Asuran (2019)

Vetrimaaran’s latest film Asuran is a graphic and violent tale of oppression and intimidation of a small landowner and his family, but it’s also a story of revenge, survival and of the fight for justice in an unjust world. Dhanush is in his element, playing both Sivasaamy, an ageing and broken-down small freehold farmer and also his younger self in a flashback that explains how he ended up as a pacifist. The rest of the cast are just as good, including Ken Karnuas as Sivasaamy’s son and Manju Warrier as Sivasaamy’s wife. Asuran seems set to be another Vetrimaaran classic as yet again he has captured the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu while telling a rousing story, this time adapted from Poomani’s novel, Vekkai.

The story starts quietly, with Sivasaamy (Dhanush) and his youngest son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) wading through a river in the middle of the night. Sivasaamy urges caution, explaining to his reluctant son why they are walking in the river, rather than on the road (it’s to hide their tracks). At one point as the water is gradually getting higher, Chidamabaram complains that his bombs will get wet. I thought this was likely a euphemism for something else, but surprisingly, as clearly demonstrated later, what he’s carrying are indeed explosive devices! As the father and son slowly make their way deeper into the forest, Vetrimaran shows the searchers, hunters and police who are on their trail, while in the other direction, Sivasaamy’s wife Pachaiamma (Manju Warrier) and daughter are also running to hide. At this point Sivasaamy seems confident and capable – he knows how to hide their trail and how to keep silent, unlike Chidambaram who seems to be singularly clueless, wandering off, lighting fires and generally making himself far too visible.

Gradually we discover why the family are in flight as, in flashback, the film shows the family’s struggle against the rich Vadakkoran Narasimha (Aadukalam Naren) who wants their small plot of land. This leads to clashes between Vadakkoran’s men and Sivasaamy’s older son Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam) who wants to fight back and cannot understand his father’s servile attitude. Even Pachaiamma grabs up a sickle to defend herself, but Sivasaamy urges caution and tries to ignore the provocations, including the death of one of the family dogs. Murugan is frustrated by his father’s faintheartedness and responds by aggression and violence, although mostly as a result of threats and taunts from Vadakkoran’s men. It’s obvious that neither Sivasaamy’s approach, not his son’s aggressiveness will work against the upper class Vadakkoran who has the law and the power of his money on his side, and this futility underpins all of the action in the film. The violence escalates until Murugan is murdered in a particularly gruesome and bloody manner which starts to tear the family apart. Chidambaram is only 16 and cannot understand the class politics that make his father unable to act, but instead regards him as a coward. As a result, to try and alleviate his mother’s grief, Chidambaram attacks Vadakkoran, leading to the family’s midnight flight.

Dhanush is simply amazing as the older and broken Sivasaamy. His subjugation at every turn is perfectly nuanced to make us feel his pain and despair as Sivasaamy struggles to keep his family safe. His alcoholism is part of the whole picture of a deeply flawed man, while the contempt of his sons and stoicism of his wife is shown to cut deeply. Murugan and Chidambaram deride their father for his cowardice but Pachaiamma and her brother (Pasupathy) have a much better idea of the situation, and although they don’t always approve, they tend to support Sivasaamy’s approach. However, when Murugan is killed, Pachaiamma can no longer support her husband’s viewpoint with matters coming to a head when Chidambaram seeks his revenge. The family drama is beautifully written with the emotions raw and realistic, while the relentless persecution from Vadakkoran seems unnecessarily harsh but also very plausible.

Despite Chidambaram’s low opinion of his father, he’s still young enough to rely on him during their flight. But when they are cornered at the end of the first half, it’s Chidambaram who is shocked when his father finally picks up a stick and fights back in spectacular style. It’s massy, but loads of fun and the fight scene is well staged to make Sivasaamy’s sudden prowess believable.

