Junga (2018)

Junga

A Vijay Sethupathi film never fails to be entertaining even when, as in this case, the story fails to impress. Gokul’s latest is a comedy that alternates between some hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments and scenes that fall conspicuously flat, mainly due to the ridiculous plot. When the comedy is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad it’s pretty meh and not helped at all by the glaring plot holes. Still, Junga is not meant to be taken seriously, and Vijay Sethupathi strolls through all the mayhem raising laughs with his take on a parsimonious criminal out to win back his family fortune.

The film starts with Junga (Vijay Sethupathi) being removed from jail by two policemen who plan to kill him in an encounter. Sadly, despite the presence of Rajendran as one of the officers, these are some of the least successful scenes in the film where the dialogue seems forced and not remotely amusing. Luckily this is only a brief introduction to allow Junga to begin relating his life story, which is where all the action happens.

The flashback shows Junga as a small-town bus conductor (all comparisons with Baasha are deliberate) whose love for a Telugu girl (Madonna Sebastian) leads to him taking on a persistent and unwanted stalker and his gang of friends. This foray into fighting shocks his mother who reveals that he is genetically predisposed to violence as he is actually the son of Don Ranga and the grandson of Don Lingaa; gangsters who lost all their money due to their extravagant celebrations and poor accounting skills. Junga’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) and grandmother (Vijaya) bewail the loss of the family fortune, particularly a picture hall in Chennai which was Junga’s mother’s dowry. Junga vows to be a money conscious Don and heads back to Chennai to restore his inheritance along with his best mate YoYo (Yogi Babu).

Junga quickly builds up a reputation as a cheap option for those seeking intimidation or assassination skills, but fails in his attempts to buy back Cinema Paradise from its new owner, Chettiyar (Suresh Chandra Menon).  Plan B involves heading to Paris to kidnap Chettiyar’s daughter Yazhini (Sayyeshaa) and thus force him to hand over the theatre. Naturally all does not go to plan and Junga’s kidnap scheme is foiled by the Italian mafia who have their own plans for Yazhini.

The first half has plenty of excellent comedy, mainly based around Junga’s miserly tendencies and extreme economies to save money. The film is irreverently tongue in cheek and pokes fun at classic Tamil films as well as modern-day tropes and even at the actors themselves, most of which works well. Radha Ravi channels Marlon Brando as the head of the Committee of Dons who are morally outraged by Junga’s discounted thuggery while Yogi Babu provides solid back-up as Junga’s chief henchman.  The first half has some good fight scenes too along with the best of the songs, including the wonderfully colourful Amma Mela Sathiyam.

The second half falters when the action moves to Paris and the Italian mafia muscle in. What does work is Junga’s obvious pain when he realises just how much money he has spent and the various jokes around the confusion between Parry’s (in Chennai) and Paris (in France). Best of all are Saranya Ponvannan and Vijaya who swagger around as a brilliant double act and completely steal the show as Gangster Amma and Gangster Patti. They have the best lines as they try to shake down Chettiyar and it’s great to see Saranya Ponvannan have a chance to step out of her usual standard mother role, albeit in a small way.

What doesn’t work is the whole storyline with the Italian mafia and French police, although we do get a great fight scene with an umbrella and some good car chases. But there are just too many silly plot holes that stop some of the comedy dead in its tracks while the rather contrived romance between Junga and Yazhini doesn’t work at all. After good chemistry with Madonna Sebastian and an amusing end to that whole episode, the love story with Sayyeshaa is limp and anaemic without even the benefit of any comedy to lighten the romance.

As with Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren, Vijay Sethupathi gets to wear some outlandish costumes as part of his trip to France and when he plays the roles of his father and grandfather. There is plenty of moustache twirling along with flamboyant gestures which have become Vijay’s signature comedy style, but he is very funny in this persona and his charm and charisma are almost enough to carry the film through the problematic second half. Almost, but not quite. Thankfully, Vijay is ably supported by Yogi Babu and the double act of Saranya Ponvannan and Vijaya who ensure their scenes are funny and help to keep the plot (such as it is) moving along.

Junga is a film that works when the action is kept close to home with the comedy centred on Vijay Sethupathi and his Don Amma and Don Patti. The more action-based sequences disrupt the flow and don’t fit into the overall pace of the film, even though the fight sequences are well choreographed. They also drag out the film which is already overly long by the time Yazhini is kidnapped. However the songs are good, the comedy for the most part is very funny and Vijay Sethupathi is excellent in the title role. Junga isn’t consistent, but it is hilarious in parts and that, along with the enthusiastic cast make it worth at least a one-time watch.

 

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Pa Paandi (aka Power Paandi)

Pa Paandi

I watched Dhanush’s directorial debut in Mumbai which meant no subtitles, but the story came across clearly despite a few dialogue heavy scenes. It’s a sweet tale about an older man and his quest for meaning in his life after his non-conventional ways annoy his son one too many times. There are a few overly sentimental moments, but the film succeeds thanks to excellent performances from all involved, a better than average soundtrack and the novel premise of a sexagenarian hero who still packs a punch!

