Orange Mittai

Essentially Orange Mittai is a road movie, but this isn’t a typical journey. Here, the vehicle is an ambulance and the trip one to a hospital taken by a cantankerous patient with heart problems who enjoys riling the ambulance driver and EMT. And while the story is about the journey both physically and metaphorically, it’s also a story about fathers and sons, about loneliness and even to some extent about failings within the health system in rural India. Biju Viswanath gently infuses comedy throughout the tale and allows the story to focus on the developing relationship between the EMT Sathya (Ramesh Thilak) and patient Kailasam (Vijay Sethupathi). Along with the gorgeous cinematography, it’s the simplicity of the story and the genuine view of isolation portrayed that make this such a great watch.

The film starts with EMT Sathya and his ambulance driver Arumugam (Arumughan Bala) attending the scene of a car accident. The driver is drunk, and after delivering him to the hospital, the dialogue between Sathya and Arumugam quickly establishes their individual characters and the ongoing tone of the film. Sathya is concerned about the driver and lets us know by a quick conversation with the nurse that he has informed the patient’s family, who are on their way. He also stops Arumugam thieving money and other valuables from their hapless patient in a scene that demonstrates his innate honesty and compassion, but Biju Viswanath also uses this to illustrate the friendship between the two men, despite their widely differing morals and work ethic. It’s a lovely beginning that quickly sets up their relationship, followed by similar brief conversations that give more background to Sathya. His father died a year ago, and when Sathya is praying, Arumugam comments that he could have shown his father this sort of respect when he was alive. It’s a throwaway line in an early scene but it resonates throughout the film, as Sathya ends up dealing with another older man who has issues with his own son.

Keeping to the theme of fathers, early on there is meeting between Sathya and his potential father-in-law (Trichy Manivannan) to begin discussing marriage with Kavya (Aashritha). Initially it appears as if Kavya’s father disapproves of Sathya, but despite misgivings he gives his permission to the marriage, as long as Sathya gives up working as an EMT and comes to work in his business instead. But that’s not what Sathya wants. He’s happy enough with Kavya, but his job means more to him than just his salary, and he’s not prepared to give it up just to appease his father-in-law. He doesn’t argue or explain his motivations, just simply asks for a day to think about it, which exemplifies his conciliatory approach to conflict seen throughout the rest of the film.

Sathya is given the job of collecting a heart attack patient from a remote location and taking him to the hospital. When Arumugam and Sathya finally make their way to the house (it’s inaccessible by ambulance) there is tense music and tilted camera shots through the gate railings and underside of a cart. It all seems to be pointing towards some supernatural event or violent shock, but the reality is rather less dramatic. The house is big, and there are faded pictures on the walls hinting at a past glory, while the rest of the house seems to be slowly decaying. When they finally find him, the man they have come to help is alone and has a grumpy and unconciliatory attitude making him prickly and difficult to deal with. He expects much but is not at all grateful, which alienates both Sathya and Arumugam right away. However Sathya is an expert in dealing with such disrespect – he deals with it every day from his supervisor and the hospital doctors, so he’s able to cope with Kailasam’s orders and quirks, eventually getting him into the ambulance and on his way to the hospital.

Naturally the journey doesn’t go smoothly and there are various interruptions along the way. Throughout it all, Kailasam is difficult, demanding and a typical grumpy old man. Vijay Sethupathi doesn’t quite look old enough for the character despite colouring his hair grey, but he does get the mannerisms spot on. In particular, his nosiness about Sathyam’s relationship is brilliantly written and seems completely natural, as does his general dissatisfaction with the world at large. As the journey unfolds it’s clear that Kailasam has a fractured relationship with his son, and since Sathya is dealing with issues related to his own father, the expectation is that the two will develop a father-son style relationship. To some extent this does occur, but not until later – after Sathya has come to realise it’s easier to feel compassion towards someone he’s not related to, and begins to understand that loneliness is behind Kailasam’s difficult persona.

Ramesh Thilak frequently appears in Tamil films as the friend or sidekick, often in a comedy role, but here he plays the central character which allows him to show a more serious side. Sathya is basically a decent person who just wants to be able to help people, and Ramesh does an excellent job of blending understanding and compassion with frustration, exasperation but also acceptance as Sathya deals with Kailasam, his demanding supervisor and a hospital doctor who has no respect for his skills. He also hits the right note with his girlfriend, even giving her some good advice as he finally tells her what he really wants in his life and that it’s up to her to decide what she really wants too. Unusually, the romance is merely a side note to the film rather than a central plot point –  it’s why Sathya is distracted at work and gives Kailasam an opportunity to give out some advice, but there are no odd duets or long involved romantic scenes. This is a much more down-to-earth film that doesn’t need any of this kind of drama, and the story works much better as a result.

