The couple lives in a small apartment with their young son, and despite Anbu’s political drive and aggression, he is still a man who obviously loves his family and wants to do his best for both them and his local area. His best friend is Kaali (Karthi), an IT worker with a very short fuse to his temper, which spills over into violence with little provocation. While Anbu tries to negotiate his way to solutions, Kaali frequently disrupts his careful dialogues, and seems to think of little beyond the moment.

Madras

Kaali is however a staunch and stalwart friend, so it seems natural that Anbu doesn’t give up on their friendship but rather tries to mitigate Kaali’s outspokenness and intervene when he flashes into violence. The relationship between the two is complex and Ranjith is to be commended on writing such a convincing portrayal of two angry young men with such different agendas but who still have plenty of common ground.

Kaali is also looking out for a wife and believes he has found his ideal in Kalaiarasi (Catherine Tresa), the arrogant and opinionated daughter of yet another local politician. I found Catherine Tresa annoying and wooden in Iddarammayilatho and she does nothing here to change my opinion. The character of Kalaiarasi is interesting and has potential, but I’m not convinced by Tresa’s portrayal here at all.  She appears to be obviously ‘acting’ all the time and never manages to develop any rapport with her co-actors.  Perhaps her inclusion was Ranjith’s attempt to make his film more commercially appealing, but her performance definitely doesn’t work for me, and neither does the romance.

Madras

The rest of the story does however work well and despite the fairly obvious plot the first-rate characterisations are enough to keep it believable and interesting.  The various other support actors are effective with Rama as Kaali’s mother having some of the funniest dialogue, while Hari as local eccentric Johnny is cleverly used to further the storyline.  Anbu and Kaali’s friends are also convincing in their roles while the various enforcers used by the two political parties are much more realistic (and therefore believable) than the rent-a-thug gangsters usually used in such roles.

The cinematography by G. Murali is also excellent, with the chase sequences through the narrow streets a major highlight, but everything is perfectly framed to ensure the wall looms over everything and everyone in the area. Although there are a few songs they are used sparingly without long disruptive dance sequences, while the film does include some excellent dancing with the addition of a local area dance troupe who cycle through some of the important scenes and indulge in spontaneous dancing whenever possible. I approve!

Madras Karthik and CAtherine

The escalation of such a small issue as the slogan on a wall into an all-encompassing problem, along with the back-stabbing, petty rivalries and jealousies is well handled and makes Madras a more complex tale than it first seems. It’s the very ordinariness of the characters that ensures the film feels very realistic, while keeping obvious heroics out of the equation gives the film greater impact. Essentially Pa Ranjith has taken an old story and dressed it up into something new, with clever characterisations and good use of locations ending up with a film that’s a cut above the usual political thriller. Madras is definitely well worth a watch for impressive performances and a relatively realistic look at one of my favourite cities.

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Naan Mahaan Alla

Naan Mahaan Alla is the fourth film release for Karthik Sivakumar (aka Karthi) and the second for writer director Susindran. The film starts off as a romance but ends up as more of a crime thriller, with Karthi’s character the main connecting factor.  As such, it’s very much a film of two halves and I find it disjointed as a result. However there are some good moments as Karthi puts in a strong performance and Kajal is entertaining while she is around.  I like that the film is set and filmed in downtown Chennai, as it means there are locations that I recognise from my trips to the city. It makes parts of the film feel more realistic, and considering it’s supposed to be based on a true incident is probably  Susindran’s intention.

It starts with an attack and implied gang rape of a girl by a group of pot-smoking, drunken college students who seem to routinely indulge in these vices. The attack occurs by the beach and the use of buildings apparently damaged by the tsunami for this adds to the bleakness and harshness of the scene .

Up to this point it looks as if the film will be a gritty crime drama, but after this short but brutal introduction, the film switches gears completely and concentrates on the romance between Jeeva (Karthi) and Priya (Kajal Agarawal).  The two meet at the wedding of a mutual friend and Jeeva is immediately enamoured with Priya.

