Vada Chennai (2018)

Vada Chennai

Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai is an excellent gangster film and a promising start to his planned trilogy. As with his earlier work, Vetrimaaran’s characters here are complex and their relationships with each other are tangled and multilayered, while the action is more straightforward although often brutally violent. The film lays a solid base for the character of Anbu (Dhanush) but also provides a detailed introduction to a multitude of other characters, all of whom contribute to Anbu’s development and his gradual fall into rowdyism. However, this isn’t a film solely about Anbu, but rather a story about an area of Northern Madras and the people who live in ‘the hood’, which ensures the film delivers more of an impact and gives a larger canvas to develop the main players. With an exceptional cast, detailed characters including strong female roles, and the exemplary performance of Dhanush, Vada Chennai is a compelling story that has all the elements to be a classic of the genre.

The first half of the film switches back and forth in time as various key characters are introduced and their background story revealed in a series of ‘chapters’. Anbu wants to be a carrom player, and Vetrimaaran plays on this throughout the film, using the analogy to show that every small action starts a reaction, the impact of which start yet more reactions, and so on in an ever-widening ripple effect. From that perspective it’s hard to say where the story of the film starts. Is it at the beginning of the film where there is a gruesome murder, or where Anbu saves one of Senthil’s men from being knifed during their registration at Chennai prison? Or is it when Anbu meets Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh) during a thieving spree when a riot breaks out after Rajiv Gandhi’s death? The constant throughout is Anbu’s reluctance to enter into the violence he sees all around, and his desire to succeed as a carrom player, although his ambition seems doomed almost from the start.

Initially the film revolves around the rivalry between two gangsters, Senthil (Kishore) and Guna (Samuthirakani). Both are out to kill each other and they each control separate wings in Chennai prison. However, they don’t start out as enemies and the beginning of the film shows Senthil and Guna along with Velu (Pawan) and Pazhani (Sai Dheena) collaborating in a murder. In a particularly grisly moment, they throw their blood-stained weapons, still festooned with goblets of flesh, onto the table in a restaurant before discussing the recent death of MGR and the likelihood of Jayalalitha replacing him as Chief Minister. After the murder, Guna and Velu go to jail, expecting to be swiftly bailed out by Senthil, but when this isn’t the case, their rivalry is quickly escalated to an all-out war between the two factions.  Vetrimaaran brings politics into the story early, showing that the gangsters are canny enough to use the politicians for their own ends, but also as a foreshadowing that politics; local, gangster and state are behind much of the skulduggery later in the film.

Anbu enters this atmosphere in the prison and after a number of incidents finally manages to fall under the protection of Senthil, with whom he shares a common bond in their love of carrom. Anbu is almost an ‘accidental gangster’ having grown up in a shady area of North Chennai and associated with various gang members for all his life. But it’s after he meets Padma and the two begin their relationship that his problems really start. When local rowdies start to give Padma a hard time, Anbu is moved to protest their actions. One thing leads to another, and Anbu is suddenly running for his life along with Padma’s brother (Saran Shakthi). From here Anbu continually tries to get back to life as a carrom player, but it turns out that the gangsters have another role for him to play.

The rich detail in every part of the film ensures that every character is realistic and the various events occur organically within the plot. Every aspect of prison life seems to be captured by the camera, including the method used by the inmates to smuggle drugs in and out of the jail, while life in the slum area of North Chennai is just as intimately shown. Each character is built up from numerous different interactions along with the flashbacks that add depth and a rationale for their behaviour. Ameer is brilliant as Rajan, a smuggler and gangster who was also a protector of the people and who stood up to the local politicians when they wanted to clear the entire area for their own money-making projects. Rajan is the man who first encouraged Anbu to take up carrom and his influence is felt across the story, although he doesn’t appear until late in the film.

Also excellent are Samuthirakani and Kishore as Guna and Senthil, while Daniel Balaji is another standout in his role as Thambi. In contrast to Vetrimaaran’s previous films, he has two strong female characters here who also have important roles to play in the story. Aishwarya Rajesh’s Padma bursts onto the screen as a foul-mouthed thief, but her interactions with Dhanush are brilliantly done, with the romance between the two always feeling realistic and plausible. The scene where Anbu goes to ask her father for her hand in marriage is a rare spot of comedy in a generally dark film, but it still fits well into the narrative, as does Padma’s insistence that Anbu shaves before his wedding. Unfortunately the gangsters intervene and it seems as if Padma will also take a second place with her husband.

