Kaaviya Thalaivan (2014)

Kaaviya Thalaivan

Kaaviya Thalaivan sounded promising. A character driven drama set in the world of Tamil theatre in the 1920’s should have been exactly my kind of film, but despite excellent performances from all the  actors and A.R.Rahman’s expressive  soundtrack, the story is frustratingly predictable with little of the expected melodrama. The beautiful costumes and period sets cannot compensate for a very pedestrian telling of the rivalry between two actors and the ups and downs of a theatre company in the years before Indian Independence.  However, at least there are great costumes and stunning sets, and even if the story is disappointingly flat there are plenty of moments of brilliance from the individual actors which do make Kaaviya Thalaivan worth a watch.

The film is semi-narrated by Gomathi Nayagam Pillai (Prithviraj) who is sent as a young boy to train as an actor with Thavathiru Sivadas Swamigal (Nasser). During their travels, Sivadas Swamigal takes in a young orphan beggar called Kaali – later to rejoice in the name of Thalaivankottai Kaliappa Bhagavathar (Siddharth). Gomathi and Kaali become friends in a fairly standard ‘protecting from bullies, blah blah blah heard a million times before’ storyline. Now that familiar track wouldn’t matter if their developing relationship was told with any supporting emotion, but Gomathi runs through the story as if it’s a reading exercise in class and the identity of the protagonists is a matter of great indifference to him. Naturally then, it doesn’t matter to the audience, and Gomathi’s attitude appears more as boastful self-importance rather than genuine compassion for a young orphan.

From children to young men in the theatre company is a matter of a few moments and the two seem to be at least notionally friends at this point. Their different personalities are defined by a moment in the wings as they watch the hero Bhairavan (Ponvannan). Gomathi voices his desire to be just like Bhairavan while Kaali recognises the flaw’s in both the performance and the man, and instead aspires to be like their guru – Sivadas Swamigal.  It’s not unexpected then when Sivadas Swamigal chooses Kaali to be the hero for the company’s next production, or that this sews the seeds of resentment in Gomathi for his ‘humiliation’ which is really all in his own mind.

Gomathi  seems to take it as inevitable that he should resent Kaali for his success, without having any better reason to do so  than his own sense of self-importance. That could have worked as motivation if it had been developed in any way, but instead the rivalry is treated as a given and no further explanation is necessary. While Gomathi is silently angry, Kaali is blithely oblivious and embarks on a ridiculously straightforward romance with Rangamma (Anaika Soti), the local lord’s daughter. Kaali has little difficulty accessing Rangamma’s rooms, which should realistically been a little more heavily guarded, and no-one other than Gomathi seems to suspect anything, despite the heavy-handed flirting that goes on between the two during stage performances.  At least finally there is some passion and vitality to the characters, although not so much between Kaali and Rangamma but rather in an excellent scene where Sivadas Swamigal confronts Kaali about his love affair. Both Nasser and Siddharth are over-emotional and sufficiently melodramatic to suit the story at this point, while Prithviraj gets a chance to be nastily spiteful. However it’s a small oasis of theatricality, and the story quickly reverts back to a more plodding pace once Rangamma is out of the picture. That’s actually a shame since Anaika Soti does well with the limited role and looks beautiful in the songs. I would have liked to see more of her, but Kaali needs to have a reason for his life to turn pear-shaped and losing Rangamma works relatively well.

The final character in the drama is Ganakokilam Vadivambal, aka Vadivu (Vedika), a dancer and singer who joins the company and replaces the more traditional male actors in the female roles. Vadivu is in love with Kaali, but he only has eyes for Rangamma, while Gomathi pines in the wings for Vadivu who barely seems to notice him. It’s a situation that should be full of jealousy and passion but is instead treated clinically without any of the emotional drama that would have made the characters more effective. Again there is no justification for Vadivu’s ever more extreme devotion to Kaali, and although there is a little more substance behind Gomathi unrequited love, it doesn’t seem realistically likely to survive in the face of Vadivu’s determined rejection. However both Vedika and Prithviraj are good enough actors to generate some plausibility in their relationship and the tension between the two does become somewhat more palpable as the story develops. Without Prithviraj this really wouldn’t have had anything like the same impact, but he really does do a good job with very limited dialogue and little opportunity to demonstrate exactly why he feels the way he does.

