Sathuranga Vettai

sathuranga vettai poster

H. Vinoth’s Sathuranga Vettai is an amusing crime caper that follows the exploits of con-man Gandhi Babu as he persuades a large number of gullible people to part with their cash. Naturally, this does not come without consequences and the later part of the film deals with Gandhi’s redemption and his attempts to break free from his life of crime. This is an impressive début for H. Vinoth and despite a tendency to veer into overly dramatic territory towards the end, the film well worth watching for some great dialogue, good characterisations and Natarajan Subramaniam and Ishaara Nair in the lead roles.

The film is divided into different chapters, each describing a con run by Gandhi Babu (Natarajan Subramaniam) and his merry band of helpers, Guru (Dharani Vasudevan), Kumar and Selvam. The first starts with Gandhi and his gang persuading businessman Chettiyar (Ilavarasu) to buy a rare snake which, they tell him, can be sold on at a much higher price. Of course, the snake is a pig in a poke and is anything but rare, but what is more surprising is how superstitious and gullible Chettiyar is, given that he is supposedly a rich businessman with thriving rental and retail investments. I found it hard to believe that he would really believe that a snake could understand him and lose weight because it was homesick, but it did make for some great comedy in the first few scenes. The film also quickly introduces Gandhi’s simple philosophy – the easiest way to deceive people is to find those who are greedy and want to make a fast buck and in his defence, there does seem to be plenty of greedy people out there.

The second con is better realised and seems rather more plausible. This time Gandhi and his followers set up a mass marketing Ponzi scheme selling miracle water to gullible investors. A young woman, Bhanu (Ishaara Nair) approaches Gandhi for a job as she cannot afford to invest in the scheme and Gandhi immediately sees her potential. Her innocence and flair for persuading others to invest makes Bhanu a valuable asset for the gang, but she has no idea that they are all snake-oil salesmen and that their venture is all a con. Gandhi’s seeming altruism leads Bhanu to start to fall in love with the con-artist but once his true activities are revealed, Bhanu is left to deal with the aftermath as Gandhi and his gang skip town with the money.

The next con sees Gandhi arrested and jailed for his crimes. While he is tortured by the police, his gang work hard to bribe the various complainants and ensure Gandhi’s release.

Although their efforts pay off, Gandhi is kidnapped by a gang lead by Vallavan (Vallavan) who have been employed by one of the victims of Gandhi’s previous con. Suddenly the fruits of Gandhi’s criminal past are brought home to cause him more problems and the only way he can escape the gang is to work another con for them. After a convoluted series of deals and double deals Gandhi manages to escape and finds Bhanu who still has feelings for him. But the gang is still on the look-out for Gandhi and his idyllic life with Bhanu is shattered once Vallavan and Senthil catch up with the couple and force Gandhi to carry out one last con.

The story is a good blend of action and drama, with enough comedy to keep the proceedings from ever getting too serious. The final scenes are overly melodramatic as Bhanu goes in to labour while gang member Thillagar (Ramachandran Durairaj) is told to kill her as the rest of the gang force Gandhi to dig his own grave. However, the rest of the film isn’t quite so theatrical, and some of the cons are entirely plausible and seem quite realistically portrayed.

Natarajan Subramaniam is excellent in the lead role and seems perfectly cast as the smooth-tongued salesman with the gift of the gab. He dons different disguises and different accents as part of the role, while his ability to appear cold and calculating works well to give the character credibility. It makes his gradual change of heart once he finds Bhanu and slow realisation that there could be another way of life seem more plausible. H. Vinod gives Gandhi a tragic back story which didn’t seem to be totally necessary but again does make his final redemption more likely, given that up to his meeting with Bhanu his general philosophy is that nothing you do is wrong as long as you don’t feel guilty. His early experiences, described here in animation, do at least give Gandhi an emotional response to work with and overcome his otherwise cold persona. One of the best things about Gandhi’s character is that although he is a criminal, he is totally hopeless when it comes to physical violence. As a change for the usual ‘hero’ in this type of role, Gandhi is regularly beaten up and has no capacity to defend himself whatsoever outside a verbal stoush. That seems quite likely for someone who relies on his wits and ability to run and makes Gandhi a more sympathetic character than expected.

