Kaala (2018)

Kaala

As with his previous film Madras, Pa. Ranjith is out to deliver a message and the fact that he has Superstar Rajinikanth on board is almost irrelevant. The film is all about the politics of land clearance in the slums of Mumbai and the population of Dharavi who rise in revolt against unscrupulous developers. Where Pa Ranjith does make use of Rajinikanth’s star power is to emphasise Kaala’s role as ‘King of Dharavi’ (presumably only the Tamil-speaking part) and he adds just enough slow-motion walking and villain tossing to keep fans happy. But for the most part this is a story about people power and that makes it rather more interesting than the usual Superstar-centric flick. Best of all Rajinikanth plays an age-appropriate character who has a touching romance with his (relatively) age-appropriate wife, Selvi (Eswari Rao) while reminding us just how good Rajinikanth is as an actor.

Karikaalan (Rajinikanth) aka Kaala is the ageing leader of the slums who is pushed to defend his area from developers out to make Mumbai ‘Pure’ and beautiful. Once a gangster, he’s now a family man, and his introduction shows him playing cricket with his grandchildren and enjoying life at home. There are many domestic touches; Kaala’s relationship with his wife, the pet dog that follows him everywhere, and the rather more problematic relationship be has with his youngest son, but when it counts, Kaala still has the power to stop the bulldozers in their tracks when they show up to develop the dhobi ghat. He’s ably assisted by his eldest son Selvam (Dileepan) who dives straight into action and never lets dialogue get in the way of a good scrap, and his many loyal followers who believe that Kaala is still the ultimate authority in the area. On the other hand, his son Lenin (Manikandan) is an activist who prefers demonstration and petitions to direct action along with his girlfriend Charumathi (Anjali Patil). Manikandan is excellent and his portrayal of the frustrations with trying to fight a legal but slow and difficult battle against the background of his father and brother’s illegal but successful campaigns is brilliantly done. Anjali Patil stands out too as a force to be reckoned with, and her scrappy Charumathi is passionate and vibrant in her defence of the local community.

Opposing Kaala at every turn is corrupt politician Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar) who is behind the developers plans to clear the land. He’s also a man with incredibly squeaky sandals. I’m not sure if India has the same superstition, but in Ireland squeaky shoes are a sign that they haven’t been paid for, with the implication that the wearer is someone who cannot be trusted. It fits Hari perfectly so I really hope this was intentional and not just a wardrobe glitch!

Dharavi sits on prime real estate and the developers want to rehouse only a small portion of the current residents, while saving the bulk of their redevelopment for the rich who will pay above the odds to live in such a convenient location. Hari and Kaala have a history, which makes their clashes personal, and Pa Ranjith ties their rivalry into the story of Rama and Raavana, but with a twist. Hari may always wear white and live in a house painted white with all white furnishings, but his Rama is a villain with no respect for the common man. Kaala wears black, lives in a house shrouded in shadows with a black settee, but this Raavana is the hero, fighting selflessly for the poor and oppressed who cannot stand up for themselves.

Rajinikanth steps easily into the role of the people’s defender, but what makes his Kaala so impressive is the relatability of the character. Despite his god-like status in the area he is a family man at heart and is simply trying to do his best for everyone. He is still in love with his wife and the scenes with Eswari Rao are brilliantly written to show the depth of their relationship while still allowing the couple to bicker continuously – typical of any long-term couple. The arrival of Kaala’s previous lover Zareena (Huma Qureshi) as a housing development specialist adds spice to the mix and the conflict of emotions from all involved is well worked into the narrative. However, Huma Qureshi’s character isn’t as well developed as that of Selvi and towards the end she’s side-lined just when I was expecting her to take a more prominent role. Zareena is a single mother and there is also an unfinished thread about her daughter which starts and then peters out into nothing, as if Pa Ranjith was so involved with everything else that he forgot to come back and tie off this part of the story.

Kaala also has support from his drunkard brother-in-law Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani) who has some excellent lines in the second half when Hari successfully enlists police chief Pankaj Patil (Pankaj Tripathi) to burn down part of the slums. Ramesh Thilak also pops up as a reporter who has a more important role to play than first appears, while Sayaji Shinde, Ravi Kale and Sampath Raj are all good in minor roles. One of the best scenes though belongs to Lenin when he visits Charumathi in her building. He’s been campaigning for this type of development to replace the chawls but is dismayed by the endless stairs to climb when the lift is out of order and the over-crowding and lack of personal space in each small flat. It’s an excellent way to show the issues associated with rehousing schemes and the problems caused by squeezing people together into such tiny spaces, although it takes more drastic events before Lenin returns to his father’s side of the argument.