Rajkiran is Paandian Pazhanisami aka Power Paandi, a retired film stuntmaster who has a shelf full of memories after working with the great heroes of Tamil cinema. I love that he is introduced in true filmi style and throughout the film his characterisation is similar to a typical modern day hero – this in spite of the fact that he is in his sixties and retired.

Paandi lives with his son, daughter-in-law and their two children, but unintentionally creates tension in their house with his activities in the neighbourhood. Paandi is a born meddler, whether it’s helping his young neighbours find true love or facing off with the local drug dealers, he can’t seem to help but get into trouble. His son Raghavan (Prasanna) prefers a quiet life and is constantly at odds with his father, prompting Paandi to remember similar incidents from Raghavan’s childhood. It’s a good illustration of how the power in their relationship has shifted over the years and how Raghavan now looks at his father as more irresponsible than his own children. However, for the most part Raghavan is tolerant of his busybody father although it’s clear he resents the extra work caused by his father’s attempts to ‘help’, while his wife does her best to keep the peace. The conflict between the generations is at times clichéd and overdone, but for all that there is a simple sincerity to the relationship, helped by the contrast in Paandi’s friendship with his young neighbour that bolsters the story in the first half.

For his part, Paandi is aware of how he frustrates his son and attempts to keep out of his hair by getting a job. His previous experience in the film industry leads him to try his hand at acting, with Gautham Menon providing a cameo as the exasperated film director trying to make Paandi to deliver his lines. Paandi then goes back to what he knows best and his success in an action scene allows him to relive the past glories of his youth. This is beautifully written to show just how much being appreciated, even in such a small way, means to Paandi. Here is an older man with plenty of experience and much to offer the world, but he has been made to feel irrelevant and unwanted by his family. When Paandi completes his sequence in one take, the accolades of the other stuntmen and the praise of the director (Stunt Silva) are all balm to Paandi’s ears and reaffirm his worth, despite his advanced years. Suddenly he has reason and meaning to his life again and the years drop away.

However, this success is short-lived, as Paandi cannot resist a fight with drug dealers that results in yet another trip to the police station and a more serious argument with Raghavan and Prema (Chaya Singh).  In the aftermath Paandi decides to leave on his treasured bike to search for something to bring meaning back into his life. A chance encounter with a group of similarly aged bikers on the road solidifies his quest into a search for his first love Poonthendral (Revathi).

Naturally there is the obligatory flashback to Paandi’s past – but despite the clichés the romance adds to the story and gives deeper dimension to the character of Paandi. Madonna Sebastian is charming as the young Poonthendral, while Dhanush’s young Paandi does seem exactly the sort of youth who will grow up to be the ageing hero of the first half. The romance is simply told, and it works well with good performances from all of the support cast including Vidyullekha Raman as Poonthendral’s cousin.

When the film moves back into the present day Dhanush seems to hit his stride as director, and the final scenes are well written and effectively filmed to ensure empathy with Paandi and Poonthendral. Revathi is wonderful here and gives her character poise and respectability with just a smidge of mischievousness that makes her instantly likeable. It’s inevitable that we want Paandi to succeed with his romance and there is only one ineptly placed fight in a car park that mars the final half of the film.

The best part of the film for me is the tongue-in-cheek approach to Paandi’s character as a modern-day hero. The usual filmi standards apply, so that Paandi is as quick to get into a fight as any other hero, and similarly with just one blow of his fist he can effortlessly knock the villains into the middle of next week. Rajkiran is excellent in the role and has plenty of charm and enthusiasm, making Paandi a likeable character despite his tendency to solve problems with his fists and his occasional naiveté. The mix of kind-hearted grandfather, lonely retiree, soul-searching wanderer and rejuvenated suitor is well blended with a natural progression that works well as the story develops. One of my favourite moments is after the reunion when Paandi messages Poonthendral on his phone while hiding under the bedclothes. The young man of the flashback is re-captured in that instant, but it’s the experienced older man who turns up on Poonthendral’s doorstep asking why she hasn’t replied.

There are some dips into obvious sentimentality as Dhanush pushes the lack of appreciation for elders by the younger generation, but for the most part he lets the characters just get on with the story. There is also a tendency for the first half to resemble a TV series rather than a movie, but these wrinkles are smoothly ironed out in the second half of the film and overall Dhanush has produced a good directorial début. Perhaps it’s a consequence of working with experienced actors, or possibly as an actor himself Dhanush knows how to get the best from his performers, but everyone here seems perfectly cast and the performances are all excellent. Even the two young actors Chavi and Raghavan are good in their roles and Rinson Simon is superb as Paandi’s young neighbour. The music is good too with Sean Roldan’s background score and songs fitting both the modern and the flashback sequences well.

Writing with Subramaniam Siva, Dhanush has produced a good masala blend with plenty of feel-good vibes for his first film. While technically the film has a few issues, the story works well and the choice of an older hero makes the film individual enough to rise above other romances. Worth watching for Rajkiran, Revathi and the premise that even at the age of 64 it is still possible to find your true-love.

