Pa Paandi (aka Power Paandi)

Pa Paandi

I watched Dhanush’s directorial debut in Mumbai which meant no subtitles, but the story came across clearly despite a few dialogue heavy scenes. It’s a sweet tale about an older man and his quest for meaning in his life after his non-conventional ways annoy his son one too many times. There are a few overly sentimental moments, but the film succeeds thanks to excellent performances from all involved, a better than average soundtrack and the novel premise of a sexagenarian hero who still packs a punch!

Rajkiran is Paandian Pazhanisami aka Power Paandi, a retired film stuntmaster who has a shelf full of memories after working with the great heroes of Tamil cinema. I love that he is introduced in true filmi style and throughout the film his characterisation is similar to a typical modern day hero – this in spite of the fact that he is in his sixties and retired.

Paandi lives with his son, daughter-in-law and their two children, but unintentionally creates tension in their house with his activities in the neighbourhood. Paandi is a born meddler, whether it’s helping his young neighbours find true love or facing off with the local drug dealers, he can’t seem to help but get into trouble. His son Raghavan (Prasanna) prefers a quiet life and is constantly at odds with his father, prompting Paandi to remember similar incidents from Raghavan’s childhood. It’s a good illustration of how the power in their relationship has shifted over the years and how Raghavan now looks at his father as more irresponsible than his own children. However, for the most part Raghavan is tolerant of his busybody father although it’s clear he resents the extra work caused by his father’s attempts to ‘help’, while his wife does her best to keep the peace. The conflict between the generations is at times clichéd and overdone, but for all that there is a simple sincerity to the relationship, helped by the contrast in Paandi’s friendship with his young neighbour that bolsters the story in the first half.

For his part, Paandi is aware of how he frustrates his son and attempts to keep out of his hair by getting a job. His previous experience in the film industry leads him to try his hand at acting, with Gautham Menon providing a cameo as the exasperated film director trying to make Paandi to deliver his lines. Paandi then goes back to what he knows best and his success in an action scene allows him to relive the past glories of his youth. This is beautifully written to show just how much being appreciated, even in such a small way, means to Paandi. Here is an older man with plenty of experience and much to offer the world, but he has been made to feel irrelevant and unwanted by his family. When Paandi completes his sequence in one take, the accolades of the other stuntmen and the praise of the director (Stunt Silva) are all balm to Paandi’s ears and reaffirm his worth, despite his advanced years. Suddenly he has reason and meaning to his life again and the years drop away.

However, this success is short-lived, as Paandi cannot resist a fight with drug dealers that results in yet another trip to the police station and a more serious argument with Raghavan and Prema (Chaya Singh).  In the aftermath Paandi decides to leave on his treasured bike to search for something to bring meaning back into his life. A chance encounter with a group of similarly aged bikers on the road solidifies his quest into a search for his first love Poonthendral (Revathi).

Naturally there is the obligatory flashback to Paandi’s past – but despite the clichés the romance adds to the story and gives deeper dimension to the character of Paandi. Madonna Sebastian is charming as the young Poonthendral, while Dhanush’s young Paandi does seem exactly the sort of youth who will grow up to be the ageing hero of the first half. The romance is simply told, and it works well with good performances from all of the support cast including Vidyullekha Raman as Poonthendral’s cousin.

When the film moves back into the present day Dhanush seems to hit his stride as director, and the final scenes are well written and effectively filmed to ensure empathy with Paandi and Poonthendral. Revathi is wonderful here and gives her character poise and respectability with just a smidge of mischievousness that makes her instantly likeable. It’s inevitable that we want Paandi to succeed with his romance and there is only one ineptly placed fight in a car park that mars the final half of the film.

The best part of the film for me is the tongue-in-cheek approach to Paandi’s character as a modern-day hero. The usual filmi standards apply, so that Paandi is as quick to get into a fight as any other hero, and similarly with just one blow of his fist he can effortlessly knock the villains into the middle of next week. Rajkiran is excellent in the role and has plenty of charm and enthusiasm, making Paandi a likeable character despite his tendency to solve problems with his fists and his occasional naiveté. The mix of kind-hearted grandfather, lonely retiree, soul-searching wanderer and rejuvenated suitor is well blended with a natural progression that works well as the story develops. One of my favourite moments is after the reunion when Paandi messages Poonthendral on his phone while hiding under the bedclothes. The young man of the flashback is re-captured in that instant, but it’s the experienced older man who turns up on Poonthendral’s doorstep asking why she hasn’t replied.

