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.

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Mythri (2015)

Mythri

There have been a number of good films released recently where the main protagonists have been children or juveniles, and Mythri is another one to add to the list. B.M Giriraj’s bilingual film follows a young Siddarama (Aditya) as he ends up in juvenile detention and makes it onto the TV show ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’. There are shades of Slumdog Millionaire given that much of the film revolves around the TV show, but Mythri follows a rather different path. Here Siddarama is a big fan of Puneeth Rajkumar who hosts the show and it’s the plight of the young prisoners and their rehabilitation – or rather lack of rehabilitation that becomes the focus of the story.

Siddarama (Aditya) is a smart kid but he makes some poor decisions and ends up in jail after throwing stones at a passing police officer. His mother is out of her depth and to get her young son out of jail she approaches Gudi Pratap (Ravi Kale), a womanising thug and aspiring politician who runs drug and child trafficking rings on the side. Although he does deliver and gets Siddarama released, Gudi demands reparation for his services and it’s obvious that Siddarama’s mother is going to get the worse end of the bargain.

Once free, Siddarama is lucky enough to meet his idol, film star Puneeth Rajkumar (as himself) when he comes to their area to shoot a scene for his latest movie. Siddarama makes an impression on Puneeth with his scrapbook about the actor and his excellent general knowledge but fails to make the final cut of the scene when he rushes away before the end of the shoot. It isn’t until much later that the reason for Siddarama’s quick exit is revealed and the next time we see Siddarama he’s incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre.

Siddarama is one of the younger and more vulnerable boys, so it’s no surprise to find he is being victimised by a group of older youths who are unimpressed when he dobs them in to the warder Raviprakash (Atul Kulkarni). Despite his small stature and obvious dislike of violence, Siddarama fights back when the bullies gang up against him, and in doing so he earns the admiration of Jhonson (Jagadish), another young thief in the remand home. Jhonson is a serial offender, and the warders keep him chained up at all times to ensure he can’t steal anything further – unsurprisingly not a successful tactic! However, Raviprakash has firm views on how the young offenders should be treated and believes that strict discipline is the only way to teach the criminals how to behave. The harsh treatment of the boys and the poor condition of the detention centre are shocking and it’s understandable that most of the inmates either reoffend or become drug addicts after their release. Even the most basic of care is lacking and the warder meets violence with more brutality and an almost casual disregard for the boys’ welfare.

Atul Kulkarni is excellent here in the role of the strict and uncompromising warden. His interactions with the boys are frighteningly realistic and his reaction to a visit from the movie star is a perfect blend of admiration followed by condescension when Puneeth questions his regime. The rationale for his stance is one that seems logical – he came from a similar poverty-stricken background and didn’t turn to crime, so the youngsters in his care have no real excuse. This is one of the strengths of the film that such social clichés are shown to be inaccurate and too simplistic a view of more complex issues. Additionally the point is clearly made that education rather than punishment is the solution most likely to turn the young offenders’ lives around.

The film moves on to the TV show Karunada Kotyadipathi when Jhonson discovers Siddarama can answer the test questions for a children’s version of the show. With a lot of sneaking around behind the warden’s back, Jhonson manages to enter Siddarama as a potential candidate but it all hangs in the balance when the producers request a guardian for Siddarama. Raviprakash decides to let Siddarama go ahead – perhaps to demonstrate to Puneeth that his methods do work but also because he is impressed by Siddarama’s knowledge and is even a little proud that one of ‘his boys’ is clever enough to compete on the show. Again the decisions seem plausible despite the theatricality of Puneeth’s involvement, helped by Adithya’s portrayal of a young boy almost overwhelmed by the whole experience.

There is an odd twist to the tale when Mahadev Godke (Mohanlal) appears and tries to stop Siddarama from competing. This part of the film is inconsistent with the realism of the earlier scenes and the persona of Mahadev Godke is a little too contrived to fit easily into the narrative. However Mohanlal is good, his story helps to fill in the gaps and it also allows B.M. Giriraj to use a rather literal interpretation of the lifelines used by the show.

Mythri succeeds due to the excellent performances from the main leads and a well-developed storyline. Aditya is great as the young Siddarama, appropriately whiney and sorry for himself as expected for a kid his age, but also suitably resigned to his fate and more adaptable than even he realises. It’s a very good performance from the young actor and he holds his own well against the likes of Atul Kulkarni, Mohanlal and Puneeth Rajkumar.  Jagadish too is good as the recalcitrant thief and the other kids in the remand home all play their parts well. Puneeth Rajkumar has a relatively easy time of it since he just has to be himself, and perhaps it’s inevitable that he comes across as basically a nice guy – considerate and thoughtful. However at no point does he seem self-indulgent despite being shown as altruistic while his philanthropy and basic decency seem genuine. The only part which does seem somewhat forced is the movie within a movie where Puneeth is shown filming an over the top action sequence that ends with a rather cheesy message. It’s rather B-grade compared to the rest of the film, but maybe that’s the point.

Ilaiyaraaja provides the music and although there are only a few songs they are used effectively and suit the overall feel of the film. My favourite is Chandranenu Chenda, but the energy and exuberance in the title song is infectious and always makes me smile.

Overall Mythri is an intelligent and entertaining film with a social message that comes across clearly without becoming depressing or preachy. Despite the rather dire situation the kids in the remand home are facing, they still enjoy themselves and completely get behind Siddarama and his attempt to win the competition on TV. It’s a more upbeat film than the opening sequences would suggest and the combination of a well written story with polished performances makes Mythri well worth a watch. 4 stars.

