Pariyerum Perumal

 

In this beautifully made and wonderfully expressive film, writer/director Mari Selvaraj paints a very clear picture of the issue of caste in India and the difficulties encountered by those of a socially prescribed lower status. For someone from the West, caste seems such a complex and confusing area, although prejudice is something that is sadly all too common everywhere in the world. Perhaps the most shocking thing about Pariyerum Perumal is that no-one faces any consequences for tormenting others simply due to their social class, even when they are involved in inciting hatred and even plotting murder. The amount of violence and hatred against those who are somehow considered as ‘other’ is almost unbelievable and I watched much of this film with my heart in my mouth waiting for the next sickening attack or outbreak of abuse against the protagonist Pariyan (Kathir). And yet Pariyerum Perumal is compelling viewing, partly due to the well-crafted story, but also thanks to Kathir’s outstanding performance and my favourite character in the story, a dog called Karuppi.

The issue of caste is raised from the opening scene as Pariyerum Perumal (aka Pariyan) and his friends are relaxing in a waterhole after hunting. The approach of a group of higher caste men prompts the group to leave the waterhole, although most leave only after grumbling about the situation. To my eyes at least, there was no discernible difference between the two groups, or any offence committed by Pariyan’s friends against these other men, which makes the animosity displayed difficult to understand. One of the men urinates into the water hole which seems incredibly juvenile and petty, but their next action is infinitely more evil and cruel as they kill Pariyan’s beloved dog Karuppi in a graphically violent attack. Just as shocking though, is the fact that Pariyan and his friends simply mourn their loss and move on. There appears to be nothing they can do and they seem resigned to the lack of justice and inequity of their situation. Throughout the film it’s this sense of being unable to fight back and of having no recourse to justice whatsoever that is the most appalling aspect of the story. It’s also this acceptance that makes Pariyan such a fascinating character as he fights to keep his place in college and remain friends with Jothi Mahalakshmi, aka Jo (Anandhi), a girl from a higher caste.

Pariyan has a seat at college in Tirunelveli where he plans to study law, but almost immediately he runs into problems.  His lack of English opens him up to ridicule from the other students, while his lower status also singles him out for abuse and mistreatment.  Although the college principle (Poo Ram) seems to be supportive, the other lecturers are less accepting, particularly when he questions their use of English as the main teaching language.  Luckily, he quickly makes friends with Anand (Yogi Babu), who is friendly and approachable, despite being from a different social group. Anand is of higher caste, so he doesn’t come in for the same rough treatment as Pariyan, and for the most part he also seems relatively unaware of exactly how badly his peers behave towards his friend. Yogi Babu is perfect here as the bumbling friend who tries his best to keep Pariyan out of trouble and Anand injects some comedy into the story that helps to lighten the darker tones.

Trouble however seems to be Pariyan’s middle name as he upsets Jo’s family and the other students with their friendship. Strangely Jo seems totally oblivious of her family’s animosity towards Pariyan which even extends to her cousin hiring a contract killer to dispose of him after initial attempts to warn Pariyan off seem to fail. In reality, while Pariyan is in love with Jo, he’s not prepared to risk everything to remain friends with her, and it’s Jo who keeps pestering Pariyan rather than the other way around. After he is humiliated at a family wedding, Pariyan tries to avoid Jo, even though he desperately needs her help with his English. Jo cannot understand why Pariyan keeps trying to avoid her, while Pariyan seems unwilling and even unable to explain to her exactly why he cannot continue as her friend. Jo’s innocence is more problematic for me, as the abuse and attacks on Pariyan are quite blatant and leave visible marks. I can’t understand why she immediately assumes that Pariyan didn’t turn up for the wedding, given that it was out of character for him not to obey her instructions. I can more easily understand Pariyan’s reluctant to let Jo know exactly what was going on, since there has to be a certain amount of pride involved, while I can see that trying to get Jo to understand the issue would likely take a huge amount of effort! Pariyan later explains that he doesn’t want to diminish Jo’s father in her eyes. It’s a lovely and mature explanation and highlights Pariyan’s strength of character to be able to rise above his tormentors and take the higher ground.

As Pariyan is alternately beaten up and verbally tormented by his abusers, he sees his dog in visions where she appears painted blue. I had to do some investigation, but discovered that the colour blue has been adopted as a symbol of Dalit resistance in India and represents non-discrimination. The visions of Karuppi seem to give Pariyan the strength to go on, and even save him from death at a crucial point in the story, so it seems apt that Karuppi has her own inspirational song (add link here) and also appears in the powerful Naan Yaar.

