Karuppan (2017)

Karuppan

After recently watching Rekka, Karuppan feels rather familiar with another foray into ‘mass’ territory for Vijay Sethupathi. R. Panneerselvam’s film is a standard plod through family relationships in a village near Madurai that fails to bring anything new into the genre, despite a few good ideas that unfortunately fizzle out midway through. Vijay Sethupathi, Tanya and Bobby Simha all do justice to their roles, but unfortunately the film lacks the fire it needed to make this a more compelling watch.

The story is set around the time of Jalikkattu and features a number of scenes involving bull wrestling. I really hope that the opening credits had the usual advice that ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this film’ but since everything was in Tamil with no translation I really couldn’t be sure (although these scenes did mainly seem to be CGI). I’m aware that Jalikkattu is a big thing in Tamil Nadu, but from the footage shown here the whole thing seems rather pointless to me and wasn’t at all enjoyable to watch. The reason for including Jalikkattu is that Maayi (Pasupathy) has a bull in the competition and decides that it would be a good idea to wager his sister’s hand in marriage to the man who manages to win the contest. Naturally the hero of the hour is Karuppan (Vijay Sethupathi) who wins the wrestling medal and the hand of Anbuselvi (Tanya) when he manages to make Maayi’s bull fall over.

Needless to say Anbu is not happy about her prospective groom and the method her brother has used to decide on the match, but like any good Tamil girl she threatens to kill herself if Maayi forces her into marriage. By this point I was ready to walk out – surely not even Vijay Sethupathi was going to be able to salvage this one, but then there was a twist to the story and it started to get more interesting. (Mild spoilers ahead)

Maayi had previously matched Anbu and Karuppan’s horoscopes and had already decided that he would be the perfect husband for Anbu, while Anbu had seen Karuppan take a stand against a seller of blue films and liked him for his values. And possibly also for his rather impressive moustache – sadly no subtitles for the songs means I may have made that part up, but it seems just as plausible (it is a magnificent moustache)! So, after a brief song and dance to introduce the prospective bride and groom, Anbu declares that she is ready to marry Karuppan just as soon as he can be convinced that the wedding is not solely due to his winning of a wager. Karuppan has the previously mentioned values you see and doesn’t take the wager seriously.

Unfortunately for the future happiness of the couple, there is a potential cloud on the horizon. Kathir (Bobby Simha), Maayi’s brother-in-law, had his heart set on marrying Anbu and when he can’t persuade Maayi that the whole wager idea is wrong, he decides to break the couple up by any means he can. Kathir is a sneaky villain and rather than gathering a gang of men to beat Karuppan into submission straight away, he goes for subtle and insidious goading of Maayi and the other villagers. This is done well with the odd piece of gossip dropped into the conversation, a nudge on one of the villager’s shoulders during a town meeting to get him to say his (obviously pre-prepared) piece and plenty of slanderous hints dropped around the village. Kathir is sweetly two-faced too, supporting Karuppan and speaking well of him to his face, but back-stabbing him as much as possible behind the scenes, and Bobby Simha does an excellent job of making this all seem very plausible.

Karuppan doesn’t help the situation by falling into Kathir’s traps which include getting outrageously drunk and insulting his in-laws at a temple function for his marriage. Kathir ensures that one of the people insulted by Karuppan is local gangster Varusanadu Sadha (Sharath Lohitashwa), setting Karuppan up to be dealt with by the gang if Kathir’s other plans fail to break up the marriage. Bobby Simha is very good here and he ensures his character has no redeeming characteristics. He keeps the characterisation low-key but effective to deliver a rather less physical but no less nasty villain.

Anbu is frustrated by her new husband’s failure to keep on the straight and narrow and when an estrangement occurs between her brother and her husband, she’s back to trying to kill herself without making any attempt at reconciliation. Sigh. Thankfully, apart from her suicide attempts, Anbu is a sensible and down to earth character, so there is hope that the whole situation can be resolved – after a major fight scene of course.

What works well here is the relationship between Karuppan and Anbu which quickly develops despite the unconventional betrothal. Vijay and Tanya have good chemistry together, while the mix of love scenes and quarrelling is typical of any couple trying to make a life together. One of the standout scenes is when Karuppan learns that Anbu is pregnant and his joy and happiness are perfectly portrayed. Vijay Sethupathi fits well into the role of a blustering but good-hearted farmer who adores his mother and his new wife, and he ensures the emotional scenes are effective without being too over the top.

Also good are the interactions between Karuppan and his uncle (Singampuli), particularly as they indulge in old Tamil film song karaoke together when drunk. They enact the different male and female roles, mouth the words and generally amuse the crowd with their antics in a couple of sequences that are very well put together.

Anbu is an interesting and generally strong character, although I couldn’t understand why her first impulse was to kill herself every time she ran into a bit of bother. Unlike most film heroines, Anbu isn’t afraid to let her husband know that she finds him attractive and she has enough confidence in their relationship to handle the ups and downs of Karuppan’s drinking. She’s a strong character who doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations in their relationship and in effect is a much better ‘bull-tamer’ than Karuppan could ever be, particularly since the bull she is taming is Karuppan himself. So, it doesn’t make sense that she isn’t able to deal with the issues between Karuppan and Maayi and effectively discourages the two from talking to each other. Or that she doesn’t confront Karuppan more directly in the second half of the film and slap some sense into him, as she does in the first half.

The film starts badly, gets steadily better throughout the first half, but loses its way in the second before an unexciting and overly contrived finale. The songs from D. Imman are good and mainly well placed, although the lack of subtitles made them less effective for me given that at least two were used to move the narrative forwards. The best are pictured on Vijay Sethupathi and Tanya, although Vijay does some inspired uncle dancing which is definitely a highlight!

Karuppan has an interesting heroine, a more complicated than usual villain and a charming hero, so it should work better than it does. Despite the good characterisations, the story itself is pedestrian with everyone tending to behave quite traditionally despite the set-up suggesting more unconventional approaches. Worth watching for the chemistry between Vijay and Tanya, an excellent take on a sneaky villain and those uncle dances.

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