Kadaikutty Singam (2018)

 

Kadaikutty Singam

Pandiraj’s latest film is a village-based family drama with an extended cast and surfeit of relationships that ends up feeling more like an over-stretched soap opera. The story focuses on the only son of Ranasingam (Sathyaraj) but it’s his various sisters, their husbands and Ranasingam’s two wives that make the most impact in the rather wandering screenplay. The film includes a number of social messages and the story tends to disappear under the requirements to include the benefits of a career in farming and a myriad of moral issues associated with ‘traditional’ village life. However, Karthik does a good job with his role, the support cast are excellent and the film is full of colour and light, even if it does have an overly melodramatic finale.

The film starts with the story of Ranasingam and his quest for a son. His first wife Vanamadevi (Viji Chandrasekhar) has four daughters which leads to Ranagingham casting his eye about for a second wife. He ends up marrying Vanamadevi’s sister, Panchamadevi (Bhanupriya) who promptly also has a daughter, but before Ranasingam can marry for a third time, Vanamadevi falls pregnant again, and this time the baby is a boy. By the time Gunasingam (Karthi) has grown up, his five sisters have all married and two have grown up daughters of their own. The expectation is that Gunasingam will marry one of his two nieces, but when he sees Kannukiniyal aka Iniya (Sayyeshaa) he is immediately smitten, making a family marriage seem unlikely. Luckily for Gunasingam, Iniya reciprocates his feelings and the two happily embark on a relationship. However, there are a few obstacles to overcome, such as Iniya’s politician uncle Kodiyarasu (Shatru) and Gunasingam’s sisters who all vociferously object to the match.

What works well here are the relationships between Gunasingam and his sisters, and between his sisters and their various husbands. Mounika, Yuvarani, Indhumathi, Deepa and Jeevitha play the five sisters who all have distinctly different personalities, and are all convinced that they know what is best for their younger brother – that’s marriage to either Aandal (Arthana Binu) or Poompozhil (Priya Bhavani Shankar) and a life spent running the family farm. Gunasingam has no problem with the latter half of that plan as he’s proud to be a farmer, and makes a point of announcing his monthly salary (1.5 lakhs) and giving expensive gifts to his family. However, Gunasingam only thinks of his nieces as ‘family’ and he’s determined to marry ‘soda-girl’ Iniya, so-called because she runs a soda business. These parts of the story are well nuanced and I like that Iniya has a successful life by herself and isn’t just on the look-out for a husband to take the place of her Uncle Kodiyarasu. Apparently Iniya’s family follows the same uncle/niece marriage idea, but that’s mainly a method for Kodiyarasu to irritate Gunasingam. Kodiyarasu is a politician, but he’s firm on the idea of caste and involved in an honour killing which leads Gunasingam to report him to the police. The feud between the two men seems mainly to be an excuse to include the message that casteism is bad, and of course, the obligatory masala fight scenes.

While the arguments with Kodiyarasu go on in the background, Gunasingam attempts to deal with his sisters who try everything in their power to break his relationship with Iniya. Being family, they know exactly where to attack for the most impact, and eventually the argument leads to a schism in the family. Added to the rift between the sisters, Panchamadevi leaves Ranasingam, but unfortunately, despite being potentially the most interesting thread in the drama, this gets only brief screen time and isn’t fully developed, presumably because there is so much else going on at the same time. Much of the writing here is excellent, and it’s a shame that the rather more predictable ‘villain’ thread keeps intruding into the more compelling family drama.

The romance between Iniya and Gunasingam mainly takes place during a song, which is probably enough time given that it’s the fall-out from their relationship that is more interesting. Although Sayyeshaa looks somewhat out-of-place in a Tamil village drama, she is otherwise fine in the role. Her Iniya has plenty of charm and personality despite limited time on-screen, and her romance with Karthik is plausible. Karthik too is good as a confident and dedicated farmer who buckles under pressure from his family. He’s energetic in the fight scenes and dance numbers, and his various speeches about how wonderful it is to be a farmer aren’t as pompous and patronising as expected. He also has good rapport with the various members of his family and gets his inner conflict across well. His best relationship is with his nephew (who is roughly the same age) Sivagamiyin Selvan (Soori), which is used to add light-hearted comedy that’s mostly relevant to the story. Soori is actually very good here and he handles the role intelligently which helps add more depth to Karthik’s character.

