Iru Mugan

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Vikram is on fine form playing a dual role in Anand Shankar’s latest action thriller, but the film is hampered by oddly placed songs, gaping plot holes and a meandering screenplay. There are some plus points – the action sequences are good, Nayanthara looks stunning and plays an interesting character, but none of it is quite enough to overcome the lack of suspense and surprising dullness of the storyline. Iru Mugan is a thriller without many thrills despite the best efforts of the cast, make-up department and stunt crew.

At least the start of the film is excellent. We see an old man queuing for a visa in the Indian Embassy in Malaysia, but rather than wait his turn, instead he uses a rather unique way of demanding attention. The result is classed as a terrorist attack against India and when the link is made between the pharmaceutically enhanced actions of the terrorist and über-villain Love, ex-RAW agent Akhilan Vinod (Vikram) is called back into service to discover exactly what is going on in Malaysia. Akhilan’s last action before he left RAW was to kill an illegal drug manufacturer by the name of Love (also Vikram), however Love is the chef suspect behind these latest attacks and Akhilan has a personal reason to find out if Love is really dead or not. Love was the man behind the death of Akhilan’s wife Meera (Nayanthara), although Akhilan has systematically slaughtered anyone else who was involved – hence the ‘retirement’ from active service.

Vikram’s Akhilan is a dour and haunted man with major anger management issues. He believes that violence is the answer to any problem no matter – whether he’s dealing with a suspect, a fellow agent or his boss. However, Malik (Nasser), head of RAW decides that his best option is to send Akhilan to Malaysia along with rookie agent Aayushi (Nithya Menen). So far so good, but Akhilan is the stereotypical ‘lone-wolf’ agent and displays every single hackneyed characteristic possible. Even worse, Aayushi is just as clichéd as a young inexperienced female agent. Her main role is to dress as a prostitute in order to get into a drug manufacturing lab. Really? That was the best option they could come up with? It’s trite, unoriginal and basically a complete waste of Nithya Menon’s acting skills.

Along with the frustration of watching a good actress in a badly written part, the first half suffers from a never-ending plague of flashbacks to Akhilan’s happier time with his wife. Unfortunately, these mainly occur as songs which act as effective speed breakers for the plot and completely destroy any tension that Anand Shankar has finally managed to build. The switch from drug labs and chemically enhanced violence to sundrenched beaches and Nayanthara in skimpy outfits is awkward and makes the film feel dated. Adding to this general late 90’s vibe is Thambi Ramaiah as a bumbling and inept Malaysian police officer and Riythvika as an exploited sex slave.

Vikram also plays the villain Love, a gay/transgender pharmacist who has managed to create a drug that gives superhuman strength and reaction time, but only for 5 minutes. Love is flamboyant and frequently feminine while maintaining his ruthless attitude and determination to cause mayhem with his invention. Although at the end of the day it’s the money that matters, selling the drug to terrorist organisations who will use it to attack governments worldwide is a bonus Love can’t pass up.

Despite all the clichés, it’s Vikram’s performance here as the two separate characters that makes Iru Mugan worth watching. The contrast between surly Akhilan and extravagantly ostentatious Love is excellent and although the two characters are somewhat extreme stereotypes, once both are together on-screen the deficiencies of each seems lessened. Perhaps this is where the ‘two faces’ of the titles comes in, since each character is ruthless in their own way and both are equally quick to jump to a lethal solution for any perceived problem. Nayanthara also makes an impression with her role as another RAW agent and does a good job with both her romantic and more action-orientated scenes, although her character would have better with just a little more depth. But then again Akhilan has very little backstory and Love even less, all of which adds to the scrappiness of the plot. It would have helped to have some idea how Love became such a genius pharmacist and why he decided to fuel international terrorism rather than turn his skills to more altruistic uses since there is a reason given for Akhilan’s excessive use of violence.

There are some more positives; the film looks slick and R.D. Rajasekhar makes the most of the Malaysian backdrop, both in the songs and for the chases through the city. Vikram’s transformation into Love is well done, and the fight choreography is impressive although it does get somewhat repetitive after a while. And although the placement could have been better and the picturisations a less abrupt change of pace, Harris Jayaraj’s songs are catchy and generally the soundtrack is good.

Overall Iru Mugan isn’t a terrible film, it’s just a lot duller than expected given the potential in the storyline. A drug that makes ordinary people into super-soldiers for 5 minutes should have made for a more exciting film than Anand Shankar ends up with here. Worth watching for Vikram, Nayanthara and the Malaysian backdrop, but go in prepared for the slow exposition and numerous plot holes.




Engeyum Eppothum

Engeyum Eppothum

Engeyum Eppothum starts with a fairly gruesome bus crash, so it’s clear straight away that there isn’t going to be a happy ending – particularly since the rest of the film is a flashback of events leading up to the fatal accident.  However the journey to get there is just as important, and on the way to the death and mayhem there are a couple of enjoyable love stories that make you wish that there was actually going to be a happy ending.  One of the stories is set in Trichy, and it always makes me happy to see the city on screen, especially when they seem to have filmed in a number of places I recognise.  It’s the same with the bus station in Chennai, which also looks very familiar, and the whole film brings back memories of travelling by bus in India – although thankfully without the horror ending. One of the buses is a private bus running from Chennai to Trichy, while the other is a government bus travelling in the other direction, and the four main leads are passengers on one or other of the two.  Flashbacks introduce the four and tell their story in the lead up to the accident.

