Bombay

Bombay is the second of Mani Ratnam’s ‘terrorist trilogy’, and is the one that I find the most disturbing. I remember the news reports from the real-life events that happened in Bombay in 1992 which are recreated here in authentic detail, and I find the violence here more confronting and realistic, despite a rather romanticised ending. In Bombay, Mani Ratnam juxtaposes a ‘forbidden’ romance between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman with the Bombay riots to create a compelling and disturbing look at the religious divide in India. The film shows how prejudice can drive extreme acts of hatred but also includes the counter ideals of selflessness and acceptance with an almost fairy-tale spin on good and evil. It’s another stunning film from Mani Ratnam that still makes an impact to-day and along with A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack deserves all the awards and recognition that it has achieved over the years since its 1995 release.

The story starts with Shekhar (Arvind Swami) returning home to visit his family in a river-side village in Tamil Nadu. Just as Shekhar arrives he sees Shaila Banu (Manisha Koirala) and instantly he falls in love. Luckily the attraction is mutual and despite their different religions, a romance begins to grow between the two. Shekhar has been studying journalism in Bombay, which gives him a city sophistication and an intolerance for his father’s prejudiced views. Narayanan Pillai (Nassar) is a devout Hindu whose worst fear seems to be that his son will marry a bride from the North of India, since he is unable to imagine the horror of a daughter-in-law from a different religion. Shaila’s family is just as appalled by the thought of Shekhar and her father Basheer (Kitty) quickly arranges a marriage for his wayward daughter when he finds out about the affair. The clandestine nature of the romance allows for some beautiful camera work from Rajiv Menon and we also get the beautiful Kannalanae as Shaila spots Shekhar at a wedding.

I’ve read that Mani Ratnam wanted these scenes to be beautiful as a contrast to events in the second half, and I find it interesting that his idea of beauty is in the wind and rain that are a constant presence in the village. For me, accustomed to the weather in Ireland, I’d thought that this was supposed to represent the cold attitude of the two families to the romance until I read Baradwaj Rangan’s interview with Mani Ratnam. In Ireland, wind and rain is always cold and miserable, but since visiting Tamil Nadu I can appreciate why gusts of wind and showers of rain would be beautiful in a hot and often dry landscape. Despite knowing this, I still feel chilled when I see the wind whipping Shaila’s veil and skirt around, while the crashing waves and constant rain strike me as cold and gloomy even though I can appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

At the same time, coming from Northern Ireland, where it was just as taboo for a Catholic and a Protestant to start a relationship, I can really relate to the problem faced by Shekhar and Shaila; another reason why I find this film so confronting. The attitudes and expectations of society resonate closely to my own experiences growing up surrounded by religious intolerance and I am always thankful that my own family had a more progressive attitude. It does mean that I can understand their predicament here, and to some extent why their families are so worried as well. Beyond their own antipathy to the relationship there is the worry that society will condemn both Shaila and Shekhar, leading to ostracism and a continual risk to their safety.

With their families at loggerheads, Shekhar and Shaila elope to Bombay. They quickly get married and before long have two twin boys Kabir Narayan (Master Harsha) and Kamal Basheer (Master Hriday). The boys are named for their respective grandfathers but are brought up in both religions, while Shekhar and Shaila are easily accepted in their neighbourhood despite their ‘mixed’ marriage. But when the Babri Masjid is demolished and riots break out across Bombay, the boys are lost in the city alone. They are caught by a gang of men who terrorise the children, pouring petrol over them and starting to set them alight in a shocking scene full of religious intolerance and hatred. These are two young boys with no idea what religion is, let alone the differences between Hindus and Muslims, and with their brutalisation, Mani Ratnam exposes the full horror of the riots and the absolute inhumanity of the rioters.

While relations between the communities in Bombay are breaking down, Narayanan and Basheer have gradually turned their enmity into a guarded tolerance, so when both travel to Bombay in the wake of the December riots, they are able to live with Shekhar and Shaila without too much trouble. As the violence continues in the city, their relationship continues to improve as they realise the extremism and intolerance doesn’t reflect either of their own beliefs.

Some of the most powerful scenes here show Shekhar interviewing the religious and political leaders and asking them when the riots will stop, but no-one seems able or even willing to try and bring peace. As riots again grip the city and neighbourhoods are set on fire, the family is torn apart once more with Shekhar and Shaila left to tour the hospitals and mortuaries in their search for Kabir and Kamal. Meanwhile the boys find kindness from unlikely places as Bombay slowly begins to return to normal.