The comedy in the film also seems to flow naturally, with Ramesh and Arumughan Bala working together beautifully to produce the laughs. Arumughan is the typical hapless idiot who will always do or say the wrong thing, but his relationship with Sathya has more to it than just these comedy interactions, which makes for a more interesting journey.

Although there are a few misses, for the most part the story gently builds a relationship between Sathya and Kailasam, even though the latter is resilient almost to the end. With Kailasam’s estrangement from his son, the friendship that develops with Sathya is bittersweet, which may be why the film is titled Orange Mittai, also referencing the bitter orange sweets Kailasam eats on his journey to the hospital. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi is credited as co-writing the film with Biju Viswanath, who is responsible for the stunning camera work and for editing the film as well as directing. This depth of involvement is perhaps why Orange Mittai at times seems indulgent, for example when Sathya stops to let an exuberant Kailasam dance in the moonlight, but this is only a minor point since overall the story is told simply and with care and attention to detail. I enjoyed the slow development of an unusual friendship and the meandering journey from hospital to hospital with a patient who really just wanted a day out and a break in routine. One to savour and enjoy as a simple reflection on the complexity of human relationships. 4 stars.

Orange Mittai

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Kumbalangi Nights

Kumbalangi Nights

Kumbalangi Nights finally made it to Melbourne over the weekend, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of the packed out shows in Clayton. Madhu C. Narayanan’s directorial début is a coming of age story, but one where a family grows and matures together rather than simply telling the tale of a single person. With exceptional performances from the entire cast and an unexpected twist at the end, this is a must watch film that hopefully will get a wider release in Australia.

The film begins with Franky (Mathew Thomas), the youngest of four brothers coming home after spending time at a soccer camp. He has a scholarship and is receiving a good education, but he’s ashamed of his poor home and dysfunctional family so he keeps his school friends at a distance. Franky and his two older brothers Saji (Soubin Shahir) and Bobby (Shane Nigam) live in a partially unfinished house at the end of an inlet. It’s definitely not in the best part of town (it’s where trash is dumped), but it still looks to be a pretty spot just at the edge of the water. The house may be rickety but the brothers can navigate home by boat and are able to organise dinner by walking outside and casting a net to catch a fish. The fourth brother Boney (Sreenath Bhasi) doesn’t live with the others, mainly because of incessant fights between Saji and Bobby but Boney has a full-time job and a separate set of friends which may contribute to keeping him away from his brothers.

The story of the family is gradually revealed, but more by small day-to-day actions rather than by any major event. For instance, when Frankie arrives home he’s upset to find an egg shell full of cigarette ash – a sign that his brothers haven’t been cleaning while he’s been away. He’s taken on the role of their absent mother and does most of the cooking and cleaning but his despair at the half-finished state of their house is constant. Boney is seen paddling a canoe over to the house but turns away when he sees Saji and Bobby arguing yet again, while Franky finds a sack of abandoned kittens, proving that they really do live in a dumping ground for unwanted strays. In this way, Narayanan gradually reveals a family in crisis, where Saji seems to be content to live off his partner’s earnings in their ironing business, Bobby wastes his time away lounging around with his best friend Prasanth (Sooraj Pops) and Franky escapes to play soccer with his friends as much as possible.

Meanwhile, across the water, Shammi (Fahadh Faasil) has recently married Simmi (Grace Anthony) and moved in with her, her mother (Ambika Rao) and her sister Baby (Anna Ben). Shammi has a good job and Baby also works in a local hotel while their upmarket house is also used as a home-stay for tourists in the area. Although on the face of it this family seems the total opposite of Franky’s, there is something not quite right – first seen in Shammi’s adamant objection to the local kids playing football on ground outside the house. Fahadh Faasil is wonderfully creepy here, with considered arrogance and a scary smile that he keeps plastered on his face while he asks ever more intrusive questions to his wife and her sister. He’s the quintessential patriarchal male who wants to control everyone in the family and expects them to follow his rigid morality. There are so many small mannerisms that Fahadh Faasil adds that together make up the portrait of a not-very-nice man as he eavesdrops, spys on his guests and makes snide and demeaning comments at every opportune moment. One excellent demonstration is when he uses his razor to remove his wife’s bindi from the mirror in the bathroom showing his toxic masculinity at its most blatant with Shammi even calling himself the ‘complete man’ as he preens his moustache in the mirror. It’s a superb performance throughout and although Shammi isn’t onscreen much in the first half, he always leaves an impression.

