Super Deluxe

Super Deluxe

Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe is a significant step up from his previous film Aaranya Kaandam, aided by a sumptuous colour palette from P.S. Vinod and Nirav Shah, and the presence of a number of top actors from the South. Included are the likes of Vijay Sethupathi, Samantha, Fahadh Faasil, Ramya Krishnan and Mysskin but the newcomers are just as good and hold their own against the established stars. It’s an interesting story too, although after a good start the middle section does wander and become rather self-indulgent before ending with a stronger finale. It’s still a compelling watch, not just to discover what happens in the various threads, but also to spot influences, note the repeated motif’s and ultimately try to figure out just what Thiagarajan Kumararaja is trying to say. Super Deluxe isn’t for the faint-hearted – the language is strong and there are a number of confronting themes, but the juxtaposition of topical issues and out-and-out fantasy is intriguing even with a close to 3 hour run time.

The film consists of a number of different threads which don’t interconnect as such, but instead superficially intersect and occasionally influence each other. The first involves a cheating wife Vaembu (Samantha) and what happens when her husband Mugilan (Fahadh Faasil) discovers her infidelity when her lover has the bad taste to die during their lovemaking session. Next there are a group of schoolboys who arrange an elaborate plan to bunk school and watch porn movies. Their problems start when one of the four recognises his mother Leela (Ramya Krishnan) in the movie and the ripples from his subsequent actions have far-ranging consequences. Part of this sparks an existential crisis for Leela’s husband Dhanasekaran (Mysskin) who has become a faith healer after surviving the tsunami by holding on to a statue of Jesus. The other boys end up in trouble when they try to raise the funds to buy a new TV and end up in a truly out of this world experience. And then there is the story of Shilpa (Vijay Sethupathi), a transgender woman trying to reunite with the wife and young son she left behind many years before. It’s a fascinating blend of narratives and some of the stories work better than others. Or perhaps it’s more that some parts of each story are simply brilliant (and brilliantly simple), but then at times Thiagarajan Kumararaja and his co-writers seem to get carried away and try just that little too hard to be edgy and confrontational.

As well as a lot of swearing, there is a lot of sex in this film. Vaembu is first seen in bed with her lover, the teenage boys are obsessed with sex (although that’s not surprising) and there’s a creepy cop (Bagavathi Perumal) whose rapacious tendencies provide an important plot point in two of the stories. One of these is nasty but effective, while the other is too drawn out and staged to be convincing. In those parts where the film is subtle and suggests rather than shows, it is more chillingly real and packs more of a punch compared to the more filmi scenes with Vaembu, Mugilan and SI Berlin. Perhaps it’s a consequence of too many writers (Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K. Sekar and Thiagarajan Kumararaja are all credited with the screenplay), but Vaembu and Mugilan’s story is the least successful for me, despite fine performances from the two actors. Their relationship just doesn’t ring true and the characters are an odd mix of modern and traditional that doesn’t seem plausible. However, I appreciate that the fallen woman gets a shot at redemption and isn’t permanently tainted by her infidelity. Something which is also the case with Leela who is proud of her film achievements and sees no reason to disavow her presence in a porn movie. It is refreshingly different even if at times there is a feeling that some of the dialogue has been written by grubby little boys sitting and sniggering at the mere mention of sex. That may be more to do with the subtitles though as I have read a number of comments that some concepts weren’t translated accurately, particularly in respect to Ramya Krishnan’s character.

The most successful thread is that of Shilpa, and despite all the issues around a cis male actor playing a trans woman, Vijay Sethupathi is much more here than just a man in a wig. The issues here feel true to life, shocking as they are, as Shilpa tries to navigate a brief visit to her son’s school and faces prejudice and abuse at almost every turn. Ashwanth Ashokkumar is outstanding as her son Rasukutty and although Gayathrie has very little screen-time as the abandoned wife, she makes a strong impact as her facial expressions say so much more than any dialogue could possibly manage. Vijay transforms himself yet again and adds many layers and nuances to his character, alternating between comedy and tragedy but still providing a sense of the underlying weakness that drove Shilpa to abandon her family.

