NGK (2019)

NGK

Spoiler alert

I’m a big fan of both Suriya and Selvaraghavan and was intrigued to see how Selva would deal with a main stream hero given his usual character-driven and more unconventional style of film making. As it turns out, Selva has made room for both heroic gestures and quirky plot points in this tale of a young man’s rise to prominence in a political party, although ultimately neither meld particularly well together. In the end, the darkness of the storyline ensures NGK is still definitely a Selvaraghavan film, although only working in parts despite an understated, yet powerful performance from Suriya. There is a lot to unpack here, and I apologise for the spoilers which I haven’t been able to avoid in order to discuss certain aspects of the story.

Nandha Gopala Kumaran aka NGK (Suriya) is an organic farmer, living in a small town with his parents Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Viji (Uma Padmanabhan). He’s married to Geetha (Sai Pallavi) and in the initial scenes both are completely besotted with each other to the point of irritating Viji with their romantic overtures. Kumaran is an organic farmer who has given up his city job to work the land with a group of like-minded idealists, but their livelihood is threatened by local traders and businessmen who want the farmers to buy their chemicals. Kumaran gets the idea of approaching his local MLA (Ilavarasu) from a neighbour Giri (Bala Singh) who works for the party. Giri has been beaten up by party men because he refused an inappropriate request from MLA Pandiyan’s but despite this, Giri still supports the party ideas. Straight from the start, it’s shown that the party elite are corrupt, lacking morals and purely interested in getting and keeping power. Kumaran uses his friend Raja (Rajkumar) who also works for the party to get an audience with Pandiyan, who agrees to stop intimidation of the farmers, but only if Kumaran enters politics and brings 500 of his own supporters into the party.

Interestingly, in these early scenes, Kumaran seems disgusted and repelled by Pandion, and is further antagonised by his bullying and repeated humiliations. But at some point Kumaran decides to kowtow and do everything Pandiyan wishes, including cleaning his toilet and supplying him with home-cooked food. What would help this transformation would be an explanation of why Kumaran decided to conform. Was it because he realised the power of politics and what he could potentially do if he managed to move up the ranks? Or was it simply to stop the humiliation, or perhaps even an attempt to shame Pandiyan into more moral behaviour? Sadly, none of the reasoning behind any of Kumaran’s choices are explained, although there are some pivotal events that we can assume helped shape his actions.

In the course of his transition to political power, Kumaran meets Vanathi (Rakul Preet Singh) who is a UK-educated political analyst tasked with helping the party win upcoming elections. Vanathi is impressed by Kumaran, presumably realising that his earnest demeanour and good looks will make him a good candidate to win over the voting public. Vanathi is an interestingly grey character who’s not above dirty tactics to discredit the opposition, although these are more about revealing the ruling party’s indiscretions rather than fabricating evidence to implicate chief minister Killivazhavan (Devaraj) and his minions. As Kumaran becomes more and more involved with the party, and by implication with Vanathi, Geetha starts to become jealous and finally accuses Kumaran of having an affair. Astonishingly (this is Suriya after all), Kumaran quickly admits his infidelity but it’s all the more shocking because there has been no hard evidence on screen and no real reason for the affair – after all, Kumaran had a wife he was supposedly besotted with waiting for him at home. Then too, his revelation is made somewhat passionlessly, but immediately followed up with a nasty challenge to Geetha asking her what she will do about it. So, was he just scratching an itch because he was away from home? Did he fall in love with the clever and politically sharp Vanathi – a world away from the more innocent Geetha? Or was it a more calculated ploy, to seduce the woman behind the party’s campaign for office for his own ambition?

Rakul Preet Singh is good in a role that starts off well, but which fades quickly once she (sigh) inevitably falls in love with Kumaran, despite her initial tough, woman-of-the-world persona. At least Vanathi has a reasonable character arc and she stays true to her own ideals throughout, apart from an unfortunate lapse during a dodgy romantic song which doesn’t fit with the rest of the screenplay at all. She still has values and these stand her in good stead as Kumaran becomes more manipulative and Vanathi gradually seems to realise what is happening. Sai Pallavi on the other hand doesn’t doesn’t fare as well as Geetha. Her initial interactions with Kumaran are too cloyingly sweet and over the top, while Geetha’s suspicion of an affair seem to come from nowhere, leading to some odd behaviours when she meets Vanathi. Her initial reaction to Kumaran’s affair is also strangely overdone, while the apparent acceptance in later scenes also doesn’t ring true, making Geetha a rather unsatisfactory and jarring presence onscreen. It’s odd since Selva’s female characters normally have strong characters and some reason for what they do, but here the women are all muted and take a very definite back seat to the main story.