There are some excellent fight scenes although these don’t all feature Rajinikanth. However, the best (and my favourite) involves Kaala with an umbrella in a flyover in the rain. The final showdown in Dharavi is also well shot with excellent use of colour and plenty of symbolism for those who like to spot such stuff. I enjoyed the songs too, although there are a group of rap artists who keep popping up and look rather out of place. Rajinikanth keeps his moves basic and simple in keeping with his character, but he does look well and the choreography generally fits into the ambiance of the movie.

Nana Patekar makes a fantastic villain and is a suitable mix of wily politician and nasty thug throughout. His first scene with Zareena is very well written to portray the misogynistic behaviour so typical of politicians, but this time Pa Ranjith makes a point of letting the audience see exactly how petty and small-minded Hari appears as a result. Unfortunately, Nana’s dubbing isn’t always well done and the timing is out in a few scenes which is distracting. Along the same lines, the subtitles seem to be rather strict translations, which doesn’t always make sense in English and a few scenes suffer as a result.

Kaala is the film I wanted to see from the pairing of Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth, and I enjoyed this much more than Kabali. There are strong female characters, a good support cast with well realised roles and an excellent performance from the superstar. There are a few glitches but for the most part the story is engaging with a simple message that translates well onto the big screen. Ranjith may prefer to use a wide brush for his political statements, but it’s the small details that work best here along with good use of the support characters. Highly recommended.

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Kammatipaadam

Kammatipaadam

Rajeev Ravi’s 2016 film Kammatipaadam is a dark thriller that tells the story of an ex-gang member’s search for his estranged best friend, who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. It’s also a stark social commentary, as the film documents the urbanisation of a rural area and shows how poor farmers were forced out to make way for high rises and shopping malls for the rich. P. Balachandran’s screenplay explores the violent world of the gangs and the harsh realities of life for the marginalised poor while adding mystery and suspense with the search for the missing Ganga. Although Dulquer Salmaan is excellent in the lead role, the film really belongs to Vinayakan and Manikandan Achari who are both outstanding as the missing Ganga and his gangster brother Balan. While the film is overlong at almost 3 hours, this is an excellent slice of gangster life, Kerala style, and impresses with a realistic, brutal storyline and gritty memorable characters.

The film starts with an injured middle-aged Krishnan (Dulquer Salmaan) flagging down a bus somewhere in Kerala. In a series of flashbacks, intercut with current events, he remembers his childhood and his life as a young man in the fields of Kammatipaadam before they vanished under the high-rises of Kochi. Krishnan and Ganga’s friendship is gradually revealed in an intricate and detailed story, painting a vivid picture of life for the poorest and most marginalised members of society, but also describing a rich and deep friendship that is enough to draw Krishnan from his settled life in Mumbai back to the dangers of his youth.

The scenes describing Krishnan’s early life are detailed and set the scene to explain why later, despite everything that has happened between them, Krishnan still responds to Ganga’s call for help. When Krishnan’s father (P. Balachandran) moves the family to Kammatipaadam, young Krishnan and Ganga become inseparable friends despite their different backgrounds – Ganga comes from a Dalit family, while Krishnan’s family are middle class and generally appear better off. However, caste is no barrier to the two boys and although Krishna’s older sister (Muthumani) seems appalled by the friendship, Krishnan’s father doesn’t seem to have any real issues with his son’s relationship with the local Dalit community. Ultimately though, it’s Ganga whose influence takes Krishnan away from his family and leads him into a life of crime.

As children, the boys witness a brutal killing when Ganga’s elder brother Balan (Manikandan R Achari) attempts to murder a local thug. This seems to set them on the path of rowdyism and as they grow older, they become part of Balan’s gang, doing odd jobs and fighting as required. What makes this part of the film so watchable is the persona of Balan. He’s charismatic and outspoken with a larger than life personality and an almost theatrical approach to defending his place in the local underworld. There is an awesome fight scene outside a movie theatre where Balan fights everyone before leaping up on a car to sell movie tickets – making his entire performance a brash advertising stunt as well as driving away his rivals in the business!

Balan runs an illegal alcohol business with local entrepreneur Ashan aka Surendran (Anil Nedumangad) Both Ganga and Krishnan eagerly join in with Krishnan acting as a driver for the smugglers. However not everyone is a fan of Balan’s style and Johnny (Shine Tom Chacko), a rival for the smuggling trade, sets out to bring Balan and his gang down.

