Vada Chennai (2018)

Vada Chennai

Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai is an excellent gangster film and a promising start to his planned trilogy. As with his earlier work, Vetrimaaran’s characters here are complex and their relationships with each other are tangled and multilayered, while the action is more straightforward although often brutally violent. The film lays a solid base for the character of Anbu (Dhanush) but also provides a detailed introduction to a multitude of other characters, all of whom contribute to Anbu’s development and his gradual fall into rowdyism. However, this isn’t a film solely about Anbu, but rather a story about an area of Northern Madras and the people who live in ‘the hood’, which ensures the film delivers more of an impact and gives a larger canvas to develop the main players. With an exceptional cast, detailed characters including strong female roles, and the exemplary performance of Dhanush, Vada Chennai is a compelling story that has all the elements to be a classic of the genre.

The first half of the film switches back and forth in time as various key characters are introduced and their background story revealed in a series of ‘chapters’. Anbu wants to be a carrom player, and Vetrimaaran plays on this throughout the film, using the analogy to show that every small action starts a reaction, the impact of which start yet more reactions, and so on in an ever-widening ripple effect. From that perspective it’s hard to say where the story of the film starts. Is it at the beginning of the film where there is a gruesome murder, or where Anbu saves one of Senthil’s men from being knifed during their registration at Chennai prison? Or is it when Anbu meets Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh) during a thieving spree when a riot breaks out after Rajiv Gandhi’s death? The constant throughout is Anbu’s reluctance to enter into the violence he sees all around, and his desire to succeed as a carrom player, although his ambition seems doomed almost from the start.

Initially the film revolves around the rivalry between two gangsters, Senthil (Kishore) and Guna (Samuthirakani). Both are out to kill each other and they each control separate wings in Chennai prison. However, they don’t start out as enemies and the beginning of the film shows Senthil and Guna along with Velu (Pawan) and Pazhani (Sai Dheena) collaborating in a murder. In a particularly grisly moment, they throw their blood-stained weapons, still festooned with goblets of flesh, onto the table in a restaurant before discussing the recent death of MGR and the likelihood of Jayalalitha replacing him as Chief Minister. After the murder, Guna and Velu go to jail, expecting to be swiftly bailed out by Senthil, but when this isn’t the case, their rivalry is quickly escalated to an all-out war between the two factions.  Vetrimaaran brings politics into the story early, showing that the gangsters are canny enough to use the politicians for their own ends, but also as a foreshadowing that politics; local, gangster and state are behind much of the skulduggery later in the film.

Anbu enters this atmosphere in the prison and after a number of incidents finally manages to fall under the protection of Senthil, with whom he shares a common bond in their love of carrom. Anbu is almost an ‘accidental gangster’ having grown up in a shady area of North Chennai and associated with various gang members for all his life. But it’s after he meets Padma and the two begin their relationship that his problems really start. When local rowdies start to give Padma a hard time, Anbu is moved to protest their actions. One thing leads to another, and Anbu is suddenly running for his life along with Padma’s brother (Saran Shakthi). From here Anbu continually tries to get back to life as a carrom player, but it turns out that the gangsters have another role for him to play.

The rich detail in every part of the film ensures that every character is realistic and the various events occur organically within the plot. Every aspect of prison life seems to be captured by the camera, including the method used by the inmates to smuggle drugs in and out of the jail, while life in the slum area of North Chennai is just as intimately shown. Each character is built up from numerous different interactions along with the flashbacks that add depth and a rationale for their behaviour. Ameer is brilliant as Rajan, a smuggler and gangster who was also a protector of the people and who stood up to the local politicians when they wanted to clear the entire area for their own money-making projects. Rajan is the man who first encouraged Anbu to take up carrom and his influence is felt across the story, although he doesn’t appear until late in the film.

Also excellent are Samuthirakani and Kishore as Guna and Senthil, while Daniel Balaji is another standout in his role as Thambi. In contrast to Vetrimaaran’s previous films, he has two strong female characters here who also have important roles to play in the story. Aishwarya Rajesh’s Padma bursts onto the screen as a foul-mouthed thief, but her interactions with Dhanush are brilliantly done, with the romance between the two always feeling realistic and plausible. The scene where Anbu goes to ask her father for her hand in marriage is a rare spot of comedy in a generally dark film, but it still fits well into the narrative, as does Padma’s insistence that Anbu shaves before his wedding. Unfortunately the gangsters intervene and it seems as if Padma will also take a second place with her husband.

