Jersey (2019)

I managed to see Jersey in the cinema when it first released in April last year, but I’ve been waiting to watch it again and until recently I hadn’t been able to find it anywhere online. However, it’s now available on YT in a Hindi dub, which although not ideal is good enough to remind me of what I enjoyed the first time round, so finally, here are my thoughts on the film.

Jersey tells the story of a cricketer, Arjun (Nani) and his struggles to succeed at his chosen profession, but the film is more than the usual under-dog sports story. The film also explores relationships, the challenges associated with becoming an elite sportsperson later in life and more broadly looks at second chances. At the ripe old age of 36, Arjun has a wife, a young son and bills to pay, which is what initially sparks his return to competition cricket. Once he gets back into the game though, his passion for cricket takes over, but there are numerous obstacles to his success. Not the least of these is the question of whether Arjun has the physical stamina to be a professional cricketer at an age when most are contemplating retirement.

This isn’t a film where you have to know a lot about cricket or even enjoy watching the game to fully engage with the film. While the cricket sequences are beautifully, and realistically shot, the film is more about the passion Arjun has for the game and how this affects his relationships with everyone around him. To understand Arjun’s story there is a flash-back sequence to 1986, which shows him as a confident and successful cricketer at the top of his game. Life is going well, he’s in love with Sarah (Shraddha Srinath) and is on track to win a place in the India team. But when his place is taken by someone with better connections and a larger bribe, the disappointment shatters Arjun’s world and despite his coach Murthy (Sathyaraj) urging him to try again next year, Arjun vows to leave the sport for good.

Ten years later, Arjun is in financial strife due to an enforced absence from work from a union related issue. His wife is frustrated and angry with his disinterest and general apathy for life, while his son Nani (an excellent Ronit Kamra) is pestering him for an Indian cricket jersey for his upcoming birthday. Without cricket Arjun has lost his zeal for life and without a career and unable to provide for his family, his world has become very bleak indeed. Desperate to please his son, Arjun plays a charity match but still doesn’t manage to raise enough money for his son’s birthday present. But once he starts playing, despite his age and various set-backs, Arjun is determined to make his comeback as a successful cricketer.

This is a very human story, and writer/director Gowtham Tinnanuri fills Jersey with heart and emotion while still keeping events moving along. The two components, the cricketing journey and the various relationships, complement each other well and the film benefits from Nani’s superb performance as Arjun. Initially he’s impetuous and brash – a typical young man who has the world at his feet and knows it. Later, he completely captures the heartache and depression that comes with Arjun’s failures in life and contrasts this with the passion and excitement that comes with his second chance at success. What stands out is just how believable he is in the role and how quickly Nani pulls the audience into his world. There is a moment where the older Arjun learns he has made the Hyderabad team and his celebration as an older player is a perfect contrast with his exuberance as a younger player. It’s also a pointed comparison between the older Arjun being selected and the younger not making it into the India team. I also liked the way the relationship between Ramya (Sanusha) and up and coming cricketer Nandan Reddy (Viswant Duddumpudi) mirrors the earlier romance between Arjun and Sarah and provides another link between the events of 1996 and 1986.

Central to the story is Arjun’s relationship with his son. The jersey of the film title is the India shirt that Nani wants for his birthday, but which is much too expensive for Arjun to buy.  Ronit Kamra is excellent in the role of Arjun’s son and there is such good rapport between him and Nani. This feels like a true father/son relationship and there is plenty of warmth and emotion in every interaction. Nani’s hero worship of his father is the only positive part of Arjun’s world and it’s beautiful to watch Arjun develop as a father in response to his son’s expectations. The flip side is the father/son relationship between Arjun and his coach Murthy, who has always acted more like a father to him. Both relationships are well written and expertly performed by all involved and I enjoyed finding the similarities and the differences in both relationships.

Also pivotal to the story is Arjun’s wife Sarah and Shraddha Srinath is excellent in the role. Her portrayal is realistic, particularly when faced with a husband who seems unable to do even the smallest of tasks around the home. She perfectly captures the exasperation and hurt of dealing with someone she loves who appears to be self-destructing before her eyes without ever seeing that she is struggling to cope as well. It’s such a true to life scenario and Shraddha gets all those complicated emotions across in her performance. The romance is also sweet and nicely developed although there is a fight sequence between Arjun and his fellow teammates about Sarah which does seem rather pointless and unnecessary. 

While the story of Arjun’s comeback works well and the various emotional rollercoaster moments follow a reasonably predictable beat, the end has a twist that just doesn’t seem to fit well into the rest of the story. I found this to be a jarring note in an otherwise well-written story that really wasn’t necessary. Like any sports film, the overcoming of adversity is enough in its own right, and when added to the well developed relationships here, nothing else was really required, and in fact the twist detracts rather than adds to the story. But that’s a small grumble in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. I really like this film and wish it was more readily available as I’d happily watch it again. Although I might skip the very end. 4 ½ stars.

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.