The second half starts with a flashback to Sivasaamy’s youth, and once again his subjugation by a rich local landlord which ends with the death of his family including his activist brother (Subramaniam Siva) and his fiancée Mariyammal (Ammu Abhirami). This time the divide is more about caste but the outcome is the same despite having lawyer Venugopal Seshadri (Prakash Raj) on their side. While the story is compelling and a bitter statement on the realities of being poor in rural India, it’s the characterisations that stand out in Asuran. Ken Karnuas is fantastic in a role which requires him to be naïve, passionate and impulsive but then have to grow up really fast. Manju Warrier is a rock steady presence beside her husband, until her son is murdered and her world comes crashing down. Her grief roils off the screen in waves of pain in the distressingly realistic scene where Muruguan’s body is discovered. The visuals hit hard, and the acting is simply superb throughout. Although his time onscreen is short, Teejay Arunasalam makes an impact in a powerful performance of a young man determined to defend his family at all costs.

 

The film looks amazing as Velraj captures the stunning scenery around Tirunevelli. The cinematography emphasises the isolation when Sivasaamy and Chidambaram flee into the forest, but also captures the heart of rural India and the wonderful colours associated with different crops. The film soundtrack from GV Prakash Kumar is also excellent while the songs are perfectly matched to the action on screen. There is also clever use of sound, where during an action scene, all the music stops and there is just the sound of breathing, which works very well to focus attention on the protagonist and let us wonder what is going on in his mind, right at that very second.  Vetrimaaran keeps the romance sections short and the fight scenes bloody and violent, but it all fits snugly into the narrative despite a somewhat rushed feeling of the ending. Thanks are also due to the subtitler for using yellow font and being clear and concise – sorry I didn’t catch who was responsible for these.

Asuran combines father and son relationships with village power politics and the result is a powerful societal film that also has the warmth and intimacy of a more personal story. The performances are all amazing and as always I am stunned by how Dhanush can transform between a feisty young man in his early twenties to an older fifty-plus worn down farmer and be totally convincing in both roles. Wonderful actors, a compelling story and stunning scenery all combine to make this one of the best Tamil movies so far this year. Don’t miss it!

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Udaharanam Sujatha

Udaharanam Sujatha

Udaharanam Sujatha tells the story of Sujatha, a hard-working single mother, and her attempts to ensure her daughter Athira studies and passes her year 10 school exams. Sujatha has big plans for her daughter, but the problem is that Athira isn’t interested in studying and rather than thinking about her future, her dreams involve movie stars instead. Phantom Praveen has directed this Malayalam remake of Hindi film Nil Battey Sannata by Ashwini Iyer Tiwari (who has also remade the film herself in Tamil), with a more Kerala-centric screenplay from Naveen Bhaskar and a few changes to the lead characters. It’s a simple story that focuses on the mother-daughter relationship and features excellent performances from both Manju Warrier and Anaswara Rajan as her somewhat rebellious daughter. I did have a few issues with some parts of the film, but the overall feel good factor and balanced mix of drama and humour ensures Udaharanam Sujatha is well worth a trip to the cinema.

Sujatha (Manju Warrier) gets up well before dawn to start her seemingly endless round of jobs to raise enough money to pay for her daughters education. Sujatha herself left school after 9th standard which she feels has severely limited her choice of occupation, and as a result, she resolves that her daughter needs to do well at school. However Athira (Anaswara Rajan) doesn’t care at all about her studies and has no thought for her future. She lives in the present, watching music videos on TV, playing with her friends and day-dreaming about Dulquer Salmaan. Athira doesn’t appreciate the long hours that her mother works to fund her education and even tells Sujatha that a doctor’s daughter will be a doctor and an engineer’s daughter will be an engineer, so since she is the daughter of a kitchen maid, that is all that she will become. Since Athira also regularly and quite spectacularly fails her tests at her school it seems unlikely that Sujatha’s grand plans will succeed no matter how hard she pushes Athira.

For one of her jobs, Sujatha works for prominent script writer George Paul (Nedumudi Venu) who listens to her daily recitation of her worries and fears about Athira with a surprising amount of tolerance. He finds a friend (Alencier Ley Lopez) who runs a tutoring service and who is willing to offer Sujatha a substantial discount, but only if Athira scores more than 50% in her maths exam. When Sujatha complains to George about the unlikeliness of Athira reaching this target, he suggests that Athira needs some competition and persuades Sujatha to go back to school herself and complete her Year 10 education.