Andrea Jeremiah is also superb and has an almost Shakespearean role as first Rajan’s and then Guna’s wife, Chandra. She has a godmother who interprets various omens and predicts the future, most notably proclaiming Anbu as ‘the one’, while Chandra herself is a complex character whose dialogues always seem to have a number of meanings. Andrea Jeremiah initially seemed out of place, but as the film develops and her character evolves she ends up fitting perfectly into the role and her initial aloofness makes perfect sense. Dhanush is perfect as Anbu and completely fulfils the role of a gentle man, driven to violence by events outside his control. He easily slips into the role of a teenager but his real strength lies in the more complex older Anbu who has to deal with his time in prison where everyone seems out to get him. The gradual development of Anbu’s character over the course of the film is brilliantly done and Dhanush captures each facet of his personality and slowly allows the persona to develop. It’s another masterful performance and it’s only at the very end where the change from gangster to ‘voice of the people’ seems rather too abrupt, perhaps because the rest of the characterisation has been so slow and detailed in development.

This rushed feeling at the end is really the only downside to the film. In interviews Vetrimaaran has said that he initially had over 5 hours of film which he has condensed to 164 minutes, which may account for the hurried feeling and the final fast metamorphosis of Anbu. However, despite this, the detail included in the film is comprehensive and the layering of events and characters is a major plus that works to build the entire world of North Chennai inhabited by the characters. There are also some stand-out action scenes in the midst of all the character development. A fight that breaks out at a carrom competition in the jail is beautifully filmed as the protagonists battle it out while simultaneously holding up the shelter over their heads. The initial murder, which is shown in detail later on, is also excellent with a brilliant build-up of tension in the moments leading up to the actual attack. Velraj perfectly captures all the action and despite the dark tones, his cinematography paints a surprisingly colourful picture of life in the area, while some scenes, such as a pursuit though lines of hanging washing are excellent in their picturisation.

Although there are a number of songs in the film, these are used only in short bursts to highlight a particular scene, but Santhosh Narayanan’s background score is perfect and thoroughly enhances the film without being intrusive. Some of the melodies are beautiful and it seems a shame that they aren’t heard in full in the film, but there really is no opportunity for any love songs or dance numbers and with so much else in the film, they really aren’t missed.

After working together on Polladhavan and Aadukalam, Vetrimaaran and Dhanush have again produced another excellent collaboration in Vada Chennai. As the first part of a trilogy there is inevitably a lot of time spent on setting up the story, but here that is so detailed with numerous interwoven threads, that the film is almost complete in itself. The strong cast and compelling storyline ensure that even at almost three hours the film doesn’t feel overlong and the final scenes deliver plenty of anticipation for the next instalment. Hopefully there won’t be too long to wait!

 

 

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c/o Kancharapalem

Kancharapalem

c/o Kancharapalem is a wonderful début film from Venkatesh Maha that looks at romance through four very different relationships. The first is a schoolyard crush that has unexpected consequences, the second is a twenty-something affair while the third is between a mystery woman and a bottle shop employee. But it’s the fourth story that has the most impact – a gorgeously developed romance between the 49-year old Raju (Subbu Rao) and 42-year old Radha (Radha Bessey). Along the way Maha touches on prejudices associated with caste and religion, adds in excellent characters like a stammering idol maker and a gym-running rowdy with political aspirations. This is life in a microcosm and Maha has produced a film that is down-to-earth and warm-hearted while still making some very valid points about society in India to-day.

The four different stories run alongside each other and intertwine, with the common theme being the area of Kancharapalem in Vizag. The area is separated from the next suburb by a train line, and the passing trains help to isolate Kancharapalem and provide a visible boundary for the residents. We become familiar with the streets too as each of the characters walks around the area and this creates an intimacy with the town –the small shop by the school is recognisable, for example, because a number of the characters at some stage walk past. Having created this small-town atmosphere, Maha continues by using locals as the support cast, ensuring that it seems more as if we are watching a documentary about the area rather than a fictional story that just happened to be set in

.The romances cover every generation and the youngest couple are still at school. Sundaram (Kesava K) deliberately puts himself in situations where Sunitha (Nithya Sree) will see him, but despite sitting next to him in class she barely seems to notice him at all. This all changes when he wears a pink shirt, deliberately as Sunitha has described pink as her favourite colour. While the rest of his class tease him for wearing a girl’s colour, Sunita finally makes a connection and the two become firm friends. Rounding out this part of the story is Sundaram’s father (Kishore) who makes idols for a living but is frustrated by his current employer so with the support of his wife, he decides to set up his own business. Sundaram’s father has a speech impediment and one of the real charms of the film is how it demonstrates the day to day frustrations he experiences. People finish his sentences and cut his stammering words off because they don’t have time to listen. It’s very effective, particularly since his wife is the only person who seems to really listen, but even she speaks for him during negotiations to make a new idol for the area.

