Sangathamizhan

Vijay Chandar’s latest film starts out as a spoof comedy, but ends up as a fairly run-of-the-mill mass entertainer by way of a tired romance and routine ‘villain versus the villagers’ plot. Vijay Sethupathi is always watchable, even in this clichéd action adventure, but the rest of the cast get short-changed by the screenplay, having little to do except either adore or loathe the lead character. There is plenty of action, comedy and even Vijay Sethupathi dancing, but by the end there really is little that makes Sangathamizhan stand out from the rather large pool of similar films.

The opening scene of the film typifies much of the first half. It’s a jumble of mass action and hero-centric plot with a mixed bag of comedy that generally works better than the dramatic dialogue. As aspiring actor Murugan, Vijay Sethupathi has a classic hero entrance before single-handedly reducing a gang of villains to groaning bodies on the floor, while his friend Soori (Soori) cracks a few jokes and performs the usual slapstick side-kick role. It works to some extent as neither Vijay nor Soori seem to be taking any of the dialogue seriously and there are a lot of sideways glances and self-referential jokes in the opening sequences. But the inclusion of a college girl who needs to be rescued from rape, some tasteless jokes about a group of prostitutes and rather humdrum action make this rather more cringeworthy than it needed to be, particularly for the start of the film.

The first half also includes a woeful romance with a truly terrible introduction scene for Kamalini (Raashi Khanna). Murugan crashes Kamalini’s birthday party and then proceeds to scold her for being so generous as to provide him with a free drink at the bar. Somehow this is supposed to make her intrigued by Murugan rather than acting as most women would in this situation and just calling for the bouncer to kick him out of the nightclub. At no point does the love affair between the rich industrialist’s daughter and out-of-work actor seem plausible despite the clichéd and formulaic development of the relationship. The only good thing about their romance is the inclusion of the upbeat and jaunty Kamala (which features men in colourful tutus as backing dancers), even though it doesn’t fit into the narrative at all. In fact, generally the music from Viviek-Mervin is excellent throughout, while the lyrics are beautifully translated by rekhs, who doesn’t just translate the words but makes the lyrics rhyme and scan perfectly. Why doesn’t everyone do this instead of providing literal translations that make absolutely no sense at all?

The plot begins with a courtroom scene where a group of villagers are trying to prevent a copper processing plant from opening in their area. The land appears to have been acquired illegally and for a change the judge seems to be on the villagers’ side, giving the developer just a few weeks to come up with evidence to prove that the factory won’t be a health risk to the villagers. This all becomes much clearer in the second half, which moves into flashback mode to explain the fight between the owner of the copper factory, Kamalini’s father (Ravi Kishan) and the village headman Devarajan (Nassar). Also drawn into the fight is the local politician (Ashutosh Rana) and the rest of Devraj’s family, including his son Sangathamizhan (Vijay Sethupathi).

The tone of the second half is much darker than the first, and from a frivolous romance comedy, it changes into a more dramatic action film. This disconnect between the two halves of the film is jarring as the shift happens suddenly (there is no interval given in Australia) and the mood change is relatively extreme.  Despite this, the second half is actually significantly better since it also includes Nivetha Pethuraj as Thenmozhi, Thamizhan’s romantic interest. Thenmozhi is a better realised character than Kamalini, despite her short time on-screen, with sharper dialogues and actions that actually make sense. Nivetha also has a good on-screen chemistry with Vijay in the romantic scenes between the two characters, which is a significant improvement on the lacklustre interactions he has with Raashi Khanna in the first half. The love story here is also more plausible, making me wonder why so much time was wasted earlier in the film, when the second half has a more convincing story, sharper action and generally improved performances from the entire cast. The main downside is Ravi Kishan’s rather anaemic villain who just doesn’t seem evil or ruthless enough, and Kamalini’s rather bizarre justification for accepting her father’s final fate.

The glue that manages to hold the entire film together (just) is Vijay Sethupathi and his frequent knowing nods to the camera seem to signify that he finds the entire story just as ridiculous as the audience. At times the film dips closely towards satire and throughout the first half I kept thinking that Vijay Chandar was trying to poke fun at the mass genre. But then the second half moves quickly towards more serious topics and the jokes dry up, along with Soori’s virtual disappearance from the screen as the film moves into more straight-up action territory. It doesn’t quite gel there either however as there is too much baggage hanging around from the first half that acts as a distraction. The two characters, Murugan and Thamizhan are also very similar which further undermines the dramatic ‘reveal’ of the finale. The positives are the music, Vijay Sethupathi and rekhs excellent subtitles, but otherwise this is a rather pedestrian and predictable outing that is really one only for fans.