I enjoyed the songs from D. Imman which are catchy enough in the cinema, although not particularly memorable. The film looks good too, and cinematographer Velraj captures both the colours of the countryside and the warmth of the community. A word too about the subtitles from Rekhs and team, which are easy to read and in proper grammatical English – yay! Rekhs has also subtitled any significant written signs which is a delight and really does help with understanding the story.

Overall Kadaikutty Singam has too much going on to be truly successful. It’s also let down by an overly dramatic finale that fizzles just when it should be starting to heat up. However, the family relationships are well done and I love the realistic interactions between the sisters and their husbands. There are a few too many moral messages too, although it’s hard to complain given that they fall into the – ‘girls can do anything’ and ‘caste isn’t a barrier to relationships’ baskets that still need more promotion in cinema. It’s also good to see farming portrayed in a more positive light with a nod to the importance of the people who feed the nation. Worth a one-time watch for Karthik, Soori, the excellent support cast and the well-written family relationships.

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Mahanati

Mahanati

Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati is a spellbinding biopic that celebrates the life of Savitri in sumptuous colour with haunting re-enactments of her most famous scenes. Keerthy Suresh invokes the magic of Savitri’s screen presence while Samantha ties it all together as a journalist researching the legendary actor’s life for a newspaper article. At just under three hours, the film still only scratches the surface of Savitri’s story, but with an impressive cast and convincing dialogue, Mahanati is a mesmerising look at one of the most successful film actors from the South.

The film opens with Savitri falling into a coma and being taken to a hospital whose bemused staff have no idea who they have just admitted. One year later, on the anniversary of her illness, journalist Madhura Vani (Samantha Akkineni) is given the task of writing about the film star for a short article in the newspaper. Vani is shy and frumpy, struggling to make her mark in the male-dominated profession of journalism and she is dismayed at what she thinks is a throw-away assignment. But once she starts speaking to the people who knew Savitri, Vani becomes intrigued by the star and her generous and compassionate personality. As she learns more, Vani draws inspiration from Savitri and becomes empowered to make changes in her own life and stand up for herself. This interweaving of Vani’s story into the life of Savitri is ingenious and allows Nag Ashwin to focus on the more positive aspects of Savitri’s legacy, although he doesn’t avoid the drama either.

The film shows Savitri’s early life after her father dies and her mother goes to live with relatives. Even as a child, Savitri was a force to be reckoned with. Her determination and will to succeed is demonstrated as she learns to dance despite the dance instructor telling her she lacks discipline and will not be able to master the skill. I loved these early scenes and the young actor playing the child Savitri who is a real find. She is full of life and totally charming with plenty of attitude – perfect for the role!

Savitri is shown taking part in theatrical shows under the supervision of her Uncle, K.V. Chowdary (Rajendra Prasad), and her abortive first trip to Chennai to become an actress is also depicted. This is beautifully done, with Savitri in full fan mode as she tries to get glimpses of her favourite actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao (Naga Chaitanya), and being almost totally oblivious to the man who takes her photo, Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan).

Nag Ashwin doesn’t dwell too much on Savitri’s rich film history but focuses instead on the real-life drama of her marriage to Gemini Ganesan and subsequent estrangement from her uncle. Her iconic roles are shown in a montage and Keerthy Suresh does a fantastic job in re-creating these accurately, including a poignant song from Devadasu and the wonderful scene in Mayabazar where Savitri is playing Ghatotkacha impersonating Sasirekha.

I’ve been waiting for a film that showcases Keerthy’s talents as an actor, and finally she gets her moment to shine. She really is amazing here and completely nails a wide range of emotions. From the early bubbly and happily carefree girl all the way through to the devastated wife who turns to alcohol, Keerthy makes us live every moment and completely believe in her portrayal of a legendary actor. A standout is the moment when she learns Gemini Ganesan is already married and her dreams of romance turn to ashes. This, and her subsequent difficult decision to marry the man she loves despite everything are simply perfect, with none of the actors overplaying the emotion, but still managing to make the audience feel every heartache and each moment of elation.