There are some dips into obvious sentimentality as Dhanush pushes the lack of appreciation for elders by the younger generation, but for the most part he lets the characters just get on with the story. There is also a tendency for the first half to resemble a TV series rather than a movie, but these wrinkles are smoothly ironed out in the second half of the film and overall Dhanush has produced a good directorial début. Perhaps it’s a consequence of working with experienced actors, or possibly as an actor himself Dhanush knows how to get the best from his performers, but everyone here seems perfectly cast and the performances are all excellent. Even the two young actors Chavi and Raghavan are good in their roles and Rinson Simon is superb as Paandi’s young neighbour. The music is good too with Sean Roldan’s background score and songs fitting both the modern and the flashback sequences well.

Writing with Subramaniam Siva, Dhanush has produced a good masala blend with plenty of feel-good vibes for his first film. While technically the film has a few issues, the story works well and the choice of an older hero makes the film individual enough to rise above other romances. Worth watching for Rajkiran, Revathi and the premise that even at the age of 64 it is still possible to find your true-love.

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Ab Tak Chhappan (2004)

Ab Tak Chhappan Poster

The film opens with a pile of clothes and shoes on a beach, and someone whistling “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”. A man is wading in the sea, maybe suicidal, maybe cleansing his sins. Or just washing off the bloodstains on a nice sunny day.

Sadhu Agashe (Nana Patekar) is an encounter specialist. He is honest and pragmatic about what that really means, and is untroubled by any ethical concerns. He is doing a necessary job as the legal system cannot stop gangsters, so extreme measures are required. The cops are basically just another gang in the Mumbai ecosystem. Within the department there are people jostling to take over his prime position. Imtiyaz (Yashpal Sharma) is a sook who wants to be the top cop but lacks Sadhu’s instincts and connections with the useful informers. Shukla (Nakul Vaid) is the wide eyed newbie, determined to deliver justice through state sanctioned murder.

Zameer (Prasad Purandare) is an offshore crimelord, running operations from his luxurious Malaysian retreat. He has a random Australian girlfriend and a strange attachment to Sadhu Agashe, who he often calls for a chat. The cat and mouse game between cop and crim is tense and disarmingly friendly by turns. New Joint Commissioner Suchak (Jeeva) has a different agenda from outgoing Mr Pradhan (Dr Mohan Agashe) and the department has to learn to navigate the new landscape. When Sadhu Agashe is put on the other side of the gun, he uses all the resources at his disposal to try to outwit his adversaries.

Nana Patekar is both ordinary and charismatic, and delivers a compelling performance that carries the film. Agashe is a public servant tasked to kill bad guys and has no obvious ethical issues with his job description. He believes he is taking care of a problem afflicting the general population, the people he swore to protect. His simplicity is deceptive, a man who acts first and stops to feel and care later. His relationship with wife Nammo (Revathi) is loving with lots of nagging and joking in a comfortable couple-y way. She is a political science teacher and yet exhibits no qualms about what her husband does, or the potential danger to herself and their son. I know they have been married for years but I still expected that when Shukla brought his fiancée Vaishali (Hrishitaa Bhatt) over for dinner that they may talk about what it meant, or at least how to get blood out of clothes. It was just such a non-thing in their lives. Revathi is elegant in a comfortable middle class way that suits Nameeta, not blingy or impractical looking. Revathi doesn’t get a lot of dialogue but her silent interactions and bustling about the home show Nammo is the cornerstone of his life. She is warm and grounded which plays well against Nana Patekar’s sharper edges. When people break the unwritten law that keeps family and dependants out of the fray, they mess with the only thing that could influence Sadhu Agashe to be moderate.

