Iraivi (2016)

Iraivi

Karthik Subbaraj’s third film is rather darker than his previous two, with less comedy and a serious theme about women who have to endure the poor decisions of weak men. It’s a film where the female characters are defined by the men, and the story is told through male eyes although the women generally are stronger and less flawed than their husbands. While the relationships are the core of the film, there is an overlying story that involves theft, murder and deception and although it’s another excellent film from Karthik, I kept thinking throughout that this would have been more powerful if he had shown more of the women’s viewpoint. However, highlighting the flaws in his male characters and ensuring that they don’t appear heroic is in itself a departure from the norm in Indian cinema, as is focusing on the plight of the women trapped in realistically troubled relationships. In Iraivi, Karthik has made another film that is not easy to define but one which will hopefully start conversations and make audiences think a little harder about the definition of abuse.

The film starts and ends with the women, even beginning and finishing with the same image of a hand outstretched in the rain. The rain is used throughout as a metaphor for freedom, with each of the women expressing a wish to stand in the rain and get ‘drenched’. In the images and dialogue shown over the opening credits, Ponni (Anjali) is a schoolgirl, with the acknowledged somewhat old-fashioned dream of making a good marriage and living the rest of her life in domestic bliss. Vazhini (Kamalinee Mukherjee) is shown to be a strong and confident woman who has defied her family to marry the man she loves while Meenakshi (Vadivukkarasi) is upset by her husband’s demeaning attitude towards her, which has been an unceasing constant throughout their life together.

When we next see Yazhini and Meenakshi, each has been changed by the men around them, while we get to see Ponni’s transformation during the story. Meenakshi has had some kind of fall and/or stroke. She is reaction-less in a bed in hospital and her two sons, Arul (S.J. Surya) and Jagan (Bobby Simha) blame their father Dass (Radha Ravi). He admits to being the cause of his wife’s hospitalisation, but despite the fact that she never moves and never speaks, Meenakshi has become their focus for any of the problems Arul and Jagan face. No matter that she cannot communicate, she is still their mother and that bond is as strong as always.

Yazhini is married to Arul, a film director whose last film is being held hostage by his producer after the two had a falling out. Arul is living in limbo until he can secure his film’s and has become an alcoholic as a result. He gets into fights in bars when drunk but is not physically abusive to his wife and daughter, but instead subjects them to his mood swings and depression, and the general uncertainty of living with an alcoholic. S.J. Surya is excellent in his portrayal of a weak and selfish man who cannot cope with his loss and has become bitter and completely self-absorbed in his misery. Kamalini too is very good in a role that captures well how many women become trapped by their circumstances. She threatens Arul with divorce but at the same time still loves her husband and tries very hard to be as supportive as she can. However, Arul’s alcoholism and refusal to move beyond his own self-pity makes it difficult to Yazhini to see any other recourse other than to leave, taking their daughter with her. The dialogues between the two are excellent, and the sense of frustration and despair from both Arul and Yazhini underpins every scene. As the story unfolds, it’s Yazhini who emerges as the winner, able to change and adapt she moves on with her life while Arul is stuck in the same self-destructive pattern. Even after going to rehab, his selfish nature has not changed and everything is still about getting his film released – even losing his wife isn’t enough of a jolt to dislodge him from the familiar rut of self-pity and single-minded focus on his film above all else.

Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) grown up with Arul and Jagan and considers them as family with Arul as his best friend. He is in love with a young widow Malar (Pooja Dewariya) but she has no interest in anything other than a physical relationship and rejects his proposals of marriage. Malar is an interesting character – she is a woman who knows what she wants and is not bothered about societies perception of her behaviour, but I felt that there was something rather contrived about her character and despite Pooja’s best efforts, Malar didn’t quite ring true for me compared to the other characters.

