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.

1 Nenokkadine

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I love Sukumar’s Arya 2, I think Mahesh is a very good actor, the story had been talked up and the budget was huge with lots of big sets and fancy locations. Unfortunately 1 Nenokkadine is more like two films thrown together than a cohesive whole  – one a complex psychological thriller and one a mass shoot ‘em up blow ‘em up. I can’t avoid one big spoiler although I don’t want to discuss the plot in much detail. But ultimately Sukumar fails to fully capitalise on either the big idea or the big star.

Note: I didn’t get to see this in a cinema as the screen caught fire at the first show and that was that! (No one was hurt.) Since I tried to see this legally but was prevented by an act of god, I wasn’t conflicted about using more dubious means available until the DVD releases.

Anyway. What to believe when the hero is an unreliable narrator? This should have been an interesting conundrum but unfortunately 1 Nenokkadine is full of holes and the direction is clunky.

Gautam (Mahesh) is a rockstar. He is prone to nightmares and constantly on guard against the men who killed his parents and want to finish him off. When Gautam sees one of the men in the audience of his show, he takes off initially in fear but then in pursuit and kills the guy. Gautam turns himself in to the police, clearly disturbed but aware he has done something wrong. He was chased by Sameera, apparently some kind of production staff on the show who is also a journalist and squealy fangirl. She films the fatal encounter and reveals the truth about Gautam – he was hallucinating the whole thing. There was no other man, no fight and no stabbing.  Gautam’s backstory finally emerges when he ingeniously tracks down Nasser who says he was a cab driver 20 years ago…And that sends them off to London and the high adrenalin second half of the film. And yet once again, nothing is as it seems.

Mahesh is very good and his dramatic scenes really do have urgency, conveying  Gautam’s pain and frustration. The scenes where Gautam is hanging on by a thread, fighting his inner demons, are so well acted but often undermined by the direction. Mahesh can do a lot with silence and minimal histrionics but Sukumar lays on tricky visuals where he could have just let the performance breathe. There is zero chemistry with Kriti Sanon, and their romance was of the desultory insta-love variety, an obligatory element. A hero with integration disorder opens up a lot of possibilities for turning mass film tropes inside out. But there is little logic, and so much bad filmi medicine, that the mental illness almost becomes irrelevant. Gautam is a man who cannot trust anyone and is out for personal revenge. Now he learns he cannot trust himself. How had he functioned for the last 20 odd years if he was prone to such vivid and realistic delusions? Why had no one around him noticed anything odd given he had ‘killed’ before? There was no reason for him to be a rockstar other than as a change of image for Mahesh, so why not have more fun with the new career? And it takes everyone far too long to unravel the screamingly obvious Significant Clue.

Kriti Sanon’s Sameera takes about half the film to find her feet, partly because she is a fairly ordinary actress and partly due to the patchy writing. Sameera lies, confuses Gautam, and finally says she is doing it all to cure him because she loves him. Yeah, whatever.  And the idea that if you love someone you have to believe them takes no account of mental illness which by definition means a person may struggle to have awareness or control of their thoughts and resulting actions. I would normally complain about drugging the heroine but I was as ready as Gautam to have a break from her.  Luckily one day Sameera recalls she is a journalist and so should be capable of thinking and research. Maybe she found her brain when she swapped handbags. She starts to put together the attacks on her, the men following Gautam, things, and links it back to the underworld don (Kelly Dorjee).

Comedy rears its ugly head as Gulab Singh (Posani Krishna Murali as a London based Sikh taxi driver) is tasked with facilitating Gautam’s revenge logistics. Pradeep Rawat, Kelly Dorjee and Nasser are the main supporting actors and deliver their usual reliable standard of performances.

The songs are an interruption and do nothing for the plot. Kriti Sanon prances about in micro shorts all the time so Aww Tuzo Mogh Kortha wasn’t an excuse for a skinshow, although she did also get some guitar fondling into her repertoire. The English lyrics are horribly cheesy, especially for You’re My Love, and nobody seems to be having fun. But don’t take my word for it.

Mahesh has very similar choreo for every song so that was a bit lacklustre too.

Peter Hein puts all the right elements into the action scenes but repetition and sluggish editing sap the energy. How could a chase involving jet skis, boats, a parasail and hydro jet packs be tedious? There are also some things that are glossed over (e.g escaping from an underwater car) where they either lacked budget or an idea of how to extricate the hero from his impending doom. Sukumar is trying for a psychological edge but replaying a shot of Kelly Dorjee throwing a can into a bin multiple times to show Gautam thinking of using the rubbish as physical evidence is just painful.

