Sangathamizhan

Vijay Chandar’s latest film starts out as a spoof comedy, but ends up as a fairly run-of-the-mill mass entertainer by way of a tired romance and routine ‘villain versus the villagers’ plot. Vijay Sethupathi is always watchable, even in this clichéd action adventure, but the rest of the cast get short-changed by the screenplay, having little to do except either adore or loathe the lead character. There is plenty of action, comedy and even Vijay Sethupathi dancing, but by the end there really is little that makes Sangathamizhan stand out from the rather large pool of similar films.

The opening scene of the film typifies much of the first half. It’s a jumble of mass action and hero-centric plot with a mixed bag of comedy that generally works better than the dramatic dialogue. As aspiring actor Murugan, Vijay Sethupathi has a classic hero entrance before single-handedly reducing a gang of villains to groaning bodies on the floor, while his friend Soori (Soori) cracks a few jokes and performs the usual slapstick side-kick role. It works to some extent as neither Vijay nor Soori seem to be taking any of the dialogue seriously and there are a lot of sideways glances and self-referential jokes in the opening sequences. But the inclusion of a college girl who needs to be rescued from rape, some tasteless jokes about a group of prostitutes and rather humdrum action make this rather more cringeworthy than it needed to be, particularly for the start of the film.

The first half also includes a woeful romance with a truly terrible introduction scene for Kamalini (Raashi Khanna). Murugan crashes Kamalini’s birthday party and then proceeds to scold her for being so generous as to provide him with a free drink at the bar. Somehow this is supposed to make her intrigued by Murugan rather than acting as most women would in this situation and just calling for the bouncer to kick him out of the nightclub. At no point does the love affair between the rich industrialist’s daughter and out-of-work actor seem plausible despite the clichéd and formulaic development of the relationship. The only good thing about their romance is the inclusion of the upbeat and jaunty Kamala (which features men in colourful tutus as backing dancers), even though it doesn’t fit into the narrative at all. In fact, generally the music from Viviek-Mervin is excellent throughout, while the lyrics are beautifully translated by rekhs, who doesn’t just translate the words but makes the lyrics rhyme and scan perfectly. Why doesn’t everyone do this instead of providing literal translations that make absolutely no sense at all?

The plot begins with a courtroom scene where a group of villagers are trying to prevent a copper processing plant from opening in their area. The land appears to have been acquired illegally and for a change the judge seems to be on the villagers’ side, giving the developer just a few weeks to come up with evidence to prove that the factory won’t be a health risk to the villagers. This all becomes much clearer in the second half, which moves into flashback mode to explain the fight between the owner of the copper factory, Kamalini’s father (Ravi Kishan) and the village headman Devarajan (Nassar). Also drawn into the fight is the local politician (Ashutosh Rana) and the rest of Devraj’s family, including his son Sangathamizhan (Vijay Sethupathi).

The tone of the second half is much darker than the first, and from a frivolous romance comedy, it changes into a more dramatic action film. This disconnect between the two halves of the film is jarring as the shift happens suddenly (there is no interval given in Australia) and the mood change is relatively extreme.  Despite this, the second half is actually significantly better since it also includes Nivetha Pethuraj as Thenmozhi, Thamizhan’s romantic interest. Thenmozhi is a better realised character than Kamalini, despite her short time on-screen, with sharper dialogues and actions that actually make sense. Nivetha also has a good on-screen chemistry with Vijay in the romantic scenes between the two characters, which is a significant improvement on the lacklustre interactions he has with Raashi Khanna in the first half. The love story here is also more plausible, making me wonder why so much time was wasted earlier in the film, when the second half has a more convincing story, sharper action and generally improved performances from the entire cast. The main downside is Ravi Kishan’s rather anaemic villain who just doesn’t seem evil or ruthless enough, and Kamalini’s rather bizarre justification for accepting her father’s final fate.