Dulquer Salmaan is also a perfect choice for the ultimate romantic actor of the time; Gemini Ganesan. He has plenty of charm and when he sets out to woo Savitri, she doesn’t stand a chance! Their romance sparkles on screen and Dulquer is just as convincing when he portrays Gemini Ganesan’s jealousy at his wife’s success and subsequent alcoholism. The story is told from Savitri’s viewpoint, so Dulquer has less screen time after Savitri finds out about his affairs, but throughout it’s an excellent performance that makes the drama and emotion behind their relationship very real.

The secondary story of Madhura Vani and her struggle to be accepted as a serious journalist is well integrated into the main plot. Nag Ashwin uses Vani to introduce key witnesses to events in Savitri’s life that allow the film to move back into flashback. But is also emphasises the importance of Savitri as a role model and inspiration, while Samantha’s success over the other, male reporters is an important step for Telugu cinema. Here is a film that has a female lead who isn’t defined by her romance with a male character and who is allowed to have a personality and story of her own. Although there is a romance (with Vijay Devarakonda in a very bad wig), it’s very much part of Vani’s own story and important mainly as a way for her to assert her independence from her father’s plans.

There is a plethora of other actors who appear in cameo roles as various screen legends of the time. Just a few are Mohan Babu as S.V. Ranga Rao, Prakash Raj as director/producer Aluri Chakrapani and Krish appearing as K.V. Reddy. It’s a real who’s who of Telugu/Tamil cinema of the time and I was inspired to read up on some of these directors and producers whose names I recognised when I left the cinema. Mickey J. Meyer’s music fits the film perfectly too and Dani Sanchez-Lopez does an excellent job with the cinematography. The effects team have managed to recreate Chennai in the fifties and the costume department deserve special mention for the wonderful outfits worn by Keerthy and Dulquer. The end credits juxtapose shots of Savitri with those of Keerthy in the same film role and the resemblance really is astonishing.

Overall there is fantastic attention to detail for both the scenes in the early eighties and Chennai in the fifties that ensure the film feels authentic, although I did sympathise with Samantha and her selection of ruffled shirts and long skirts. Everything about the film seems to have been well researched and the sets dressed to add plenty of authentic flavour. Including the film segments in black and white also adds to the whole period feel of the film and emphasises just how much impact Savitri had at the time. I also have to comment on the excellent subtitles by Rekhs that ensured the drama of each scene was well conveyed. After the last few Telugu films I’ve watched where literal translations have made a mockery of important scenes it is such a relief to have proper idiomatic English that makes sense and doesn’t detract from the dialogue. Until I can learn Telugu (a vain hope given my lack of success with Tamil) Rekhs subtitles are the next best thing to understanding the dialogue myself and I always cheer when I see ‘Subtitles by Rekhs’ appear on screen.

Mahanati is an excellent dramatisation of the life of one of South India’s best known and well-loved actors. I don’t know enough about the details of Savitri’s history to comment on its accuracy but from all I have read, Nag Ashwin has captured the essence of Savitri’s story while Keerthy Suresh has brought her memory to vivid life. It’s ultimately a sad story but also a lovely tribute to Savitri and a reminder of what a wonderful actor she was. Mahanati is a real treat for fans of both classic and contemporary Telugu cinema – don’t miss it!

Mankatha

Mankatha

I missed Mankantha when I was in Chennai due to limited time and sold-out shows in my usual cinemas – which I guess was a good indication that the film would be worth seeing.  Venkat Prabhu’s fourth film does feature his usual crowd of young actors, but also stars Ajith Kumar in his fiftieth film – it’s all about the numbers!  Mankatha is an action thriller based around the theft of illegal gambling money and features so many twists and turns that at times it’s hard to keep up with just who’s double-crossing who.  Although there are a few leaps of faith required to fully engage with the plot, overall the pace of the action and an excellent performance from Ajith in a negative role make the film well worth a watch.

