24 (2016)

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For a science fiction film about time travel there is something more than a little magical about 24. Vikram Kumar has come up with a compelling story and made a technically excellent film with a well-chosen cast who all perform beautifully. Suriya is outstanding, favourites Ajay and Saranya Ponvannan are impressive in rather more substantial roles than expected and the whole film is a wonderful masala mix of action, drama, romance, comedy and mystery. Definitely one to catch in the cinema to fully appreciate the VFX but also well worth watching for the expertly crafted story and first-rate cast.

24 combines many of the usual elements of a Tamil film, but although the ingredients may be commonplace the resulting story is refreshingly novel. First there is the rivalry between two brothers; Sethuraman and Athreya (both Suriya), one a brilliant but obsessed and oblivious scientist working on a device that will allow travel through time, and the other his jealous and coldly calculating elder brother who will stop at nothing to steal the device for himself. Moving 26 years into the present day, there is Sethuraman’s son Mani (also Suriya) who knows nothing of his past, his adopted mother Sathyabhama (Saranya Ponvannan) who has sacrificed everything to keep Mani safe and the evil Athreya still trying to track down the device to try to rewrite his own past. These are all familiar plot elements but here cleverly put together to ensure there are plenty of surprises throughout and just when it seems the next step in the journey is inevitable, Vikram Kumar twists the path and the story heads off in an unexpected direction.

The opening scenes are amazing and although supposedly set in 1990, the steam train, cars, motorbikes and fairy tale-like mansion give an older-world ambiance. This is helped by the lighting which is golden, warm and suggestive of candle-light especially when compared to scenes set in the present day that are lit more brightly with colder, bluer lighting. Sethuraman has converted his entire house into a gigantic laboratory to work on his invention, and in typical mad-scientist style he has secret rooms, hidden passage-ways and odd devices everywhere. Think Wallace (Wallace and Grommit) with a bigger budget. Thanks to the intervention of a CGI eagle, Sethuraman manages to create a watch that will allow time travel but before he can celebrate his success, his elder brother Athreya shows up to steal the invention. Suriya’s Sethuraman is a classic bespectacled and nerdy inventor, right down to his abstraction when his wife Priya (Nithya Menen) tries to get him to help with their young son Manikanden and various dangerous substances inappropriately placed for safety around the room. This of course allows for maximum damage when Athreya shows up but paint a picture of a ‘typical’ scientist which Vikram Kumar then turns on its head as Sethuraman turns out to be more practical than first impressions suggest. The opening scene sets the precedent for the rest of the film – there is a good amount of humour, plenty of action and drama with Suriya drawing all eyes and commanding centre stage throughout.

The film moves 26 years into the future where Mani is grown up and working as a watch mechanic with no knowledge of his past, or just what he has in an unbreakable box that he cannot open. Athreya is still around too, although after the events 26 years ago he is a crippled shadow of his former self getting around in a motorised wheelchair after waking up from a coma. Athreya is as malevolent as ever and with the help of his trusty sidekick Mithran (Ajay) goes about trying to turn back time 26 years to reverse his accident and regain the use of his legs. Again Suriya does a fantastic job with the character of Athreya – he’s confidently wicked in 1990 when he goes after his brother and his family, and wonderfully warped and bitter in 2016 as a twisted figure in a wheel-chair. Suriya brings the character to life and makes him so much more than a stock evil villain.

Mani is more the kind of character Suriya has played in recent films, but with a hint of mischievousness that differentiates Mani from the likes of Massu and Raju Bhai. There are some well scripted moments between Mani and his onscreen mother Sathyabhama which give Saranya Ponvannan more than the usual mother/son dialogues to get her teeth into. As always she’s the quintessential filmi ma, but here she gets to have a back story and separate personality aside from being a mother and she rises beautifully to the opportunity.

There is also a romance – of course – there has to be a romance! Mani falls for Sathya (Samantha) just as he discovers his father’s watch, and the romance is partly an excuse to showcase all the things the watch can do. The love story is the most conventional part of the film but Suriya and Samantha have good chemistry and Vikram Kumar adds in some light-hearted comedy to ensure the romance doesn’t overcome the action. Girish Karnad, Mohan V. Raman and Sudha as members of Sathya’s family add more background and all are good in their respective roles.

A.R. Rahman provides the music, but it’s around an hour in before the first dance number which is the appropriately electronic sounding Kaalam en Kadhali. I loved Suriya’s dancing in this – it was definitely worth the wait! The rest of the songs are more romantic and fit less well into the narrative, although I did appreciate the black and white co-coordinating costumes in Naan Un. The music itself is lovely, but the songs slow down the narrative and really don’t seem particularly necessary to move the story forward.

Although there is plenty of good comedy in 24, it’s kept light and even Sathyan, as Mani’s friend Saravanan, is more restrained than usual. It is still laugh-out-loud funny in parts though which provides a good contrast to the few more violent scenes, particularly one just before the interval which is shocking in its sudden brutality. However that is the exception and most of the fight scenes rely on intelligence rather than brute force.