While all this is going on there is another rivalry developing closer to home. Almost since their first meeting, Krishnan and Anitha (Shaun Romy) have fallen in love, but Ganga expects to marry his cousin and resents her attachment to Krishnan. Ganga’s path seems easier after Krishnan is sent to jail for attacking a police officer, but this is only a temporary hiccup and the two reconnect on Krishnan’s release. Dulquher and Shaun Romy have good chemistry at the start, but it’s the change to their relationship when they meet again years later that really impresses. Anitha reveals her resentment at the way Krishnan and Ganga treated her as a commodity while Krishnan has to deal with his memories and regrets. Unfortunately, Rajeev Ravi doesn’t go back to this part of Krishnan’s story, so we’re left to wonder what will become of Anitha who seems to be the loser in every respect.

Balan and his gang act as enforcers, and one of their jobs is to evict farmers from areas where the developers want to build. They don’t even seem to notice when their own land starts to be fenced off, but when Balan’s grandfather objects to his family being involved in pushing other Dalits off the land, Balan sees the error of his ways and decides to ‘retire’ from his life of crime. Balan has also become married to Rosamma (Amalda Liz)) but before he can settle down, Balan is killed and Ganga blames his childhood friend for his brother’s death. This is the final straw for Ganga and it leads to the estrangement between the two men.

However, when he is in trouble, Ganga calls his old friend, sparking Krishnan’s return to Kammatipaadam to find out what has happened.  As Krishnan searches for Ganga he is forced to face his past and come to terms with the bleakness of his friend’s life after Balan’s death. While members of the gang like Majeed (Vijay Kumar) have prospered, Ganga is still living in the past and involved in the seedy underbelly of Ernakulam. The mystery deepens when Krishnan himself is attacked and it seems as if no-one else wants to know what has happened to Ganga.

Kammatipaadam is a study of characters and each is so realistic and well-drawn that it’s easy to become involved in their lives and care about what happens to them. The film spans roughly thirty years and I was amazed at how successfully Dulquer shows his character’s aging in his mannerisms, gait and stance. As a young man, he is arrogant and cocky, with a confidence that shows in his walk and his dialogues. But when he returns to Kammatipaadam, he’s older, moves more slowly and stiffly and to some degree, thinks before he speaks. He really gets into the heart of Krishnan and his friendship with Ganga comes alive onscreen, while the small glances and covert looks are enough to convey the entirety of his romance with Anitha. However as good as Dulquer is, he is equalled by Vinayakan who puts his heart and soul into his portrayal of Ganga. Here there is loyalty and devotion. Here too, a poor man who makes his living exploiting other poor men and pisses away the profit with his drinking problem. Manikandan R Achari is also superb as Balan with his loud brash exterior hiding a man capable of greater understanding but without the wherewithal to allow his dreams free rein. These are the petty gangsters who so often make up the fodder in the big herocentric films, but this time the story is about them and their short and violent lives. The actors who portray the young Krishnan and Ganga are also excellent with Shalu Rahim in particular setting up Krishna very well for Dulquer Salmaan to smoothly take over as the character matures. But even the young kids at the start are fantastic, and again have all the same characteristics as their older selves.

The minor characters all have their own brief story arc that adds layers of complexity to the film. Krishnan’s father has his own issues, illustrated perfectly when he goes to pick up his son from prison but leaves empty-handed. Even Rosamma, Balan’s wife and surely an inconsequential character in most other gangster films, has a greater role to play than expected and turns out to be a better gangster than her husband or her brother-in-law. The story of Ganga’s disappearance and Krishnan’s search is simply the top layer that sits over the excellent character studies and underlying thread of the exploitation and eviction of the Dalits. The film also looks amazing, with excellent cinematography from Madhu Neelakantan although I would expect nothing less from Rajeev Ravi given his own work as a cinematographer in Hindi cinema. The songs too are interesting, with references to the plight of the Dalits and their lack of a permanent and safe place to live while Krishna Kumar’s background score is unobtrusive but effective in adding to the overall richness of the film.

However all of this depth of characterisation and attention to detail comes with a price. The film is overlong and does drag in places, particularly in the second half. A fight scene in the prison and one in a bus station are overly drawn out and the build up to the final scene is rather indulgent. Still, the film succeeds at drawing a picture of the violent and desperate side of life as a small time gangster, and the brilliant performances and characterisations ensure that Kammatipaadam is a film that stays with you long after the end credits roll. Fascinating, thought-provoking and a lesson in the birth of Kochi all in one – 4 stars.

