Saroja

Saroja is a fairly standard thriller with a decent dose of dramatic tension thanks to some very good performances and loads of visual flair. I ordered the Tamil DVD but was sent the Telugu dub, which apart from the obvious difference also cast Srihari instead of Jayaram in a pivotal role. I quite like Srihari as an actor, and as I speak neither language subtitles are subtitles, so I was happy enough. I’ll be referring to characters by their names in the Telugu version.

Prakash Raj is Viswanatham, a successful Hyderabadi businessman. He is a self centred man, in an uneasy marriage and not giving his teenage daughter Saroja as much attention as he gives his breakfast.

That is until Saroja (Vega), is kidnapped. It’s one of my favourite Prakash Raj performances as he conveys fear, despair and regrets with only a scant amount of dialogue. His reactions and expressions are just perfect. There is a scene where he and his wife are watching home movies of Saroja. They can’t look at each other as they have an intimate conversation that is realistically awkward and painful.

The depth of characterisation established so simply helped me care about what happened to Saroja since it meant so much to her father.

Saroja gets an intro song about girl power and the evils of alcohol, which she delivers after sneaking out of her window to get to the gig. She is largely absent until late in the film as the drama is centred on the police operation to find her, but her character is established as resourceful and independent.

Srihari is Viswa’s friend Ravi, a charismatic policeman who takes on this very personal case. Srihari running isn’t exactly a greyhound so the chase scenes had me worried, but he is an authority figure and pillar of strength. Ravi orchestrates the police activity to recover Saroja and is on hand to witness the devastating effect the kidnapping has on his friend. There is a bit more complexity to his role than just a standard crusading cop though and Srihari and Prakash Raj share some excellent eye to eye moments. I don’t really buy his excuse for something he does, but it wasn’t a big deal overall.

There is a second storyline that will collide with the straightforward police procedural. It centres on a group of friends, totally unrelated to Viswanatham and his concerns.

Vaibhav is Rama Swamy.  The girl he loves (Kajal Aggarwal in a brief appearance) gets engaged to his friend Ajay. He is trying to make the best of his lot and comes across as a moody but not unpleasant guy. Ajay (Shiva) is a soap actor who thinks he is a little more special than he is, and tries to get by on what he considers to be charm. He gets some of the better intentionally funny lines as he cites his TV serial commitments as a reason for avoiding anything he doesn’t want to do. Rama’s older brother Renga Swamy (SP Charan) is the average guy – happy, married with a daughter, middle class, comfortably podgy. Premji Amaren (brother of the director) is the comic relief, Ganesh, and almost every time he opened his mouth I wanted to kill him. To be fair, his straight dramatic scenes were good and a few of the jokes were funny.  Every time he saw a pretty girl, badly dressed angels would cavort around her, and the angels got grumpier as they had to keep reappearing for different girls.

But the comedy track mostly involved Ganesh acting stupid and grimacing wildly. If you find a man screaming his lungs out at the sight of a rat, or telling everyone loudly why he has to be quiet, funny maybe you’ll like him more than I do.

The boys set out on a roadtrip from Chennai to Hyderabad to go to a one day match. After driving for a few hours, including about 257 snack and pee breaks as well as a run in with Brahmi, they are delayed by a major road accident and decide to take an alternate route.

The storylines intersect when the guys take a wrong turn in the dark and end up in a spooky factory complex occupied by the imposing Sampath (Sampath Raj) and his gang, who have Saroja captive. The adrenalin rises from this point until the film’s conclusion as the boys try and extricate themselves from their perilous situation and accidentally seem to be rescuing the girl. There is always time for a dance break though! Kalyani (Nikitha) and Sampath entertain the troops and I have to say seeing all the bad guys in a dance number was a lot of fun.

The ‘heroes’ and the baddies are ordinary guys and the fights and chases are consistent with that. There are no amazing flying leaps and stunts, but there is a strong feeling of the fear and effort in those scenes which is amplified by the lighting and composition of the shots and Saravanan’s cinematography is impressive. Even when things got less believable, the characters remained true to themselves and didn’t develop superpowers. There is some question in my mind as to how well these guys could navigate an unfamiliar place in the dead of night, but whatever. I thought Vega was convincing and in most scenes looked like a school girl. There were signs of a romantic attraction between her and Ram that I thought was a bit not right in view of their character ages. It’s just a fleeting thing but was it necessary for it to be there at all?

