NGK (2019)

NGK

Spoiler alert

I’m a big fan of both Suriya and Selvaraghavan and was intrigued to see how Selva would deal with a main stream hero given his usual character-driven and more unconventional style of film making. As it turns out, Selva has made room for both heroic gestures and quirky plot points in this tale of a young man’s rise to prominence in a political party, although ultimately neither meld particularly well together. In the end, the darkness of the storyline ensures NGK is still definitely a Selvaraghavan film, although only working in parts despite an understated, yet powerful performance from Suriya. There is a lot to unpack here, and I apologise for the spoilers which I haven’t been able to avoid in order to discuss certain aspects of the story.

Nandha Gopala Kumaran aka NGK (Suriya) is an organic farmer, living in a small town with his parents Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Viji (Uma Padmanabhan). He’s married to Geetha (Sai Pallavi) and in the initial scenes both are completely besotted with each other to the point of irritating Viji with their romantic overtures. Kumaran is an organic farmer who has given up his city job to work the land with a group of like-minded idealists, but their livelihood is threatened by local traders and businessmen who want the farmers to buy their chemicals. Kumaran gets the idea of approaching his local MLA (Ilavarasu) from a neighbour Giri (Bala Singh) who works for the party. Giri has been beaten up by party men because he refused an inappropriate request from MLA Pandiyan’s but despite this, Giri still supports the party ideas. Straight from the start, it’s shown that the party elite are corrupt, lacking morals and purely interested in getting and keeping power. Kumaran uses his friend Raja (Rajkumar) who also works for the party to get an audience with Pandiyan, who agrees to stop intimidation of the farmers, but only if Kumaran enters politics and brings 500 of his own supporters into the party.

Interestingly, in these early scenes, Kumaran seems disgusted and repelled by Pandion, and is further antagonised by his bullying and repeated humiliations. But at some point Kumaran decides to kowtow and do everything Pandiyan wishes, including cleaning his toilet and supplying him with home-cooked food. What would help this transformation would be an explanation of why Kumaran decided to conform. Was it because he realised the power of politics and what he could potentially do if he managed to move up the ranks? Or was it simply to stop the humiliation, or perhaps even an attempt to shame Pandiyan into more moral behaviour? Sadly, none of the reasoning behind any of Kumaran’s choices are explained, although there are some pivotal events that we can assume helped shape his actions.

In the course of his transition to political power, Kumaran meets Vanathi (Rakul Preet Singh) who is a UK-educated political analyst tasked with helping the party win upcoming elections. Vanathi is impressed by Kumaran, presumably realising that his earnest demeanour and good looks will make him a good candidate to win over the voting public. Vanathi is an interestingly grey character who’s not above dirty tactics to discredit the opposition, although these are more about revealing the ruling party’s indiscretions rather than fabricating evidence to implicate chief minister Killivazhavan (Devaraj) and his minions. As Kumaran becomes more and more involved with the party, and by implication with Vanathi, Geetha starts to become jealous and finally accuses Kumaran of having an affair. Astonishingly (this is Suriya after all), Kumaran quickly admits his infidelity but it’s all the more shocking because there has been no hard evidence on screen and no real reason for the affair – after all, Kumaran had a wife he was supposedly besotted with waiting for him at home. Then too, his revelation is made somewhat passionlessly, but immediately followed up with a nasty challenge to Geetha asking her what she will do about it. So, was he just scratching an itch because he was away from home? Did he fall in love with the clever and politically sharp Vanathi – a world away from the more innocent Geetha? Or was it a more calculated ploy, to seduce the woman behind the party’s campaign for office for his own ambition?

Rakul Preet Singh is good in a role that starts off well, but which fades quickly once she (sigh) inevitably falls in love with Kumaran, despite her initial tough, woman-of-the-world persona. At least Vanathi has a reasonable character arc and she stays true to her own ideals throughout, apart from an unfortunate lapse during a dodgy romantic song which doesn’t fit with the rest of the screenplay at all. She still has values and these stand her in good stead as Kumaran becomes more manipulative and Vanathi gradually seems to realise what is happening. Sai Pallavi on the other hand doesn’t doesn’t fare as well as Geetha. Her initial interactions with Kumaran are too cloyingly sweet and over the top, while Geetha’s suspicion of an affair seem to come from nowhere, leading to some odd behaviours when she meets Vanathi. Her initial reaction to Kumaran’s affair is also strangely overdone, while the apparent acceptance in later scenes also doesn’t ring true, making Geetha a rather unsatisfactory and jarring presence onscreen. It’s odd since Selva’s female characters normally have strong characters and some reason for what they do, but here the women are all muted and take a very definite back seat to the main story.