When Michael’s parents arrange a marriage with Ponni he callously informs her on their wedding night that he has been forced into the marriage and can never be the man of her dreams. Her female relatives advise her that this is usually the case, but that Michael will change with marriage, however when Ponni tries to engage with Michael he shuts her out at every opportunity. In almost every scene with Michael or Ponni there are background details or snippets of dialogue which seem to foreshadow their relationship. When it seems that Ponni’s preganancy might be the turning point in their relationship, Michael is arrested and sent to prison, leaving Ponni to deliver and bring up her baby by herself. It’s again brilliantly written to illustrate the effect on Ponni as the happy-go-lucky school girl is transformed into a weary and accepting mother, managing to cope as best she can. Anjali is fantastic throughout and the dialogue again is perfectly written to illustrate the difficulties of women in what is a fairly typical relationship, no matter where in the world or whatever the cultural background. Vijay Sethupathi is on top form too as a man who is easily led by his friends and finds it difficult to admit to mistakes, even though at heart he isn’t a bad person.

The third character in the story is less successful, and Bobby Simha never quite manages to make his Jagan as believable as the other two. Jagan is jealous of Michael as he loves Ponni himself and decides to do something about it when he sees her distress when Michael goes to jail. Ponni’s reaction is certainly not what I expected in a film, but it is what could happen in real life, whereas Jegan’s monologues about the oppression of women and the evils of society seem more filmi and contrived than likely to occur in reality. However, Jagan does give an interesting contrast to the other two men, and is a more typical film character while providing the overlying story of artefact theft and deception against which the various relationships are all developed.

The story meanders about haphazardly while establishing the main characters and displaying their motivations. There are repeated themes and foreshadowing of events to come, but the final outcome is difficult to predict and the twists along the way are unexpected and genuinely surprising. What stands out are the individual performances from S.J Surya, Vijay Sethupathi, Kamalinee Murkharjee and Anjali, all of whom are superb. There is able support from all the other actors including a restrained appearance from Karunakaran as Arul’s friend Ramesh. The background music from Santhosh Narayanan is effective and the songs good, although in general these don’t add anything to the film. Sivakumar Vijayan’s cinematography is outstanding, often using the lighting to heighten the drama while ensuring that every scene is perfectly arranged for maximum impact.

Karthik has payed exquisite attention to detail, and the set-up and execution of every scene is beautifully planned to deliver maximum impact. On repeated watching, the small details start to emerge and the links between events become clearer. It’s a film that actually becomes better the second and third time around and I suspect that every time I watch Iraivi there will be another detail I missed the first time. It’s not perfect however; the film is long and some of the diversions taken don’t add anything worthwhile to the story, while despite starting off well, the female characters start to lose some of their definition and eventually only react to the actions of the men. It’s still an intriguing film and one I highly recommend for a different look at relationships between men and women. 4½ stars.

 

 

 

 

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Thodari (2016)

thodari-poster

It’s hard to decide exactly what Prabhu Solomon was aiming for with his latest release Thodari. Perhaps he wanted to make an old-style masala movie with a dash of everything as seasoning for an adventure storyline set on a speeding train?  Or maybe he wanted to create a spoof of a disaster movie along the lines of Airplane! It’s hard to say, since instead of any of these he’s made a film with too much of everything except plot and plausibility. The film has a surplus of comedy, romance, action and even social commentary, and yet none of it works together at all, resulting in a lumbering fiasco of a film that slows grinds though its full 168 minutes of run time. The only saving grace is Dhaunsh, who somehow manages to make his scenes watchable despite the ludicrousness of his character’s actions, and Keerthi Suresh who has a little more to do than the average heroine.

The first half of the film is a jumble of scenes set in a train running from Delhi to Chennai. The pantry staff is introduced, including supervisor and manager Chandrakanth (Thambi Ramaiah) who claims to be ex-military and tries to run his kitchen as if it’s an army platoon. Chandrakanth is responsible for a loud and intrusive comedy track that reaches its nadir when he is accused of being a terrorist and responsible for sending the train out of control. It’s anything but amusing.

Then there is pantry assistant Poochiyappan (Dhanush) and his friend Vairam (Karunakaran) who are vying with the rest of the team to serve refreshments to a Malayalam actress travelling in first class. Again, I think most of this is supposed to be funny, with Chandrakanth using Poochi as a surrogate to romance the actress, and instead only managing to charm her gluttonous mother, but it’s tired, cliché-ridden and basically not comical at all.

