Kaithi (2019)

Kaithi was recommended to me as a must-see by many people but the film didn’t release in Australia until this weekend. Word of mouth has been so good that the cinema was full despite reaching Melbourne a week late. And after all the hype – is the film worth it? A resounding yes! Kaithi is a tense action thriller that doesn’t miss a beat, while all the cast are simply terrific, including Karthi in a role that sees one of his best performances. No songs, no dances and no romance track, just all out action, intelligently plotted drama and even a dash of comedy all ensuring that Lokesh Kanagaraj’s latest film is one not to be missed.

The film opens quietly, introducing a young girl in an orphanage who is told to expect an important visitor on the following day. We’re left in the dark as to who she is, and who the important visitor will be, but not for too long. Dilli (Karthi) is a paroled prisoner who is on his way to see his daughter for the very first time. Flashes of his daughter’s restless night as she waits impatiently for morning are interspersed with the action of the rest of the film, adding a strong emotional thread to the narrative as well as upping the stakes for Dilli as he battles his way through the various obstacles in his path. Importantly these scenes add some space around the high-impact action sequences and give us a reason to invest in the outcome of Dilli’s struggles. After introducing Dilli’s daughter the film shifts into fast-paced action with the introduction of numerous characters and the basic story all given in quick succession, which makes these small interludes a clever way to accentuate the action without breaking the overall level of tension in the film.

The action starts with Inspector Bejoy (Narain) and his team capturing a lorry load of drugs and other smuggled goods, although Bejoy is injured in the raid. For some political reason the raid has been kept secret, so Bejoy and his men stash the drugs under the police station while throwing the smugglers into the cells above. The team head off to the Chief Commissioner’s retirement bash along with all the senior officers, leaving a few junior police and recent transferee Napoleon (George Maryan) from Tirunelveli at the station. The action then switches to the gangster hideout where Anbu (Arjun Das) is plotting how to get the drugs back and also ensure that the police never know that they have his brother and gang leader Adaikalam (Harish Uthaman) in custody. The smugglers plan to drug the police officers at the retirement party and while they are incapacitated, break into the police station and grab the drugs and Adaikalam. All of which would work except for Bejoy and his decision to co-opt Dilli to drive the truck carrying the drugged police officers to hospital.

The events all occur over the course of one night which adds to the suspense and increases tension as Dilli and Bejoy battle to save the police officers, stop the gangsters getting to the stash of drugs and prevent Anbu from freeing Adaikalam. Along the way there are double agents on both sides, a group of students who end up barricaded in the police station along with Napoleon and the owner of the truck, Kamatchi (Deena) who is dragged along against his will. The action is a mix of the road trip across rough terrain to get medical attention with periodic attempts by the gangsters to stop Dilli and Bejoy by any means possible, and a siege of the police station by Anbu and his men, all anchored by the strong presence of Dilli who will do anything it takes to ensure he can get to the orphanage and meet his daughter.

The action sequences are well choregraphed by Anbariv who uses a mixture of one-on-one fights, inventive ambushes and stunts with the lorry to add novelty and interest to the film. Sathyan Sooryan’s cinematography makes the most of the night setting, highlighting the cabin of the truck where Bejoy, Dilli and Kamatchi are literal lights in the darkness of the war against drugs as the gangsters circle around in the darkness of the forest. Car headlights, torches and burning carts provide background lighting for the fight scenes with Dilli in the truck, while the police station, boarded up by Napoleon and the students is lit by moonlight as they attempt to keep the smugglers out.

Each member of the cast is fantastic, starting with Arjun Das as the erratic and bloodthirsty leader of the smuggling gang. He creates an atmosphere of violence simply by snarling at the camera and is a plausibly dangerous villain. Although Harish Uthaman has limited screen time, he is suitably menacing, particularly as he emerges from the gloom of the police cell to threaten the engineering students who have devised inventive methods for preventing his escape. George Maryan is outstanding as the ageing constable, fresh in from the country who ends up the sole defender of the police station and pulls the students into the fight. He is steady as a rock, perhaps because he doesn’t quite understand the magnitude of the force arrayed against him, but his attitude and strength of character are brilliantly written into the story and along with the students his fight against the gangsters is just as compelling and thrilling as that of Bejoy and Dilli.

 

I loved Narain in Anjathey and he is excellent here as a police officer pushed to the limits by circumstance and desperate to do the right thing. He gets across the internal conflicts that result when he pulls Dilli and Kamatchi into the volatile situation with the gang, and he is also excellent at portraying Bejoy’s helplessness from his broken arm which prevents him driving the lorry himself. It’s a well nuanced performance despite the straight forward character arc, and Narain excels in the brief conversations with Dilli that expose his innermost struggles. Deena too is well cast in a role that adds some humour to the story, but he’s also effective as a voice of the common man who tries to do the right thing despite being terrified by the violence that erupts all around him.

I really like Karthi and have seen most of his films including the excellent Naan Mahaan Alla, Madras and Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru, and in Kaithi he produces another scorching performance to add to the list. As a prisoner, Dilli has learned to keep his eyes down and his mouth shut making Karthi’s slow deliberate movements and measured dialogue a perfect fit for the character. His obvious enjoyment of biryani, eaten while Bejoy is trying to load up the lorry with the drugged police officers is a satisfying nod to freedom and the simple joy of good food eaten leisurely. He’s also excellent when describing to Kamatchi how he ended up in prison, but it’s in the action sequences where he really excels providing a convincing portrayal of a man willing to risk everything to reach his daughter. He gets the emotions just right too, never dipping into maudlin or overly dramatic sentimentality, but still showing the mix of fear, elation and trepidation that would naturally be present in any father going to meet his 10-year-old daughter for the first time. The character is written quite simply, but Karthi adds plenty of depth and intensity that contrasts perfectly with Narain’s more desperate Bejoy.

 

There are no songs but C.S. Sam’s background music fits the narrative well and helps to drive the action forward. The two different tracks to the story work well with each other to keep the tension level high, especially when it always seems that the defenders will be overwhelmed by the gangsters, and the finale is just as over-the-top and Rambo-esque as befits the indestructible character of Dilli. The film doesn’t feel overlong despite the almost 2½ hour running time but instead stays thrilling and almost claustrophobic with the one-night timeframe and race against time to save everyone. With brilliant performances, a simple but well plotted storyline and plenty of action sequences, Kaithi is an excellent thriller and highly recommended for fans of the genre.

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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.

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.