Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018)

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Mani Ratnam’s latest is a surprisingly conventional crime drama that pits three brothers against each other as they vie to take over their father’s gangster business. Unusually there is little character development for each of the brothers, so it does take some time to become connected to the film and get to grips with exactly who is who (and who is sleeping with who). However, the finale is excellent and does keep you guessing right up until the end, while Vijay Sethupathi, Arvind Swami and Jyothika are all superb throughout.

Prakash Raj plays the ageing gangster Senapathi who survives an attack by two assassins dressed as police officers at the start of the film. His wife Lakshmi (Jayasudha) is also in the car, and it’s interesting that their conversation prior to the attack mentions Sena’s infidelities rather than introducing the family members or focusing on the crime empire. However, it’s not until the end that this and other snippets of information come together to make a satisfying whole and many of the seemingly throwaway statements are much more revealing than they initially seem.

Sena’s three sons all return home as their father and mother are rushed to hospital and it doesn’t take long until they are all at each other’s throats, arguing over who will take their father’s place. The eldest son Varadan (Arvind Swami) complains that Sena treats him as just another henchman, when he feels that he deserves better and has the best claim to inherit his father’s empire. The middle son Thyagu (Arun Vijay) lives in Dubai where he spends most of his time on a yacht discussing real estate projects with wealthy Arab backers. He seems to be more a businessman than a gangster and his stylish dress and polished wife reinforce that impression. The youngest son Ethi (Silambarasan) is a drug and gun runner currently based in Serbia and definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, a fact he seems to accept without too much rancour.

None of these men appear to have what it takes to run a criminal network as they indulge in petty arguments and spiteful digs at each other. Each has their own flaws that seem to disqualify them for the top job. Varadan is the most like his father but he lacks initiative and follows a predictable and well-trodden path as he pursues his father’s attackers. Varadan immediately accuses his father’s rival Chinnappadasan (Thiagarajan) of being behind the attack but it seems to be the easy option and doesn’t require Varadan to be anything other than the thug he has always been. Thyagu is slick and more polished, but despite his cutthroat business skills, he seems to lack the violent mentality needed to maintain control over the motley collection of gangsters so, despite his egotistical belief that he is the obvious choice of heir, he seems unlikely to survive long in Chennai. Ethi is unpredictable and erratic, and doesn’t seem to have the necessary concentration span to be able to successfully run a crime business.

Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi) is Varadan’s childhood friend, and the two have remained close over the years despite Rasool being a police officer. At the start of the film, Rasool is suspended from the police force for an overzealous attack on a student, so he has plenty of time to help out his friend while attempting to get his suspension overturned. As the brothers squabble amongst themselves, Rasool is always there to help keep the peace, just as long as he stays off the alcohol.

Varadan is married to Chitra (Jyothika) who is loyal to her husband despite his affair with TV reporter Parvathi (Aditi Rao Hydari). She’s an incredibly strong character who seems determined to hold the family together through the sheer force of her willpower alone, but when the brothers finally descend into open warfare all her support is with her husband in spite of everything he as done. At one point I was hopeful that Chitra was going to turn out to be the last one standing, but alas that wasn’t to be and she stays true to her character until the bitter end. Thyagu’s wife Renu (Aishwarya Rajesh) is less supportive of her husband, particularly when she ends up in jail after drugs are hidden in their apartment, while Ethi’s shortlived romance with Chaaya (Dayana Erappa) seems to only be included to act as the catalyst for his later suspicions when Chaaya is shot and killed on their honeymoon.

Initially the brothers unit in their search for the men behind the attack on Sena, but after Sena’s death it turns into a free for all as Ethi and Thyagu team up in opposition to Varadan, while accusations fly as to who was the real culprit behind the assassination attempt. Chinnappadasan is also out for blood after the brothers target his family and kill his son-in-law while the police have also vowed not to stand-by and let the gangster take over the city. The death toll rises inexorably as the brothers get closer and closer to finally determining who will take Sena’s place as head kingpin and their various rivals also close in for the kill.

The problem here is that for most of the film the brothers are only lightly sketched and we don’t know why they have chosen to act as they do. The women in their life are even more broadly drawn with just enough detail to know who they are and how they relate to Sena and his sons. There is a daughter as well, but she appears only briefly during the celebration for her new baby and I didn’t even manage to catch her name. This lack of any real motivation for the brothers makes it difficult to relate to their characters and, since none of them are particularly likeable, it’s also hard to decide who to support in their struggle to take over the top spot. Some of the support cast also appear to be completely superfluous, and it’s not until quite late in the story that the reason for the inclusion of, for example, Parvathi or Chaaya, becomes clear. But once the final twist in the tale is revealed, suddenly everything makes more sense, and many of the scenes with Lakshmi, Chitra and the others take on a deeper meaning. As too does the squabble between the brothers, and that ensures Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a much more intriguing film than it first appears.

A.R. Rahman’s music threads through the screenplay with different themes recurring as the characters come and go, and the songs mostly occur in snippets over pieces of the action. Santosh Sivan is in charge of cinematography and does a very capable job, although what is most interesting is what is not shown except in brief glimpses, almost too fast to catch. In keeping with the twist at the end, the final images of Rasool and the three brothers in a circling jeep at the top of a cliff are the most stunning. The ground is a rich red, while the sky is a vibrant blue and the sea a restless azure, making a vivid contrast between the stark but grandiose scenery and the petty, backstabbing action taking place in the jeep.

