Sangathamizhan

Vijay Chandar’s latest film starts out as a spoof comedy, but ends up as a fairly run-of-the-mill mass entertainer by way of a tired romance and routine ‘villain versus the villagers’ plot. Vijay Sethupathi is always watchable, even in this clichéd action adventure, but the rest of the cast get short-changed by the screenplay, having little to do except either adore or loathe the lead character. There is plenty of action, comedy and even Vijay Sethupathi dancing, but by the end there really is little that makes Sangathamizhan stand out from the rather large pool of similar films.

The opening scene of the film typifies much of the first half. It’s a jumble of mass action and hero-centric plot with a mixed bag of comedy that generally works better than the dramatic dialogue. As aspiring actor Murugan, Vijay Sethupathi has a classic hero entrance before single-handedly reducing a gang of villains to groaning bodies on the floor, while his friend Soori (Soori) cracks a few jokes and performs the usual slapstick side-kick role. It works to some extent as neither Vijay nor Soori seem to be taking any of the dialogue seriously and there are a lot of sideways glances and self-referential jokes in the opening sequences. But the inclusion of a college girl who needs to be rescued from rape, some tasteless jokes about a group of prostitutes and rather humdrum action make this rather more cringeworthy than it needed to be, particularly for the start of the film.

The first half also includes a woeful romance with a truly terrible introduction scene for Kamalini (Raashi Khanna). Murugan crashes Kamalini’s birthday party and then proceeds to scold her for being so generous as to provide him with a free drink at the bar. Somehow this is supposed to make her intrigued by Murugan rather than acting as most women would in this situation and just calling for the bouncer to kick him out of the nightclub. At no point does the love affair between the rich industrialist’s daughter and out-of-work actor seem plausible despite the clichéd and formulaic development of the relationship. The only good thing about their romance is the inclusion of the upbeat and jaunty Kamala (which features men in colourful tutus as backing dancers), even though it doesn’t fit into the narrative at all. In fact, generally the music from Viviek-Mervin is excellent throughout, while the lyrics are beautifully translated by rekhs, who doesn’t just translate the words but makes the lyrics rhyme and scan perfectly. Why doesn’t everyone do this instead of providing literal translations that make absolutely no sense at all?

The plot begins with a courtroom scene where a group of villagers are trying to prevent a copper processing plant from opening in their area. The land appears to have been acquired illegally and for a change the judge seems to be on the villagers’ side, giving the developer just a few weeks to come up with evidence to prove that the factory won’t be a health risk to the villagers. This all becomes much clearer in the second half, which moves into flashback mode to explain the fight between the owner of the copper factory, Kamalini’s father (Ravi Kishan) and the village headman Devarajan (Nassar). Also drawn into the fight is the local politician (Ashutosh Rana) and the rest of Devraj’s family, including his son Sangathamizhan (Vijay Sethupathi).

The tone of the second half is much darker than the first, and from a frivolous romance comedy, it changes into a more dramatic action film. This disconnect between the two halves of the film is jarring as the shift happens suddenly (there is no interval given in Australia) and the mood change is relatively extreme.  Despite this, the second half is actually significantly better since it also includes Nivetha Pethuraj as Thenmozhi, Thamizhan’s romantic interest. Thenmozhi is a better realised character than Kamalini, despite her short time on-screen, with sharper dialogues and actions that actually make sense. Nivetha also has a good on-screen chemistry with Vijay in the romantic scenes between the two characters, which is a significant improvement on the lacklustre interactions he has with Raashi Khanna in the first half. The love story here is also more plausible, making me wonder why so much time was wasted earlier in the film, when the second half has a more convincing story, sharper action and generally improved performances from the entire cast. The main downside is Ravi Kishan’s rather anaemic villain who just doesn’t seem evil or ruthless enough, and Kamalini’s rather bizarre justification for accepting her father’s final fate.

The glue that manages to hold the entire film together (just) is Vijay Sethupathi and his frequent knowing nods to the camera seem to signify that he finds the entire story just as ridiculous as the audience. At times the film dips closely towards satire and throughout the first half I kept thinking that Vijay Chandar was trying to poke fun at the mass genre. But then the second half moves quickly towards more serious topics and the jokes dry up, along with Soori’s virtual disappearance from the screen as the film moves into more straight-up action territory. It doesn’t quite gel there either however as there is too much baggage hanging around from the first half that acts as a distraction. The two characters, Murugan and Thamizhan are also very similar which further undermines the dramatic ‘reveal’ of the finale. The positives are the music, Vijay Sethupathi and rekhs excellent subtitles, but otherwise this is a rather pedestrian and predictable outing that is really one only for fans.

