Darbar (2020)

It’s always a major event when a new Rajinikanth film releases and even though I didn’t get to watch Darbar until the second day, the cinema was still packed for the evening show. But the initial excitement, whistles and cheers quickly faded as Darbar failed to engage the audience. I guess for every hit like Kaala, there has to be balance of a Lingaa and despite the star cast, Darbar ends up as a big miss. Individually each member of the cast is good, but the story just isn’t there, and when you add in some dodgy subtitles Darbar is simply very disappointing indeed.

The basic story is that widower and top police officer Aadhithya Arunachalam (Rajinikanth) is appointed as Commissioner of Police in Mumbai and sent to clean up the city. Why Mumbai? I couldn’t see any reason why this wasn’t set in Chennai, unless it was fear that people wouldn’t like the city being a hive of criminal activity. The opening scenes are of gangland style executions as Aadhithya personally rids the city of various gangsters but each of these seems overly simplistic. When we finally get to see Aadhithya it’s in a standard South-hero-introduction-scene™ where he is completely bullet proof, villains only attack either individually or in small groups, and where the sword proves mightier than the gun. It’s all just very meh, and not even the Rajni factor can elevate this into anything cheer-worthy.

The reason for the bloodbath is revealed and then there is a long flashback that follows Aadhithya’s arrival in the city showing the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the top criminal Ajay Malhotra (Prateik Babbar). Because of course it’s just one man who controls 90% of the drugs in Mumbai, and naturally no-one else steps in to help the hundreds of addicts seen pleading for help in a ridiculously tone-deaf montage. It’s over-simplified to the extreme with absolutely no depth to the story at all. I seem to say this frequently about A.R. Murugadoss films, but there are good ideas here, it’s just that the execution is very sloppy. Too often there seems to be an assumption that the audience will accept anything just to see their hero in action, but no matter how amazing Rajinikanth is (and he is!) there needs to be a story.  With all the slick production values put into the film, it doesn’t make sense that the narrative is badly under-developed with minimal research into some key plot points. Don’t get me started on the medical mis-information here!

Along with all the usual action sequences, there is a sort-of romance track with Nayanthara, which has some promise but never delivers. Aadhithya wants his daughter Valli (an excellent Nivetha Thomas) to get married, but she doesn’t want him to be left alone and even teases him because he can’t talk to women. So Valli points out this random woman – Lily (Nayanthara) and asks her father to tell her she is beautiful. As the start of a relationship it has to be one of the lamest I’ve seen, and from this unpromising start, the whole romance never gets any better. There is an interesting arc though where Lily reports the creepy man who is following her (Aadhithya), and then later Lily’s cousin (Sriman) has a frank conversation with Aadhithya about the age difference. This is actually well done, but sadly doesn’t evolve any further which I think is a real missed opportunity. For her part, Nayanthara glides through the film looking stunning but also a bit of a fish out of water as her character doesn’t fit well into the storyline at all. 

Nivetha Thomas has the better role as Aadhithya’s daughter, and she brings personality and warmth to the role. Her interactions with Aadhithya feel genuinely those of a father and daughter, and she ensures that Valli’s part in the story does make sense. I really like her here and the scenes between Nivetha and Rajinikanth develop their relationship and bring a human face to the otherwise formulaic action-hero-cop persona of Aadhithya. Rajni too is great in these scenes, and I would have liked more of these emotional moments which could have been used to develop the story, instead of adding the pointless romance.

Also problematic is the villain, Hari Chopra (Suniel Shetty). Suniel Shetty is usually a pretty good villain – he has the sneer down pat and I’ve seen him generate a convincing aura of evil even if he doesn’t have the sheer physicality of some of the other classic bad guys. But he is totally wasted here. His introduction scene is pathetic and seems to be out of a gangster film for kids. I have no idea why he was supposed to be such a big shot, apart from the repeated reference to burning a police station some 20 years previously. Again, there are some good ideas thrown in when Hari first gets back to India and starts his campaign against the police, but all of this is weakened by some nonsense byplay with a knife and then completely destroyed by the ridiculous finale. Nawab Shah is reasonably good as Vijay Malhotra, the father of Ajay who is willing to go to any lengths to save his son, but the rest of the villains are faceless and are mostly of the rent-a-thug variety. Interestingly, they all seem to prefer loudly patterned shiny synthetic shirts which I did appreciate as a distinctive style choice for crooks.