Andrea Jeremiah is also superb and has an almost Shakespearean role as first Rajan’s and then Guna’s wife, Chandra. She has a godmother who interprets various omens and predicts the future, most notably proclaiming Anbu as ‘the one’, while Chandra herself is a complex character whose dialogues always seem to have a number of meanings. Andrea Jeremiah initially seemed out of place, but as the film develops and her character evolves she ends up fitting perfectly into the role and her initial aloofness makes perfect sense. Dhanush is perfect as Anbu and completely fulfils the role of a gentle man, driven to violence by events outside his control. He easily slips into the role of a teenager but his real strength lies in the more complex older Anbu who has to deal with his time in prison where everyone seems out to get him. The gradual development of Anbu’s character over the course of the film is brilliantly done and Dhanush captures each facet of his personality and slowly allows the persona to develop. It’s another masterful performance and it’s only at the very end where the change from gangster to ‘voice of the people’ seems rather too abrupt, perhaps because the rest of the characterisation has been so slow and detailed in development.

This rushed feeling at the end is really the only downside to the film. In interviews Vetrimaaran has said that he initially had over 5 hours of film which he has condensed to 164 minutes, which may account for the hurried feeling and the final fast metamorphosis of Anbu. However, despite this, the detail included in the film is comprehensive and the layering of events and characters is a major plus that works to build the entire world of North Chennai inhabited by the characters. There are also some stand-out action scenes in the midst of all the character development. A fight that breaks out at a carrom competition in the jail is beautifully filmed as the protagonists battle it out while simultaneously holding up the shelter over their heads. The initial murder, which is shown in detail later on, is also excellent with a brilliant build-up of tension in the moments leading up to the actual attack. Velraj perfectly captures all the action and despite the dark tones, his cinematography paints a surprisingly colourful picture of life in the area, while some scenes, such as a pursuit though lines of hanging washing are excellent in their picturisation.

Although there are a number of songs in the film, these are used only in short bursts to highlight a particular scene, but Santhosh Narayanan’s background score is perfect and thoroughly enhances the film without being intrusive. Some of the melodies are beautiful and it seems a shame that they aren’t heard in full in the film, but there really is no opportunity for any love songs or dance numbers and with so much else in the film, they really aren’t missed.

After working together on Polladhavan and Aadukalam, Vetrimaaran and Dhanush have again produced another excellent collaboration in Vada Chennai. As the first part of a trilogy there is inevitably a lot of time spent on setting up the story, but here that is so detailed with numerous interwoven threads, that the film is almost complete in itself. The strong cast and compelling storyline ensure that even at almost three hours the film doesn’t feel overlong and the final scenes deliver plenty of anticipation for the next instalment. Hopefully there won’t be too long to wait!

 

 

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Kaala (2018)

Kaala

As with his previous film Madras, Pa. Ranjith is out to deliver a message and the fact that he has Superstar Rajinikanth on board is almost irrelevant. The film is all about the politics of land clearance in the slums of Mumbai and the population of Dharavi who rise in revolt against unscrupulous developers. Where Pa Ranjith does make use of Rajinikanth’s star power is to emphasise Kaala’s role as ‘King of Dharavi’ (presumably only the Tamil-speaking part) and he adds just enough slow-motion walking and villain tossing to keep fans happy. But for the most part this is a story about people power and that makes it rather more interesting than the usual Superstar-centric flick. Best of all Rajinikanth plays an age-appropriate character who has a touching romance with his (relatively) age-appropriate wife, Selvi (Eswari Rao) while reminding us just how good Rajinikanth is as an actor.

Karikaalan (Rajinikanth) aka Kaala is the ageing leader of the slums who is pushed to defend his area from developers out to make Mumbai ‘Pure’ and beautiful. Once a gangster, he’s now a family man, and his introduction shows him playing cricket with his grandchildren and enjoying life at home. There are many domestic touches; Kaala’s relationship with his wife, the pet dog that follows him everywhere, and the rather more problematic relationship be has with his youngest son, but when it counts, Kaala still has the power to stop the bulldozers in their tracks when they show up to develop the dhobi ghat. He’s ably assisted by his eldest son Selvam (Dileepan) who dives straight into action and never lets dialogue get in the way of a good scrap, and his many loyal followers who believe that Kaala is still the ultimate authority in the area. On the other hand, his son Lenin (Manikandan) is an activist who prefers demonstration and petitions to direct action along with his girlfriend Charumathi (Anjali Patil). Manikandan is excellent and his portrayal of the frustrations with trying to fight a legal but slow and difficult battle against the background of his father and brother’s illegal but successful campaigns is brilliantly done. Anjali Patil stands out too as a force to be reckoned with, and her scrappy Charumathi is passionate and vibrant in her defence of the local community.

