Polladhavan (2007)

Polladhavan

Frustratingly the only copy I have ever been able to find of Vetrimaaran’s debut film is a relatively poor quality VCD  that doesn’t have English subtitles. It’s particularly annoying knowing how well written the dialogues were in Aadukalam (even via subtitles) and I’m sure there is much I have missed in Polladhavan as a result of not understanding the language. However the story is still clear and easy to follow, with plenty of scenes that suggest a similar attention to developing the flawed characters and their relationships as in Vetrimaaran’s subsequent film.  Although there is much that initially seems familiar about the story, as the film progresses it breaks away from the typical gangster film mould and becomes as much about family as the struggle between Prabhu (Dhanush) and the gangsters who have stolen his beloved motorbike. There is plenty of tension and suspense, and the path to the final bloody showdown is rather more convoluted than expected. It’s a good story, entertainingly told and really deserves to be more readily available to a wider audience.

Dhanush appears in his by now very familiar role as Prabhu, an unemployed layabout, content to spend his days playing carom and hanging out with his friends Kumar (Karunas) and Sathish (Santhanan) or annoying the local bike dealers by repeatedly viewing a Pulsar motorbike. He has no hope of ever being able to afford the object of his desire but continually attempts to get a cheaper price along with a long instalment plan for payment and seems convinced that he will one day be the proud owner of the latest model. Nothing wrong with having a dream!

Prabhu is at odds with his father (Murali) who wants him to get a job, but is supported by his mother (Bhanupriya) who slips him money behind her husband’s back. There are the usual family arguments about money and Prabhu’s failure to contribute to the household, but things change after Prabhu confronts his father following a drunken night out. Prabhu accuses his father of not supporting his attempts to find work compared to his friends whose fathers who have paid bribes or bought them a start in their chosen career. Although this seems a very strange argument to me, it strikes a nerve with Prabhu’s father and he cashes in the money set aside for his daughter’s wedding and gives it to Prabhu instead.

Naturally Prabhu immediately goes and buys the bike.

What is interesting is the way this argument and Prabhu’s subsequent purchase of the motorbike change the family dynamic.  While Prabhu’s mother accuses him of wasting the money, Prabhu’s father supports his son’s right to do whatever he chose, even if he doesn’t agree with that choice. The family arguments feel realistic and plausible and Prabhu’s conviction that his bike will help him get a job seems typical of any young man in similar circumstances. Body language is key and Vetrimaaran uses different angles and distance shots to convey the changing relationships. It helps give the film an authentic sense of a typical family which makes the subsequent scenes of violence a complete and striking contrast.

Amazingly Prabhu’s purchase has the desired result and he manages to get a job, further aiding his reconciliation with his father. The development of their relationship is shown in small moments such as when his father chases away the neighbourhood children playing on the bike, or by his father’s smile when he sees job adverts circled in the newspaper.  It’s effective and develops relationships while avoiding a big family make up scene that would only have interrupted the flow.

As well as dreaming about owning a motorbike, Prabhu has spent the last 2 years infatuated with a girl he sees at the local bus stop. The bike and his job give Prabhu the confidence to finally approach Hema (Divya Spandana) and after a shaky start the two begin a relationship. However, after a good beginning with plenty of humour and promising signs of a personality for Hema, once the action ramps up the romance is relegated to the background with Prabhu’s first love (his motorbike) taking precedence in the story.

As things are going well for Prabhu, in a semi-parallel storyline local gangster Selvam (Kishore) has problems with his younger brother Ravi (Daniel Balaji). Selvam deals in drugs and is involved in various other illegal activities as he runs his area with help from his best friend Out (Pawan). Ravi wants a bigger role in his brother’s endeavours despite his quick temper and apparent general unsuitability for any responsibility. Prabhu crosses paths with Ravi a few times in chance encounters, but most notably on a night when the gang is involved in a murder and Prabhu’s bike is stolen. The two events may, or may not be connected but Prabhu really doesn’t care – he just wants his bike back!