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Amudha (Ananya) arrives in Chennai for a job interview, but is completely at a loss when her sister fails to pick her up due to a family emergency.  Luckily for her though, Gautham (Sharwanand) just happens to be dropping a friend at the bus station and Amudha manages to persuade him to show her to the bus stop.  She’s so totally lost in the city that despite her suspicions of him, Gautham ends up spending the whole day taking her to her interview, waiting for her and then taking her to her sister’s house.

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Ananya plays the mistrustful girl from the country flawlessly here which is mainly why this love story feels so real.  Her mannerisms, and the way she relies on her sister’s instructions rather than believe Gautham when he tells her it is time to get off the bus are perfect ‘small town girl in the big city’ behaviours which I recognise from my own move from the country.  Her reaction when she sees girls in tight Western clothes is just perfect, as is the way she behaves in a restaurant when Gautham finally manages to persuade her that he is really quite harmless.  Her character is very well written to show the awe and trepidation of being somewhere where everything is unfamiliar, and Ananya does a fantastic job of portraying all that angst along with the wonder and amazement.

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Sharwanand seems very wooden and unemotional in contrast, and while that does work to some extent for his character, there is very little emotion, and nothing to suggest that he would go to Trichy to look for Amudha later.  There really needed to be more open engagement with Amudha and at least some reaction to her character which doesn’t occur until near the end of the film when it is all a bit too late.

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Engeyum EppothumThe second romance is set in Trichy where Kathiresan (Jai) watches Manimegalai (Anjali) every morning as she gets ready for work.  I love that this takes place in the back streets behind the Rock Fort Temple and that they meet in Mukkambu Park (both places that I know very well), which makes their romance seem that little bit more real to me.  Kathiresan has a good job, but is also from the country and is rather shy.  Rather than approach Manimegalai, he is content to watch her from a distance and co-ordinate his shirt colour to whatever she happens to be wearing that day.  This is a little known but obviously effective form of courtship, since Manimegalai does indeed notice his wardrobe choices.

Manimegalai doesn’t have the same reticence problem at all.  She is forthright and downright bossy, forcing Jai to skip work to meet her, sign up for organ donation and confront her previous suitor.  Naturally she’s a nurse.  Their story the best part of the film and Anjali steals the show with admirable support from Jai.  He is perfect as the quiet young man, completely swept away by Manimegalai and totally out of his depth.  And yet he still adores her and that comes across plainly in Jai’s body language and facial expressions.

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It’s a fantastic performance but he is still upstaged by Anjali.  She is superb, from her initial domineering persona to the ruthlessly efficient nurse who manages to keep it all together in the aftermath of the crash.  It gives her final breakdown more impact too, and suddenly Kathiresan’s devotion makes perfect sense.  Throughout the romance both Jai and Anjali have good chemistry together, and as their love story develops their characters also acquire depth and back-story which also makes their relationship more convincing.

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Woven through the film are small vignettes about other passengers on the bus which, while emphasising the point that every stranger has a story to tell, do make the film seem more of a road safety video.  Still, the developing romance between two students and the various other interactions between the passengers help round out the film and make the final scenes more engaging.  The bus crash is unnecessarily graphic with severed limbs and gore in abundance, none of which really adds any more to the story.  The crash alone would have been catastrophic enough and director M. Sarvanan does drive home the road safety message with a very big hammer.

Thankfully, with much of the subject matter being the accident, there are no big song and dance numbers and most of C. Sathya’s music is used to move the story forward with montages of the two couples.  The film title translates to Anytime, Anywhere and seems to relate to both romance and tragedy – you can meet your soul mate where and when you least expect to, and disaster can strike in exactly the same way.  As such, the film plays on the very normality of every scene, any of which could happen to anyone at any moment and the characters are all very normal, everyday people.  It’s a simple story and yet insightful, and one that resonates with anyone who has ever sat on public transport and wondered about the stories of their fellow passengers.  4 stars.


Kanchivaram (2008)

Kanchivaram is a slice of life social drama that largely rests on an excellent performance by Prakash Raj. Priyadarshan eschews the broad almost hyper style more common in his Hindi comedies and delivers a thoughtful and subdued film.

The film opens with a prelude explaining the significance of wearing silk at marriage and on death, and that the weavers were never in a financial position that would allow them to wear the fabric they wove. Vengadam (Prakash Raj) is an exceptional weaver and a natural leader in his community. A visiting writer (Sreekumar) introduces the village men to communism. Vengadam initiates collective bargaining for the weavers, which leads to a lengthy strike. But he had also promised that his daughter would be married in a silk sari, impossible to manage when he is not working. He steals silk, a hank at a time, and secretly weaves the sari he promised her. The conflict between his political and personal ideals and his love for his family is the root of the story.

