Mythri (2015)

Mythri

There have been a number of good films released recently where the main protagonists have been children or juveniles, and Mythri is another one to add to the list. B.M Giriraj’s bilingual film follows a young Siddarama (Aditya) as he ends up in juvenile detention and makes it onto the TV show ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’. There are shades of Slumdog Millionaire given that much of the film revolves around the TV show, but Mythri follows a rather different path. Here Siddarama is a big fan of Puneeth Rajkumar who hosts the show and it’s the plight of the young prisoners and their rehabilitation – or rather lack of rehabilitation that becomes the focus of the story.

Siddarama (Aditya) is a smart kid but he makes some poor decisions and ends up in jail after throwing stones at a passing police officer. His mother is out of her depth and to get her young son out of jail she approaches Gudi Pratap (Ravi Kale), a womanising thug and aspiring politician who runs drug and child trafficking rings on the side. Although he does deliver and gets Siddarama released, Gudi demands reparation for his services and it’s obvious that Siddarama’s mother is going to get the worse end of the bargain.

Once free, Siddarama is lucky enough to meet his idol, film star Puneeth Rajkumar (as himself) when he comes to their area to shoot a scene for his latest movie. Siddarama makes an impression on Puneeth with his scrapbook about the actor and his excellent general knowledge but fails to make the final cut of the scene when he rushes away before the end of the shoot. It isn’t until much later that the reason for Siddarama’s quick exit is revealed and the next time we see Siddarama he’s incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre.

Siddarama is one of the younger and more vulnerable boys, so it’s no surprise to find he is being victimised by a group of older youths who are unimpressed when he dobs them in to the warder Raviprakash (Atul Kulkarni). Despite his small stature and obvious dislike of violence, Siddarama fights back when the bullies gang up against him, and in doing so he earns the admiration of Jhonson (Jagadish), another young thief in the remand home. Jhonson is a serial offender, and the warders keep him chained up at all times to ensure he can’t steal anything further – unsurprisingly not a successful tactic! However, Raviprakash has firm views on how the young offenders should be treated and believes that strict discipline is the only way to teach the criminals how to behave. The harsh treatment of the boys and the poor condition of the detention centre are shocking and it’s understandable that most of the inmates either reoffend or become drug addicts after their release. Even the most basic of care is lacking and the warder meets violence with more brutality and an almost casual disregard for the boys’ welfare.

Atul Kulkarni is excellent here in the role of the strict and uncompromising warden. His interactions with the boys are frighteningly realistic and his reaction to a visit from the movie star is a perfect blend of admiration followed by condescension when Puneeth questions his regime. The rationale for his stance is one that seems logical – he came from a similar poverty-stricken background and didn’t turn to crime, so the youngsters in his care have no real excuse. This is one of the strengths of the film that such social clichés are shown to be inaccurate and too simplistic a view of more complex issues. Additionally the point is clearly made that education rather than punishment is the solution most likely to turn the young offenders’ lives around.

The film moves on to the TV show Karunada Kotyadipathi when Jhonson discovers Siddarama can answer the test questions for a children’s version of the show. With a lot of sneaking around behind the warden’s back, Jhonson manages to enter Siddarama as a potential candidate but it all hangs in the balance when the producers request a guardian for Siddarama. Raviprakash decides to let Siddarama go ahead – perhaps to demonstrate to Puneeth that his methods do work but also because he is impressed by Siddarama’s knowledge and is even a little proud that one of ‘his boys’ is clever enough to compete on the show. Again the decisions seem plausible despite the theatricality of Puneeth’s involvement, helped by Adithya’s portrayal of a young boy almost overwhelmed by the whole experience.

There is an odd twist to the tale when Mahadev Godke (Mohanlal) appears and tries to stop Siddarama from competing. This part of the film is inconsistent with the realism of the earlier scenes and the persona of Mahadev Godke is a little too contrived to fit easily into the narrative. However Mohanlal is good, his story helps to fill in the gaps and it also allows B.M. Giriraj to use a rather literal interpretation of the lifelines used by the show.

Mythri succeeds due to the excellent performances from the main leads and a well-developed storyline. Aditya is great as the young Siddarama, appropriately whiney and sorry for himself as expected for a kid his age, but also suitably resigned to his fate and more adaptable than even he realises. It’s a very good performance from the young actor and he holds his own well against the likes of Atul Kulkarni, Mohanlal and Puneeth Rajkumar.  Jagadish too is good as the recalcitrant thief and the other kids in the remand home all play their parts well. Puneeth Rajkumar has a relatively easy time of it since he just has to be himself, and perhaps it’s inevitable that he comes across as basically a nice guy – considerate and thoughtful. However at no point does he seem self-indulgent despite being shown as altruistic while his philanthropy and basic decency seem genuine. The only part which does seem somewhat forced is the movie within a movie where Puneeth is shown filming an over the top action sequence that ends with a rather cheesy message. It’s rather B-grade compared to the rest of the film, but maybe that’s the point.

