Chennai 600028

Chennai 600028

The opening moments of Venkat Prabhu’s debut film seem to be setting the scene for a retelling of West Side Story, with two rival cricket teams called the Sharks and the Rockets replacing the American street gangs. But surprisingly the rivalry between the two teams isn’t the focus of the story at all. It’s smarter than that. Yes, there is plenty of cricket and even some cross-team rivalry, but Chennai 600028 mainly follows the different players from the Sharks team for one year, with all the highs and lows you’d expect in any character drama. Essentially, it’s a story about an everyday group of friends, connected by locality and a passion for their cricket team.  None of the actors were well known at the time, and they all fit easily into the roles of regular guys, some of whom have jobs and some of who are still at college, but who all hang around together to play gully cricket. With some clever dialogue and good situational comedy, Venkat Prabhu ensures that despite a rather rambling storyline, the film has plenty of laughs and enough memorable characters to make the film an entertaining watch.

The Sharks team live in the Chennai area of the title and are introduced one by one by a narrator who describes them by their cricket skills; although generally some other identifying characteristic is also given. This is incredibly useful as there are 10 named team members and it’s very easy to lose track initially of just who is who and where they fit into the team. The film starts off with the defeat of the Sharks for the fourth time by the Rockets, mainly due to a dismal performance from supposed ‘all-rounder’ but actually terrible player and tail-ender Seenu (Premji Amaran). He’s the bumbling fumbler who cannot take a catch to save his life, but is generally loud and obnoxiously cheery despite his limited cricketing talents. Premji is a little more restrained here than in later films such as Goa, and he’s mostly funny thanks mainly to a good rapport with the other characters and some witty and well written dialogue. I didn’t know that Premji was also a musician, and he is responsible for the background score as well as one of the songs – pretty impressive!

Along with their most recent defeat, the Sharks players all have their own problems, although lack of money is the most regular feature in their discussions. The money is for their regular drinking sessions, which allows them to sit and talk about life, cricket and women, which eventually leads back to money, of course! It all fits in well with their various personalities and since the characters are all engaging and seem to fit well into their roles it comes across as a genuine look at life in the area. Plus we get this song, which perfectly captures the group of friends out drinking and having a good time.

Things change when Rocket team member Raghu (Jai) moves into the Visalatchi Thottam area with his family. Raghu feels that his world has come to an end, nicely illustrated by some excellent histrionics in the bathroom, and this does indeed seem to be possible given his initial reception by the locals. He’s looked on with suspicion and to add to his woes, his old team are too far away for Raghu to make it to regular practices, meaning he’s left out of their line-up for matches.

Raghu is one of the central characters for the story and Jai is excellent here in his first main role. His initial arrival into the new area is hilarious, and in just a few scenes he imbues Rahgu with plenty of charm and appeal, making his eventual acceptance into the rival team seem more plausible. His resemblance to Vijay is also part of the comedy, but best of all are his scenes with Karthik (Shiva Sundaram) starting from when a fight seems inevitable. Karthik is in love with Selvi (Vijayalakshmi) who is the sister of Karthik’s teammate Pazhani (Nithin Sathya) and therefore, for some obscure reason, off limits. Raghu’s father on the other hand is friendly with Selvi and Pazhani’s father, so inevitably Raghu is often seem chatting to someone who does at least acknowledge his existence. Karthik has some wonderful lovelorn expressions as he sees his rival on the field appear to become his rival in love and the interactions between the two potential adversaries are very well done.

Aravind (Aravind Akash) is also in love with a wealthy girl Swetha (Kristine Zedek) who regularly comes in to the coffee shop where he works. This is a rather more implausible romance, which is made more unlikely by the couple mainly only appearing together in song. These romantic songs also slow down the pace of the film and seem somewhat out of place in an otherwise more realistic and upbeat film.  Aravind is fine in his role as part of the cricket team and amusing as a guy in love but Kristine has very little to do and doesn’t impress in her few moments on screen.

There is a side plot involving Karthik’s brother Guna (Sampath Raj) but mainly the action revolves around the team members, their relationships with each other and their ambition to finally win the Radio Mirchi Cup.  There are no standout heroes, just a regular group of mates and that’s what appeals most about the film. Venkat Prabhu has captured plenty of camaraderie, but included discord and division to spice up the story and the blend is just about perfect. The cricket scenes are nicely placed in the film too – not too many, but enough to keep focus on the team rather than on just the individuals.  The commentary is also excellent (although that just might be my subtitles) and reflects the general standard of cricket commentary the world over!