Kumaran gradually changes throughout the story from an all-round nice guy to someone able to plot and scheme his way to success. What I can’t decide is if he turned to the dark side to win power to be able to help his people, or if he truly becomes corrupted to the point where he is prepared to use anyone to achieve his ends. The final scenes with Geetha and his parents suggest the latter, but I need to watch the film again to find more clues to his behaviour. I did pick up some. Selva uses changes in the lighting scheme here as he did in Pudhupettai to indicate some of the personality changes – changing from green to red lighting during a fight scene in an improbably cavernous bathroom, presumably to suggest Kumaran’s move towards more selfish motives. There are also questions around what really happens when Kumaran’s friend Raja dies, and his initial meeting with Vanathi definitely has more subtext, but I was concentrating too much on reading the subtitles to pick up on all the subtleties.

The glue holding the story together is Suriya, who forgoes his usual mass-style hero for an ambiguous character who definitely moves towards the wrong side of politics. It’s a subtle and almost low-key performance, although there is plenty of passion on show as Kumaran makes energetically impassioned speeches about farming and freedom, land and human rights, and inevitably ‘the common man’. Suriya gets across the definite sense that Kumaran is acting in all of his grand speeches, while still leaving his true motivation rather more ambiguous until the end, where his corruption appears to be complete. Here Selva has ensured that the film is very much about the star, and Suriya feels the space completely, including the requisite action scenes, dance moves and compelling charisma that end up defining the character too. Although the rest of the cast are good, they aren’t as memorable as Suriya, with the exception of Ilavarasu and Devaraj who have their own personality quirks.

Sivakumar Vijayan does a good job with the cinematography and overall the production is excellent even down to having readable subtitles in yellow font. Awesome! Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background soundtrack is good, and the few dance numbers are catchy enough, with the only real let down being the inappropriate romance track with Kumaran and Vanathi. It’s not a bad song, just oddly placed and bizarrely shot to show a romantic side to two characters who otherwise don’t appear passionate about each other at all. There are the characteristic dark themes and odd actions that remind you that this is a Selva film, but with Suriya front and centre, this is a more commercial and smoother film than his usual fare. The blend isn’t perfect but there is plenty here to keep you entertained, even enough for repeated viewings to see more of what is going on in the background. No doubt that will provide more clues and a clearer picture of just exactly who is NGK. I really enjoyed this, despite my issues with Geetha and occasional frustrations at not being able to decide exactly all the why’s. But then that is part of the genius of Selvaraghavan, to refuse to spoon feed his audience answers and keep everyone guessing. And even here with a mainstream hero in a more traditionally told story, he very nearly pulls it off.

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Pudhupettai (2006)

Pudhupettai

Pudhupettai is Selvaraghavan’s ode to gangster life, telling the story of the rise and fall of Kokki Kumar in the slums of Chennai. It’s brutal and violent, and for the most part Selva doesn’t give his ‘hero’ any redeeming features making this a departure from most other Tamil gangster flicks. At the end of the day, the only real priority for Kumar is himself and trying to keep himself alive, which reflects the film’s tagline ‘survival of the fittest’. The film is shot almost like a documentary, following the wandering path of Kumar’s life rather than having a distinct narrative, and it’s this realism and attention to the details of the characters and their harsh lives that makes Pudhupettai such a fascinating watch.

The film opens with Kokki Kumar (Dhanush) in jail. He seems disorientated, perhaps mentally ill, as he shouts out for anyone who might be listening to him. These opening shots feature Kumar in green with contrasting red light from outside the cell, further isolating him and accentuating his odd behaviour. This colour scheme replicates throughout the film, maybe to illustrate Kumar’s almost split personality but it’s also used to highlight important moments in his life. It’s part of how Selva pulls the story together, using images and brief vignettes rather than long drawn out scenes to develop his characters.

The film then moves to a flashback of Kumar’s early life in the slums of Pudhupettai. He seems a typical young man as flirts with girls and is chastised by his mother for dancing in the streets rather than hurrying off to school. However, violence is never far away. His father is violently abusive and finally one night Kumar returns to find his mother has been murdered by his father. Fearing for his own life, Kumar flees onto the streets to try to make his own way in the world.

He’s not terribly successful at this and eventually turns to begging in the streets where he is accidentally picked up by the police during a raid on drug sellers operating under local thug Anbu (Bala Singh). Anbu’s men take Kumar under their wing and introduce him to their boss, managing to secure him a spot in their gang. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi has a small role here as one of the gang, and there are a few other familiar faces including Aadukalam Murugadoss who also pop up in the background.