Kadaikutty Singam (2018)

 

Kadaikutty Singam

Pandiraj’s latest film is a village-based family drama with an extended cast and surfeit of relationships that ends up feeling more like an over-stretched soap opera. The story focuses on the only son of Ranasingam (Sathyaraj) but it’s his various sisters, their husbands and Ranasingam’s two wives that make the most impact in the rather wandering screenplay. The film includes a number of social messages and the story tends to disappear under the requirements to include the benefits of a career in farming and a myriad of moral issues associated with ‘traditional’ village life. However, Karthik does a good job with his role, the support cast are excellent and the film is full of colour and light, even if it does have an overly melodramatic finale.

The film starts with the story of Ranasingam and his quest for a son. His first wife Vanamadevi (Viji Chandrasekhar) has four daughters which leads to Ranagingham casting his eye about for a second wife. He ends up marrying Vanamadevi’s sister, Panchamadevi (Bhanupriya) who promptly also has a daughter, but before Ranasingam can marry for a third time, Vanamadevi falls pregnant again, and this time the baby is a boy. By the time Gunasingam (Karthi) has grown up, his five sisters have all married and two have grown up daughters of their own. The expectation is that Gunasingam will marry one of his two nieces, but when he sees Kannukiniyal aka Iniya (Sayyeshaa) he is immediately smitten, making a family marriage seem unlikely. Luckily for Gunasingam, Iniya reciprocates his feelings and the two happily embark on a relationship. However, there are a few obstacles to overcome, such as Iniya’s politician uncle Kodiyarasu (Shatru) and Gunasingam’s sisters who all vociferously object to the match.

What works well here are the relationships between Gunasingam and his sisters, and between his sisters and their various husbands. Mounika, Yuvarani, Indhumathi, Deepa and Jeevitha play the five sisters who all have distinctly different personalities, and are all convinced that they know what is best for their younger brother – that’s marriage to either Aandal (Arthana Binu) or Poompozhil (Priya Bhavani Shankar) and a life spent running the family farm. Gunasingam has no problem with the latter half of that plan as he’s proud to be a farmer, and makes a point of announcing his monthly salary (1.5 lakhs) and giving expensive gifts to his family. However, Gunasingam only thinks of his nieces as ‘family’ and he’s determined to marry ‘soda-girl’ Iniya, so-called because she runs a soda business. These parts of the story are well nuanced and I like that Iniya has a successful life by herself and isn’t just on the look-out for a husband to take the place of her Uncle Kodiyarasu. Apparently Iniya’s family follows the same uncle/niece marriage idea, but that’s mainly a method for Kodiyarasu to irritate Gunasingam. Kodiyarasu is a politician, but he’s firm on the idea of caste and involved in an honour killing which leads Gunasingam to report him to the police. The feud between the two men seems mainly to be an excuse to include the message that casteism is bad, and of course, the obligatory masala fight scenes.

While the arguments with Kodiyarasu go on in the background, Gunasingam attempts to deal with his sisters who try everything in their power to break his relationship with Iniya. Being family, they know exactly where to attack for the most impact, and eventually the argument leads to a schism in the family. Added to the rift between the sisters, Panchamadevi leaves Ranasingam, but unfortunately, despite being potentially the most interesting thread in the drama, this gets only brief screen time and isn’t fully developed, presumably because there is so much else going on at the same time. Much of the writing here is excellent, and it’s a shame that the rather more predictable ‘villain’ thread keeps intruding into the more compelling family drama.

The romance between Iniya and Gunasingam mainly takes place during a song, which is probably enough time given that it’s the fall-out from their relationship that is more interesting. Although Sayyeshaa looks somewhat out-of-place in a Tamil village drama, she is otherwise fine in the role. Her Iniya has plenty of charm and personality despite limited time on-screen, and her romance with Karthik is plausible. Karthik too is good as a confident and dedicated farmer who buckles under pressure from his family. He’s energetic in the fight scenes and dance numbers, and his various speeches about how wonderful it is to be a farmer aren’t as pompous and patronising as expected. He also has good rapport with the various members of his family and gets his inner conflict across well. His best relationship is with his nephew (who is roughly the same age) Sivagamiyin Selvan (Soori), which is used to add light-hearted comedy that’s mostly relevant to the story. Soori is actually very good here and he handles the role intelligently which helps add more depth to Karthik’s character.

I enjoyed the songs from D. Imman which are catchy enough in the cinema, although not particularly memorable. The film looks good too, and cinematographer Velraj captures both the colours of the countryside and the warmth of the community. A word too about the subtitles from Rekhs and team, which are easy to read and in proper grammatical English – yay! Rekhs has also subtitled any significant written signs which is a delight and really does help with understanding the story.

Overall Kadaikutty Singam has too much going on to be truly successful. It’s also let down by an overly dramatic finale that fizzles just when it should be starting to heat up. However, the family relationships are well done and I love the realistic interactions between the sisters and their husbands. There are a few too many moral messages too, although it’s hard to complain given that they fall into the – ‘girls can do anything’ and ‘caste isn’t a barrier to relationships’ baskets that still need more promotion in cinema. It’s also good to see farming portrayed in a more positive light with a nod to the importance of the people who feed the nation. Worth a one-time watch for Karthik, Soori, the excellent support cast and the well-written family relationships.