Yashpal Sharma and Kunal Vijayakar have prominent supporting roles and play the world weary seen-it-all-before cops to perfection. Justice is not their priority, hitting their targets (literally) is more important.  Nakul Vaid is suitably wide eyed as the rookie on the team. Agashe sees potential in the kid, and shares his jaded wisdom with his protégé but I wouldn’t say the boy was all that innocent to start with. Looking queasy when you shoot someone is not necessarily an indicator of moral fibre. Jeeva is threatening and oozes corruption as Suchak who disrupts the team with his new agenda. Mohan Agashe is weary and understanding as Sadhu’s old boss, the only man he really trusts and respects. Their conversations shed light on Agashe’s motivation and his view of the world, and point out the dangers if he sets a foot wrong.

Shinit Amin set his story in the non-glamorous Mumbai of films like Company and D, a dog eat dog city. Traffic is constant, everyone knows everyone else, the honour code is fairly strong. No matter what happens, gangsters and cops all stop to watch the cricket and even a hardened criminal should be entitled to a cup of tea and a lift home after he has been beaten to a pulp. There are rules. And then there are laws. The film was produced by RGV and it is like the sensible version of (the very disappointing) Department. There is an internal logic, cause and effect, nothing happens out of blind coincidence or guess work.

The background score by Salim-Suleiman is dramatic without being too obtrusive. Their soundscape helps create a sense of urgency and velocity as the protagonists travel through the hurly-burly of Mumbai.  The camera also navigates the rabbit warren of streets homes and office, giving a feeling of being a fly on the wall. Faces are often framed in close up but off centre, maybe to underscore the unknown and secret sides of human nature. Or maybe just because it looks cool. There is a lot going on in the background and periphery as people go about their work and daily business. It’s a lively yet very contained filmi world.

There is a lot of violence and death in the film, but it is almost understated. The characters hardly notice the carnage, so nor did I. I was more interested in the why than the what. And the implication of the corruption of the system and the internecine conflicts was far more frightening than a shooting.

This is a solid film with a well thought out plot and excellent performances. It’s not uplifting but neither is it completely depressing. It is a different way of looking at that filmi chestnut – where do you look for justice? And does doing something bad to prevent something potentially worse ever work out? 4 stars!

Mouna Ragam (1986)

Mouna Ragam

If you’re in the mood for a classic love story with just a touch of mushy sentimentality, you can’t really go past Mouna Ragam. Mani Ratnam’s beautiful 1986 film takes an arranged marriage between a compliant groom and a reluctant bride as the starting point for a look at relationships and how two strangers can learn to live with each other. It’s well worth watching for the excellent performances from the main leads, Mohan, Revathi and Karthik, but also for the simple but effective storyline and wonderful music.

The story follows Divya (Revathi) a fairly happy-go-lucky student whose world is shattered when her family arranges her marriage. The groom is Chandrakumar (Mohan) and even though Divya lists all her worst qualities on their uncomfortable first meeting, Chandra likes her honesty and decides that she will be the perfect wife for him. The opening scenes add to the realistic feel of the film as they illustrate just how young Divya is, playing tricks on her older sister and husband, and showing her simplistic and childish ideas to counteract the unwelcome marriage proposal. However, against all her objections, Divya is pressured into the wedding by that age-old family drama – a threatened heart attack / medical collapse. Divya is just as susceptible as every other film heroine and without further ado her husband whisks her off to a new life in Delhi.

The relationship is shown as difficult right from the start. As Chandrakumar shows Divya around his house in Delhi after the wedding, Divya’s body language makes it obvious that she doesn’t want to be there, while Chandrakumar is clearly feeling the hostile vibes but trying to be as welcoming as possible. This awkwardness seems exactly what I would expect from two strangers suddenly having to live together and Mani Ratnam has captured their uneasiness perfectly. I don’t know, never having been through it, but this seems to be a plausible reaction to the abrupt intimacy between two people who have only just met. It’s thought-provoking and one of the things I love about the film, that just a few moments can invoke such a complicated emotional response from me.