Chennai 600028 is an excellent début and a good indication of what to expect from Venkat Prabhu as he uses most of the same ingredients (and often the same actors) in his subsequent films such as Saroja, Goa and Mankatha. Mainly Chennai 600028 is a film about people, their lives and their dreams, and only after those details are fully realised is a story superimposed on top.   It works because of the very ordinariness of the characters – these are guys that can be seen on every patch of ground, anywhere it’s possible to set up stumps and standing around on every street in Chennai. That is the charm of the movie. Recommended for excellent performances, witty dialogue and a film that  captures the intensity and ubiquitousness  of street cricket in India.  4 stars.

 

Mankatha

Mankatha

I missed Mankantha when I was in Chennai due to limited time and sold-out shows in my usual cinemas – which I guess was a good indication that the film would be worth seeing.  Venkat Prabhu’s fourth film does feature his usual crowd of young actors, but also stars Ajith Kumar in his fiftieth film – it’s all about the numbers!  Mankatha is an action thriller based around the theft of illegal gambling money and features so many twists and turns that at times it’s hard to keep up with just who’s double-crossing who.  Although there are a few leaps of faith required to fully engage with the plot, overall the pace of the action and an excellent performance from Ajith in a negative role make the film well worth a watch.

The story starts with Ajith as Police Officer Vinayak Mahadevan, landing onto the screen in a typical Tamil Hero entrance style (i.e. unlikely appearance from out of nowhere) to prevent what appears to be a corrupt police execution of smuggler Faizal (Aravind Akash).  The lines are blurred right from the start – is Vinayak a hero, fighting corruption and gambling despite being suspended from duty for saving Faizal, or does his drunkenness and casual infidelity  point to even bigger character flaws and a tendency to flout the rules for his own benefit?  Each subsequent scene makes the conundrum more difficult to solve, and this ambiguity runs throughout the action in the first half.  It’s not until much later in the film that Vinayak’s true character becomes apparent (or does it?) and his real motives are revealed.

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Then there is ‘Action King’ Arjun, who appears as Prithviraj, the head of a special task force entrusted with stamping out illegal gambling on cricket matches after the head of the anti-corruption squad Kamal Ekambaram (Subbu Panchu) commits suicide due to his own gambling debt.  However Kamal isn’t dead, but instead reappears as one of the investigative team, a detail which I kept expecting to have some relevance, but it never actually does.  Arjun is very OTT in his action scenes, made even funnier by his terrible floppy hair, but otherwise delivers  a generally straitlaced and relatively heroic portrayal of a senior police officer intent on stamping out gambling.

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Vinayak, one night stands aside, is in a relationship with Sanjana (Trisha), the daughter of Arumuha Chettiyar (Jayaprakash).  Chettiyar runs the illegal gambling network in Mumbai along with various other illegal activities, and he also just happens to be the man who employs Faizal.  Was this good planning by Vinayak, or just a coincidence?

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Since Vinayak apparently turns a blind eye to Chettiyar’s illegal activities the question then follows, is this all part of an undercover plan to infiltrate the gang and bring down Chettiyar or does Vinayak really not care about his potential father-in-law breaking the law beyond the opportunity to pocket a few bribes?  It’s hard to tell, as Ajith makes the most of his devastatingly cheeky grin and ever more crazy persona to keep everyone guessing his true motives.

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Meanwhile, Chettiyar’s henchman Sumanth (Vaibhav) is in cahoots with local Sub-Inspector Ganesh (Ashwin Kakumanu) and bar-owner Mahat (Mahat Raghavendra) to steal the gambling take from the IPL final.  Mahat ropes in his friend from home Prem (Premji Amaren) who just happens to be an IT expert as well as a terminal idiot.  A little of Premji’s humour here goes a long way and less really would have been better, but cleverly developed group dynamics and good performances from the rest of the gang help keep the story on track.  In due course, Vinayak finds out about the plot which just happens to coincide with his own plans to loot the money, and the conspirators end up joining together to steal $5 billion in US dollars.  While some of the heist details require a major suspension of disbelief, the rest of the story deviously pits everyone against each other with  betrayals, plot twists and unexpected revelations, which mean it’s necessary to concentrate and pay attention to work out just who is allied with who at any given time.