The first half has a lot of well-written comedy but immediately after the interval the film shifts into more serious territory. The pace is also more uneven in the second half, and the labyrinthine feeling of diving down a rabbit hole, so well done in the first half, falters as the frenetic pace slows. There is still a lot going on though, and with the richness of the visuals the film at times becomes almost overwhelming. There are close-ups of ants running up and down a door frame for example – the implication initially seems fairly straight forward, but is it really? There are so many questions and possible explanations for even the simplest shot and it seems that every single part of the set could have a secondary meaning. This is a film that I think does need multiple viewings, and I’m sure that I will see more detail each time.

There are plenty of film references here too – to both Indian and Western films and probably a lot more cultural references that completely passed me by. Despite the variability in the second half this is definitely a film that I’d recommend for the sumptuous visuals, excellent performances and intricate story. Thiagarajan Kumararaja has built a complex world that tries to encompass the natural, unnatural and everything in between. The best part about Super Deluxe is that he so very nearly succeeds.

 

Thupparivaalan

Thupparivaalan

And he’s back! Mysskin has returned with a murder/mystery thriller which has more commercial elements than his previous films Yutham Sei and Anjathey, but still features plenty of his distinctive style. Thupparivaalan has more than a passing nod to the recent Sherlock Holmes films and Mysskin acknowledges these influences in his opening credits, but this is still a very Indian take on the detective genre. Vishal is excellent as the quirky investigator trying to solve the mystery of a dead dog, but Prasanna is just as good as the trusty sidekick, while the twists and turns of the story keep the film engaging right to the end. This still isn’t your standard mass fare despite some excellent fight scenes and the odd explosion or two, so expect to engage those little grey cells while enjoying the overall spectacle.

The film opens with a couple of quick deaths before switching to a frenetic Kaniyan Poongundran (Vishal) dashing around his apartment in a tizz as he hasn’t had an engrossing case for a while. Kani has a distinctive sense of style that extends from his fashion sense to the furnishing of his apartment. One wall is a huge bookshelf and there are copies of paintings by Vermeer and Degas that work their way into the narrative, while the wing chairs and comfy sofas evoke images of English country homes and roaring fireplaces. Kani himself doesn’t step outside without his cravat and jaunty cap, but it’s not just what he wears, but his movements and decisive walk that are part of his overall look. Kaniyan has principles too – he knocks back a huge fee for finding a businessman’s lost daughter as he reasons out what has happened and thinks the father will react badly to her return. Instead he accepts a commission from a young boy who brings his pocket-money to fund an investigation into the death of his pet dog.

It’s not long before Kani has linked the dead dog to the murders from the opening scenes, and along with his associate Manohar (Prasanna) he cajoles, bribes and deceives his way to the information he needs. Eventually the police invite him on to the case and with their help Kani and Mano start to find a more devious plot than they first imagined.

Mysskin still has an obsession with feet, and many of the shots are from ground level, but to add a new perspective, Kani has a height obsession and prefers to sit at the top of his bookcase ladder. As always with Mysskin films the staging and dressing of each scene are just as important as the protagonists and the action taking place. At one point Kani and Mano speak to Mrs Dhivakar (Simran) whose husband and young son were killed by a lightning strike and we see her in profile reflected in a mirror that’s reflected in a mirror and so on. It’s a poignant view of her pain that is very effective, and this is just one brief moment in a film filled with such insights. There are layers upon layers and I know it will take repeated viewings to pick up every detail Mysskin has managed to place throughout the movie.

There is a sort of romance too. Mano falls foul of some pickpockets in a subway that ends up with Kani taking them on as a kind of project. The eldest is Mallika (Anu Emmanuel) who is trying to look out for the rest of her siblings and protect them from an abusive uncle. In a shockingly brutal scene Kani employs Mallika as a housekeeper, and it’s hard to decide if her smile after being thrown to the floor is because she is accepting of the abuse or because she understands the implication of Kani’s strong reaction to her presence. However, Mallika’s green tea isn’t any more acceptable to Kani than Mano’s attempts and while Mallika obviously has feelings for Kani, he doesn’t reciprocate until it’s too late. Perhaps as compensation Mysskin adds a strong female character on the other side (Andrea Jeremiah), who is intolerant of harassment and perfectly capable of fighting her own battles, and for the most part Kani’s treatment of Mallika is no different to how he treats the rest of the world.