Vasanthabalan also adds in a Nationalist thread to the plot which seems to be an unnecessary complication when more detailed development of the story and more in-depth characterisations of the three protagonists would have worked just as well, if not better. Once Kaali becomes a Nationalist, that too in a matter of moments while in prison, his fate is sealed and the ending is as predictable as expected. As Kaali, Siddharth comes away looking the best of the cast, partly because his character has more scope and inherent drama, but mainly because he really does an excellent job with the role. His performance is flawless and particularly in his scenes with Nasser there is a definite sense of the arrogance and self-confidence that underlies Kaali. Siddharth also nails the hurt and despair when Kaali is let alone in the world and his scenes with Nasser are superb. More of these and less of the bland romance would have been much better. Prithviraj and Vedika do as best as they can  within their limited roles and there are times in the second half where both get more of an opportunity to show more depth, but they are hampered by a lack of motivation for their characters actions which makes them too one-dimensional to be truly effective.

It’s perplexing that a film set in and all about theatre could end up so lifeless and devoid of melodrama, but that is exactly the problem with Kaaviya Thalaivan. I really wanted to like this film as I appreciate the attempt by Vasanthabalan to tackle something different,  but I just couldn’t engage with the characters and was completely frustrated by the lack of any reasonable justification for their actions. I know that’s my usual rant but it is so very noticeable here in a film where the motivation really should be key to developing the drama. However, the film looks amazing, Siddharth is fantastic and the music and songs are excellent. It’s a visual feast even if there is no substance to the spectacle and for that alone the film deserves to be seen and at least once.

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Jigarthanda

 

JigarthandaIt was only the hope that Karthik Subbaraj would manage to at least equal his excellent début film Pizza that got me out of the house on a cold, wet and windy Melbourne night.  But in the end it was totally worth the trek across town to catch Jigarthanda and watch Bobby Simhaa completely steal the show as the slightly unhinged gangster Sethu.  Siddharth, Lakshmi Menon and Karunakaran round out the lead cast with excellent support from a multitude of actors, including a special appearance from Vijay Sethupathi.  It’s quite a long film and I felt that perhaps the final scene wasn’t absolutely necessary, but for the rest of the 2 hours and 50 minutes I was completely mesmerised by a rather different take on the blood and guts gangster film.

Siddharth is Karthik, an aspiring young film maker who has been given the chance of a lifetime to have his first movie financed by a leading producer (Naren), just as long as it’s an Indian version of the Godfather.  This isn’t quite what Karthik had planned as his début feature, but after his reporter uncle tells him about a particularly psychotic goondha in Madurai, he decides that he has found his perfect muse and heads off to the city that never sleeps to develop his script.

JigarthandaLuckily Karthik’s friend Oorni (Karunakaran) has space in his house while his pregnant wife is away, and Karthik loses no time in moving in and plotting a way to reach ‘Assault Sethu’.  Given that the opening scenes include a brutal and fairly horrific murder by the gang, this doesn’t really seem to be a very safe plan, but over Oorni’s quite sensible objections Karthik starts to stalk various members of the gang in an attempt to get close to Sethu.  The first half of the film mixes equal parts of comedy and action as Karthik and Oorni bumble around ineffectually trying to discover more about Sethu’s early life, while Sethu and his gang very efficiently do what any self-respecting psychotic Madurai bad guys do to earn a daily crust.  Amid all the mayhem, Karthik runs into Kayal (Lakshmi Menon), who has an interesting side-line which puts her on the shady side of the law, although she mainly helps her mother providing food for the gang.  This potentially gives Karthik a way into Sethu’s world although it doesn’t quite work out the way he plans.