Opposing Kaala at every turn is corrupt politician Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar) who is behind the developers plans to clear the land. He’s also a man with incredibly squeaky sandals. I’m not sure if India has the same superstition, but in Ireland squeaky shoes are a sign that they haven’t been paid for, with the implication that the wearer is someone who cannot be trusted. It fits Hari perfectly so I really hope this was intentional and not just a wardrobe glitch!

Dharavi sits on prime real estate and the developers want to rehouse only a small portion of the current residents, while saving the bulk of their redevelopment for the rich who will pay above the odds to live in such a convenient location. Hari and Kaala have a history, which makes their clashes personal, and Pa Ranjith ties their rivalry into the story of Rama and Raavana, but with a twist. Hari may always wear white and live in a house painted white with all white furnishings, but his Rama is a villain with no respect for the common man. Kaala wears black, lives in a house shrouded in shadows with a black settee, but this Raavana is the hero, fighting selflessly for the poor and oppressed who cannot stand up for themselves.

Rajinikanth steps easily into the role of the people’s defender, but what makes his Kaala so impressive is the relatability of the character. Despite his god-like status in the area he is a family man at heart and is simply trying to do his best for everyone. He is still in love with his wife and the scenes with Eswari Rao are brilliantly written to show the depth of their relationship while still allowing the couple to bicker continuously – typical of any long-term couple. The arrival of Kaala’s previous lover Zareena (Huma Qureshi) as a housing development specialist adds spice to the mix and the conflict of emotions from all involved is well worked into the narrative. However, Huma Qureshi’s character isn’t as well developed as that of Selvi and towards the end she’s side-lined just when I was expecting her to take a more prominent role. Zareena is a single mother and there is also an unfinished thread about her daughter which starts and then peters out into nothing, as if Pa Ranjith was so involved with everything else that he forgot to come back and tie off this part of the story.

Kaala also has support from his drunkard brother-in-law Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani) who has some excellent lines in the second half when Hari successfully enlists police chief Pankaj Patil (Pankaj Tripathi) to burn down part of the slums. Ramesh Thilak also pops up as a reporter who has a more important role to play than first appears, while Sayaji Shinde, Ravi Kale and Sampath Raj are all good in minor roles. One of the best scenes though belongs to Lenin when he visits Charumathi in her building. He’s been campaigning for this type of development to replace the chawls but is dismayed by the endless stairs to climb when the lift is out of order and the over-crowding and lack of personal space in each small flat. It’s an excellent way to show the issues associated with rehousing schemes and the problems caused by squeezing people together into such tiny spaces, although it takes more drastic events before Lenin returns to his father’s side of the argument.

There are some excellent fight scenes although these don’t all feature Rajinikanth. However, the best (and my favourite) involves Kaala with an umbrella in a flyover in the rain. The final showdown in Dharavi is also well shot with excellent use of colour and plenty of symbolism for those who like to spot such stuff. I enjoyed the songs too, although there are a group of rap artists who keep popping up and look rather out of place. Rajinikanth keeps his moves basic and simple in keeping with his character, but he does look well and the choreography generally fits into the ambiance of the movie.

Nana Patekar makes a fantastic villain and is a suitable mix of wily politician and nasty thug throughout. His first scene with Zareena is very well written to portray the misogynistic behaviour so typical of politicians, but this time Pa Ranjith makes a point of letting the audience see exactly how petty and small-minded Hari appears as a result. Unfortunately, Nana’s dubbing isn’t always well done and the timing is out in a few scenes which is distracting. Along the same lines, the subtitles seem to be rather strict translations, which doesn’t always make sense in English and a few scenes suffer as a result.

Kaala is the film I wanted to see from the pairing of Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth, and I enjoyed this much more than Kabali. There are strong female characters, a good support cast with well realised roles and an excellent performance from the superstar. There are a few glitches but for the most part the story is engaging with a simple message that translates well onto the big screen. Ranjith may prefer to use a wide brush for his political statements, but it’s the small details that work best here along with good use of the support characters. Highly recommended.

Velaiilla Pattadhari (VIP) 2

VIP Poster

Sequels are always tricky. Returning to a popular character or scenario is fraught with unfavourable comparisons, and finding a new story that works while retaining the aspects that made the original film so popular is another minefield to cross. There are a few sequels that turn out better than the original film but they are the exception, and sadly VIP 2 isn’t one of them. However, while it may not be the best sequel ever made, it’s certainly not the worst and as an all-round entertainer, it fares reasonably well. Most of the success is due to Dhanush who carries the film over some occasionally rough ground, but Kajol makes a better than average adversary while the presence of many of the original cast (including Harry Potter) ensure good continuity with the first film.

