Mersal (2017)

Mersal

After drought ravaged farmers in Kaththi and violence against women in Theri, Vijay latest crusade is against corrupt medical practitioners in Atlee’s Mersal. There are few surprises in the storyline which follows a standard revenge formula, but the approach is stylish and the addition of a magician does ensure a few unexpected tricks. Vijay takes on a triple role that puts him front and centre for most of the film, which is just as well since it’s mainly his charisma that lifts Mersal above its well-worn story. But there are also energetic dance numbers, excellent special effects and a credible and suitably nasty villain making Mersal a major improvement on Vijay’s last film and worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Vijay plays a triple role – two brothers (one who is unaware of the other’s existence), and then their father in an extended flashback sequence. The story jumps around a lot as well as moving in and out of flashback so it’s deliberately not always clear which character we are watching at any given time. The film starts with the abductions of 4 men, all connected in some way to the same hospital, although it’s takes a while before we find out who they are and why they have been abducted. The police receive an anonymous tip off which leads them to arrest local hero and all round good guy Dr Marran (Vijay) who is known as the ₹5 doctor due to the fees he charges his patients. His arrest almost sparks a mini riot but once Police Officer Rathnavel (Sathyaraj) begins his interview (which for no good reason is conducted in a derelict building on a construction site) the story of the two brothers starts to unfold.

The other brother, Vetri (Vijay), is a magician and uses his powers to take revenge on the men he feels were responsible for his father’s death. It’s never clear how the brothers ended up separated or why Marran is brought up by his foster mother Sarala (Kovai Sarala) in ignorance of Vetri’s existence, but then Atlee seems to prefer focusing on the result rather than bothering with such basic explanations. Vetri is ably assisted in his magic and in his revenge by Vadivu (Vadivelu) who also moonlights as Maaran’s helper. This means Vetri knows exactly where Marran is and can use that information to his own advantage. While in Paris (really Poland, but close enough), Vetri meets Anu Pallavi (Kajal Aggarwal) who is acting as a general gofer for the rather greedy and lecherous Dr Arjun Zachariah (Hareesh Peradi). Dr Zachariah is the polar opposite of Maaran, believing that good medicine is commercial medicine and the only reason to be a doctor is to turn a huge profit and benefit from the misery of disease. Maraan on the other hand is a proponent of universal free health care as a basic human right, although he doesn’t seem to have really thought through exactly how this style of medical care will be funded if his dream is to become a reality.

While Vetri dances his way into Dr Anu’s heart in Paris, Maaran meets journalist Tara (Samantha) during an interview on a TV talk show. Love blossoms through another song but Maaran’s TV appearance has brought him to the attention of Dr Daniel Arockiyaraj (S.J. Surya) who recognises Maaran as being the spitting image of his father. Daniel and Vetrimaaran (Vijay) had an acrimonious history and Daniel immediately sets out to find and destroy the son of his enemy.

The best part of the film is the extended flashback after the interval which focuses on the reasons behind Vetri’s revenge and Daniel’s antipathy. S.J. Surya revels in his role as a conniving and deceitful doctor in wide collared shirts and spectacular flares but Vijay steals the show here with his performance as a villager with a big heart and even bigger muscles.  Nithya Menen is also superb as Vetrimaaran’s wife Aishwarya (aka Ice), although she does have the best of the three female roles. Her Ice is passionate and inspiring in her devotion to the idea of readily available health care in their village, and she gets the chance to really bring out the emotions of her character well. She also has excellent chemistry with Vijay and this is the relationship that works the best out of the three, although to be fair both Samantha and Kajal get little screen time with the hero and little chance to develop their respective relationships.

There are a few oddities in this part of the film though. There is a sudden jump between Ice’s admission into the hospital and her final fate without much explanation of what goes wrong. Also, a potential fight between Vetrimaaran and Daniel’s henchmen is over before it begins with the gang all lying on the ground bleeding and moaning seconds after they approach Vetrimaaran. I’m not sure if these cuts are an Australian specific issue since I haven’t seen any mention of them in any other reviews, but it does seem odd and makes these final flashback scenes seem rushed and a little confusing.

