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.

Memories (2013)

Memories

Before the release of his blockbuster Drishyam in 2013, director Jeethu Joseph had a hit with this thriller/crime drama starring Prithviraj as a cop on the trail of a serial killer. Despite the tag of crime thriller, Memories is more than just a simple tale of a murder investigation with the requisite suspects, dead ends and clues that gradually lead to the killer. Although all of that is still there, the film focuses more on the character of the lead investigating officer and his day to day struggles to deal with his difficult past. It’s a good attempt to deliver a more Hollywood-style drama but in the final scenes the film is let down by a rather unbelievable protagonist and a few plot holes that develop as a result. It’s still well worth a watch though for a number of excellent performances, most notably from Prithviraj, and an effective build-up of suspense in the first half of the film.

Sam Alex (Prithviraj) was a successful police officer before the fall-out from a raid on a criminal gang impacted his own family life. As a result, Sam continually relives the moments where he lost his wife Teena (Meghana Raj) and young daughter to an escaped member of the gang, and through flashbacks, the film gradually builds a picture of his happy past.  There is only one song in the film which is used to show a series of montages of Sam’s previously happy life. Yes, it’s a little over the top and maudlin, but it is a lovely song and since it’s the only part of the film where Sam gets to smile, it’s worth a look.

To deal with his memories, Sam drowns his sorrows in the demon drink, and although he hasn’t been thrown off the force, he is physically and mentally unable to continue with his police work. Luckily for Sam, he lives with his mother Marykutty (Vanitha Krishnachandran) in a rather swish house and seems able to spend all day drinking at the local watering hole without any obvious financial problems. In addition, his police chief, IG Menon (Vigayaraghavan) looks on him as a kind of ‘godson’ and is prepared to offer him every possible opportunity to get his life back on track. However, Sam prefers to wallow in his own misery, and it takes a direct plea from his mother (ah – the power of an Indian ma!) to finally get him involved in the murder investigation.

The set-up for the mystery is solidly executed and, up until near the end when the killer is revealed, each step in the investigation is well plotted with appropriately puzzling twists.  Initially a man disappears from a car park after a shopping expedition with his wife, and his tortured body is found tied to a tree a few days later.  A second grisly discovery sees SP Vinod Krishna (Suresh Krishna) trying to find a serial killer in all the wrong places and it’s at that point IG Menon decides that Sam could be just what the investigation needs. Certainly he couldn’t manage to do a worse job than the hapless SP Vinod! Needless to say SP Vinod is not best pleased to have his inquiry lumbered with a has-been who spends all day drinking. Literally.

To add to their woes, a local journalist is giving the police a hard time about the murders, and the body count keeps getting higher while the list of possible suspects gets smaller. The build-up of suspense keeps the momentum of the story going and for most of the film the investigation is relatively realistic – at least as far as any fictionalised crime drama ever manages to be.   The problem comes later in the film where the final motivation of the killer doesn’t reach the same level of plausibility, and the climax ends up a little too predictable and overly melodramatic. However, unlike similar Hollywood stories, there is admirably less focus on the blood and gore, and more attention paid to the psychology of the killer even if he’s still just a little too superficial in the end.

Prithviraj is excellent in the role of the alcoholic cop who just wants to be left alone with his memories. I really like the characterisation and the way that Sam only takes part in the police investigation on his own terms. Going back to the job he blamed for the death of his family is just one of the many issues dealt with, and the ripple effect of Sam’s alcoholism and the impact on his brother and mother is a constant undercurrent to his work. I also like that getting back into a police investigation isn’t a quick fix for Sam’s issues and he keeps drinking throughout the investigation, while any rehabilitation from alcoholism is shown as a long and difficult struggle. The focus on his flaws, the difficulties he has in dealing with the families of the murder victims and his co-workers are all cleverly used to draw his character in more detail.  The role is absolutely central to the film and Prithviraj carries it off with ease while ensuring plenty of empathy for his character, even though he’s really not particularly likeable and remains relatively self-centred throughout.

The support cast are all quietly capable in their roles.  Rahul Madhav is effective as Sam’s semi-estranged brother, and Vijayaraghavan, Suresh Krishna and the rest of the police officers provide strong support as the investigation unfolds. Mia George appears as an investigative journalist who initially gives Sam a hard time about his drinking habits and berates SP Vinod for his ineffectiveness, but she effectively disappears from the story once she becomes more supportive. I’m not convinced that her role was strictly necessary and the plot would have been sharper without her inclusion.

A few things made me smile, Oddly the chests of the murder victims are pixilated during the autopsy scenes, despite the fact that this contains an important clue. It is laid out in detail later, but even a brief view would have helped to understand why Sam was so fixated on a number of pieces of paper and photographs. I’m really not sure if this censorship was due to modesty or the gore factor, but it was bizarre.  The subtitles are also rather interesting, including the idea that the killer tried to procrastinate the murder, although I think what they really meant to say was delay the death. Procrastination sounds much less terminal! And there is good use of a map – always a handy tool for murder investigations and I do appreciate good use of a prop.

While there is nothing ground-breaking about Memories, it is a good story with all the requisite elements for a crime thriller. The murders and their subsequent investigation do tend towards formulaic but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and everything is well pieced together to make a mostly convincing story. The psychology behind the main character is more interesting and it is this detail that moves the film from average to noteworthy, particularly when that main character is played by Prithviraj. Solidly entertaining and one of the better films from last year, Memories is definitely well worth a watch and a good addition to the crime genre. 3½ stars

 

Nandanam

Nandanam

Nandhanam is based on the King Cophetua and Penelophon story and while it’s a fairly typical tale of a rich(ish) young man falling in love with the family maid and the various dramas that ensue, there are enough novel moments to make it more involving than it first sounds. The story is simply told, the characterisations are beautifully drawn and the actors all play their parts with ease. This was Prithviraj’s debut Malayalam film and he’s ably supported by some stalwarts of the industry along with a brilliant Navya Nair as Balamani. In fact it’s her performance that really lifts this film above average and it’s worth a watch just to see her character deal with the various obstacles in her path to true love.

