Game Over

Game Over

I’m not usually a fan of horror movies, and prefer to watch anything scary at home where I can take a break or turn the lights up. However Game Over sounded a bit different from the usual horror film, and it turned out to be a good decision to go and watch it on screen. There are plenty of the usual horror film tropes; the stalker who breathes as if he has terminal bronchitis, excessive violence towards women and a few jump scares, but there is also a lot here that is different. Game Over isn’t an easy film to watch, nor to classify, but it does have a number of themes which encourage a deeper level of thought than a run-of-the-mill slasher flick. What exactly is going on is never 100% clear, and the audience is free to make their own interpretation of what occurs on screen – and that’s the main reason why I liked this film more than I expected. For me the final message was one of empowerment and overcoming fears, but I can see that this won’t be the case for everyone. Regardless, Taapsee Pannu and Vinodhini Vaidyanathan are excellent and if you are a fan of the genre this is definitely one to add to your list of must-watch films.

The first half is mostly setting up the events for the second part of the film. The opening scenes are immediately terrifying and horrific, showing a young woman’s violent death by a stalker who invades her house. The audience sees everything via the stalker’s viewpoint, ensuring that he (presumably) is never seen, although his breathing is loud and laboured. The film then moves on to introduce Swapna (Taapsee Pannu), a video game developer who lives in a large house with her maid, Kalamma (Vinodhini Vaidyanathan). It’s clear that Swapna has a lot of problems. Her house has a guard outside, she seems hyper-vigilant and she has security cameras everywhere. She’s also terrified of the dark and has a number of odd habits, preferring to sleep on her sofa and asking her maid not to move anything from its usual spot. Via a number of flashback’s we gradually learn that Swapna was seriously assaulted on New Year’s Eve a year ago and has PTSD as a result. After a very convincing breakdown at the door to a dark storeroom prompts a return to her psychiatrist (Anish Kuruvilla), Swapna discovers that she is likely to become more anxious and depressed as the anniversary of her assault approaches. She doesn’t want to follow her specialist’s advice to seek outside support during this time and after a sequence of events challenges her fragile mental state even further, she finally tries to take her own life. But this simply leaves her confined to a wheelchair with her legs in casts as the anniversary date comes around.

During the first half, good writing and convincing behaviour from Taapsee Pannu powerfully illustrate the effect of the assault on Swapna. The combination of Swapna’s mannerisms, repetitive habits and fear of the dark show the extent of her mental disturbance and inability to return to normal life. It’s all very realistic and unfortunately accurately represents the reality that many women are living with. One particular scene that hit home for me was Swapna’s reaction when Kalamma tries to reassure her that her attacker is behind bars. Her response is one I’ve heard repeated in real life, persuasive evidence for me that writers Ashwin Saravanan and Kaavya Ramkumar have done their homework here. Also excellent is the use of remembered conversations to illustrate how not to respond to someone who has suffered a serious assault. But even here the writers leave it open to the audience to decide if these are true memories of victim blaming from her family or instead, Swapna’s own feelings of guilt and remorse surfacing, despite none of it being her fault.

The second half of the film switches gears after a sentimental scene explains memorial tattoos, and a TV news item revisits the unsolved murder seen in the opening scenes. Suddenly Swapna is under attack in her own home and the question becomes one of survival given the odds stacked against her. Here there are the typical horror themes, odd noises, heavy breathing and a faceless serial killer with a sword and apparent grudge against women.  Some of this is genuinely terrifying, particularly since most of the suspense is built up by what isn’t seen, rather than by what is. However once the premise of the second half is revealed, the film does veer more into typical slasher territory, albeit with some good jump scares, but there is an overall drop in the level of tension.

Ashwin Saravanan has crafted a different style of horror film that deals with psychological disturbances and Swapna’s own fears, ultimately becoming an allegory about fighting personal demons and coming to terms with the effects of violent crime. I love the ambiguity that swirls around almost every frame of the film, ensuring it’s difficult to decide just what is real, and what is only in Swapna’s head. Keeping the action mainly to one room in Swapna’s house accentuates the claustrophobic feeling of helplessness, just as everything Swapna does is a clear attempt to have some kind of control over at least one aspect of her life. Taapsee Pannu is good at looking grim and she’s convincing in her doggedly determined efforts to fight off a serial killer in the later half of the film. Where she really excels though is in the portrayal of a young woman with a fragile mental state, particularly realistic with regards to the circumstances that have led to her careful and carefully ordered existence. Vinodhini Vaidyanathan is the perfect contrast. She’s down to earth and pragmatic, but still empathetic and more than just Swapna’s domestic help. Vinodhini adds realism that helps ground the film and includes reactions that perfectly suit her character in each situation. The contrast between the two characters helps give the film some depth, especially since so little background is given while Kalamma’s support for Swapna is a key component in making the story more interesting.

This isn’t a film where there are songs or diversions from the main storyline, and at just over 100 minutes there is little wasted space. The diversion to explain the significance of the first murder is a bit of a stretch, but not a totally impossible one, and I didn’t mind the touch of sentimentality after such a bleak first half of the film. It was good to see Anish Kuruvilla briefly onscreen exuding the quiet confidence that we’d all like to see in a psychiatrist, and Sanchana Natarajan, Ramya Subramanian and Parvathi T are all good in their brief support roles. Although none of the ideas here are totally new in themselves, the combination all together isn’t one I’ve seen before, and the almost entirely female cast is also something of a novelty in Indian cinema. I was also impressed by the film releasing in Tamil and Telugu (I watched the Tamil version) and also in a dubbed Hindi version which hopefully will avoid the watered-down remake that seems to inevitably follow every successful SI film. Game Over is more than a horror film, and not just a psychological thriller either, but rather something in between. Scary, empowering and almost hopeful by the end, this is a film that has a lot to say despite the minimal dialogue.

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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.