Drishyam 2

Often sequels disappoint when compared to the original, but Drishyam 2 is one of the rare exceptions to the rule. In another departure (as sequels can have only a tenuous connection to the original), the film continues the events depicted in Drishyam, where Georgekutty was under suspicion for the disappearance of the local IGA’s son. Each piece of the puzzle is meticulously crafted to seamlessly follow on a few years from where we left the family and the police investigation. The twists and turns are excellent, and the story is put together with a good blend of emotion and character development underlying the plot. There is a core of logic that ensures everything that happens is indeed possible, even if not probable, and it does all make sense. This is smart filmmaking and with such an excellent cast reprising their roles, Drishyam 2 is a sequel not to miss.

The past 6 years have not been kind to Georgekutty (Mohanlal) and his wife Rani (Meena) despite growing his business and opening a movie theatre. While initially the townspeople were supportive, there is developing resentment of Georgekutty’s financial success. Rani has been affected by the police investigation and is constantly fearful, asking a neighbour to stay with her when Georgekutty is away from home overnight and always seeming to watch over her shoulder. Their eldest daughter Anju (Ansiba Hassan) suffers from PTSD and epilepsy after the events of Drishyam, although younger daughter Anu (Esther Anil) is happily getting on with her life. Georgekutty has worked to develop his business while also working on writing and producing a film with screenwriter Vinayachandran (Saikumar). But despite his outward success, the police haven’t given up on the case of the missing, presumed murdered Varun, and IGP Thomas Bastin (Murali Gopy) is continuing investigations quietly in the background. This leaves Georgekutty anxious and vigilant even though he tries to carry on life as usual.

The film plays heavily on emotions when Varun’s father Prabhakar (Siddique) approaches Georgekutty and pleads for the body of his son, so that they can bury him and have closure. Naturally Georgekutty denies that he knows where Varun’s body can be found, but the scene is so well written that it seems possible that Georgekutty will crack and reveal what happened on the night Varun disappeared. Also notable is the subterfuge around the family where neighbours aren’t quite what they appear and even Anu’s college friends are secretly reporting back to police. Suddenly Georgekutty’s paranoia about discussing anything to do with the case is shown to be a wise move as a possible witness comes forward and the police pull the family back in for questioning.

What works well with this sequel is that it fits seamlessly into the narrative from the first film. Neighbours and friends who were initially backing Georgekutty and his family after the brutal interrogation of Anju and Anu are now sure that the family is guilty, and that Varun was innocent. In the local café, although owner Sulaiman (Kozhikode Narayanan Nair) is convinced of his innocence, the local auto drivers discuss rumours of murder openly and are convinced that Georgekutty is guilty. While Georgekutty’s success as a businessman seems to be behind some of their enmity, for many it simply appears that there is no other explanation for Varun’s disappearance, so the family must be guilty.

The story develops slowly, with most of the focus on the fear and guilt suffered by Rani and Anju. Despite no guilty verdict ever having been reached, the family is punished every day for Varun’s disappearance. Anju’s inability to cope with the outside world, Rani’s continuing fear and even Georgekutty’s paranoia have trapped the family in a cycle of anxiety and uncertainty which seems more profound than the distress suffered by Geetha (Asha Sarath) and Prabhakar. In contrast, the police investigation this time seems more targeted and less emotional, and although IGP Bastin is a friend of Geetha he brings a methodical and reasoned approach to the inquiry. As the tension mounts, Georgekutty has to defend his family once more as the evidence piles up against them.

