Varisu

Vamshi Paidipally is usually associated with films in Telugu but this time he’s worked with Thalapathy Vijay to make Varisu in Tamil. Thankfully, Varisu is better than Vijay’s last film, Beast, although I think it would be difficult to make a worse movie! Although the story here is nothing new and the setting in a rich and privileged family tends to grate, the songs are fun, the action plentiful and Vijay is in top form.

Vijay plays Vijay Rajendran, the youngest son of rich businessman Rajendran (R. Sarathkumar) who has incorporated his other two sons into his mining and shipping business. Vijay has been disinherited for refusing to take part in his father’s succession plans and has managed instead to develop a start-up company distributing food to people in need. His success is apparently down to an MBA degree, which magically seems to give him amazing knowledge and ability in business and ensures that everything he suggests works amazingly well. If only! Meanwhile, Rajendran has set up his other two sons to compete against each other to become his successor and run the business empire he has developed.

But all is not well in the Rajendran family. Eldest son Jai (Srikanth) is married to Aarthi (Sangeetha Krish) with a daughter Ria (Sanjana Tiwari) but is also having an affair with Smita (Nandini Rai). Middle son Ajay (Shaam) is happily married but is struggling with his work looking after his father’s interests at the dock and is in debt to a financier Mukesh (Ganesh Venkatraman) as he tries to develop his own business ideas to impress his father. To add to Rajendran’s woes, his wife Sudha (Jayasudha) is unhappy at the forced separation from her youngest son, and his chief rival Jayaprakash (Prakash Raj) is snapping at his heels at every possible opportunity. When his doctor, family friend Dr Anand (Prabhu) tells him he only has months to live it seems to final blow that will fracture the family beyond repair.

But of course that’s not going to happen – enter Vijay and his amazing business prowess to save the day. Naturally Vijay is also able to defeat thugs at the docks, run off a gang of people smugglers and otherwise destroy any and all attacks on the family, his father and himself. The film settles into the usual ‘Vijay as all conquering hero’ and we know that everything will work out all right. While Vijay saves the business, sorts out his brothers and rescues Ria from kidnappers, there are plenty of fight sequences, numerous songs and a brief romance with Divya (Rashmika Mandanna), Aarthi’s sister.

What works here are the songs and the action sequences. There are a lot of songs, which I suspect is to help offset the thinness of the plot. The music is by Thaman S with lyrics by Vivek, and together they have come up with toe-tapping numbers that fit into the film well. Vijay dances up a storm with Rasjmika and a large number of enthusiastic backing dancers, and the songs are full of energy, bursting with colour, and just lots of fun. Best of all, rekhs has managed to make the translated lyrics rhyme and actually sound like songs, which adds to the overall emotional lift of each number. Unfortunately though, the background music would have benefitted from being turned down a few notches and at times I really couldn’t make much out other than just noise.

The action sequences are also well choreographed and Vijay smoothly eliminates every villain that attempts to stop him on his path to the top. It all looks effortless, which I’m sure means there was a lot of work put into these sequences, and it pays off. Perhaps more surprising are the number of rather odd diversions in the story that appear to have been included solely to allow fight sequences to be added. For a corporate and family drama, there are a lot of moments where Vijay has to fight his way out of a corner and, although these action sequences are impressive, they mostly don’t fit well into the rest of the story.

More problematic though is the rest of the film. For a start there are outdated attitudes on view from most of the male characters, who have little time or thought for the women in their lives. As a result, most of the female characters are thinly drawn and leave little impression although to be fair, all of the cast outside of Vijay have minimal impact on the film. The romance with Rashmika Mandanna is over before it starts and she mainly just looks pretty in the songs. Jayasudha does the usual mom routine, but she’s mostly relegated to serving food and worrying about her husband and family. As the two brothers, Srikanth and Shaam have little to do before the interval and not much more in the second half. Even R. Sarathkumar and Prakash Raj, who should have been tearing up the screen with their rivalry, are both very much side-lined by Vijay and end up appearing ineffectual and almost irrelevant. Everyone except Vijay appears one dimensional, which further erodes any plausibility of the story. While Vijay is excellent, the hero-centric nature of the film even starts to dull his shine and it’s only the energy of the songs that keeps the film moving along. The second half does have more energy than the first, but by that stage I was getting tired of Vijay’s relentless ability to conquer every difficulty so easily. A little more failure would have stopped the character from being quite so insufferable by the end of the film.

