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.

Kolamavu Kokila

Kolamavu Kokila

Nelson’s début film is a dark comedy that unusually for Tamil cinema, has a female lead and a strongly female-centric storyline.  Nayanthara is the titular Kokila who gets caught up in the drug trade when she needs to raise some money fast, but the success of the film is really down to the strong performances from Saranya Ponvannan and Yogi Babu, along with the family dynamics which help to keep the story grounded. I did struggle a little with some of the comedy as my DVD is not subtitled and the only subs I could find online were patchy and rarely made sense, but for the most part the story is self-explanatory and relatively easy to follow.

The film starts with gangster Bhai (Hareesh Peradi) flexing his muscles and getting rid of a police officer who has been interfering with his cocaine operation. Having convinced us that the drug dealers are a vicious bunch best avoided, the film then introduces Kokila (Nayanthara) who is looking for an increase in her sales assistant salary. She’s the main breadwinner in her family as her father’s job as an ATM security job doesn’t pay well and with her sister at college, every penny counts. However, her sleazy boss suggests that the only way she will get a raise is if she meets him after work and makes it worth his while, so Kokila promptly leaves her job to look for something more rewarding. She ends up working as the manager of a massage company which pays much better and seems to have less risk of sexual harassment. But things take a turn for the worse after Kokila’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) is diagnosed with lung cancer and the family needs to raise 15 lakhs for her treatment.

These introductory scenes work well to introduce the different characters and give a quick sense of who they are. Although Kokila’s father (R.S. Shivaji) has little part to play in proceedings, his passive acceptance of his lot in life illustrates just why the family is in the situation of needing more funds. The interactions between Kokila’s more aggressive mother (Saranya Ponvannan), her sister Shobi (Jacqueline Fernandez) and her father are excellent vignettes of domestic life. Kokila is protective of her father against the rest of the family’s dismissive comments perhaps because Kokila understands the difficulties of working in a dead-end job every day. This introduction also shows Kokila as a strong personality who stands up for herself against her boss’s sordid suggestions, but unfortunately, she loses this confidence later in the film and seems terrified of her own shadow.

Nelson doesn’t let his leading lady jump straight into the drug trade as an easy fix for her problem. Kokila tries a number of different ways to raise the money first. She speaks to relatives, asks for an advance for work and even approaches an NGO, but during a visit to a broker to see if she can sell some land, she inadvertently helps the police apprehend a drug pusher in the building. His boss, Bobby, insists that Kokila make good her mistake and sends her in to retrieve the hidden drugs. So, when all else fails, Kokila decides to approach Bobby and work as a drug mule to raise the cash for her mother’s treatment.

Bobby introduces Kokila to Mohan (Charles Vinoth), one of Bhai’s gang members, who decides that she looks innocent and unlikely to be suspected of carrying drugs, and he immediately employs her to take cocaine to his partner Alphonse (Rajendran). However a number of close shaves with the police lead Kokila to decide she wants out of the operation, but of course it’s much harder to leave than it is to join the business. Finally, after an altercation with Mohan, Bobby comes up with a final delivery of 300kg of cocaine that Kokila must deliver before she can leave.

What makes the film work so well are the peripheral characters. The story starts off well, but a combination of unlikely scenarios and a few too many coincidences mar the second half. Also, Kokila seems way to meek and nervous to ever go against the gangsters so it doesn’t make sense that she would take such tremendous risks and try to beat them at their own game. Nayahthara always has the same expression, downcast eyes and a stammering voice when dealing with Mohan and Bhai, and this continual overly meek appearance that ensures that there is very little tension or suspense as the story unfolds. There is never any glimpse into what Kokila is really thinking, and although she deceives the gangsters it seems to be almost by accident, since she always seems so scared of everyone. I wish there had been some acknowledgment of her plans and visible reactions from her when she did outsmart the gangsters which would have put an entirely different spin on the whole shenanigans. Instead it’s Saranya Ponvannan who steps up and really makes her presence felt as a determined and very capable ally in Kokila’s fight against the gangs. She’s scared but feisty and steps out of her usual mother role to play a very competent scam artist! She is the strong character here, and I love how she deals with potential rapists while the rest of the family appear shell shocked by her capacity for violence. It’s a brilliant portrayal that literally saves the second half of the film.

Yogu Babu is also excellent here and he provides most of the comedy in the first half, first appearing as grocery store owner Sekar who is in love with Kokila and is determined to marry her. Although much is made of his appearance and the unlikely match-up between him and Kokila, the real jokes start when Sekar gets mixed up in the family’s attempts to deliver the 300kg of drugs. Also dragged in is Shobi’s suitor Lakshman Kumar (Anbu Thasan) who mostly seems mentally deranged to me but that could be partly due to the lack of subtitles.

The character of Shekar fits well into the narrative and  Yogi Babu has perfect comedy timing, particularly when he realises exactly what is happening and the danger he has mistakenly stumbled into. I also love this song where he declares his love for Kokila. A brilliant tune from Anirudh and simply perfect choreography!

The film looks incredibly stylish and cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan sets up each frame beautifully. He contrasts colour and shape to produce some stunning images while still capturing Kokila’s reluctance to smuggle drugs and her family’s desperation. The images are also an excellent contrast to the sleazy world of drugs and the grubby men involved in the trade. Nelson uses these contrasts to good effect, and if only the character of Kokila had had the same light and shade this would have been a much better film. Instead, while there are many excellent individual scenes in the film, overall it starts to drag towards the end when the interactions between Kokila and the various gang members become repetitive and less convincing. On the plus side though, Nayathara is excellent in scenes with her family and in the first half her characterisation works well with the story. Also good is Anirudh Ravichander’s soundtrack and I really love the songs here. There is a good mix of haunting melody and more upbeat music, including the excellent Kabishabaa Coco (aka the gibberish song!)

Although Kolamavu Kokila isn’t perfect, there is enough here to make it a worthwhile watch. Using a heroine instead of a hero is inspired and the black comedy around the central figure of Kokila works well. There is a good story here and it just needed a little more variation in Kokila’s character to give it some extra tension and suspense which would make it a great story. Despite the one note in her characterisation, Nayanthara holds the film together well and does make an empathetic central character. As a début film it’s definitely better than average and well worth catching for Nayanthara, Yogi Babu, Saranya Ponvannan and the awesome soundtrack. 3 ½ stars.

Kolamavu Kokila