Awe takes a crack at some familiar material, trying to deliver something new. And it is something new in the context of mainstream Telugu film, far from the usual mass hero driven shenanigans. But it reminded me of a couple of  Hollywood films, and Prasanth Varma is a bit heavy handed and clearly doesn’t want anyone to miss out on his cleverness. This was a film I wanted to love but I was left mildly underwhelmed.

SPOILER ALERT! I want to mention a couple of ideas the film plays with so I will have a few spoilers. But I will leave a few surprises.

Radha (Eesha Rebba) waits at a restaurant with her parents. They’re going to meet her partner, Krish, for the first time. Krish sounds like exactly what her parents wanted for Radha; a doctor, same caste, only child. But Krish is a woman (Nityha Menen). We jump into the story of Nala (Priyardarshi Pullikonda) a down on his luck man trying out for a job as a cook. He is clueless but luckily a wise talking fish (voiced by Nani) is there to help and a talking tree (voiced by Ravi Teja) is there because there weren’t enough comedy uncles in the cast. The episodes spool by. A precocious little girl Moksha (Kaitlyn) has a battle of magic and wits with a rude, overbearing magician (Murli Sharma). A doorman (Srinivas Avasarala) is building a time machine so he can go find his parents. But then the mysterious Parvathi (Devadarshini) arrives from the future to stop him. Mira (Regina Cassandra) is plotting a heist with her boyfriend, and the stress and the drugs she takes trigger interesting hallucinations or maybe something more sinister. In between the scene shifts to Kali (Kajal Aggarwal), a woman in obvious distress who is waiting for a sign.

The stories and their locations seem unrelated initially so the jumping around was a bit irritating as episodes terminate in a cliffhanger. As the film loops back to pick up the various stories the location and times merge into one quirky looking food court, and the characters start to be seen in each other’s worlds. The set design is kind of shoddy and obviously fake which also puzzled me at first. The morse code device looked like a prop from a low budget school play. But like Pizza, a lot of things make much more sense after a point. It’s a bit risky leaving things looking half baked until that clicks for the audience. If you miss all the hints it is spelled out by the end. The one dimensional characters also make more sense once you realise how they relate back to one particular person and how they colour the way the others are depicted.

Because the story is told in quite a gimmicky way I didn’t feel the actors were all able to rise above the material. Murli Sharma is trapped in a tedious story and not even his wild overacting could get him out of it. Priyadarshi didn’t really hit his stride until the latter part of his story. And no matter how I consider it, I can’t see how the fish and the tree fit into the overarching conceit of the film other than to get some more star names on the poster. Rohini was fun and still heartfelt as Radha’s mum, struggling not to let her disapproval break a vow of silence.. Regina Cassandra has presence and Mira is a challenging role in some respects, being an unlikeable and untrustworthy person. She seems like a misfit in the largely family friendly ensemble of characters but may be the most real.

Prasanth Varma was ambitious in his treatment of a film without a Hero. A bit of research on female psychology and gender would have helped enormously with the execution. Kajal was unusually sombre as Kali and did her best to show the confusion and pain of long term mental illness and emotional damage. Her character made one particular choice that didn’t ring true and a cursory Google would have told the writer to choose something else. But having a happy and openly lesbian couple is such a positive change in representation in Indian films, I can’t whinge too much. And good on Nithya Menen for giving Krish a go. She was cheeky, a bit irreverent, loved the ladies and all in all embraced her namesake as a role model. But Krish’s explanation of why Radha identified as gay was more driven by the plot than any nuanced analysis, overly simplistic but I think well intentioned. There is some truth in saying some women could reduce psychological issues if they spoke up about being assaulted and got help, but there was almost no consideration that the better solution is for men to stop raping women. Everything comes back to women having to save themselves.

It’s a good film but I wanted great. I saw the big reveal coming from a mile away, so I wanted more from the characterisation and the detail of living this life. See it and see what you think.


Mersal (2017)


After drought ravaged farmers in Kaththi and violence against women in Theri, Vijay latest crusade is against corrupt medical practitioners in Atlee’s Mersal. There are few surprises in the storyline which follows a standard revenge formula, but the approach is stylish and the addition of a magician does ensure a few unexpected tricks. Vijay takes on a triple role that puts him front and centre for most of the film, which is just as well since it’s mainly his charisma that lifts Mersal above its well-worn story. But there are also energetic dance numbers, excellent special effects and a credible and suitably nasty villain making Mersal a major improvement on Vijay’s last film and worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Vijay plays a triple role – two brothers (one who is unaware of the other’s existence), and then their father in an extended flashback sequence. The story jumps around a lot as well as moving in and out of flashback so it’s deliberately not always clear which character we are watching at any given time. The film starts with the abductions of 4 men, all connected in some way to the same hospital, although it’s takes a while before we find out who they are and why they have been abducted. The police receive an anonymous tip off which leads them to arrest local hero and all round good guy Dr Marran (Vijay) who is known as the ₹5 doctor due to the fees he charges his patients. His arrest almost sparks a mini riot but once Police Officer Rathnavel (Sathyaraj) begins his interview (which for no good reason is conducted in a derelict building on a construction site) the story of the two brothers starts to unfold.