The Yuvan Shankar Raja (Venkat Prabhu’s cousin – what a family) soundtrack is good and the range of musical styles supports the full span of the drama. While the songs are well placed in the story, I’m not sure all the picturisations were necessary. The montages sometimes caused a break from the overall mood as they were even more stylised than the rest of the film. The direction relies on gimmicks but that visual interest and excitement helped to give a standard plot a bit of freshness. The story doesn’t completely rely on the visuals so I didn’t feel it was too glossy for its own good. The performances, especially Prakash Raj’s, are compelling on their own.

It’s a film where the outcomes probably won’t surprise anyone, but the way those things happen might. If you want a modern looking comedy/drama/thriller that’s not too heavy on gore and showcases some good character actors, give this a go.  4 stars!

Heather says: Saroja has all the right ingredients to make a good film with an interesting story, excellent cast lineup and snappy dialogue. But it suffers a little from a very long set up with perhaps too much detail in some scenes and not enough in others. There are also a few scenes where the action takes place in poorly lit sets and I found it very hard to tell what was going on. However, once past the slow beginning, it’s a very enjoyable watch as it blends comedy with action and drama in a way that is rare in Tamil cinema. I do like the way the action is preceded with a date and time stamp in the opening sequences as it gives the feel of an American cop show and plants the idea that time is important. Although perhaps this isn’t followed up quite as well in later scenes. The introductions to the various characters are generally good, but I would have preferred director Venkat Prabhu to spend a little more time with Saroja’s family. It is clear that Viswanathan is caught up in his work and doesn’t have time for his daughter, but I think a little more information about the family dynamic would have made their characters more sympathetic. It took more time to get a feel for Saroja and her father as a result, although this may very well have been intentional, as we learn about the family as the film goes on, just as the four friends do.

The interaction between the friends is well done, and feels very realistic. Perhaps it’s not quite as realistic though that they remain undiscovered sneaking around the bad guys’ lair with all of their arguing and long conversations. But the comedy in these was good and the story was well played out in these scenes. The action sequences, at least those that are visible, are also well choreographed and there are some really good ideas in the execution of the various fight sequences.

I liked the twist at the end which I did not see coming at all, although I thought the justification by the villain was rather weak. In it for the money alone might have worked better, but it was still a good ending. I also enjoyed the comedy with Ganesh seeing angels appearing around pretty girls. All of the four characters worked well for me as they each had some endearing character traits and some really off-putting ones – just like in real life. They seemed like much more normal guys than typical filmi heroes which makes the film more interesting to watch.

This is the first of Venkat Prabhu’s films I’ve seen and it’s inspired me to find his others. I’d say skip over a lot of the set-up and then sit back to enjoy a really good action comedy. 3 ½  stars.

Paruthiveeran

The film opens at a temple festival, full of colour and music. The camera draws the eye in through a range of points of view, creating the feeling of being part of the milling crowds. It’s all very colourful and entertaining, and then the knives come out. We’re in a place divided by caste and old grudges, where the police are the law but not the authority.

In a black and white flashback, a young girl is pushed into a well. Her cousin, Paruthiveeran, helps to keep her alive, and an obsessive love is born. The children become friends and promise to be together always, even after they grow up.  Soon Muthalagu tells anyone who will listen and everyone else as well, that she will marry Paruthiveeran and only him.

Back in the present day Paruthiveeran, or Veeran, played by Karthi (knife wielding ne’er do well from the opening sequence) and Muthalagu (Priyamani) are still in the village. What will happen to a strong willed girl who refuses all other offers and stands up to her father? Why would she want Veeran who is a drunken womaniser, not interested in her and not particularly attractive? Priyamani and Karthi make the melodrama more compelling than it might seem.

There are lots of spoilers ahead so if you really don’t want to know, please stop now.

Muthalagu is an interesting character, and not your usual romantic girly heroine. Priyamani’s performance is totally convincing, even as I was rolling my eyes at some of her character’s choices. Muthalagu is complex yet single minded and while I couldn’t see myself ever obsessing over Karthi, I could believe that she was.  She is beaten and verbally abused by both of her parents but will not flinch, and even threatens her father in return. Her teachers and others keep asking why she wants to throw herself away on a man who is usually in jail, why she would deliberately fail 4 years of school so she can postpone being married off. She takes poison rather than marry another man. She drugs Paruthiveeran, ties him to his bed and tattoos her name on his chest.