Some of the best scenes occur when Prabhu’s search takes him to different crime operations with a fascinating look at how bikes can be hidden and smuggled around the country. These brushes with the shady side of Chennai bring Prabhu into closer contact with Selvam and his brother Ravi, and the situation escalates as Prabhu discovers exactly what has happened to his bike.

Dhanush gets everything just right here in his portrayal of a young man gradually developing maturity and responsibility but easily distracted by events around him. His spiral into violence is clearly shown as a reaction to circumstance with the infatuation with his bike a convincing reason for the decisions he makes. I had friends who were just as obsessed with their bikes (and I have to confess to a certain amount of obsession with my own!) so it totally makes sense to me that Prabhu would go to such extremes to get his bike back. Ravi is a more typical Tamil film gangster, but his brother Selvam is an interesting character who seems to be a ‘gangster with a conscience’. The interplay between Ravi, Selvam and Out is well done, and once Prabhu is added in to the mix, the story evolves quickly with plenty of suspense thrown in for good measure.

The final scenes revert to more typical gangster film fare with the inevitable final showdown, but Vetrimaaran keeps it interesting by giving his bad guys realistic personalities and reasons to act in the way they do. The fights are short, bloody and more convincing than usual which also avoids sensationalising the gangster element of the story. Although there are a few fights where Prabhu defeats 3 or 4 henchmen, at least it is only 4 rather than 20, and Ravi isn’t a big burly guy either so his fight sequences with Prabhu seem slightly more credible. Apart from the rather Salman Khanesque way Prabhu loses his shirt in the final fight, which is a little OTT but is also a lot of fun too!

While the fight scenes work well, the songs are less successful. Although the music by G.V. Prakash Kumar is catchy enough, the picturisation and choreography are generally mediocre and mostly the songs don’t fit well into the narrative. However the rest of the film looks good, at least from what I could see from my poor quality copy, and the strong cast all deliver good performances. Vetrimaaran’s strengths lie in developing characters with depth and attention to detail in building relationships, and both are used to maximum effect here.  The story may not always flow as well as it could but when it comes to the characterisations and the overall plot, everything works perfectly. The screenplay rarely lags and there are enough twists and surprises to keep the film engaging right to the very last frame. While Polladhavan may not be perfect it is a great first film for Vetrimaaran and well worth watching for a gangster film with a difference. 4 stars.

Advertisements

I (2015)

poster

Shankar is a director who has proved in the past to have amazing vision and a seemingly unending wealth of imaginative ideas. Many of his previous films have been visually stunning with incredible effects and novel concepts, but he seems to have missed the mark somewhat with his latest movie I. He has the benefit of an excellent cast and a potentially interesting story, but somehow the sum of the whole is not as good as each individual part. The film has a few too many cringe-worthy moments to make me want to see it again although Vikram is superb, and Amy Jackson is also impressive despite a rather limited role. However their characters aren’t particularly likeable and the story meanders annoyingly along several inconsequential paths before finally reaching the predictable and cloyingly trite end. I’m not even going to complain about the dodgy medicine since there was so much else that bothered me more about the improbable and often distasteful screenplay, but the ‘science’ is just as far-fetched as the rest of the story. Really the only reason I can give to watch I is Vikram and his impressive ability to transform himself into just about anyone, and that’s not quite enough to justify the 3 hours plus of I.

The story revolves around Lingesan (Vikram), a body builder from the back streets whose ambition in life is to win the Mr India competition. Be warned, there is a lot of flexing and posing in the first half hour of the film, while Lingesan tries to win the Mr Tamil Nadu crown from a large number of other over-muscled and over-oiled men in very skimpy bathers. It’s quite impressive that Vikram managed to achieve this look, but it’s not attractive and I was much happier once he put his clothes back on and backed off on the oil. Unfortunately he doesn’t really stop the flexing and posing even when fully clothed.

There is also a ridiculous fight scene backstage at the Mr Tamil Nadu championships with Lingesan managing to fight off multiple opponents including his arch-rival Ravi (M. Kamaraj). Ravi is a much better contender for the title of Mr Tamil Nadu so it’s a little surprising that he takes Lingesan as an opponent so seriously, but at least there is a relatively valid reason for the ongoing enmity between the two men, even if it does seem unlikely.