The glue that manages to hold the entire film together (just) is Vijay Sethupathi and his frequent knowing nods to the camera seem to signify that he finds the entire story just as ridiculous as the audience. At times the film dips closely towards satire and throughout the first half I kept thinking that Vijay Chandar was trying to poke fun at the mass genre. But then the second half moves quickly towards more serious topics and the jokes dry up, along with Soori’s virtual disappearance from the screen as the film moves into more straight-up action territory. It doesn’t quite gel there either however as there is too much baggage hanging around from the first half that acts as a distraction. The two characters, Murugan and Thamizhan are also very similar which further undermines the dramatic ‘reveal’ of the finale. The positives are the music, Vijay Sethupathi and rekhs excellent subtitles, but otherwise this is a rather pedestrian and predictable outing that is really one only for fans.

Bigil

Atlee’s latest film is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is Vijay, who shines in a double role despite the rambling and overlong story; the bad is the general misogyny of the screenplay where it takes a man to bring success to a female team who were already heading to the India Finals; and the ugly is some awful fat-shaming which Atlee and fellow screen-writer S. Ramana Girivasan seem to feel is acceptable as motivation. The story follows a retired football player who sets aside his gangster persona to coach a women’s football team, but despite some superficial similarities this is no Chak De. However, getting past the bad and the ugly, Rahman’s music is good, the dancing excellent and there is one part of the story which is more than simply token feminism. For a mass entertainer for the holiday season Bigil isn’t a bad option – it’s just that it’s not anywhere near as good as it could have been.

Michael, aka Bigil (Vijay) is a state level football player who is apparently talented enough to get into the national team. His father Rayappan (also Vijay) is a gangster in Chennai who is savvy enough to push his son towards athleticism and away from rowdyism, recognising that this will inspire others in the neighbourhood. Rayappan is a typical filmi gangster – out to defend the poor and marginalised against everyone trying to exploit them, chief of which is a rival gang, headed by Alex (I.M. Vijayan) and his son Daniel (Daniel Balaji). But neither Rayappan nor Bigil understand the internal politics of football in India which works against his success, and when Rayappan is killed, Bigil gives up his dreams and return to being plain Michael, head of the rowdies in his area and defender of the helpless.

When Michael’s friend and Tamil Nadu women’s football team coach Kathir (Kathir) is injured, Michael is persuaded to take on the task of coach instead. Something the women resent since they blame Michael for Kathir’s injury – which is totally true. The women need a coach in order to be able to compete, but although much of the film takes place in Delhi at the football championships, this is never about the women’s team and their battle to overcome poverty and adversity to win. In Atlee’s film the women are incapable of making it by themselves and need Michael to show them how to train effectively and ultimately goad them towards victory. Michael is able to convince a conservative husband to let his wife compete, persuade Anitha (Reba Monica John) to take off her face scarves and play after she is assaulted with acid and induce Vembu (Indhuja) and Thendral (Amritha Aiyer) to play together as a team. All while simultaneously dealing with gang attacks from Daniel and internal attacks from the Head of the Football association J.K. Sharma (Jackie Shroff). The assumption that the women need a strong and capable man to lead them to victory is condescending and patronizing, but Atlee breezes past this issue so that Vijay can be seen to be a sensitive, caring and motivating kind of guy. Up until he wants Pandiyamma (Indraja Shankar) to get angry out on the field and uses fat-shaming insults to get her there. Not cool at all, and really incredibly disappointing that in 2019 this kind of behaviour is being legitimised by a major star in a big budget film.

That’s the most of the bad and the ugly out of the way – and the rest is the good. Vijay smiles and dances his way through inspirational numbers, kicks a football around the field and beats up the bad guys with plenty of energy and joie de vivre. The fight scenes involve the usual ‘one man-against-the-masses’ sequences, but they are well staged and the stunts are generally impressive. The football action is almost as good, although it does look staged and filmi, particularly compared to films such as Sudani from Nigeria where the action is more realistic.  However Atlee gets points for getting women’s football onto mainstream screens, and for promoting the game as one that everyone can play. It’s also good to see some recognition of the challenges faced by the team members, despite most of these being glossed over and only mentioned in Michael’s motivational speeches. There are two exceptions – Gayathri (Varsha Bollamma) is shown as having to overcome a prejudiced and narrow-minded family situation, although again it’s her husband who makes the decision and allows her to play. Anitha has a much better story as the acid-attack survivor who has to come to terms with her injury and loss of confidence as a result.

