Kuttrame Thandanai (2016)

After Kaaka Muttai, M. Manikandan’s second film is a crime thriller where the sole witness to a murder is a man who is gradually losing his vision. Despite some dodgy medical diagnoses, the story itself is gripping with the identity of the murderer kept hidden right until the end. With plenty of twists and a great performance from Vidharth in the lead role, Kutrame Thandanai is an interesting film that deserves a second glance.

Right from the start we learn that Ravi (Vidharth) has a problem with his eyes. He has tunnel vision (due to retinitis pigmentosa according to his ophthalmologist), but the retinal image shown does not show the condition, and the symptoms don’t quite match up either. Ravi is told that he needs an eye transplant to ‘cure’ his problem, which is also impossible (there is no possible way to treat the retinal damage from retinitis pigmentosa), but the sum of money he needs for the operation becomes the central point of the story. The camera often shows Ravi’s view to accentuate his limited vision, which works effectively to help understand his very real problems.

Ravi works as a collector for a credit card collection office, where his co-worker Anu (Pooja Devariya) appears to have a crush on him, and as a result smooths his relationship with the manager (George Maryan). As his vision is getting worse day by day, Ravi starts to try and raise the money for his operation. He starts by trying to get a loan at work, but the amount is much too large. A glass-blowing friend (Nasser) is also unable to give him the money he needs, and it seems that Ravi is doomed to eventual blindness with the added misery of no longer being able to drive and at risk of losing his job. But then a girl who lives in his block of flats is murdered. Ravi sees a young man Arun (leave her apartment in a rage, and subsequently meets an older man at the scene. But which is responsible for the murder? 

As first Vijay Prakash (Rahman) and then Arun’s father offers Ravi money for his silence, it seems possible that he might be able to fund his operation at last. But in his search for what he needs, Ravi has to turn his back on justice for the murdered girl, Swetha (Aishwarya Rajesh). It’s a moral dilemma and writers M. Manikandan and Anand Annamalai have built the story around the question of moral ambiguity. Either of the two men could potentially be responsible for the murder, while Ravi is blackmailing them for his silence. There are also questions raised about the morality of the health service, which demands payment in full before even putting Ravi onto a waiting list for his operation. Even the other residents in the building appear to have double standards, being reluctant to speak to the police and get involved, but discussing Swetha’s death among themselves. There is also the issue that Swetha was being visited by several men, with an unspoken but inferred social agreement that she had contributed to her own death. The police are the least morally corrupt in the entire story, as they continue to look for justice for Swetha, despite being hampered by uncommunicative residents of the apartment block, and a general lack of clues. 

The crime is treated rather lightly, and the plot instead focuses on Ravi and the gradual change in his ethics as he becomes ever more desperate for money. Is it OK to demand money for his operation from a man who may potentially be a murder. As more details are revealed, Ravi’s actions become ever more questionable as we find he know who the real murderer is, and yet continues to auction his silence to the highest bidder. His actions also cause consequences for those people that he drags into his scheme, although these are only seen from Ravi’s point of view. Essentially the film shows how selfish we become when faced with a problem such as Ravi’s blindness. Not only is he losing his sight, but he’s also unable to see anything other than his own problems.

Although Kutrame Thandanai doesn’t have the instant appeal of Kaaka Muttai and the plot is also slow to develop, it does have great characterisations. It does take a long time before the crucial murder and the blackmail story also develops later in the plot, but what I like is the moral ambiguity that threads through the entire story. The characters are inherently normal people with the usual mix of corruption and innocence, and what works well is the way that we only tend to see their reactions through Ravi’s eyes. There is a good sense of Ravi’s thought processes and why he decides on blackmail as the solution for his problems, even though this is possibly the worst decision he could make. Vidharth puts in a great performance that ensure we see Ravi as a typical low-income worker who is desperate to save his sight and therefore his livelihood. I really like how he stops driving when told to do so by the doctor, but then makes more questionable decisions when faced with the potential to change his fate. In real life, many patients would not do the former, at least not until they have worked through the consequences, but few would decide to follow Ravi’s later decisions. Here too, Nasser works well as Ravi’s sounding board and source of moral counsel, even though he doesn’t really seem to understand the reality of Ravi’s vision loss. The cast all provide solid support and although Aishwarya Rajesh only has brief appearances, she still makes an impression while Pooja Devariya ensures that her character is memorable for all the right reasons.