Bombay

Bombay is the second of Mani Ratnam’s ‘terrorist trilogy’, and is the one that I find the most disturbing. I remember the news reports from the real-life events that happened in Bombay in 1992 which are recreated here in authentic detail, and I find the violence here more confronting and realistic, despite a rather romanticised ending. In Bombay, Mani Ratnam juxtaposes a ‘forbidden’ romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman with the Bombay riots to create a compelling and disturbing look at the religious divide in India. The film shows how prejudice can drive extreme acts of hatred but also includes the counter ideals of selflessness and acceptance with an almost fairy-tale spin on good and evil. It’s another stunning film from Mani Ratnam that still makes an impact to-day and along with A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack deserves all the awards and recognition that it has achieved over the years since its 1995 release.

The story starts with Shekhar (Arvind Swami) returning home to visit his family in a river-side village in Tamil Nadu. Just as Shekhar arrives he sees Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) and instantly he falls in love. Luckily the attraction is mutual and despite their different religions, a romance begins to grow between the two. Shekhar has been studying journalism in Bombay, which gives him a city sophistication and an intolerance for his father’s prejudiced views. Narayanan Pillai (Nassar) is a devout Hindu whose worst fear seems to be that his son will marry a bride from the North of India, since he is unable to imagine the horror of a daughter-in-law from a different religion. Shaila’s family is just as appalled by the thought of Shekhar and her father Basheer (Kitty) quickly arranges a marriage for his wayward daughter when he finds out about the affair. The clandestine nature of the romance allows for some beautiful camera work from Rajiv Menon and we also get the beautiful Kannalanae as Shaila spots Shekhar at a wedding.

I’ve read that Mani Ratnam wanted these scenes to be beautiful as a contrast to events in the second half, and I find it interesting that his idea of beauty is in the wind and rain that are a constant presence in the village. For me, accustomed to the weather in Ireland, I’d thought that this was supposed to represent the cold attitude of the two families to the romance until I read Baradwaj Rangan’s interview with Mani Ratnam. In Ireland, wind and rain is always cold and miserable, but since visiting Tamil Nadu I can appreciate why gusts of wind and showers of rain would be beautiful in a hot and often dry landscape. Despite knowing this, I still feel chilled when I see the wind whipping Shaila’s veil and skirt around, while the crashing waves and constant rain strike me as cold and gloomy even though I can appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

At the same time, coming from Northern Ireland, where it was just as taboo for a Catholic and a Protestant to start a relationship, I can really relate to the problem faced by Shekhar and Shaila; another reason why I find this film so confronting. The attitudes and expectations of society resonate closely to my own experiences growing up surrounded by religious intolerance and I am always thankful that my own family had a more progressive attitude. It does mean that I can understand their predicament here, and to some extent why their families are so worried as well. Beyond their own antipathy to the relationship there is the worry that society will condemn both Shaila and Shekhar, leading to ostracism and a continual risk to their safety.

With their families at loggerheads, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay. They quickly get married and before long have two twin boys Kabir Narayan (Master Harsha) and Kamal Basheer (Master Hriday). The boys are named for their respective grandfathers but are brought up in both religions, while Shekhar and Shaila are easily accepted in their neighbourhood despite their ‘mixed’ marriage. But when the Babri Masjid is demolished and riots break out across Bombay, the boys are lost in the city alone. They are caught by a gang of men who terrorise the children, pouring petrol over them and starting to set them alight in a shocking scene full of religious intolerance and hatred. These are two young boys with no idea what religion is, let alone the differences between Hindus and Muslims, and with their brutalisation, Mani Ratnam exposes the full horror of the riots and the absolute inhumanity of the rioters.

While relations between the communities in Bombay are breaking down, Narayanan and Basheer have gradually turned their enmity into a guarded tolerance, so when both travel to Bombay in the wake of the December riots, they are able to live with Shekhar and Shaila without too much trouble. As the violence continues in the city, their relationship continues to improve as they realise the extremism and intolerance doesn’t reflect either of their own beliefs.

Some of the most powerful scenes here show Shekhar interviewing the religious and political leaders and asking them when the riots will stop, but no-one seems able or even willing to try and bring peace. As riots again grip the city and neighbourhoods are set on fire, the family is torn apart once more with Shekhar and Shaila left to tour the hospitals and mortuaries in their search for Kabir and Kamal. Meanwhile the boys find kindness from unlikely places as Bombay slowly begins to return to normal.