A secondary track follows an old man, Thatha (Karate Venkatesan) who surreptitiously murders members of the lower caste and who is ultimately contracted to kill Pariyan. Horrifyingly, these murders are made to look like accidents or suicides with no-one aware that the deaths were deliberate. Thatha’s very ordinariness and his apparent belief that the people he kills are no better than vermin to be destroyed is a shocking comment on the society that allows such intolerance to occur. However, although the film is talking about Indian (and specifically Tamil Nadu) society, the themes explored here are universal and hold a mirror up to the world to-day in a way that doesn’t allow for any avoidance of the topic or absolution by ignorance. The message from Mari Selvaraj seems to be – look, see just what is happening right under our noses and we all do nothing to stop it! Most poignant is Pariyan’s simple acceptance of everything he endures, right up until his father (Vannarpettai Thangaraj) is also attacked. It’s another simple but effective statement that Pariyan is caring and protective of his father, and that in part the violence directed against someone else makes him take a stance, if not actually fight back. Pariyan’s father is also an unusual character, adding further layers to the story and more insight into Pariyan’s capacity to tolerate mistreatment.

Kathir is excellent throughout and turns in a powerful and believable performance. His demeanour appears perfect for the character, including keeping his eyes down and trying to make himself appear as small as possible when confronted by Sankaralingam (Lijeesh) and the other students, but standing tall and becoming livelier when talking to Jo and his own friends. He adds many different layers to Pariyan and clearly shows his struggles while also allowing Pariyan’s joy in finding his ‘guardian angel’ in Jo and his obvious love for his dog Karuppi to shine through. He really is terrific here and fantastic in a role that needed care not to become too preachy or self-righteous, or simply end up as a kind of moral avenger with no shade of grey. Anandhi isn’t as lucky, and her Jo is a bit dim and rather too naïve. She does a good enough job with the role, but her character is underwritten in comparison to Pariyan, and she’s really only in the film to be the reason for most of Pariyan’s struggles. One other standout is Marimuthu as Jo’s father, who perfectly conveys his disgust at the idea that someone of a lower caste might be involved with his daughter but also manages to show his fear that any comeback may also fall on Jo. The conflicted emotions are well balanced and provide yet another viewpoint on the issue.

Mari Selvaraj has taken a sensitive subject and delivered a terrific commentary on the role of caste for both young and old members of society. Despite the brutality of many of the scenes, the film doesn’t ever seem to be glorifying violence or adding in cruelties just for shock-value. Rather this is a clever intertwining of a societal issue with a coming of age story that delivers on both the personal level and on the larger stage. There is enough laughter and joy to balance out the brutality, although be warned that the death of Karuppi is incredibly distressing and realistic. Overall, not one for the faint-hearted, but the final message of hope and the underlying call to fight back against suppression make this a more uplifting film than the storyline would suggest. 4 ½ stars.

Bigil

Atlee’s latest film is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is Vijay, who shines in a double role despite the rambling and overlong story; the bad is the general misogyny of the screenplay where it takes a man to bring success to a female team who were already heading to the India Finals; and the ugly is some awful fat-shaming which Atlee and fellow screen-writer S. Ramana Girivasan seem to feel is acceptable as motivation. The story follows a retired football player who sets aside his gangster persona to coach a women’s football team, but despite some superficial similarities this is no Chak De. However, getting past the bad and the ugly, Rahman’s music is good, the dancing excellent and there is one part of the story which is more than simply token feminism. For a mass entertainer for the holiday season Bigil isn’t a bad option – it’s just that it’s not anywhere near as good as it could have been.

Michael, aka Bigil (Vijay) is a state level football player who is apparently talented enough to get into the national team. His father Rayappan (also Vijay) is a gangster in Chennai who is savvy enough to push his son towards athleticism and away from rowdyism, recognising that this will inspire others in the neighbourhood. Rayappan is a typical filmi gangster – out to defend the poor and marginalised against everyone trying to exploit them, chief of which is a rival gang, headed by Alex (I.M. Vijayan) and his son Daniel (Daniel Balaji). But neither Rayappan nor Bigil understand the internal politics of football in India which works against his success, and when Rayappan is killed, Bigil gives up his dreams and return to being plain Michael, head of the rowdies in his area and defender of the helpless.