Ishaara Nair is also excellent although at times her character does seem a little too good to be true. She has good onscreen chemistry with Natarajan and the two work well together as a couple, even if for much of the time I felt that Bhanu was much too good for him and deserved more. The rest of Gandhi’s gang are good, particularly as sellers of the miraculous magic pearls, although they have limited screen time. Vallavan and his gang have more to do, and Ramachandran in particular is excellent as a gangster with a heart, even though he keeps it well hidden from the rest of the gang.

Overall this is a clever and rather different film that relies on good writing and excellent characterisations to tell an engaging story. The sheer ordinariness of the characters works in their favour and the simple con schemes are plausible enough to keep the story more realistic than most. The music from Seth Rogan mostly fits well into the narrative with the songs featured on Bhanu and Gandhi’s relationship, apart from one early in the film that’s set in a bar that doesn’t work quite as well. K.G. Venkatesh ensures the film looks good too with plenty of beautiful shots of the countryside surrounding Madurai. H. Vinoth has delivered an excellent first film that delivers in terms of both story and characters. 4 stars.

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Puli (2015)

Puli

Chimbu Deven’s latest film may be set in a fantasy world of strange creatures and magical beings, but the story itself is mundane without any of the epic sweep required for such a tale. It’s also slow going, with most of the first half a dreary romance between Marudheeran (Vijay) and Pavazhamani (Shruti Haasan), although it does improve post interval once Sridevi and Sudeep appear onscreen. Despite the numerous fight scenes and explicit violence, the simplistic plot seems to be aimed more at children, with every obstacle easily overcome and the obvious outcome never in any doubt. That may also explain the relatively bloodless scenes of dismemberment and general carnage that would more usually be awash with gallons of fake blood, but instead the fight scenes here are frequently lacklustre, dull and repetitive. However there are a few reasons to watch, mainly down to Sridevi in her extravagantly evil queen avatar, good special effects and the always reliable Sudeep and Vijay.

Puli tells the story of a land which has been invaded and settled by a race of demons, who have enslaved the native humans. These Vedalam are easily recognisable by their blue eyes, tendency to sprout fangs when annoyed and ability to fly though the air, although their spiky armour and general arrogant grumpiness are a more distant and therefore safer method of identification. The young Marudheeran arrives in one of the subjugated villages as a baby, floating in a basket on the river, along with a mysterious egg that hatches into a talking bird. The talking bird is pretty well done as far as special effects go, and I was expecting it to be important to the plot in some way, but it really isn’t. Even though there is a sort of reason for the bird’s inclusion at the end, basically it’s a very under-utilized special effect that didn’t need to be able to talk and doesn’t get much chance to do so anyway. Overall this illustrates the problem with most of the special effects in the film. Although they are well done, the effects dazzle for a moment but are then relegated to background noise and ultimately have little to add to the plot. It’s a shame as the film looks fantastical but the uninspired story keeps it earthbound.

Marudheeran is adopted by one of the villagers and is trained by his stepfather in fighting and disguise as part of a general communal wish to overthrow the demons. However once Pavalamalli (Shruti Haasan) returns to the village, Marudheeran spends his time chasing after his childhood friend, much to the displeasure of her parents. Just as Marudheeran and Pavalamalli get married in secret, she is stolen by the demons and Marudheeran sets out with his trusty friends Thambi Ramaiah and Sathyan to rescue her from the impregnable city of Vedalakottai. They plan to disguise themselves as demons to get into the city and then hope they can find Pavalamalli and get out again, but that’s it in terms of preparation. There is no attempt to deal with the epic scale of such an endeavour and make the journey and planning part of the adventure. This means there isn’t any sense of danger or excitement, just a pedestrian slog to find the city and rescue the girl. Nothing new, and could just as easily have been set in the present time anywhere in India with much the same plot and ending.