The film has graphic scenes of the violence and does not spare the audience any of the horror associated with the riots and the aftermath. The scene of bodies in the morgue is particularly bleak, even though Mani Ratnam doesn’t explicitly show grieving families – he doesn’t need to. The anguish and despair come through clearly as Shekhar staggers through room after room of bodies, men women and children, Hindu and Muslim, all mixed together, in a terrible reminder that this is the real cost of the riots. Although some of the scenes here do feel rather contrived, such as when Shekhar confronts two of his friends who are fighting on opposite sides, many more appear authentic, painting a picture of neighbour against neighbour with the main casualties being the innocent bystanders. When the police enter the picture (including Prakash Raj as Inspector Kumar) the level of violence seems to jump yet again, and the images of Kabir and Kamal hiding from the authorities are powerful reminders of the political aspects to these events.

The romance is beautifully told with plenty of symbolism in the images of sheets of rain separating Shekhar from his family, and Shaila losing her abaya as she runs towards Shekhar and freedom. The second half is brutally realistic but still has beautiful scenes of the family together and the developing relationship between Narayanan and Basheer. Rajiv Menon’s cinematography is excellent and A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack perfectly complements the visuals while Raju Sundaram and Prabhu Deva ensure that the dance numbers are equally spectacular.

Arvind Swami is excellent in a role that requires him to switch from a love-struck young man to a desperate and terrified one as he searches the streets for his children. His emotions are clear and easy to read, particularly in the second half when he begins to realise the political manipulations that are behind the riots. His fear and desperation as he searches for his children are frighteningly realistic while his disgust at the politicians, religious leaders and the rioters themselves also comes across well. Manisha Koirala too is wonderful in her role, and brings plenty of emotion to her character at every stage. Although she looks fragile, her character has plenty of determination and a fierce capacity to fight back when necessary. I love her performance here as she conveys so much without words, letting her expression say everything instead. The support cast are all good too, and Nassar and Kitty steal the show whenever they are on screen together. Their initial animosity and then gradual acceptance help to ground the film and stop it becoming too overly emotional as well as providing some mild comedy that also helps to lighten the atmosphere.

Overall, Bombay is a beautifully made film that takes on both a societal issue and a horrific subject to make strong and compelling political and social statements. Mani Ratnam does hammer home the manipulation message rather forcefully, and the final scenes are a little too simplistic, especially after all the drama that has come before, but despite these few issues, the film still delivers a powerful message that continues to resonate, even all these years later. It’s a disturbing film but that’s what makes it such essential viewing. Highly recommended. 4 ½ stars.

Asuran (2019)

Vetrimaaran’s latest film Asuran is a graphic and violent tale of oppression and intimidation of a small landowner and his family, but it’s also a story of revenge, survival and of the fight for justice in an unjust world. Dhanush is in his element, playing both Sivasaamy, an ageing and broken-down small freehold farmer and also his younger self in a flashback that explains how he ended up as a pacifist. The rest of the cast are just as good, including Ken Karnuas as Sivasaamy’s son and Manju Warrier as Sivasaamy’s wife. Asuran seems set to be another Vetrimaaran classic as yet again he has captured the flavour of rural Tamil Nadu while telling a rousing story, this time adapted from Poomani’s novel, Vekkai.

The story starts quietly, with Sivasaamy (Dhanush) and his youngest son Chidambaram (Ken Karunas) wading through a river in the middle of the night. Sivasaamy urges caution, explaining to his reluctant son why they are walking in the river, rather than on the road (it’s to hide their tracks). At one point as the water is gradually getting higher, Chidamabaram complains that his bombs will get wet. I thought this was likely a euphemism for something else, but surprisingly, as clearly demonstrated later, what he’s carrying are indeed explosive devices! As the father and son slowly make their way deeper into the forest, Vetrimaran shows the searchers, hunters and police who are on their trail, while in the other direction, Sivasaamy’s wife Pachaiamma (Manju Warrier) and daughter are also running to hide. At this point Sivasaamy seems confident and capable – he knows how to hide their trail and how to keep silent, unlike Chidambaram who seems to be singularly clueless, wandering off, lighting fires and generally making himself far too visible.

Gradually we discover why the family are in flight as, in flashback, the film shows the family’s struggle against the rich Vadakkoran Narasimha (Aadukalam Naren) who wants their small plot of land. This leads to clashes between Vadakkoran’s men and Sivasaamy’s older son Murugan (Teejay Arunasalam) who wants to fight back and cannot understand his father’s servile attitude. Even Pachaiamma grabs up a sickle to defend herself, but Sivasaamy urges caution and tries to ignore the provocations, including the death of one of the family dogs. Murugan is frustrated by his father’s faintheartedness and responds by aggression and violence, although mostly as a result of threats and taunts from Vadakkoran’s men. It’s obvious that neither Sivasaamy’s approach, not his son’s aggressiveness will work against the upper class Vadakkoran who has the law and the power of his money on his side, and this futility underpins all of the action in the film. The violence escalates until Murugan is murdered in a particularly gruesome and bloody manner which starts to tear the family apart. Chidambaram is only 16 and cannot understand the class politics that make his father unable to act, but instead regards him as a coward. As a result, to try and alleviate his mother’s grief, Chidambaram attacks Vadakkoran, leading to the family’s midnight flight.

