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.

Yennai Arindhaal

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Gautham Menon’s third and final instalment in his ‘police trilogy’ has a more complex and interesting storyline than the previous two films, although there is still plenty of action and more than a few thrills. This time Menon focuses more on relationships, using these to define top cop Sathyadev (Ajith) and his reactions to various events throughout his life. One of the most important is Sathyadev’s relationship with Victor (Arun Vijay), a thug who ends up running an illegal organ trade, and who has a significant history with Sathyadev. Gautham Menon plays with the similarities between the two men who seem polar opposites but in reality have much in common despite sitting on opposing sides of a thin line.  There is also his relationship with his step-daughter Eesha (Anikha Surendran),  Eesha’s mother Hemanika (Trisha Krishnan) and right at the start, his relationship with his father (Nasser) whose murder is the starting point for that thin line.

The film starts by introducing Thenmozhi (Anushka Shetty), a smart modern woman who works as a software engineer. On a flight back from Boston to visit her sister, Thenmozhi ends up sitting beside a man she describes as the most gorgeous she has ever seen, but since she spends most of the flight vomiting into a sick bag it isn’t the most auspicious of meetings.  Her flight companion is Sathyadev, who is there to protect Thenmozhi from a kidnap attempt from the gang of organ thieves, although she doesn’t discover this until later. Somehow Thenmozhi’s heart has been identified as a perfect match for one of the gang’s clientele and a team of dodgy doctors are ready and waiting to perform the surgery just as soon as they can get their hands on her. Sathyadev’s old rival Victor is leading the gang and the film moves into flashback mode to explain the enmity between the two men and Sathyadev’s involvement in the current case.

The flashback goes right back to the murder of Sathyadev’s father, a moment where he had to decide which path to follow and on which side of the line to fall. The possibilities were there – to become a gangster and seek revenge, or to become a police officer and seek justice. No prizes for guessing which way Sathyadev decided to go, or that the very next scene sees him in jail. Of course all is not as it seems. While inside, Sathyadev becomes friends with Victor and the two escape together allowing Victor to marry the love of his life Lisa (Parvathy Nair) and have a jolly good knees up at the wedding.

After Sathyadev reveals himself as a police officer who has only befriended Victor as a way to get to his boss Matthew (Stunt Selva), Victor is devastated at the double whammy of the betrayal and his bad judgement in trusting Sathyadev. Unfortunately Menon doesn’t spend much time establishing the character of Lisa, but from snippets later on, it’s clear that she is instrumental in much of Victor’s later actions and she has a passionate vendetta against Sathyadev. I really wanted to know more about Lisa and why she was so deeply involved in Victor’s wicked schemes, but she glossed over quickly and her motivation is sadly never explored. Victor too doesn’t get as much character development as I would have liked but since he is basically completely evil maybe there isn’t much else we needed to know. As the tension mounts and his schemes are thwarted by Sathyadev, Victor has a couple of excellent hissy fits that perfectly convey his frustration and anger. Although he doesn’t have much scope, Arun Vijay does a good job with the character of Victor and his screaming, spitting frustration boils off the screen in the final scenes.

Lisa is the love of Victor’s life, and as such is his greatest weakness. For Sathyadev, it’s Hemanika, a Bharatanatyam dancer he meets while working undercover as an auto driver. The romance between the two is sweet and develops slowly, allowing Sathyadev to show a more introspective and human side. Hemanika has a daughter, Eesha, and for all her modern outlook (divorced single mum) she’s strangely reluctant to believe that Sathyadev can really love another man’s daughter as his own. This part of the film is beautifully done and Trisha is superb as she expresses all of Hemanika’s hopes and fears for the relationship.  Her characterisation is subtle but effective and fits perfectly into this more emotive storyline.

Of course we know it’s not going to end well, and as events unfold Sathyadev is left to look after Eesha on his own. Rather than brushing this off as an inevitable consequence of the relationship and using Eesha purely as a bargaining tool against Sathyadev in the later scenes, Gautham Menon instead uses the developing relationship to give deeper insight into Sathyadev’s character. The way Sathya breaks the news of her mother’s death to Eesha is poignant and natural while the road trip the two take to allow Eesha to grieve for her mother is an excellent depiction of Sathyadev’s developing fatherhood, particularly when set against his memories of his own father. These two parts of the film, Sathyadev’s romance with Hemanika and the development of his relationship with Eesha are sweet and gentle and really should be out of place in a rough and tough cop drama, but their inclusion is perfectly done, and adds so much to Sathyadev’s characterisation that instead they feel essential to the story development. These are my favourite scenes in the film and Ajith is perhaps surprisingly good at showing this more tender side. I’m more used to his manic killer persona in films like Vedalam but he does an excellent job with a more introspective character here and is good at displaying compassion in his developing relationship with Eesha. Just as good is his frustration and helplessness as he tries to change to a desk job for her sake and realises he just can’t continue as a police officer if he wants to keep Eesha safe.

Perhaps the only misstep in the film is the character of Thenmozhi . Although she starts off as a strong and independent character, once she meets Sathyadev she seems to lose all reason and self-respect, propositioning him despite overhearing what appeared to be an intimate conversation he had with someone else. As the film progresses she becomes more and more of a doormat and seems to lose all of her gumption as the threat to her life increases. Anushka does the best she can but her character is too much a victim to allow much sympathy for her plight.