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While the guys get all of the action and pretty much all of the storyline, there is very little for Trisha and the other female characters to do.  Anjali has perhaps the next most realised role as Sumanth’s wife, but her only value is as a bargaining tool later in the story.  Andrea as Prithviraj’s wife and Lakshmi Rai have even less of a role, and almost all of the female roles could have been eliminated without making any real ripple in the story.  The songs are also mainly superfluous although the soundtrack by Yuvan Shankar Raja does have a few memorable tracks.  This is probably the best choreographed, although the visual effects for Vaada Bin Laada are worth a look too (watch out for the plane on the wall that takes flight).

Ajith is definitely the star of the show in a negative role that must have been a hoot to play.  He spits venomous lines with great joie de vivre, throws in plenty of bleeped out profanity and his crazed megalomania is wonderful to behold.  He has great chemistry with Arjun and the two take control of every scene they are in.  However Vaibhav is also notable and the other cast members all provide solid performances.  While the focus is on the action there is also some nifty camera work from Sakthi Saravanan, including a great shot of some boys playing cricket in the slums while Vinayak chases down Sumanth.

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Mankatha is not the most convincing heist film, and it would definitely benefit from trimming some of the excess in the form of unnecessary songs and peripheral characters, but it succeeds in entertaining which after all is the main purpose of cinema.  I loved the twists and turns and appreciated Ajith’s excellent demonstration of just how to keep everyone guessing while Arjun tries his best to convince everyone that he is the hero.  It’s amusing and doesn’t take itself too seriously which makes for an enjoyable watch. 3 ½ stars.

Saroja

Saroja is a fairly standard thriller with a decent dose of dramatic tension thanks to some very good performances and loads of visual flair. I ordered the Tamil DVD but was sent the Telugu dub, which apart from the obvious difference also cast Srihari instead of Jayaram in a pivotal role. I quite like Srihari as an actor, and as I speak neither language subtitles are subtitles, so I was happy enough. I’ll be referring to characters by their names in the Telugu version.

Prakash Raj is Viswanatham, a successful Hyderabadi businessman. He is a self centred man, in an uneasy marriage and not giving his teenage daughter Saroja as much attention as he gives his breakfast.

That is until Saroja (Vega), is kidnapped. It’s one of my favourite Prakash Raj performances as he conveys fear, despair and regrets with only a scant amount of dialogue. His reactions and expressions are just perfect. There is a scene where he and his wife are watching home movies of Saroja. They can’t look at each other as they have an intimate conversation that is realistically awkward and painful.

The depth of characterisation established so simply helped me care about what happened to Saroja since it meant so much to her father.

Saroja gets an intro song about girl power and the evils of alcohol, which she delivers after sneaking out of her window to get to the gig. She is largely absent until late in the film as the drama is centred on the police operation to find her, but her character is established as resourceful and independent.

Srihari is Viswa’s friend Ravi, a charismatic policeman who takes on this very personal case. Srihari running isn’t exactly a greyhound so the chase scenes had me worried, but he is an authority figure and pillar of strength. Ravi orchestrates the police activity to recover Saroja and is on hand to witness the devastating effect the kidnapping has on his friend. There is a bit more complexity to his role than just a standard crusading cop though and Srihari and Prakash Raj share some excellent eye to eye moments. I don’t really buy his excuse for something he does, but it wasn’t a big deal overall.

There is a second storyline that will collide with the straightforward police procedural. It centres on a group of friends, totally unrelated to Viswanatham and his concerns.

Vaibhav is Rama Swamy.  The girl he loves (Kajal Aggarwal in a brief appearance) gets engaged to his friend Ajay. He is trying to make the best of his lot and comes across as a moody but not unpleasant guy. Ajay (Shiva) is a soap actor who thinks he is a little more special than he is, and tries to get by on what he considers to be charm. He gets some of the better intentionally funny lines as he cites his TV serial commitments as a reason for avoiding anything he doesn’t want to do. Rama’s older brother Renga Swamy (SP Charan) is the average guy – happy, married with a daughter, middle class, comfortably podgy. Premji Amaren (brother of the director) is the comic relief, Ganesh, and almost every time he opened his mouth I wanted to kill him. To be fair, his straight dramatic scenes were good and a few of the jokes were funny.  Every time he saw a pretty girl, badly dressed angels would cavort around her, and the angels got grumpier as they had to keep reappearing for different girls.