This is not a shrinking violet, but nor is she a crazed caricature. She knows everyone is talking about her, but she never tries to hide her feelings or make any pretence. She believes Paruthiveeran is her fate, they are meant to be together and she will not break her promise to him or to god. There is no swaying her, not even his protests can persuade her.

It’s not a glamorous role – most of the time Priyamani is in plaits with the scrubbed face no makeup look. She doesn’t try to make crying look pretty; she lets the anger and frustration burn through. Her body language and facial expressions really capture a mix of arrogance and uncertainty. When Muthalagu smiles, she is a radiant young girl in love. Priyamani has been praised to the skies for this role and bagged a number of awards, and I can see why.

Karthi did his best in his debut to give his character some depth.  Veeran is a bully and a bit of an idiot, his only ambitions seem to be to upset local dimwit Douglas and to commit a big enough crime to go to Madras prison.

He spends a lot of the film hanging around with his equally useless uncle Sevvalai (Saravanan), getting into fights, avoiding Muthalagu and shagging an assortment of women (some paid, some volunteers). He basically steals a prostitute from some local men (he gives her back when he is done), and is asked to share one of his girls with them one day – a throwaway line that will have repercussions. He rejects and humiliates Muthalagu time and time again, and he is as frustrated by her obsession as she is by his resistance.I did enjoy his visible transformation to the semi-domesticated boyfriend; once again, ruler straight side parted hair seems to be the Good Boy indicator. But how good can he possibly be? Well, he does get that tattoo amended to have both their names enclosed in a heart so I suppose that is a commitment.

Once the two admit their now mutual feelings, the film starts to go off the rails a bit in search of more dramatic tension.  The family feud gains intensity, caste violence takes the stage and some of the characters seem to go out of focus. There is another flashback sequence that explains the origin of the family enmity, but I didn’t think such detail was all that necessary.

The film builds to a finale that is both highly melodramatic and somehow shockingly real. Deciding to make a break from the village and start a life together, Paruthiveeran hides Muthalagu in his shack and leaves to protect his uncle. Unfortunately, that sleazy guy from the prostitute episode sees her and decides it is time to claim his dues. After a horrible gang rape sequence that is disturbingly matter of fact, Veeran comes back to find her dying. I don’t think this is a case of a ‘bad girl’ being marked for death – Muthalagu died because of Veeran’s actions and who he was, and she didn’t seem to be subject to a directorial judgement by Ameer Sultan. The death scene was well written, and not at all sickly sweet. Muthalagu’s parting words to Veeran are a demand for some kind of explanation as to how she could have waited her whole life, and ended like this. And I was asking the same thing. Veeran decides he must cover up the dishonour to his love, and perhaps also use her death to have one last shot at her father.  What he did startled me and while it made a sort of sense, the ick factor was high. Karthi did reasonably well with the extremely emotional scenes, but it was in the quieter sorrowful moments that he really convinced. It was quite unnecessary that we got an eyeful of Karthi’s butt in the final scenes but whoever pre-ripped his clothes was very determined. I am sparing you the sight.

The support cast are very good – they look and sound the part and this isn’t a glossy view of country life. I wasn’t so taken with the little girl who played young Muthalagu. Her voice was a monotone buzz that grated, but her expressions were fun and she managed to be precociously flirty and still a child. Saravanan as Sevvalai is good but doesn’t get much to do apart from support Karthi. The grandmother and mother (Sujatha) in Muthulagu’s family are intense and their performances are high on energy but not overly histrionic. I really felt the tension in her family, and it made the typical family disapproval scenes much more compelling.

Yuvan Shankar Raj’s soundtrack is excellent. Some tracks sound as though they are sung by traditional singers rather than studio artists, and I think that works really well in building the sense of place. The rural setting is very picturesque and appealing, and the cinematography captures both the energetic village life and the open countryside.

The flashbacks took up too long, and the ending is what I have come to think of as typically ‘everyone dies or lives unhappily ever after Tamil romance’. I’m never very happy about the depiction of rape in films, but I think this was given some weight and treated as an assault, not a justly deserved punishment. It was not made to be the girls fault, despite what her rapists may have said, and I appreciated the writing that made the scene compelling. Priyamani is the reason I picked up the DVD in the first instance, and her performance is remarkable. I don’t imagine I will feel the need to watch it again anytime soon, but I did like seeing great acting, a strong female character and some interesting relationships on screen. I give it 3 and 1/2 stars.