The film has graphic scenes of the violence and does not spare the audience any of the horror associated with the riots and the aftermath. The scene of bodies in the morgue is particularly bleak, even though Mani Ratnam doesn’t explicitly show grieving families – he doesn’t need to. The anguish and despair come through clearly as Shekhar staggers through room after room of bodies, men women and children, Hindu and Muslim, all mixed together, in a terrible reminder that this is the real cost of the riots. Although some of the scenes here do feel rather contrived, such as when Shekhar confronts two of his friends who are fighting on opposite sides, many more appear authentic, painting a picture of neighbour against neighbour with the main casualties being the innocent bystanders. When the police enter the picture (including Prakash Raj as Inspector Kumar) the level of violence seems to jump yet again, and the images of Kabir and Kamal hiding from the authorities are powerful reminders of the political aspects to these events.

The romance is beautifully told with plenty of symbolism in the images of sheets of rain separating Shekhar from his family, and Shaila losing her abaya as she runs towards Shekhar and freedom. The second half is brutally realistic but still has beautiful scenes of the family together and the developing relationship between Narayanan and Basheer. Rajiv Menon’s cinematography is excellent and A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack perfectly complements the visuals while Raju Sundaram and Prabhu Deva ensure that the dance numbers are equally spectacular.

Arvind Swami is excellent in a role that requires him to switch from a love-struck young man to a desperate and terrified one as he searches the streets for his children. His emotions are clear and easy to read, particularly in the second half when he begins to realise the political manipulations that are behind the riots. His fear and desperation as he searches for his children are frighteningly realistic while his disgust at the politicians, religious leaders and the rioters themselves also comes across well. Manisha Koirala too is wonderful in her role, and brings plenty of emotion to her character at every stage. Although she looks fragile, her character has plenty of determination and a fierce capacity to fight back when necessary. I love her performance here as she conveys so much without words, letting her expression say everything instead. The support cast are all good too, and Nassar and Kitty steal the show whenever they are on screen together. Their initial animosity and then gradual acceptance help to ground the film and stop it becoming too overly emotional as well as providing some mild comedy that also helps to lighten the atmosphere.

Overall, Bombay is a beautifully made film that takes on both a societal issue and a horrific subject to make strong and compelling political and social statements. Mani Ratnam does hammer home the manipulation message rather forcefully, and the final scenes are a little too simplistic, especially after all the drama that has come before, but despite these few issues, the film still delivers a powerful message that continues to resonate, even all these years later. It’s a disturbing film but that’s what makes it such essential viewing. Highly recommended. 4 ½ stars.

Article 15

Article 15

As the opening scenes scrolled across the screen, my first thought was that Anubhav Sinha’s drama was a period piece, but it didn’t take long to realise that the shocking events portrayed are straight out of today’s newspapers. The old-fashioned cars and equally archaic attitudes seem to be a blast from the past, but the reality is that the attitudes and events portrayed in the film are occurring every day, and not just in India either. The film follows new IPA officer Ayan Ranjan as he investigates the disappearance of three girls in a village in Uttar Pradesh. The police are disinterested, largely because the girls are from a lower caste and there is little incentive for them to solve the crime. On the contrary, once two of the girls are found hanging from a tree, there appears to be more gain in framing the girls’ fathers rather than risking their corrupt allies in a full-blown investigation. With an excellent cast, insightful dialogue and an uncomfortable and confronting storyline, Article 15 is a challenging depiction of the problems faced by a large number of people every day of their lives.

Ayan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) is a young IPA officer posted to Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh, where he is taking over from the retiring long-term incumbent. The film opens with Ayan in his sleek car travelling smoothly towards Lalgaon while he chats on the phone to his girlfriend Aditi (Isha Talwar). He mentions the clean air and how beautiful the countryside is while his driver relates tales from folklore, but his arrival at the village quickly plunges Ayan back into real life. Outside of the cocoon of his car, Lalgaon is far outside Ayan’s previous experience. This is an area where Ayan’s privileged upbringing works against him, where he doesn’t understand the social hierarchy or how deeply local prejudice is entrenched, and where his principles that probably seemed so straight forward in the city, suddenly have to deal with the day-to-day reality of life in rural India. The soundtrack over Ayan’s arrival is Bob Dylan’s blowing in the wind – the words make sense once you realise that this experience will either be the making of Ayan, or it will leave him disillusioned and broken. Either way, he will understand what kind of a man he really is.