In the midst of all this, I do have to mention that at least the subtitles were excellent. During the interval I realised that I hadn’t even realised I was reading subtitles at all for a change! Usually I’m distracted by poor grammar, spelling mistakes and odd phrasing, but rekhs and her team have added subs that are easily readable, accurate and which make total sense. It makes a huge difference to be able to concentrate fully on the action and not have part of my attention diverted by trying to work out what is being said.

This is Vijay’s film from start to finish and he’s in almost every frame. Like most of his more recent films, this is made for fans, and there are plenty of nods to previous Vijay films throughout (thanks rekhs for the handy notes in the subs for those of us who didn’t get all the references!). I enjoyed the songs and the action but the story needed more depth, as did the characterisations of the supporting cast. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s not Vijay’s best, despite his energetic performance. Entertaining for a one-time watch, but wait for streaming if you’re not a Vijay fan.

Ponniyin Selvan 1

I did manage to catch PS1 in the cinema (definitely the best way to watch the film), but wanted to watch it again before posting this review. I loved the epic scale, the fantastic costumes and found the story to be relatively easy to follow, despite the large number of characters and location shifts. There is action, intrigue, double-crosses, mystery and suspense as well as the amazing costumes and jewellery – all well worth the 2 hour 47 minute run time and I can’t wait for Part 2!

The story is an adaptation by Mani Ratnam and Elango Kumaravel of the novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. As I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on whether the plot has been changed much, but I suspect that the story has been simplified to make it fit into 2 parts. It’s still pretty clear what’s going on and who’s who, thanks to the defining performances from the stellar cast line-up. The story starts with a quick overview of the Chola dynasty, their defeat of the Pandyas and the appearance of a shooting star in the sky, which apparently signals bad news for the current royal family. After winning his latest battle, the crown prince, Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) sends Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) on a mission to spy on officials meeting at Kadambur palace and report back to the emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) and Aditha’s sister, the princess Kundavai Devi (Trisha). Vallavaraiyan discovers the chancellor of the Chola kingdom Periya Pazhuvettarayar (R. Sarathkumar) is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Sundar and crown his cousin Madhurantakan (Rahman) emperor instead. That’s a lot of long names, but the characters are all so different, that keeping them all straight isn’t as difficult as it may seem!

Pazhuvettarayar is married to Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), an acclaimed beauty who was previously in love with Aditha. Nandini has her own motives and plans to overthrow the Chola empire, but these are much more convoluted than those of her husband and she has allies such as Ravidasan (Kishore), the leader of the exiled Pandya’s. Also involved is Pazhuvettarayar’s brother Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (R. Parthiban), who is in charge of the fort in Thanjavur and who tries to capture Vallavaraiyan when he meets with the king.

Vallavaraiyan is entranced by Kundavai Devi, but she immediately sends him off to Lanka to bring the younger prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) aka Ponniyin Selvan back to Thanjavur. This involves Vallavaraiyan hitching a ride with Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) across the sea and then fighting with the prince before finally  helping Arulmozhi as he evades Pandya assassins to reach the boat sent by his father to bring Arulmozhi home. Along the way Vallavaraiyan is helped by a poet and temple flower seller, Sendhan (Ashwin Kakumanu) and the rather eccentric Thirumalaiappan (Jayaram). There are various other minor characters who add yet more detail and background into the plot, including chieftains, fiancées, defeated princes and various soldiers, servants, government officials and friends of the main characters. It does take a second watch to sort out exactly who everyone is, but Aditha, Arulmozhi, Vallavaraiyan, Kundavai and Nandini are the main players in this first part of the story.

What I really liked about PS1 is how real everything appears. Unlike the fairytale landscapes of Baahubali or sanitised forts in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, here everything seems plausible and historical rather than imagined. The battles are sweaty and bloody, while the fortifications look as if they were made to withstand armies and sieges. It’s more Aragorn in LOTR than Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani. The costumes though are detailed and intricate with plenty of shine and shimmer as you’d expect from a story about kings and their empire. The jewellery in particular is outstanding and just gorgeous. At times I wondered just how Aishwarya and Trisha were managing to walk with all that hardware, but it does give them both a very regal appearance. The hairstyles too are amazing and even the men get in on the costume action with their fancy armour and weaponry.

