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.

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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!