Lingesan is also obsessed with model Diya (Amy Jackson) to the point where he purchases absolutely anything she has endorsed, and I do mean absolutely everything. It’s quite creepy initially but does move out of stalker territory once Diya and Lingesan meet and Lingesan starts behaving like a 13 year old besotted schoolboy instead. It’s not a lot better but at least it’s funnier. Santhanan provides the rest of the comedy as Lingesan’s brother Babu, and for the most part he’s reasonably amusing, although a comedy track really wasn’t needed given just how ridiculous the plot becomes in the second half of the film.

From body builder to model is apparently as simple as getting a haircut and shaving off a moustache and with that Lingesan transforms into successful model Lee on the basis of one ad campaign and a romance with his muse Diya. However to get to this point Lingesan has pissed off quite a few people including the obnoxiously sleazy model John (Upen Patel) who is furious at being foiled in his attempts to get Diya into bed. Diya’s transgender make-up artist Osma (Ojas Rajani) also falls in love with Lingesan and is hurt and vengeful after his rather forceful rejection of her advances. John’s behavior is fairly gross but nothing unexpected for a masala movie, but the ‘romance’ between Osma and Lee is badly developed and feels more homophobic and derogatory than necessary. I can’t decide if Shankar was trying to be clever here and make a point about how the world views people who are transgender given that the film is based in the advertising world and uses image and ideals of beauty to develop the plot, or if this really was just a bad piece of writing, but it’s hard to watch whatever the reasoning.

Interspersed with the frothy romance are flashes to the present day where a hunched and grossly deformed Lingesan has kidnapped Diya on her wedding day, and the story gradually shifts to a tale of vengeance and medical improbability. Here at least the idea of image and beauty does get a little more developed although the masala element is still very much to the fore. Lingesan seeks revenge on the people who have caused his illness and as scientific reality goes out the window the story gets ever more ridiculous until the Beauty and Beast song seems quite normal and believable by comparison. It’s also a pleasant relief from all the disfigurement and maiming, although like other songs in the film it’s not well integrated into the narrative.

There are a number of more mundane inconsistencies such as the sudden turnaround in Diya’s treatment of hunchback Lingesan and Lingesan’s continued strength and agility given his deformed body. Not that any of the rest of it makes any more sense, but there is too much that is implausible and the story becomes too far-fetched to take seriously. However there are also far too many scenes where the people variously handicapped as a result of Lingesan’s revenge are ridiculed and mocked for their appearance and disability. It’s part of the plot sure – these are people who now look as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside, but I found this really quite shocking and abhorrent, particularly as it’s meant to be part of the comedy and is anything but funny.

This is definitely Vikram’s show and he does do an amazing job in portraying the two different faces of Lingesan.  Amy Jackson is much better than I expected, and the rest of the cast are all good given that they are all overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Vikram. The special effects by Weta Workshop are also very well done, and it’s such a shame that the story doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the visuals of the film. Of course it’s a story set in a world where image is all and appearance trumps substance at every stage so perhaps that’s not too surprising after all.

Lingaa

Lingaa

Finally it’s here! Friday was not only the Superstar’s birthday but marked the release of his latest film with director K.S. Ravikumar. There has been plenty of hype and expectation for this film, so did the team who gave us the hits Padayappa and Muthu deliver another blockbuster? Well….. mostly. This is a Rajinikanth film so we all know what to expect, and it goes without saying that the outfits will be stupendous, the songs lavish and attention firmly focused on the star in every scene.There is nothing much new about the story, but that’s not really the point, since it’s the entire spectacle and the heroism that’s important and there is plenty of that to be getting on with. Lingaa delivers most of the Rajni ‘formula’ characteristics we’ve come to expect, and with good performances from Anushka Shetty and Sonakshi Sinha there is plenty to enjoy in full masala style.

