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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Kaakka Muttai

Kaakka Muttai

Kaakka Muttai is a little gem of a film that premièred at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and subsequently screened at a number of Film Festivals around the world before winning two National Awards earlier this year. It tells the story of two young brothers and their quest to raise money to buy a pizza when a new shop opens up in their area. However this isn’t as easy as it sounds. The two boys live in a slum area and finding enough money for their day-to-day necessities is difficult, never mind Rs. 299 for something as exotic as a pizza. As they set about achieving their goal, the story touches on poverty, corruption in politics, globalisation and the daily cons run by locals in the area, but mainly it’s the story of two young boys and their quest to buy their very own pizza.

We never find out the real names of the two brothers in the film as they refer to themselves as Periya Kaakka Muttai (big crow’s egg) and Chinna Kaakka Muttai (little crow’s egg) after their habit of eating crows eggs when they can find them. Chinna KM (Ramesh) tempts the crows down from a tree with rice secreted away from under his mother’s watchful eye, allowing Periya KM (Vignesh) to climb up and find the eggs. Their nest robbing is one of the early scenes and the charm of the two brothers is captured by Periya KM’s response when he finds 3 eggs in the crow’s nest – he divides them up as one egg for each of the brothers and one left for the crow – such equality!

The two brothers live in the slums with their mother (Iyshwarya Rajesh) and their grandmother (Shanthi Mani) while their father (Nivas Adithan) is in jail. They live in a small one room shack which is clean, tidy and incredibly well organised despite the surrounding squalor on the streets. Much of the family’s money goes to a lawyer, who is supposed to be working to free their father, but there seems to be no progress in securing his release. There is never any mention of the father’s crime or how long he has been in prison which deliberately keeps the audience in the world of the children who also have no idea what their father has done and don’t seem to care.

This technique of showing their world through the eyes of Periya KM and Chinna KM is one of the charms of the film. Life is simple for the brothers. They look for the crows’ eggs on a waste piece of land where their friends play cricket, spending the rest of their day collecting coal along the railway lines and selling it to supplement their mother’s meagre income.  Like all children they ask their mother for things well outside what she can afford; a TV and a mobile phone seem impossible when she cannot even afford to send the boys to school but the brothers happy go lucky approach to life seems to serve them well. However one day the developers move in and the land where the crow makes its nest and the children play is cleared to make way for a new pizza restaurant. Despite being forced out the children are ecstatic when the new pizzeria is completed and movie star Simbu comes to open the restaurant and eats the first slice of pizza. Watching him enjoy the novel dish is enough to convince the brothers that this is something they need to try for themselves and they begin the arduous task of raising the necessary money to buy their own pizza.

They are aided in their venture by a friend from the railroad tracks. Pazharasam (Joe Malloori) or Fruitjuice as the subtitles decide to translate his name, works on the railways but is happy to talk to the two boys and helps them find coal to sell. It’s obvious to the audience that the coal he leads them to is not free for the taking, but Periya KM and Chinna KM don’t seem to realise that this isn’t just a pile of forgotten coal and are deliriously happy that they have found the means to raise enough money to finally buy pizza. However they are quickly brought back down to earth when the restaurant security immediately calls them slum kids and refuses to let them in to buy their pizza even though they have sufficient funds. Just having the money isn’t enough and Periya KM and Chinna KM have a new goal – to raise enough money to buy new clothes that will allow them to entry to the pizzeria and their dream of pizza.

Vignesh and Ramesh are perfectly cast as the two young brothers and have plenty of impish charm and infectious energy as they roam around their area. There are plenty of note-worthy moments and small vignettes that give the whole film a feel good factor that is normally missing in films about slum dwellers. Watching the brothers wash clothes (Chinna KM wets the bed every night) allows Manikandan to juxtapose the younger brother throwing up wet clothes for his older brother to catch and hang up with a moment where the elder is distracted by watching a plane go past in the sky. His younger brother hits him in the face with the next item and the laughter chases away that brief moment of dreaming by Periya KM. There is another where Chinna M finds a toy watch in the scrap yard where they sell their coal and then takes it to a watch maker to make it work – the mix of Chinna KM’s delight in something so small as the watchmakers magnifier and his innocence as he tries to understand why his watch doesn’t work makes for beautiful cinema.

And Manikandan keeps them coming – there is the grandmother trying to make pizza for the boys when she discovers how desperately they want it, the boys attempting to sell their dog to raise money and their friendship with a richer kid who they speak to across the barrier of a metal fence. The physical barrier is nowhere near as daunting as the social divide which keeps Periya KM and Chinna KM firmly in their place but their determination is inspiring. Iyshwarya Rajesh too puts in an incredible performance as the boys’ mother and perfectly balances pride, ethics and desperation as she tries to cope without her husband and bring up her boys as best as she can. Later scenes of her interactions with the local politician and with the police are perfectly done to give her grace and dignity in trying situations and the conversations between her and the grandmother are beautifully natural. In fact all the performances are excellent with each member of the cast seemingly perfectly in their roles. Other stand-outs are Ramesh Thilak and Yogi Babu as the two local conmen trying to make a quick buck out of the brothers misfortune and Babu Anthony as the pizza shop owner, while Joe Malloori and Shanthi Mani are simply brilliant.

Manikandan makes an impressive début with Kaakka Muttai, not just writing and directing the film but also responsible for the cinematography. At any rate he makes the slums look much better than expected, giving them an almost magical appearance as seen through the eyes of the two brothers, although there is plenty of grim reality there too. However our eyes tend to slide past the garbage and debris, maybe because no-one else seems to notice it either. Manikandan seems to be an expert in multi-tasking and perhaps it’s his control over so many aspects of the film that explains why Kaakka Muttai is so completely satisfying too. The story shows the negative aspects of poverty but also illustrates that there is beauty everywhere, even in the slums, and that people are people, no matter where they come from.  I totally loved this film and particularly the two KM’s who remind me so much of the children I work with in India every year. I love their optimism and resourcefulness, and most of all their wonderful smiles and endless joy. Sure, this is a sugar coated view of the slums and there is little of the expected violence and absolute despair, but as a look at poverty through the eyes of two young boys it’s a winner all the way. Don’t miss it! 5 stars

Kaakka Muttai