The second couple are a little older – Bhargavi (Praneetha Patnaik) is at college and she first sees Joseph (Karthik Rathnam) acting as an enforcer for a gym owner (and ex-rowdy) with links to political organisations (Uma Maheswara Rao). After initial conflicts between the two, they settle into a relationship despite Bhargavi being a Brahmin and Joseph a Christian. While in the first story Lord Ganesha was an integral part of the story, here it’s religious intolerance from Bhargavi’s father that weaves through the narrative and threatens to destroy their relationship. The peripheral characters are excellent here, from Bhargavi’s college friend experiencing harassment from the principal’s son, to Joseph’s friends who urge him to accept meeting the girls no matter what, each is richly sketched in just a few brief dialogues that add further realism to the story.

The third romance is simply brilliantly written and producer Praveena Paruchuri is superb in the role of Saleema. Gaddam (Mohan Bhagat) sees a mystery woman every day as she stops to buy a bottle of Mansion House, and he falls in love with her eyes without ever seeing her face or knowing anything about her. When he does finally pluck up the courage to speak to her, he is shocked by what he finds. Saleema is a prostitute and he has even spoken to her one night when she was employed by his friends. Rather than being judgemental or allowing Gaddam to ‘rescue’ Saleema, instead Maha develops the story in a way that allows Gaddam to accept Saleema’s past while planning for their future together. This is such a mature and insightful piece of cinema and both actors bring the story to life perfectly. Saleema is positive and practical while Gaddam is amazingly supportive, even bringing Saleema condoms to ensure she won’t suffer the same fate as her mother, who died of AIDS. Here the religious attitude is one of indifference from Gaddam while Saleema’s Muslim faith becomes an issue for her neighbours, although never for Gaddam.

The final romance is also the best as Maha brings in caste and age biases while developing a relationship that is comfortable rather than passionate, but no less compelling than the others. Raju works in a government office where Radha is a new officer, newly moved from Orissa. Radha has no time for the class system that forces Raju to eat apart from the officers, and he gradually responds to her warm friendliness. Raju has never been married (it just didn’t happen according to Raju) and has a number of quirks that speak to his long-held bachelor status. He ‘jogs’ every morning, and performs yoga exercises at a shrine, while at night he drinks with his friends. The rest of Kandharapalem just wants to see him married, and suspect that he is gay, but Raju is happy as he is, and more than happy to simply be friends with Radha. She has other ideas and the romance between the two develops slowly but realistically, with the emphasis being on companionship and friendship. The couple face opposition from Radha’s brother who declares she is too old for such nonsense – she’s 42! It seems an odd prejudice to have, but just one of the obstacles both Raju and Radha have to overcome if they wish to finally marry.

The film does become rather overdramatic towards the end, but the final scene brings everything together and all the melodrama suddenly makes sense. But although the conclusion is particularly pleasing and exceptionally well done, what is even better is the intertwining of the different characters and the realistic nature of each romance. The switch between the different romances may sound potentially confusing as the screenplay moves back and forth between each, but with Kancharapalem as a constant background this is never the case. Maha brings the audience totally into the time and place of the film and we can feel every nuance of the relationships as they unfold onscreen.

The music too is wonderful. Sweekar Agasthi’s soundtrack doesn’t feature pounding disco or more commercial songs, but instead takes local sounding tunes and Raghukul Mokirala adds beautiful lyrics that perfectly complement the action. It all fits together perfectly and provides the ideal background for the action. The actors are all impressive in their roles and the untrained support cast are fantastic too. This really is a wonderful film where everything comes together flawlessly and it’s no wonder it was part of the line-up for this year’s New York Indian Film Festival. This is one not to miss – seriously good cinema!

Rekka (2016)

Rathina Shiva’s 2016 film is a by-the-numbers mass action film that relies heavily on Vijay Sethupathi’s charm and ability to fully inhabit a character, but still fails to deliver a completely engaging story. Rekka mixes the usual masala ingredients with a plot about a crusading lawyer on a mission to unite couples in love, but there is nothing here that hasn’t been done many times before. What does make the film worth a look is the spectacle of Vijay Sethupathi acting his way through a typical hero role complete with dramatic walking, slow-mo fight scenes and big song and dance numbers. Simply – Rekka is Vijay does mass!

The story follows Shiva (Vijay Sethupathi) as he kidnaps reluctant brides on their wedding day and reunites them with their one true love. Surprisingly he seems to find a large number of separated lovers in Kumbakonam and everyone seems to think that Vijay is performing a fine civic service with his matrimonial kidnapping business. However, he seems to have made a mistake when he kidnaps the wife-to-be of local gangster David (Harish Uthaman) who turns up at Shiva’s family home to discover exactly who has run off with his fiancée. David has more reasons to make him unhappy as his rival Cheliyan (Kabir Duhan Singh) has killed David’s younger brother, apparently as a way to up the feud between them. It seems an odd reason to take a life, but that’s not the most irrational plot point by a long way.