The locations are used well, and the film looks beautiful. There are some really nice touches that add style and even humour. Mahesh’s son Gautham appears as young Gautam (those ears! Instantly recognisable).The threat of Indian fans forming a mob is enough to get the police to rethink keeping Gautam in jail, but then everything else functions as though the Belfast police are identical to the Andhra police so what is the point of that cultural in-joke? It’s all very disjointed and seems to have been written by committee. Oh but Nasser’s flashback wig is a doozy. I think it is the poorer cousin of The Wig from Shakti. And for the hardcore  Mahesh fans, yes he does a shower scene so you will see naked upper back. The glimpses of princely elbow are now old hat so no need to mention there are approximately 437 of those throughout the film. I think our friend The Mahesh Fan would approve of the brainy specs. Oh you want proof?

In a good psychological thriller once the twist is revealed the story should be enriched, and the viewer should be able to re-interpret scenes with their new knowledge. I think films like The Prestige and even Sixth Sense did that extremely well. Sukumar couldn’t make his own mind up about the film he was making so ended up with an overly long muddle that wouldn’t completely satisfy either full-on Mahesh fans or the psycho-drama audience.

A schizophrenic film about schizophrenia. 3 stars (mostly for Mahesh).

Heather says:

I enjoyed this film despite a few fairly obvious plot holes and a relative lack of logic at times. Most exciting for me were the scenes shot in Northern Ireland since this is where I grew up and, Game of Thrones aside, it’s rare that I get to see my home country on screen. There was something slightly surreal about watching Mahesh Babu run across Carrick-a-rede bridge, past Scrabo tower and wander through the streets of Whitehead, particularly when you know just how far apart those places are in reality! That aside, there is much to enjoy in Nenokkadine. Mahesh is in ultra-brooding mode with his fierce intensity somehow out of place for a supposed rock star. That’s probably my main question – why make him a rock star? Where are his security people and minions to run and pander to his every whim – if he’s as famous as implied here then he does seem to travel very light. His performance however is excellent and as the story unfolds it becomes ever more believable that he has a mental illness with his intense and chilly stare.

Apart from the scenes in Northern Ireland (which I have now forced my entire family to watch) I love when a frog hops away from the fight and the action sequence in the bathroom is fantastic.  Peter Hein comes through again! Thankfully there is no annoying separate comedy track to detract from the thriller nature of the story and although the romance wasn’t particularly well realised at least it did give a respite from all the brooding. Nenokkadine is a good attempt at a rather more psychological thriller and while parts of the story are familiar at times, overall I do like the way Sukumar thinks. I love his tendency to make his heroes somewhat damaged and their flaws make them more interesting (Arya 2 is still my all time favourite Telugu film) but at least for this film I would have liked him to branch out a little more from Telugu formula and ditch the songs. I know that’s odd coming from me, since I usually want more songs, but dance numbers just don’t work particularly well in a thriller, and here the tension falters every time the action is disrupted by a song. However, I still did enjoy Nenokkadine and I’d recommend it as a rather more sophisticated thriller from Sukumar and for the excellent performance from Mahesh. 4 stars.

Kaaviya Thalaivan (2014)

Kaaviya Thalaivan

Kaaviya Thalaivan sounded promising. A character driven drama set in the world of Tamil theatre in the 1920’s should have been exactly my kind of film, but despite excellent performances from all the  actors and A.R.Rahman’s expressive  soundtrack, the story is frustratingly predictable with little of the expected melodrama. The beautiful costumes and period sets cannot compensate for a very pedestrian telling of the rivalry between two actors and the ups and downs of a theatre company in the years before Indian Independence.  However, at least there are great costumes and stunning sets, and even if the story is disappointingly flat there are plenty of moments of brilliance from the individual actors which do make Kaaviya Thalaivan worth a watch.

The film is semi-narrated by Gomathi Nayagam Pillai (Prithviraj) who is sent as a young boy to train as an actor with Thavathiru Sivadas Swamigal (Nasser). During their travels, Sivadas Swamigal takes in a young orphan beggar called Kaali – later to rejoice in the name of Thalaivankottai Kaliappa Bhagavathar (Siddharth). Gomathi and Kaali become friends in a fairly standard ‘protecting from bullies, blah blah blah heard a million times before’ storyline. Now that familiar track wouldn’t matter if their developing relationship was told with any supporting emotion, but Gomathi runs through the story as if it’s a reading exercise in class and the identity of the protagonists is a matter of great indifference to him. Naturally then, it doesn’t matter to the audience, and Gomathi’s attitude appears more as boastful self-importance rather than genuine compassion for a young orphan.