Priya is  intrigued by Jeeva’s practical and down to earth manner and the two quickly progress to a relationship. There are complications though. Priya’s father is a lawyer and isn’t impressed by his potential future son in law, despite agreeing that if Jeeva gets a job he will reconsider their possible marriage in 6 months time.  In a rather unlikely scenario he goes so far as to call in crime boss Kutty Natesan to ‘persuade’ Jeeva to look elsewhere. This technique fails when Jeeva and Natesan end up becoming friends, which is just as unlikely but does give Jeeva a much needed ally in the second half of the film.

The romance between Jeeva and Priya is sweet and more realistically depicted than usual for a filmi love story. Kajal and Karthi have good chemistry with each other and their relationship is convincing in its simplicity. There is perhaps a little too much time spent establishing that Jeeva is a nice guy, blowing kisses at babies and buying chocolate for sick kids, but Karthi does a good job with his guy-next-door role. Kajal is lovely, looks the part and never has to dance which, along with a generally good wardrobe selection, makes her look more elegant.  I really like her here and it’s a shame that she doesn’t have more to do, although I do appreciate that Susindran didn’t just add in a heroine to make her another victim later on in the film.

Having set up the relationship between Jeeva and Priya, post interval the story switches back to the gang of youths from the opening sequence and basically ignores the romance for the rest of the film. Interestingly Susindran reportedly found a few of the actors he cast as the students when they were standing on a street in Chennai, although Vinod Kishan has played the role of a murderer before as  the young Suriya in Bala’s Nandha. Despite, or perhaps as a result of their collective lack of experience, the guys playing the murdering students really were effective in their roles as ruthless, callous killers and Susindran’s selection process seems to have worked. There is another first time actor, as the role of Natesan is played by cinematographer Arulhdass who also does a great job in front of the camera.  However despite good performances by all involved, the story starts to lose its way in the second half as there are a number of inconsistencies and gaping holes in the plot.

Jeeva’s father is a taxi driver and gets involved in a peripheral way with the gang’s abduction and murder of yet another girl and her partner.

The gang dismember the bodies and throw them into the local tip in various separate bags. The guys don’t seem to be at all disturbed by chopping up two bodies, one of whom is supposedly a friend (unlike similar scenes in the 1994 film Shallow Grave which has my favourite realistic body disposal scene) and are also not concerned about betrayal by each other. Perhaps a bit more depth to the characters of the students here would have helped to make the story more convincing but as it is they appear only as disposable and interchangeable as all villains seem to be. Despite all their efforts, it’s not long before the police discover various body parts, although there is no mention of why the investigating officers decide to look so closely at the tip.  It looks as if they use a local dump to film the search and discovery scenes here and it’s so vivid with the flies and piles of rubbish that I could almost smell it.

The gang decide that Jeeva’s father may be able to identify them so take the rather drastic step of organising his murder. Unlike their previous crimes, for this one they need the Dhana’s uncle, a plan drawn in chalk on the floor and a cyanide painted shard of glass.  It all seems excessive and the set up for the murder takes up a lot of the second half. The issue of Jeeva’s father recognising them seems too contrived as the gang appear more self-centred and focused on entertaining themselves rather than concerned. Besides, if Dhana just cut his hair I’m pretty sure he would be much less memorable.

The plan (which apparently could only have been thought of by one of 4 master criminals in all of Chennai), does work and a devastated Jeeva takes it on himself to discover the identity of his father’s killers. Karthi is just as good here in the action sequences as he was in the earlier romantic scenes even though he’s now in a different film and seems to be playing a changed character.

It seems as if Susindran couldn’t decide if he wanted to make an action thriller or a romance. Rather than combining the two together he splits the film into two distinct stories with very different approaches which means that neither is particularly satisfying. I think that the romance in the first half works better than the action of the second as the interactions between Jeeva, Priya, their families and friends are well depicted. Of course that could also just be because I prefer a romantic storyline, but while the action starts off well it just becomes too fanciful to maintain the suspense. It’s hard to believe that by himself Jeeva could take on a gang of youths who’ve managed to eliminate some of the top rowdy’s in Chennai, and for me his final actions don’t fit at all with the characterisation developed earlier in the film.