Dhanush is simply amazing as the older and broken Sivasaamy. His subjugation at every turn is perfectly nuanced to make us feel his pain and despair as Sivasaamy struggles to keep his family safe. His alcoholism is part of the whole picture of a deeply flawed man, while the contempt of his sons and stoicism of his wife is shown to cut deeply. Murugan and Chidambaram deride their father for his cowardice but Pachaiamma and her brother (Pasupathy) have a much better idea of the situation, and although they don’t always approve, they tend to support Sivasaamy’s approach. However, when Murugan is killed, Pachaiamma can no longer support her husband’s viewpoint with matters coming to a head when Chidambaram seeks his revenge. The family drama is beautifully written with the emotions raw and realistic, while the relentless persecution from Vadakkoran seems unnecessarily harsh but also very plausible.

Despite Chidambaram’s low opinion of his father, he’s still young enough to rely on him during their flight. But when they are cornered at the end of the first half, it’s Chidambaram who is shocked when his father finally picks up a stick and fights back in spectacular style. It’s massy, but loads of fun and the fight scene is well staged to make Sivasaamy’s sudden prowess believable.

The second half starts with a flashback to Sivasaamy’s youth, and once again his subjugation by a rich local landlord which ends with the death of his family including his activist brother (Subramaniam Siva) and his fiancée Mariyammal (Ammu Abhirami). This time the divide is more about caste but the outcome is the same despite having lawyer Venugopal Seshadri (Prakash Raj) on their side. While the story is compelling and a bitter statement on the realities of being poor in rural India, it’s the characterisations that stand out in Asuran. Ken Karnuas is fantastic in a role which requires him to be naïve, passionate and impulsive but then have to grow up really fast. Manju Warrier is a rock steady presence beside her husband, until her son is murdered and her world comes crashing down. Her grief roils off the screen in waves of pain in the distressingly realistic scene where Muruguan’s body is discovered. The visuals hit hard, and the acting is simply superb throughout. Although his time onscreen is short, Teejay Arunasalam makes an impact in a powerful performance of a young man determined to defend his family at all costs.

 

The film looks amazing as Velraj captures the stunning scenery around Tirunevelli. The cinematography emphasises the isolation when Sivasaamy and Chidambaram flee into the forest, but also captures the heart of rural India and the wonderful colours associated with different crops. The film soundtrack from GV Prakash Kumar is also excellent while the songs are perfectly matched to the action on screen. There is also clever use of sound, where during an action scene, all the music stops and there is just the sound of breathing, which works very well to focus attention on the protagonist and let us wonder what is going on in his mind, right at that very second.  Vetrimaaran keeps the romance sections short and the fight scenes bloody and violent, but it all fits snugly into the narrative despite a somewhat rushed feeling of the ending. Thanks are also due to the subtitler for using yellow font and being clear and concise – sorry I didn’t catch who was responsible for these.

Asuran combines father and son relationships with village power politics and the result is a powerful societal film that also has the warmth and intimacy of a more personal story. The performances are all amazing and as always I am stunned by how Dhanush can transform between a feisty young man in his early twenties to an older fifty-plus worn down farmer and be totally convincing in both roles. Wonderful actors, a compelling story and stunning scenery all combine to make this one of the best Tamil movies so far this year. Don’t miss it!

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018)

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Mani Ratnam’s latest is a surprisingly conventional crime drama that pits three brothers against each other as they vie to take over their father’s gangster business. Unusually there is little character development for each of the brothers, so it does take some time to become connected to the film and get to grips with exactly who is who (and who is sleeping with who). However, the finale is excellent and does keep you guessing right up until the end, while Vijay Sethupathi, Arvind Swami and Jyothika are all superb throughout.

Prakash Raj plays the ageing gangster Senapathi who survives an attack by two assassins dressed as police officers at the start of the film. His wife Lakshmi (Jayasudha) is also in the car, and it’s interesting that their conversation prior to the attack mentions Sena’s infidelities rather than introducing the family members or focusing on the crime empire. However, it’s not until the end that this and other snippets of information come together to make a satisfying whole and many of the seemingly throwaway statements are much more revealing than they initially seem.