Still, there are plenty of good ideas in Puli, it’s just that they get such short shrift and don’t have as much impact as they should. For example, Marudheeran and colleagues meet a race of miniature people where there is a brief ‘we can show you the way’ moment and then the little people are used mainly for comedy. However the effects and the cinematography are once again very good, with clever use of seeds and leaves as clothing, and wonderful peanut shell blouses that are simply inspired!

Unusually, Vijay doesn’t fit as the hero of the film as well as he should, at least initially. His introduction and the subsequent fight scenes establish his character as more of a trickster and comedian while his pursuit of Pavalamalli is pedestrian and lacking animation. It’s not until the second half of the film where he comes up against his nemesis General Jalatharangam (Sudeep) that Marudheeran starts to properly fill the role of the warrior hero and Vijay gets a chance to throw his energy fully into the part. Just about at this time though there is a flashback sequence where Vijay plays his father – a man born to be in a shampoo commercial and doomed by his reliance on slow-mo fighting and accompanying wind-machine. I did appreciate Vijay’s mastery of the hair toss though and once he gets into full warrior mode, there is no stopping him.

Sudeep is good in a role that lets him convey volumes with just a look and a sneer, although he really needed more time onscreen being evil to make his character thoroughly despicable. Jalatharangam is a fairly standard villain but Sudeep imbues him with an arrogant coldness that works well and there’s just enough sliminess added for good measure. Sridevi too makes the most of her role as an evil queen and shows what a fantastic actor she is even with her limited time onscreen. She totally owns each scene when she appears and her sweeping presence lifts the energy of the film. She has the best costumes and stunning make-up but these go almost unnoticed beside her commanding presence and expressive eyes. And she plays a harp – perfect! I hope this, and her recent appearance in English Vinglish mean that we will get to see more Sridevi films in the future – she is the best thing about Puli for sure.

Hansika Motwani plays Queen Yamanadevi’s daughter and at least Chimbu Deven doesn’t make the mistake of trying to get her to actually dance in any of her songs. Hansika looks good and has an amazing peacock outfit at the end but doesn’t do much else of note in the film, although she does manage better chemistry in a few brief moments with Vijay than Shruti does in an entire romantic song. Overall Devi Sri Prasad’s songs are fairly uninspiring and the choreography rather repetitive, but Vijay is energetic and the backing dancers are enthusiastic in a range of diverse costumes.

Except for Sridevi, Puli mostly disappoints with a weak story and fairly nondescript songs. Sudeep and Vijay are fine but both characters need better definition and depth rather than simply relying on the ability and star power of the actors. Both do what they can, but the film could have been so much better with just a little more complexity. Good cinematography from Natarajan Subramaniam and great visual effects make Puli worth watching on the big screen but probably only for fans. Otherwise probably best to wait for the DVD where the fast forward button will make Puli a more enjoyable watch.

Raanjhanaa (2013)

Raanjhanaa

Raanjhanaa is not a conventional love story, and its two protagonists are not particularly likeable people, but their very human failings do make it possible to understand their mistakes.  Despite their flaws I wanted their love story to succeed even as it seemed destined to fail. Dhanush never fails to impress with his acting but I was apprehensive about his co-star Sonam Kapoor since I’ve yet to see a convincing performance from her – and I still haven’t.  But to be fair, Zoya’s self-absorption is integral to her character, so Sonam’s wooden and lifeless performance actually suits her character for a large part of the film. However Dhanush more than makes up for Sonam’s rather laboured performance and the support cast are all excellent, making Raanjhanaa a better film than reading Himanshu Sharma’s screenplay would suggest.

