NGK (2019)

NGK

Spoiler alert

I’m a big fan of both Suriya and Selvaraghavan and was intrigued to see how Selva would deal with a main stream hero given his usual character-driven and more unconventional style of film making. As it turns out, Selva has made room for both heroic gestures and quirky plot points in this tale of a young man’s rise to prominence in a political party, although ultimately neither meld particularly well together. In the end, the darkness of the storyline ensures NGK is still definitely a Selvaraghavan film, although only working in parts despite an understated, yet powerful performance from Suriya. There is a lot to unpack here, and I apologise for the spoilers which I haven’t been able to avoid in order to discuss certain aspects of the story.

Nandha Gopala Kumaran aka NGK (Suriya) is an organic farmer, living in a small town with his parents Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Viji (Uma Padmanabhan). He’s married to Geetha (Sai Pallavi) and in the initial scenes both are completely besotted with each other to the point of irritating Viji with their romantic overtures. Kumaran is an organic farmer who has given up his city job to work the land with a group of like-minded idealists, but their livelihood is threatened by local traders and businessmen who want the farmers to buy their chemicals. Kumaran gets the idea of approaching his local MLA (Ilavarasu) from a neighbour Giri (Bala Singh) who works for the party. Giri has been beaten up by party men because he refused an inappropriate request from MLA Pandiyan’s but despite this, Giri still supports the party ideas. Straight from the start, it’s shown that the party elite are corrupt, lacking morals and purely interested in getting and keeping power. Kumaran uses his friend Raja (Rajkumar) who also works for the party to get an audience with Pandiyan, who agrees to stop intimidation of the farmers, but only if Kumaran enters politics and brings 500 of his own supporters into the party.

Interestingly, in these early scenes, Kumaran seems disgusted and repelled by Pandion, and is further antagonised by his bullying and repeated humiliations. But at some point Kumaran decides to kowtow and do everything Pandiyan wishes, including cleaning his toilet and supplying him with home-cooked food. What would help this transformation would be an explanation of why Kumaran decided to conform. Was it because he realised the power of politics and what he could potentially do if he managed to move up the ranks? Or was it simply to stop the humiliation, or perhaps even an attempt to shame Pandiyan into more moral behaviour? Sadly, none of the reasoning behind any of Kumaran’s choices are explained, although there are some pivotal events that we can assume helped shape his actions.

In the course of his transition to political power, Kumaran meets Vanathi (Rakul Preet Singh) who is a UK-educated political analyst tasked with helping the party win upcoming elections. Vanathi is impressed by Kumaran, presumably realising that his earnest demeanour and good looks will make him a good candidate to win over the voting public. Vanathi is an interestingly grey character who’s not above dirty tactics to discredit the opposition, although these are more about revealing the ruling party’s indiscretions rather than fabricating evidence to implicate chief minister Killivazhavan (Devaraj) and his minions. As Kumaran becomes more and more involved with the party, and by implication with Vanathi, Geetha starts to become jealous and finally accuses Kumaran of having an affair. Astonishingly (this is Suriya after all), Kumaran quickly admits his infidelity but it’s all the more shocking because there has been no hard evidence on screen and no real reason for the affair – after all, Kumaran had a wife he was supposedly besotted with waiting for him at home. Then too, his revelation is made somewhat passionlessly, but immediately followed up with a nasty challenge to Geetha asking her what she will do about it. So, was he just scratching an itch because he was away from home? Did he fall in love with the clever and politically sharp Vanathi – a world away from the more innocent Geetha? Or was it a more calculated ploy, to seduce the woman behind the party’s campaign for office for his own ambition?

Rakul Preet Singh is good in a role that starts off well, but which fades quickly once she (sigh) inevitably falls in love with Kumaran, despite her initial tough, woman-of-the-world persona. At least Vanathi has a reasonable character arc and she stays true to her own ideals throughout, apart from an unfortunate lapse during a dodgy romantic song which doesn’t fit with the rest of the screenplay at all. She still has values and these stand her in good stead as Kumaran becomes more manipulative and Vanathi gradually seems to realise what is happening. Sai Pallavi on the other hand doesn’t doesn’t fare as well as Geetha. Her initial interactions with Kumaran are too cloyingly sweet and over the top, while Geetha’s suspicion of an affair seem to come from nowhere, leading to some odd behaviours when she meets Vanathi. Her initial reaction to Kumaran’s affair is also strangely overdone, while the apparent acceptance in later scenes also doesn’t ring true, making Geetha a rather unsatisfactory and jarring presence onscreen. It’s odd since Selva’s female characters normally have strong characters and some reason for what they do, but here the women are all muted and take a very definite back seat to the main story.