The story starts with Ajith as Police Officer Vinayak Mahadevan, landing onto the screen in a typical Tamil Hero entrance style (i.e. unlikely appearance from out of nowhere) to prevent what appears to be a corrupt police execution of smuggler Faizal (Aravind Akash).  The lines are blurred right from the start – is Vinayak a hero, fighting corruption and gambling despite being suspended from duty for saving Faizal, or does his drunkenness and casual infidelity  point to even bigger character flaws and a tendency to flout the rules for his own benefit?  Each subsequent scene makes the conundrum more difficult to solve, and this ambiguity runs throughout the action in the first half.  It’s not until much later in the film that Vinayak’s true character becomes apparent (or does it?) and his real motives are revealed.

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Then there is ‘Action King’ Arjun, who appears as Prithviraj, the head of a special task force entrusted with stamping out illegal gambling on cricket matches after the head of the anti-corruption squad Kamal Ekambaram (Subbu Panchu) commits suicide due to his own gambling debt.  However Kamal isn’t dead, but instead reappears as one of the investigative team, a detail which I kept expecting to have some relevance, but it never actually does.  Arjun is very OTT in his action scenes, made even funnier by his terrible floppy hair, but otherwise delivers  a generally straitlaced and relatively heroic portrayal of a senior police officer intent on stamping out gambling.

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Vinayak, one night stands aside, is in a relationship with Sanjana (Trisha), the daughter of Arumuha Chettiyar (Jayaprakash).  Chettiyar runs the illegal gambling network in Mumbai along with various other illegal activities, and he also just happens to be the man who employs Faizal.  Was this good planning by Vinayak, or just a coincidence?

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Since Vinayak apparently turns a blind eye to Chettiyar’s illegal activities the question then follows, is this all part of an undercover plan to infiltrate the gang and bring down Chettiyar or does Vinayak really not care about his potential father-in-law breaking the law beyond the opportunity to pocket a few bribes?  It’s hard to tell, as Ajith makes the most of his devastatingly cheeky grin and ever more crazy persona to keep everyone guessing his true motives.

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Meanwhile, Chettiyar’s henchman Sumanth (Vaibhav) is in cahoots with local Sub-Inspector Ganesh (Ashwin Kakumanu) and bar-owner Mahat (Mahat Raghavendra) to steal the gambling take from the IPL final.  Mahat ropes in his friend from home Prem (Premji Amaren) who just happens to be an IT expert as well as a terminal idiot.  A little of Premji’s humour here goes a long way and less really would have been better, but cleverly developed group dynamics and good performances from the rest of the gang help keep the story on track.  In due course, Vinayak finds out about the plot which just happens to coincide with his own plans to loot the money, and the conspirators end up joining together to steal $5 billion in US dollars.  While some of the heist details require a major suspension of disbelief, the rest of the story deviously pits everyone against each other with  betrayals, plot twists and unexpected revelations, which mean it’s necessary to concentrate and pay attention to work out just who is allied with who at any given time.

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While the guys get all of the action and pretty much all of the storyline, there is very little for Trisha and the other female characters to do.  Anjali has perhaps the next most realised role as Sumanth’s wife, but her only value is as a bargaining tool later in the story.  Andrea as Prithviraj’s wife and Lakshmi Rai have even less of a role, and almost all of the female roles could have been eliminated without making any real ripple in the story.  The songs are also mainly superfluous although the soundtrack by Yuvan Shankar Raja does have a few memorable tracks.  This is probably the best choreographed, although the visual effects for Vaada Bin Laada are worth a look too (watch out for the plane on the wall that takes flight).

Ajith is definitely the star of the show in a negative role that must have been a hoot to play.  He spits venomous lines with great joie de vivre, throws in plenty of bleeped out profanity and his crazed megalomania is wonderful to behold.  He has great chemistry with Arjun and the two take control of every scene they are in.  However Vaibhav is also notable and the other cast members all provide solid performances.  While the focus is on the action there is also some nifty camera work from Sakthi Saravanan, including a great shot of some boys playing cricket in the slums while Vinayak chases down Sumanth.

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Mankatha is not the most convincing heist film, and it would definitely benefit from trimming some of the excess in the form of unnecessary songs and peripheral characters, but it succeeds in entertaining which after all is the main purpose of cinema.  I loved the twists and turns and appreciated Ajith’s excellent demonstration of just how to keep everyone guessing while Arjun tries his best to convince everyone that he is the hero.  It’s amusing and doesn’t take itself too seriously which makes for an enjoyable watch. 3 ½ stars.