Sapthamashree Thaskaraha

PosterIn his second film Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, Anil Radhakrishnan Menon takes a number of ideas from various Hollywood heist movies and expertly gives them an Indian flavour with a collection of memorable characters and an appropriately Keralan setting. It’s an entertaining film with more comedy than I expected in a crime thriller, and as with North 24 Kaadham it’s the clever characterisations that stand out. The story is well written with some clever twists and engaging dialogue while the heist itself, although improbable, is not completely impossible. Anil Radhakrishnan Menon keeps the action tense during the heist scenes but manages to add in plenty of genuinely funny moments too, while the excellent cast work well together to make a better than average movie.

The film starts with one of the ‘seven good thieves’ of the title disclosing his crime in a church and his rambling confession becomes the narrative for the film. The priest in the confessional is ably played by Lijo Jose Pelissery, more commonly found on the other side of the camera, but he does an excellent job here as the fascinated recipient of Martin’s (Chemban Vinod Jose) recollections. It’s not just a bare rendition of events either, as there is some excellent comedy woven into these scenes and both the priest and Martin add snippets of background information as they go along.

The seven thieves meet in prison where they are all sharing the same cell. This does seem a little strange to me given the variety of their crimes, although perhaps the common theme is that they all have relatively short sentences. Martin is a fairly inept thief, mainly involved in petty crimes and hindered by his assistant Gee Varghese (Sudhi Koppa) whose incompetence in the art of crime is reflected in his wardrobe choices. Martin’s journey to jail introduces another two characters, Narayankutty (Neeraj Madhav) and Krishnan Unni (Prithviraj) who both stand out as different from the other prisoners on the bus. Narayankutty is intimidated by the other inmates, and as his back story is revealed it becomes obvious that he’s basically a computer geek with little awareness of the real world. He was convicted of supplying a camera secreted in a soap box to a couple of peeping toms, although it’s clear that he never thought about why the two men wanted such a thing. However his talents ensure he is invaluable to the team later when his computer expertise is vital for their convoluted robbery plans. Neeraj Madhav seems perfectly cast as the nerdy Narayankutty with his generally bemused attitude and facial expressions underlining his naiveté while his attempt at distraction during a bodybuilding contest is just hilarious.

Three of the prisoners have a connection to Pious Mathew (Joy Mathew), a wealthy local businessman who has acquired his money through a series of illegal extortions and schemes. Krishnan Unni attacked Pious when he was involved in the death of Krishnan’s wife Sarah (Reenu Mathews) and it’s for this assault that Krishnan is serving time in jail. Prithviraj has the longest and most detailed backstory here and his character is also the brains behind the operation, but despite this the film doesn’t make him the central hero and Prithviraj doesn’t appear as the ‘star’. For much of the film Krishnan Unni is just a member of the gang, albeit the one who organises the heist and delegates roles to each of the other thieves.

Nobel Ettan (Nedumudi Venu) is in jail after his family owned chit fund collapsed owing a significant amount of money. He lost everything, including his son to suicide, after being conned by Pious who also stole most of the fund money. Nobel’s plight is the reason that the thieves unite against Pious, although the lure of big money is probably the major factor in their decision. The final connection to Pious is through ‘Leaf’ Vasu (Sudheer Karamana), a driver and hit-man for Pious until he sustained a head injury that left him mentally incapacitated. Despite his confused state Vasu remembers where Pious keeps his money and that’s enough information for the rest of the gang to start making plans to rob the crooked businessman on their release from jail.

The final two gang members are Salaam (Salaam Bukhari) and Shabab (Asif Ali). Salaam is a Hindi-speaking magician who has many useful skills and an acrobatic girlfriend Paki (Flower Battsetseg) who is also drawn into the plot. Shabab is mainly shown to be a capable fighter with a strong sense of justice whose finest moment comes when he lures Pious’ brother Christo (Irshad) into a fight with a group of tiger men. There is something very satisfying about watching a group of men with tiger faces on their bellies turn round and suddenly become menacing after having been dancing only moments before.

After their release the thieves set up shop in Nobel Ettan’s house and organise their plan to break into the Charity hospital where Pious and his family keep their ill-gotten loot.  Luckily Noble Ettan’s daughter Annamma (Sanusha) works at the hospital, and with her help and the skills of the seven thieves the intricate robbery starts to take shape.

The first half is relatively slow as the various characters are established, but the film doesn’t drag due to a good mixture of action and comedy in the back stories. Some of the stories are longer than others, and Prithviraj’s does include a song which isn’t entirely necessary but does fit well into the narrative.