Although the main focus of the film is Vijay, the rest of the support cast are all good, including Rajendran as an unlikely Health minister and Kaali Venkat as an auto driver whose daughter died due to corruption in the health service. The music from A.R. Rahman doesn’t stand out as anything special, but it does fit into the screenplay well while Atlee places the songs wisely throughout. G.K. Vishnu works wonders with the cinematography and the effects are magical despite the sometimes cheesy nature of the tricks. Watch out for a scene where Vijay fights with a deck of cards – the fusion of the magic storyline into a standard masala tale is a better fit than I expected. Of course the real magic here is that Vijay seems to be growing younger with each new film and he’s just as energetic as ever too.

However Mersal is more than just a revenge drama and there is a definite political slant to the story. To start with, medical negligence and corruption is an emotive topic, that has been much in the news recently with a series of high profile deaths in the Indian medical system. Vetri makes a rather political statement towards the end of the film as he speaks to the crowd outside the courtroom and asking why India can’t fund heathcare as well as Singapore when the Indian government collects a much larger amount of GST. This is much more direct than Vijay’s message about suicidal farmers in Kaththi and does come across as a warning to the current government that they are being judged as lacking leadership in this issue. Vijay underscores the political theme with several nods to MGR, including a scene where Vetrimaaran walks in to a cinema to accuse village officials of corruption just as MGR strides onto the screen in the background. Is this the next stage in Vijay’s political campaign or is he just making the best use of his star power and philanthropic tendencies? Only time will tell, but in Mersal, Atlee has combined politics and entertainment without diluting the message or preaching to his audience- something a lot of Holywood films could do well to emulate.

 

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Janatha Garage

I want to grab Koratala Siva and shake him till his teeth rattle, then kick him into the middle of next week. He has managed to get a top notch cast and the beginning of a good idea and turn it into something far less than the sum of its parts.

Sathyam (The Complete Actor Mohanlal) is the head of Janatha Garage, a leader, and is genuine in his desire to give the little people a fair go. Mohanlal has great conviction and gravitas when he speaks of what is right and fair, and he gives the impression of a man who seeks to take a balanced view but who will never take the easy way out. He gathers a small crew of like-minded men who also represent in shorthand the diversity of Hyderabad. Janatha Garage repairs engines and problems.

Anand (Young Tiger NTR) has an unusual hero entrance where he arrives to … plant a tree. Or actually, tell someone he’s busy and so can they please plant the tree. Anand’s environmentalism is very simple. Trees good, humans bad. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with wanton destruction as long as it is him dishing out the destruction. He is given an overblown fight intro where he beats some thugs up while claiming to be giving them a taste of Mother Nature’s temper. He tells people what to do and believes they will do it because he has told them so. Sathyam sees him as a good fit for Janatha Garage, and welcomes him into the fold.

Some of the movie’s highlights are the scenes between NTR Jr and Mohanlal. Their characters have a connection that is unknown to either of them for quite some time, so that added a bit of interest for the audience. They both bring more to the table than that flimsy screenplay required. The actors portray a nice dynamic – warm, mutual respect, and a recognition of the gradual changing of the guard and what that means. But there are too many gaps and things that Anand in particular just accepts too easily. This is not a lack in Tarak’s acting – I felt he added as much complexity as he could. Both Anand and Sathyam are so sure they are right, and that their right is more right than anyone else’s idea of right. Anand in particular brooks no discussion and has no compassion for anyone who opposes him. It robs his character of any inner life, and makes them both rather joyless.

And that lack of heart is the real problem with this film. For a story that should be so intimately tied to people and their daily struggles, once the story moves to Hyderabad Janatha Garage seems to take place in a lifeless bubble. The sound design makes it seem like they are on a stage with echoing dubbing and swelling string music every time Janatha Garage is invoked. In contrast, an early scene of Anand running through a slum area in Mumbai had a real sense of place and the vibrant, persistent signs of life in high density cities. Even in the impressively choreographed action scenes, Anand takes on all comers alone. He finally allows the other Garage guys in on the final fight but they are barely on camera. And he never even gets a mark on his linen shirts, let alone get his hair messed up. I wonder if his construction strength hair product was environmentally friendly? His apparent invulnerability also saps the drama of tension because you know how every fight will end before it starts.