Jai Lava Kusa

Jai Lava Kusa poster

NTR’s latest film takes the main masala ingredient of separated siblings as its theme, and weaves a standard tale of betrayal, revenge and political aspirations with plenty of fight scenes, the odd romantic moment and an exposé of bad parenting. Tarak plays three separate roles in the film, and to his credit he does differentiate all three characters well, particularly given their completely identical appearance by the end. However, with the exception of the child actor (?actors?) three versions of NTR means that no-one else gets a look in and the story suffers as a result. But if all you want is 2 ½ hours of mindless entertainment with big music numbers, even bigger fight scenes and plenty of Tarak, then Jai Lava Kusa ticks all the boxes.

The film starts with three identical triplets who are brought up by their uncle after their mother dies. I couldn’t work out if the same child actor plays all three or if K.S. Ravindra just happened to get three really similar kids (which seems more likely). Whichever it is, he (they) are excellent, particularly in the portrayal of the young Jai. The young actors here set up the interactions between the triplets which will go on to shape their adult characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed their frank portrayal of emotion and demonstration of just how nasty kids can be. At the same time, Posani Krishna Murali as their uncle and guardian shows exactly how not to deal with a child who has a speech impediment and generally fails at being a parental figure. The triplets perform on stage in mythological dramas but while Lava and Kusa are big stars, Jai is denied the same success by his stammer. Not content with ridiculing and humiliating Jai, his uncle also beats him which starts to take its toll, leading to Jai’s suitably theatrical response that leaves all three brothers separated and thinking the others are dead.

Moving forward a few years and Kusa (NTR Jr) has become a thief with a terrible haircut and a hopeless sidekick who soon fades into the background. A car accident reunites Kusa with his long-lost brother Lava, but here there is no need here for amulets, significant songs or other filmi contrivances since the two know each other immediately given that they are identical. Lava (also NTR Jr) is a mild-mannered bank manager with a crush on his marriage broker and after a haircut (thank goodness!) Kusa and Lava embark on a scheme of impersonation to let Kusa sort out problems in the bank while Lava attempts to woo Priya (Raashi Khanna). A scene about the impact of monetisation is excellent here, but for the most part there are some terrible clichés in this part of the film. Hamsa Nandini has a truly awful role as a vamp in the bank while the story itself is pedestrian and treads very familiar ground. What does work is the difference Tarak manages to create between the two brothers, despite looking identical. He keeps the personalities and the voice tone different, while the effects used to let the two brothers appear together work well

The second half is much better as Lava and Kusa find out what happened to the final brother, Jai (NTR Jr). While he still stammers, Jai has become the leader of a gang of thugs and goes by the name of Ravana, with all the symbolism that implies. Jai is totally different from the other two brothers and Tarak plays him with a brooding intensity that overpowers Lava and Kusa whenever they are together. It’s a fantastic performance and works to lift the second part of the film as Jai, in his guise of Ravana, terrorises a village with his gang. With his nifty retrievable axe on a chain Ravana deals out death on a daily basis, but needs a total image revamp when he decides to pursue a political career and win over the heart of Simran (Nivetha Thomas). There is also a plot thread that introduces a rival for Ravana in the form of Sarkar (Ronit Roy) to ensure that there are enough fight scenes and general mayhem for the film finale, while having three versions of Jai running around allows for some comedy to stop the film drowning in too much gore. The film doesn’t ever aspire to any kind of realism so the over the top fight scenes fit right in, and the lack of any appropriate authoritarian response to the excessive bloodshed seems perfectly logical. But it’s the more negative character of Jai that dominates and with plenty of melodrama and a deep voice, Tarak ensures that this is the character you remember at the end of the film.

This being an NTR Jr film there are big song and dance numbers which generally have little to do with the actual story, but which look fantastic on the big screen. Tamannah turns up in an item song, which was better than expected, and for the most part the songs are inoffensive and the dancing is first class. However they tend to appear out of nowhere and do act as distractions for the main storyline.

With all the focus being on the three brothers, there is little room for anything else. Ronit Roy’s character is a standard Telugu villain without any differentiating characteristics, while Harish Uthaman and Brahmaji pop up in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. The other support characters only appear briefly to explain what happened to the brothers as they were growing up and both Raashi Khanna and Nivetha Thomas are under-utilised in roles that have minimal character development. This really is all about NTR Jr and his ability to successfully pull off a triple role with three very different characters. From that perspective the film is a huge success – Tarak is very impressive as Jai and makes me wish he appeared in more negative character roles, given how well he does here. It’s NTR Jr’s film all the way and he carries it easily with impressive performances in all three roles. It’s just a pity that the story doesn’t come together as strongly or leave such an impression. Worth watching for Tarak and for the whole visual spectacle, just don’t expect too much from the plot.