Poochi manages to win through to first class but rather than falling for the actress, instead he’s smitten with her make-up girl and immediately decides he’s in love with her in typical Tamil cinema style. Saroja (Keerthi Suresh) has reservations, but a quick song and dance on top of the train and the unlikely hope that Poochi can further her dreams of becoming a famous singer, and she’s happy to melt into his arms. There is also an odd feud that develops between Poochi and a security guard (Harish Uthaman) who is travelling with a government minister (Radha Ravi). There is no apparent reason for the guard’s enmity, although there are suggestions that he has an anger management problem and may even be on medication, but apart from being an excuse to add a couple of fight scenes this entire thread seems completely pointless and superfluous.

The action starts in the second half when the train ends up speeding out of control with no way to bring it to a safe halt. There are all sorts of technical reasons behind why no-one can stop the train, but the media become obsessed with the idea that the engine has been taken over by terrorists. The passengers on the train are able to watch the news of their hostage situation and imminent demise on their mobile phones as they hurtle along the track but despite all this disinformation, they don’t come up with any great ideas to save the day. Instead, their only possible salvation is a make-up girl stuck on the engine with no idea what is actually happening and whose main concern is her developing romance with the train pantry assistant.

The action of the second half is disrupted by the songs and by frequent switches between the different characters. Rather than focusing on the drama, Prabhu Solomon adds more ‘comedy’ involving Chandrakanth, another fight scene with the security guard and shots of the TV crews chasing the train. There are long dialogues supposedly set on a panel discussion with politicians behaving like school children while army personnel who board the train become embroiled in petty  feuds and disputes amongst the staff and passengers instead of doing anything to stop the speeding train. Even the scenes in the control room, which should have been tense and full of anticipation, are watered down by attempts at comedy and yet more digs at the government.  None of it is credible or even feasible but it’s all irrelevant anyway. What really matters, and what the TV audience want to see happening on the out-of-control train, is the success of Poochi’s romance with Saroja before the train runs out of track and the couple run out of time.

Thodari could have been much better if Prabhu Solomon had kept to the basics and put a simple love affair together with the drama of a runaway train. There are some good ideas here although they are almost buried under the huge cast list and wreckage of a plot. I like that it’s the heroine who has the best chance of saving the day and that the hero leaves it all up to her. Keerthi’s Saroja has some good lines too (although the abysmal subtitles meant I didn’t understand everything) and mostly behaves as any normal person would when faced with similar situations. Some of the suspense with the runaway train works, although it is only a small amount, and the romance between Poochi and Saroja is mostly engaging, despite the difficulties encountered when Saroja is stuck at the front of the train and Poochi is reduced to mouthing sweet nothings over a walkie-talkie with the entire nation looking on. The scenery too makes a spectacular backdrop for the songs as Dhanush and Keerthi shuffle along the top of the train and D. Imman’s music is catchy, even if the songs do act as major speed-humps for the screenplay and are unnecessary in this style of movie.

Overall the film suffers from too much going on at a superficial level, but not enough of  a plot to give a firm foundation. Dhanush is as good as always but even his performance isn’t enough to stop the film running out of steam long before the train reaches its destination. Worth a one-time watch in the cinema for the scenery and Dhanush but disappointingly that’s about all.

Lingaa

Lingaa

Finally it’s here! Friday was not only the Superstar’s birthday but marked the release of his latest film with director K.S. Ravikumar. There has been plenty of hype and expectation for this film, so did the team who gave us the hits Padayappa and Muthu deliver another blockbuster? Well….. mostly. This is a Rajinikanth film so we all know what to expect, and it goes without saying that the outfits will be stupendous, the songs lavish and attention firmly focused on the star in every scene.There is nothing much new about the story, but that’s not really the point, since it’s the entire spectacle and the heroism that’s important and there is plenty of that to be getting on with. Lingaa delivers most of the Rajni ‘formula’ characteristics we’ve come to expect, and with good performances from Anushka Shetty and Sonakshi Sinha there is plenty to enjoy in full masala style.