A scene where Athira discovers her mother’s plans and attempts to cajole her mother with promises of improved study interspersed with pleas and general teenager angst is brilliantly written and perfectly performed by Anaswara. Her mother’s response is just as good and gets to the heart of the relationship between the two. Sujatha is determined to make her daughter succeed in life and is willing to go through the humiliation of going back to school to force her daughter to study. Athira’s subsequent tantrums and her refusal to acknowledge her mother’s presence in the classroom are also well handled, while Sujatha’s gradual acceptance by the other students seems plausible given her ability to cook! The good points though are mixed up with some terrible clichés such as the bespectacled nerd of the class who helps Sujatha understand maths, and the horribly abusive teachers who seem out of place in a film about the benefits of education.

Also problematical is the inference that doing a job such as working in a factory or as a maid is somehow shameful and to be avoided at all costs. While I can sympathise with Sujatha’s desire that Athira gets a good education and has options to choose from, it doesn’t follow that working in these jobs is wrong. Every parent wants the best for their child and particularly would prefer to see that they have a comfortable life, but this doesn’t mean that a house maid should be looked down on, just because of her occupation. However, aside from these points, the rest of the story is a heartening tale of the importance of a good education and how Sujatha manages to change her daughter’s attitude. It’s surprising that Sujatha manages to attend school at all, given her busy schedule of work but Naveen Bhaskar doesn’t let logic get in the way of a good story and after all, perhaps Sujatha has a time-turner hidden away somewhere.

The star here is undoubtedly Manju Warrier who is excellent as the harried mother desperate to wake some ambition in her daughter. Her work ethic is amazing and well portrayed, but what really stands out is the love she has for her daughter and her strength of will to make sure that nothing will get in the way of her dreams. She is fantastic as a concerned mother and completely inhabits the character of a cook/pickle-maker/house-maid/cleaner from a slum area of the city. Anaswara Rajan is also excellent as the bratty and ungrateful Athira who resents her mother’s interference in her life. Her whining is brilliantly irritating and her self-absorption typical of a teenager who naturally knows better than her mother. Together the two actors make a formidable team and it’s the warmth of their relationship that takes the film up a level to make it more than a simple moral tale about the value of education.

Udaharanam Sujatha

The other characters all have a small but significant part to play in the drama, and do it well. Joju George is excellent as Sreekumar, the headmaster and maths teacher who reluctantly agrees to take Sujatha on as a student. His role provides much of the humour, but he also succeeds in making his eccentric character more sympathetic than first appears and he plays a part in assisting Sujatha to further her own dreams. Nedumudi Venu is excellent throughout and he also adds some more light-hearted moments as does Sujatha’s potential suitor while Abhija Sivakala provides drama as a coconut seller who has lent Sujatha money and wants it paid back. Mamta Mohandas is also good in a small role as the local collector who takes on the task of bringing a supply of drinking water to Sujatha’s area and acts as the inspiration for Sujatha’s dreams.

The songs from Gopi Sundar are generally upbeat and suit the mood of the film, but one or two in the second half slow down the narrative and could have been excluded without losing anything from the story. Technically the film looks good, although Manju Warrier’s face is distractingly shiny at times, presumably due to the lack of make-up to give her character more authenticity. The moral message is hammered home a little too heavy-handedly at the end, but for the most part it’s the drama between mother and daughter that takes centre stage and gives the film its appeal. I like that Sujatha has the confidence to go back to school to improve her prospects and that she sees education as vitally important to secure her daughters future. It’s also heartening that she doesn’t need a man to prove her worth and prefers to manage alone despite having a suitor with a good job who could make her life easier. There are enough good points here to balance out the few negatives, and even if the dialogue is occasionally a tad shaky the performances are excellent and the story captivating. Recommended for Manju Warrier, Anaswara Rajan and a reminder that it’s never too late to follow your dreams.

 

Ennum Eppozhum (2015)

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Mohanlal and Manju Warrier together sounds too good to miss but despite the casting and potentially interesting storyline, Sathyan Anthikad’s Ennum Eppozhum doesn’t quite meet up to expectations. The film tells the story of an erratic, middle-aged journalist and his attempts to interview a crusading local advocate but although the central storyline works well, diversions off the main path are rather less successful. However Mohanlal and Manju are excellent, the supporting cast is equally good and the down-to-earth ordinariness of the characters does work in the films favour.