The villains in this case are a particularly nasty group of assassins for hire led by the uncompromising Devil (Vinay). Over breakfast it’s casually revealed that there is a body in the fridge, while Mysskin adds beautiful soaring violin music to a scene where Devil uses a chainsaw to dissect a corpse. I also wondered about the significance of Devil’s choice of beverage as coffee, which always appears drinkable, compared to Kani’s green tea which rarely seems acceptable. Such are the thoughts that go with any Mysskin film where every small detail may be important. Or possibly not – and that’s what keeps you hooked every time!

The gang’s actions are chilling, mainly due to the matter of fact and almost casual approach to their brutality, and their lack of emotion as they carry out their crimes. They kill a child with no apparent remorse, the death of Muthu (K. Bhagyaraj) is particularly grotesque and a scene that involves seppuku is frighteningly authentic. In contrast, Kani and Mano have a warm friendship despite Kani often racing ahead of Mano in the deductive process, and neither are afraid to make mistakes in their search for answers or become emotionally involved in the outcome.

The action too is well executed. There are a number of fight scenes that mainly feature hand to hand fighting but here again Mysskin veers away from the norm. In a restaurant brawl, none of the tables or chairs are broken despite the knife-wielding assassins being thrown around the room. Another in an abandoned room with hanging shreds of fabric is as beautiful as any choreographed ballet with clever use of the space. The final scenes though are gory enough for any SI film aficionado, but here too Mysskin ensures there is a puzzle that needs to be solved before we can reach the final climax.

The film focuses heavily on the lead pair of Vishal and Prasanna and they work brilliantly together – just as well as Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional Holmes and Watson. Mysskin has caught the nuances of Holmes/Watson relationship perfectly here and the two actors buy into it superbly. There is emotion, comedy, drama and plenty of excitement as they work together, with Kani always that ten steps ahead of his friend. Vinay is an effective antagonist too, and he delivers an excellent performance as a heartless killer for hire. The rest of the cast, including such veterans as Jayaprakash and Thalaivasal Vijay, all fit well into their roles with John Vijay particularly good as the sleazy Kamalesh. Anu Emmanuel doesn’t have a big role to play but she manages to give her character a reasonable presence in the limited amount of screen time she has and generally does a good job. Everything else is as meticulously crafted as expected with excellent cinematography from Karthik Venkatraman showing a keen eye for the detail of each scene. There are no songs in the film but the background music from Arrol Corelli is evocative and fits well with the narrative without overpowering the action.

Thupparivaalan is an excellent return to form for Mysskin and I’m really hoping that it’s the start of a franchise of Kani and Mano films as recently reported. Although Vishal produced the film, this is definitely Mysskin’s show and he’s managed to deliver a rather more commercial film without losing any of his trademark style. This is stylish, clever and packed full of detail while still remaining a visual feast. I really enjoyed Thupparivaalan and thoroughly recommend watching for Vishal, Prasanna and trademark Mysskin style.

Nandalala

Nandalala

I’m a big fan of Mysskin and have been slowing working my way through his earlier films whenever I can track them down on DVD. However I put Nandalala at the end of the queue, since it’s a change of direction from his more usual crime thrillers and didn’t sound like my cup of tea. But I should have known better. Nandalala is still very much a Mysskin film with a focus on the dark side of human nature, although this time there are some lighter moments scattered among the social commentary of the film. Even better, Mysskin himself makes an appearance in this film as one of the lead characters and does almost as good a job in front of the camera as he does on the other side.

Essentially Nandalala is a road-trip film with a young boy and a mental patient who has escaped from an asylum both searching for their mother, although their reasons for doing so are very different. Aside from their own journeys, both physical and metaphorical, along the way they meet up with an interesting mix of characters that serve to illustrate the joys and the difficulties of life in rural India. Although it does move at a slow pace, perhaps to go along with the walking pace of the journey, Nandalala is a beautiful film with a heartfelt screenplay and is very well worth a watch.