Ilaiyaraaja’s background music is beautiful and soars above the grimy streets that M. Manikandan captures so well. The ambiguity of the characters is well depicted and the story raises many questions about morality and how it applies in different situations. Ravi’s tunnel vision is literal, but also applies to many of the other characters in the way they view the world as well as to Ravi’s own interpretation of his situation. Interesting and more complex that it first appears, Kutrame Thandanai is a worthwhile watch and highly recommended. 4 stars.

Vellai Pookal

The idea of Vivek in a serious role as a cop investigating a succession of disappearances in America is intriguing, but despite some good ideas and the rather more unusual setting of Seattle, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the trailer.  Director Vivek Elangovan and co-writer Shanmuga Bharathi have a story with potential that’s let down by poor dialogue for the inexperienced American cast and a slow introduction that fails to produce the necessary tension. On the plus side, Vivek pulls off his role as a retired detective and there is enough going on to keep the film interesting, even if it lacks enough suspense until near the end.

Vivek plays the role of Rudhran, a police officer in Chennai who investigates crimes by placing himself in the mind of the killer. The opening sequence shows this clearly, if somewhat bloodily, but already there is something just a little off with the screenplay. When Rudhran explains every clue, and conveniently finds the culprit close at hand, it all seems just a little too pat and easy, while the violence of the crime seems unsuited to the perpetrator and the revelation of his reasons. Still, it’s a good introduction and doesn’t show Rudhran as some kind of superhero cop, but rather as someone who relies on his intelligence and his instincts to bring a killer to justice.

This seems to have been Rudhran’s last case before retirement, and at the urging of his Deputy Inspector General (Gajaraj), he heads off to Seattle to visit his estranged son Ajay (Dev). Despite a friendly welcome, Rudhran still seems to have an issue with Ajay, but all is revealed when they arrive home to Alice (Paige Henderson), the white American woman Ajay has married. If his reaction to Ajay is chilly, Rudhran is positively glacial towards Alice, and practically refuses to acknowledge her existence. Later, we learn that this animosity isn’t simply because Alice is white, or even as a result of her attempts to speak Tamil, but rather is due to Ajay jilting the girl he was to marry in India just a few days before the wedding. Rudhran struggles to cope with Alice, the American food and the smart fridge featuring photos of the couple, all of which I found fairly relatable to be honest.

But Rudhran also complains about Seattle being too clean and quiet for him during phone calls to friends back home, as he misses the noise and chaos of Chennai and the excitement of police investigations.  Luckily, Ajay’s work colleague Ramya (Pooja Devariya) live with her parents, Bharati (Charle) and Meena (Sudha Rajasekaran) who quickly establish a relationship with Rudhran.

The neighbourhood isn’t as quiet as Rudhran thinks since first Ajay’s next-door neighbour, and then a neighbourhood kid both vanish under mysterious circumstances. Various characters are offered up as potential suspects but the issue is confused by occasional scenes of an abusive man, his bedridden wife and traumatised daughter. When Ajay joins the ranks of the missing the case becomes more than an interesting puzzle for Rudhran and he has to overcome his fears for Ajay before he can focus his skills as a detective.