Despite the issues I have with the story, there are a number of good points to the film and a number of very well shot scenes. For a change there isn’t an irritating comedy track, and the performances by all the actors are consistently good. Jayaprakash as Jeeva’s father Pragasam does appear to be an older version of his son with similar views and approach to life, and the relationship between the two is well portrayed. There are only 3 songs in the film but the music by Yuvan Shankar Raja is beautiful. More would have been good, although the background score is also excellent.

The idea of trying to make a film around the crime statistics from any major city in the world to-day is a good one but the depiction of the characters and the development of their part of the plot doesn’t live up to the promise of the initial opening scenes. Susindran tries a different approach and while his picturisation of the seedier side of Chennai falters, Madhi’s cinematography does reveal a more realistic take on the city. Worth a watch at least once for Karthi and Kajal, and skip the second half if you want to avoid the violence and unlikely storyline. 3 ½ stars

Temple says: Considering all the rape and murder going on, I found this film surprisingly tedious. I think the problem was Karthi’s character or performance as to me it was more like a succession of performances than a rounded character with depth or variation. Jeeva started out a smart mouthed manipulator and charmer who could talk his way in and out of trouble, before suddenly becoming a total innocent who believed everything he was told and had none of the insight he had earlier demonstrated, then he was a breathless and gushing fan of an admitted killer, the next incarnation was a serious young man who had learned the value of money through just a small taste of having to shop and pay bills, and finally he became the invincible and implacable hero. None of these segments felt connected with the others, and I was completely disengaged from his character after a while. I’m not sure whether it was the performance or the writing that missed the mark – I think both, although I have liked Karthi in other films. The first half is all about the romance and Kajal is quite effective as the likeable but kind of stupid heroine. Priya is indecisive and eager to please so never knows or voices what she really wants – a flaw Jeeva points out several times as he also tells her what to do.  Kajal and Karthi have nice chemistry, but as Priya disappears for the second portion of the film, there is no point getting too attached to the lovey-dovey pair.

The crime and revenge plot is also patchy. The gang is initially shown as a bunch of drug fuelled opportunists under the leadership of a psycho.  Somehow despite their poor impulse control they manage to cobble together and execute a ridiculously complex plan to eliminate Jeeva’s dad.  The finale is too long, too improbable and as I couldn’t relate to Jeeva it lacked emotional intensity.

The performances are mostly fine, it’s a technically well made film, but it’s a bit hollow for me. 2 stars.

Paruthiveeran

The film opens at a temple festival, full of colour and music. The camera draws the eye in through a range of points of view, creating the feeling of being part of the milling crowds. It’s all very colourful and entertaining, and then the knives come out. We’re in a place divided by caste and old grudges, where the police are the law but not the authority.

In a black and white flashback, a young girl is pushed into a well. Her cousin, Paruthiveeran, helps to keep her alive, and an obsessive love is born. The children become friends and promise to be together always, even after they grow up.  Soon Muthalagu tells anyone who will listen and everyone else as well, that she will marry Paruthiveeran and only him.

Back in the present day Paruthiveeran, or Veeran, played by Karthi (knife wielding ne’er do well from the opening sequence) and Muthalagu (Priyamani) are still in the village. What will happen to a strong willed girl who refuses all other offers and stands up to her father? Why would she want Veeran who is a drunken womaniser, not interested in her and not particularly attractive? Priyamani and Karthi make the melodrama more compelling than it might seem.

There are lots of spoilers ahead so if you really don’t want to know, please stop now.

Muthalagu is an interesting character, and not your usual romantic girly heroine. Priyamani’s performance is totally convincing, even as I was rolling my eyes at some of her character’s choices. Muthalagu is complex yet single minded and while I couldn’t see myself ever obsessing over Karthi, I could believe that she was.  She is beaten and verbally abused by both of her parents but will not flinch, and even threatens her father in return. Her teachers and others keep asking why she wants to throw herself away on a man who is usually in jail, why she would deliberately fail 4 years of school so she can postpone being married off. She takes poison rather than marry another man. She drugs Paruthiveeran, ties him to his bed and tattoos her name on his chest.

This is not a shrinking violet, but nor is she a crazed caricature. She knows everyone is talking about her, but she never tries to hide her feelings or make any pretence. She believes Paruthiveeran is her fate, they are meant to be together and she will not break her promise to him or to god. There is no swaying her, not even his protests can persuade her.