The story opens with Akhilesh, commonly known as Agi (Ashwath Ram), waiting outside his school. There are 15 seconds of silence while other pupils and their parents’ stream past his downcast head, which is an incredibly effective way to describe his isolation and give a general idea of his circumstances. When Agi does walk home, it’s to a greedy servant and his blind grandmother, both of whom need him for their own reasons. While it’s obvious he doesn’t live in abject poverty, there is little affection and no joy in Agi’s life. His most precious possession is a photograph of himself with his mother as a baby and he takes advantage of a school trip to set off on a journey to find her. Agi seems well prepared with his mother’s address, her photograph and a relatively full wallet, but he doesn’t have any real idea about how to find her. Just to make matters worse he is robbed in the local town and left without the means to buy anything let alone a bus ticket to Annaivayal. His journey seems to be over before it has started but he chances to meet up with Bhaskar Mani (Mysskin), a mentally disabled man who has escaped from an asylum and is trying to find his own mother. Bhaskar is searching for answers, wanting to know why his mother abandoned him to the mercies of the hospital staff and has never visited or contacted him. Despite their many differences, they make a good team as they travel together to find their respective mothers.

In many ways Agi is a typical young boy from a small town. He’s had a sheltered existence and his innocence and loving nature colour his approach to everyone he meets on the road. He is accepting of Bhaskar and his mannerisms, but still manages to become exasperated when Bhaskar does something particularly unhelpful, although this doesn’t change the easy partnership the two share. Ashwath Ram is excellent and plays his part perfectly throughout. His eagerness and excitement as he runs around the village searching for his mother is infectious, while his emotional ups and downs are natural and feel very honest. Agi’s guileless approach to life and his innate practicality are perhaps a little unlikely given his upbringing, but they do mirror a similar innocence and matter-of-fact abruptness in his companion.

Mysskin is surprisingly good as Bhaskar, although he does have a tendency to overact and occasionally over-emphasise some of Bhaskar’s obsessive mannerisms. Initially when in the asylum he continually runs his hand along the wall or the bars beside him in a behaviour pattern that fits well with his character’s mental disabilities, but some of his later actions seem more contrived and don’t fit as well with his mental health issues. However, he does an excellent job of portraying a child-like innocence that has an effect on everyone he meets, and if his sudden rationality at some points seems rather opportune, his moments of insanity never become too over-the-top.

The film is at it’s best when it relies on the situations the two companions find themselves in to drive the narrative, ably assisted by Ilayaraaja’s absolutely beautiful background music. There is little dialogue to draw attention away from the body language, which is much more expressive than any long speeches could ever be, and the songs are equally effective in adding depth and emotion to the film. This is a beautifully sad song that contrasts with the happy attitude of Agi and Bhaskar’s mood swings and general instability. Just perfect.

Snigdha Akolkar appears in the second half as a working prostitute whose presence adds rationality to the story. Initially she is understandably annoyed with Bhaskar and Agi when they drive away her paying customer but later events lead to Anjali accompanying the two on their quest. Her presence allows a glimpse of a softer side to Bhaskar, and gives Agi the opportunity to be just a little boy searching for his mother. It’s a powerful role despite the short screen time and Snigdha is excellent, particularly when she allows glimpses of her characters emotional fragility to escape her seemingly strong and confident presence. Nasser and Rohini also appear in small but very effective roles, and the rest of the supporting cast are all uniformly excellent and perfectly understated.

As with most Mysskin films, there are plenty of odd angles and shots of feet. This is very effective during Agi’s desperate search for his mother but also works to draw attention to the journey itself and the miles walked by Agi and Bhaskar. Mahesh Muthuswami adds his expert touch to make the countryside look sumptuous, whether it’s the plants along the roadside, the luscious green fields or the buildings and villages along the route. It is a beautiful part of the countryside, although Mysskin also points out the shady characters and quick violence that lurks amongst the idyllic scenery.

Nandalala is much better than I expected from the brief description on the DVD. It’s difficult to describe just how emotive the film is without revealing too much of the plot, but as it’s a Tamil film it’s probably obvious that there is no happy ending – or at least not completely. However the film is all about the journey and the relationship between Bhaskar and Agi, and from that point of view it is a resounding success. Mysskin excels in adding small details, such as Bhaskar’s stolen shoes that he wears back to front, that add depth and interest to his story and characters. I love this film just as much as his thrillers and am impressed that Bhaskar can turn his hand to such a different style of story so competently. It’s also commendable that he has not only written and directed the film but also acted in a major role without stealing the limelight or making it all about ‘Bhaskar’s story’. It’s probably not for everyone; there is no ‘action’, no comedy track and no big dance number, but the simple emotions and finely nuanced performances make this one for fans of more character driven cinema. 4½ stars.