Kumaran gradually changes throughout the story from an all-round nice guy to someone able to plot and scheme his way to success. What I can’t decide is if he turned to the dark side to win power to be able to help his people, or if he truly becomes corrupted to the point where he is prepared to use anyone to achieve his ends. The final scenes with Geetha and his parents suggest the latter, but I need to watch the film again to find more clues to his behaviour. I did pick up some. Selva uses changes in the lighting scheme here as he did in Pudhupettai to indicate some of the personality changes – changing from green to red lighting during a fight scene in an improbably cavernous bathroom, presumably to suggest Kumaran’s move towards more selfish motives. There are also questions around what really happens when Kumaran’s friend Raja dies, and his initial meeting with Vanathi definitely has more subtext, but I was concentrating too much on reading the subtitles to pick up on all the subtleties.

The glue holding the story together is Suriya, who forgoes his usual mass-style hero for an ambiguous character who definitely moves towards the wrong side of politics. It’s a subtle and almost low-key performance, although there is plenty of passion on show as Kumaran makes energetically impassioned speeches about farming and freedom, land and human rights, and inevitably ‘the common man’. Suriya gets across the definite sense that Kumaran is acting in all of his grand speeches, while still leaving his true motivation rather more ambiguous until the end, where his corruption appears to be complete. Here Selva has ensured that the film is very much about the star, and Suriya feels the space completely, including the requisite action scenes, dance moves and compelling charisma that end up defining the character too. Although the rest of the cast are good, they aren’t as memorable as Suriya, with the exception of Ilavarasu and Devaraj who have their own personality quirks.

Sivakumar Vijayan does a good job with the cinematography and overall the production is excellent even down to having readable subtitles in yellow font. Awesome! Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background soundtrack is good, and the few dance numbers are catchy enough, with the only real let down being the inappropriate romance track with Kumaran and Vanathi. It’s not a bad song, just oddly placed and bizarrely shot to show a romantic side to two characters who otherwise don’t appear passionate about each other at all. There are the characteristic dark themes and odd actions that remind you that this is a Selva film, but with Suriya front and centre, this is a more commercial and smoother film than his usual fare. The blend isn’t perfect but there is plenty here to keep you entertained, even enough for repeated viewings to see more of what is going on in the background. No doubt that will provide more clues and a clearer picture of just exactly who is NGK. I really enjoyed this, despite my issues with Geetha and occasional frustrations at not being able to decide exactly all the why’s. But then that is part of the genius of Selvaraghavan, to refuse to spoon feed his audience answers and keep everyone guessing. And even here with a mainstream hero in a more traditionally told story, he very nearly pulls it off.

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Nannaku Prematho

Nannaku Prematho treads the line between mass action shtick and a more restrained thriller. Sukumar is attentive to foreshadowing and resolving the things he sets up so it is all very satisfying. Note: I think I’ve avoided giving away most of the surprises, but this is not completely spoiler free.

Abhiram (Tarak) is the youngest son of Subramanyam (Rajendra Prasad), a successful enough NRI businessman. But all families have secrets and when Subramanyam is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he tells his three sons about his past. He was once even the even wealthier Ramesh Chandra Prasad, but was cheated by an associate who has gone on to become filthy rich and influential on a global scale. He wants those wrongs righted, and the lost wealth back, before he dies. The two older sons humour him but have no intention of paying anything more than lip service. Abhi is more action oriented and he decides to ruin Krishnamurthy (Jagapathi Babu) so his father can die in peace. He decides to throw everything he has at this, including emptying out the family bank accounts. And his method? Making Krishnamurthy’s daughter Divya (Rakul Preet Singh) fall for him so he can worm his way in to Krishnamurthy’s good books and then steal all the things. His brothers are not supportive after losing the family fortune twice, Divya is unimpressed when she rumbles him, but Abhi is undaunted.

Despite the premise that Abhi will use Divya the relationship that develops between them, as much as any relationships in this film are developed, is quite respectful and they seem to like each other. Sukumar falls back on the hero saving heroine from a completely unnecessary and gratuitous rape scenario but this is a big budget Telugu film and it’s not like they have the inclination to actually think about having the hero talk to a woman with a brain. When Abhi tries to get over losing Divya he doesn’t want her insulted or cheapened in any way, so he focusses his anger on her father. I like that he didn’t think less of her because of either how their relationship started or who she was related to. But I am not sure he really knew her all that well either. He knew what he wanted to know of her. A lot of the tension is really about misunderstanding. And when people do understand the situation or the motivation, they deal with it and it makes sense. Mostly. The character with minimal respect for Divya is her father.