The best part of the film is undoubtedly Rajinikanth, and he strides across the (many) plot-holes with panache, charisma and charm. He’s wonderfully engaging to watch and his supreme confidence is always fun, but there is too much reliance on his hand gestures, sunglasses and winning smile. Yes, he’s excellent, but without good dialogue and a convincing narrative, the film is simply a series of set pieces that could be slotted into any other Rajinikanth film. Still, the action sequences are beautifully shot by Santosh Sivan, Rajinikanth looks awesome throughout and the music is good, although Anirudh’s background score is more memorable than most of the songs. I did enjoy the choreography for these but the subtitles for the songs were dreadful! Some are totally incomprehensible (I suspect too literal translations) and I’m looking forward to the film streaming to screencap a few for Paagal Subtitle. It’s baffling to me how such a big production can fail to deal with essential basics like subtitles for an OS release.

I didn’t have great expectations from Darbar, but the film turned out to be more disappointing than expected. I’m glad I watched it in the cinema with a room full of like-minded fans, but I am frustrated by the apparently careless approach to the story. Come on Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth fans expect better!

Bigil

Atlee’s latest film is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is Vijay, who shines in a double role despite the rambling and overlong story; the bad is the general misogyny of the screenplay where it takes a man to bring success to a female team who were already heading to the India Finals; and the ugly is some awful fat-shaming which Atlee and fellow screen-writer S. Ramana Girivasan seem to feel is acceptable as motivation. The story follows a retired football player who sets aside his gangster persona to coach a women’s football team, but despite some superficial similarities this is no Chak De. However, getting past the bad and the ugly, Rahman’s music is good, the dancing excellent and there is one part of the story which is more than simply token feminism. For a mass entertainer for the holiday season Bigil isn’t a bad option – it’s just that it’s not anywhere near as good as it could have been.

Michael, aka Bigil (Vijay) is a state level football player who is apparently talented enough to get into the national team. His father Rayappan (also Vijay) is a gangster in Chennai who is savvy enough to push his son towards athleticism and away from rowdyism, recognising that this will inspire others in the neighbourhood. Rayappan is a typical filmi gangster – out to defend the poor and marginalised against everyone trying to exploit them, chief of which is a rival gang, headed by Alex (I.M. Vijayan) and his son Daniel (Daniel Balaji). But neither Rayappan nor Bigil understand the internal politics of football in India which works against his success, and when Rayappan is killed, Bigil gives up his dreams and return to being plain Michael, head of the rowdies in his area and defender of the helpless.

When Michael’s friend and Tamil Nadu women’s football team coach Kathir (Kathir) is injured, Michael is persuaded to take on the task of coach instead. Something the women resent since they blame Michael for Kathir’s injury – which is totally true. The women need a coach in order to be able to compete, but although much of the film takes place in Delhi at the football championships, this is never about the women’s team and their battle to overcome poverty and adversity to win. In Atlee’s film the women are incapable of making it by themselves and need Michael to show them how to train effectively and ultimately goad them towards victory. Michael is able to convince a conservative husband to let his wife compete, persuade Anitha (Reba Monica John) to take off her face scarves and play after she is assaulted with acid and induce Vembu (Indhuja) and Thendral (Amritha Aiyer) to play together as a team. All while simultaneously dealing with gang attacks from Daniel and internal attacks from the Head of the Football association J.K. Sharma (Jackie Shroff). The assumption that the women need a strong and capable man to lead them to victory is condescending and patronizing, but Atlee breezes past this issue so that Vijay can be seen to be a sensitive, caring and motivating kind of guy. Up until he wants Pandiyamma (Indraja Shankar) to get angry out on the field and uses fat-shaming insults to get her there. Not cool at all, and really incredibly disappointing that in 2019 this kind of behaviour is being legitimised by a major star in a big budget film.

That’s the most of the bad and the ugly out of the way – and the rest is the good. Vijay smiles and dances his way through inspirational numbers, kicks a football around the field and beats up the bad guys with plenty of energy and joie de vivre. The fight scenes involve the usual ‘one man-against-the-masses’ sequences, but they are well staged and the stunts are generally impressive. The football action is almost as good, although it does look staged and filmi, particularly compared to films such as Sudani from Nigeria where the action is more realistic.  However Atlee gets points for getting women’s football onto mainstream screens, and for promoting the game as one that everyone can play. It’s also good to see some recognition of the challenges faced by the team members, despite most of these being glossed over and only mentioned in Michael’s motivational speeches. There are two exceptions – Gayathri (Varsha Bollamma) is shown as having to overcome a prejudiced and narrow-minded family situation, although again it’s her husband who makes the decision and allows her to play. Anitha has a much better story as the acid-attack survivor who has to come to terms with her injury and loss of confidence as a result.