When Michael’s friend and Tamil Nadu women’s football team coach Kathir (Kathir) is injured, Michael is persuaded to take on the task of coach instead. Something the women resent since they blame Michael for Kathir’s injury – which is totally true. The women need a coach in order to be able to compete, but although much of the film takes place in Delhi at the football championships, this is never about the women’s team and their battle to overcome poverty and adversity to win. In Atlee’s film the women are incapable of making it by themselves and need Michael to show them how to train effectively and ultimately goad them towards victory. Michael is able to convince a conservative husband to let his wife compete, persuade Anitha (Reba Monica John) to take off her face scarves and play after she is assaulted with acid and induce Vembu (Indhuja) and Thendral (Amritha Aiyer) to play together as a team. All while simultaneously dealing with gang attacks from Daniel and internal attacks from the Head of the Football association J.K. Sharma (Jackie Shroff). The assumption that the women need a strong and capable man to lead them to victory is condescending and patronizing, but Atlee breezes past this issue so that Vijay can be seen to be a sensitive, caring and motivating kind of guy. Up until he wants Pandiyamma (Indraja Shankar) to get angry out on the field and uses fat-shaming insults to get her there. Not cool at all, and really incredibly disappointing that in 2019 this kind of behaviour is being legitimised by a major star in a big budget film.

That’s the most of the bad and the ugly out of the way – and the rest is the good. Vijay smiles and dances his way through inspirational numbers, kicks a football around the field and beats up the bad guys with plenty of energy and joie de vivre. The fight scenes involve the usual ‘one man-against-the-masses’ sequences, but they are well staged and the stunts are generally impressive. The football action is almost as good, although it does look staged and filmi, particularly compared to films such as Sudani from Nigeria where the action is more realistic.  However Atlee gets points for getting women’s football onto mainstream screens, and for promoting the game as one that everyone can play. It’s also good to see some recognition of the challenges faced by the team members, despite most of these being glossed over and only mentioned in Michael’s motivational speeches. There are two exceptions – Gayathri (Varsha Bollamma) is shown as having to overcome a prejudiced and narrow-minded family situation, although again it’s her husband who makes the decision and allows her to play. Anitha has a much better story as the acid-attack survivor who has to come to terms with her injury and loss of confidence as a result.

The best parts of the film have nothing to do with the women’s team, but instead are focused on Michael and his relationship with his father. As Rayappan, Vijay is simply superb and totally convinces as an older don trying to do his best for his family and his area. The relationship between father and son is beautifully written and the effects well done to allow both Vijay’s to converse together, hug and generally interact as if they were together in reality. The conversations between the two reveal much about both characters, and it’s this emotion that is more truly inspirational than any of the plot around the football team. Here there is some of the best acting from Vijay, where he isn’t a superstar, but instead simply a father trying to do the best for his son (naturally with some great actions sequences too) but there is light and shade to the character and Vijay does an excellent job in portraying these shadows as well as the strengths of the character. Michael is a more typical Vijay ‘hero’ persona, but there is still some depth and again Vijay is excellent in the role.

Naturally there is also a romance, this time a physiotherapist who comes with Michael to help the team in Delhi. Angel (Nayanthara) has rejected a number of marriages while waiting for Michael to come to his senses and marry her, but apart from this show of spirit, she’s a typical Tamil filmi heroine who just has to look pretty for the songs and support her man through thick and thin. Nayahthara does what she can with the role, but it’s thin pickings despite some good comedy in her introduction. This would have been a much better film if Nayanthara had been the coach and the gangster thread between Michael and Rayappan a side theme, but I guess that’s a little too much to ask for.

The film does look fantastic and the song sequences in particular are brilliantly picturised. There is plenty of colour and A.R. Rahman’s music fits beautifully into the action. Rekhs (aided by Harini) comes through with brilliantly translated song lyrics and even translations of written signs that are significant for the plot. Directors and producers take note – this is how you subtitle a film for an international audience – it makes all the difference when subs are in idiomatic English and easy-to-read yellow.

Atlee does throw everything into this film, and as a result some of the threads simply don’t work within the larger context of the story. Although Jackie Shroff is the main villain, he’s never very threatening, and Daniel Balaji gets a much better storyline and resolution for his character too. He makes a great villain and his flawless performance is one of the highlights of the film. Meanwhile, Yogi Babu and Vivek indulge in some unnecessary slapstick, but the comedy from G. Gnanasambandam and George Maryan is subtler and funnier as a result. The film is at its best when focused on Vijay and this is where Atlee excels. He knows how to make his leading man look good, and how to keep the action exciting. Worth watching for Vijay, the excellent dancing and action scenes and for the colourful spectacle of it all.

Vikram Vedha

Vikram Vedha

It’s rare that a Tamil film gets a round of applause from a Melbourne audience, but that’s exactly what happened at the end of Vikram Vedha last night. And well-deserved applause it was too. Pushkar-Gayathri’s crime drama pits a righteous police officer against a ruthless criminal, but the line between the two rapidly becomes blurred with a series of moral dilemmas that throw Vikram’s beliefs into question. Both Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi are outstanding and with a well-written story, clever dialogue and insightful characterisations, Vikram Vedha is an absolute gem of a film and definitely one not to be missed.