Kumar gradually learns how to be a gangster and there is some good humour worked into the scenes where he learns how to use a machete and case the scene before a crime. He also has a mean temper and when backed into a corner by a rival gang lead by Murthy (Prudhviraj) he fights back, killing Murthy’s brother and turning Murthy into an enemy for life. The film follows Kumar as he meets and falls in love with prostitute Krishnaveni (Sneha) and subsequently takes over the area from Anbu after killing his former boss in a dispute over his treatment of Krishnaveni.

Kumar has grand ambitions and with the gang behind him he takes Anbu’s place working for corrupt politician Thamizhselvan (Azhagam Perumal). The body count rises as Thamizhselvan commissions murders and Kumar steadily makes inroads into Murthy’s territory. But then Kumar sees Selvi (Sonia Agarwal), the sister of his main henchman Mani, and he falls instantly in lust. Forgetting Krishnaveni he marries Selvi instead of the real groom at her wedding and immediately has another enemy out for his blood. Mani joins forces with Murthy and the two conspire to bring Kumar down.

This is the seedy side of gangster life and Selva shows the grubby political deals and bloody in-fighting between the rival gangs as something to be expected, rather than as exceptions to the rule. No-one comes out of this looking good and Kumar in particular is not a nice man. At first there seems to be some attempt to explain Kumar’s violent tendencies on his early experiences, but during a drinking session with the gang one night, it’s revealed that everyone has a similar story. It’s even a source of entertainment for the gang as they each tell their stories of abuse and murder and decide who has the funniest story.

It then seems as if there may be some compassion in Kumar when he fights Anbu for Krishnaveni’s freedom, but this doesn’t ever seem to be a grand passion or even much of a love story at all, and Kumar tends to treat Krishnaveni more as a possession rather than a lover. He’s able to completely ignore her when he sees Selvi and isn’t at all bothered by Krishnaveni’s attempt to leave him, until she announces that she is pregnant. That of course makes all the difference, and this is the one part of the film where Kumar genuinely seems to care for someone else. The birth of his son is a momentous event in his life, which makes his son’s loss later in the film more effective than expected.

There are signs that Kumar might be a better man than first appears when he takes on cases where the local people have been affected by corruption and crime after overthrowing Anbu. But this appearance of trying to help the poor turns out to be just an easy way to develop a power base and get support – something that Kumar needs if he wants to further his political ambitions and make a name for himself. I love how each time Kumar seems to be acting more responsibly it’s shown to be just another way to make sure he comes out on top. The pragmatism and cunning he shows seem to be reasonable requirements for someone who aspires to be a top politician, while the extreme violence and disregard for human life explain why Kumar makes such a good gangster.

Throughout, Dhanush is excellent despite a tendency to overact in the prison scenes where he has to explain his story directly to the audience. His transformation from a scared adolescent to a violent and cold-blooded criminal is brilliantly achieved, and his tendency to become completely feral when he loses his temper gives the character a chilling authenticity. Here is someone with few morals, who decides what they want and then goes ahead and takes it without worrying about the consequences or the possible price. Sneha does a fantastic job with the character of Krishnaveni and gives her dignity and grace despite her profession and her association with the gang. Krishnaveni seems to genuinely love Kumar, although some of this may be gratitude for helping her escape the brothel, but she brings some normalcy into the storyline and provides a good contrast to all the violence. She’s not completely innocent either and her entrapment of Kumar by mentioning her pregnancy after he marries Selvi is a clever twist, as is Selvi’s nasty dig when she points out that Kumar can’t be sure that the baby is his. It all rings true and despite the buckets of blood and excessive use of knives (check out Kumar’s impressive machete storage cupboard!) this doesn’t seem to be too fantastical a story. The characters all seem plausible too, particularly in the way they let their petty squabbles and problems spill over to affect the whole area.

The rest of the cast are uniformly good too – Sonia Agarwal has less to do than Sneha but she is excellent as the reluctant bride, while Azhagam Perumal has so many backflips that it’s a wonder he can work out which way to look at the camera. Clever writing and good dialogue ensure that everyone has a role to play while the good performances mean it all flows beautifully.

The film is enhanced by excellent cinematography from Arvind Krishna, who makes Chennai look stunningly beautiful one moment and then grimly ugly, just as Selva juxtaposes Kumar’s dreams with the harsh reality of life as a gangster. The songs and background music by Yuvan Shankar Raja also suit the film well with the songs seamlessly flowing into the dialogue and some hauntingly beautiful instrumentals.

At almost 3 hours Pudhupettai is a long film and at times it does tend to drift into indulgent territory, but then it’s so well made that it’s hard to complain. This is a film that seems to get better and better with repeated viewings as more of the story becomes clear. As with most Selvaraghavan’s films, the subject matter is dark and his characters flawed, but the subject matter here suits this type of delivery and as a whole the film works very well indeed. Not one for the squeamish given the preponderance of edged weapons and gory bloodshed but for anyone who enjoys a gangster film, this is one of the best. 4½ stars.