Shiva and his father Ratnam (K.S. Ravikumar) have seen David slaughter someone in cold blood in downtown Kumbakonam, so they know exactly what kind of person they are dealing with. With Shiva’s sister Kavitha getting married, David has the perfect opportunity for revenge with the result that Shiva agrees to kidnap a girl from Madurai and bring her to David as his new wife. What Shiva doesn’t know is that the girl, Bharathi (Lakshmi Menon) is engaged to Cheliyan and her father Manivasagam is a corrupt politician with an army of thugs of his own. Added in to all of this are the mysteries of Mala (Sija Rose), who appears to Shiva as a hallucination, and Selvam (Kishore), a down and out doctor that Shiva tries to help.

So far the story isn’t too bad. Standard masala fare but the fight scenes are fun with plenty of gravity defying, 4WD smashing antics and although Vijay Sethupathi looks awkward and uncomfortable in the big dance numbers, he looks much more at ease in the action sequences. However, things go downhill fast when he travels to Madurai and finds the girl he has to kidnap. Lakshmi Menon’s Bharathi is a few shillings short of a pound and literally just sets eyes on Shiva for a few seconds before deciding that he is the love of her life. Well, okay, I get that it’s Vijay and he is pretty cool, but Bharathi just looks and leaps into elopement without any more thought than a lemming when faced with a cliff.

A few seconds later and we see where Bharathi gets her craziness from, as her mother’s reaction to her proposed elopement is a directive to make sure she says goodbye to her grandmother. No, just no – anyone that ditsy would want the full-blown wedding experience even if she was the daughter of some bigwig in Madurai and already engaged to a ruthless gangster. Especially if she was the daughter of some bigwig in Madurai! Nothing about the whole elopement seems right and the developing love story between Bharathi and Shiva is hindered by the lack of chemistry between the two actors. Shiva just wants to get back his sister’s wedding and be done with the crazy lady, while Bharathi seems too mentally unhinged to know what she actually wants. None of it makes any sense, but then that is the beauty of mass masala – it doesn’t need to make sense!

There’s still the mystery of Mala, and the second half has a flashback sequence to explain why Shiva goes around stealing brides and why he feels so guilty about Selvam. It’s rather long winded and since Mala and Selvam are more peripheral characters, Rathina Shiva spends more time than seems necessary on this part of the story. The flashback does tie up a few loose ends but since it really doesn’t matter why Shiva kidnaps reluctant brides, it seems to be a needless diversion from the main story.

Lakshmi Menon’s Bharathi is disturbingly manic and makes some bad choices that further reduce the characters credibility. No-one could ever really be that dim as to run away with someone they had just met unless they were really in desperate circumstances, and Bharathi doesn’t appear to be distressed by her upcoming engagement at all. There is a vague explanation later, but it’s not particularly persuasive so for the most part I kept thinking Shiva needed to cut his losses and run far, far away.

Vijay Sethupathi really is the saving grace of the film and his presence makes up for a lot of the inadequacies of the script and screenplay. Somehow, even though he’s playing a mass hero, Vijay still finds moments where he is an ‘actor’ rather than a hero, with the result that Shiva is a more appealing character than expected. His introduction scene has him playing chess, not the usual activity of choice for most action heroes, and he has some good emotional bonding moments with his father. This is his film all the way, and he makes his character work, no matter how ludicrous the situation. He’s better than expected in the slo-mo walking scenes and absolutely fabulous in the fight sequences where he twirls villains around his head like batons and systematically smashes them into SUV’s, street stalls piles of boxes and any other staple mass prop that happens to be around.

The rest of the cast has less to do, but Harish Uthaman is fine as a generic snarling bad guy, although even though he has less screen time, Kabir Duhan Singh does appear more frightening and genuinely nasty in his role as Cheliyan. Sathish pops up as Shiva’s friend Keerai and is good in a role that requires him to tone down the comedy. D. Imman’s music is OK, but doesn’t make me want to re-listen to the soundtrack, while everything else about the film is pretty much as standard for a mass movie.

This isn’t a Vikram Vedha or even a Sethupathi, but it is a Vijay Sethupathi film and that makes it a touch above standard mass fare. A less demented heroine would have helped immensely but the standard story of good guy vs bad guy still works despite the distractions Rathina Shiva throws in the way. Not Vijay’s best film in 2016, but still worth a watch to see him in full-on mass hero persona wiping the floor with assorted bad guys and gangsters, while still keeping his trademark sweet smile. 3 stars.