Mohanlal is Vineeth N. Pillai, a lazy middle-aged bachelor who is notable more for his lack of hygiene and questionable work ethic than his skill with journalistic interviews. His lack of energy is noted by Vanitharatnam magazine’s new editor in chief, Kalyani (Reenu Mathews) which doesn’t bode well for Vineeth’s continued employment. Kalyani is just returned from London with plenty of new ideas and has no time for a slob of a journalist who doesn’t pull his weight. Luckily for Vineeth, the former chief editor still has a fond spot for him as the son of her dear friend and ensures that he gets a second chance to prove his skills.

Vineeth is sent to interview Deepa (Manju Warrier), an advocate who has been in the news for successfully campaigning to have potholes in the road fixed.

Deepa is the antithesis of Vineeth. She is a single mother and not only manages to raise her daughter, work as a successful advocate and campaign for better roads, but she also teaches dance and performs too, as seen in this beautiful piece from the film.

For more information on the dance style and more of Manju’s beautiful dancing check out the excellent post by Cinema Nritya here

In his attempts to speak to Deepa, Vineeth is accompanied by bumbling photographer Maathan (Jacob Gregory). Maathan also lives with Vineeth and the interactions between the two form one half of the comedy track to the film. The other half is supplied by a shady developer (Renji Panicker) and his inept security guard, but this is one of those diversions that doesn’t add anything to the storyline while the comedy is slapstick and not particularly funny. The comedy with Jacob Gregory also fails to raise much of a laugh but there are a few moments that warrant his inclusion. Vineeth is further hampered by his car that continually runs out of petrol, some dodgy advice from a young employee and his own inertia regarding the assignment. However as he watches Deepa, her busy life starts to make an impression and Vineeth is drawn into assisting when Deepa and her daughter are involved in an accident.

Deepa has her own problems to deal with, including her over-protective neighbour Kariachan (Innocent) and his wife Rosy (Usha S Karunagapally). They hover attentively around Deepa and her daughter Miya (Baby Adhvaitha) but seem to be more of a hindrance than a help. Deepa is also visited by a friend Farah (Lena Abhilash) who is another character who seems to run out of steam just when her story starts to get interesting. Farah talks about her marital problems which could potentially have been a major plot point, given that Deepa is also divorced from a rather obnoxious-sounding character. Instead the story goes nowhere and Farah’s inclusion seems fairly pointless except as a glimpse of ordinary middle class life in the suburbs.

There are more odd and pointless diversions that peter out just when they start to get interesting. Deepa has dealings with a gangster who seems to help her when she wants to keep some cases out of the court system. This had potential since Vineeth spots Deepa paying money to some shady looking characters, but instead the story fades away without reaching any resolution. Vineeth also seems to be on the cusp of developing a romance with Kalyani, who in turn has an amazing about-face when it comes to Vineeth and his work. For no apparent reason, other than perhaps a shared like of Rod Stewart songs, Kalyani decides that Vineeth can take as long as he likes to finish the interview, and even doesn’t seem to mind when he admits he may not be able to interview Deepa at all! The romance which almost starts in one scene then vanishes completely without Vineeth even appearing to notice.

The slow pace of the film suits the scenes of day-to-day living that form most of the story but it does mean that it takes a long time for Vineeth to approach Deepa. It takes even longer for the two to actually start speaking to each other, but when they do, they have a lovely and easy chemistry together. There is no real romance in the story, although the possibility is hinted at towards the end, but instead it is the characters and the details of their lives that are the focus of the story.

Ennum Eppozhum is at its best when showcasing the lives of the two main characters, their strengths and weakness and their interactions with the world around them. Without all the added threads that go nowhere this could have been an interesting picture of two very different personalities, but the noise created by the sub-stories dilutes the effect. However, it’s always good to have a strong female lead character and Manju Warrier is adept at portraying such roles. Mohanlal does an excellent job with his rather unpleasant reporter and yet still makes appealing enough that we want him to succeed and keep his job. Not a great film, but one still worth watching for excellent performances from all the cast and the pleasure of watching Manju Warrier dancing. It just could have been so much more. 3 stars.