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.

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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.

Kaakka Muttai

Kaakka Muttai

Kaakka Muttai is a little gem of a film that premièred at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and subsequently screened at a number of Film Festivals around the world before winning two National Awards earlier this year. It tells the story of two young brothers and their quest to raise money to buy a pizza when a new shop opens up in their area. However this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The two boys live in a slum area and finding enough money for their day-to-day necessities is difficult, never mind Rs. 299 for something as exotic as a pizza. As they set about achieving their goal, the story touches on poverty, corruption in politics, globalisation and the daily cons run by locals in the area, but mainly it’s the story of two young boys and their quest to buy their very own pizza.

We never find out the real names of the two brothers in the film as they refer to themselves as Periya Kaakka Muttai (big crow’s egg) and Chinna Kaakka Muttai (little crow’s egg) after their habit of eating crows eggs when they can find them. Chinna KM (Ramesh) tempts the crows down from a tree with rice secreted away from under his mother’s watchful eye, allowing Periya KM (Vignesh) to climb up and find the eggs. Their nest robbing is one of the early scenes and the charm of the two brothers is captured by Periya KM’s response when he finds 3 eggs in the crow’s nest – he divides them up as one egg for each of the brothers and one left for the crow – such equality!

The two brothers live in the slums with their mother (Iyshwarya Rajesh) and their grandmother (Shanthi Mani) while their father (Nivas Adithan) is in jail. They live in a small one room shack which is clean, tidy and incredibly well organised despite the surrounding squalor on the streets. Much of the family’s money goes to a lawyer, who is supposed to be working to free their father, but there seems to be no progress in securing his release. There is never any mention of the father’s crime or how long he has been in prison which deliberately keeps the audience in the world of the children who also have no idea what their father has done and don’t seem to care.

This technique of showing their world through the eyes of Periya KM and Chinna KM is one of the charms of the film. Life is simple for the brothers. They look for the crows’ eggs on a waste piece of land where their friends play cricket, spending the rest of their day collecting coal along the railway lines and selling it to supplement their mother’s meagre income.  Like all children they ask their mother for things well outside what she can afford; a TV and a mobile phone seem impossible when she cannot even afford to send the boys to school but the brothers happy go lucky approach to life seems to serve them well. However one day the developers move in and the land where the crow makes its nest and the children play is cleared to make way for a new pizza restaurant. Despite being forced out the children are ecstatic when the new pizzeria is completed and movie star Simbu comes to open the restaurant and eats the first slice of pizza. Watching him enjoy the novel dish is enough to convince the brothers that this is something they need to try for themselves and they begin the arduous task of raising the necessary money to buy their own pizza.

They are aided in their venture by a friend from the railroad tracks. Pazharasam (Joe Malloori) or Fruitjuice as the subtitles decide to translate his name, works on the railways but is happy to talk to the two boys and helps them find coal to sell. It’s obvious to the audience that the coal he leads them to is not free for the taking, but Periya KM and Chinna KM don’t seem to realise that this isn’t just a pile of forgotten coal and are deliriously happy that they have found the means to raise enough money to finally buy pizza. However they are quickly brought back down to earth when the restaurant security immediately calls them slum kids and refuses to let them in to buy their pizza even though they have sufficient funds. Just having the money isn’t enough and Periya KM and Chinna KM have a new goal – to raise enough money to buy new clothes that will allow them to entry to the pizzeria and their dream of pizza.

Vignesh and Ramesh are perfectly cast as the two young brothers and have plenty of impish charm and infectious energy as they roam around their area. There are plenty of note-worthy moments and small vignettes that give the whole film a feel good factor that is normally missing in films about slum dwellers. Watching the brothers wash clothes (Chinna KM wets the bed every night) allows Manikandan to juxtapose the younger brother throwing up wet clothes for his older brother to catch and hang up with a moment where the elder is distracted by watching a plane go past in the sky. His younger brother hits him in the face with the next item and the laughter chases away that brief moment of dreaming by Periya KM. There is another where Chinna M finds a toy watch in the scrap yard where they sell their coal and then takes it to a watch maker to make it work – the mix of Chinna KM’s delight in something so small as the watchmakers magnifier and his innocence as he tries to understand why his watch doesn’t work makes for beautiful cinema.

And Manikandan keeps them coming – there is the grandmother trying to make pizza for the boys when she discovers how desperately they want it, the boys attempting to sell their dog to raise money and their friendship with a richer kid who they speak to across the barrier of a metal fence. The physical barrier is nowhere near as daunting as the social divide which keeps Periya KM and Chinna KM firmly in their place but their determination is inspiring. Iyshwarya Rajesh too puts in an incredible performance as the boys’ mother and perfectly balances pride, ethics and desperation as she tries to cope without her husband and bring up her boys as best as she can. Later scenes of her interactions with the local politician and with the police are perfectly done to give her grace and dignity in trying situations and the conversations between her and the grandmother are beautifully natural. In fact all the performances are excellent with each member of the cast seemingly perfectly in their roles. Other stand-outs are Ramesh Thilak and Yogi Babu as the two local conmen trying to make a quick buck out of the brothers misfortune and Babu Anthony as the pizza shop owner, while Joe Malloori and Shanthi Mani are simply brilliant.

Manikandan makes an impressive début with Kaakka Muttai, not just writing and directing the film but also responsible for the cinematography. At any rate he makes the slums look much better than expected, giving them an almost magical appearance as seen through the eyes of the two brothers, although there is plenty of grim reality there too. However our eyes tend to slide past the garbage and debris, maybe because no-one else seems to notice it either. Manikandan seems to be an expert in multi-tasking and perhaps it’s his control over so many aspects of the film that explains why Kaakka Muttai is so completely satisfying too. The story shows the negative aspects of poverty but also illustrates that there is beauty everywhere, even in the slums, and that people are people, no matter where they come from.  I totally loved this film and particularly the two KM’s who remind me so much of the children I work with in India every year. I love their optimism and resourcefulness, and most of all their wonderful smiles and endless joy. Sure, this is a sugar coated view of the slums and there is little of the expected violence and absolute despair, but as a look at poverty through the eyes of two young boys it’s a winner all the way. Don’t miss it! 5 stars

Kaakka Muttai