NOTA (2018)

NOTA

NOTA is a bilingual political /coming of age drama that ends up a step above routine thanks to Vijay Deverakonda’s engaging performance as a reluctant CM. It also helps that director Anand Shankar adds a number of real-life events to Shan Karuppusamy’s story which gives the film more impact. I watched the Telugu version as there were limited shows in Tamil here in Melbourne, and the switch from Tamil Nadu to Telangana didn’t make much difference despite most of the incidents deriving from known political issues in Chennai. The main let-down is the villain of the piece who is poorly realised and under-utilised, however there is enough here to make NOTA worth at least a one-time watch.

The film starts with a song and a drunken pool party for Varun’s (Vijay Devarakonda) birthday. Varun is a video-game designer based in London, but is home to celebrate his birthday and to visit an orphanage he supports. However, on the way back from the party his car is pulled over by the police and rather than being booked for a drink driving offence, instead Varun is rushed home. Varun’s father Vasudev Subramanyam (Nassar) (Vinothan Subramani in the Tamil version) is the Chief Minister for Telangana, but he is stepping down after being prosecuted in a corruption case. Now as an Australian I’m very used to the top political position changing hands frequently, but here the party makes the choice of the new leader. The situation is different in India where the CM gets to choose his successor and Vasudev picks his own son who is intended to be simply a place-holder until the court case is finished. Varun has no interest at all in politics and just wants to be able to head back to London and his life there, but his general fear of his father ensures that he stays in India and does as he’s told.

Mainly this means Varun stays at home, out of the public eye, and signs whatever documents various faceless party men place in front of him. This he does, without even sparing a glance at the documents he’s signing, until everything suddenly comes crashing down after Vasudev is found guilty of corruption. Suddenly it’s no longer a game and real lives are at stake, pushing Varun out of his complacency and bringing him into direct conflict with the party, and his father. This is where a number of those real-life events are brought into the film, such as the Chennai flood, scandals over the fixing of labels to donated meal packets and politicians treated to a stay at a resort. But there are clichés too. Varun gets pulled into the murky world of politics after a riot where a young girl is killed in a bus fire and her mother’s sooty hands leave symbolic marks over his clean white shirt. His response is an impassioned speech which is overly theatrical and to some extent banishes the authentic feel that Anand Shankar manages to create for some of the earlier scenes between Varun and his political mentor, journalist Mahendran (Sathyaraj). For most of the film however, the dialogues and scenarios are appropriate and create a believable character in Varun.

Vasudev Subramanyam was an actor before moving into politics (of course!) and Nasser does an excellent job with his character. Initially it appears that Vasudev is the ‘bad guy’ as he keeps his family under rigid control, but later events paint him in a more ambivalent light which adds interests to the story. Also good is Sanchana Natarajan as Kayal Varadarajan, Varun’s political rival. Her father is the leader of the opposition party and Kayal is determined to bring down the man she dubs the ‘rowdy CM’ by any means possible, regardless of their previous friendship in college. Thankfully Anand Shankar doesn’t burden the film with an unnecessary romance between the two, but instead gives Sanchana free rein to make her character charismatic and a real challenge to Varun, as might be expected in real life.

Sathyaraj is excellent, as is M.S. Bhaskar as Vasudev Subramanyam’s right hand man, only ever referred to as Bhai. What works well here is Bhai’s adherence to the party line and his uncritical support of Vasudev even though he disagrees with his choices. Also telling are the numerous ‘yes-men’ who all abase themselves in front of Vasudev and act much the same way with his son. However a side-plot involving a financial swindle doesn’t fit well into the plot and the entire thread involving the ‘God-man’ who is manipulating Vasudev behind the scenes is clunky and poorly written into the main action. Inevitably these side excursions start to drag down the rest of the film, and despite some good dialogue between Varun, Mahendran and Vasudev, the second half feels stodgy and is hard to digest. Which is a shame as there is much to like in the underlying political story. Varun’s coming of age within the political system is handled well, and his rivalry with Kayal works well to initiate Varun into the dirty side of politics.

There are only 2 songs in the film and both are modern dance numbers, one for Varun’s party and the second at a nightclub where Varun has been drugged.  C.S. Sam’s music is fine but doesn’t particularly stand out and the generic background dancers add even less to the choreography. I’ve added the Telugu version as this is the one I saw in the cinema, but the link to the Tamil version is here.

If the film has stuck more closely to the political issues then this could have been a very good story indeed. Instead the various sub-plots dilute the impact of the political scenes and it’s only the strong performance from Vijay Deverakonda that prevents his character from becoming just another mass movie hero out to save the world. Thankfully there is more backstory and just enough intrigue to make NOTA worth a look, while the real-life political situations do add another level of realism to the plot. The excellent support cast are also well worth catching as they all do justice to their roles. Overall, not a bad début for Vijay Deverakonda in Tamil cinema and another interesting choice for an actor who only seems to be getting better with each film.