Young KundanTeenage Kundan

 

 

 

 

 

The film opens with a group of child artists playing the roles of Kundan and his friends.  The kids are charming and in a few short moments they define their characters perfectly, so that each further development makes sense given these childhood traits.  Kundan falls in love with Zoya the very first time he sees her, despite the fact that she is Muslim, he is Hindu, and he’s only about 8 years old. His adoration at first sight develops into a full blown obsession by the time Kundan reaches his teens and his first stumbling attempts to tell the object of his affection how he feels are cringe-worthily appropriate for the ‘stalking = love’ concept that Indian cinema seems to prefer.

Kundan and Zoya

I’m always amazed at how Dhanush manages to transform himself into a young teenager so effortlessly, appearing suitably gauche and naïve against Sonam Kapoor’s rather clunky attempt at adolescence.  She lacks the vitality that made Shruti Hasan more believable as a teenager in 3, but there is some chemistry between the two actors which helps make the budding romance more credible.  Unfortunately at this point there is the first of too many scenes which involve slashing wrists as a way to prove true love.  It’s one of the things I particularly dislike since suicide as a plot device seems dangerous and irresponsible,  especially considering the statistics on youth suicide in almost every country in the world.  I can cope with the stalking, since Zoya definitely encourages Kundan (and I’ve been through the South Indian Cinema Induction Program) but I feel the wrist slashing is just inappropriate.

Kundan and MurariRaanjhanaa

 

 

 

 

 

The separation of the young lovers follows along fairly predictable lines, but what adds interest is the rival obsession shown by Bindiya (Swara Bhaskar) for Kundan.  Swara Bhaskar is excellent as the girl so obsessed with marrying Kundan that she will do absolutely anything to get his attention. She really deserves to win the guy just for her devotion and ability to put up with Kundan and his best friend Murari (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), but at the same time it’s obvious that Kundan would be a horribly abusive husband.  Swara Bhaskar is full of vitality and energy and lights up the screen whenever she appears which is in stark contrast to Sonam Kapoor’s rather bland Zoya. Mohammed Ayyub is also well cast and does a good job as Kundan’s friend alternating between egging him on, and trying (usually unsuccessfully) to restrain his more dramatic impulses.

Abhay Deol plays Akram, a student activist angling for election to government and the third member of the love triangle.   While Abhay plays his part well he seems too old to be a convincing student leader, even one who is seriously considering a political career. Still, he does seem to have more to offer than Kundan, as demonstrated by the difference in their respective modes of transport.

Kundan and Zoya scooterZoya and Abhay motorbike

 

 

 

 

 

The story seems to lose its way in the second half as the love story gives way to the political campaign and there are a few too many contrived filmi coincidences as Kundan moves out of Benares and into Zoya’s world.  But the changes in both Zoya and Kundan as their circumstances alter are well depicted and the consequences of their actions are shown to be greater than they could ever have imagined. As a teenager, Kundan’s every emotion is clearly visible on his face and his body language also transmits his feelings at every turn.  With the transition to adulthood he becomes more restrained until by the end of the film Kundan is expert at concealing his true feelings and doesn’t allow any of his emotions to colour his conversation with Zoya.  It’s a fantastic performance from Dhanush and director Anand Rai has drawn out every nuance in his character’s behaviour.

Raanjhanaa

After the first few scenes in childhood Sonam Kapoor keeps her stunned indifference expression throughout, but it is apt for Zoya’s personality so it does tend to work. She looks beautiful, but there is too much style and not enough substance in Zoya, particularly compared with Bindiya and even Akam’s sister Rashmi (Shilpi Marwaha).

RaanjhanaaZoya

 

 

 

 

 

The music by A. R. Rahman fits perfectly and the dance sequences are well placed in the narrative and generally help to carry the story forward.  Benares looks like almost any other city in North India until there are shots of the river, and then it’s suddenly magical as Natarajan Subramaniam and Vishal Sinha bring the city to life with their cinematography. It’s an impressive debut for Dhanush in Hindi cinema, and he does well with the language too (at least as far as my inexpert ear can tell).  Worth watching for a role that seems to have been made for Sonam Kapoor, an excellent performance from Dhanush and from the rest of the cast and a rather different view of “love”.