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!

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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.

Goodachari (2018)

Goodachari is great when it’s good. Sashi Kiran Tikka keeps things flying along, and the film and cast looks amazing. Unfortunately the writing is not as compelling although there are some decent twists along the way.

Satya (Prakash Raj) and Vijay (Ravi Prakash) are on a secret mission that goes horribly wrong. Satya survives, and returns home only to have to tell his colleague’s son that his father will not be returning. Knowing that the kid has no family, Satya takes Gopi in. But then he starts training the boy to forget his previous life and name.

After 174 unsuccessful applications to join Indian intelligence services, grown up Gopi who is now called Arjun (Adivi Sesh) hits the jackpot on number 175. He is summoned to a secret office below a shop, and told he has been shortlisted as a potential agent of the elite Trinetra agency. He is mentored by Damodar (Anish Kuruvilla), mildly threatened by Nadiya (Supriya Yarlagadda), and immediately singled out as the other potential alpha male by Mohammad (Rakesh Varre) and Leena (Madhu Shalini) although she seems more receptive to his presence. Shaam (Vennela Kishore) is kind of the Q of this ensemble, fussing over people messing up his stuff and keeping a beady eye on everyone. Sameera (Sobhita Dhulipala) is Arjun’s neighbour and eventual girlfriend. But something goes horribly wrong and Arjun has to run from his own team and from the real enemy. How will he prove his innocence, and how is he going to live long enough to do that? As they say in all the classic Wikipedia plot summaries, “this forms rest of the story”.

Arjun is driven by emotion and poor impulse control rather than the cool lack of inhibition that makes someone like Bond such an efficient killer. I guess the sentimentality of the character was supposed to make him sympathetic and relatable. But I was left thinking he was just going to get all the good agents killed. The way to get Arjun to focus on a task is to hurt his feelings and make him want to prove you wrong. Adivi Sesh spends an inordinate amount of time welling up in tears as Arjun feels sorry for himself that he isn’t living up to his idealised dad. He rarely questions why and how he could make his own contribution, his sole motivation was to be like a man he barely knew. I kept wondering why someone who was so obviously not completely stable kept getting through the screening. And for an elite intelligence operative, he was as sharp as a bag of hair. A critical incident hinges on interpreting a 4 digit code and this film would have you think it takes a master linguist to do that. I reckon anyone who’s tried to use Outlook might have been up to scratch. I feel that with a bit more thought for the writing and more variation layered into the performance, perhaps a little more moral ambiguity and less self indulgent wallowing, Arjun could have been a great character.

It is always refreshing to see a Telugu film include women who act like adults, had day jobs that you actually saw them do, and who had their own agendas, and generally got things done. Sobhita Dhulipala is stunning to look at as Sameera but her character is more subtle than just a throwaway love interest. Her relationship with Arjun seems a bit convenient initially, but they have some good conversations and grow closer through that mutual understanding.  Supriya Yarlagadda’s Nadiya is a gun as a training officer and makes some hard calls in the field, acting coolly with authority and decision. Madhu Shalini was more of a token girl agent, but she kicks arse in some crucial scenes despite being ditzier than she should be.

Prakash Raj is in Prakash Dad mode here, playing Satya as a fiercely loving parent while still utterly cynical about people and their motivations. And rightly so. Satya’s ability to hide in plain sight while still being connected to his networks was extremely useful. Arjun could learn a thing or ten from Satya about thinking before he leaps. Damodar is Arjun’s workplace mentor and I quite enjoyed the range of exasperated expressions and side eye Anish Kuruvilla brought to the role.

I know the Indian context and history is different and some things will take on a different tone with a local audience. But in Australia it feels like every day there are more and more hateful commentators and media pundits taking potshots at Muslim Australians among other groups. I am weary of it, and struggle to imagine how it feels to be on the receiving end of such unrelenting negativity. So when the head terrorist Rana (Jagapathi Babu) is revealed, I was glad to see a good actor giving a well thought out performance and not just a eyeliner wearing caricature. Rana articulates the question about what made people call him a terrorist when he and Satya were using the same tactics. He also asks Arjun to consider whether he might see things differently if he had not been brainwashed by Satya. They are brief moments and only a couple of lines, but I appreciated seeing a little more inner life to the bad guy as well as the question of perspective.

The direction, editing and visual styling are top notch and the action feels really dynamic. The fights are fast and full of aggression and Adivi Sesh is well up to the action choreo. There is a little too much shooting with total accuracy while looking the other way. It’s a boys own adventure idea of what cool looks like. There are some good spy gadgets and tech that bring a bit of quality and flair to Trinetra. The story is well constructed and there aren’t too many loose ends left. That might be a little bit of a drawback. I feel like this is being positioned as the start of a series and maybe some characters should have been allowed to survive into a potential sequel.

I guessed most of the plot twists and devices well in advance of the big reveal but perhaps I am just gifted like that. I didn’t spot one surprise at all and was thrilled to bits by how that played out. I was hooked the whole way through, and only found my mind wandering when anyone started on about their daddy issues. If you like high adrenalin action with a righteous (but slightly dim) hero, this is the film for you.