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Puriyaatha Puthir (2017)

Puriyaatha Puthir

Ranjit Jeyakodi tries to sell an important message in Puriyaatha Puthir, but despite a decent performance from Vijay Sethupathi and good camerawork from Dinesh Krishnan, he doesn’t quite pull it off. There are some creepy moments in this thriller, but they don’t compensate for the abundance of plot holes and the slow start that drains much of the excitement well before the interval. This one falls into the ‘could have been better’ box for me, mainly due to the unevenness of the screenplay and unrealistic reactions from the lead characters as the drama unfolds.

Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi) is a musician who also runs a musical shop. He first notices Meera (Gayathrie) on a bus and becomes interested when she turns up in his music store as a customer. Meera is also a musician who works as a violin teacher in a local school, and she has a surprisingly large number of students in her classes. Who knew playing the violin was so popular! The best thing about Meera’s character is that she does actually know how to hold and play a violin, and that is a significant improvement over most actors who seem fairly clueless when handed a musical instrument to play. Although to be fair, Vijay Sethupathi also knows his way around a guitar when he gets to show off his skills later in the film. However, otherwise Gayathrie makes hard work of Meera’s character and generally appears stiff and awkward with little chemistry with her co-star during their romantic interludes.

This may be partly because the romance develops very slowly despite Meera initially asking Kathir to deliver her new violin directly to her apartment and seemingly making the first moves. When they go out together she seems skittish and shy, and doesn’t want to invite him up to her apartment at the end of the night. This leaves her alone at the entrance to her block of flats and cinematographer Dinesh Krishnan makes the most of the shadows and empty spaces to build tension and a feeling of suspense as Meera makes her way up to her apartment.  There is a good sense of menace in these scenes and Meera’s sense of panic feels very real as she suspects someone is following her home.

Although it’s Meera who appears to have a stalker, it’s Kathir who starts to get videos of Meera taken without her knowledge or consent. He’s enraged by shots of her changing in a store changing room, and bursts in to the store like a bull in a china shop, throws around wild accusations and never actually seems to explain to the shop assistants exactly why he is so distraught. I don’t think it was a subtitle issue either, as nothing Kathir said seemed to be any sort of explanation for his wild behaviour, but it’s no wonder that he doesn’t get very far in finding out the source of the videos.

At the same time, Kathir’s friends start to have problems too. An early scene shows Vinod and DJ (Arjunan) explaining to Kathir that nothing is really a crime unless you get caught! Unfortunately for both, that’s exactly what happens. Vinod works for a music TV station, but is a serial womaniser and is having an affair with his boss’s wife. He gets caught on video and ends up losing his job as a result. VJ also is exposed as a drug user on video and is subsequently arrested by the police. Whoever the stalker is, they are well-informed and always manage to be in the right place at the right time. It’s no surprise that Kathir starts to feel that he is under siege.

Although the film as a whole doesn’t quite hit the mark, there are some excellent ideas adrift in the choppy waters of the story. At one point Kathir does the sensible thing and goes to report Meera’s video stalker to the police. However, once there he realises that the police aren’t interested in discovering who is behind the videos at all – they just want to see the images of Kathir’s girlfriend in various states of undress. They appear to be no different from the stalker, in fact seem much worse given that they should be investigating the crime, and Kathir realises he can’t get any help from official sources. Who do you turn to when the people supposed to deal with crime are more interested in perpetuating the assault themselves? A scene where Kathir ends up standing exposed in the rain is also well staged as is the creepy discovery that the messages are coming from the phone of a girl who suicided a few years previously, but unfortunately in between there are too many plot holes that weaken the tension.

Ramesh Thilak appears in a rather bizarre role that doesn’t make any sense. I think he was supposed to be a significant red herring, but instead just seems out-of-place and an unfortunate add-on to the plot. The video’s too become less feasible, while Meera seems either too unconcerned and overly compliant with Kathir’s demands, or bizarrely happy to head back to her apartment alone at night. It takes Kathir finding a diary (sigh) to finally work out what is going, and by that stage I’d really lost interest in the proceedings.

Puriyaatha Puthir was filmed in 2013/2014, back when Vijay had just completed such diverse films as Soodhu Kavvum and Pannaiyarum Padminiyum, and was starting to make a name for himself. Here he carries the film on his shoulders, and it’s only though his intense belief in the story that a number of unlikely scenarios and appear even vaguely plausible. Part of the problem may be that when this film was written there was less media attention and community awareness about the topic of cyber-harassment. Making Kathir appear angry and his reactions so intense probably made sense to get the outrage and sense of violation from the videos across to the audience. Nowadays we are all more familiar with the crime and here Kathir’s confusion and anger seem to be initially misdirected, although blaming the victim for the crime is sadly still something that occurs even now. Vijay Sethupathi is definitely watchable and his anger and despair are well expressed, along with his frustration, but it’s not enough to keep the tension and suspense the film needs to be effective.

The issue of cyber-crime has been addressed in a few films recently, and as a crime with serious consequences it’s a worthwhile topic too, but the treatment needs to be much tighter than Ranjit Jeyakodi achieves here. There are some good moments but the slow romance, flashback sequence and character reactions are at odds with developing suspense. Worth watching for Vijay Sethupathi and some good tunes from Sam C.S, but that’s about it.