24 has the look and feel of a Hollywood film without losing any of its Southern Indian roots. If this had been a Western film, no doubt 3 different actors would have been cast in the different roles of Mani, Sethuraman and Athreya, but in part the film works so well here because it is the same actor in all three roles. Watching Suriya play three very different characters is mesmerising all by itself while ensuring the familial relationship forms part of the story. Plus more Suriya is generally a good thing! The visual effects are slick, polished and look amazing, while the cinematography from S. Tirru is excellent, adding another layer to the story and ensuring a sophisticated look to the film.

Vikram Kumar impressed me in Manam with his ability to make a complex story flow easily and he does it again here. Yes, there are a few too many coincidences and no-one seems to worry about what will happen to the future when the past is altered, but these are small issues that don’t seem to matter when the rest of the film is so well done. 24 is an excellent piece of storytelling and the best big budget film of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

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Aaj Ka Goonda Raj

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Aaj Ka Goonda Raj is a Hindi remake of Chiranjeevi’s Telugu blockbuster, Gang Leader. The dishoom sound effects are quite subdued by Telugu standards but Chiru’s hair is even bigger than a regulation police hat and he goes all out in the action and dances.

Raja (Chiranjeevi) is an unemployed specimen and lives with his grandmother (Dina Pathak), brothers Ravi (Raj Babbar) and Amar (Parikshit Sahni), and Amar’s wife (Sudha). He dreams of being Robin Hood, but is more likely to get into a scuffle with the police on the way to the disco than righting any larger scale wrongs.

Admire his awesome moves, even as you may recoil at the sweat flicking and floor humping. Plus bonus Ravi Teja!

Raja takes a job to evict a squatter – Shalu (Meenakshi Sheshadri). She turns up at his house spinning a sob story, looking to move in. His family turn on him of course and take Shalu’s side, or at least feel they need to protect a poor defenceless girl all alone in the world blah blah blah.

Raja agrees to go to jail over a car accident to protect the driver, a father trying to marry his daughter off. Or something. He gets paid for the time served and the cash helps Golden Boy Ravi take the exams for whatever he wants to be. The father (Satish Shah) is actually the jailer. Oh so filmi. Raja is treated well while he is a jailbird. Except that they let Shalu in to see him as she says she is his wife so I think they failed in their duty of care towards him, although I admire her persistence and the power of her imagination. Who says Mass films are simplistic? I get conflicted all over the place.

Reluctant hero and pushy heroine can be very amusing or not at all, and this is a bit too slapstick for my taste. But once Shalu stops just obsessing about Raja she gets a lot more interesting and Meenakshi seems more comfortable in the role. She and Chiru have nice chemistry and Meenakshi certainly gives him a run for his money in the songs and in the drama.

Raja can’t win as he is criticised for not working and then berated when he does. His family love him but despair of him ever getting his life sorted out. He occasionally impersonates his deceased grandfather who ostensibly appears to ask Grandma to go easy on the boy. It’s all silly but the family are there for each other when it counts.

Amar sees something he shouldn’t and villain Tejpal (Prem Chopra) has him eliminated. Tejpal’s pet police officer Saxena (Dalip Tahil) has been trying to get Raja out of the way for most of the film, and finally marries his sister Ritu (Geetha) to Ravi. She is tasked with tearing the brothers asunder, but sorely underestimates the power of filmi bro-dom and the effect on her own psyche of being around decent human beings.

Finally Tejpal and his weirdo sidekick (a very creepy Sharat Saxena) stage a fatal accident using Raja’s taxi, and his friends. Raja goes to trial and is devastated to see what happened to his poor harmless mates.

Raja escapes, thanks to Shalu driving the getaway car and looking striking in huge puffy yellow sleeves. She tells him her sad story of how Tejpal killed her mother and then she shoots Raja’s handcuffs off. Most of Raja’s family are useful in a fight and Shalu gets in there, boots and all too. No one waits for Raja when they can do something for themselves, so the final confrontation is epic and random and had me cheering them all on. I do love a needlessly complex plan and the film obliges.

Apart from the murdering aspect (because it is wrong, even when Chiru is doing it), I liked that Raja simply stepped back and let Shalu deal with Tejpal. He didn’t take her revenge from her or make his own need for justice more important than hers. And anyway, he had Saxena so there was plenty of vengeance to go round.

Despite all the death and mayhem, it’s quite a cheerful and upbeat film for the most part. The songs are not as good as Gang Leader but they are filmed well and I can never be unhappy with Chiru dancing on giant props.

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Side note: This wall decoration is in several Telugu films and now turns up here. Was it a common item in that day, or did some poor set dresser lug it around from house to house?

