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.

 

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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.

Kaala (2018)

Kaala

As with his previous film Madras, Pa. Ranjith is out to deliver a message and the fact that he has Superstar Rajinikanth on board is almost irrelevant. The film is all about the politics of land clearance in the slums of Mumbai and the population of Dharavi who rise in revolt against unscrupulous developers. Where Pa Ranjith does make use of Rajinikanth’s star power is to emphasise Kaala’s role as ‘King of Dharavi’ (presumably only the Tamil-speaking part) and he adds just enough slow-motion walking and villain tossing to keep fans happy. But for the most part this is a story about people power and that makes it rather more interesting than the usual Superstar-centric flick. Best of all Rajinikanth plays an age-appropriate character who has a touching romance with his (relatively) age-appropriate wife, Selvi (Eswari Rao) while reminding us just how good Rajinikanth is as an actor.

Karikaalan (Rajinikanth) aka Kaala is the ageing leader of the slums who is pushed to defend his area from developers out to make Mumbai ‘Pure’ and beautiful. Once a gangster, he’s now a family man, and his introduction shows him playing cricket with his grandchildren and enjoying life at home. There are many domestic touches; Kaala’s relationship with his wife, the pet dog that follows him everywhere, and the rather more problematic relationship be has with his youngest son, but when it counts, Kaala still has the power to stop the bulldozers in their tracks when they show up to develop the dhobi ghat. He’s ably assisted by his eldest son Selvam (Dileepan) who dives straight into action and never lets dialogue get in the way of a good scrap, and his many loyal followers who believe that Kaala is still the ultimate authority in the area. On the other hand, his son Lenin (Manikandan) is an activist who prefers demonstration and petitions to direct action along with his girlfriend Charumathi (Anjali Patil). Manikandan is excellent and his portrayal of the frustrations with trying to fight a legal but slow and difficult battle against the background of his father and brother’s illegal but successful campaigns is brilliantly done. Anjali Patil stands out too as a force to be reckoned with, and her scrappy Charumathi is passionate and vibrant in her defence of the local community.

Opposing Kaala at every turn is corrupt politician Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar) who is behind the developers plans to clear the land. He’s also a man with incredibly squeaky sandals. I’m not sure if India has the same superstition, but in Ireland squeaky shoes are a sign that they haven’t been paid for, with the implication that the wearer is someone who cannot be trusted. It fits Hari perfectly so I really hope this was intentional and not just a wardrobe glitch!

Dharavi sits on prime real estate and the developers want to rehouse only a small portion of the current residents, while saving the bulk of their redevelopment for the rich who will pay above the odds to live in such a convenient location. Hari and Kaala have a history, which makes their clashes personal, and Pa Ranjith ties their rivalry into the story of Rama and Raavana, but with a twist. Hari may always wear white and live in a house painted white with all white furnishings, but his Rama is a villain with no respect for the common man. Kaala wears black, lives in a house shrouded in shadows with a black settee, but this Raavana is the hero, fighting selflessly for the poor and oppressed who cannot stand up for themselves.

Rajinikanth steps easily into the role of the people’s defender, but what makes his Kaala so impressive is the relatability of the character. Despite his god-like status in the area he is a family man at heart and is simply trying to do his best for everyone. He is still in love with his wife and the scenes with Eswari Rao are brilliantly written to show the depth of their relationship while still allowing the couple to bicker continuously – typical of any long-term couple. The arrival of Kaala’s previous lover Zareena (Huma Qureshi) as a housing development specialist adds spice to the mix and the conflict of emotions from all involved is well worked into the narrative. However, Huma Qureshi’s character isn’t as well developed as that of Selvi and towards the end she’s side-lined just when I was expecting her to take a more prominent role. Zareena is a single mother and there is also an unfinished thread about her daughter which starts and then peters out into nothing, as if Pa Ranjith was so involved with everything else that he forgot to come back and tie off this part of the story.

Kaala also has support from his drunkard brother-in-law Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani) who has some excellent lines in the second half when Hari successfully enlists police chief Pankaj Patil (Pankaj Tripathi) to burn down part of the slums. Ramesh Thilak also pops up as a reporter who has a more important role to play than first appears, while Sayaji Shinde, Ravi Kale and Sampath Raj are all good in minor roles. One of the best scenes though belongs to Lenin when he visits Charumathi in her building. He’s been campaigning for this type of development to replace the chawls but is dismayed by the endless stairs to climb when the lift is out of order and the over-crowding and lack of personal space in each small flat. It’s an excellent way to show the issues associated with rehousing schemes and the problems caused by squeezing people together into such tiny spaces, although it takes more drastic events before Lenin returns to his father’s side of the argument.

There are some excellent fight scenes although these don’t all feature Rajinikanth. However, the best (and my favourite) involves Kaala with an umbrella in a flyover in the rain. The final showdown in Dharavi is also well shot with excellent use of colour and plenty of symbolism for those who like to spot such stuff. I enjoyed the songs too, although there are a group of rap artists who keep popping up and look rather out of place. Rajinikanth keeps his moves basic and simple in keeping with his character, but he does look well and the choreography generally fits into the ambiance of the movie.

Nana Patekar makes a fantastic villain and is a suitable mix of wily politician and nasty thug throughout. His first scene with Zareena is very well written to portray the misogynistic behaviour so typical of politicians, but this time Pa Ranjith makes a point of letting the audience see exactly how petty and small-minded Hari appears as a result. Unfortunately, Nana’s dubbing isn’t always well done and the timing is out in a few scenes which is distracting. Along the same lines, the subtitles seem to be rather strict translations, which doesn’t always make sense in English and a few scenes suffer as a result.

Kaala is the film I wanted to see from the pairing of Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth, and I enjoyed this much more than Kabali. There are strong female characters, a good support cast with well realised roles and an excellent performance from the superstar. There are a few glitches but for the most part the story is engaging with a simple message that translates well onto the big screen. Ranjith may prefer to use a wide brush for his political statements, but it’s the small details that work best here along with good use of the support characters. Highly recommended.