 

Vikram Vedha

Vikram Vedha

It’s rare that a Tamil film gets a round of applause from a Melbourne audience, but that’s exactly what happened at the end of Vikram Vedha last night. And well-deserved applause it was too. Pushkar-Gayathri’s crime drama pits a righteous police officer against a ruthless criminal, but the line between the two rapidly becomes blurred with a series of moral dilemmas that throw Vikram’s beliefs into question. Both Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi are outstanding and with a well-written story, clever dialogue and insightful characterisations, Vikram Vedha is an absolute gem of a film and definitely one not to be missed.

Madhavan’s Vikram is a member of a police task force whose mission is to remove notorious gangster Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi) and his men from the streets. Vikram is totally convinced that he is on the side of the angels and that the men he kills deserve to die, which as he continually states, means that he has no problem sleeping soundly at night. However, almost immediately Vikram hits some dodgy moral ground when he shoots in cold-blood one of the gangsters who tried to surrender and then reworks a crime scene to his team’s advantage. Already Vikram doesn’t seem quite as shiny white as he wants the world to believe, although as a police officer he stills stands on the right side of the law.

Vedha continues to elude Vikram and his men, resulting in a planned raid into the area of North Chennai where Vedha is rumoured to be hiding out. As the numerous police officers and riot police are gearing up, ready for action, Vedha calmly walks into the police station and surrenders. As entrances go, this has to be one of the best, particularly since no-one seems to recognise the gangster until he sets off the metal detector alarm as he walks into the building. Vijay Sethupathi is always good in the role of a gangster, but his swaggering Vedha is brilliantly executed here with exactly the right amount of confidence and bravado to suit a character who calmly surrenders to a room full of armed police.

Vedha’s surrender seems like sure suicide, but he’s planned everything well in advance, and without any evidence the police can’t hold him. However once faced with Vikram in a cell, Vedha starts to tell him a story which ends with a moral conundrum. The question posed at the end starts to lead Vikram to realise that the world isn’t as black and white as his and Vedha’s respective shirts, and that sometimes the identity of the bad guy is not as clear-cut as first seems.

Vedha is released by his lawyer who happens to be Vikram’s wife Priya (Shraddha Srinath) which leads to another moral dilemma for Vikram. What do you do when your wife is representing the criminal you’re trying to kill in an encounter? Priya is a strong character who won’t back down and refuses to let her husband destroy her first chance to make a name for herself in Chennai. The scenes where the two work to resolve their fundamental differences in opinion and approach to Vedha are brilliantly written and work well as another factor in Vikram’s gradual realisation that good and bad are just relative terms.

As the film progresses, Vedha manages to tell Vikram another two stories, always ending with a question about what is the ‘right’ action to take in each situation and that Vikram struggles to answer. The situation becomes more and more tense after Vikram’s best friend Simon (Prem) is killed during the investigation and Vikram is desperate to know why Simon died. But as Vedha’s tales seem to be leading Vikram to a greater understanding and may hold the clue to why Simon died, they also add more and more grey into his previously monochrome view of the world.

Vikram Vedha

Each story is told in flashback and introduces a number of key characters including Vedha’s younger brother Puli (Kathir) one of the men shot by Vikram in the raid at the start. Varalaxmi Sarathkumar plays Puli’s wife Chandra, another strong character whose behaviour as a child is an excellent foreshadowing of her actions as an adult. I loved her character, particularly when her immediate reaction to Puli slapping her was to slap him back straight away, and her down to earth attitude was wonderfully normal in the middle of all the intrigue and drama associated with Vedha and his gang.

Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi work together brilliantly and the chemistry between the two is the main reason why the film works so well. Madhavan is perfect as the gravel-voiced cop who strongly believes that he is always right (and good), while Vijay Sethupathi completely gets into the skin of a Chennai gangster out for revenge. The short flashbacks are beautifully put together to highlight the main clues, but there are so many twists that the final outcome is kept relatively obscured until close to the end. Kudos to the make-up team who successfully aged the characters naturally and the wardrobe team who managed to find so many different shades of grey for Vikram and Vedha as the story progressed! The shift in clothing sounds really obvious, but it’s done subtly and is more effective than it sounds, particularly as the changes echo the shift in Vikram’s thinking. The premise of what is good, what is bad, and how can we really tell is intertwined throughout every part of the film which also works well to highlight the change in perception Vikram undergoes as he learns more about Vedha and his life.

It’s not just the storyline and the performances that make the film so watchable. P.S. Vinod’s cinematography is excellent while the background score by Sam C.S. enhances the action without becoming intrusive. The songs fit surprisingly well into the narrative without disrupting the action and of course  it’s always a treat to watch Vijay Sethupathi shake a leg – especially as part of a drunken gangster party!

Vikram Vedha is such a clever film, but Pushkar-Gayathri never get too carried away by their own brilliance and keep the underlying story simple. The mixture of morality, crime thriller, action and suspense are expertly blended together without making the central debate of good vs bad either preachy or clichéd. I totally enjoyed every single minute of Vikram Vedha and it’s definitely a top contender for my favourite film of the year. Simply perfect!