Sena’s three sons all return home as their father and mother are rushed to hospital and it doesn’t take long until they are all at each other’s throats, arguing over who will take their father’s place. The eldest son Varadan (Arvind Swami) complains that Sena treats him as just another henchman, when he feels that he deserves better and has the best claim to inherit his father’s empire. The middle son Thyagu (Arun Vijay) lives in Dubai where he spends most of his time on a yacht discussing real estate projects with wealthy Arab backers. He seems to be more a businessman than a gangster and his stylish dress and polished wife reinforce that impression. The youngest son Ethi (Silambarasan) is a drug and gun runner currently based in Serbia and definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, a fact he seems to accept without too much rancour.

None of these men appear to have what it takes to run a criminal network as they indulge in petty arguments and spiteful digs at each other. Each has their own flaws that seem to disqualify them for the top job. Varadan is the most like his father but he lacks initiative and follows a predictable and well-trodden path as he pursues his father’s attackers. Varadan immediately accuses his father’s rival Chinnappadasan (Thiagarajan) of being behind the attack but it seems to be the easy option and doesn’t require Varadan to be anything other than the thug he has always been. Thyagu is slick and more polished, but despite his cutthroat business skills, he seems to lack the violent mentality needed to maintain control over the motley collection of gangsters so, despite his egotistical belief that he is the obvious choice of heir, he seems unlikely to survive long in Chennai. Ethi is unpredictable and erratic, and doesn’t seem to have the necessary concentration span to be able to successfully run a crime business.

Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi) is Varadan’s childhood friend, and the two have remained close over the years despite Rasool being a police officer. At the start of the film, Rasool is suspended from the police force for an overzealous attack on a student, so he has plenty of time to help out his friend while attempting to get his suspension overturned. As the brothers squabble amongst themselves, Rasool is always there to help keep the peace, just as long as he stays off the alcohol.

Varadan is married to Chitra (Jyothika) who is loyal to her husband despite his affair with TV reporter Parvathi (Aditi Rao Hydari). She’s an incredibly strong character who seems determined to hold the family together through the sheer force of her willpower alone, but when the brothers finally descend into open warfare all her support is with her husband in spite of everything he as done. At one point I was hopeful that Chitra was going to turn out to be the last one standing, but alas that wasn’t to be and she stays true to her character until the bitter end. Thyagu’s wife Renu (Aishwarya Rajesh) is less supportive of her husband, particularly when she ends up in jail after drugs are hidden in their apartment, while Ethi’s shortlived romance with Chaaya (Dayana Erappa) seems to only be included to act as the catalyst for his later suspicions when Chaaya is shot and killed on their honeymoon.

Initially the brothers unit in their search for the men behind the attack on Sena, but after Sena’s death it turns into a free for all as Ethi and Thyagu team up in opposition to Varadan, while accusations fly as to who was the real culprit behind the assassination attempt. Chinnappadasan is also out for blood after the brothers target his family and kill his son-in-law while the police have also vowed not to stand-by and let the gangster take over the city. The death toll rises inexorably as the brothers get closer and closer to finally determining who will take Sena’s place as head kingpin and their various rivals also close in for the kill.

The problem here is that for most of the film the brothers are only lightly sketched and we don’t know why they have chosen to act as they do. The women in their life are even more broadly drawn with just enough detail to know who they are and how they relate to Sena and his sons. There is a daughter as well, but she appears only briefly during the celebration for her new baby and I didn’t even manage to catch her name. This lack of any real motivation for the brothers makes it difficult to relate to their characters and, since none of them are particularly likeable, it’s also hard to decide who to support in their struggle to take over the top spot. Some of the support cast also appear to be completely superfluous, and it’s not until quite late in the story that the reason for the inclusion of, for example, Parvathi or Chaaya, becomes clear. But once the final twist in the tale is revealed, suddenly everything makes more sense, and many of the scenes with Lakshmi, Chitra and the others take on a deeper meaning. As too does the squabble between the brothers, and that ensures Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a much more intriguing film than it first appears.

A.R. Rahman’s music threads through the screenplay with different themes recurring as the characters come and go, and the songs mostly occur in snippets over pieces of the action. Santosh Sivan is in charge of cinematography and does a very capable job, although what is most interesting is what is not shown except in brief glimpses, almost too fast to catch. In keeping with the twist at the end, the final images of Rasool and the three brothers in a circling jeep at the top of a cliff are the most stunning. The ground is a rich red, while the sky is a vibrant blue and the sea a restless azure, making a vivid contrast between the stark but grandiose scenery and the petty, backstabbing action taking place in the jeep.

This is a film that I want to see again now that I know the ending. I suspect that there are clues scattered along the way although on reflection I can only identify a few, and I know that more will becone clear on a second watch through. I also didn’t catch the music as well as I should as I was concentrating too much on the action. The actors too appear much better on looking back, as the whole point of that lack of characterisation and interaction is only revealed at the end. It’s hard to say much without revealing the final twist but it’s the end that does make Chekka Chivantha Vaanam well worth watching and overall one of Mani Ratnam’s better films, despite the initial slow build.