This is a film that I want to see again now that I know the ending. I suspect that there are clues scattered along the way although on reflection I can only identify a few, and I know that more will becone clear on a second watch through. I also didn’t catch the music as well as I should as I was concentrating too much on the action. The actors too appear much better on looking back, as the whole point of that lack of characterisation and interaction is only revealed at the end. It’s hard to say much without revealing the final twist but it’s the end that does make Chekka Chivantha Vaanam well worth watching and overall one of Mani Ratnam’s better films, despite the initial slow build.

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Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa

A number of people recommended this film to me, and I really should have listened to them and watched it sooner!  VTV (to save on space!) released earlier this year and was an instant hit.  Much of its success must lie with the performances from the two leads – Silambarasan (Simbhu) and Trisha as much as from the excellent direction, beautiful music by A R Rahman and a very realistic story.  The title, which is translated to ‘Will you reach for me across the sky’ is actually a lyric from Minsara Kanavu, a film by Rajiv Menon, and this is credited in the opening titles – a very nice touch.

The film is the story of a relationship between Karthik and Jessie.  Karthik sees Jessie walking along his street shortly after his family has moved in, and falls instantly in love with her.  One of the few typical filmi devices used in the film.

 

 

 

 

Jessie is his neighbour, and as Karthik sees her every day he tries various ways to get her attention.  After exchanging meaningful glances and brief conversations he eventually blurts out that he loves her, and she instantly tries to dissuade him.  She is Malayali Christian while Karthik is Tamil Hindu and Jessie knows that her family will never consent to the match. Despite this and her initial reluctance Karthik pursues Jessie, but we never feel that this is creepy filmi stalker love.

He is very open in his admiration and Jessie appears to reciprocate – she obviously has feelings for Karthik, but her upbringing and the fact that she is trying very hard to stay true to her family’s values means that she holds him at arm’s length.

This indecision is wonderfully depicted in a scene in the train back to Chennai.  Karthik has followed Jessie to her family’s home in Kerala and after managing to meet her, he catches the same train home.  We can see Jessie’s developing feeling for Karthik warring with her loyalty to her family.  She is attracted to Karthik, perhaps even excited by his obvious adoration of her, and while she wants to kiss him, and take things further, she is reluctant to take those steps.

This realism is what makes the story so compelling.  Karthik’s frustration is very evident – both with Jessie when she blows hot and cold, and with the whole situation.  He clearly just wants her to be with him, and has no real thought to her family and the consequences to her if she marries him since his family does not seem to have the same reservations.

Whereas Jessie has seen the problems caused when her sister fell for a man her father did not approve of, and doesn’t want the same pain for herself.  Almost in spite of herself we see her fall in love with Karthik and then struggle with how to reconcile her family and her love.

The couple is often pictured with the gate, or some other barrier between them very poignantly illustrating their troubled relationship.  In fact, they are often not shot together, and the camera switches between them.

But when they are together they look fantastic and the chemistry between them zings!  Karthik is an aspiring film director, and this is cleverly worked into the film.  However it’s another source of their separation as Jessie doesn’t watch films, and Karthik ends up going to Goa for a shoot.  Yet another divide is the age difference – Karthik is a year younger than Jessie.  Despite all of this, and in spite of Jessie’s family’s opposition, their romance flourishes.

The end comes as somewhat of a surprise for such a romantic story, but is absolutely brilliant and just works!  The Telugu version, shot simultaneously with Naga Chaitanya and Samantha, has a different ending which for me diluted the film’s impact, making it less powerful and memorable.

Both leads in this film are fantastic in their roles, and have great chemistry together.  They convey their growing attraction to each other in such subtle but very natural ways adding to the realism of the film.  Since the whole story revolves around them, their performance has to be perfect to capture the audience’s attention, and they succeed admirably.  I haven’t seen Simbhu before, and while I’ve read that this isn’t his typical type of role, I will definitely keep an eye out for more of his films.  Gautham deserves much praise for the restrained way in which he handles the screenplay.  The soundtrack is beautiful and the songs by Rahman add to the whole romantic feel of the film.  Even the more upbeat numbers contribute to the overall feel of the film.  As always for his music, I was left singing the songs, (or rather humming along since I don’t speak Tamil), for weeks afterwards.

The supporting actors are really just there to provide reactions to the main couple, but all do a good job in their much less realised roles.  Ganesh is very good as Karthik’s friend, while Kitty as Karthik’s father and Babu Anthony as Jessie’s make the most of their small roles.   The conflict between Jessie’s father and brother and Karthik is very well played, and their interactions with Jessie are also well depicted.  A clever touch is that the Telugu leads play the roles of Jessie and Karthik in his film within the film, and vice versa in the Telugu version.

The other standout of the film is the scenery, captured so well on camera by Manoj Paramahamsa.  The locations, particularly in Malta for the songs and in Kerala, are stunningly beautiful.  And what a way to arrive for your wedding!Perhaps the only flaw to this film is that it is paced quite slowly.  There is only 1 fight scene and not a machete in sight!  However this approach worked for me considering the subject matter, and I was never bored.  In fact I absolutely loved this film!  The story is simply and well told and the actors are amazing.  5 stars. Heather