The story is presented as a series of flashbacks. Vengadam is paroled from jail and travels back to the village by bus, with sounds and incidents on the journey triggering his memories of earlier times. This structure allowed me to concentrate on what was happening now, and to absorb the emotion of the story rather than wondering what would happen. His story unfolds from his marriage, birth of his daughter, the death of his wife and eventually the reason for his incarceration. The breaks in the flow as Vengadam was recalled to himself on the journey just sharpened the contrast between the bluff confident weaver and the broken man on the bus.

Priyadarshan frames the story in the political context of the rise of Communism before party membership was legalised. He efficently sets the scene of the industrial arrangements, the workers dependency on the factory, the clandestine political activism, in just in a few scenes. There are visual cues as to how things stand. The factory owner usually appears sitting or standing on a dais at a higher level than the workers. The communist writer who raises the political awareness of Vengadam and Sarathy skulks around in the dark, fearful of the police.

I’m always interested in industrial relations and the evolution of employee rights and the law so that aspect was appealing. And I particularly liked the villagers reaction to some social theatre – initially passive but on their feet and cheering like any mass movie audience when the ‘blood’ spatter started.

Prakash Raj is wonderful as Vengadam. Whether playing the younger carefree newlywed or the damaged man released on parole he is completely convincing. Vengadam has most of the dialogue in the film but many scenes rely purely on reactions and body language and Prakash Raj nails it. Often political leaders are depicted as single minded zealots, but Vengadam is more human. He understands his why wife is upset by the promise to see his daughter married in silk. He realises his daughter is in love with Ranga and goes to ask for the marriage to be arranged. He knows that when he takes a stand and strikes there will be consequences. And he knows what he is doing when he breaks the strike. Prakash Raj shows these internal struggles and questions and Vengadam’s eyes reflect his turmoil. I’m often intolerant of those who throw their families or friendships under the bus of ambition but this is more complex as Vengadam is not motivated by pure selfishness. He stole silk to weave something beautiful for his daughter, to break the cycle of not having. I could like him even as I rolled my eyes at his obsession with the sari.

Shriya Reddy is excellent  as Annam, Vengadam’s wife. Priyadarshan seems to have a knack for persuading actresses to tone down the glamour (as with Lara Dutta in Billu). Annam is smart, has opinions and politely challenges her husband in private when she thinks he has gone too far. From the initially awkward moments when Annam first comes to her new home, Shriya shows the growing affection and the playfulness in the marriage. Annam doesn’t have much dialogue so much of their closeness and the tensions in the relationship had to be conveyed through glances, the tilt of a head, the set of her shoulders.

She dies after being trampled in a crowd out to see the landlord’s new car, another symbol of the gulf between the workers and owners. Her final anguish is over whether Vengadam will be able to raise their daughter and he does his best to reassure her in his own way.

Family and village ties are revealed in many small interactions so the supporting cast are important and most are very good. I particularly like Jayakumar as Sarathy, Vengadam’s friend and one-time political ally. His rapport with Prakash Raj was excellent, and their friendship felt believably warm. I liked their stilted meeting to discuss getting their children married to each other that ended in affectionate hugs and relieved laughter. The deterioration of their relationship was shown simply but the pain on both sides and the definitive nature of the break was clear. Shammu is engaging and likeable as Vengadam’s daughter Thamarai. I do a certain amount of teeth gritting when I see little daughters made to replace their dead mothers in the home, but Thamarai was a distinct person and not just a household slave. She went to school for a while, then took sewing lessons, and her dad wanted her to be happy. So for a filmi girl in 1948 with no Ma, I thought she had it pretty good. Until things went wrong.

Kanchivaram-Bad actor lovely sariThere is an English character played by a truly bad actor. Well, I am not sure if the brightly over-enunciated yet almost expressionless dialogue delivery is his own style or was required by the director. There are so many good actors working across many Indian film industries yet the ‘English’ are almost uniformly laughable and seem to be reading at a pre-school level.  Who is casting these people?

The colour palette is simple and very effective throughout. The day to day scenes are muted and mostly use neutral and earth tones. The bus trip is drenched in the pale blues and grey of rain and twilight. Scenes at night are touched with the golden flicker of lantern flames. The flash of opulent silks highlights the gulf between the weavers and the eventual owners of those stunning garments, and punctuates the drama with bursts of saturated jewel tones. There are recurring motifs like the sickle, used as an emblem of communism and as a blade. Thiru’s camerawork uses lots of tight close ups of the actors and despite the dark interiors and low lighting in some scenes he catches every expression and gesture.

Despite the period and politics of the setting, Kanchivaram can be watched as a personal and intimate story rather than a didactic message film so I was impressed by his handling of those elements. But I’m not completely sold on the ending. The sensitivity of the characterisation and performances is what stands out for me. The film is available on YouTube with subtitles. 3 ½ stars!