Irandam Ulagam

Irandam Ulagam

Selvaraghavan can always be counted on to take a different approach, and this time he heads into fantasy for a tale of love so great that it could transcend worlds.  It all sounds fine, inspirational maybe; except that the love between the characters never feels passionate enough to even inspire a short trip across town, let alone across worlds.  The execution of the story is also clumsy with the action jumping between two love stories without any apparent commonality, except that Arya and Anushka are the two actors in both cases. Irandam Ulagam is disappointing on many levels; even more so because there are flashes of a good story, some engaging ideas and even a few entertaining moments hidden among all the dreary dialogues.  And as if that wasn’t enough, seriously, how is it even possible to make Arya look this bad?

Irandam Ulagam

In this world there is the romance between Madhu Balakrishna (Arya) and Ramya (Anushka). Initially it’s a one-sided affair as Ramya feels that in Madhu she has found her Mr Right, but doesn’t know how to approach him. And then when Ramya does finally ask Madhu to marry her and is gently refused, she immediately decides instead to marry the man her parents have selected. Presumably because giving Madhu a chance to recover from the surprise proposal and perhaps give him time to find out something about her would be too much to expect! Madhu does however eventually fall in love with Ramya, and follows her to a medical camp to try and win her back before her wedding takes place.  After building Madhu up as a wonderfully caring man who looks after his disabled father (one of the best scenes in the film), Selva doesn’t seem to find anything odd in the concept that Madhu would recklessly dump his family responsibilities and job as a lecturer to follow a woman who blows hot and cold and generally doesn’t seem to have any idea what she wants from him.  Ramya is tedious in her indecisiveness and by the time the lifeless romance does manage to reach some form of conclusion it’s hard to care in any way about either Ramya or Madhu.

Irandam Ulagam

In the other world Varna (Anushka again) is a Xena kind of gal, who can swing a sword and take care of herself in a society where woman are definitely second class citizens.  Here Arya is Maruvan, a drunken buffoon who wants to fight in his father’s army, but is woefully inept even when sober.  Inexplicably he decides that Varna is the woman for him and after some heroic action does finally manage to win her as his wife.  Except that it’s not the idyll he was perhaps expecting but is more a constant combat as Varna can’t stand him. So not much love there either.  Not really looking good for a story all about grand passion that can span the stars.

Irandam Ulagam

Both characters played by Arya are wishy-washy with few redeeming features.  Although Madhu is a kind-hearted man, he’s rather dull and has no chemistry whatsoever with his co-star.  Maruvan seems to have been based on Shrek, which at least suits the fairy-tale landscape, but his transition from drunken village idiot to invincible warrior is just a little too instantaneous to be believable.

Irandam Ulagam

Anushka gets a better deal with Varna who at least has some personality, but Ramya is another weak character.  There is nothing endearing about Ramya to explain why Madhu would sacrifice everything to be with her, and nothing about their love story which suggests passion or grand desire. And that’s the problem. To believe in a love so great that it transcends everything there needs to be evidence of that love – and it just isn’t here.

Irandam Ulagam

The soundtrack by Harris Jayaraj is excellent, but the songs are completely out of place and don’t seem to fit the narrative, although that may be due to the rather woeful picturisation.  There are however a few moments where the choreography is different enough to almost work, if there were just a few more steps and a little less awkward shuffling.  Even the background score by Anirudh Ravichander is a disappointment as it’s frequently loud and intrusive, and doesn’t seem to suit the storyline particularly well either.

The special effects are fine, although nothing too spectacular.  They do create a different world, and the creatures such as the amazing ‘lion’ produce a fairy-tale atmosphere, enhanced by the fantastical fighting skills of our hero.  However I did keep thinking that if those planetary bodies were really that close in the sky then the gravitational field would have been completely different – which was a little distracting at times.

Irandam Ulagam

Irandam Ulagam needs a passionate and believable romance to make Selvaraghavan’s concept of true love convincing, but the lack of chemistry and any emotion between the main characters results in a failure to bring the idea to life.  Considering that Selva’s last film Mayakkam Enna was laden with emotional drama and desire, it’s strange that he seems to have missed out on this crucial ingredient here.  The story has the potential to offer more and the concept of a world without love is intriguing, but there is nothing to draw you in and generate interest in the characters. Even the performances by two normally engaging actors are laboured and unappealing.  The only thing I can recommend is the soundtrack, otherwise sadly I have to put Irandam Ulagam down as a miss.