Tarak is low key and solid in his 25th film, and manages to make the shift into heroic daring and action a seamless extension of Abhi’s character. It was well judged, and helped by some thoughtful plotting. Sure there was still some near certain death, and suspension of logic and laws of physics, but overall his challenges required brain as well as brawn. Abhi tries not to let extreme emotions sway his behaviour, but he isn’t dull. He has a sense of humour to go with his overweening confidence, treats his sidekicks like valued helpers most of the time, and Tarak has a nice rapport with his co-stars. I was really interested in how Abhi was going to solve the various challenges thrown in his way and very invested in seeing him win over the slimy Krishnamurthy. The action scenes seem like a breeze for Tarak, and he gets to strut his stuff in a few songs too.

Rakul Preet Singh has some fairly thin material as Divyanka, but manages to pull a decent performance out of it. She doesn’t simper, she looks Abhi straight in the eye and demands answers. It is nice to have an unapologetic and self-assured woman as the heroine. Divya was also given a little bit of space to be angry, be sad, be scared, get drunk, hang out with friends, and be a person in her own right. It’s not a ground breaking role, but I liked the performance and the hints of being more than just an accessory for the hero. Rakul Preet just turns up in the songs, does great face, and leaves most of the work to Tarak which suited me fine. She dressed appropriately for the part, wore stylish and sensible flat shoes which made me ridiculously happy, and only suffered a few dodgy outfits. I also liked that her conflict over her father heading for a collision with Abhi was somewhat resolved, albeit in a thrifty way.

Set in the UK and Spain the film’s style is urban and the characters well to do. It all looks crisp, well composed, and orderly. Tarak’s image as Abhi was a mildly dandified hipster about town, affluent and understated. But I laughed at the matching outfits all three sons wore in one critical scene. Otherwise the wardrobe team did well. I’ve been thinking about eyebrows a lot since I rewatched this.

Also interesting – I’ve never seen a plot hinge on a car full of guinea pigs before. The poor little buggers were thrown around a bit, which I find distressing. But the stupid science thing that had me rolling my eyes turned out to be a ruse so I’m glad that was not supposed to be a thing. The songs by Devi Sri Prasad are OK and are integrated well into the action.

The supporting cast is strong, even if they don’t always seem essential. Jagapathi Babu is in his element as the urbane, narcissistic, Krishnamurthy. How cool that he gave Abhi a swipe card to get into his office anytime without breaking in, he was so confident he would win. The way the story was fleshed out around the characters made sense in this world, and there were few false notes. Hooray for quietly competent Kate (Liza van der Smissen) in amongst the sidekicks. I was honestly puzzled by why Srinivas Avasarala was even in the film because I can’t recall his character doing anything necessary. Rajeev Kanakala does high emotion well, but his character was hampered by the lack of connection between some scenes. Rajendra Prasad isn’t in the film for long but his presence permeates everything.

I have a small gripe. The opening titles are over a badly animated approximation of a Rube Goldberg machine….Why not just build one instead of faking it? But the film is fairly well constructed, has decent internal logic, throws in a few elaborate surprises, and like a Goldberg machine everything lands where it should.

See this if you like a good mass film but often wish they made more sense, and for people mostly acting like grown-ups. 4 stars! (deductions for gratuitous rapeyness and imperilled guinea pigs).

SPYder

SPYder wants to be a clever cyber spy thriller but is more a vigilante story with some bells and whistles. Mahesh is a compelling presence, and Rakul Preet Singh is a good match for him. But AR Murugadoss seems to have lost his own plot in the second half

Warning: Some mild-ish spoilers follow.

Shiva (Mahesh) is wildly overqualified to be an intelligence officer, tapping phones illegally albeit with a government mandate to break that law in order to proactively stop people who may break other laws. Hmmm. He is also a genius software developer. One of his inventions analyses calls for signs of fear and pleas for help. When Shiva gets the bat signal he may go rescue people himself, or call on supporters who know of his sideline. On one call he “meets” Charlie (Rakul Preet Singh), a medical student interested in finding a friend with benefits. Through another call he unwittingly sends a friend to her death. Sickened by the consequences of his outsourcing, he finds proof the murderer is a serial killer. Shiva sets out to find him and obtain closure for himself and for all the victims. What starts out driven by data and psychological profiling soon turns into a series of tactical encounters.