The other brother, Vetri (Vijay), is a magician and uses his powers to take revenge on the men he feels were responsible for his father’s death. It’s never clear how the brothers ended up separated or why Marran is brought up by his foster mother Sarala (Kovai Sarala) in ignorance of Vetri’s existence, but then Atlee seems to prefer focusing on the result rather than bothering with such basic explanations. Vetri is ably assisted in his magic and in his revenge by Vadivu (Vadivelu) who also moonlights as Maaran’s helper. This means Vetri knows exactly where Marran is and can use that information to his own advantage. While in Paris (really Poland, but close enough), Vetri meets Anu Pallavi (Kajal Aggarwal) who is acting as a general gofer for the rather greedy and lecherous Dr Arjun Zachariah (Hareesh Peradi). Dr Zachariah is the polar opposite of Maaran, believing that good medicine is commercial medicine and the only reason to be a doctor is to turn a huge profit and benefit from the misery of disease. Maraan on the other hand is a proponent of universal free health care as a basic human right, although he doesn’t seem to have really thought through exactly how this style of medical care will be funded if his dream is to become a reality.

While Vetri dances his way into Dr Anu’s heart in Paris, Maaran meets journalist Tara (Samantha) during an interview on a TV talk show. Love blossoms through another song but Maaran’s TV appearance has brought him to the attention of Dr Daniel Arockiyaraj (S.J. Surya) who recognises Maaran as being the spitting image of his father. Daniel and Vetrimaaran (Vijay) had an acrimonious history and Daniel immediately sets out to find and destroy the son of his enemy.

The best part of the film is the extended flashback after the interval which focuses on the reasons behind Vetri’s revenge and Daniel’s antipathy. S.J. Surya revels in his role as a conniving and deceitful doctor in wide collared shirts and spectacular flares but Vijay steals the show here with his performance as a villager with a big heart and even bigger muscles.  Nithya Menen is also superb as Vetrimaaran’s wife Aishwarya (aka Ice), although she does have the best of the three female roles. Her Ice is passionate and inspiring in her devotion to the idea of readily available health care in their village, and she gets the chance to really bring out the emotions of her character well. She also has excellent chemistry with Vijay and this is the relationship that works the best out of the three, although to be fair both Samantha and Kajal get little screen time with the hero and little chance to develop their respective relationships.

There are a few oddities in this part of the film though. There is a sudden jump between Ice’s admission into the hospital and her final fate without much explanation of what goes wrong. Also, a potential fight between Vetrimaaran and Daniel’s henchmen is over before it begins with the gang all lying on the ground bleeding and moaning seconds after they approach Vetrimaaran. I’m not sure if these cuts are an Australian specific issue since I haven’t seen any mention of them in any other reviews, but it does seem odd and makes these final flashback scenes seem rushed and a little confusing.

Although the main focus of the film is Vijay, the rest of the support cast are all good, including Rajendran as an unlikely Health minister and Kaali Venkat as an auto driver whose daughter died due to corruption in the health service. The music from A.R. Rahman doesn’t stand out as anything special, but it does fit into the screenplay well while Atlee places the songs wisely throughout. G.K. Vishnu works wonders with the cinematography and the effects are magical despite the sometimes cheesy nature of the tricks. Watch out for a scene where Vijay fights with a deck of cards – the fusion of the magic storyline into a standard masala tale is a better fit than I expected. Of course the real magic here is that Vijay seems to be growing younger with each new film and he’s just as energetic as ever too.

However Mersal is more than just a revenge drama and there is a definite political slant to the story. To start with, medical negligence and corruption is an emotive topic, that has been much in the news recently with a series of high profile deaths in the Indian medical system. Vetri makes a rather political statement towards the end of the film as he speaks to the crowd outside the courtroom and asking why India can’t fund heathcare as well as Singapore when the Indian government collects a much larger amount of GST. This is much more direct than Vijay’s message about suicidal farmers in Kaththi and does come across as a warning to the current government that they are being judged as lacking leadership in this issue. Vijay underscores the political theme with several nods to MGR, including a scene where Vetrimaaran walks in to a cinema to accuse village officials of corruption just as MGR strides onto the screen in the background. Is this the next stage in Vijay’s political campaign or is he just making the best use of his star power and philanthropic tendencies? Only time will tell, but in Mersal, Atlee has combined politics and entertainment without diluting the message or preaching to his audience- something a lot of Holywood films could do well to emulate.


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.