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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Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum

Kadhalum Kadandhu Pofum

After the success of his début venture, Nalan Kumarasamy unexpectedly follows Soodhu Kavvum with an official remake of a Korean film; Kim Kwang-sik’s My Dear Desperado. I haven’t seen the original but the story of an unlikely friendship between a gangster and a young IT graduate translates well to Chennai, while Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian are both excellent in the lead roles. Despite the title (which translates to “Love too shall pass”), there is little romance in the film, but instead Nalan’s screenplay includes plenty of comedy, a good dash of drama and only a smidgen of violence. Nalan keeps to his trademark witty dialogue and quirky characterisation too with plenty of funny one-liners, making Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum engaging and definitely well worth a watch.

The focus of the story is Yazhini (Madonna Sebastian), newly graduated from a small regional college and desperate to escape her confining life with her parents in Viluppuram. Somehow she manages to secure a job in Chennai and escapes to a shared flat and the realisation of her dream, but unfortunately her happiness is short-lived. The company folds, her job goes and Yazhini is left looking for somewhere less expensive to live as she struggles to find a new job.

Yazhini’s move downwards into cheaper digs brings her into contact with the seamier side of life in Chennai, and she quickly discovers that her neighbour is a rowdy who works as an enforcer for the local area councillor. Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi) is newly released from jail and wants nothing more than to run his own bar, but his boss decides that his talents lie more in dealing with petty disputes and training up a new recruit. While Yazhini thinks that Chennai offers a world of opportunity, Kathir knows that even a small dream can be impossible to achieve and this difference in outlook is what makes their eventual friendship even more unlikely.

Initially Yazhini is frightened of Kathir and the world he represents, but gradually she warms to her neighbour and discovers that he’s not as violent as first appears. Madonna Sebastian’s Yazhini is confident but not reckless and her determination to succeed makes her a likeable character. She suffers numerous setbacks but rarely loses her optimism and for the most part her dilemma feels genuine and plausible. I really liked Madonna here after her excellent performance in Premam and I hope she gets more of these kind of roles where there is something more to her character than simply eye candy. Yazhini is a strong character who knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid of trying almost anything to achieve her dream. Kudos to Nalan for not making Yazhini follow the usual heroine path in a Tamil film, and avoiding a conventional romance and an unhappy end even though she’s an independent, modern career woman.

Kathir on the other hand is laconic and laid back, possibly because he isn’t a very good gangster! It’s rare that the main male lead loses his fights so emphatically, but despite instigating much of the dishoom, Kathir is the one who ends up bruised and bloody by the end. Even Yazhini comments on his frequent injuries and when added in to Kathir’s impulsive and erratic nature it becomes obvious why his boss doesn’t trust him with the management of a bar. Vijay Sethupathi excels at these kinds of roles where he can mix up comedy with fight scenes and a fair amount of melodrama to make a surprisingly convincing character. He has an excellent rapport with his co-star and his bumbling thug with a tender heart has plenty of quirks that make him seem more authentic. My favourite is his ability to rustle up a mean curry despite his deficiencies as a fighter. Jail may not have taught Kathir how to fight but it did teach him how to cook!

The support cast mainly have small roles, but all are good and effective with Samuthirakani the most notable as a corrupt police officer. For the most part the film concentrates on Yazhini and Kathir, their individual failures, small successes and the support each gains from the other as time goes by. To succeed, both Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian need to be balanced in their performances and they manage it beautifully – making sure that the film doesn’t lose momentum even when the story switches between the two characters. Together they are even better and their relationship is the reason the film does work so well.

While Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum may not pack the same punch as Soodhu Kavvum it’s still an enjoyable film with plenty of comedy and a well written storyline. Although there are no major twists it’s still never predictable or dull and I found quite a few surprises along the way. A film about friendship rather than romance between a man and a woman is relatively rare in Tamil cinema and this is an excellent example of just how good a story can be without adding in unnecessary love scenes. Add the always very watchable Vijay Sethupathi and Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum is definitely well worth a watch.

Madras (2014)

Madras

Pa Ranjith’s second film is a gritty and realistic drama that starts well but gets a little lost in the second half when the focus of the story moves more towards a fairly awful romance. However, thankfully the character interactions and underlying political story have enough momentum to bring the story back into focus well before the end. Although Karthi is good in his role as a short-tempered, football loving bloke from a housing project, it’s Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan as his best friend who impresses the most from the generally excellent cast. The notable exception is Catherine Tresa who seems painfully miscast as Karthi’s love interest, and she appears awkward and uncomfortable for most of the film. Madras does drag a little in the second half as a result, but overall the portrayal of life in a housing project in Northern Chennai is convincing, while the political shenanigans add enough complexity and interest to make the film well worth a watch.