The support cast are pushed so far into the periphery that I was actually a bit sad to recognise so many capable actors. The Janatha Garage family includes Rahman as Sathyam’s murdered brother, Sithara as Anand’s aunty, Suresh as his uncle, and Devayani as Sathyam’s wife. Perennial favourite Ajay is likeable and sympathetic, Brahmaji doesn’t look angry for maybe 40 seconds of his total screentime, Saikumar is suave as police chief Chandrasekhar, and I liked Vennela Kishore’s fleeting appearance as an inappropriate office manager flirting with Samantha. I have just spent as much time on developing their characters as Koratala Siva did.

The baddies were played by Sachin Khedekar and Ashish Vidyarthi who both exuded an urbane egotism in their pursuit of wealth. They both want to keep a distance from what is being done, but have no illusions about the outcome. Unni Mukundan plays Sathyam’s son Raghava who goes over to the dark side. Raghava is slimy and bit of a sook and I cared not one jot for his well-being. But I did wonder just how he turned out that way when everyone else even tenuously associated with Janatha Garage was lining up for sainthood.

Samantha and Nithya Menon are capable, and both project warmth and liveliness which was sorely lacking in the rest of the film. But their relationships with each other and with Anand were never developed, and their storylines just fizzled out. Even Anand, apart from one tearful scene, seemed largely to forget that he had a girlfriend and a spare.

Luckily there are beautiful visuals from cinematographer S. Thirunavukkarasu, especially when the story heads out of town and Anand gets his groove on while frolicking in the mountains. Tarak can express such joy when he dances and it was a relief to see Anand lighten up. Rock On Bro is exactly what you’d expect if you briefed a 70s metal cover band to write a theme for a tourism ad with a hippy vibe. Having said that, the Apple Beauty song has possibly the worst lyrics I’ve heard since Eurovision. I pitied the subtitle team for having to work with such gems as “when you devour me I am like the Apple logo on an iPhone”. But don’t take my word for it. Here is a sample:

And who on earth thought Kajal could deliver a skanky item? She’s very attractive, she gives it her all, but she has none of the sensuality or basic coordination required to dance her way in and out of trouble. And casting a Mumbai girl to perform a Telugu item called Pakka Local…Luckily Tarak decides he can’t see the excellent sets go to waste so he jumps in.

I’m putting the flaws in Janatha Garage firmly on Koratala Siva’s account. He had a super cast, a decent budget, and a good idea and he threw most of it away with shoddy writing and empty clichés. One for the Tarak or Mohanlal fans who will enjoy the star performances.

Brahmotsavam (2016)

Brahmotsavam

Srikanth Addala’s Brahmotsavam is a real mishmash of a film, where random family scene follows random family scene with the emphasis on feel-good values and upbeat emotions rather than anything inconvenient like a storyline. This is one film where the subtitles didn’t seem to help at all and much of the dialogue made absolutely no sense, but a few other audience members explained that not only were the subtitles inaccurate, but that the script was fairly random too and they were just as confused. It doesn’t help that most of the characters don’t have actual names but are called brother, brother-in-law or sister-in-law (and there are a lot of them), making Brahmotsavam less of a celebration and more of a memory test. Mahesh is always watchable and the strong cast are all charismatic, but with nothing much actually happening over more than two and a half hours, Brahmotsavam is sadly uninspiring.

The film starts with a family celebration, which I think was a wedding but could have been almost anything – maybe just breakfast – given the families propensity for breaking into song and dance at any moment.  Whatever the occasion, Sathyaraj likes to ensure that the whole family celebrate it together – that’s all his brothers, their wives, children and his brother-in-law Rao Ramesh. Everyone is sickeningly happy all the time except for Rao Ramesh who suffers from intense (but understandable) familiyitis and resents Sathyaraj’s success with the paint factory he runs. Naturally everyone in the family works at the paint factory when they’re not singing and dancing around the family home, and they’re all deliriously happy to be working there too. It’s actually a little odd to see Mahesh in such ultra-happy family mode for most of the film, but when he sheds the happy and has to show a range of emotions he really is excellent. More of this would have made for a better and more enjoyable film.