Mohanlal is the standout performer here with the entire film hinging on his ability to deceive everyone and come up with a plan time and time again. He’s calm with the family, but Mohanlal ensures that his eyes show just how much stress Georgekutty is suffering and at times how trapped he feels. It’s a well nuanced performance that brings together bravado, intelligence and fear as the key elements defining Gerogekutty’s continued attempts to deceive everyone, including his own family. While the narrative may be of a man driven to extremes to defend his family, there also appears to be an underlying satisfaction with being able to outwit the rest of the community. The complex characterisation of Georgekutty is perfect, and Mohanlal pulls it off effortlessly in every scene. Meena too is excellent and shows her fear, anxiety and confusion with her hunched shoulders and dropped eyes as well as with her dialogue and expressions. I loved how well her relationship is developed with her next-door neighbour Saritha (Anjali Nair), particularly in how she stands up to Saritha’s abusive husband Sabu (Sumesh Chandran). I enjoyed the contrast between how she can stand up for Saritha but seems unable to show the same courage in her own life, presumably because the years of uncertainty are weighing her down. 

The slow build-up has a terrific pay off and the climax is as convoluted as any aficionado of detective fiction could want. Even if the events seem almost too impossible, there is still the slight chance that they could indeed have occurred. This is a film that cleverly tells a story but which also manages to explore emotions and delve into the consequences of getting away with murder. Well worth the 8 year wait, don’t miss this chance to catch up with Georgekutty and his family. 4 ½ stars.

Rangoon (2017)

Rangoon poster

Rajkumar Periasamy’s debut film is a crime thriller that mixes gold smuggling and kidnapping with friendship and betrayal to tell the story of Venkat (Gautham Karthik) and his two friends Kumaran (Lallu) and Tip Top (Daniel Annie Pope). The film moves between the lush landscapes of Myanmar with vibrantly green fields, sparkling water and gigantic gold Buddhas, to the crowded backstreets of Chennai and the Burmese area of the city near Sowcarpet. There is plenty of fascinating detail about the Burmese Tamil population that adds more layers into a story made engaging by numerous twists and good action sequences. Rajkumar Periasamy packs a lot into the run time of just over 2 hours and with the stunning scenery and excellent soundtrack it’s definitely well worth a watch.

The story starts with a young Venkat as he makes the move with his mother and sister from Myanmar to India, where his father has found work. The year is 1988 and the family move to a mainly Burmese Indian area of Chennai where the food is familiar and the locals all have a similar story to tell. Venkat immediately makes friends with Kumaran when he sees him playing Venkat’s favourite game of Chinlone and the two quickly become inseparable, especially after Venkat’s father is tragically killed shortly after their arrival in the city. Venkat grows into a fairly typical unemployed young man who worries his mother and amuses his friends, but there is little work in his area and his disillusionment means he jumps at the chance of a job when Kumaran introduces him to local gold merchant Gunaseela (Siddique).

However, all is not as it seems and in reality Gunaseela is a gold smuggler who is impressed by Venkat’s enthusiasm and business skills. Gunaseela slowly draws Venkat into the business by taking him to Singapore and showing him the basics of the smuggling trade. Venkat is given the responsibility of looking after his own shop and Gunaseela uses Venkat’s sense of responsibility and loyalty to further draw him into the illegal business. However, despite the shady method used to get the gold, the responsibility turns out to be the making of Venkat and he runs his shop as ethically as he can under the circumstances. It’s the small details Periasamy adds that make this part of the film so convincing, such as the way money is transferred to the dealers in Singapore via a totally unrelated shop and the various methods by which Gunaseela’s gold biscuits are smuggled into the country. The brashness of the smugglers and their nonchalant attitude to the police also ring true while a gold traders association where Gunaseela is a member is as dodgy as they come.

Where the film falls down though, is in the introduction of Natasha (Sana Makbul) as the love interest whose attractions are such that Venkat vows to turn respectable and give up the smuggling trade for good. Natasha is a singer and Venkat notices her when she sings the first lines of her song in Burmese. But Natasha’s background isn’t explored in any detail, and instead, as is usual for heroines in Tamil film, once she is established as the reason for Venkat’s decision to change his career, she is rapidly side-lined and only appears to act as a voice of conscience whenever one is needed. Venkat’s friends too get little in the way of character development which becomes something of a problem later on when the three head to Myanmar for one last big deal. Their motivations for coming on the trip are rather murky and some of the reactions don’t ring true, mainly because it’s hard to decide how they should be reacting, given the little that has been shown of their personalities. However, although most of the characterisations are superficial, both Venkat and Gunaseela fare rather better, and their relationship in particular is nicely explored with enough emotion to make it feel authentic and plausible.

