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. 

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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!

Kali (2016)

Kali

I’ve been looking forward to the combination of Dulquer Salmaan and Sai Pallavi onscreen in Sameer Thahir’s Kali, and thankfully they don’t disappoint. It’s an interesting film too, with a simple but effective screenplay from Rajesh Gopinadhan, following the story of a young man who cannot control his temper and the unexpected consequences of one of his episodes of rage. The first half sets the scene for a compelling thriller in the second half and with excellent performances from all the actors, Kali is definitely well worth a watch.

The film starts with a violent fight at a roadside restaurant. It’s beautifully choreographed and includes the displeasure of the restaurant’s resident cat whose meal is disrupted by the conflict. The snarling cat adds a touch of wildness and lawlessness to the fight that’s echoed later on in the film when the action returns to the restaurant. The short but vicious opening also sets the scene for another fight, although this one is less physical but equally damaging in its own way.

Siddharth (Dulquer Salmaan) is a man with a very short fuse and the simplest of things makes him lose his temper. After the fight at the restaurant, the next round is between Siddharth and his wife Anjali (Sai Pallavi). Anjali is seen leaving their house in tears and carrying a suitcase, while inside Siddharth is angrily throwing objects at the wall. It’s a scene of domestic life that rings true, particularly since Anjali isn’t staying around to accept any abuse and sensibly heads for the door. However it’s late at night and Siddharth at least doesn’t leave his wife walking down the road by herself, managing to pick her up in their car even though he’s still clearly very angry indeed.

The film moves into flashback to show how Siddharth has always been quick to lose his temper, even as a child, and how the years haven’t mellowed his reactions at all. Throughout his time as a student and even during job interviews, Siddharth shows no patience and absolutely no control over his angry reactions. He’s a man who reacts first and rarely thinks about the consequences of his behaviour. It seems strange that Anjali does stick with him and it’s hard to believe that Siddhartha hasn’t had any previous problems as a result of his behaviour. No-one ever seems to react badly to his outbursts for example. What’s good about the flashback though is that there is little about the love story between Siddharth and Anjali. Their romance is simply a fact, and the film instead shows Anjali’s struggle to cope with Siddharth’s temper outbursts and her attempts to keep him on an even keel. Many of the situations are drawn from routine day-to-day hassles and while Siddharth’s irritation is understandable it’s his inability to control his reactions that make him such a difficult person to deal with.

There is a kinder side to Siddharth too though, and he’s not all rage and temper. He does make some attempt to keep his temper and tries to control his frustration with his bank customers using a stress ball Anjali gives him, with at least some partial success. However he has an incredibly irritating colleague in Prakashan (Soubin Shahir) who is deliberately provocative and obnoxious, although Siddharth does his best to ignore him as much as possible. Dulquer Salmaan and Sai Pallavi have excellent chemistry in their scenes together which makes their relationship believable. It’s easy to see why Anjali stays with Siddharth despite his anger management issues – the two are clearly in love and outside of his temper tantrums Siddharth is a caring and attentive husband. I love the end of this song where Anjali dances with Siddharth in their living room. It seems very natural and spontaneous, plus Sai Pallavi is simply gorgeous in that red sari!

The film steps up the pace in the second half when Siddharth and Anjali find themselves in a frightening situation as a result of Siddharth losing his temper with truck driver Chakkara (Chemban Vinod Jose) on the road. The couple end up at the restaurant seen in the opening scene of the film where Siddharth’s anger puts him and Anjali in real danger and Siddharth has to curb his natural aggression to try to ensure their safety. The tension rises steadily as the situation escalates further out of control and both Gireesh Gangadharan’s cinematography and Gopi Sundar’s music work well to add further pressure.

Dulquer Salmaan does a fantastic job of conveying his rage without going too far and over dramatising his outbursts of temper. Despite his ever-present anger he manages to make Siddhartha at least a partially appealing character  and I even found myself in sympathy with him as I was just annoyed by Prakashan and the bratty child that visited Siddharth’s house! Dulquer also is excellent in the latter half of the film and allows his inner struggle to show clearly on his face as he deals with the staff and clientele at the restaurant. It’s another brilliant performance and despite the negative tones I thoroughly enjoyed his characterisation here.

After her critically acclaimed début in Premam, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sai Pallavai but she puts in another fantastic performance in Kali.  Her frustration and disappointment with her husband come across beautifully and she gets the level of embarrassment and distress just right when Siddharth loses his temper in public.  On top of all that she still manages to have great chemistry with her co-star and makes their relationship believable too. She’s just as good in the second half and her terror and helplessness are a major factor in maintaining the tension in the latter part of the film.

The support cast are also uniformly good with Vinayakan and Chemban Vinod Jose perfectly cast as the main villains of the story. They effortlessly exude menace and both have great evil grins and good use of their expressions to help increase the tension every time they appear onscreen. Soubin Shahir is incredibly annoying as fellow bank employee Prakashan and as such manages to win Siddharth some sympathy for having to deal with such an idiot on a day-to-day basis! However thankfully Prakashan is never too over the top and Soubin Shahir doesn’t just play his character for laughs but actually makes him a more plausible character than expected.

Kali is a film of two halves. The first sets up the situation for the rest of the movie, and concentrates on the personality of Siddharth and his relationship with Anjali. It’s a well constructed observation of human interactions and the painful cost of unreasoning rage and unsociable behaviour. The second half on the other hand is an out-and-out thriller where the characters are more broadly drawn and the action tense and frightening. And yet, despite the different pace in the first and second halves the film works well as a whole story and makes for an enthralling two hours of cinema. Highly recommended.