What really stands out though are the performances, especially the two main female leads and Karthi. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is always good with the right director, and here she is perfect as a woman in conflict with herself. It’s clear that she is suffering and that when she says she has deep wounds, we can see that these are with her all the time. The conflict between her previous love for Aditha, her marriage to Pazhuvettarayar and her commitment to the Pandya’s seems impossible to resolve and Aishwarya ensures this is always present as a shadow across her face every time she is on screen. Her eyes show she is a woman in pain, internally conflicted and caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. When Aishwarya is good, she’s very, very good, and here she delivers in every scene. Trisha too is excellent as Kundavai Devi. She’s regal but still able to unbend when speaking to her friends, and conveys the right amount of political savvy that makes her vitally important to the kingdom. There is a wonderful scene when Kundavai returns to Thanjavur and meets Nandini, where the power play between the two in just a few moments ensures we all know who is really in control of the empire, albeit working behind the scene.

I expect Karthi to be good, but here he is outstanding as the rather irreverent friend trying to help Aditha but enjoying himself along the way. He has a great relationship with his horse, and the comedy between Vallavaraiyan, his horse Semba and chance met Thirumalaiappan provides excellent contrast to the more serious scenes with Aditha, his close friend Parthibendran (Vikram Prabhu) and Arulmozhi. Karthi is great in the action scenes but even better in his interactions with Kundavai and Arulmozhi and also with Nandini. He hits just the right mix of action, sarcasm, comedy and quick witted political savvy making sure that Vallavaraiyan is an intriguing character, and in many ways more interesting than the two princes. Although Jayam Ravi is good as Arulmozhi, it’s a more serious role and he doesn’t have quite the same impact as Karthi here. I am expecting more in Part 2, given the film bears his name. As Aditha, Vikram on the other hand vacillates between berserker warrior and manically depressed jilted lover as he thinks about Nandini and their broken relationship. At times he’s brilliant, but then he starts chewing the scenery again, and it’s hard to take Aditha’s pain as seriously as that of Nandini. Vikram is still very good, just a little too OTT at times, and hopefully will be more retrained in the second half – or just stick to the action!

The action sequences are exhilarating and mostly a lot of fun. Battles are fought between armies but also on board ships, in chase sequences and on elephant and horseback. There are loads of actions scenes too, so Mani Ratnam seems to have thrown in every kind of battle you can think of, and almost every single weapon as well. The choreography is well done to keep the action exciting, even though we expect the good guys to win. But there is still plenty of tension and the outcome isn’t always quite as expected.

I also really liked A.R. Rahman’s music, mostly the songs but the background music was also good and effective throughout the film. This is probably my favourite.

When you start with a good story, it should make a good film, but not everyone can manage to take such a complex tale and turn it into a blockbuster. Mani Ratnam can and every aspect of this film shows his skill. The story moves on at a fast pace, the characters are all clear with well described motivations, and even the intrigue is dealt with appropriately so that not everything is revealed by the end of the film. I loved every aspect of the film and I hope part 2 is just as exciting. 4½ stars

Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India (2018)

Naa Peru Surya

After writing a couple of hits for Telugu cinema, Vakkantham Vamsi has moved into directing his own screenplay with the release of Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India. However, despite an excellent opening scene, the film quickly loses momentum and is let down by poor story development and lack-lustre dialogue, most notably between the hero and his estranged father. The bones of the story are there, but Vamsi tries to mix in too much masala in the form of a dodgy crime boss and a rather limp romance, that dilute down what could have been an excellent coming of age movie. It’s still entertaining though, mainly due to an outstanding performance from Allu Arjun, while there are some excellent action and dance sequences that almost make up for the jumbled storyline.

Bunny is Surya, an army officer with more than a few anger management issues. This leads him into trouble, although to be fair the two incidences where he loses his temper in the opening scene are reasonably justified. It’s more that the magnitude of his response is well above what would be considered ‘normal’ and that’s what ends up being his downfall. After an incident with a terrorist leads to his dismissal from the army, his only shot at redemption is to get a letter signed by eminent psychologist Dr Rama Krishna Raju (Arjun Sarja) certifying that Surya has conquered his anger issues. The problem is that Dr Rama is actually Surya’s father, although the two haven’t spoken since Surya walked out when he was 16 years of age. Surya has been raised and supported by his ‘uncle’ Rao Ramesh, who has sponsored his recruitment into the army and manages to persuade his commander, Colonel Sanjay Shrivastav (Boman Irani) to give Surya one last chance.

