Sapthamashree Thaskaraha

PosterIn his second film Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, Anil Radhakrishnan Menon takes a number of ideas from various Hollywood heist movies and expertly gives them an Indian flavour with a collection of memorable characters and an appropriately Keralan setting. It’s an entertaining film with more comedy than I expected in a crime thriller, and as with North 24 Kaadham it’s the clever characterisations that stand out. The story is well written with some clever twists and engaging dialogue while the heist itself, although improbable, is not completely impossible. Anil Radhakrishnan Menon keeps the action tense during the heist scenes but manages to add in plenty of genuinely funny moments too, while the excellent cast work well together to make a better than average movie.

The film starts with one of the ‘seven good thieves’ of the title disclosing his crime in a church and his rambling confession becomes the narrative for the film. The priest in the confessional is ably played by Lijo Jose Pelissery, more commonly found on the other side of the camera, but he does an excellent job here as the fascinated recipient of Martin’s (Chemban Vinod Jose) recollections. It’s not just a bare rendition of events either, as there is some excellent comedy woven into these scenes and both the priest and Martin add snippets of background information as they go along.

The seven thieves meet in prison where they are all sharing the same cell. This does seem a little strange to me given the variety of their crimes, although perhaps the common theme is that they all have relatively short sentences. Martin is a fairly inept thief, mainly involved in petty crimes and hindered by his assistant Gee Varghese (Sudhi Koppa) whose incompetence in the art of crime is reflected in his wardrobe choices. Martin’s journey to jail introduces another two characters, Narayankutty (Neeraj Madhav) and Krishnan Unni (Prithviraj) who both stand out as different from the other prisoners on the bus. Narayankutty is intimidated by the other inmates, and as his back story is revealed it becomes obvious that he’s basically a computer geek with little awareness of the real world. He was convicted of supplying a camera secreted in a soap box to a couple of peeping toms, although it’s clear that he never thought about why the two men wanted such a thing. However his talents ensure he is invaluable to the team later when his computer expertise is vital for their convoluted robbery plans. Neeraj Madhav seems perfectly cast as the nerdy Narayankutty with his generally bemused attitude and facial expressions underlining his naiveté while his attempt at distraction during a bodybuilding contest is just hilarious.

Three of the prisoners have a connection to Pious Mathew (Joy Mathew), a wealthy local businessman who has acquired his money through a series of illegal extortions and schemes. Krishnan Unni attacked Pious when he was involved in the death of Krishnan’s wife Sarah (Reenu Mathews) and it’s for this assault that Krishnan is serving time in jail. Prithviraj has the longest and most detailed backstory here and his character is also the brains behind the operation, but despite this the film doesn’t make him the central hero and Prithviraj doesn’t appear as the ‘star’. For much of the film Krishnan Unni is just a member of the gang, albeit the one who organises the heist and delegates roles to each of the other thieves.

Nobel Ettan (Nedumudi Venu) is in jail after his family owned chit fund collapsed owing a significant amount of money. He lost everything, including his son to suicide, after being conned by Pious who also stole most of the fund money. Nobel’s plight is the reason that the thieves unite against Pious, although the lure of big money is probably the major factor in their decision. The final connection to Pious is through ‘Leaf’ Vasu (Sudheer Karamana), a driver and hit-man for Pious until he sustained a head injury that left him mentally incapacitated. Despite his confused state Vasu remembers where Pious keeps his money and that’s enough information for the rest of the gang to start making plans to rob the crooked businessman on their release from jail.

The final two gang members are Salaam (Salaam Bukhari) and Shabab (Asif Ali). Salaam is a Hindi-speaking magician who has many useful skills and an acrobatic girlfriend Paki (Flower Battsetseg) who is also drawn into the plot. Shabab is mainly shown to be a capable fighter with a strong sense of justice whose finest moment comes when he lures Pious’ brother Christo (Irshad) into a fight with a group of tiger men. There is something very satisfying about watching a group of men with tiger faces on their bellies turn round and suddenly become menacing after having been dancing only moments before.

After their release the thieves set up shop in Nobel Ettan’s house and organise their plan to break into the Charity hospital where Pious and his family keep their ill-gotten loot.  Luckily Noble Ettan’s daughter Annamma (Sanusha) works at the hospital, and with her help and the skills of the seven thieves the intricate robbery starts to take shape.

