I (2015)

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Shankar is a director who has proved in the past to have amazing vision and a seemingly unending wealth of imaginative ideas. Many of his previous films have been visually stunning with incredible effects and novel concepts, but he seems to have missed the mark somewhat with his latest movie I. He has the benefit of an excellent cast and a potentially interesting story, but somehow the sum of the whole is not as good as each individual part. The film has a few too many cringe-worthy moments to make me want to see it again although Vikram is superb, and Amy Jackson is also impressive despite a rather limited role. However their characters aren’t particularly likeable and the story meanders annoyingly along several inconsequential paths before finally reaching the predictable and cloyingly trite end. I’m not even going to complain about the dodgy medicine since there was so much else that bothered me more about the improbable and often distasteful screenplay, but the ‘science’ is just as far-fetched as the rest of the story. Really the only reason I can give to watch I is Vikram and his impressive ability to transform himself into just about anyone, and that’s not quite enough to justify the 3 hours plus of I.

The story revolves around Lingesan (Vikram), a body builder from the back streets whose ambition in life is to win the Mr India competition. Be warned, there is a lot of flexing and posing in the first half hour of the film, while Lingesan tries to win the Mr Tamil Nadu crown from a large number of other over-muscled and over-oiled men in very skimpy bathers. It’s quite impressive that Vikram managed to achieve this look, but it’s not attractive and I was much happier once he put his clothes back on and backed off on the oil. Unfortunately he doesn’t really stop the flexing and posing even when fully clothed.

There is also a ridiculous fight scene backstage at the Mr Tamil Nadu championships with Lingesan managing to fight off multiple opponents including his arch-rival Ravi (M. Kamaraj). Ravi is a much better contender for the title of Mr Tamil Nadu so it’s a little surprising that he takes Lingesan as an opponent so seriously, but at least there is a relatively valid reason for the ongoing enmity between the two men, even if it does seem unlikely.

Lingesan is also obsessed with model Diya (Amy Jackson) to the point where he purchases absolutely anything she has endorsed, and I do mean absolutely everything. It’s quite creepy initially but does move out of stalker territory once Diya and Lingesan meet and Lingesan starts behaving like a 13 year old besotted schoolboy instead. It’s not a lot better but at least it’s funnier. Santhanan provides the rest of the comedy as Lingesan’s brother Babu, and for the most part he’s reasonably amusing, although a comedy track really wasn’t needed given just how ridiculous the plot becomes in the second half of the film.

From body builder to model is apparently as simple as getting a haircut and shaving off a moustache and with that Lingesan transforms into successful model Lee on the basis of one ad campaign and a romance with his muse Diya. However to get to this point Lingesan has pissed off quite a few people including the obnoxiously sleazy model John (Upen Patel) who is furious at being foiled in his attempts to get Diya into bed. Diya’s transgender make-up artist Osma (Ojas Rajani) also falls in love with Lingesan and is hurt and vengeful after his rather forceful rejection of her advances. John’s behavior is fairly gross but nothing unexpected for a masala movie, but the ‘romance’ between Osma and Lee is badly developed and feels more homophobic and derogatory than necessary. I can’t decide if Shankar was trying to be clever here and make a point about how the world views people who are transgender given that the film is based in the advertising world and uses image and ideals of beauty to develop the plot, or if this really was just a bad piece of writing, but it’s hard to watch whatever the reasoning.

Interspersed with the frothy romance are flashes to the present day where a hunched and grossly deformed Lingesan has kidnapped Diya on her wedding day, and the story gradually shifts to a tale of vengeance and medical improbability. Here at least the idea of image and beauty does get a little more developed although the masala element is still very much to the fore. Lingesan seeks revenge on the people who have caused his illness and as scientific reality goes out the window the story gets ever more ridiculous until the Beauty and Beast song seems quite normal and believable by comparison. It’s also a pleasant relief from all the disfigurement and maiming, although like other songs in the film it’s not well integrated into the narrative.

There are a number of more mundane inconsistencies such as the sudden turnaround in Diya’s treatment of hunchback Lingesan and Lingesan’s continued strength and agility given his deformed body. Not that any of the rest of it makes any more sense, but there is too much that is implausible and the story becomes too far-fetched to take seriously. However there are also far too many scenes where the people variously handicapped as a result of Lingesan’s revenge are ridiculed and mocked for their appearance and disability. It’s part of the plot sure – these are people who now look as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside, but I found this really quite shocking and abhorrent, particularly as it’s meant to be part of the comedy and is anything but funny.

This is definitely Vikram’s show and he does do an amazing job in portraying the two different faces of Lingesan.  Amy Jackson is much better than I expected, and the rest of the cast are all good given that they are all overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Vikram. The special effects by Weta Workshop are also very well done, and it’s such a shame that the story doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the visuals of the film. Of course it’s a story set in a world where image is all and appearance trumps substance at every stage so perhaps that’s not too surprising after all.

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Nayakan (1987)

Nayakan

This film has been on my ‘must see’ list for a while but it proved very difficult to track down a copy.  Even then I ended up with a Telugu dub without subtitles, and when I did manage to download subs they were somewhat selective in the translation, declining to translate any of the Hindi, and a bit hit and miss with the rest. However they did at least provide translations of Ilaiyaraaja’s wonderful songs which are definitely high points of the film.  Nayakan is one of Mani Ratnam’s earlier films, and is the movie that brought him to the attention of the cinematic world outside the Southern film industry.  It’s based on the story of Varadarajan Mudaliar, aka Vardhabhai, one of the notorious gangsters who controlled the underworld in Mumbai during the 70’s and 80’s.  There are also shades of Coppola’s The Godfather, but essentially Nayakan is a very Indian story, full of emotion and seeped in the violence and grime of the slums of the city.  Kamal Hassan won a National Award for his performance as did P.C. Sriram for cinematography and Thotta Tharani for best art direction, all of which were very justly earned.  The film also features Saranya Ponvannan in her screen début and a generally notable cast including Nasser, Janagaraj, Delhi Ganesh and Tinnu Anand.  But above all this is Kamal Haasan’s film and he is riveting in a stand-out performance which sees him grow from a young man to an ageing don in the slums of Mumbai.