Ilaiyaraaja provides the music and although there are only a few songs they are used effectively and suit the overall feel of the film. My favourite is Chandranenu Chenda, but the energy and exuberance in the title song is infectious and always makes me smile.

Overall Mythri is an intelligent and entertaining film with a social message that comes across clearly without becoming depressing or preachy. Despite the rather dire situation the kids in the remand home are facing, they still enjoy themselves and completely get behind Siddarama and his attempt to win the competition on TV. It’s a more upbeat film than the opening sequences would suggest and the combination of a well written story with polished performances makes Mythri well worth a watch. 4 stars.

Drishyam (2013)

Drishyam

I started to watch Drishyam late one night intending to just watch the first half, but found I couldn’t tear myself away until I’d seen all 2 hours and 44 minutes of the film – it’s that kind of movie.  Although it starts simply enough by drawing a picture of a fairly conventional family, it develops into a fascinating thriller where it’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen next.  The very ordinariness of the family makes their reactions and those of the other characters unexpected, while the developments in the plot are surprising at every turn.  There are a few moments where the story falters a little, but overall it’s intelligently written to show the effects of a sudden crisis and how important it is for a family to stick together when faced with adversity. Great performances by all the cast and beautiful cinematography contribute to make Drishyam compelling viewing and it’s definitely one of the best Malayalam films I’ve seen recently.

The film has a fairly slow beginning as writer/director Jeethu Joseph spends the first hour developing the characters of George Kutty and his family, focusing on their day to day interactions with each other and various other people they meet.  George Kutty (Mohanlal) operates a cable TV business in a small village near Thodupuzha.  He’s an orphan who never made it any further than 4th standard at school, but he has a wealth of knowledge gleaned from watching films all night long in his office.

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George Kutty is married to Rani (Meena) who generally seems content with her life despite putting up with her husband’s absences at night and his obsession with saving money.  They have two children, Anju (Ansiba Hassan) and Anu (Esther), and the family lives in a pretty house surrounded by banana trees and woodland. It all seems, if not idyllic at least comfortable and happy, although there are of course the dull routines and petty squabbles that occur in any family.  Jeethu Joseph uses each family member’s small ambitions to round out their characters and define their relationships while gradually building up the background for the rest of the story.  What also stands out is that despite the bickering and George Kutty’s somewhat eccentric lifestyle, there is a lot of love in the family and the marriage is built on very solid ground.

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When not in his office or sitting at home, George Kutty spends his time in a local tea shop where he uses his knowledge of films to solve other people’s problems and if that just happens to antagonise the moderately corrupt Constable Sahadevan (Kalabhavan Shajohn), so much the better.  Sahadevan is a bully who extorts money through a variety of petty schemes and his character is best summed up by a brief scene where he happily steals money from a man whose child is in hospital.  Such a nasty man, and beautifully played by Kalabhavan Shajohn who does a fantastic job of displaying Sahadevan’s mean-spirited character and giving his emotions free rein. Part of the intrigue of the story is that this dishonest policeman becomes the unlikely pursuer of justice although his methods are definitely unethical and disturbing.

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While the first half of the film introduces George Kutty and his family, the second half deals with what happens when the police suspect they are complicit in the disappearance of the Inspector General’s son.  Geetha Prabhakar (Asha Sarath) plays the part of the IG, and it’s a pleasant surprise to have a high ranking female officer as a main character.   Perhaps this is as a counterbalance to George Kutty’s firmly held belief that a woman belongs at home, but it also brings a very different dynamic to the film.

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Geetha is the one making all the decisions while her husband (Siddique) is the voice of reason and conciliation in the background.  The missing Varun Prabhakar (Roshan Basheer) is a typically spoilt rich kid, and there is the inevitable cliché here that rich kids are bad, while kids from lower and middle socio-economic backgrounds are always good and righteous. Geetha doesn’t believe George Kutty’s version of events and is determined to prove that his family are lying even though the local police officers (with the exception of Sahadevan) are convinced of George Kutty’s innocence and are reluctant to get involved.

