NGK (2019)

NGK

Spoiler alert

I’m a big fan of both Suriya and Selvaraghavan and was intrigued to see how Selva would deal with a main stream hero given his usual character-driven and more unconventional style of film making. As it turns out, Selva has made room for both heroic gestures and quirky plot points in this tale of a young man’s rise to prominence in a political party, although ultimately neither meld particularly well together. In the end, the darkness of the storyline ensures NGK is still definitely a Selvaraghavan film, although only working in parts despite an understated, yet powerful performance from Suriya. There is a lot to unpack here, and I apologise for the spoilers which I haven’t been able to avoid in order to discuss certain aspects of the story.

Nandha Gopala Kumaran aka NGK (Suriya) is an organic farmer, living in a small town with his parents Ramanan (Nizhalgal Ravi) and Viji (Uma Padmanabhan). He’s married to Geetha (Sai Pallavi) and in the initial scenes both are completely besotted with each other to the point of irritating Viji with their romantic overtures. Kumaran is an organic farmer who has given up his city job to work the land with a group of like-minded idealists, but their livelihood is threatened by local traders and businessmen who want the farmers to buy their chemicals. Kumaran gets the idea of approaching his local MLA (Ilavarasu) from a neighbour Giri (Bala Singh) who works for the party. Giri has been beaten up by party men because he refused an inappropriate request from MLA Pandiyan’s but despite this, Giri still supports the party ideas. Straight from the start, it’s shown that the party elite are corrupt, lacking morals and purely interested in getting and keeping power. Kumaran uses his friend Raja (Rajkumar) who also works for the party to get an audience with Pandiyan, who agrees to stop intimidation of the farmers, but only if Kumaran enters politics and brings 500 of his own supporters into the party.

Interestingly, in these early scenes, Kumaran seems disgusted and repelled by Pandion, and is further antagonised by his bullying and repeated humiliations. But at some point Kumaran decides to kowtow and do everything Pandiyan wishes, including cleaning his toilet and supplying him with home-cooked food. What would help this transformation would be an explanation of why Kumaran decided to conform. Was it because he realised the power of politics and what he could potentially do if he managed to move up the ranks? Or was it simply to stop the humiliation, or perhaps even an attempt to shame Pandiyan into more moral behaviour? Sadly, none of the reasoning behind any of Kumaran’s choices are explained, although there are some pivotal events that we can assume helped shape his actions.

In the course of his transition to political power, Kumaran meets Vanathi (Rakul Preet Singh) who is a UK-educated political analyst tasked with helping the party win upcoming elections. Vanathi is impressed by Kumaran, presumably realising that his earnest demeanour and good looks will make him a good candidate to win over the voting public. Vanathi is an interestingly grey character who’s not above dirty tactics to discredit the opposition, although these are more about revealing the ruling party’s indiscretions rather than fabricating evidence to implicate chief minister Killivazhavan (Devaraj) and his minions. As Kumaran becomes more and more involved with the party, and by implication with Vanathi, Geetha starts to become jealous and finally accuses Kumaran of having an affair. Astonishingly (this is Suriya after all), Kumaran quickly admits his infidelity but it’s all the more shocking because there has been no hard evidence on screen and no real reason for the affair – after all, Kumaran had a wife he was supposedly besotted with waiting for him at home. Then too, his revelation is made somewhat passionlessly, but immediately followed up with a nasty challenge to Geetha asking her what she will do about it. So, was he just scratching an itch because he was away from home? Did he fall in love with the clever and politically sharp Vanathi – a world away from the more innocent Geetha? Or was it a more calculated ploy, to seduce the woman behind the party’s campaign for office for his own ambition?

Rakul Preet Singh is good in a role that starts off well, but which fades quickly once she (sigh) inevitably falls in love with Kumaran, despite her initial tough, woman-of-the-world persona. At least Vanathi has a reasonable character arc and she stays true to her own ideals throughout, apart from an unfortunate lapse during a dodgy romantic song which doesn’t fit with the rest of the screenplay at all. She still has values and these stand her in good stead as Kumaran becomes more manipulative and Vanathi gradually seems to realise what is happening. Sai Pallavi on the other hand doesn’t doesn’t fare as well as Geetha. Her initial interactions with Kumaran are too cloyingly sweet and over the top, while Geetha’s suspicion of an affair seem to come from nowhere, leading to some odd behaviours when she meets Vanathi. Her initial reaction to Kumaran’s affair is also strangely overdone, while the apparent acceptance in later scenes also doesn’t ring true, making Geetha a rather unsatisfactory and jarring presence onscreen. It’s odd since Selva’s female characters normally have strong characters and some reason for what they do, but here the women are all muted and take a very definite back seat to the main story.