Lingaa

The film starts with the exploits of Lingaa (Rajinikanth), a thief and con-artist who, along with his merry band of Santhanam and Karunakaran, attempts a major heist at a jewelry exhibition. His outfits are classy and his concept equally sophisticated but Lingaa is foiled in his attempt to sell the jewels on by journalist Lakshmi (Anushka Shetty). Lakshmi is in search of the grandson of Raja Lingeswaran, the only one who can re-open a temple in her village and who just happens to be our jewel thief Lingaa.  Using tricks and flattery, Laksmi manages to get Lingaa to go to the village but not before she indulges in a full blown fantasy song with Rajnikanth as the pirate king come to recue her and her backing dancers, who perpetrate crimes on the high seas against the ruffle shirt amongst other fashion crimes.

Once in the village, Lingaa is taken aback by the respect shown to his grandfather, but since he himself feels no obligation to the man who lost all the family money, he is content to use the situation purely for gain. However in the course of events, Lingaa learns the full story of Raja Lingeswaran and exactly how he lost his money but won the respect of the people for his life-saving dam. We see all this in flashback mode with Rajinikanth also playing the role of his grandfather, in a beautifully drawn flashback to the 1930’s with period furniture and apparently CGI elephants. No mention though if all the horses, mules and buffalos were CGI too. Back in the thirties Rajni’s love interest this time is village girl Bharathi (Sonakshi Sinha) who has just as epic an imagination as Lakshmi, although she favours a more regal theme in her fantasy.

The thirties track starts with a superb fight scene on a train that features Dev Gill as a freedom fighter and touches on the Independence movement, the corruption and cruelty of the British Collectors, and the blind neglect of the Governors, the inequities of the caste system and the struggles of rural India as the farmers battle drought and flood. It’s a bit of a mish mash of ideas, but through it all Rajnikanth walks tall in some wonderfully spiffy costumes and what must surely be the best collection of sunglasses onscreen ever.

The film looks amazing with obviously no effort spared on the sets and outstanding costuming for Rajinikanth.  There aren’t all that many fight scenes, but they are all well choreographed and fit into the main narrative. The train fight scene is undoubtably the best with Rajni stylishly eliminating a train full of bandits with effortless ease, including a one on one with Rahul Dev on top of the train. The action scenes set in and around the building of the dam are also well filmed and the effects well integrated to give the impression of a truly massive construction.  The songs by A.R. Rahman are a little less successful, but since the dance numbers are mainly dream sequences, the total switch from the story is a little less disruptive. The songs which move the story forward such as the stirring Indiane Vaa more successful and the background music, also by A.R Rahman, is suitably evocative for each era. I do like the songs and actually like them more after seeing the visual to match, even with those ridiculous costumes in Mona Gasoline!

Sonakshi Sinha and Anushka Shetty don’t have a huge amount to do other than as the romance interest for the two Lingeswaran’s, but K.S. Ravikumar does give both of them a few important scenes in their relevant story lines. Santhanam and Karunakaran are also kept mainly in the background and when Brahmi makes a brief appearance early in the film it’s over almost before you realise it’s Brahmi. Still this means the focus is firmly on Rajinikanth and he makes the best use of every moment on screen with one liners, epic speeches and that twinkling smile.

Perhaps the only problem I have with Lingaa is the relative ineffectiveness of the villains, although I did appreciate the very normality of their respected self-interest. In the present day Jagapathi Babu does the honours while in the flash-back the actor playing the British collector is suitably sneery but a little too much of a caricature for me to completely believe in the character. The finale also seems a little rushed, especially since the computer graphics don’t work quite so well here as in the rest of the film. However it’s still Rajni doing several impossible things at once while saving the day and the girl (yet again) so for me it’s fine to accept the glaring unfeasibility of it all and just enjoy the spectacle.

I really enjoyed Lingaa, and loved watching Rajinikanth in the two separate incarnations of Lingeswaran. The comedy and action in the first half is interspersed with the insanely OTT songs while the second half is more sedate in keeping with the thirties backdrop. I am a big Rajinikanth fan which undoubtably colours my opinion, but this was fun and entertaining. Definitely well worth watching for the Superstar and those wonderful sunglasses!

Just as an aside, Lingaa was showing at The Astor here in Melbourne and when I left the cinema I was confronted by a sea of Jake and Elwood Blues lookalikes who were there for the 7pm showing of The Blues Brothers. From one iconic sunglass wearing movie superstar to an iconic  movie – it made my day!