Siddarth is much better than I was expecting as the rather nerdy and intellectual film maker who is initially childishly thrilled by his exposure to the darker side of life and the excitement of gangsters in the flesh.  The inevitable change to horror as the reality of Sethu’s brutality and unpredictable viciousness becomes only too apparent is also well depicted, while his portrayal of Karthik’s despondency and resigned acceptance in the second half is pretty much perfect.  There is some excellent writing here as Karthik’s character is perfectly represented by the script, and Siddharth adds charm and general likeability along with technical prowess.  Alongside Siddharth, Karunakaran is impressive in a role that seems made for him, and his bumbling friend persona drives much of the comedy with very funny one-liners.  The various gang members also get plenty of one-liners and there is some excellent situational comedy, particularly in the second half, which is frequently unexpected but beautifully written into the main storyline.  The gang seems composed of the usual suspects in such films, but they seem even better than normal here.  Perhaps it’s because they get a chance to be three-dimensional and they have definitive and separate personalities here which helps drive the story and has the added bonus of providing more background to the character of Sethu.

JigarthandaLakshmi Menon doesn’t have a very big role in the proceedings but her presence proves to be pivotal in a number of instances and her character is generally realistically depicted.  She makes an impact even with her limited amount of screen-time and definitely holds her own against the rest of the mostly louder and brasher cast.  She’s certainly not just a love interest and I do like the way Karthik Subbaraj includes his female characters as having a definite personality and not just defining them by their relationship with the hero, even if he still doesn’t manage to give them much of a role in the story.

The real star of the film though is Bobby Simhaa, who growls and menaces convincingly as a cold-hearted killer and somehow manages to genuinely appear unstable.  Some of his best moments are undoubtedly as he narrates his past murders to the camera when he is frighteningly chilling, but Simhaa also delights in scenes where he is attempting to act, or deal with the attempts on his life from other gangsters in Madurai.  He switches effortlessly between drama, action and comedy and so much more besides. It’s an absolutely inspired performance in a cleverly written role which really does encompass almost every possible reaction as the story unfolds.

JigarthandaThe film also benefits from excellent camera work from Gavemic Ary along with clever use of the different sets to help develop the various characters.  Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack sounds modern and edgy, yet fits perfectly into the film, while the background score enhances the visuals without becoming overpowering.  Generally the songs are used as background for story development with only one full choreographed number in the film – but it is well worth waiting for.  After all, it’s not often you get to experience an Indian brass band playing along with dance performances from a rowdy and cut-throat group of gangsters! Pandi Naatu Kodi makes a brief appearance in this trailer and it is just superb!

Ultimately, Jigarthanda succeeds because of Karthik Subbaraj’s intelligent and well plotted storyline which features plenty of unexpected twists, novel situations and a very funny script.  Although there are distinct differences between the two halves of the film, there is plenty of black humour throughout and the mixture of comedy and action overall works well in delivering an entertaining film.  I still think it could have been 10 minutes shorter and delivered just as effective an ending, but Jigarthanda is definitely one of my top movies of the year so far and I’m already putting the DVD on my wishlist.  I highly recommend watching in the cinema if you can – it’s really that good!

Theeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru

Theeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru

I’m really not a Hansika fan and tend to avoid her in movies as much as possible, but with nothing else releasing here this weekend I decided to risk it and headed out to watch the latest Sundar C. romantic comedy Theeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru.  Rather surprisingly I enjoyed it! Haniska wasn’t too annoying mainly due to limited time onscreen, the film made me laugh even without subtitles and judging by the audience reaction it was even funnier if you did understand the dialogue.  Siddharth and Santhanam make a good comedy team and with the help of a good support cast, the film turned out to be well worth the drive out to the bijou cinema at Monash.

Theeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru

The story is fairly straight-forward, easy to follow and doesn’t break any new ground.  Siddharth is Kumar, a bit of a nerd who works in an IT company where he’s essentially just another anonymous worker. At home he has a loving family who have a history of romantic marriages and seem to care for Kumar despite his generally apathetic attitude towards life. Although he works in an office full of women, Kumar doesn’t seem to have much interest in romance, but then the beautiful Sanjana (Hansika Motwani) starts working at the same company and suddenly Kumar falls in love.  Sanjana has to put up with the masses of frustrated IT workers falling at her feet, but seems to show a preference for office hero and all-round overachiever George (Ganesh Venkatraman). This could be the influence of a string ensemble and massive bouquet of flowers, but to be fair with his looks, success at work and dedication to romance, George really has a lot going for him.

Theeya Velai Seiyyanum KumaruTheeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru

Seeing that his affair is destined to fail unless he takes some kind of action, Kumar consults love guru Mokia (Santhanam) to try and help him win the girl of his dreams.  With Mokia’s help, Kumar learns how to ditch the glasses and nerdy attitude but also discovers that devious deception is the way to win a girl’s heart.  Having used Mokia’s often dodgy advice, Kumar gets the girl but discovers that using unscrupulous means doesn’t mean that he will be able to keep the girl, especially when Mokia discovers exactly who it is that Kumar has been chasing.

Santhanam and Siddharth

The real star of the film is Santhanam who keeps the laughs coming and makes an effective partnership with Siddharth.  This is a role that Siddharth has played before but he is less hyperactive than usual and his geeky Kumar is just realistic enough to garner some sympathy for his ineptness. Santhanam suits this type of comedy where his character doesn’t just rely on one-liners but rather uses some physical comedy and his facial expressions to good effect.  Although his love guru is strictly in it for the money he does still manage to make Kumar more presentable and increases his confidence levels despite his rather dubious methodology.  Quite an impressive effort given what he had to work with and his own style choices.

Theeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru

The support cast also add to the comedy and include a number of faces from TV including RJ Balaji and Bosskey who are both effective in their roles.  I don’t know the names of the actresses who played Sanjana’s friends at her lodgings, but they are good value and make the scenes with Hansika less excruciating to watch as well as having some genuinely funny moments of their own.  Manobala pops up as a brothel owner rather appropriately attired in red silk while Samantha and Vishal Krishna also make brief guest appearances.

Hansika doesn’t have a lot to do except look pretty and she actually does look much better than her last few films.  I’m not sure if she dubbed for herself in this film but her voice is rather screechy and irritating, although at least she doesn’t get a lot of dialogue.  Sundar C. has kept her role to a minimum and she is fine as the love interest, although there is minimal chemistry between her and Siddharth.

What doesn’t work so well though are the songs – the one above is probably the best of the bunch. All are pictured on Siddharth and Hansika and between Siddarth’s dreadful clothes and Hansika’s woeful dancing they really drag despite some pleasant locations. Hansika really can’t dance and to make her try to move in high heeled shoes and boots is just cruel, but somehow also quite amusing. In the pictures below you can see the high heels that she tries to dance in which perhaps goes some way to explain why she looks so stiff and inhibited.  There are times where it’s obvious she’s concentrating really hard on the steps, but that doesn’t seem to help and she looks very restrained compared to Siddharth.  Overall the choreography isn’t impressive and the backing dancers in Japan are particularly odd which adds to the overall disappointment.

Theeya Velai Seiyyanum KumaruTheeya Velai Seiyyanum KumaruTheeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru

If the songs are disappointing, at least the comedy is of a much higher quality and the cast do an excellent job of keeping the film from dragging.  Of course I noticed that Siddharth gets to wear some trendy glasses (as do quite a few of the cast) and there is a brief contact lens interlude which I appreciated. The humour is genuinely funny throughout and both Santhanam and Siddharth are engaging and work well to compliment each other.  Although the rest of the cast add to the comedy it’s all reasonably subtle (for Tamil comedy!) and best of all there are no terrible comedy uncles.   Overall Theeya Velai Seiyyanum Kumaru is a non-taxing and amusing watch which may not tread any new ground but does manage to entertain successfully.  And after all, that’s a lot more than I was expecting.