Meanwhile, Bobby is in love with Simmi’s sister Baby, but the difference in their social status is huge, and the gap in their personal goals appears even more vast. Bobby is content to spend his days drinking and smoking, while Baby has a much more upwardly mobile mindset. However the romance is a realistic portrayal of a relationship trying to span the social divide and there are some beautifully written scenes here too.  Baby persuades Bobby to get a job, which he hates, but he’s determined to stick it out as the only way he’s ever likely to persuade her family to consent to their marriage. Shane Nigam and Anna Ben are delightful here with each perfectly complementing the other and reacting exactly as would be expected to each new problem. Initially Bobby asks his friend why would anyone buy a tea shop just to get tea, when Prasanth reveals he’s planning to marry his girlfriend Sumisha (Riya Saira), but when he falls in love with Bobby he gradually changes his point of view. Realistically, it’s not an instant change, but one that feels plausible given the development of their relationship. Sooraj Pops and Riya Saira provide the perfect contrast too since although Prasanth is just as job shy as Bobby, he has more get up and go, while Sumisha has the confidence Baby lacks.

Syam Pushkaran wrote the screenplay, and as in Maheshinte Prathikaaram (the only other film of his I’ve seen ….so far!), he uses a mixture of comedy and drama to underpin a story that gets to the basic heart of a society and the social constructs that define what makes someone a good person. Saji is argumentative and hot-tempered, but does want the best for his family. When his friend Murugan (Ramesh Thilak) is killed, Saji takes in his widow and her young baby proving that is heart is in the right place, even if sometimes he forgets to listen to it. This is a beautifully nuanced performance by Soubin Shahir and there are moments of absolute brilliance as Saji has to come to terms with the consequences of his actions. So much is not said, but rather is shown by his mannerisms and the way he deals with every set-back and put down. Shane Nigam too does an excellent job with his role, and his Bobby is the quintessential slacker who realises he needs to change his ways or he will lose the woman he loves. The question is whether or not that’s a strong enough incentive, particularly since Bobby has no strong role model to follow.

My absolute favourite though is Grace Anthony as Simmi. There is a real gender divide in the film with the men generally failing to deal with the issues in their lives. The women on the other hand, just get on with things without any drama or fanfare. Simmi initially seems to be just another long-suffering and put upon wife but she has an inner strength and determination that finally breaks out towards the end of the film in a brilliantly written and performed scene. It’s this combination of normal routine life and small moments of drama that makes Kumbalangi Nights such an engrossing and relatable film. Although ultimately it’s the story of Franky’s family and their gradual transformation as different women enter their lives and help to turn them around, it’s also a study of ordinary human behaviour that will ring true for most of us. There is so much more I could write about almost every scene, but I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so all I can do is advise everyone to go see the movie!

This is a beautifully told story and Shyju Khalid adds the finishing touches with good use of the camera to capture both the beauty and the ugliness in this small area of Kerala. Sushin Shyam’s music fits perfectly and every single member of the cast plays their role as if it was one they were born to fill. The only odd note comes at the end where the plot takes a sudden turn, but it’s still so well executed that even this doesn’t seem all that out of place. I loved this film and highly recommend watching Kumbalangi Nights for a simply great little slice of life in small town Kerala.

 

Tik Tik Tik

Tik Tik Tik

Tik Tik Tik is basically Armageddon meets Gravity meets Now You See Me set in space. Plus a whole mish-mash of ideas from other HW movies which may have been thrown in as an attempt to hide the planet-sized plot holes, of which there are many. It’s not that you need the usual suspension of disbelief to enjoy this film – Tik Tik Tik requires complete ignorance of scientific knowledge, in fact best to leave any common sense way out past Pluto too, as the film has little logic and few attempts to include anything resembling realistic scientific fact. Now that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if Shakti Soundar Rajan had decided to make a comedy set in space, but despite the presence of Ramesh Thilak and Arjunan as bumbling side-kicks, Tik Tik TIk tries to be a serious space drama and that’s where it ultimately falls down.