Aandavan Kattalai (2016)

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M Manikandan’s Kaaka Muttai was one of the best films from last year, so my expectations were high for Aandavan Kattalai, particularly since one of my favourite actors Vijay Sethupathi plays a main character. Now normally having high expectations is the worst possible scenario as it’s usually met with disappointment…. but not this time! Aandavan Kattalai delivers in every possible way. Co-writers Manikandan, Arul Chezhiyan and Anucharan have taken a simple story and imbued it with clever characterisations, entertaining diversions and a moral that’s delivered subtly enough to avoid even a hint of appearing preachy. My only gripe is that the songs and none of the written material (newspaper headlines, notes on paper etc) were translated, but otherwise this is a thoroughly  enjoyable film.

Aandavan Kattalai follows the story of Gandhi (Vijay Sethupathi) and his friend Pandi (Yogi Babu) as they attempt to fraudulently obtain tourist visas and then work illegally in England. Gandhi has incurred too much debt in his home village and has to try to pay the money back to salvage his reputation with his brother-in-law and sister. Later it is suggested that Gandhi isn’t a wastrel himself, but that his debt is partly due to raising dowry for his sister’s wedding but this part of the story isn’t explored in any great detail – at least not with subtitles. After another villager arrives back from overseas with plenty of money and shares his story, Gandhi and Pandi decide that working in the UK will be their ticket to riches too.

The pair travel to Chennai to meet with a broker, who has plenty of cons and shortcuts to circumvent the system. One of these leads Gandhi and Pandi to add a spouse’s name to their passport application. Pandi somehow manages to pass his visa interview and heads off to London with instructions on how to mimic a Sri Lankan refugee once he lands. Gandhi’s intrinsic honesty however sees him rejected for a visa and he is stuck in Chennai for at least 6 months until he can try again. Both Gandhi and Pandi are lost and bemused by the big city with Manikandan evoking thoughts on how they will possibly cope with London, where they will not only be in a large metropolis, but one where the customs and language are completely different. The little things; trying to find somewhere to stay and the vagaries of the Chennai householders, finding their way around the maze of the city and getting all their paperwork together are all shown as major struggles for the pair and serve as a way to further develop their characters.

While Vijay Sethupathi is excellent as the more aware and thoughtful of the two, his sidekick Pandi has simply the best dialogue with the funniest and most natural one-liners I’ve heard for a long time. Yogi Babu is simply superb here and his character is perfectly nuanced to be funny but also logical for his persona and completely genuine. His facial expressions are hilarious and he uses his remarkably untameable shock of hair to great effect. I don’t usually enjoy the comedy tracks in films but Yogi Babu shines here, even among the highly accomplished cast, and he really is very entertaining.

Vijay Sethupathi is excellent in a role that allows him to be at his laid-back best. He perfectly blends concern about his friend, his frustration with the system and his naivety about his visa application to give an overall realistic portrayal of an essentially honest man (at least most of the time) trying to deal with a difficult situation. The character suits him well and Vijay Sethupathi makes it look effortless as he demonstrates every possible emotion while making the audience laugh, cry and despair at the bureaucracy and limitless red tape. It really is a fantastic performance and the best role I’ve seen him play so far this year.

The rest of the cast though are just as good. Ritika Singh is great as a TV journalist named Karmeghakuzhali (the name Gandhi has given for his wife) who inadvertently gets dragged in to the divorce case. Again, her character is realistically written with genuine responses and a believable outcome, even if the coincidence of her name is just a tad too pat. I love how she is fiercely independent which helps make her suspicious of everything and everyone (with good reason in Gandhi’s case), but how she still has a kind heart.  Also excellent are the lawyers who work the divorce case, the crotchety judge who suggests marriage guidance rather than a divorce, and a genuine Sri Lankan refugee who is part of the immigration con. They’re a motley group of characters, thrown together by coincidence, corruption and fraud but Manikandan ensures that it all makes perfect sense by the end. No moment is wasted and every small detail is relevant to the final outcome – even when it seems that a scene is just to establish character, there is always something else that has relevance later on.

There are no big dance numbers in the film but there are a couple of good songs from K (Krishna Kumar) used as part of the narrative and these work well to move the story forward. The only thing missing are subtitles which really were needed in a song that includes dialogue and possibly further scene development. But really this is a small issue and overall the subtitles were excellent – easy to read and generally grammatically correct.

I really can’t find fault with Aandavan Kattalai and can’t wait to watch it again, as I’m sure there is more relevant detail I missed the first time through. This is a perfect film, a simple story expertly developed into a detailed saga of epic proportions with excellent performances from all involved and plenty of laughs along the way. Highly recommended for all the right reasons and definitely one not to miss.