After dealing with Arun in VIP, the sequel opens with Raghuvaran (Dhanush) still working for Ramkumar (M.J. Shriram) at Anitha Constructions and winning the Engineer of the Year award. This brings him to the attention of Vasundhara Parameshwar (Kajol) who runs the biggest engineering firm in South India. Raghuvaran’s dismissal of her offer of employment rankles, but not as much as his admonishment to be less arrogant when Anitha Constructions wins a big contract over Vasundhara. A self-made woman who has clawed her way up from the bottom, Vasundhara makes it her mission in life to squash Raghuvaran like the bug she perceives him to be, but of course it’s not going to be as simple as she believes.

All the elements are there from the previous film, Raghuvaran’s beloved cycle, his dedication to the memory of his mother, and his unfortunate tendency to drink too much when faced with a problem. What doesn’t work quite so well is the change in Shalini (Amala Paul) from a sensible romantic interest to a shrewish and nagging wife. Supposedly this is due to giving up her job and taking over all the household chores, which to be perfectly honest is enough to drive anyone to grumpiness, but the constant bickering wears thin very fast. Worst still, Shalini’s nagging is supposed to be funny, but it’s just as irritating to the audience as to Raghuvaran’s family.

Kajol is a huge improvement over Arun and his father as the villain of the piece. Her entrance is more typical of a hero as the first glimpse is of her stylish and very pointed stiletto hitting the ground as she arrives at the Engineering awards ceremony. In fact, the crowd reaction was just as loud and enthusiastic for Vasundhara’s entrance as it was for Raghuvaran’s first appearance on screen. Kajol totally owns the role and her arrogance and confidence are a perfect balance to Raghuvaran and Ramkumar’s humility and attention to detail. And yet she’s not evil or out to destroy the poor of society, simply determined to push though her own ideas and methods regardless of anyone standing in her way. However, after a great start, her repeated attempts to get the better of Raghuvaran start to seem petty and churlish rather than decisive and it seems unlikely that someone who had the strength and ability to run a successful company would be quite as petulant and narrow-minded. Still, Kajol is stunning as she sweeps around in her tailored suits and stylish sunglasses, while her menacing dialogues are surprisingly effective.

Raghuvan’s father (Samuthirakani) is a more supportive figure this time round, but his brother Karthik (Hrishkesh) barely gets to say a word and most of the VIP boys suffer the same fate. Without any substantial input, they become a faceless mass without any of the charm or appeal that allowed a connection to develop to these characters in the original film. The film is significantly more focused on Dhanush, who has the acting chops to carry it off, but at the expense of a more coherent storyline. The plot wanders as story and screenplay writers Dhanush and Soundarya Rajinikanth try to include as many of the characters as possible from VIP 1, but run out of things for them all to do. Saravana Subbiah pops up as an unscrupulous developer while Vivek reprises his role as Raghuvaran’s side-kick Azhagusundaram. While both are fine in their roles, the characters seem to be added in, one for comedy and one to have a reason for the fight scenes, rather than have a true background and reason to be in the script. The final confrontation between Raghuvaran and Vasundhara is also a little disappointing although otherwise the chemistry between Dhanush and Kajol is excellent and the atmosphere between the two crackles at each meeting.

Sean Roldan’s music is perfectly fine but the songs don’t have the same anthemic qualities as Anirudh’s previous tunes, a fact underscored every time the original theme for Raghuvaran plays in the background. However, the choreography is slicker than in the first film and the fight scenes are also of a high quality.

If this was a stand-alone film, I would have rated it as a good action movie with an interesting concept and two excellent characters in Raghuvaran and Vasundhara. The addition of a strong and powerful female character works well here, and Dhanush emphasizes gender equality a number of times throughout the film, although it doesn’t quite gel with his wife having stopped work to look after the family home. The problem is that this is a sequel, and while the original elements are cleverly arranged to form the foundation of the film, too much feels to be added simply because it was part of the first film, while VIP2 doesn’t have a strong enough identity to pull away and succeed without that original scaffolding being firmly in place. It is however much better than I expected and both Dhanush and Kajol turn in strong performances under Soundarya’s direction to make VIP2 more than just a film for fans, but one that’s unlikely to reach quite the same cult status as the original movie.