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.

Drishyam (2013)

Drishyam

I started to watch Drishyam late one night intending to just watch the first half, but found I couldn’t tear myself away until I’d seen all 2 hours and 44 minutes of the film – it’s that kind of movie.  Although it starts simply enough by drawing a picture of a fairly conventional family, it develops into a fascinating thriller where it’s difficult to predict exactly what will happen next.  The very ordinariness of the family makes their reactions and those of the other characters unexpected, while the developments in the plot are surprising at every turn.  There are a few moments where the story falters a little, but overall it’s intelligently written to show the effects of a sudden crisis and how important it is for a family to stick together when faced with adversity. Great performances by all the cast and beautiful cinematography contribute to make Drishyam compelling viewing and it’s definitely one of the best Malayalam films I’ve seen recently.

The film has a fairly slow beginning as writer/director Jeethu Joseph spends the first hour developing the characters of George Kutty and his family, focusing on their day to day interactions with each other and various other people they meet.  George Kutty (Mohanlal) operates a cable TV business in a small village near Thodupuzha.  He’s an orphan who never made it any further than 4th standard at school, but he has a wealth of knowledge gleaned from watching films all night long in his office.

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George Kutty is married to Rani (Meena) who generally seems content with her life despite putting up with her husband’s absences at night and his obsession with saving money.  They have two children, Anju (Ansiba Hassan) and Anu (Esther), and the family lives in a pretty house surrounded by banana trees and woodland. It all seems, if not idyllic at least comfortable and happy, although there are of course the dull routines and petty squabbles that occur in any family.  Jeethu Joseph uses each family member’s small ambitions to round out their characters and define their relationships while gradually building up the background for the rest of the story.  What also stands out is that despite the bickering and George Kutty’s somewhat eccentric lifestyle, there is a lot of love in the family and the marriage is built on very solid ground.

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When not in his office or sitting at home, George Kutty spends his time in a local tea shop where he uses his knowledge of films to solve other people’s problems and if that just happens to antagonise the moderately corrupt Constable Sahadevan (Kalabhavan Shajohn), so much the better.  Sahadevan is a bully who extorts money through a variety of petty schemes and his character is best summed up by a brief scene where he happily steals money from a man whose child is in hospital.  Such a nasty man, and beautifully played by Kalabhavan Shajohn who does a fantastic job of displaying Sahadevan’s mean-spirited character and giving his emotions free rein. Part of the intrigue of the story is that this dishonest policeman becomes the unlikely pursuer of justice although his methods are definitely unethical and disturbing.

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While the first half of the film introduces George Kutty and his family, the second half deals with what happens when the police suspect they are complicit in the disappearance of the Inspector General’s son.  Geetha Prabhakar (Asha Sarath) plays the part of the IG, and it’s a pleasant surprise to have a high ranking female officer as a main character.   Perhaps this is as a counterbalance to George Kutty’s firmly held belief that a woman belongs at home, but it also brings a very different dynamic to the film.

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Geetha is the one making all the decisions while her husband (Siddique) is the voice of reason and conciliation in the background.  The missing Varun Prabhakar (Roshan Basheer) is a typically spoilt rich kid, and there is the inevitable cliché here that rich kids are bad, while kids from lower and middle socio-economic backgrounds are always good and righteous. Geetha doesn’t believe George Kutty’s version of events and is determined to prove that his family are lying even though the local police officers (with the exception of Sahadevan) are convinced of George Kutty’s innocence and are reluctant to get involved.

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It’s mesmerising and even though the audience knows the true sequence of events, subsequent outcomes are impossible to anticipate as everyone brings their own needs and responsibilities into the mix.  Keeping to the thriller aspect of the film, there are only 2 songs in the whole film.  Both are well used to describe George Kutty and the dynamics within the family.  The first shows them on a happy shopping expedition while the second illustrates the change in family attitude when the police start to suspect they may have something to hide.  This is the first happy song which does an excellent job of summing up the family and their personalities.

Part of the film’s effectiveness is due to the high standard of acting from all involved.  Mohanlal is outstanding as are the two young actors who play his daughters.  Meena, Asha Sarath and Kalabhavan Shajohn are all also excellent and from Sahadevan’s brutal interrogations and shifty plotting to Geetha’s desperate attempt to balance her police persona with a mother’s concern for her missing son, the actions all feel genuine and typical of the characters involved. The dialogue seems natural, even with the barrier of subtitles, and the only apparent misstep occurs at the very end where Geetha appears to act a little out of character.  However it’s a small thing and does allow the story to be completely wrapped up Hollywood style.  Personally I would have liked a little less explanation and have been left to form my own theory, but that could be just me.

DrishyamDrishyamDrishyamDrishyamThe film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Sujith Vasudev and once the family is under suspicion the threat of prison is accentuated by the number of shots behind barred windows.  There are also some good contrasts between George Kutty’s family and the extended ‘family’ of the police and the lone outsider of Sahadevan.  By the end of the film a number of small throwaway moments are shown to have more significance than they appeared to have at the time, which shows just how effective good story development and intelligent writing can be.  Everything was there to be seen for anyone who looked, but the film shows that what we see can be easily manipulated and misinterpreted when it is outside expectations. Definitely recommended viewing but be warned not to start watching too late at night as it’s impossible to stop!  4 ½ stars.