MadrasMadras

The story follows the rivalry and competition between two local political parties in Royapuram, a district in northern Chennai. While the politicians have managed to split most of the area amicably between the two factions, there is one wall in the middle of the district which remains in bitter contention. After some initial wrangling, for most of the film the wall features a painting of the deceased leader of one party (Jayabalan), but while his son Kannan (Nandakumar) and followers are determined to keep this image on the wall, Maari (Vinod) and his party want to claim the wall for their own propaganda. Caught in the middle are the people who actually live in the shadow of the wall and for whom the two political leaders talk the talk but don’t actually deliver very much in the way of benefits. This is simply highlighted in the way the women meet every morning to get water from a pump, and in the various fractious meetings between the rival young men of the area and party leader Maari.

The gang in Madras

Anbu (Kalaiarasan Harikrishnan) is the up and coming political activist in Maari’s party, and one of the driving forces behind the campaign to retake the wall. His relationship with his wife Mary (Ritwika) is one of the best I’ve seen onscreen in Tamil cinema and their stolen moments of intimacy have just the right amount of tenderness and humour. Both Kalaiarasan and Ritwika are brilliant in their roles here and I just wish the film had focused more on them and their relationship. Excellent performances from both made it very easy to completely believe in their characters, along with some very good writing and character development. The couple lives in a small apartment with their young son, and despite Anbu’s political drive and aggression, he is still a man who obviously loves his family and wants to do his best for both them and his local area. His best friend is Kaali (Karthi), an IT worker with a very short fuse to his temper, which spills over into violence with little provocation. While Anbu tries to negotiate his way to solutions, Kaali frequently disrupts his careful dialogues, and seems to think of little beyond the moment.

Madras

Kaali is however a staunch and stalwart friend, so it seems natural that Anbu doesn’t give up on their friendship but rather tries to mitigate Kaali’s outspokenness and intervene when he flashes into violence. The relationship between the two is complex and Ranjith is to be commended on writing such a convincing portrayal of two angry young men with such different agendas but who still have plenty of common ground.

Kaali is also looking out for a wife and believes he has found his ideal in Kalaiarasi (Catherine Tresa), the arrogant and opinionated daughter of yet another local politician. I found Catherine Tresa annoying and wooden in Iddarammayilatho and she does nothing here to change my opinion. The character of Kalaiarasi is interesting and has potential, but I’m not convinced by Tresa’s portrayal here at all.  She appears to be obviously ‘acting’ all the time and never manages to develop any rapport with her co-actors.  Perhaps her inclusion was Ranjith’s attempt to make his film more commercially appealing, but her performance definitely doesn’t work for me, and neither does the romance.

Madras

The rest of the story does however work well and despite the fairly obvious plot the first-rate characterisations are enough to keep it believable and interesting.  The various other support actors are effective with Rama as Kaali’s mother having some of the funniest dialogue, while Hari as local eccentric Johnny is cleverly used to further the storyline.  Anbu and Kaali’s friends are also convincing in their roles while the various enforcers used by the two political parties are much more realistic (and therefore believable) than the rent-a-thug gangsters usually used in such roles.

The cinematography by G. Murali is also excellent, with the chase sequences through the narrow streets a major highlight, but everything is perfectly framed to ensure the wall looms over everything and everyone in the area. Although there are a few songs they are used sparingly without long disruptive dance sequences, while the film does include some excellent dancing with the addition of a local area dance troupe who cycle through some of the important scenes and indulge in spontaneous dancing whenever possible. I approve!

Madras Karthik and CAtherine

The escalation of such a small issue as the slogan on a wall into an all-encompassing problem, along with the back-stabbing, petty rivalries and jealousies is well handled and makes Madras a more complex tale than it first seems. It’s the very ordinariness of the characters that ensures the film feels very realistic, while keeping obvious heroics out of the equation gives the film greater impact. Essentially Pa Ranjith has taken an old story and dressed it up into something new, with clever characterisations and good use of locations ending up with a film that’s a cut above the usual political thriller. Madras is definitely well worth a watch for impressive performances and a relatively realistic look at one of my favourite cities.