Madhavan’s Vikram is a member of a police task force whose mission is to remove notorious gangster Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi) and his men from the streets. Vikram is totally convinced that he is on the side of the angels and that the men he kills deserve to die, which as he continually states, means that he has no problem sleeping soundly at night. However, almost immediately Vikram hits some dodgy moral ground when he shoots in cold-blood one of the gangsters who tried to surrender and then reworks a crime scene to his team’s advantage. Already Vikram doesn’t seem quite as shiny white as he wants the world to believe, although as a police officer he stills stands on the right side of the law.

Vedha continues to elude Vikram and his men, resulting in a planned raid into the area of North Chennai where Vedha is rumoured to be hiding out. As the numerous police officers and riot police are gearing up, ready for action, Vedha calmly walks into the police station and surrenders. As entrances go, this has to be one of the best, particularly since no-one seems to recognise the gangster until he sets off the metal detector alarm as he walks into the building. Vijay Sethupathi is always good in the role of a gangster, but his swaggering Vedha is brilliantly executed here with exactly the right amount of confidence and bravado to suit a character who calmly surrenders to a room full of armed police.

Vedha’s surrender seems like sure suicide, but he’s planned everything well in advance, and without any evidence the police can’t hold him. However once faced with Vikram in a cell, Vedha starts to tell him a story which ends with a moral conundrum. The question posed at the end starts to lead Vikram to realise that the world isn’t as black and white as his and Vedha’s respective shirts, and that sometimes the identity of the bad guy is not as clear-cut as first seems.

Vedha is released by his lawyer who happens to be Vikram’s wife Priya (Shraddha Srinath) which leads to another moral dilemma for Vikram. What do you do when your wife is representing the criminal you’re trying to kill in an encounter? Priya is a strong character who won’t back down and refuses to let her husband destroy her first chance to make a name for herself in Chennai. The scenes where the two work to resolve their fundamental differences in opinion and approach to Vedha are brilliantly written and work well as another factor in Vikram’s gradual realisation that good and bad are just relative terms.

As the film progresses, Vedha manages to tell Vikram another two stories, always ending with a question about what is the ‘right’ action to take in each situation and that Vikram struggles to answer. The situation becomes more and more tense after Vikram’s best friend Simon (Prem) is killed during the investigation and Vikram is desperate to know why Simon died. But as Vedha’s tales seem to be leading Vikram to a greater understanding and may hold the clue to why Simon died, they also add more and more grey into his previously monochrome view of the world.

Vikram Vedha

Each story is told in flashback and introduces a number of key characters including Vedha’s younger brother Puli (Kathir) one of the men shot by Vikram in the raid at the start. Varalaxmi Sarathkumar plays Puli’s wife Chandra, another strong character whose behaviour as a child is an excellent foreshadowing of her actions as an adult. I loved her character, particularly when her immediate reaction to Puli slapping her was to slap him back straight away, and her down to earth attitude was wonderfully normal in the middle of all the intrigue and drama associated with Vedha and his gang.

Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi work together brilliantly and the chemistry between the two is the main reason why the film works so well. Madhavan is perfect as the gravel-voiced cop who strongly believes that he is always right (and good), while Vijay Sethupathi completely gets into the skin of a Chennai gangster out for revenge. The short flashbacks are beautifully put together to highlight the main clues, but there are so many twists that the final outcome is kept relatively obscured until close to the end. Kudos to the make-up team who successfully aged the characters naturally and the wardrobe team who managed to find so many different shades of grey for Vikram and Vedha as the story progressed! The shift in clothing sounds really obvious, but it’s done subtly and is more effective than it sounds, particularly as the changes echo the shift in Vikram’s thinking. The premise of what is good, what is bad, and how can we really tell is intertwined throughout every part of the film which also works well to highlight the change in perception Vikram undergoes as he learns more about Vedha and his life.

It’s not just the storyline and the performances that make the film so watchable. P.S. Vinod’s cinematography is excellent while the background score by Sam C.S. enhances the action without becoming intrusive. The songs fit surprisingly well into the narrative without disrupting the action and of course  it’s always a treat to watch Vijay Sethupathi shake a leg – especially as part of a drunken gangster party!

Vikram Vedha is such a clever film, but Pushkar-Gayathri never get too carried away by their own brilliance and keep the underlying story simple. The mixture of morality, crime thriller, action and suspense are expertly blended together without making the central debate of good vs bad either preachy or clichéd. I totally enjoyed every single minute of Vikram Vedha and it’s definitely a top contender for my favourite film of the year. Simply perfect!