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It’s mesmerising and even though the audience knows the true sequence of events, subsequent outcomes are impossible to anticipate as everyone brings their own needs and responsibilities into the mix.  Keeping to the thriller aspect of the film, there are only 2 songs in the whole film.  Both are well used to describe George Kutty and the dynamics within the family.  The first shows them on a happy shopping expedition while the second illustrates the change in family attitude when the police start to suspect they may have something to hide.  This is the first happy song which does an excellent job of summing up the family and their personalities.

Part of the film’s effectiveness is due to the high standard of acting from all involved.  Mohanlal is outstanding as are the two young actors who play his daughters.  Meena, Asha Sarath and Kalabhavan Shajohn are all also excellent and from Sahadevan’s brutal interrogations and shifty plotting to Geetha’s desperate attempt to balance her police persona with a mother’s concern for her missing son, the actions all feel genuine and typical of the characters involved. The dialogue seems natural, even with the barrier of subtitles, and the only apparent misstep occurs at the very end where Geetha appears to act a little out of character.  However it’s a small thing and does allow the story to be completely wrapped up Hollywood style.  Personally I would have liked a little less explanation and have been left to form my own theory, but that could be just me.

DrishyamDrishyamDrishyamDrishyamThe film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Sujith Vasudev and once the family is under suspicion the threat of prison is accentuated by the number of shots behind barred windows.  There are also some good contrasts between George Kutty’s family and the extended ‘family’ of the police and the lone outsider of Sahadevan.  By the end of the film a number of small throwaway moments are shown to have more significance than they appeared to have at the time, which shows just how effective good story development and intelligent writing can be.  Everything was there to be seen for anyone who looked, but the film shows that what we see can be easily manipulated and misinterpreted when it is outside expectations. Definitely recommended viewing but be warned not to start watching too late at night as it’s impossible to stop!  4 ½ stars.

Iruvar (1997)

Iruvar

Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar is essentially a story about friendship but it manages to encompass cinema, politics and plenty of associated drama along the way.  From their first meeting in the film industry, through their membership in the same political party until Anandan and Tamilchelvam end up as rivals for the position of chief minister, the friendship between the two endures the many challenges they face.   Despite the disclaimer at the start that the film is a work of fiction, even a cursory glance at the biography of Tamil film legend M. G. Ramachandran shows many parallels between his life and that of the character Anandan (Mohanlal).  It’s also apparent that MGR’s real life political rival, M. Karunanidhi is the character Tamilchelvam, portrayed by Prakash Raj, while other counterparts from the same era are also featured in the film. Although I don’t know enough about the lives of M.G. Ramachandran and M. Karunanidhi to comment on how accurately the two characters do resemble their real life counterparts, not knowing the true events isn’t a hindrance to enjoying the film.  It’s an exceptionally well told story and features not only brilliant performances from the two leads Mohanlal and Prakash Raj but also features an excellent début from Aishwarya Rai.

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The film opens with the young Anandan (Mohanlal) looking for acting work and finally achieving his dream of becoming a film hero assisted by his friend Tamilchelvam (Prakash Raj).  The initial meeting of the two men typifies their characters.  Anandan doesn’t always seem to understand or agree with everything the poet Tamilchelvam says but he is impressed by the man’s obvious sincerity and self-belief, and asks Tamilchelvam to write his dialogues for him.  Anandan is a simplistic man who just wants a good paying job so that he can look after his mother, while Tamilchelvam is more idealistic and wants to use his words to change the world.

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As Anandan’s star is rising in the film industry, Tamilchelvam continues to work as a screenwriter although he also becomes active in a Dravidian social party led by Velu Annachi (Nasser).  At the same time the two friends get married although Anandan is tricked by his mother into tying the knot with a local girl Pushpa (Aishwarya Rai) while Tamilchelvam marries Maragatham (Revathy), a girl approved for him by his political leader.  Despite their inauspicious beginnings, Anandan rapidly falls in love with Pushpa’s lively innocence and charm, although he leaves her with his mother when he goes back to work.  Tamilchelvam on the other hand spouts speeches about equality in marriage on his wedding night while Maragatham is more traditional and superstitious which doesn’t bode well for their future together.

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This song intersperses a romantic film song featuring Madhoo in a guest appearance with scenes from Anandan’s marriage presumably suggesting that the real-life relationship was as idyllic as the fairy-tale filmi romance.