Shock

Ravi Teja has a dedicated fan following and I’ve read good things about his films so I decided it was about time I watched one of his movies. I bought this film on my last trip to Chennai on the recommendation of a friend, and since the blurb on the DVD suggested it would be more of a thriller than the typical mass masala fare it sounded more to my taste than some of the comedic roles he has played. And I did enjoy it, well mostly, at least up until the last 30 minutes anyway.

Ravi Teja plays an advertising agent Sekhar, although a look at his pitch for Rupa underwear suggests that perhaps it’s not his true calling.

He’s happily married to another advertising agent in his office, Madhurima (Jyothika). She has to take a back seat to her more ebullient husband who is clearly the office favourite. Brahmi makes a brief and understated appearance as Sekhar’s boss but for a change there isn’t much comedy in his role. There is some humour in these scenes but it mainly arises from situations with Sekhar and his wife and generally is well placed and actually quite funny.

The relationship between Sekhar and Madhurima is convincingly portrayed and they seem to have a strong and loving partnership. I could do with less of Ravi Teja’s back hair on view to demonstrate this, but other than that I think writer/director Harish Shankar is accurate in his portrayal of a working couple.They live in a block of flats where the lift never functions and there are constant disruptions from the neighbours and their children. When Madhurima becomes pregnant, they decide to relocate and quickly find a recently vacated house. However just as they move in, two men burst through the door and shoot Sekhar. He wakes up handcuffed to the bed in hospital and is immediately interrogated about his terrorist connections. He learns he has been mistaken for a Maoist by two encounter specialist police officers, Nagesh and Divaker. Although the pair realise their mistake almost immediately, they decide not to take responsibility for what has happened and instead salt Sekhar’s house with evidence to make sure that their error is not discovered.

In the meantime Madhurima protests Sekhar’s arrest and manages to hire a lawyer. By the time of the trial however, the lawyer has been paid off by the two cops and has convinced Sekhar to plead guilty, telling him he will get a short sentence and that will be the end of it. Of course this is not the case and Sekhar is sentenced to 8 years in jail. Madhurima immediately vows to get him released and is aided by Geeta, a journalist interested in the case.

There are various moments of drama in the prison: Sekhar is fortuitously sharing a cell with an inmate Tilak who has certain rights and privileges with the guards but he is also menaced by the self styled boss of the jail, Syed. This is all conveyed without recourse to cliché, or over the top drama and serves to give an idea of Sekhar’s true character as well as set up subsequent events in the jail. Madhu’s struggles are also convincingly portrayed. Geeta doesn’t take over the defence or engage in unrealistic methods to help Madhurima find justice, but instead advises her of which organisations to contact. This is all very plausible and fills out the background of the story well.

But just when you think this is going to be a battle played out in the courts and among informers in the back streets, there is more drama as Madhurima is threatened and Sekhar escapes from jail. Up until this point the film is very good; a slightly different story, well paced and told with good performances from the cast. But from here the film starts to rely on violence and bloodshed and the storyline becomes more predictable and clichéd as Sekhar plans his revenge. There are some unpleasant torture scenes and the realism that was built up so very well in the first half of the film is lost as Sekhar suddenly becomes able to fight his way out of any situation. However there is still a very ‘Hollywood’ feel to the action, and the slickness of the production carries through right to the rather unsatisfactory end. There seems to be an obsession in the Telugu film industry with making sure there is a happy ending (of sorts at any rate), and in this case I would have preferred to see something more in the way of consequences for everyone’s actions.

Despite the collapse of the plot in the second half, the film sets up the basic story well and the leads are all excellent in their roles. Sekhar’s confusion and distress at the situation he finds himself in is well portrayed by Ravi Teja. I was very impressed by the vulnerability he was able to convey as the injured and baffled victim in hospital and then as the somewhat shell-shocked and stunned prisoner in jail. He was even reasonably convincing in the action roles up until he had to take on a number of much more muscled and bigger extras. I know he is the hero but there is a limit to what I can believe!

Jyothika has a much more developed role than is usual for the heroine in Telugu films and I really thought she was excellent as Madhurima. Her relationship with her husband is very realistically drawn and the romance is sweet without being cloying. Her distress at her husband’s situation is perfectly depicted as is the change in her character as she first breaks down and then becomes a driven and determined woman out to get justice for her husband. The only scenes which didn’t fit were when the story of the couple’s initial meeting was shown as a flashback scene later in the film. This felt misplaced and disrupted the story just when it really needed to be tighter. Although it does mean we get another good song from Ajay-Atul. Although this is out of place in the film it is nicely pictured – I cannot explain the gloves in the opening shots though!

Apart from the two main leads there are a number of the usual suspects in the film who all play their roles with their usual competence. Kota Srinivasa Rao is a perfect fit as the corrupt lawyer and both Subbaraju and Ravi Kale were fine as the deceitful cops. Raghu Babu shows up in a familiar role as a nasty warden in the jail along with Raja Ravindra as the useful Tilak. It’s a little surprising that the small role of Geeta is played by Tabu and it does seem a waste to have such a good actress only on screen for a few short scenes. But it’s always a pleasure to watch her even if it is only in a few scenes. There is some attempt at comedy in the second half with the CBI officer Surendra Kumar (Nagendra Babu) and his incompetent assistant Bapanna (Ram Jagan) but this falls very flat and thankfully the Harish Shankar seems to have realised it wasn’t appropriate fairly quickly.


I would have found it this a much more interesting and appealing story if the film had dealt more with Madhurima’s fight for justice and Sekhar’s struggles in jail rather than going for the straight hero driven revenge drama. But then again that probably wouldn’t have been as popular at the box office. As it is, the second half of the film is a disappointment after the excellent build-up in the first half, and the attempt at a happy ending particularly jarring. I am favourably impressed with Ravi Teja though and Jyothika was fantastic. For those two excellent performances, and a good first half, this film gets 3 stars.