Kumaran gradually changes throughout the story from an all-round nice guy to someone able to plot and scheme his way to success. What I can’t decide is if he turned to the dark side to win power to be able to help his people, or if he truly becomes corrupted to the point where he is prepared to use anyone to achieve his ends. The final scenes with Geetha and his parents suggest the latter, but I need to watch the film again to find more clues to his behaviour. I did pick up some. Selva uses changes in the lighting scheme here as he did in Pudhupettai to indicate some of the personality changes – changing from green to red lighting during a fight scene in an improbably cavernous bathroom, presumably to suggest Kumaran’s move towards more selfish motives. There are also questions around what really happens when Kumaran’s friend Raja dies, and his initial meeting with Vanathi definitely has more subtext, but I was concentrating too much on reading the subtitles to pick up on all the subtleties.

The glue holding the story together is Suriya, who forgoes his usual mass-style hero for an ambiguous character who definitely moves towards the wrong side of politics. It’s a subtle and almost low-key performance, although there is plenty of passion on show as Kumaran makes energetically impassioned speeches about farming and freedom, land and human rights, and inevitably ‘the common man’. Suriya gets across the definite sense that Kumaran is acting in all of his grand speeches, while still leaving his true motivation rather more ambiguous until the end, where his corruption appears to be complete. Here Selva has ensured that the film is very much about the star, and Suriya feels the space completely, including the requisite action scenes, dance moves and compelling charisma that end up defining the character too. Although the rest of the cast are good, they aren’t as memorable as Suriya, with the exception of Ilavarasu and Devaraj who have their own personality quirks.

Sivakumar Vijayan does a good job with the cinematography and overall the production is excellent even down to having readable subtitles in yellow font. Awesome! Yuvan Shankar Raja’s background soundtrack is good, and the few dance numbers are catchy enough, with the only real let down being the inappropriate romance track with Kumaran and Vanathi. It’s not a bad song, just oddly placed and bizarrely shot to show a romantic side to two characters who otherwise don’t appear passionate about each other at all. There are the characteristic dark themes and odd actions that remind you that this is a Selva film, but with Suriya front and centre, this is a more commercial and smoother film than his usual fare. The blend isn’t perfect but there is plenty here to keep you entertained, even enough for repeated viewings to see more of what is going on in the background. No doubt that will provide more clues and a clearer picture of just exactly who is NGK. I really enjoyed this, despite my issues with Geetha and occasional frustrations at not being able to decide exactly all the why’s. But then that is part of the genius of Selvaraghavan, to refuse to spoon feed his audience answers and keep everyone guessing. And even here with a mainstream hero in a more traditionally told story, he very nearly pulls it off.

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Kolamavu Kokila

Kolamavu Kokila

Nelson’s début film is a dark comedy that unusually for Tamil cinema, has a female lead and a strongly female-centric storyline.  Nayanthara is the titular Kokila who gets caught up in the drug trade when she needs to raise some money fast, but the success of the film is really down to the strong performances from Saranya Ponvannan and Yogi Babu, along with the family dynamics which help to keep the story grounded. I did struggle a little with some of the comedy as my DVD is not subtitled and the only subs I could find online were patchy and rarely made sense, but for the most part the story is self-explanatory and relatively easy to follow.

The film starts with gangster Bhai (Hareesh Peradi) flexing his muscles and getting rid of a police officer who has been interfering with his cocaine operation. Having convinced us that the drug dealers are a vicious bunch best avoided, the film then introduces Kokila (Nayanthara) who is looking for an increase in her sales assistant salary. She’s the main breadwinner in her family as her father’s job as an ATM security job doesn’t pay well and with her sister at college, every penny counts. However, her sleazy boss suggests that the only way she will get a raise is if she meets him after work and makes it worth his while, so Kokila promptly leaves her job to look for something more rewarding. She ends up working as the manager of a massage company which pays much better and seems to have less risk of sexual harassment. But things take a turn for the worse after Kokila’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) is diagnosed with lung cancer and the family needs to raise 15 lakhs for her treatment.

These introductory scenes work well to introduce the different characters and give a quick sense of who they are. Although Kokila’s father (R.S. Shivaji) has little part to play in proceedings, his passive acceptance of his lot in life illustrates just why the family is in the situation of needing more funds. The interactions between Kokila’s more aggressive mother (Saranya Ponvannan), her sister Shobi (Jacqueline Fernandez) and her father are excellent vignettes of domestic life. Kokila is protective of her father against the rest of the family’s dismissive comments perhaps because Kokila understands the difficulties of working in a dead-end job every day. This introduction also shows Kokila as a strong personality who stands up for herself against her boss’s sordid suggestions, but unfortunately, she loses this confidence later in the film and seems terrified of her own shadow.