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The film starts with the young Velu Nayakar being used by the police to track down and kill his father, a prominent anti-government unionist. It’s a brutal introduction and it’s certainly apt as the film doesn’t shy away from showing the violence associated with the underworld.  The poignant refrain of Thenpaandi Cheemayile comes from the beating the young child suffers, and the song is reprised throughout the film to underscore the importance of pivotal scenes in Velu Nayakar’s life.  This clip shows two of the versions and, although they both occur much later in the film it’s not really the song rather than the images I wanted to include.  However it is worth noting the cinematography and the way P.C. Sriram uses light so effectively in these two snippets.  The song is sung by Ilaiyaraaja and Kamal Haasan himself.

Velu arrives in Mumbai and is adopted by a small time smuggler who instils in Velu the concept that any slightly less than legal act isn’t wrong if it helps someone.  Over time Velu starts to stand up for the rights of the Tamil people who live in the slums, but it is the murder of his adopted father by a police officer that tips the balance and sets him against the law as he takes his revenge.  However even this act is tempered when Velu comes to understand that the dead police officer has a mentally retarded son and he gives Kelkar’s widow money to ensure that both she and her son will survive.

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This dichotomy occurs throughout the film where Velu is shown as a very human character who smuggles and murders but also helps out when members of his community are arrested or when a child is seriously ill.  He’s a man who makes mistakes and pays dearly for them, but he’s also someone who is trying to make life just a little better for the people around him.  One such instance is when the slum is about to be bulldozed to make way for a factory.  Velu organises a gang of the locals and goes to the developer’s house, tearing it apart to drive home the point that these are people’s homes which are being destroyed, not just a piece of land. It also looks like a lot of fun as the gang rips apart furnishings and throws furniture from the roof!

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Velu isn’t a don who drives around in the cavalcades of vehicles more commonly seen in Southern Indian films, but instead he has a fleet of ambulances and lives in a house which is easily accessible for the people of the slum, making Velu Nayakan a more realistic and believable character.  There are a few odd moments however, such as an item-style dance number on a boat, and an instance where Velu does appear to be channelling the Godfather given his choice of natty pin-striped suit.  

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More commonly however the dim lighting and traditional dress suit the more modest and unassuming Velu, who seems more embarrassed than anything by the adulation he receives.

Mani Ratnam’s screenplay is most effective in describing the relationships between Velu and the other characters, in particular those of his immediate family.  His first meeting with Neela (Saranya Ponvannan), who becomes his wife, is beautifully acted and filmed as the two meet in a brothel.  Velu and his friend Selvam (Janagaraj) end up at the brothel after smuggling success and while Selvam appears to have been there before, Velu looks a little more uncomfortable and out of place.  He does manage to enjoy this great song though before heading upstairs for some more intimate amusement.

When Velu gets upstairs, Neela is waiting in the room and almost the first thing she does is ask if she can leave early to study for her exams.  Velu’s reaction is as awkward and confused as would be expected and Kamal Haasan shows this in his indecision as to whether he should lie on the bed or sit on the chair as she studies.  Even his hesitancy the next morning, when he’s not sure if he should wake Neela or not, nicely illustrates Velu’s more compassionate side and this is brought out again when the couple do eventually marry.  Saranya is dignified as Neela, despite starting out in a brothel and she brings a very warm and sympathetic presence into the harsh reality of the slums.

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P.C. Sriram makes good use of the set here as initially Velu stands in the light while the mirror shows a shadowy figure through the curtains of the bed in the darkness of the room beyond. It’s very effective and throughout the film there is a similar use of light and shadow with many shots framed by pillars, doorways or other architectural features.

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The best scenes in the film are those between Velu’s son Surya (Nizhalgal Ravi) and daughter Charumati (Karthika).  Surya hero worships his father just as much as do the local people in the slum, and he wants nothing more than to be like him. He stands in for his father when a member of the community comes to Velu for help and he sees nothing wrong with the life of a gangster.  However Charu has a very different opinion and eventually she leaves her father after some very emotive scenes where Charu repudiates her father’s lifestyle.  She feels that his style of life is entirely wrong no matter how many people he helps, and Velu is helpless in the face of her rejection.  Kamal Haasan and Karthika are absolutely brilliant together in these scenes and also later on when Charu turns up later married to Velu’s new nemesis, the new Assistant Commissioner (Nasser).  Charu refuses to allow her father to see his grandson in another tear jerker moment, although the most poignant scene in the film between Velu and his grandson is reserved for the end.

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There are many small moments and clever touches in the film which make it so enthralling.  From the joy seen at the Holi celebrations to the despair when Neela dies and her sari unravels in Velu’s hands, each scene is full of little details which add to the drama.  Kamal Haasan provides much of the emotion and driving force in the film, but all the actors are excellent even in the minor roles. Tinnu Anand deserves special mention for his small but important role as Ajith Kelkar, the grown up mentally retarded son of the police officer, and Nasser is very effective in his short time on screen towards the end of the film.

Beautifully haunting music, gritty realistic scenes and an outstanding performance by Kamal Haasan make this a film well worth hunting down, and it really deserves to be restored and released with English subtitles.  Nayakan is an absolute classic from Mani Ratnam, and it’s one I thoroughly recommend. A full 5 stars.