Along with the mostly excellent characterisations, the more mass elements of the film are also well done. The fight choreography works well and there is a good mix of different styles – knife fights, good old fisticuffs and a number of gun battles. Stunt Selva has cameo as the gangster Matthew and Gautham Menon himself pops up as a police intelligence officer. The film looks stunning too, and the cinematography by Dan Macarthur (an Aussie – yay!) is excellent, particularly during the scenes with Eesha and Sathyadev travelling around India. Harris Jayaraj’s music works well too and is a perfect soundtrack for some of the most poignant moments in the film, such as Eesha showing Thenmozhi her mother’s picture and Sathyadev braiding Eesha’s hair before she goes to school. A word too about Anikha Surendran who is very good as Eesha and conveys many emotions throughout the film simply and easily and perfectly suits the role of Sathyadev’s adopted daughter.

Yennai Arindhaal shows just how good an action thriller can be when there is more to the story than just the action. The characterisations are excellent and provide motive and the reason for Sathyadev and Victor to act the way they do. There is so much happening in this film and yet it is still the story of a cop and a villain and a plan to illegally harvest organs. Well written, well acted and beautifully put together this is definitely one to savour. 4½ stars.

Iru Mugan

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Vikram is on fine form playing a dual role in Anand Shankar’s latest action thriller, but the film is hampered by oddly placed songs, gaping plot holes and a meandering screenplay. There are some plus points – the action sequences are good, Nayanthara looks stunning and plays an interesting character, but none of it is quite enough to overcome the lack of suspense and surprising dullness of the storyline. Iru Mugan is a thriller without many thrills despite the best efforts of the cast, make-up department and stunt crew.

At least the start of the film is excellent. We see an old man queuing for a visa in the Indian Embassy in Malaysia, but rather than wait his turn, instead he uses a rather unique way of demanding attention. The result is classed as a terrorist attack against India and when the link is made between the pharmaceutically enhanced actions of the terrorist and über-villain Love, ex-RAW agent Akhilan Vinod (Vikram) is called back into service to discover exactly what is going on in Malaysia. Akhilan’s last action before he left RAW was to kill an illegal drug manufacturer by the name of Love (also Vikram), however Love is the chef suspect behind these latest attacks and Akhilan has a personal reason to find out if Love is really dead or not. Love was the man behind the death of Akhilan’s wife Meera (Nayanthara), although Akhilan has systematically slaughtered anyone else who was involved – hence the ‘retirement’ from active service.

Vikram’s Akhilan is a dour and haunted man with major anger management issues. He believes that violence is the answer to any problem no matter – whether he’s dealing with a suspect, a fellow agent or his boss. However, Malik (Nasser), head of RAW decides that his best option is to send Akhilan to Malaysia along with rookie agent Aayushi (Nithya Menen). So far so good, but Akhilan is the stereotypical ‘lone-wolf’ agent and displays every single hackneyed characteristic possible. Even worse, Aayushi is just as clichéd as a young inexperienced female agent. Her main role is to dress as a prostitute in order to get into a drug manufacturing lab. Really? That was the best option they could come up with? It’s trite, unoriginal and basically a complete waste of Nithya Menon’s acting skills.

Along with the frustration of watching a good actress in a badly written part, the first half suffers from a never-ending plague of flashbacks to Akhilan’s happier time with his wife. Unfortunately, these mainly occur as songs which act as effective speed breakers for the plot and completely destroy any tension that Anand Shankar has finally managed to build. The switch from drug labs and chemically enhanced violence to sundrenched beaches and Nayanthara in skimpy outfits is awkward and makes the film feel dated. Adding to this general late 90’s vibe is Thambi Ramaiah as a bumbling and inept Malaysian police officer and Riythvika as an exploited sex slave.

Vikram also plays the villain Love, a gay/transgender pharmacist who has managed to create a drug that gives superhuman strength and reaction time, but only for 5 minutes. Love is flamboyant and frequently feminine while maintaining his ruthless attitude and determination to cause mayhem with his invention. Although at the end of the day it’s the money that matters, selling the drug to terrorist organisations who will use it to attack governments worldwide is a bonus Love can’t pass up.

Despite all the clichés, it’s Vikram’s performance here as the two separate characters that makes Iru Mugan worth watching. The contrast between surly Akhilan and extravagantly ostentatious Love is excellent and although the two characters are somewhat extreme stereotypes, once both are together on-screen the deficiencies of each seems lessened. Perhaps this is where the ‘two faces’ of the titles comes in, since each character is ruthless in their own way and both are equally quick to jump to a lethal solution for any perceived problem. Nayanthara also makes an impression with her role as another RAW agent and does a good job with both her romantic and more action-orientated scenes, although her character would have better with just a little more depth. But then again Akhilan has very little backstory and Love even less, all of which adds to the scrappiness of the plot. It would have helped to have some idea how Love became such a genius pharmacist and why he decided to fuel international terrorism rather than turn his skills to more altruistic uses since there is a reason given for Akhilan’s excessive use of violence.

There are some more positives; the film looks slick and R.D. Rajasekhar makes the most of the Malaysian backdrop, both in the songs and for the chases through the city. Vikram’s transformation into Love is well done, and the fight choreography is impressive although it does get somewhat repetitive after a while. And although the placement could have been better and the picturisations a less abrupt change of pace, Harris Jayaraj’s songs are catchy and generally the soundtrack is good.

Overall Iru Mugan isn’t a terrible film, it’s just a lot duller than expected given the potential in the storyline. A drug that makes ordinary people into super-soldiers for 5 minutes should have made for a more exciting film than Anand Shankar ends up with here. Worth watching for Vikram, Nayanthara and the Malaysian backdrop, but go in prepared for the slow exposition and numerous plot holes.