The best parts of the film have nothing to do with the women’s team, but instead are focused on Michael and his relationship with his father. As Rayappan, Vijay is simply superb and totally convinces as an older don trying to do his best for his family and his area. The relationship between father and son is beautifully written and the effects well done to allow both Vijay’s to converse together, hug and generally interact as if they were together in reality. The conversations between the two reveal much about both characters, and it’s this emotion that is more truly inspirational than any of the plot around the football team. Here there is some of the best acting from Vijay, where he isn’t a superstar, but instead simply a father trying to do the best for his son (naturally with some great actions sequences too) but there is light and shade to the character and Vijay does an excellent job in portraying these shadows as well as the strengths of the character. Michael is a more typical Vijay ‘hero’ persona, but there is still some depth and again Vijay is excellent in the role.

Naturally there is also a romance, this time a physiotherapist who comes with Michael to help the team in Delhi. Angel (Nayanthara) has rejected a number of marriages while waiting for Michael to come to his senses and marry her, but apart from this show of spirit, she’s a typical Tamil filmi heroine who just has to look pretty for the songs and support her man through thick and thin. Nayahthara does what she can with the role, but it’s thin pickings despite some good comedy in her introduction. This would have been a much better film if Nayanthara had been the coach and the gangster thread between Michael and Rayappan a side theme, but I guess that’s a little too much to ask for.

The film does look fantastic and the song sequences in particular are brilliantly picturised. There is plenty of colour and A.R. Rahman’s music fits beautifully into the action. Rekhs (aided by Harini) comes through with brilliantly translated song lyrics and even translations of written signs that are significant for the plot. Directors and producers take note – this is how you subtitle a film for an international audience – it makes all the difference when subs are in idiomatic English and easy-to-read yellow.

Atlee does throw everything into this film, and as a result some of the threads simply don’t work within the larger context of the story. Although Jackie Shroff is the main villain, he’s never very threatening, and Daniel Balaji gets a much better storyline and resolution for his character too. He makes a great villain and his flawless performance is one of the highlights of the film. Meanwhile, Yogi Babu and Vivek indulge in some unnecessary slapstick, but the comedy from G. Gnanasambandam and George Maryan is subtler and funnier as a result. The film is at its best when focused on Vijay and this is where Atlee excels. He knows how to make his leading man look good, and how to keep the action exciting. Worth watching for Vijay, the excellent dancing and action scenes and for the colourful spectacle of it all.

Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019)

Surender Reddy’s history inspired epic is indeed epic. The sets are impressive, the set pieces are huge, the cast includes almost everyone working in Telugu films plus some ring-ins. And to top it off, Chiranjeevi. Very few things will compel me to see a movie at 7am. Chiru is one of those things.

It’s hard when you want to cram a lot of exposition into a ripping yarn, and Reddy fumbles the pace. Pawan Kalyan narrates,  Anushka Shetty makes a welcome yet probably unnecessary cameo as Rani Lakshmibai, using the story of Narasimha Reddy (Chiranjeevi) to inspire her outnumbered troops. And eventually we get to the main event – Narasimha Reddy, all grown up and ready to rumble. From there the remainder of the first half is about the local battle against Jackson, a sadistic white supremacist. The second half has to regain momentum for the final conflict with the even more revolting Cochrane, wearer of bad hats and owner of a mysterious black panther just to ram home his villainous leanings. Along the way Narasimha Reddy is mentored by his guru, supported and challenged by his peers, and adored by all women. But he is always hated by the Brits and he returns their enmity in spades. The film jumps around visually and looks amazing, the geography is frequently mystifying, but the narrative is dead linear and predictable. With lots of repetition for the people who decide to make important phone calls or switch seats several times during the movie.