Kumaran gradually changes throughout the story from an all-round nice guy to someone able to plot and scheme his way to success. What I can’t decide is if he turned to the dark side to win power to be able to help his people, or if he truly becomes corrupted to the point where he is prepared to use anyone to achieve his ends. The final scenes with Geetha and his parents suggest the latter, but I need to watch the film again to find more clues to his behaviour. I did pick up some. Selva uses changes in the lighting scheme here as he did in Pudhupettai to indicate some of the personality changes – changing from green to red lighting during a fight scene in an improbably cavernous bathroom, presumably to suggest Kumaran’s move towards more selfish motives. There are also questions around what really happens when Kumaran’s friend Raja dies, and his initial meeting with Vanathi definitely has more subtext, but I was concentrating too much on reading the subtitles to pick up on all the subtleties.

The glue holding the story together is Suriya, who forgoes his usual mass-style hero for an ambiguous character who definitely moves towards the wrong side of politics. It’s a subtle and almost low-key performance, although there is plenty of passion on show as Kumaran makes energetically impassioned speeches about farming and freedom, land and human rights, and inevitably ‘the common man’. Suriya gets across the definite sense that Kumaran is acting in all of his grand speeches, while still leaving his true motivation rather more ambiguous until the end, where his corruption appears to be complete. Here Selva has ensured that the film is very much about the star, and Suriya feels the space completely, including the requisite action scenes, dance moves and compelling charisma that end up defining the character too. Although the rest of the cast are good, they aren’t as memorable as Suriya, with the exception of Ilavarasu and Devaraj who have their own personality quirks.

Sivakumar Vijayan does a good job with the cinematography and overall the production is excellent even down to having readable subtitles in yellow font. Awesome! Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background soundtrack is good, and the few dance numbers are catchy enough, with the only real let down being the inappropriate romance track with Kumaran and Vanathi. It’s not a bad song, just oddly placed and bizarrely shot to show a romantic side to two characters who otherwise don’t appear passionate about each other at all. There are the characteristic dark themes and odd actions that remind you that this is a Selva film, but with Suriya front and centre, this is a more commercial and smoother film than his usual fare. The blend isn’t perfect but there is plenty here to keep you entertained, even enough for repeated viewings to see more of what is going on in the background. No doubt that will provide more clues and a clearer picture of just exactly who is NGK. I really enjoyed this, despite my issues with Geetha and occasional frustrations at not being able to decide exactly all the why’s. But then that is part of the genius of Selvaraghavan, to refuse to spoon feed his audience answers and keep everyone guessing. And even here with a mainstream hero in a more traditionally told story, he very nearly pulls it off.

Advertisements

Maari 2

Balaji Mohan revisits the concept of the bad Don that everyone loves to hate, but this time gives the titular character a best friend and a heart of gold that unfortunately reduce Maari’s onscreen impact. The standard mass formula doesn’t help either and the story feels tired despite attempts to refresh it with Sai Pallavi as Maari’s love interest and Krishna Kulasekaran as bestie Kalai. Still, in terms of generic gangster flick it’s not totally terrible, and there are a few flashes of the ‘old Maari’ while Tovino Thomas is better than the script deserves as the film’s villain. Overall the film is entertaining enough for a one-time watch, but as a sequel Maari 2 doesn’t come close to matching the appeal of the original.

Maari 2 opens well with the 100thassignation attempt on Maari’s life after which the gang celebrate his continued survival in plenty of style with cake and a party. A few years have seemingly passed since the end of the first film, and Maari’s boss Velu has died, leaving the leadership of the gang open. This is where Balaji Mohan adds in the new character of Kalai (Krishna Kulasekaran), the son of Velu and Maari’s best friend since they were both kids. While everyone wants Maari to become the leader (which in itself is a major turnaround from the first film), he proposes Kalai takes charge while he remains in the background.

Maari is seen to be trying to do the right thing, even as he cracks the usual jokes and slaps around his henchmen, Sani (Robo Shankar) and Adithangi (Kalloori Vinoth). Despite the loud shirts, sunglasses and gold chains, this Maari is a totally different character, with one of the biggest changes being the attitudes of the people around him – the only people who hate him now are the rival gangs. Adding to this newfound popularity, Maari has a stalker in the form of auto driver Aanandhi (Sai Pallavi) who refuses to be put off her attempts to coerce Maari into a relationship, despite Maari’s truly appalling treatment. The reason for her devotion is revealed later in the film but appears simply as a blatant attempt to appear feminist-aware and completely misfires given the film’s general attitude towards women and Aanandhi in particular. 