The first half is relatively slow as the various characters are established, but the film doesn’t drag due to a good mixture of action and comedy in the back stories. Some of the stories are longer than others, and Prithviraj’s does include a song which isn’t entirely necessary but does fit well into the narrative.

The second half has just as much comedy but also increased moments of tension, particularly during the robbery itself where Ammanna’s nervous participation provides a good contrast to the antics of Martin outside the hospital. However there are a few sequences which drag on a little too long, such as repeated shots of the church procession, which break up the momentum and reduce the impact of the heist scenes. It’s the individual performances and characterisation of each of the thieves that make the film so watchable. Each has a reason to be included and all of the actors fit perfectly into their roles. Nedumudi Venu for example is blissfully unaware of his wife and daughters’ displeasure when he brings the released prisoners to his house, making it even more plausible that he was easily fooled by Pious and swindled out of his business while Sudheer Karamana includes repetitive mannerisms and childlike behaviours that make Vasu a more convincing character.

Joy Mathews as the main villain is nicely smug and vindictive with no redeeming features, which makes it easy to enjoy his discomfort and that of his equally nasty brothers at the end, and in true Robin Hood fashion, all the thieves have enough good qualities to ensure that the audience will be on their side. It’s simplistic but works due to the quality of the cast and good writing of their characters.

There are only a few songs in the film penned by Rex Vijayan and they are mainly used as background while the gang scurry around getting everything they need for the heist. Jayesh Nair’s cinematography is excellent and I love his use of bars, windows and other framing effects to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere and increase tension as the film reaches its conclusion.

There is much to like in Sapthamashree Thaskaraha. The mix of different characters works well to keep the story moving forward as each takes part in the robbery. The set-up gives a clear insight into each character and the final heist is a good mixture of clever plot, heightened tension and a good dash of humour to wash it all down. I loved the final twist – of course there’s a final twist – which reminded me of British films such as Shallow Grave and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which are also comedy/thrillers that end not quite as expected. Highly recommended – 4 stars.

Mumbai Police (2013)

Mumbai Police

I’m a big fan of police procedural dramas and crime films in general, so naturally this 2013 film from Roshan Andrews made it onto my ‘must-watch’ list. And I’m happy to report that the film more than lived up to expectations, with a genuinely surprising ending and a good build-up of suspense along the way. It’s a difficult film to discuss without revealing crucial plot elements, particularly since those are partly what make this film so good, but I will do my best to discuss the film without getting too spoilerish.

The film starts with an accident that causes ACP Antony Moses (Prithviraj) to lose his memory. This is particularly inconvenient since he had just discovered the name of the criminal who had assassinated his friend ACP Aaryan John Jacob (Jayasurya) at an awards ceremony. Despite not remembering who he is, let alone anything of the crime, Police Commissioner Farhan Ashraf (Rahman) asks him to re-investigate the murder, presumably in an attempt to bring back Antony’s memory. Farhan is another friend and the tenuous link to the title of the film is that the three were collectively known as the Mumbai Police due to previous time spent together working in Mumabai. The friends had a reputation for drinking and carousing, particularly Antony who is now known by his nickname Rascal Moses, a label that seems to colour Antony’s reception by colleagues and suspects alike.

Antony has also been instructed not to let anyone know that he has lost his memory and as a result he makes a number of crucial errors in his first days back on the case. Not all of these relate to the investigation, such as his failure to recognise the Superintendent of Police, but he falters in his interactions with the rest of the investigating team who seem to suspect that something isn’t quite right.