From children to young men in the theatre company is a matter of a few moments and the two seem to be at least notionally friends at this point. Their different personalities are defined by a moment in the wings as they watch the hero Bhairavan (Ponvannan). Gomathi voices his desire to be just like Bhairavan while Kaali recognises the flaw’s in both the performance and the man, and instead aspires to be like their guru – Sivadas Swamigal.  It’s not unexpected then when Sivadas Swamigal chooses Kaali to be the hero for the company’s next production, or that this sews the seeds of resentment in Gomathi for his ‘humiliation’ which is really all in his own mind.

Gomathi  seems to take it as inevitable that he should resent Kaali for his success, without having any better reason to do so  than his own sense of self-importance. That could have worked as motivation if it had been developed in any way, but instead the rivalry is treated as a given and no further explanation is necessary. While Gomathi is silently angry, Kaali is blithely oblivious and embarks on a ridiculously straightforward romance with Rangamma (Anaika Soti), the local lord’s daughter. Kaali has little difficulty accessing Rangamma’s rooms, which should realistically been a little more heavily guarded, and no-one other than Gomathi seems to suspect anything, despite the heavy-handed flirting that goes on between the two during stage performances.  At least finally there is some passion and vitality to the characters, although not so much between Kaali and Rangamma but rather in an excellent scene where Sivadas Swamigal confronts Kaali about his love affair. Both Nasser and Siddharth are over-emotional and sufficiently melodramatic to suit the story at this point, while Prithviraj gets a chance to be nastily spiteful. However it’s a small oasis of theatricality, and the story quickly reverts back to a more plodding pace once Rangamma is out of the picture. That’s actually a shame since Anaika Soti does well with the limited role and looks beautiful in the songs. I would have liked to see more of her, but Kaali needs to have a reason for his life to turn pear-shaped and losing Rangamma works relatively well.

The final character in the drama is Ganakokilam Vadivambal, aka Vadivu (Vedika), a dancer and singer who joins the company and replaces the more traditional male actors in the female roles. Vadivu is in love with Kaali, but he only has eyes for Rangamma, while Gomathi pines in the wings for Vadivu who barely seems to notice him. It’s a situation that should be full of jealousy and passion but is instead treated clinically without any of the emotional drama that would have made the characters more effective. Again there is no justification for Vadivu’s ever more extreme devotion to Kaali, and although there is a little more substance behind Gomathi unrequited love, it doesn’t seem realistically likely to survive in the face of Vadivu’s determined rejection. However both Vedika and Prithviraj are good enough actors to generate some plausibility in their relationship and the tension between the two does become somewhat more palpable as the story develops. Without Prithviraj this really wouldn’t have had anything like the same impact, but he really does do a good job with very limited dialogue and little opportunity to demonstrate exactly why he feels the way he does.

Vasanthabalan also adds in a Nationalist thread to the plot which seems to be an unnecessary complication when more detailed development of the story and more in-depth characterisations of the three protagonists would have worked just as well, if not better. Once Kaali becomes a Nationalist, that too in a matter of moments while in prison, his fate is sealed and the ending is as predictable as expected. As Kaali, Siddharth comes away looking the best of the cast, partly because his character has more scope and inherent drama, but mainly because he really does an excellent job with the role. His performance is flawless and particularly in his scenes with Nasser there is a definite sense of the arrogance and self-confidence that underlies Kaali. Siddharth also nails the hurt and despair when Kaali is let alone in the world and his scenes with Nasser are superb. More of these and less of the bland romance would have been much better. Prithviraj and Vedika do as best as they can  within their limited roles and there are times in the second half where both get more of an opportunity to show more depth, but they are hampered by a lack of motivation for their characters actions which makes them too one-dimensional to be truly effective.

It’s perplexing that a film set in and all about theatre could end up so lifeless and devoid of melodrama, but that is exactly the problem with Kaaviya Thalaivan. I really wanted to like this film as I appreciate the attempt by Vasanthabalan to tackle something different,  but I just couldn’t engage with the characters and was completely frustrated by the lack of any reasonable justification for their actions. I know that’s my usual rant but it is so very noticeable here in a film where the motivation really should be key to developing the drama. However, the film looks amazing, Siddharth is fantastic and the music and songs are excellent. It’s a visual feast even if there is no substance to the spectacle and for that alone the film deserves to be seen and at least once.