There are some excellent twists in the second half but the fast-paced action takes centre stage and the film loses some coherence as characters appear and disappear before their relationship to the plot is established. However, the action is exciting and often unpredictable while the fight scenes are well choreographed, even if very much in the usual ‘hero beats unlimited number of attackers despite being unarmed’ style. The chase sequences where the police and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence attempt to catch Venkat and his friends are also excellent and the tension rises nicely as Venkat starts to run out of time to solve his problems, and his friends and family start to suffer as a consequence. The plot twists are well handled too, and are frequently unexpected, almost shocking at times, which adds to the tension of the second half.

Gautham Karthik really is good here and gets his emotional reactions just right, particularly when he returns to the land of his birth. His confusion and despair later on is perfectly done and fits well with his character’s loyalty and determination to ‘do the right thing’. He does have a voice-over which is occasionally annoying as the dialogue doesn’t relate well to the action taking place onscreen, although that may be a subtitle issue (I’m not convinced though, as generally the subtitles for Rangoon were excellent and included English idioms and slang terms appropriately). What works best is his relationship with Gunaseela and the father/son rapport they develop. This is helped by the jealous reactions of Gunaseela’s right hand man who lingers in the background as an ever-present threat, while Siddique is smooth and supportive right up until things don’t go his way.

The rest of the cast are good and although Lallu and Daniel Annie Pope don’t get a lot to do until the second half, once they get a chance both are impressive despite their limited dialogue. The background music and songs from Vishal Chandrasekhar and Vikram RH fit well into the film while Anish Tharun Kumar does an excellent job with the cinematography ensuring an exotic feel to the portions set in Burma and Singapore while keeping a local and more homely feel to Chennai. Plus there are lots of shots of the food which looks amazing!

Rangoon

The story of Rangoon is excellent and the action well integrated into the screenplay, but the film really didn’t need the romance which comes across as a commercial gimmick without adding anything important other than a couple of good songs. The support characters too needed more time onscreen together to develop their relationships with each other and the major characters, but the two main characters of Venkat and Gunaseela more than make up for these minor flaws, while the film’s various twists keep it entertaining right up to the end. I really enjoyed Rangoon with its mix of drama, action and thrills, and the different landscapes and detailed settings kept the background interesting and realistic. Recommended for the twisty plot, good performances and fast-paced second half.

Ustad Hotel

Ustad Hotel poster

After watching the excellent Bangalore Days I was on the lookout for more from writer/director Anjali Menon and director Anwar Rasheed, and luckily found their previous co-venture Ustad Hotel lurking in my pile of ‘to-be-watched’ DVD’s.  The other drawcard pushing this up the list was the appearance of Dulquer Salmaan, who has impressed so far in every performance I’ve seen and seems to have the knack of picking a good script. And once again, the combination does not disappoint. Ustad Hotel is a gem of a film and fully deserves the many accolades and awards received, including its three National Film Awards in 2012. The story is simple but beautifully executed with stunning cinematography and excellent performances from the whole cast. It’s a real feast for the senses given that most of the film revolves around food and cooking, so probably best not to watch on an empty stomach!

The film tells the story of Faizal (Dulquer Salmaan), commonly called Faizi, and the path he takes to find his true place in life. Along the way we see details of his different relationships – with his four sisters, his father and most importantly with his grandfather, the owner of the Ustad Hotel.

Faizi’s story starts before he is born when his father Abdul Razaq (Siddique) and mother Fareeda (Praveena) are expecting their first child. Abdul’s confidence that the baby will be a boy and his disappointment when this child, and the next three are all girls, sets our expectations for a typically traditional family and in the main this is what we get. By the time Faizi is finally born, his ambitious father has already planned out his son’s life, which leaves little room for what Faizi himself actually wants. Luckily Faizi has his four sisters who bring him up after their mother dies and seem to have his best interests at heart. His sisters know that he is training to be a chef in Switzerland while his father thinks he is studying for an MBA, but they aren’t impressed by his European girlfriend or by his plans to work in London. As a result they conspire to bring him back to India, but still keep his father in the dark about Faizi’s true plans.