The bones of the story are good but unfortunately there is too much that is predicable, especially in the long and drawn out set-up to Ajay’s disappearance. Most of the suspects are cliched characters too – there is a black drug dealer, Mona’s muscled boyfriend and a shady and uncommunicative Pakistani neighbour who all fall under Rudhran’s suspicions. This necessitates various plots and diversions by Bharati to allow Rudhran to investigate each suspect, but these don’t all work and mostly seem forced into the story to allow Vivekh and Charle a chance to revert back to their usual comedy schtick. We never get a good feel for the characters of Ajay and Alice, while the investigating police officers are drawn in very broad strokes, seemingly only included to get in Rudhran’s way and demonstrate 70’s TV cop clichés at every turn.

Also problematic are the scenes featuring Ethan (Lionel Flynn) and his daughter Nicole (Gabrielle Castronover) which seem ridiculously over the top and exaggerated. Ethan is purely evil and seems to spend his time dealing in drugs and stolen children, brutalising his wife and daughter and wastefully snorting massive amounts of cocaine. The problem with this is that Ethan is such a complete monster, and so removed from the rest of the storyline, that it seems obvious that the disappearances will be linked to him. This ends up removing any real sense of urgency or tension as we know who the real bad guy is and really are just waiting to see when he will cross paths with Rudhran. As it turns out there is a nice twist, but it’s spoiled by Rudhran explaining what has happened with a voice-over rather than just showing us the action. None of the American cast impress at all, with the possible exception of Gabrielle Castronover who has little dialogue but is still effective in getting her emotions across.

Despite these issues, the film is still watchable thanks to Vivek who really gets into the role, particularly when Rudhran the father has to take second place to the Rudhran the detective. He’s also excellent at portraying his frustration with retirement, with the lack of purpose to his days and his discomfort at being in his son’s house without having solved the problems that exist between them. His fear and frustration roil off the screen and in these moments it’s easy to forget that he’s mainly known for his comedic roles. There are some good scsnes too, such as when Rudhran interviews the missing people in his dreams, and interrogates his suspects – insisting that they all speak Tamil because it is his dream, and that is the language he speaks. These are cleverly done and it’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t show the same attention to detail and preciseness of dialogue that are shown here.

According to their website this was the first film from Indus Creations and it seems to be a collaboration among friends with a passion for theatre and film. As such, this is a good first dip into the murky waters of cinema and the team deserve credit for producing a watchable detective film with a difference. Tighter editing, better use of the American cast including less stilted dialogue would have made this a better film, but it’s still enjoyable and it’s probably the most inventive use of dandelions I’ve seen in an Indian film. Worth a one-time watch for Vivek and the inventive storyline. 3 stars.

Katheyondu Shuruvagide

Katheyondu Shuruvagide PosterSenna Hegde’s Katheyondu Shuruvagagide is a leisurely stroll through three different love stories that run alongside the tale of one man’s struggle to keep his hotel business going. It’s ‘slice-of-life’ storytelling that works thanks to the rich dialogue, detailed characterisations and excellent performances from the entire cast. However, it’s also reminiscent of European movies that take a slow approach to story development, so this is one more for those who prefer emotions and character-driven drama over fast action.

Tarun (Diganth Manchale) runs a small hotel somewhere on the coast of Karnataka near an absolutely stunning beach. Despite the gorgeous setting and well-appointed rooms, the hotel is struggling and at the beginning of the film Tarun is seen heading to the airport to pick up his only guests for the week – a married couple from the north of India. The opening scenes also establish Tarun’s bachelor status in his ultra-cool pad with a totally awesome wall light, and introduce his relationship with his Uncle Shankar (Babu Hirannaiah) and Aunt Radha (Aruna Balaraj). The other characters in the hotel make a brief appearance here too – chef Kutty (Prakash K. Thuminadu), driver and general dogsbody Pedro (Ashwin Rao Pallakki) and hotel receptionist Swarna (Shreya Anchan).