But the comedy track mostly involved Ganesh acting stupid and grimacing wildly. If you find a man screaming his lungs out at the sight of a rat, or telling everyone loudly why he has to be quiet, funny maybe you’ll like him more than I do.

The boys set out on a roadtrip from Chennai to Hyderabad to go to a one day match. After driving for a few hours, including about 257 snack and pee breaks as well as a run in with Brahmi, they are delayed by a major road accident and decide to take an alternate route.

The storylines intersect when the guys take a wrong turn in the dark and end up in a spooky factory complex occupied by the imposing Sampath (Sampath Raj) and his gang, who have Saroja captive. The adrenalin rises from this point until the film’s conclusion as the boys try and extricate themselves from their perilous situation and accidentally seem to be rescuing the girl. There is always time for a dance break though! Kalyani (Nikitha) and Sampath entertain the troops and I have to say seeing all the bad guys in a dance number was a lot of fun.

The ‘heroes’ and the baddies are ordinary guys and the fights and chases are consistent with that. There are no amazing flying leaps and stunts, but there is a strong feeling of the fear and effort in those scenes which is amplified by the lighting and composition of the shots and Saravanan’s cinematography is impressive. Even when things got less believable, the characters remained true to themselves and didn’t develop superpowers. There is some question in my mind as to how well these guys could navigate an unfamiliar place in the dead of night, but whatever. I thought Vega was convincing and in most scenes looked like a school girl. There were signs of a romantic attraction between her and Ram that I thought was a bit not right in view of their character ages. It’s just a fleeting thing but was it necessary for it to be there at all?

The Yuvan Shankar Raja (Venkat Prabhu’s cousin – what a family) soundtrack is good and the range of musical styles supports the full span of the drama. While the songs are well placed in the story, I’m not sure all the picturisations were necessary. The montages sometimes caused a break from the overall mood as they were even more stylised than the rest of the film. The direction relies on gimmicks but that visual interest and excitement helped to give a standard plot a bit of freshness. The story doesn’t completely rely on the visuals so I didn’t feel it was too glossy for its own good. The performances, especially Prakash Raj’s, are compelling on their own.

It’s a film where the outcomes probably won’t surprise anyone, but the way those things happen might. If you want a modern looking comedy/drama/thriller that’s not too heavy on gore and showcases some good character actors, give this a go.  4 stars!

Heather says: Saroja has all the right ingredients to make a good film with an interesting story, excellent cast lineup and snappy dialogue. But it suffers a little from a very long set up with perhaps too much detail in some scenes and not enough in others. There are also a few scenes where the action takes place in poorly lit sets and I found it very hard to tell what was going on. However, once past the slow beginning, it’s a very enjoyable watch as it blends comedy with action and drama in a way that is rare in Tamil cinema. I do like the way the action is preceded with a date and time stamp in the opening sequences as it gives the feel of an American cop show and plants the idea that time is important. Although perhaps this isn’t followed up quite as well in later scenes. The introductions to the various characters are generally good, but I would have preferred director Venkat Prabhu to spend a little more time with Saroja’s family. It is clear that Viswanathan is caught up in his work and doesn’t have time for his daughter, but I think a little more information about the family dynamic would have made their characters more sympathetic. It took more time to get a feel for Saroja and her father as a result, although this may very well have been intentional, as we learn about the family as the film goes on, just as the four friends do.

The interaction between the friends is well done, and feels very realistic. Perhaps it’s not quite as realistic though that they remain undiscovered sneaking around the bad guys’ lair with all of their arguing and long conversations. But the comedy in these was good and the story was well played out in these scenes. The action sequences, at least those that are visible, are also well choreographed and there are some really good ideas in the execution of the various fight sequences.

I liked the twist at the end which I did not see coming at all, although I thought the justification by the villain was rather weak. In it for the money alone might have worked better, but it was still a good ending. I also enjoyed the comedy with Ganesh seeing angels appearing around pretty girls. All of the four characters worked well for me as they each had some endearing character traits and some really off-putting ones – just like in real life. They seemed like much more normal guys than typical filmi heroes which makes the film more interesting to watch.

This is the first of Venkat Prabhu’s films I’ve seen and it’s inspired me to find his others. I’d say skip over a lot of the set-up and then sit back to enjoy a really good action comedy. 3 ½  stars.