At the same time Abdul has arranged a bride visit for Faizi as soon as he steps off the plane, but things don’t go well when Faizi tells his intended bride Shahana (Nithya Menon) of his intention to work as a chef. Faizi’s furious father confiscates his passport and in desperation Faizi turns to his grandfather Kareem (Thilakan) who runs a small beachside restaurant in Kozhikode.

Kareem acts as a mentor to Faizi and teaches him not only how to cook his famous biriyani, but also how to care for a business, including his workers, and the general community around him. The obvious respect which Kareem receives from everyone from his staff and customers, to the chef in the five-star hotel nearby, makes Faizi realise that there is more to his grandfather than he previously realised. Everyone sees him as Kareem’s grandson and that defines his place in a way that has never been so clear before.  The story is well crafted and the relationship between the two is beautifully developed as Kareem starts by making Faizi a general helper and gradually allows him to develop his cooking skills while ensuring he gains a more mature outlook on life.

Thilakan is perfect as Kareem and he is the glue that holds the story together. There is a twinkle in his eye as he describes running off with the bride from a wedding where he was employed to cook, and the wistful delight with which he describes watching rain in the desert is pitched just right. He has a number of maxims he lives by, including that every meal should feed the mind as well as the stomach and every glass of sulaimani should contain a little bit of love. With these simple words and by ensuring his workers all have extra funds should they need it, Kareem teaches Faizi how to be a good person, not just a good cook. He is a man who lives his life with no regrets and has compassion for all, which makes him the ideal mentor for Faizi.

Dulquer is also excellent, and while the role of a trendy young NRI returning to India may be straightforward, his Faizi does appear to be genuinely at a crossroads.  He imbues his character with plenty of charm but also gives Faizi an element of confusion and bewilderment that fits his indecision perfectly. Dulquer and Thilakan share wonderful chemistry and their relationship comes across as very genuine – the respected elder and the young apprentice both in the film and presumably also in real life given that this is only Dulquer’s second film. Mamukkoya also deserves special mention in his role as Ummar, Kareem’s manager and almost another member of the family. He is very natural in the role and his conversations with Kareem about Faizi are exactly what you would expect from an old and trusted employee asked to give his opinion on the wayward young member of the family.

Nithya Menon appears as the love interest for Faizi and her Shahana is an interesting character. At one moment she is wearing a burka and conforming to the demands of her rather strict family, but in the next she steals out and is singing in a rock band and wearing Western clothes. Nithya Menon is as wonderful as ever and even in her limited time onscreen she makes an impression, but I really would have liked to see a little more of her in the second half.

While Faizi deals with the repercussions of defying his father, he gets a job at the five-star hotel next door and has a chance to use his training to cook more Western style dishes, or ‘oag cosin’ as my subtitles call it! There is a plot to drive Kareem out of the hotel and close down the Ustad Hotel and finally Faizi makes a trip to Madurai to see just how cooking with love should be carried out. It all ties together perhaps a little too neatly at the end but it’s hard to complain when it’s all done so well with S Lokanathan’s stunning cinematography ensuring each scene looks perfect.

Ustad Hotel is a film that flows beautifully, blending adept characterisations, a heart-warming story and traditional Keralan cuisine into a very tasty dish indeed. There are a few quibbles; Faizi’s Western girlfriend is horribly stereotyped and the second half could have been a little shorter without losing too much of the story. The romance between Faizi and Shahana seems to go from awkwardness after her initial rejection to a friendly relationship well, but the jump to romance seems to happen off camera as the two are suddenly an item without any further development of their relationship. However these are small points in an otherwise excellent film. Well worth watching for Dulquer, Thilakan and Nithya along with all the glorious shots of food. 4 ½ stars.