The story goes like this: there is a giant asteroid hurtling towards the Earth, but somehow no other nation has noticed the impending disaster about to strike. But that’s OK, because it’s apparently a selectively damaging asteroid that’s going to hit the Bay of Bengal and only obliterate Chennai and the rest of Southern India. Naturally the Indian Army have a plan – which is to send a magician-thief and his two mates into space to steal a 200 mega-tonne nuclear warhead. This has been hidden in a heavily guarded space station because where else would you hide a highly illegal nuclear bomb? Then the team need to fire the bomb into the centre of the asteroid, which will split perfectly into two and narrowly avoid the Earth, not causing any problems at all as it easily avoids the Earth’s gravitational pull. Oh, and the team have six days (and a few odd minutes) to find the thief, train him how to be an astronaut, steal the bomb and save the world.

None of that seems too ridiculously far-fetched to be honest – after all, it’s no more ridiculous than the idea that only the USA can deal with any potential planetary threat. It’s what happens once they are in space where the really preposterous stuff starts. The plan to steal the bomb is terrible, badly plotted and riddled with convenient coincidences, although the action sequences themselves are actually quite good. However, rather more problematic is the addition of a secondary plot that includes a villain who tries to sabotage the mission. Unfortunately, the characterisation here is particularly weak and poorly written. The villain’s actions don’t seem likely or credible and there is no justification or good reason (other than the vague mention of money) for them to act the way they do. The introduction of the whole sabotage plot is also rather odd and fails to generate any of the required tension. After plenty of action where imprisoned thief Vasu (Jayam Ravi) is selected for the mission, demonstrates his credentials and learns how to deal with zero gravity, the villain’s addition feels lacklustre and feeble in comparison.

Jayam Ravi is fine a kind of modern-day Robin Hood – using his magic tricks to steal from the wealthy for the benefit of the poor. He’s obviously a nice guy who has been imprisoned by the ‘corrupt system’ and he’s made even more human by his relationship with his son Aarav. Vasu’s wife is dead making him a single father, and there is even a sweet song to show just how special his relationship is with his son. This is important later on, as Vasu is more concerned with keeping his son safe rather than saving the world, which is a major factor in how the mission plays out.

However, Jayam isn’t a natural action hero and although he does well in most of the choreographed action sequences, once in space he seems rather shell-shocked and passive while carrying out General Mahendran’s (Jayaprakash) orders or when attempting to trick the captain of the Chinese space station, Captain Lee (Aaron Aziz). It gives him the appearance at times of almost sleep-walking though some scenes, and ends up removing any tension that the film really needs. After all, the Tik Tik Tik of the title refers to the ticking clock that’s counting down the hours and minutes until the asteroid strikes and over 40 million people are wiped out, but you wouldn’t know that given the often laid-back approach to the mission from Vasu and his friends Venkat (Ramesh Thilak) and Appu (Arjunan).

On the other hand, Nivetha Pethuraj is excellent as Swathi, one of the co-captains running the space mission, and she is efficient and decisive throughout. Thankfully her character is vital for the mission and is shown to be a competent engineer with good reason to be in the story with no hint of any romantic interest at all. The unexpected equality also applies to the Indian army where two of the top generals are also female, as is a large part of the scientific team behind the space mission. It’s also good to see Vincent Asokan in a more heroic role for a change and he works well with Nivetha as the other captain on the space mission, although mostly he is unhappy with the inclusion of a group of scrappily trained thieves on such an important mission. And I have to say he does have an excellent point!

One of the other issues with the film is the lack of suspense and tension, as the time limit before the asteroid crashes into the Earth seems to be forgotten for much of the second half. There is some excitement with Vasu bouncing around in space and with the team fighting the Chinese onboard the space station, but there is none of the background tension that should come from an impending sense of doom if the mission fails. This ends up derailing the plot right when it should be at its most exciting and a ‘twist’ right at the end makes for a very unsatisfying conclusion to the film.

However it’s not all bad. Despite the problematic plot and dodgy science, there is still quite a bit to enjoy in this space heist/disaster movie. The special effects are pretty good and there is a real attempt to make the space mission more than just a glorified reason to roll out said effects. Much of the action during the space scenes is well done while the training and take-off sequences are excellent. The comedy around Vasu, Venkat and Appu trying to adapt to space is funny and both Nivetha Pethuraj and Vincent Asokan are good in their roles as ‘serious astronauts’. While the plot may have huge holes, the film is mostly entertaining and at just over 2 hours it’s also well edited to avoid any unnecessary or overlong scenes. Shakti Soundar Rajan also deserves some credit for attempting the genre and for setting a large portion of the film in space. While it may not be as successful in terms of plot, there is plenty of vision and some good ideas here which hopefully will encourage more filmmakers to aim for the stars.