The second half has just as much comedy but also increased moments of tension, particularly during the robbery itself where Ammanna’s nervous participation provides a good contrast to the antics of Martin outside the hospital. However there are a few sequences which drag on a little too long, such as repeated shots of the church procession, which break up the momentum and reduce the impact of the heist scenes. It’s the individual performances and characterisation of each of the thieves that make the film so watchable. Each has a reason to be included and all of the actors fit perfectly into their roles. Nedumudi Venu for example is blissfully unaware of his wife and daughters’ displeasure when he brings the released prisoners to his house, making it even more plausible that he was easily fooled by Pious and swindled out of his business while Sudheer Karamana includes repetitive mannerisms and childlike behaviours that make Vasu a more convincing character.

Joy Mathews as the main villain is nicely smug and vindictive with no redeeming features, which makes it easy to enjoy his discomfort and that of his equally nasty brothers at the end, and in true Robin Hood fashion, all the thieves have enough good qualities to ensure that the audience will be on their side. It’s simplistic but works due to the quality of the cast and good writing of their characters.

There are only a few songs in the film penned by Rex Vijayan and they are mainly used as background while the gang scurry around getting everything they need for the heist. Jayesh Nair’s cinematography is excellent and I love his use of bars, windows and other framing effects to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere and increase tension as the film reaches its conclusion.

There is much to like in Sapthamashree Thaskaraha. The mix of different characters works well to keep the story moving forward as each takes part in the robbery. The set-up gives a clear insight into each character and the final heist is a good mixture of clever plot, heightened tension and a good dash of humour to wash it all down. I loved the final twist – of course there’s a final twist – which reminded me of British films such as Shallow Grave and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which are also comedy/thrillers that end not quite as expected. Highly recommended – 4 stars.

Paleri Manikyam

paleri_manikyam_poster

Haridas (Mammootty) is a detective and writer, on holidays in Kerala with his girlfriend Sarayu (Gowri Munjal). He is mildly fixated on an unsolved murder that took place the night he was born, over 50 years ago. A girl called Manikyam (Mythili) from his village of Paleri was raped and killed. Sarayu is a crime analyst and she offers to work with him on the mystery.

Haridas goes back to Paleri and does a lot of exposition by talking to the camera, and sometimes to Sarayu. He walks through events on the fateful night as he knows them, threading in amongst the action from that day. It’s a bit like a stage drama, with him as the narrator.

Her brother and father carry Manikyam to a nearby town for the police investigation. It’s obvious that her mother-in-law Cheeru (Shweta Menon) is lying about something and her husband Pokkan (Sreejith) seems by turn guilt ridden and vengeful.

Haridas and Sarayu discuss the initial investigation including that the post-mortem was rewritten and a crucial report went “missing”. Things keep getting murkier.

Pokkan and Cheeru seem shady, but it looks like someone was keen to get Pokkan out of the way and make sure Manikyam didn’t go to the village to watch the drama with everyone else. The powerful landlord, Ahmed Haji (Mammootty in the second of his three roles in the film) is an obvious suspect but no one seems to think the police will actually go there.

Soon there is a manhunt as the police follow their chubby, happy Labrador around the village. I did like that there was a small scene dedicated to the merits of various dog breeds as tracking animals, with the Telugu trained Labrador the clear winner. Maybe I’d believe that if it was tracking a biscuit…

Ahmed Haji’s flunkey Velayuthan (Vijayan V Nair) tries to escape the village, but insists he didn’t kill her. He says Pokkan killed his wife in a jealous rage on finding her with an ex-lover, and he helped cover up the murder by making it look like a suicide. Cheeru accuses Velayuthan of abducting Manikyam and eventually leaving her hanging for Pokkan to find on his way home. And then Superintendent Manalathu (Sasi Kalinga) coaches Velayuthan on who the third man is, naming Muthuvan Ahmed. There are conflicting stories everywhere, although Ahmed Haji seems to be a constant. So many people silently conspired to ruin poor Manikyam.

Haridas reveals he is an illegitimate son of Ahmed Haji. He only knew him as a name revealed on his 18th birthday. But he won’t back down from investigating just because of that connection. It’s interesting that despite Haji being such a feared figure, no one spotted the spitting image likeness of his bastard son. Or did they know, and say nothing? Haridas keeps digging, meeting people who had been living in the area when Manikyam died, including Keshavan the barber (now played by Srinivasan).