When Tarun arrives at the airport he finds only Tanya (Pooja Devariya) who explains that she has been recently widowed but asks Tarun to keep her status secret from the other hotel staff. This is in an attempt to prevent sympathy which she feels unable to handle. And indeed she is visibly upset and struggling to cope. At various times Tanya breaks down in tears and on the first occasion Tarun responds by chivalrously handing her a box of tissues from the car. However, as the week goes on he becomes more and more intrigued by Tanya and eventually offers her a shoulder to cry on.

While Tarun takes Tanya out sight-seeing and provides her with a ready ear for her problems, Pedro is desperate to let Swarna know that he is in love with her. Swarna on the other hand is getting ready to go to Dubai where her NRI fiancé is located. The two spend time chatting online while Pedro plots how to best persuade Swarna to stay in India with him instead. He’s aided by Kutty who bases his suggestions on talk-back radio, ensuring plenty of gentle comedy as the rather naïve Pedro tries to win over the much more sophisticated Swarna.

The third romance is the long-standing relationship between Shankar and Radha, and the interactions between the two suggests a love marriage that has only deepened over the years. However, Radha reveals a rather different story when chatting to Tanya, providing good contrast to the other threads and showing a different side to love. Their story is beautifully developed and both Babu Hirannaiah and Aruna Balaraj suit their roles perfectly. Their scenes are the typical day-to-day reality of an older couple and yet still allow their characters plenty of scope to flourish. The only odd note is Shankar’s advice for Tarun to find a partner to help solve his monetary woes, I’m not sure if this was supposed to be a reference to dowry or just to have support through his troubles, but either way this seemed to come out of nowhere.

All the characters are excellent and the slow development suits the realistic nature of the story. Tarun’s back-story of living in the US before returning to Karnataka to realise his dream seems plausible and his attempts to rescue the business rather than sell out to a developer also ring true. Diganth does a good job in the role and has good chemistry with his co-star, Pooja. Pooja is fantastic and manages to make Tanya a totally relatable character despite initially declaring that she has decided to come on her honeymoon even after being widowed. It’s that  ‘already booked and I needed to get away’ rationale that has worked for movies like Queen but it’s Pooja’s attitude that really makes this so believable. She varies between genuine grief and attempts to be distracted by the scenery which comes across as totally understandable given her circumstances. Even the final scenes which reveal all is not quite as it seems are entirely plausible while writer Abhijit Mahesh’s dialogues are the icing on the cake that makes Tanya’s character really come alive. Although Pedro and Swarna’s story is mainly lighter and used as comedy, the dialogue here too is excellent and hits plenty of truths along the way.

The events of the film take place over a week, but rather than focusing on the romance between Tarun and Tanya the story follows the characters through their normal day-to-day lives – for example, conversations between Pedro and Radha as she readies the hotel room for Tanya, or between Pedro and Kutty as they prepare breakfast. Nothing happens quickly and the focus on the minutiae of each day adds authenticity to the story. Added reality comes with discussions about reviews on traveller websites and the problems Tarun has had as a result of posted complaints about the food.

The scenery is well shot to showcase just how beautiful the Indian coastline can be. The waters look pristine and the beaches sparsely populated, which made me wonder if this is the reality, and if so why I wasn’t already booking a trip! There are a few odd shots taken at approximately knee level which didn’t quite work as they pushed me out of the fly on the wall approach and made me lose contact with the characters. However there aren’t very many of these and the rest of Sreeraj Raveendran’s cinematography is stunning.

Sachin Warrier’s songs are good and well pictured with an appropriate mix of sad and happy tunes and a great party song too. Thankfully these were all subtitled which is always a plus, and the rest of the film had great subtitles too. Unfortunately though I missed the name of the subtitler.

Katheyondu Shuruvagide is a sweet film that doesn’t try to be anything other than a snapshot of life for a group of people in a small seaside resort. Senna Hegde has the mix of characters exactly right and the few others who appear briefly, such as Raghu Ramanakoppa as a coconut seller are smoothly integrated into the routine established by the main leads. It’s good to see such a character driven film with great attention to detail and well written dialogue. Slow-paced, yes, but definitely one to savour.