Ayan is at loggerheads with the senior police officer Bhramadatt (Manoj Pahwa) almost immediately as the police brush off the families of the missing girls. Gaura’s (Sayani Gupta) sister is one of those the missing and she is able to convince Ayan of the seriousness of the situation, explaining that the missing teenagers had gone to ask for a wage rise of 3 rupees. Ayan is sure that something sinister has happened, but he is hindered by his lack of understanding of the caste system and of how it affects everything in the small community. For him it’s simple: the girls are missing – register the case. But for the police who have to live in the community while senior officers come and go, it’s more about balancing the different factions and appeasing those who are willing and able to pay their bribes. The girls are simply too low in the social order to warrant any notice and worse still, their lives are considered disposable and therefore of no value. The situation gets worse when the bodies of two of the girls are found the next morning and the autopsy shows they had both been raped. Bhramadatt tries to intimidate the doctor (Ronjini Chakraborty) but Ayan gets to her first and manages to secure her support for an investigation which becomes ever more dangerous, eventually leading to Ayan’s suspension and own investigation by CBA officer Panikar (Nassar).

Ayan’s gradual realisation of the true consequences of casteism and the deeply ingrained prejudices is one of the key points of the film. He arrives in Lalgaon aware that issues of caste and inequality exist as abstract injustices that he has read about but which have never touched him personally. But being drawn into the hunt for the men who have raped and murdered the girls, leads Ayan to new realisations and opens his eyes to the hierarchical squabbles all around. Gaura provides Ayan with the information that he needs to begin to understand the deep social divide, while conversations with Jatav (Kumud Mishra), a police officer who himself is a Dalit, and Gaura’s partner, revolutionary leader Nishad (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), provide further insights. Nishad is the villagers champion, well-educated and articulate, but unable to gain any ground with the authorities dues to his low caste status. Jatav on the other hand believes in working with the system but is hampered by his colleagues’ inability to see past his low social status.

While Ayan conducts his investigation, events in the background echo real events and provide further evidence of prejudice and discrimination. One of the local politicians is attempting increase his supporter base and gain the Dalit vote by supporting a Brahmin-Dalit alliance. But there is no real benefit for the villagers in his proposed plans and Nishad and his supporters see the alliance as a betrayal of the community rights, leading to clashes and a Dalit strike. This gives one of the most memorable and effective scenes in the film that drives home the truly terrible working conditions for these people. As the strike takes hold the sewage in the police station starts to back up and overflow into the streets. As Ayan arrives one morning, there is a geyser of foul brown water fountaining up into the police yard, which resolves into a man surfacing from the drain with a load of the sewage material that has been blocking drainage. After dumping this he resubmerges. I just couldn’t believe that someone would have to do such a dangerous job without a protective suit, breathing apparatus and a safety line. Honestly, for me this is the most horrific and confronting scene in the film – even more shocking that the hanging bodies of the girls and the later revelations about their murder – mostly because no-one even seems to notice that this man is risking his life in such terrible conditions just to clean out a drain. With this one scene Anubhav Sinha seems to have captured everything that is wrong with the current system, and the murders are simply the extra dressing on the top.

What I like is that Ayan isn’t the all-conquering hero who storms in and solves the issue while the locals watch on dumb-founded. He makes mistakes and at times seems completely clueless about what is happening. It’s the local people who have the knowledge and impetus to find out what happened, Ayan just provides them with an authority to work under and a framework for the investigation. I also like that no-one is pictured as being all good or all bad, but simply as normal people who have their own share of faults (although perhaps Bhramadatt really is just evil!). With Article 15, Anubhav Sinha seems intent on educating his audience, pointing out just how the atrocities we read about can happen when human life is held so cheaply. But at the same time he’s not accusatory nor is he preaching, but rather simply pointing out what is, and then letting us judge these problems for ourselves. Ewan Mulligan’s excellent cinematography adds atmosphere and although Mangesh Dhakde’s background score is at times overly intrusive, for the most part the music is effective.

As someone who has only ever seen India’s caste system from the outside and who has no real understanding of the societal problems, this film is a real eye opener. The everyday situations I have seen when working in medical camps are explained so clearly here, and perhaps this film should be required viewing for anyone planning to travel to India. There is mysticism here along with the undeniable beauty of the countryside that sits uneasily beside filth, corruption and pollution. But the real triumph is in the depiction of the different characters who represent the broad spectrum of society and illustrate that there is some good and some bad in us all. A powerful and well-made film, Article 15 is not easy viewing but it is memorable and incredibly effective in getting its point across. Highly recommended for excellent performances and for shining a light on real social problems that have no easy answers.