Aanandhi states that she isn’t a “loosu ponnu”, but she veers uncomfortably close while her character initially appears mainly as a butt for numerous jokes. Although Aanandhi tries to give as good as she gets, she’s limited by her determination to make Maari fall in love with her, and as a result does look just like any typical mass film heroine. The hearty demeanour of the character and over-the-top attempts to gain Maari’s attention don’t work well either despite Sai Pallavi doing her best to make her character sympathetic. Where she does shine however is in the songs, and her dancing in Rowdy Baby in particular is simply superb. Her energy is amazing and she matches Dhanush step for step, in some parts even surpassing him for passion and commitment to the routine. Prabhu Deva provides the choreography and ensures that Rowdy Baby is the most memorable song of the film.

Tovino Thomas plays the villain Beeja, aka Thanathos. Although he is first seen in a prison cell, Beeja is portrayed as a more intellectual gangster, speaking in English and using the name of the Greek god of death as his alias. However, he’s still the crazy psychopath Tamil cinema loves to have as a mass villain, since he sports dreadlocks, a gold tooth and has scrawled the words “Kill Maari” all over the walls of his prison cell. No doubts at all then about his plans for the hero. Tovino Thomas is an accomplished actor, and in the first half of the film he does a better than average job of making Beeja a more menacing character than his overdone theatrical traits would suggest. Unfortunately, he is let down by the plodding dialogue and nonsensical storyline in the second half, while the final fight sequence doesn’t do much for either Tovino or Dhanush. The later channels his inner Salman Khan in a rather unnecessary shirtless fight scene, while Tovino’s character rolls over much too easily for someone who has made the death of his opponent his driving force for the last few years.  

Varalaxmi Sarathkumar makes yet another appearance as a respectable member of government, this time as IAS Officer Vijaya Chamundeswariin charge of law and order. It’s a role with a rather similar feel to her last appearance in Sarkar and she really only gets to look stern or concerned in roughly equal measures as she hunts for Maari as a potential witness. The rest of the support cast are fine in equally narrow roles, mostly reprising characters from the first film. Worth a mention is Aranthangi Nisha who has a small comedic role as one of the other auto-drivers also named Aanandhi. Most of the fight scenes are well choreographed by Stunt Silva, but there isn’t anything that stands out as particularly new or innovative. The music too from Yuvan Shankar Raja works well enough within the film, but apart from Rowdy Baby none of the songs are memorable after leaving the cinema. Om Prakash captures the colour and energy of Maari and his sidekicks and I did like his contrasts between the worlds of Maari and Beeja. Both are gangsters in the same area of Chennai, but Maari is always bright while Beeja revels in dark costumes and equally dark lighting.  

While there are a few flashes of the old Maari, for the most part he is a more considerate and thoughtful character this time round. This softening of the character is completed by the romance with Aanandhi and without the ‘gangster everyone loves to hate’ persona as a point of difference from other gangster flicks, Maari 2 is just another mass masala movie. Even Dhanush seems at times to be unsure exactly which role he is supposed to be playing as he switches between callous gangster, the infuriated target of Aanandhi’s advances, caring friend and concerned lover. It’s only in the first of these that Maari 2 really comes to life and these are without doubt the best parts of the film. Further déjà vu comes from numerous references to Rajinikanth films, particularly in the second half, and the overall unlikeliness of the story further reduces the impact of the film. However, if all that you want is a potboiler gangster story with plenty of fight scenes, some good comedy and the odd dance sequence then Maari 2 fulfils all of that and adds just a little bit more. 

Fidaa (2017)

 

Sekhar Kammula’s Fidaa benefits from a talented cast and suffers from some underwritten characters and lazy plot manipulation.

Fidaa bills itself as a love-hate-love story, but I felt it was more about growing up and knowing yourself, identifying where you will and won’t compromise. Medical student Varun (Varun Tej) lives in Texas with his older brother Raja (Raja Chembolu) and younger brother Bujji. One morning they all decide Raja should get married, and minutes later he chooses Renuka (Sharanya Pradeep) on a matrimonial site. Raja goes to India to meet her, but waits for Varun to come and give the final OK. Renu’s younger sister Bhanumathi (Sai Pallavi) is naturally curious and concerned about the man her sister will marry so goes about sussing out her prospective in-laws. She and Varun fall for each other but where Raja and Renuka are easy going to the point of invisibility, Varun wants to stay in the USA and Bhanu cannot conceive of leaving home. They break up without really breaking up or talking about it, and unhappily go on with their lives. But then Renu falls pregnant and develops a mystery syndrome that lasts just long enough for Bhanu to have to go to the USA.