Reddy does some things to perfection, and he gives Chiranjeevi some impressive hero entrances. He balanced the spiritual and the legendary heroic aspects along with the Megastar obligation to provide something familiar yet extraordinary with each return. But there are also some poor directorial choices and I really do have to get this off my chest now. I know this is a ye olden days film, I know they made some gestures towards historical accuracy….but no dancing?!? Chiranjeevi NOT DANCING AT ALL?!! Seriously. Walking around and pointing during a song is not enough. Could he not get his folky festival appropriate groove on with his people just once? Some of the fire twirling guys looked understandably nervous so maybe they could have used some Megastar spark instead.

 

Surender Reddy uses tight closeups on Chiranjeevi’s face as Narasimha Reddy absorbs news or prepares to roar inspiration or threats. Chiru goes all in, whether he is comforting a child or dismembering an enemy. It’s all about that commitment and the Mega charisma that makes you believe that people would follow him into a war, believing he is a chosen one. The action scenes allow him to kill in varied ways and with great gusto, busting out the athleticism and grace we don’t get to see in a dance (yes, I’m bitter about it). I especially enjoyed Jackson’s comeuppance as it drew upon earlier skills demonstrated so there was a pleasing blend of “oh, of course!” and WTFery. Despite being at a 7am show there was vocal appreciation of the gore and creative ways of killing. The special effects around the actors and stunt performers in the war and fight scenes worked pretty well, but some other effects were a bit amateurish and made what should have been impactful look silly. That was a blessing in parts, as if the CGI was better a couple of scenes would have been seriously traumatising.

The wig department is there for Chiru every step of the way. He has his fluffy Romance Hair, and two variants of Action Hair (one with man bun, one without). His outfits are detailed but not overwhelming or fussy, and avoid the period costume trap of looking like he’s been upholstered rather than tailored. He sported a nicely woven war sandal so I was pleased to see some appropriately statement footwear too.

Nayanthara had the clumpy eyelashes of a perpetual crier while Tamannaah had perfect eyelashes for flirting or murderous rages. And there’s about all the character development you get. Both actresses deliver what they can, but all the women in this story are required to do is support and/or sacrifice. Tamannaah plays a dancer but mostly sings, exhorting people to join the rebellion. She has a lovely, very sad, scene that made me sad because there was no room in the film for her acting ability. Nayanthara plays Sidhamma as shy and hopelessly worshipping her man. Again, she added some delicate touches to her characterisation but that may have been professional pride because I suspect the direction was “Stand there. Then go stand there. And cry.”

The gang of chieftains are largely undifferentiated, but a few make more substantial contributions. Mukesh Rishi got no love from the wig department so the hat team went all out for him. Brahmaji does his usual furious faces. Ravi Kishan got an economy wig and no moral compass to speak of. Jagapathi Babu is quietly compelling as Veera Reddy, a believer grappling with the consequences of betrayal. My favourite was Sudeep’s Avuku Raju. He dripped disdain, his silent reactions were anywhere from menacing to hilarious, and his frenemy dynamic with Narasimha Reddy was absolutely beautiful. The biggest supporting cast cheer was for Vijay Sethupathi as Tamil leader, Raja Paandi. Amitabh Bachchan as the lugubrious Guru Gosayi Venkanna got no response at all. I actually disliked his character. Mentoring is one thing but being a manipulative puppet master is something else.

The European actors range from adequate to terrible. It doesn’t require great subtlety to be a despicable cartoonish villain, so the patchy acting and clunky dialogues didn’t bother me too much. I did like that the film doesn’t pussy-foot around the British attitude that dark skinned people were inferior, and that nobody pretended the conflict was about anything but money and resources. The patriotic aspects of Narasimha Reddy’s fight got a great response from the audience and we all enjoyed seeing the white guys get what was coming to them.

The subtitles are largely OK but there are some strange errors. The subs express asking for forgiveness or offering an apology as asking for an apology regardless of context, which was confusing. Some things were overly literal and not meaningful. I particularly liked the subtitles that explained an accomplishment as “He is a great man. He has mastered the art of holding his breath in water”. Greatness may await us all, friends! And whoever was on spell checking left us with gems like “Your’s Sincerly”. Such a big budget film, and so little respect for the dialogues. Sigh.

Yes, there’s a story. Yes, there’s some History. Yes, there is a huge cast. Yes, it’s a film on a massive scale. And yet it all rests on Chiranjeevi. He delivers so much of the success of the film but can’t quite overcome the flaws. One to see on the big screen if you can, just to appreciate the grandeur, the guyliner, and the wigs.