Shiva is judge, jury, and executioner as he knew once people went into the legal system it was pointless. Mahesh plays Shiva as focussed, and kind of grim. And Shiva does so much talking – dialogues, voiceover, exposition… Despite the high stakes cat and mouse game, there are times a lighter touch would have been welcome. The scene where he chased Charlie’s auto, jumped in and asked her two questions, then jumped out and ran away had a nice flavour of deadpan absurdity. But when he ran towards the evil Bairavudu, the fierce emotion and torment he was feeling was palpable. Mahesh is a seriously good actor and I was a little disappointed the material let him down.

For those tracking Mahesh’s reluctant acquiescence to the shameless skinshow, he did wear tshirts, and flashed a glimpse of ankle in some manpris. I feel that the costume designer has been watching a bit of Kpop lately, with asymmetrical tailoring supersized to fit Mahesh’s lanky frame. I am grateful he went the mesh shirt (over a tee) and let the dancers don the mesh pants. He hasn’t varied his dance style from rhythmic hopping and emphatic pointing.

Mahesh, maaaate, it’s not the 90s anymore. The songs make a visual statement but musically they do little to lift the movie. And the English lyrics in Achcham Telugandham are woeful…hopefully deliberately!

A scrap of cloth at the scene of the double murder had traces of blood from 8 more people. And then a character said “and three of them were men”. Yeah it’s not like 7 women had also been killed. Someone think of the men! Also the stalking trope is given a twist but it is still stalking. Charlie confronts Shiva early on but as his mate Varun (under-utilised but highly likeable Priyadarshi) says, she noticed what he was wearing so of course she must have fallen for him. The “but she secretly wants it” explanation left a bad taste as did her cheerful acceptance that it wasn’t a big deal if it was Shiva tapping her phone.

Despite all the macho BS, the ladies fare quite well. Charlie wants sex without silly romantic shenanigans and decides Shiva is just right. She says to his mum “I’m 21. My parents have been married 20 years. I take after my mother!” and wins maternal endorsement to try her luck. Rakul Preet Singh has pep without being a manic pixie. Charlie was assertive and still a bit girly, and it was a pity after the boulder incident when it seems everyone forgot she was in the movie and ran off to the next scene without her. Charlie just gets to stand around in the background a lot despite all the likely issues with professional ethics, police procedure, and common sense. It was a waste of a competent actress.

In one of the best sequences of the film, a bunch of neighbourhood mums and aunties are persuaded to help Shiva in a dangerous rescue. He is in a van driving through traffic as he gives each of them a task, and they get shit done in magnificent style and to great music. The aunties not only saved the day but probably booked in coffee catch-ups and shopping trips as they climbed up poles and leapt across balconies. The audience, including me, cheered.

There’s some glossing over and leaps of faith required to buy in. Technology that can record, analyse, prioritise calls in real time from all across Hyderabad whether on analogue or digital networks and presumably in any language sounds great. But I can’t even get a Google doc to load on my work laptop! Shiva just happened to have a green screen handy when he needed to interrupt an evening soap. And he always knew exactly which of all the variables to choose, just on his gut instinct.

Bhairavudu (SJ Surya) is a nihilist and a sadist. He has no objective other than killing for the sake of it, and feel entitles to inflict pain. He is a creature of death and hatred, born in a graveyard. Surya is effectively menacing when he is passing through crowds or observing his intended victims, a cold hunger emanating from him. But when he starts with the capering and shrieking, it’s just acting crazy and it doesn’t ring true. What was with the hessian gimp mask? He could have done with more restraint, and Mahesh could have boiled over a little more and I think the second half would have been more compelling.

Jayaprakash is Shiva’s sensible dad and I think Dheepa Ramanujam plays Shiva’s sensible mum. RJ Balaji and Priyadarshi Pulikonda play Shiva’s down to earth work mates, both low key with the occasional laugh arising from their reactions to their heroic friend. I think the villains were instructed to overact because Bharath tries to get his teethmarks into the scenery.

You’d expect anything Santosh Sivan does to look amazing, and SPYder is very stylish. There are some good, and some dodgy, CGI effects, and the action sequences are full throttle. AR Murugadoss had a good idea but didn’t work through the detail to ensure the finale was as satisfying as the start of this larger than life conflict. Nevertheless there is plenty to enjoy, especially for the Mahesh fans.