Roshan Andrews uses flashbacks to the original investigation to show that pre- and post-accident Antony are two quite different people. Pre-accident Antony wasn’t a particularly nice character as he wasn’t averse to using force and various other dubious tactics to achieve his desired outcome. Post-accident Antony is quieter, more introspective, and seems to be genuinely interested in finding the actual culprit for his friend’s assassination rather than the first available scapegoat. Prithviraj does a great job of highlighting the differences by completely changing the physical mannerisms of the two Antony’s; changing his walk, stance and mannerisms to accentuate the difference. He’s helped by the physical signs of the accident but there is a distinct personality change too which makes Antony a fascinating character.  I kept waiting for a moment where he would remember his former life and revert back to mean and nasty, however post -accident Antony is quieter and more introspective, and seems constantly bemused as he struggles to come to grips with his memory loss. The reactions of Antony’s colleagues, particularly police constable Rakkhee (Aparna Nair), are used to provide more insight into his character both pre- and post-memory loss while Antony’s complete lack of emotion about his best friend’s death post-accident provides a good contrast to his passion and fire before he lost his memory. The greater objectivity should be a boon but instead seems to make Antony even more unsure of how to proceed and his colleagues find his lack of empathy odd. Antony has no recollection of his friendship with Aaryan and only knows that such a relationship existed because he has been told about it by Farhan. In fact, everything Antony currently knows about anything has come from Farhan and this leaves Antony suspicious and unsure of exactly what to believe – particularly when the evidence starts to point to a cover-up. It’s cleverly written to ensure that the audience really doesn’t know who to believe and who is covering for who, which further adds to the suspense and classic whodunnit flavour of the film.

Antony’s self-discovery proceeds in line with the police investigation and piece-by-piece the story is slowly revealed. There is an interesting side plot that involves tensions between the navy and the police force but overall writers Bobby and Sanjay keep to a fairly simple storyline focusing on the friendship between the three men and the investigation into the murder.

Just as the careful detailing of the investigation helps build tension, the sudden reveal of the killer and the reasons behind the murder make it even more surprising, even though re-watching shows that the clues were there all along. But then that’s just as they should be in any good detective story, and the smoke screen raised by the myriad other discoveries of the investigation is cleverly applied. The only thing that didn’t quite ring true for me was Antony’s reaction, which was just too overdone and rather too ingenuous to be convincing. However it’s a small quibble and the rest of the story more than makes up for Antony’s unrealistic response.

Technically the film looks fantastic and the background score by Gopi Sunder is effective in maintaining the desired atmosphere throughout. The performances are all well nuanced, as would be expected from such seasoned actors, but each has been well cast and fits their role perfectly. Mumbai Police is an engaging thriller which works mainly due to the gradual buildup of tension which flourishes due to Antony’s memory loss, and the ever present threat that the other shoe will drop and either the killer will come after Antony, or he will regain his memory and revert back to his old self.  Does either happen? You will need to watch to find out!

The film is entertaining for all the right reasons as Antony struggles to find both his past and the killer against a background of confusion and loss.  The ideal of the final revelation and the ultimate reason behind Aaryan’s death is excellent even if it is a little far-fetched, and the execution could have perhaps been a little better. It’s still a clever and honestly shocking conclusion.   I found Mumbai Police to be a slick, well-packaged and modern thriller that’s definitely well worth a watch for both the storyline and the actors who emphatically bring their roles to life. And you can’t ask for much better than that. 4½ stars.

Kaaviya Thalaivan (2014)

Kaaviya Thalaivan

Kaaviya Thalaivan sounded promising. A character driven drama set in the world of Tamil theatre in the 1920’s should have been exactly my kind of film, but despite excellent performances from all the  actors and A.R.Rahman’s expressive  soundtrack, the story is frustratingly predictable with little of the expected melodrama. The beautiful costumes and period sets cannot compensate for a very pedestrian telling of the rivalry between two actors and the ups and downs of a theatre company in the years before Indian Independence.  However, at least there are great costumes and stunning sets, and even if the story is disappointingly flat there are plenty of moments of brilliance from the individual actors which do make Kaaviya Thalaivan worth a watch.

The film is semi-narrated by Gomathi Nayagam Pillai (Prithviraj) who is sent as a young boy to train as an actor with Thavathiru Sivadas Swamigal (Nasser). During their travels, Sivadas Swamigal takes in a young orphan beggar called Kaali – later to rejoice in the name of Thalaivankottai Kaliappa Bhagavathar (Siddharth). Gomathi and Kaali become friends in a fairly standard ‘protecting from bullies, blah blah blah heard a million times before’ storyline. Now that familiar track wouldn’t matter if their developing relationship was told with any supporting emotion, but Gomathi runs through the story as if it’s a reading exercise in class and the identity of the protagonists is a matter of great indifference to him. Naturally then, it doesn’t matter to the audience, and Gomathi’s attitude appears more as boastful self-importance rather than genuine compassion for a young orphan.