The best parts of the film have nothing to do with the women’s team, but instead are focused on Michael and his relationship with his father. As Rayappan, Vijay is simply superb and totally convinces as an older don trying to do his best for his family and his area. The relationship between father and son is beautifully written and the effects well done to allow both Vijay’s to converse together, hug and generally interact as if they were together in reality. The conversations between the two reveal much about both characters, and it’s this emotion that is more truly inspirational than any of the plot around the football team. Here there is some of the best acting from Vijay, where he isn’t a superstar, but instead simply a father trying to do the best for his son (naturally with some great actions sequences too) but there is light and shade to the character and Vijay does an excellent job in portraying these shadows as well as the strengths of the character. Michael is a more typical Vijay ‘hero’ persona, but there is still some depth and again Vijay is excellent in the role.

Naturally there is also a romance, this time a physiotherapist who comes with Michael to help the team in Delhi. Angel (Nayanthara) has rejected a number of marriages while waiting for Michael to come to his senses and marry her, but apart from this show of spirit, she’s a typical Tamil filmi heroine who just has to look pretty for the songs and support her man through thick and thin. Nayahthara does what she can with the role, but it’s thin pickings despite some good comedy in her introduction. This would have been a much better film if Nayanthara had been the coach and the gangster thread between Michael and Rayappan a side theme, but I guess that’s a little too much to ask for.

The film does look fantastic and the song sequences in particular are brilliantly picturised. There is plenty of colour and A.R. Rahman’s music fits beautifully into the action. Rekhs (aided by Harini) comes through with brilliantly translated song lyrics and even translations of written signs that are significant for the plot. Directors and producers take note – this is how you subtitle a film for an international audience – it makes all the difference when subs are in idiomatic English and easy-to-read yellow.

Atlee does throw everything into this film, and as a result some of the threads simply don’t work within the larger context of the story. Although Jackie Shroff is the main villain, he’s never very threatening, and Daniel Balaji gets a much better storyline and resolution for his character too. He makes a great villain and his flawless performance is one of the highlights of the film. Meanwhile, Yogi Babu and Vivek indulge in some unnecessary slapstick, but the comedy from G. Gnanasambandam and George Maryan is subtler and funnier as a result. The film is at its best when focused on Vijay and this is where Atlee excels. He knows how to make his leading man look good, and how to keep the action exciting. Worth watching for Vijay, the excellent dancing and action scenes and for the colourful spectacle of it all.

2.0

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Shankar’s 2.0 is an amazing visual spectacle with incredible special effects and jaw-dropping action, but despite all the thousands of Rajinikanths, clouds of flying mobile phones and an unusually charismatic Akshay Kumar as the villain of the piece, it fails to fully impress due to a garbled and, at times, dull story. Not that the lack of a credible story really matters for a large-scale Superstar movie, but the transition between one incredible VFX scene to another really needed some sort of rationale to develop a relationship with the characters and bring in some suspense. And 2.0 just doesn’t have that connection. No matter how good Rajinikanth and Akshay Kumar are in their roles, or how truly magnificent the visual effects are, at the end of the day for me the film needs a little more soul.

The film opens with mobile phones suddenly gaining a life of their own and zooming off into the sky all over Tamil Nadu. These opening sequences are excellent as Shankar shows just how pervasive mobile phone use is, including the moment when we see an entire family all staring at their phones just as the father announces that of course he spends quality time with his family. Everyone is here – those obsessed with taking selfies, people using their phone for work, for family connections, even one man using a mobile phone as a plaything for his child, and it for a time it seems that Shankar might be making a statement about overuse of mobile phones. But it’s not that simple.

Naturally Chennai is thrown into total chaos by the “great mobile phone disappearance” but the problems are only just beginning. A massive cloud of mobile phones transforms into a bird’s talons and starts ripping cell towers out of the ground, prominent mobile carrier company owners are attacked and a gigantic bird, formed out of mobile phones starts attacking people in the streets. This is seriously inventive stuff, and Shankar has allowed his imagination free rein to create magnificent visuals that really are spectacular, while the fast-paced action just never stops.