Haridas is researching for his own curiosity, not because he is passionate about justice for Manikyam. He wants to be the one who knows it all, and to put his own obsession to rest. No one seems overly outraged at Manikyam’s fate or disturbed by Cheeru’s fall from grace. I liked his account of the night his mum told him about his biological father, but loving your mum is not proof of moral compass ownership. Haridas is not so very different to his father – he is sleeping with a married woman and lying to his wife. He just does it in a more socially accepted way. I didn’t like Haridas as a character but Mammootty gives him such intelligence and a keen understanding of human nature that I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Cheeru is devoted to her son Pokkan, but there is always something a bit evasive about her expression. It wasn’t a surprise to know that Ahmed Haji had demanded her for himself, but their story was not quite what I expected. She is excited and frightened by Ahmed Haji and their mutual attraction, and she has insane chemistry with Mammootty. Cheeru’s transition into prostitution is depicted as a matter of circumstances and lack of options rather than a huge moral failing. Shweta Menon is brilliant and makes the shifts in Cheeru’s emotional pitch and strength seamlessly.

I appreciated that the extended flashbacks gave Mythili an opportunity to do more than play dead. She created a vivid character and I could see why Manikyam’s death was still haunting the village in so many ways. It was all the more tragic seeing the happy new bride and realising what was happening around her. But I am not sure all the flashbacks to the actual rape were needed – it would have been as powerful and less voyeuristic to move on or show other angles of the story, or give more insight into how other characters reacted to the brutal event. I didn’t need to keep seeing it, and Mythili’s portrayal of her fear and pain was disturbingly realistic.

Gowri Munjal is effective and understated in her scenes, although Mammootty dominates the dialogue and focus. In fact in some scenes I was wondering if she was there, out of view, or he was happily declaiming alone. They have the chemistry of friends with benefits, not a raging passionate affair, and I liked her pragmatism about his lying ways. Sarayu’s marriage has drifted away and her partner lives overseas. Haridas doesn’t seem too fussed when her husband Goutham calls out of the blue, instead encouraging her to go hear what he has to say.

It’s almost pointless to say this, as it is the norm for Malayalam cinema, but Paleri Manikyam is visually lovely. I had to rewind a couple of times because I was too distracted to read the subtitles properly. Manoj Pillai has the camera duck and weave through the crowds of onlookers, letting the viewer spy on the goings on. At other times the visuals jump around from frame to frame, perhaps a representation of Haridas’ inner state. There are some lovely setups too including two boats passing each other, one with Manikyam as a corpse and the other with her as a bride just 11 days earlier. Ahmed Haji puts down a bottle only to have Cheeru fill that space in the shot; Cheeru as a refreshment to be consumed when he desired it.

There is a huge ensemble of actors playing varous people around the locale.  Writer-Director Ranjith adapted his screenplay from a novel which was in turn based on an actual event. He was so keen to find people who looked and sounded authentic, he ran training camps and chose three relatively unknown actors from the area. He also cast a heap (that’s a technical measurement) of established theatre actors. The standard is uniformly high. Sreejith is wonderfully expressive as the slightly slow and bewildered Pokkan, especially when he returns home a sad and broken man. I wondered what became of him. Musthafa is quietly fiery and a bit sarcastic as young Keshava, the barber who though Communism would overcome caste. The actor who played Manikyam’s brother was also excellent, his grief and anger palpable. The only unnecessary role was actually Mammootty’s third, that of his half-brother Ahmed Khalid. He could have been played by another actor without diminishing the story or Mammootty’s fine accomplishment.

The ending is downbeat and ominous, although many loose ends are tied up. See this for the intriguing structure and slow revealing plot given great voice by the talented cast. You’ll need some tolerance for the violence and the bleak view of a woman’s worth in those days (and ask yourself how much things have changed). 4 ½ stars!

Kali (2016)

Kali

I’ve been looking forward to the combination of Dulquer Salmaan and Sai Pallavi onscreen in Sameer Thahir’s Kali, and thankfully they don’t disappoint. It’s an interesting film too, with a simple but effective screenplay from Rajesh Gopinadhan, following the story of a young man who cannot control his temper and the unexpected consequences of one of his episodes of rage. The first half sets the scene for a compelling thriller in the second half and with excellent performances from all the actors, Kali is definitely well worth a watch.

The film starts with a violent fight at a roadside restaurant. It’s beautifully choreographed and includes the displeasure of the restaurant’s resident cat whose meal is disrupted by the conflict. The snarling cat adds a touch of wildness and lawlessness to the fight that’s echoed later on in the film when the action returns to the restaurant. The short but vicious opening also sets the scene for another fight, although this one is less physical but equally damaging in its own way.