Nelson doesn’t let his leading lady jump straight into the drug trade as an easy fix for her problem. Kokila tries a number of different ways to raise the money first. She speaks to relatives, asks for an advance for work and even approaches an NGO, but during a visit to a broker to see if she can sell some land, she inadvertently helps the police apprehend a drug pusher in the building. His boss, Bobby, insists that Kokila make good her mistake and sends her in to retrieve the hidden drugs. So, when all else fails, Kokila decides to approach Bobby and work as a drug mule to raise the cash for her mother’s treatment.

Bobby introduces Kokila to Mohan (Charles Vinoth), one of Bhai’s gang members, who decides that she looks innocent and unlikely to be suspected of carrying drugs, and he immediately employs her to take cocaine to his partner Alphonse (Rajendran). However a number of close shaves with the police lead Kokila to decide she wants out of the operation, but of course it’s much harder to leave than it is to join the business. Finally, after an altercation with Mohan, Bobby comes up with a final delivery of 300kg of cocaine that Kokila must deliver before she can leave.

What makes the film work so well are the peripheral characters. The story starts off well, but a combination of unlikely scenarios and a few too many coincidences mar the second half. Also, Kokila seems way to meek and nervous to ever go against the gangsters so it doesn’t make sense that she would take such tremendous risks and try to beat them at their own game. Nayahthara always has the same expression, downcast eyes and a stammering voice when dealing with Mohan and Bhai, and this continual overly meek appearance that ensures that there is very little tension or suspense as the story unfolds. There is never any glimpse into what Kokila is really thinking, and although she deceives the gangsters it seems to be almost by accident, since she always seems so scared of everyone. I wish there had been some acknowledgment of her plans and visible reactions from her when she did outsmart the gangsters which would have put an entirely different spin on the whole shenanigans. Instead it’s Saranya Ponvannan who steps up and really makes her presence felt as a determined and very capable ally in Kokila’s fight against the gangs. She’s scared but feisty and steps out of her usual mother role to play a very competent scam artist! She is the strong character here, and I love how she deals with potential rapists while the rest of the family appear shell shocked by her capacity for violence. It’s a brilliant portrayal that literally saves the second half of the film.

Yogu Babu is also excellent here and he provides most of the comedy in the first half, first appearing as grocery store owner Sekar who is in love with Kokila and is determined to marry her. Although much is made of his appearance and the unlikely match-up between him and Kokila, the real jokes start when Sekar gets mixed up in the family’s attempts to deliver the 300kg of drugs. Also dragged in is Shobi’s suitor Lakshman Kumar (Anbu Thasan) who mostly seems mentally deranged to me but that could be partly due to the lack of subtitles.

The character of Shekar fits well into the narrative and  Yogi Babu has perfect comedy timing, particularly when he realises exactly what is happening and the danger he has mistakenly stumbled into. I also love this song where he declares his love for Kokila. A brilliant tune from Anirudh and simply perfect choreography!

The film looks incredibly stylish and cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan sets up each frame beautifully. He contrasts colour and shape to produce some stunning images while still capturing Kokila’s reluctance to smuggle drugs and her family’s desperation. The images are also an excellent contrast to the sleazy world of drugs and the grubby men involved in the trade. Nelson uses these contrasts to good effect, and if only the character of Kokila had had the same light and shade this would have been a much better film. Instead, while there are many excellent individual scenes in the film, overall it starts to drag towards the end when the interactions between Kokila and the various gang members become repetitive and less convincing. On the plus side though, Nayathara is excellent in scenes with her family and in the first half her characterisation works well with the story. Also good is Anirudh Ravichander’s soundtrack and I really love the songs here. There is a good mix of haunting melody and more upbeat music, including the excellent Kabishabaa Coco (aka the gibberish song!)

Although Kolamavu Kokila isn’t perfect, there is enough here to make it a worthwhile watch. Using a heroine instead of a hero is inspired and the black comedy around the central figure of Kokila works well. There is a good story here and it just needed a little more variation in Kokila’s character to give it some extra tension and suspense which would make it a great story. Despite the one note in her characterisation, Nayanthara holds the film together well and does make an empathetic central character. As a début film it’s definitely better than average and well worth catching for Nayanthara, Yogi Babu, Saranya Ponvannan and the awesome soundtrack. 3 ½ stars.

Kolamavu Kokila