Just to add to his individuality a small animated figure appears to speak to Rao Ramesh any time he is particularly exasperated with his brother-in-law. Since most of the time this imaginary figure berates him for his lack of appreciation for Sathyaraj and the family gatherings this has the effect of making Rao Ramesh even more miserable and less willing to participate. After the first 15minutes I was totally on Rao Ramesh’s side and could completely understand how the continual en masse family gatherings could very easily make anyone want to run screaming for the hills as fast as possible. Rao Ramesh is much more tolerant however and manages to last almost until the second half before he snaps and leaves the family group.

As part of the celebrations, Kajal arrives from Australia for a few months and her father decides it would an excellent idea if she stayed with Sathyaraj and his family rather than spend the time with her own relatives. She’s gorgeous and confident, and Mahesh is smitten the moment he sets eyes on her. However, since she lives in Australia where the accepted practice if you like someone is to tell them you’re interested, Kajal is rather taken aback by someone staring relentlessly at her at every available opportunity without speaking. Living in the same house makes it ridiculously easy for Mahesh to stalk Kajal without appearing to do so but after a few uncomfortable moments Kajal seems intrigued by her silent admirer. The romance progresses as expected but despite Mahesh and Kajal seeming to get on well together, Kajal decides that she wants more from life than to be the wife of a paint manufacturer and decides to move on. She has ambition and is prepared to sacrifice what’s basically a holiday romance for her in order to ensure her dreams come true. I like this assertiveness in her character and Kajal is appropriately confident in the role, while still remaining respectful to the family and her father. It’s a good performance and I like this more mature and sensible Kajal.

Luckily for Mahesh, Samantha turns up in slightly manic friendly overdrive mode and the pair set off pair set off around India in the search for Mahesh’s roots. One of the first family members he meets is the hapless Vennela Kishore and the couple decide to drag him along with them on their road trip. It seems strangely unnecessary but at least Vennela Kishore and Samantha speak to each other which does help to make sense of the second half. Samantha is just a little too zany to be convincing but her energy does help lift the second half. The problem here is a lack of definition for her role and a fluffy backstory that does little to establish her character.

The biggest issue with Brahmotsavam is the addition of too many random scenes which are only peripherally connected to the main ‘plot’ (such as it is) and don’t serve any purpose. For example, at one point Mahesh and his parents are talking by video connection to his sister in the UK. His mum is showing off various sarees while Mahesh teases his sister and the talk finally comes round to how much they miss her and wish she was there. Big family moment – lots of tears, virtual hugs and emotion. And then that’s it – she’s never mentioned again. So much of the film starts with an apparent purpose and then fizzles out without ever going anywhere, making it difficult to work out what (if anything) is relevant.

The first half is also very song heavy with most of the songs coming one after another with little reprieve, including one where Mahesh and his backing dancers frantically try to get insects out of their clothes. That is definitely one of the high points and got the most cheers from the fans in the audience, but possibly not for the choreography. The second half settles down to a standard road trip and there are fewer songs which makes this part of the film flow more smoothly. It’s still a series of random encounters, but at least that does fit in more with the idea of a journey to find yourself while Samantha keeps everything moving along nicely.

There are a few positives to the film. The songs by Mickey J Meyer are good if oddly placed, and Gopi Sundar’s background music is generally effective and not too intrusive. The film looks beautiful and R Rathnavelu’s cinematography captures the warmth of the family home and the stunning landscapes as Mahesh and Samantha travel around India. All the main leads are fine, if somewhat incomprehensible for much of the film, and Mahesh certainly delivers in terms of emotion but the star of the show is undoubtedly Rao Ramesh with his grumpy and often bewildered demeanour. However, the lack of a comprehensible storyline and the random pointlessness of many scenes means that Brahmotsavam is probably best enjoyed on DVD where it’s possible to skip the vague dialogue, watch the songs and admire the beautiful scenery without worrying about the deficiencies in the story.