There is great potential here, but the basic story of Surya’s road to redemption is almost lost behind the subplot of conflict with gangster Challa (R Sarathkumar) his son (Thakur Anoop Singh) and henchmen, Pradeep Rawat and Harish Uthaman. While these scenes are well filmed with great action sequences, Surya’s anger management plans languish in poorly constructed scenes with his father. Where there should have been crackling tension between Surya and Dr Rama there is instead uncomfortable chat that doesn’t come close to developing any kind of relationship between the two men. Granted the premise is that Dr Rama has completely shut Surya out of his life, and Surya will do absolutely anything to get back into his beloved army, but their interactions are so cold and clumsy that they become meaningless. What I wanted was tension and some level of self-realisation from Dr Rama and Surya, but instead there is just Surya’s anger, represented by discordant background music, and a manufactured conflict between Surya and Challa’s son that he needs to ignore if Surya is to go 21 days without fighting.

Oh yes – that’s the other odd plot point. If Surya can demonstrate no angry outbursts in 21 days he will apparently have conquered his problem. This sounds like a google-based plan of anger management and not the evidence-based behavioural therapy expected from a University based psychology professor, but by this point it’s not one of the most far-fetched ideas in the film.

Also problematical is Surya’s romance with Varsha (Anu Emmanuel). Anyone faced with the kind of anger towards them displayed by Surya would start running and not look back, so Varsha’s continued interest in Surya is hard to fathom, especially when she has zero chemistry with Bunny (and how is this even possible?). The romance makes little sense and doesn’t fit into Surya’s self-inflicted isolation shown in earlier scenes when he single-mindedly pursues his goal to be stationed at the border. Anu Emmanuel has little to do other than look glamorous and ‘stand by her man’ at the appropriate point in proceedings. All of which she does competently but it’s another disappointingly pointless heroine role that adds little to the main story. Another wasted character is Surya’s mother, who doesn’t fit at all well into the narrative and fluctuates between apparently not recognising her son and extreme anger at his absence for all these years.

Despite the shortcomings with the screenplay, what does work here is the character of Surya and his struggles to conform. Surya does manage to control his anger but it’s at the expense of his own self-worth and Bunny gets that inner conflict across perfectly. He shows the enthusiasm and fire that drives Surya to be the best soldier he can be, along with Surya’s passion for his country and makes it seem completely natural. Even better are the later scenes where Surya has to come to terms with the compromises he has made to try and meet his 21 days target. What the dialogue doesn’t manage to get across is plain to see on Surya’s face and in his body language. It really is one of the best performances I’ve seen from Allu Arjun and he completely gets under the skin of his character, dour and driven, with only the songs showing his normal cheeky grin. The support cast are all competent and do as much as they can with their limited roles. Thakur Anoop Singh makes the most impact and is impressive in the action scenes, while Vennela Kishore does manage to sneak in some comedy. It’s great to see Arjun Sarja back onscreen but disappointing that he has so little to do here.

The action sequences are excellent and choreographed to make Surya’s one-man army seem plausible, particularly when intercut with scenes of his army training. Naturally no-one can stop Surya when he’s angry, but the action is well put together and Bunny makes it all look effortless. The songs are generally good too, although the first two have little dancing – which surely is a crime in an Allu Arjun film. However just as I thought that, Lover also, Fighter also started with some great moves and awesome tricks with a cap. Bunny interchanges between ultra-classy and gangsta-wannabe in this song, but when it’s right, no-one does stylish like Allu Arjun!

Vakkantham Vamsi tries to include ideas about the evolution of home-grown terrorists but this is overly simplified and has little impact. I was expecting plenty of patriotism and Naa Peru Surya has a surfeit of flag waving and speeches about a United India that feel contrived, but inevitable in any film that mentions the army. If Vamsi had stuck to a straight-forward story about one man’s redemption this would have been an excellent film. However as it stands, with the additions of a gangster storyline, romance and failed family relationships, Naa Peru Surya has too many threads vying for attention and doesn’t do justice to any of them. Worth watching for Bunny, Arjun Sarja, who does a good job with his limited dialogue, and the dance sequences – just don’t expect too much from the story.