Lingaa

The film starts with the exploits of Lingaa (Rajinikanth), a thief and con-artist who, along with his merry band of Santhanam and Karunakaran, attempts a major heist at a jewelry exhibition. His outfits are classy and his concept equally sophisticated but Lingaa is foiled in his attempt to sell the jewels on by journalist Lakshmi (Anushka Shetty). Lakshmi is in search of the grandson of Raja Lingeswaran, the only one who can re-open a temple in her village and who just happens to be our jewel thief Lingaa.  Using tricks and flattery, Laksmi manages to get Lingaa to go to the village but not before she indulges in a full blown fantasy song with Rajnikanth as the pirate king come to recue her and her backing dancers, who perpetrate crimes on the high seas against the ruffle shirt amongst other fashion crimes.

Once in the village, Lingaa is taken aback by the respect shown to his grandfather, but since he himself feels no obligation to the man who lost all the family money, he is content to use the situation purely for gain. However in the course of events, Lingaa learns the full story of Raja Lingeswaran and exactly how he lost his money but won the respect of the people for his life-saving dam. We see all this in flashback mode with Rajinikanth also playing the role of his grandfather, in a beautifully drawn flashback to the 1930’s with period furniture and apparently CGI elephants. No mention though if all the horses, mules and buffalos were CGI too. Back in the thirties Rajni’s love interest this time is village girl Bharathi (Sonakshi Sinha) who has just as epic an imagination as Lakshmi, although she favours a more regal theme in her fantasy.

The thirties track starts with a superb fight scene on a train that features Dev Gill as a freedom fighter and touches on the Independence movement, the corruption and cruelty of the British Collectors, and the blind neglect of the Governors, the inequities of the caste system and the struggles of rural India as the farmers battle drought and flood. It’s a bit of a mish mash of ideas, but through it all Rajnikanth walks tall in some wonderfully spiffy costumes and what must surely be the best collection of sunglasses onscreen ever.

The film looks amazing with obviously no effort spared on the sets and outstanding costuming for Rajinikanth.  There aren’t all that many fight scenes, but they are all well choreographed and fit into the main narrative. The train fight scene is undoubtably the best with Rajni stylishly eliminating a train full of bandits with effortless ease, including a one on one with Rahul Dev on top of the train. The action scenes set in and around the building of the dam are also well filmed and the effects well integrated to give the impression of a truly massive construction.  The songs by A.R. Rahman are a little less successful, but since the dance numbers are mainly dream sequences, the total switch from the story is a little less disruptive. The songs which move the story forward such as the stirring Indiane Vaa more successful and the background music, also by A.R Rahman, is suitably evocative for each era. I do like the songs and actually like them more after seeing the visual to match, even with those ridiculous costumes in Mona Gasoline!

Sonakshi Sinha and Anushka Shetty don’t have a huge amount to do other than as the romance interest for the two Lingeswaran’s, but K.S. Ravikumar does give both of them a few important scenes in their relevant story lines. Santhanam and Karunakaran are also kept mainly in the background and when Brahmi makes a brief appearance early in the film it’s over almost before you realise it’s Brahmi. Still this means the focus is firmly on Rajinikanth and he makes the best use of every moment on screen with one liners, epic speeches and that twinkling smile.

Perhaps the only problem I have with Lingaa is the relative ineffectiveness of the villains, although I did appreciate the very normality of their respected self-interest. In the present day Jagapathi Babu does the honours while in the flash-back the actor playing the British collector is suitably sneery but a little too much of a caricature for me to completely believe in the character. The finale also seems a little rushed, especially since the computer graphics don’t work quite so well here as in the rest of the film. However it’s still Rajni doing several impossible things at once while saving the day and the girl (yet again) so for me it’s fine to accept the glaring unfeasibility of it all and just enjoy the spectacle.

I really enjoyed Lingaa, and loved watching Rajinikanth in the two separate incarnations of Lingeswaran. The comedy and action in the first half is interspersed with the insanely OTT songs while the second half is more sedate in keeping with the thirties backdrop. I am a big Rajinikanth fan which undoubtably colours my opinion, but this was fun and entertaining. Definitely well worth watching for the Superstar and those wonderful sunglasses!

Just as an aside, Lingaa was showing at The Astor here in Melbourne and when I left the cinema I was confronted by a sea of Jake and Elwood Blues lookalikes who were there for the 7pm showing of The Blues Brothers. From one iconic sunglass wearing movie superstar to an iconic  movie – it made my day!