This was Chiranjeevi’s second Hindi film. It is hardly a stretch for Chiru but might have been a bit confronting for the mainstream Hindi film audiences of the day. I mean, he can actually dance. Mithun would have been spewing to have his moves put to shame so easily. And the action is energetic and athletic and a bit brutal although there is less fake blood than I recall in the original. It’s a good vehicle for him as it retains the mass flavour of the original and his heroics need no tweaking to be transplanted to Bombay. Sadly, I don’t think Bollywood was ready for this jelly. And that is their loss, as there was a golden opportunity for less of this:

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And more of this:

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See this for a ripping yarn of family and revenge, Chiranjeevi at possibly peak mullet, and Meenakshi as a feisty heroine. Then go watch Gang Leader! 3 ½ stars!

Vedalam (2015)

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Vedalam opens with a woeful assassination attempt in Milan where a team of supposedly crack soldiers are trying to rid the world of top Tamil crime boss Ratna Bhai (Rahul Dev) and end up failing miserably. It’s not a good start, and what makes it so terrible is a mixture of the ridiculousness of the scenario, bad dubbing, bad acting and a nonsensical dénouement. Thankfully though, with the exception of a few comedy scenes, the rest of Vedalam is miles better than the opening few minutes would suggest and Ajith scores another hit – mainly due to the force of his personality and considerable charisma on-screen. Siva adds special effects, a good story and plenty of action to make Vedalam an entertaining watch despite the dodgy start.

As an antidote to the opening scene, the film immediately moves to Kolkata and Rajendran as local gangster Kolkata Kaali. Rajendran is one of my favourite actors and I love that he’s moving more into comedy alongside his usual gangster roles. He is very funny here as he menaces and then befriends new arrival to the city Ganesh (Ajith Kumar) and his sister Thamizh (Lakshmi Menon). Thamizh is applying to study in a prestigious art college in the city and Ganesh appears as the perfect older brother – supportive and encouraging in every way, while maintaining an unruffled and happily smiling exterior no matter what the circumstances.  While Thamizh gets accepted into the art college, Ganesh manages to get a job driving a taxi, despite not speaking a word of Bengali or knowing anything about the city – sounds like your typical taxi driver really!

Siva adds more humour with Soori as the manager of the taxi company, but his brand of comedy only works part of the time and it reaches a nadir when the tired out trope of philandering husband is rolled out yet again. Shruti Haasan also shows up in a comedy role as an unscrupulous lawyer, Swetha, who ends up with a grudge against Ganesh. None of her intense overacting in her initial scenes is funny and her wardrobe choices are equally atrocious, but her character does have a few redeeming moments later on in the film. In one of those typical film coincidences, Swetha’s brother Arjun (Ashwin Kakumanu) falls in love with Thamizh which adds romance into the film and gives Ganesh the opportunity to deliver a good ‘big brother’ speech about women’s safety. It’s a shame that such a good message about how stalking ≠ love and men should respect women is immediately followed by a song featuring Shruti and backing dancers in skimpy outfits and terrible choreography, but at least the speech did get a cheer in Melbourne.

Just before the break Ganesh reveals his true persona, first in an excellent fight scene and then in a genuinely frightening exchange with Swetha that sets up a flashback sequence in the second half. All of the smiling and the ‘always cheery’ disposition starts to grate by then, so the switch to bad-ass fighter Ganesh (aka Vedalam) comes as a welcome change. No-one does the switch from happy smile to scary psychotic grimace as well as Ajith – it really is disturbing and Siva uses the transformation sparingly but to very good effect throughout the film.

The reason for Ganesh’s outburst of violence goes back to the gangster seen in the opening scene. Ratna Bhai and his two brothers Abhinay (Kabir Duhan Singh) and Aniket (Aniket Chouhan) control the skin trade out of India amongst various other criminal activities and Ganesh has come up against them in the past. The flash-back sequence is well done, generating an emotional reason for Ganesh to seek revenge but without becoming overly sentimental or clichéd. The villains do what villains in these films usually do, while there is really never any doubt that Ganesh will defeat them all in the end. However the lead up to the final fight scene is very well written with a few good surprises to build the suspense. The last fight is also brilliantly done and the film is worth watching for this last sequence alone.

Anirudh’s music is good and fits the screenplay well, with Aaluma Doluma standing out as the best track.  The background score is occasionally distractingly loud, but I like the theme and it suits the schizophrenic nature of Ajith’s character. Mostly the songs are well pictured too apart from the previously mentioned ‘Don’t You Mess With Me’, which really deserved better and isn’t helped by the skanky choreography. Technically the film is slick and well-edited with good effects and novel fight choreography. There isn’t too much blood and gore either, although it’s always surprising how quickly the bad guys run out of bullets and resort to fist fights when they really should know better!

Vedalam is Ajith’s film all the way and he does a superb job as a dangerous and scary man while still conveying kindness and sympathy in the scenes with Thamizh. The support cast are all just that – support for Ajith, but Lakshmi Menon is good as his oblivious sister while Sudha and Thambi Ramaiah make an impression in their small roles in the flashback sequence.  Vedalam isn’t a perfect film, the comedy isn’t great and the villains are standard caricatures with predictable habits, but Ajith is very watchable and the story works well with some unexpected twists, especially at the end.  Worth watching for Ajith and the excellent final fight scene – plus Rajendran of course!