From children to young men in the theatre company is a matter of a few moments and the two seem to be at least notionally friends at this point. Their different personalities are defined by a moment in the wings as they watch the hero Bhairavan (Ponvannan). Gomathi voices his desire to be just like Bhairavan while Kaali recognises the flaw’s in both the performance and the man, and instead aspires to be like their guru – Sivadas Swamigal.  It’s not unexpected then when Sivadas Swamigal chooses Kaali to be the hero for the company’s next production, or that this sews the seeds of resentment in Gomathi for his ‘humiliation’ which is really all in his own mind.

Gomathi  seems to take it as inevitable that he should resent Kaali for his success, without having any better reason to do so  than his own sense of self-importance. That could have worked as motivation if it had been developed in any way, but instead the rivalry is treated as a given and no further explanation is necessary. While Gomathi is silently angry, Kaali is blithely oblivious and embarks on a ridiculously straightforward romance with Rangamma (Anaika Soti), the local lord’s daughter. Kaali has little difficulty accessing Rangamma’s rooms, which should realistically been a little more heavily guarded, and no-one other than Gomathi seems to suspect anything, despite the heavy-handed flirting that goes on between the two during stage performances.  At least finally there is some passion and vitality to the characters, although not so much between Kaali and Rangamma but rather in an excellent scene where Sivadas Swamigal confronts Kaali about his love affair. Both Nasser and Siddharth are over-emotional and sufficiently melodramatic to suit the story at this point, while Prithviraj gets a chance to be nastily spiteful. However it’s a small oasis of theatricality, and the story quickly reverts back to a more plodding pace once Rangamma is out of the picture. That’s actually a shame since Anaika Soti does well with the limited role and looks beautiful in the songs. I would have liked to see more of her, but Kaali needs to have a reason for his life to turn pear-shaped and losing Rangamma works relatively well.

The final character in the drama is Ganakokilam Vadivambal, aka Vadivu (Vedika), a dancer and singer who joins the company and replaces the more traditional male actors in the female roles. Vadivu is in love with Kaali, but he only has eyes for Rangamma, while Gomathi pines in the wings for Vadivu who barely seems to notice him. It’s a situation that should be full of jealousy and passion but is instead treated clinically without any of the emotional drama that would have made the characters more effective. Again there is no justification for Vadivu’s ever more extreme devotion to Kaali, and although there is a little more substance behind Gomathi unrequited love, it doesn’t seem realistically likely to survive in the face of Vadivu’s determined rejection. However both Vedika and Prithviraj are good enough actors to generate some plausibility in their relationship and the tension between the two does become somewhat more palpable as the story develops. Without Prithviraj this really wouldn’t have had anything like the same impact, but he really does do a good job with very limited dialogue and little opportunity to demonstrate exactly why he feels the way he does.

Vasanthabalan also adds in a Nationalist thread to the plot which seems to be an unnecessary complication when more detailed development of the story and more in-depth characterisations of the three protagonists would have worked just as well, if not better. Once Kaali becomes a Nationalist, that too in a matter of moments while in prison, his fate is sealed and the ending is as predictable as expected. As Kaali, Siddharth comes away looking the best of the cast, partly because his character has more scope and inherent drama, but mainly because he really does an excellent job with the role. His performance is flawless and particularly in his scenes with Nasser there is a definite sense of the arrogance and self-confidence that underlies Kaali. Siddharth also nails the hurt and despair when Kaali is let alone in the world and his scenes with Nasser are superb. More of these and less of the bland romance would have been much better. Prithviraj and Vedika do as best as they can  within their limited roles and there are times in the second half where both get more of an opportunity to show more depth, but they are hampered by a lack of motivation for their characters actions which makes them too one-dimensional to be truly effective.

It’s perplexing that a film set in and all about theatre could end up so lifeless and devoid of melodrama, but that is exactly the problem with Kaaviya Thalaivan. I really wanted to like this film as I appreciate the attempt by Vasanthabalan to tackle something different,  but I just couldn’t engage with the characters and was completely frustrated by the lack of any reasonable justification for their actions. I know that’s my usual rant but it is so very noticeable here in a film where the motivation really should be key to developing the drama. However, the film looks amazing, Siddharth is fantastic and the music and songs are excellent. It’s a visual feast even if there is no substance to the spectacle and for that alone the film deserves to be seen and at least once.