It’s not a glamorous role – most of the time Priyamani is in plaits with the scrubbed face no makeup look. She doesn’t try to make crying look pretty; she lets the anger and frustration burn through. Her body language and facial expressions really capture a mix of arrogance and uncertainty. When Muthalagu smiles, she is a radiant young girl in love. Priyamani has been praised to the skies for this role and bagged a number of awards, and I can see why.

Karthi did his best in his debut to give his character some depth.  Veeran is a bully and a bit of an idiot, his only ambitions seem to be to upset local dimwit Douglas and to commit a big enough crime to go to Madras prison.

He spends a lot of the film hanging around with his equally useless uncle Sevvalai (Saravanan), getting into fights, avoiding Muthalagu and shagging an assortment of women (some paid, some volunteers). He basically steals a prostitute from some local men (he gives her back when he is done), and is asked to share one of his girls with them one day – a throwaway line that will have repercussions. He rejects and humiliates Muthalagu time and time again, and he is as frustrated by her obsession as she is by his resistance.I did enjoy his visible transformation to the semi-domesticated boyfriend; once again, ruler straight side parted hair seems to be the Good Boy indicator. But how good can he possibly be? Well, he does get that tattoo amended to have both their names enclosed in a heart so I suppose that is a commitment.

Once the two admit their now mutual feelings, the film starts to go off the rails a bit in search of more dramatic tension.  The family feud gains intensity, caste violence takes the stage and some of the characters seem to go out of focus. There is another flashback sequence that explains the origin of the family enmity, but I didn’t think such detail was all that necessary.

The film builds to a finale that is both highly melodramatic and somehow shockingly real. Deciding to make a break from the village and start a life together, Paruthiveeran hides Muthalagu in his shack and leaves to protect his uncle. Unfortunately, that sleazy guy from the prostitute episode sees her and decides it is time to claim his dues. After a horrible gang rape sequence that is disturbingly matter of fact, Veeran comes back to find her dying. I don’t think this is a case of a ‘bad girl’ being marked for death – Muthalagu died because of Veeran’s actions and who he was, and she didn’t seem to be subject to a directorial judgement by Ameer Sultan. The death scene was well written, and not at all sickly sweet. Muthalagu’s parting words to Veeran are a demand for some kind of explanation as to how she could have waited her whole life, and ended like this. And I was asking the same thing. Veeran decides he must cover up the dishonour to his love, and perhaps also use her death to have one last shot at her father.  What he did startled me and while it made a sort of sense, the ick factor was high. Karthi did reasonably well with the extremely emotional scenes, but it was in the quieter sorrowful moments that he really convinced. It was quite unnecessary that we got an eyeful of Karthi’s butt in the final scenes but whoever pre-ripped his clothes was very determined. I am sparing you the sight.

The support cast are very good – they look and sound the part and this isn’t a glossy view of country life. I wasn’t so taken with the little girl who played young Muthalagu. Her voice was a monotone buzz that grated, but her expressions were fun and she managed to be precociously flirty and still a child. Saravanan as Sevvalai is good but doesn’t get much to do apart from support Karthi. The grandmother and mother (Sujatha) in Muthulagu’s family are intense and their performances are high on energy but not overly histrionic. I really felt the tension in her family, and it made the typical family disapproval scenes much more compelling.

Yuvan Shankar Raj’s soundtrack is excellent. Some tracks sound as though they are sung by traditional singers rather than studio artists, and I think that works really well in building the sense of place. The rural setting is very picturesque and appealing, and the cinematography captures both the energetic village life and the open countryside.

The flashbacks took up too long, and the ending is what I have come to think of as typically ‘everyone dies or lives unhappily ever after Tamil romance’. I’m never very happy about the depiction of rape in films, but I think this was given some weight and treated as an assault, not a justly deserved punishment. It was not made to be the girls fault, despite what her rapists may have said, and I appreciated the writing that made the scene compelling. Priyamani is the reason I picked up the DVD in the first instance, and her performance is remarkable. I don’t imagine I will feel the need to watch it again anytime soon, but I did like seeing great acting, a strong female character and some interesting relationships on screen. I give it 3 and 1/2 stars.