Dr Vaseegaran (Rajinikanth) is aided this time round by an android called Nila (Amy Jackson) whose body proportions are reminiscent of a Barbie doll, but who does at least get the chance to show off her superhuman skills in the battle against the villain, Pakshi Rajan (Akshay Kumar). Pakshi Rajan is an eminent ornithologist who ends up suiciding after he fails in his attempts to stop the radiation from mobile phones killing off his beloved birds. Thanks to ‘negative energy’ and all those dead birds, he somehow transforms into an entity capable of animating mobile phones, and sets out to destroy the humans who have caused all the problems in the first place. There is a flashback sequence that paints Pakshi Rajan as an environmental hero with Akshay Kumar playing him as an old, broken man who wears baggy cardigans and weeps for a dead sparrow – so naturally he’s a more sympathetic character than the self-absorbed Dr Vaseegaran. And that’s part of the problem I have with the entire film. Dr Vaseegaran seems to simply want to bring Chitti back to life, and show off his new-fangled invention to save the day, while Pakshi Rajan has a legitimate issue and a real crusade that’s easy to support. So, when Chitti arrives on the scene, it actually appears that he’s fighting on the wrong side since Pakshi Rajan doesn’t come across as a bad guy until much later.

Thankfully when the 2.0 reboot Chitti takes over, his swagger and snappy dialogue helps lift the second half, ably helped by the excellent visuals and inventive ways that a cell phone can be used to kill. Pakshi Rajan develops a villain-worthy sneer and his casual disregard for the thousands of people who end up having to dodge bullets and large pieces of football stadium during the finale does start to make him seem a least a bit nastier. Team Chitti though has an equal disregard for bystanders and finally pulls a stunt with pigeons that’s even more vicious than all of Pakshi Rajan’s gory killings. That has the effect of making Pakshi Rajan actually seem more moral than Team Chitti despite his murderous tendencies. To try and compensate, the last scene makes some attempt to promote Pakshi Rajan’s cause while still chastising him for killing so many people, but it just doesn’t work, although the final action sequences are brilliantly done.

I’m not usually a fan of Akshay Kumar, but he is impressive here and he does an excellent job of humanising Pakshi Rajan and giving him an almost plausible reason to attack mobile phones. I also appreciated his bird-like mannerisms when he transforms into a giant birdman and his dedication to the role by using feathers for eyebrows. For the most part he simply screams at the camera in bird form, but during the flashback sequence he does display the demeanour and despair of a broken man very well.

Rajinikanth is on screen for most of the film in one or more of his different characters – Dr Vaseegaran, Chitti or 2.0. He is as charismatic as ever in every appearance, although Dr Vaseegaran is even more annoyingly self-absorbed here than he was in Endhiran. Despite playing a robot, as Chitti and his alter ego 2.0, Rajinikanth gets to display plenty of personality and each time he appears he brings life and energy to the screen. Thankfully the annoying Sana only appears as a whingey voice over the phone this time round, while the rest of the cast only appear briefly, either to be killed by Pakshi Rajan or as part of the government trying to cope with the crisis. Sudhanshu Pandey appears as Dhinendra Bohra, the son of Bohra from Endhiran, but this seems to be a real wasted opportunity and his character isn’t well utilised despite a promising start.

I’m not sure exactly what Shankar was trying to say here – if indeed he was trying to say anything at all. Could this be a film against mobile phones and the way they have come to take over our lives? Is there really an environmental message here about radiation and the dangers purportedly associated with cell towers? It’s all rather muddled and the emotional back-story for the villain doesn’t help matters either. However, as an all-out action adventure 2.0 works well enough. A.R. Rahman’s music is used sparingly throughout the film, although there is one montage song and a dance track over the end titles, which is fun. Thanks to Rekhs for the excellent subtitles (in yellow too, so very readable) and kudos to cinematographer Nirav Shah for making the regular shots just as good as the VFX. Yes, most of the money has been spent on the effects in this film, and little on the screenplay, but given the end result I’d say overall it’s money well spent. I didn’t see the 3-D version, but even in 2-D the effects are simply superb and for that alone the film really does need to be seen in the cinema. For the rest, Rajinikanth is excellent, Akshay Kumar totally nails being a murderous birdman, Amy Jackson does well as an animated robot, and best of all with this plot, no-one was using their cell-phone during the show. That’s definitely a win!