Despite her classy new abode, which is a world away in size and conveniences from her family home, Divya is very unhappy with her marriage. So much so that when asked what she would like most from her new husband, her immediate answer is a divorce. This is a pivotal scene and it’s beautifully played out by Mohan and Revathi. Chandrakumar’s shock and hurt are palpable while Divya appears to be no more than a sulky school girl trying to be as obnoxious as possible.  Needless to say as a rejection it works well, and since she follows it up with more nasty remarks it’s to his credit that Chandrakumar manages to keep his cool. This is the turning point of the film for me with Chandrakumar’s character partly due to his emotional responses (which make me feel sorry for him), and partly because he shows more personality in interactions with his work colleagues. It’s an important change since up until this point he’s fairly bland and unexciting, making Divya’s reluctance to go through with the marriage relatively understandable. But Chandrakumar seems a good catch. He’s got a good job, a nice house and is considerate and understanding, particularly when faced with Divya’s immature taunts. With just a few simple scenes, Mani Ratnam turns the story around, and suddenly it’s Divya’s reactions and inability to make the best of things that become difficult to understand and instead of wanting her to get divorced, I want Divya to fall in love with Chandrakumar and be happy in her marriage.

Eventually Chandrakumar asks Divya exactly why she is so against the idea of their marriage (possibly something he should have done before the wedding), and she tells him about her first love Manohar (Karthik), who was killed just as they were about to get married. The story of Manohar and Divya is told in flashback and although Karthik only has a small role, he’s an excellent romantic partner for Revathi and the two share great chemistry together.  The difference between the two relationships stands out clearly. Divya and Manohar have a light and happy relationship, their scenes together are full of life and there is a sense of energy that is missing between Divya and Chandrakumar. Karthik is very appealing here as the quintessential ‘bad boy’ who is of course not really bad at all. However, while the romance is well told and Divya with Manohar is happier and nicer person, she also seems quite mature, which seems at odds with her juvenile responses to Chandrakumar, and her earlier carefree attitude as a student.

In the face of such strong contempt from Divya, Chandrakumar tries to arrange a divorce, but the law states that the couple has to be together for a year before they can apply. Naturally over this time Divya comes to see the good side of Chandrakumar and slowly develops feelings for him, while Chandrakumar gets a little of his own back by throwing her earlier remarks back at her and ignoring her attempts to be more friendly. This being a Tamil film it’s not guaranteed that there will be a happy ending, and the developing relationship is compelling viewing as the deadline for the divorce looms.

There is so much to enjoy here. Revathi is excellent in her role as Divya and her self-realisation and development of maturity is captivating. Initially she lets her emotions track across her face just like any young girl and her petulance and hostility is perfectly nasty. Just think of how obnoxious any group of schoolgirls can be – that is exactly what Mani Ratnam has captured here. With Divya’s slow acceptance of her husband there is a softening of her expressions, and when the realisation of what she has done sinks in there is maturity in her actions too. However she is still a young girl at heart, as shown by the tricks she plays on the driver Sanjit Singh. I love the way Mani Ratnam emphasizes her isolation by moving the couple to Delhi where Divya cannot understand the language and is confused by the cultural differences. It adds to the problems she has and ensures that she has to resolve her problems by herself. There is no convenient family or friend to help her, although the lack of interference from Chandrakumar’s family is a little surprising.

Mohan is just as good and although his Chandrakumar initially seems too perfect to be true, he becomes more human and therefore more likeable in the second half. He does an excellent job of portraying a ‘nice guy’ and has just the right amount of revenge on Divya without becoming cruel or spiteful. He’s an ideal contrast to the passion of Karthik, and I kept thinking of the old proverb ‘still waters run deep’ when the camera focused on Chandrakumar’s patience and tolerance.

Although the story is nothing new it’s beautifully told using a simple style with well developed characters and situations. As an added bonus the music by Ilaiyaraaja is excellent and this song Nilaave Vaa, sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam is just beautiful.

Mouna Ragam rightly deserves to be called a classic and despite the fact that I know what is going to happen, I get drawn into the story every time. Each character is perfectly drawn, the actors all fit their roles easily and there is none of the overblown melodrama which usually infects similar love stories of the time.  It’s one of my favourite romances, and I thoroughly recommend watching. 5 stars.