Considering the number of co-directors credited I half expected a lack of cohesion in the direction but not so. Visually this is a beautifully composed film, making the most of natural looking light and locations. Unfortunately the writing relies on half-baked contrivances to move the action along. The characters are not particularly well developed either.

Sai Pallavi should win all the awards for her performance as Bhanumathi. The line between uninhibited and unhinged is tricky to negotiate, but she rocks both the energy and subtlety required. What could have been a mere hair swishing manic pixie dream girl becomes a delightfully quirky and real young lady. I guessed from the audience reaction that a lot of her dialogue is in a regional dialect and there was much cheering at some of her one liners. Bhanu is doing her undergrad degree in Ag Science, and demonstrates this by driving a tractor around one field, just one muddy field, and pointing at different grains. I’d never considered the pros and cons of wearing a half-saree while driving a tractor, but here it looked stylish and appropriate. It’s easy to see when Bhanu is putting on an act but never easy to see that any part of Bhanu is a performance. Her reactions seem spontaneous and her eyes look like there is somebody home. On a shallow note, I also loved that she has minimal makeup on that expressive face, spots be damned. It’s a departure for a mainstream Telugu film heroine. And she can really dance.

Varun Tej is tall, dorky, and may never get all that hair product out. Ever. Not even vigorous frolicking in the rain could flatten that bristly up do. Varun the character is kind of bland and I never found his dreams or change of heart convincing. At first I put that down to his acting but when I considered Bhanu too, I realised that neither character had much explicit motivation or development. The film relies on the actors to make the situations engaging. Varun was just overshadowed a little, playing the slow steady counterpart to the firecracker Bhanu. He was at his most lively in scenes with her, and I liked their rapport. The fight scene seemed out of character, but Bhanu was a huge film fan so I guess that was Varun showing support in a kickarse language that spoke to her. He was less successful in the angry and emotional post breakup phase when Varun keeps taking stupid advice from a comedy sidekick. He’s lucky he inherited the smouldery Mega Eye gene for the crying scenes because it distracted me from wanting to slap him for excessive wallowing. He certainly missed out on the Mega Dance gene…or at least, he got that one from his father not his uncle.

The plot used any old excuse in pivotal moments. Renuka required 3 months of total bed rest, but then was well enough for Bhanu to leave on a roadtrip for a week (judging by the outfit changes), and then turned up heavily pregnant at home in Banswada for a wedding. You or anyone else with a pen and a post-it note could easily write six reasons that were more believable. The roadtrip was beautiful and I’m sure everyone had fun with the drone shots, but if you’re in a hurry perhaps…a plane? Investment in building up characters and relationships was notably lacking. Some of the side characters have no reason to exist other than being a sidekick or whatever. There is also a fair amount of “do as I say, not as I do” advice. It’s disappointing because there’s a whole stack of Kammula films that show he is a keen and empathetic interpreter of human behaviour. This looked like he either couldn’t be bothered or perhaps gave way to an improvised approach that fell over.

Satyam Rajesh’s Ali is one character who added no value to the proceedings. And the kid who played Bujji did nothing to diminish my dislike of high pitched overly peppy kid actors. Of the supporting actors I most enjoyed Sai Chand and Sharanya Pradeep as Bhanu’s dad and sister. I still get irritated when people in possession of all their faculties and full mobility sit and wait for their daughter to come and give them their daily essential medication, but whatever. He was a caring and quite progressive father in many respects. Renu had a masters in psych but there is no indication she will ever get to use it, or wanted to. Another why???? element in the script. But Sharanya Pradeep was calm and lovely, playing Renuka with a maternal solidity.

Shakthi Kanth Karthick’s songs were diverse enough in style that they meshed with the key scenes rather than being a musical interruption. Vachinde was suitably flirty and hectic, setting the scene perfectly. I was pleased to see both the dialogues and songs were subtitled, although the quality of the English subs was atrocious. I hope that is reviewed before a DVD release. Unless there really is a w in hellow. And I’m pretty sure Fidaa doesn’t directly translate to “flat”.

Fidaa is well worth seeing for the charm of the actors and the beautiful visuals. Just prepare to suspend your disbelief a bit. On the bright side, there were no CGI talking lizards!