Balamani is a young orphan working as a cook and general helper to Unniamma (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) who has been incapacitated with a leg injury. Balamani is a devoted follower of Lord Krishna and her biggest problem is that since she started working for Unniamma she has been too busy to go to the local temple. It’s a recurring theme which becomes more and more important as the story progresses. She is kept hopping from the early hours of the morning by three older women who were brought to the house by Unniamma’s friend Kesavan Nair (Innocent) to act as servants but all three prefer to be waited on hand and foot by Balamani. The interactions between the three servants and Balamani are funny and cleverly scripted as Balamani looks after them and somehow fulfils all their ceaseless demands, but simultaneously pulls faces behind their backs and berates them as lazy to their faces.

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Balamani seems to have endless patience despite her grumbles and she is genuinely kind-hearted and caring in her dealings with Unniamma, and even with the other three servants. They bicker and complain continuously to each other about each other, although they never seem to either take any offence or mean any of it seriously. I love these three and they have some of the best lines in the film – although that might just be the English translations!

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One of the best parts of the film for me is the way Balamani talks to herself and also to the picture of Lord Krishna she keeps in her room. In fact she talks to the animals she looks after, the plants she waters in the garden and anything else that seems to catch her eye. I can totally relate to this aspect of her personality and it made her a more human and sympathetic character. Her main confident in these discussions is Lord Krishna and she complains to him about not being able to go to his temple and about the amount of work she has to do, although none of it is with any rancour.

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Added in to the story are the next door neighbour Janaki (Kalaranjini) who is a friend of Unniamma’s daughter and is waiting for her son to come home on a visit. Janaki is another confidante and she tries to minimise her exploitation by the three older servants.

Things change when Unniamma’s grandson Mano (Prithviraj) arrives for a short stay before he leaves for work in the USA. He starts to flirt with the vivacious Balamani but before long it turns into something more serious and the two fall in love. But it’s not a straight forward filmi romance and the dialogue helps keep it realistic. Balamani asks Mano if he is really serious or if this is just a brief fling to keep him amused before he leaves the country. Mano in turn seems to be quite sincere when he answers that it started out that way, but has become something more serious. Balamani is also aware of her lowly status in comparison to Mano and is wary of the relationship, although she is obviously flattered and very much in love with Mano. Prithviraj seems subdued as Mano, compared to other roles I have seen, but it suits his character and he combines an air of experience with just enough of the mama’s boy to make Mano a believable character. Mano does seem to be a bit of a wimp and most of the problems Balamani faces are due to his lack of gumption and resolve.

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Just when things seem to be going so well, Mano’s mother (Revathy) turns up and decides to arrange his marriage before he leaves for America. Pesky details such as visas are never discussed and it seems to be no trouble to organise a wedding in just a few weeks, so obviously here is where we start to depart from real life! Thankam doesn’t discuss her plans with Mano, while Mano is slow to approach his mother about his plans to marry Balamani, with the end result that he is betrothed to the daughter of one of Thankam’s friends before he can make his wishes known. Thankam is a widow who defied her family to go to work and bring up her son alone, so she’s definitely not a soft touch and has no hesitation in telling Mano that the match will go ahead no matter what he wants.

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However Thankam is also distressed to have caused her son such unhappiness, particularly since she likes Balamani, but it’s not enough for her to upset the arrangement she has made. The family dynamics are further explored when all the relatives arrive for the engagement and wedding with many complaints about the precipitous nature of the affair. Writer/director Renjith emphasizes the solitary state of the groom compared to all the family hustle and bustle with the wedding preparations and the frantic work being carried out by the servants, including Balamani.

Meanwhile Janaki’s son has arrived – or has he? Balamani meets the person she thinks is Unnikrishnan (Aravind Akash) and is soon on very friendly terms; even confiding her innermost thoughts to him while he appears to already know her hopes and dreams. I was a bit sceptical of Aravind as Guruvayurappan at first but he did seem to embody the mischievousness nature of Krishna with a singular lack of concern about the consequences of his actions. Plus he can dance!

The addition of the divine into the narrative is cleverly done and never seems out of place, despite the generally modern feel of the rest of the story. However there is a terrible comedy side plot which is somewhat related to the main story involving Jagathis Sreekumar as a duplicitous priest. It’s never funny and most of Jagathis antics could have been left out without causing any disruption of the plot, so his inclusion does seem to be more a ‘film-making by the numbers’ rather than for any real addition to the storyline.

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Navya was perfect as Balamani and I loved her characterisation. There was enough back story to ensure that her actions reflected her personality and her mannerisms suited her youthful and innocent persona. Although the romance between Balamani and Mano doesn’t generate much heat, it is rather sweet and works in the context of their different status and the way the love story develops. There is rather more chemistry when Balamani meets Guruvayurappan, although the relationship is more one of two old friends who are comfortable with each other rather than anything romantic. Ranjith ensures that the interactions between the different characters are believable and illustrate perfectly both their personalities and their places within the hierarchy of the household. These help the film keep a sense of realism even with the addition of Lord Krishna into the mix and the rather fairy tale nature of the story
The music by Raveendran is beautiful, and of course it’s a Malayalam film so it looks stunning with wonderful cinematography by Azhagappan. Worth watching for a new take on an old story, fantastic performances, great dialogue and a scintillating performance from Navya Nair. 4 stars.

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