Siddharth (Dulquer Salmaan) is a man with a very short fuse and the simplest of things makes him lose his temper. After the fight at the restaurant, the next round is between Siddharth and his wife Anjali (Sai Pallavi). Anjali is seen leaving their house in tears and carrying a suitcase, while inside Siddharth is angrily throwing objects at the wall. It’s a scene of domestic life that rings true, particularly since Anjali isn’t staying around to accept any abuse and sensibly heads for the door. However it’s late at night and Siddharth at least doesn’t leave his wife walking down the road by herself, managing to pick her up in their car even though he’s still clearly very angry indeed.

The film moves into flashback to show how Siddharth has always been quick to lose his temper, even as a child, and how the years haven’t mellowed his reactions at all. Throughout his time as a student and even during job interviews, Siddharth shows no patience and absolutely no control over his angry reactions. He’s a man who reacts first and rarely thinks about the consequences of his behaviour. It seems strange that Anjali does stick with him and it’s hard to believe that Siddhartha hasn’t had any previous problems as a result of his behaviour. No-one ever seems to react badly to his outbursts for example. What’s good about the flashback though is that there is little about the love story between Siddharth and Anjali. Their romance is simply a fact, and the film instead shows Anjali’s struggle to cope with Siddharth’s temper outbursts and her attempts to keep him on an even keel. Many of the situations are drawn from routine day-to-day hassles and while Siddharth’s irritation is understandable it’s his inability to control his reactions that make him such a difficult person to deal with.

There is a kinder side to Siddharth too though, and he’s not all rage and temper. He does make some attempt to keep his temper and tries to control his frustration with his bank customers using a stress ball Anjali gives him, with at least some partial success. However he has an incredibly irritating colleague in Prakashan (Soubin Shahir) who is deliberately provocative and obnoxious, although Siddharth does his best to ignore him as much as possible. Dulquer Salmaan and Sai Pallavi have excellent chemistry in their scenes together which makes their relationship believable. It’s easy to see why Anjali stays with Siddharth despite his anger management issues – the two are clearly in love and outside of his temper tantrums Siddharth is a caring and attentive husband. I love the end of this song where Anjali dances with Siddharth in their living room. It seems very natural and spontaneous, plus Sai Pallavi is simply gorgeous in that red sari!

The film steps up the pace in the second half when Siddharth and Anjali find themselves in a frightening situation as a result of Siddharth losing his temper with truck driver Chakkara (Chemban Vinod Jose) on the road. The couple end up at the restaurant seen in the opening scene of the film where Siddharth’s anger puts him and Anjali in real danger and Siddharth has to curb his natural aggression to try to ensure their safety. The tension rises steadily as the situation escalates further out of control and both Gireesh Gangadharan’s cinematography and Gopi Sundar’s music work well to add further pressure.

Dulquer Salmaan does a fantastic job of conveying his rage without going too far and over dramatising his outbursts of temper. Despite his ever-present anger he manages to make Siddhartha at least a partially appealing character  and I even found myself in sympathy with him as I was just annoyed by Prakashan and the bratty child that visited Siddharth’s house! Dulquer also is excellent in the latter half of the film and allows his inner struggle to show clearly on his face as he deals with the staff and clientele at the restaurant. It’s another brilliant performance and despite the negative tones I thoroughly enjoyed his characterisation here.

After her critically acclaimed début in Premam, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sai Pallavai but she puts in another fantastic performance in Kali.  Her frustration and disappointment with her husband come across beautifully and she gets the level of embarrassment and distress just right when Siddharth loses his temper in public.  On top of all that she still manages to have great chemistry with her co-star and makes their relationship believable too. She’s just as good in the second half and her terror and helplessness are a major factor in maintaining the tension in the latter part of the film.

The support cast are also uniformly good with Vinayakan and Chemban Vinod Jose perfectly cast as the main villains of the story. They effortlessly exude menace and both have great evil grins and good use of their expressions to help increase the tension every time they appear onscreen. Soubin Shahir is incredibly annoying as fellow bank employee Prakashan and as such manages to win Siddharth some sympathy for having to deal with such an idiot on a day-to-day basis! However thankfully Prakashan is never too over the top and Soubin Shahir doesn’t just play his character for laughs but actually makes him a more plausible character than expected.

Kali is a film of two halves. The first sets up the situation for the rest of the movie, and concentrates on the personality of Siddharth and his relationship with Anjali. It’s a well constructed observation of human interactions and the painful cost of unreasoning rage and unsociable behaviour. The second half on the other hand is an out-and-out thriller where the characters are more broadly drawn and the action tense and frightening. And yet, despite the different pace in the first and second halves the film works well as a whole story and makes for an enthralling two hours of cinema. Highly recommended.