As their careers progress, Anandan becomes a star, able to draw crowds although he doesn’t appreciate his popularity until it is forcibly shown to him by Tamilchelvam.  This is demonstrated in an excellent scene where Tamilchelvam takes Anandan up onto the roof to show him the hundreds of people waiting for a chance to catch a glimpse of the film star.  Anandan’s slow recognition of his fame is perfectly played by Mohanlal, but once he has recognised the fact, he knows how to work his popularity and make the most of it.  Anandan also joins Tamilchelvam’s political party, although he is looked on with suspicion by the other party members who feel that Anandan is using the party to further his film career, while Anandan feels that his film fame is being exploited by the party to pull in more voters.

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The contrasts between the two men are expertly illustrated in their interactions with each other and with the other characters.  The more idealistic and driven Tamilchelvam prints pamphlets and makes long inspiring speeches at political rallies while Anandan just declares that he wants everyone to be happy.  After Anandan’s first wife dies he marries his co-star Ramani (Gautami) almost by chance.  Ramani turns up on Anandan’s doorstep in distress, fleeing from her abusive uncle manager (Ravi) and since Anandan doesn’t seem to have much else happening that week he decides to marry Ramani to keep her out of her uncle’s clutches.  In contrast, Tamilchelvam sees Senthamarai (Tabu) at a political demonstration and arranges for her to come to Chennai to be his mistress.  Tamilchelvam is proactive and driven, and plans his life to realise his ambitions while Anandan is more reactive and laid-back, seeming to fall into his success by chance, although helped by his natural charm and talent.

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Aishwarya Rai has a double role and appears again as Kalpana, a new actress who works with Anandan despite his initial reservations, due to her resemblance to his first wife.  It’s an impressive performance from Aishwarya who is feisty and assured in complete contrast to her role as Pushpa.  She also looks gorgeous and the songs featuring her and Mohanlal are some of the highpoints in the film.  Kalpana is apparently based on Jayalitha, although seemingly only on her acting career,since the character doesn’t have any political aspirations in the film, and has an early and off-screen exit.

Iruvar seems to deal lightly with Anandan, using Tamilchelvan more as a contrast with the actor, although both men are treated fairly without any particular bias for one side over the other.  It’s a very human look at politics and the realities of power as these men, with their great ideals and desires to change the fate of the common man, still end up with similar policies to the previous party. Despite their eventual opposition in the political arena, Anandan and Tamilchelvan seem to be able to maintain their respect for each other, even as they battle to keep power.  Their relationship is complex and often threatened by the actions and opinions of others but both characters keep true to their basic personality, which ensures the friendship appears realistic. Mohanlal is superb as Anandan using his facial expressions to wring every possible emotion out of every scene.  He is often understated and conveys his emotions very simply but with great effect.  Prakash Raj is just as good as Tamilchelvam and his evolution from passionate young activist to elder statesman is perfectly portrayed.  The two combine together to make every moment they are on screen absolute gold. Santosh Sivan’s excellent cinematography also helps the film stand out with good use of camera angles to capture the large party rally’s contrasted with the more intimate scenes.

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I read that there was opposition to the film’s release (as might be expected given the reputations of both MGR and Karunanidhi) and certainly Iruvar has suffered at the hands of the censors.  A number of apparently stirring political speeches are muted partway through by loud music, and judging by the sudden jumps in the screenplay, a few seem to have been cut altogether.  But the relationship between the two men still comes across clearly and Mani Ratnam has drawn every possible nuance of their association in exquisite detail.  The censorship is interesting given that at one point Anandan makes a film which apparently portrays Tamilchelvam’s party in a negative light.  Tamilchelvam’s response is one that I’m sure all film-makers and reasoning adults would like to hear from more governments, particularly considering the recent issues surrounding Vishwaroopam.

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The music and songs by A.R. Rahman are of a high quality and vary in style to illustrate the different cinematic eras encompassed by the film, although the time frame is never explicitly stated.  These range from the jazzy and more upbeat songs pictured on Kalpana to the more traditional and classically driven song Narumugayie.  Farah Khan was the choreographer which is probably another reason why the songs all work so well with all the dancers in sync.  This is probably one of my favourites as Aishwarya sparkles on the screen while Anandan and Ramani watch in the cinema. Anandan’s face as he realises Kalpana’s resemblance to his dead wife is a study in shock, horror and sheer disbelief while his wife is totally oblivious to his reaction.

Iruvar is a fascinating story about two very influential men, made even more absorbing by its basis on real people.  Although the censorship cuts do make some of the underlying details more difficult to follow, especially for those (like myself) who don’t know the true story, that doesn’t detract from the compelling nature of the relationship between these two giants of Tamil film and political history. Entertainment and education all in one – perfect! 4 ½ stars.