Kavan (2017)

Kavan

K.V.Anand doesn’t tread any new ground with his latest film Kavan, revisiting a theme of land and water contamination by big business that’s been seen many times before. But rather than making another ‘message’ or pure action film, here we are firmly in masala territory, and that’s what helps make Kavan such a watchable film. It’s set in the world of television and journalism where breaking news is the key to big ratings and in this new post-truth world of alternative facts, the machinations of one TV station to keep ahead of the competition don’t appear quite as far-fetched as they may have done a few months ago. Writers K.V. Anand, Subha and Kabilan Vairamuthu have come up with an entertaining screenplay and some excellent dialogue that drive the story along despite numerous diversions. With great performances from Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian, Kavan is more engaging and enjoyable than expected, even with the 160 minute run-time.

Vijay Sethupathi is Thilak, the only student in his class who wants to make documentaries rather than work in films or TV which immediately identifies him as someone more interested in facts and the truth than entertainment. However, he ends up working at Zen TV, alongside his former girlfriend Malar (Madonna Sebastian) who doesn’t want a bar of him after their acrimonious break-up. Initially Thilak does well, impressing channel owner Kalyan (Akashdeep Saighal) with his novel approach, but it doesn’t take long until Thilak’s moral stance gets him into trouble. Kalyan is prepared to put anything on-screen as long as it will lift ratings and he isn’t above manufacturing news either. Alongside corrupt politician Dheeran Maniarasu (Bose Venkat) he spins facts out of all semblance of the truth to promote Dheeran Maniarasu’s political career and his own TV channel. The inevitable clash comes about due to Dheeran Maniarasu’s involvement with a chemical company which is polluting the local area.

Activists Mira and Abdul (Vikranth Santhosh) are friends of Malar who fall foul of the politician and his rowdies and their subsequent search for justice sees Thilak and his friends leaving Zen TV for good. They team up with Mayilvaganan (T. Rajendar) who has a small struggling TV channel and start their campaign to broadcast the truth.

Now, initially I found Rajendar’s comedy jarring and out of sync with the slick styling of the rest of the film, but as the story moves on, and Malar and Thilak start to work with Mayilvaganan, his eccentricities become more relevant and I found his scenes to be really funny. His routine may not change, but Rajendar is good at what he does and that can be very effective, especially as here when administered in small measured doses.

The move to Mayilvaganan TV has the added bonus of demonstrating how to renovate on a budget, if you should ever feel the need to know, and of course the new revamped channel starts to become popular as it spreads the true story of Dheeran Maniarasu’s various corrupt practices.

The story plans out exactly as expected but there is a good mix of drama, comedy, action, and just the smallest amount of romance as Malar and Thilak put aside their differences. Despite the total lack of surprises, the film keeps us interested by keeping the story topical – there are mentions of recent events such as demonetisation and the Chennai floods – and adding plenty of good snappy dialogue. Vijay Sethupathi is always very watchable and he excels yet again, ensuring that his character’s belief in truth and honesty in reporting never come across as preachy or too sanitised. No matter how ridiculous the plot (running through woodland carrying a camera chasing a car and still managing to arrive in time to catch the action for instance), it somehow always seems possible in the face of Vijay’s absolute confidence and sincere belief in the role he is playing. He looks the part of a journalist, and I loved the brief glimpse of laser eye-correction surgery to ditch his glasses before he went on-air as a talk show host. Shame though as he looks good in specs!

Madonna Sebastian too is charming and plays the role of a modern career woman well. Her early scenes with Vijay are brilliant and I liked Malar’s gradual realisation that actually Thilak wasn’t such a bad guy after all. For a commercial entertainer this is a better than usual female role where Malar isn’t just the love interest, but has a reasonably substantial part to play in the story too. The romance too is very low-key and more an acknowledgement that the two are in a relationship rather than the more usual excuse for a flurry of songs. This is pretty much all of the romance in the film – nicely condensed into one song from Hiphop Tamizha.

The friends, including a rather subdued Jagan, are all good too, although they don’t have much to do for most of the film. Vikranth Santhosh stands out as the activist and his impassioned appeals for justice come across as more heartfelt and sincere than expected for a masala film.

As in Ayan, Akashdeep Saighal as the villain is the weak link for me, although this is likely due to the sketchiness of his character. All the hair tossing and posing suit the character of a TV mogul better at any rate and his acting has improved slightly, but I didn’t buy into the character of Kalyan at all. Bose Venkat is much better as the corrupt politician and does appear appropriately duplicitous throughout the film. It’s often the villain that lets these films down, but since it’s the policies of Kalyan rather than the character that Thilak and Malar are fighting, it’s not as important that Kalyan fails to make much of an impression.

Basically Kavan is a masala entertainer that doesn’t pretend to be anything ese. There is never any sense that the film is trying to be a serious exposé of the TV industry, or that the various feminist, Hindu-Muslim brotherhood or land right speeches are meant to generate a response; it’s simply a story to enjoy in the theatre with a box of popcorn. It is overlong and there are a number of diversions that aren’t at all necessary but the dialogue is good, the performances generally excellent and the masala mix is just about right. Worth watching for Vijay Sethupathi, Madonna Sebastian and a vision of alternative facts that’s perhaps a tad more realistic than may have been planned.