Mouna Guru (2011)

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Santha Kumar’s 2011 debut film Mouna Guru focuses on a young student and how his life falls apart when he inadvertently becomes involved with a group of corrupt cops. The basic story is simple, but Santha Kumar layers detail upon detail to make an intricate plot with plenty of twists and unexpected diversions. Perhaps the most unexpected is that one of the major characters is a pregnant police officer brilliantly played by Uma Riaz Khan, but the whole film is full of quirky characters that fit perfectly into the screenplay. With an engaging screenplay, great performances and realistic settings, Mouna Guru is definitely one of the better crime dramas I’ve watched recently and one definitely well worth tracking down.

The film starts in Madurai where college student Karunakaran (Arulnidhi) lives with his mother (Sujatha Sivakumar). Karunakaran is generally quiet and studious but socially inept, which means that he is often in trouble when someone challenges his rather literal and single-minded view of the world. After a few clashes his University asks him to leave, but luckily for Karunakaran his brother Amal arranges for him to complete his degree in Chennai. At the same time his mother also moves to Chennai to look after Amal’s new baby which solves the problem of leaving Karunakaran to fend for himself. However, with his mother and his wife’s sister Aarthi (Iniya) also staying in their flat, Amal needs to make other arrangements for Karunakaran. There is a free room in the College hostel but while this solves the problem for Amal and his wife it further isolates Karunakaran from his family. This turns out to be an issue later on when Karunakaran disappears and his family accept everything they are told, even though most of it is blatantly untrue.

Initially things seem to go well, but Karunakaran’s quiet and solitary nature soon sets him up to be bullied by the more popular class members, while his family pushes him further away. His sister-in-law is unwelcoming, his brother too busy and his mother only has time for the new baby. His only consolation is Aarthi who seems to be able to appreciate his (rather deeply hidden) good points. And these are hard to spot – Karunakaran is gruff and uncommunicative; he often appears angry and definitely has none of the usual social graces. However, there is a good side to Karunakaran. The opening song shows him feeding monkeys and rescuing snakes, while he appears to have keen sense of right and wrong that drives him to seek social justice.  He advises Aarthi to follow her dreams and work among the poor if that is what she really wants to do, while his own goal is to enjoy his job rather than make pots of money.  With all his idiosyncrasies, Karunakaran is a dreamer at heart and Arulnidhi does an excellent job of bringing such a complex character to life.

Aarthi is Karunakaran’s complete opposite. She’s friendly, approachable and seems to be doing well in her medical studies. However she’s drawn to Karunakaran and the idealist she sees behind the prickly façade, and slowly the two fall in love – much to Karunakaran’s mother’s displeasure.

Meanwhile corrupt police officers ACP Marimuthu (John Vijay), Inspector Rajendran (Madhu), Sub-Inspector Selvam (Balakrishnan) and Head Constable Perumalsamy (Krishnamurthy) are witnesses to a car crash, but rather than help the victim they steal a large quantity of money and finish the driver off into the bargain. Later ACP Marimuthu receives a blackmail call and eventually the four fix on Karunakaran as the student responsible. Even after they discover that Karunakaran was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, his prospects are bleak as ACP Marimuthu and co-conspirators are determined to silence him and any other potential witnesses.

Luckily for Karunakaran, Inspector Palaniammal (Uma Riaz Khan) is investigating the murder of a prostitute and ends up entangled in Karunakaran’s case. Palaniammal suspects that there is more going on than first impressions would suggest and she works tirelessly to get to the bottom of the case despite her pregnancy and the negative attitude from ACP Marimuthu and other members of the team. Palaniammal is a strong character with a very definite sense of right and wrong – basically the sort of police officer you’d want investigating your case if you were incorrectly accused of a crime. Uma Riaz Khan is excellent as she bulldozes her way through all opposition, compelling respect without ever raising her voice and just generally being a majorly awesome police officer.

There are only three songs in the film and they fit well into the narrative. This is perhaps the most traditional of the three as it develops the romance between Karunakaran and Aarthi. It’s a lovely song by Thaman and suits the mood of this part of the film perfectly.

Every character and each interaction are important in developing the story and while it’s not immediately apparent exactly how everything fits together, it all becomes clear as events unfold. Although there are a number of coincidences, none seems completely unlikely, (except perhaps Aarthi’s discovering Karunakaran after he has gone missing) and mostly the film feels realistic. None of the characters here are anything out of the ordinary and their reactions are natural and seem perfectly reasonable given the circumstances. There are no big fight scenes either – Karunakaran only fights back when someone else attacks him, and his methods are rough and ready rather than filmi stylish. The glimpses of college life and the realities of a mental asylum also appear authentic and I love the conversation between the warden and a student about his choice of hairstyle. Another favourite character is Babu, one of the inmates of the mental asylum who is perfectly played by Murugadoss to evoke pity one moment and then laughter the next. It’s an accomplished performance even though he only appears towards the end of the film but I appreciated every moment.

Mouna Guru keeps the twists coming right up to the very end. Karunakaran switches between quietly passive and accepting to explosively fighting back and it’s almost impossible to determine which way he will go at any given point, which ensures that every scene ends up surprising in one way or another. Although the police officers are all fairly standardly corrupt, their individual reactions to the developing situation are all quite different and each emerges as an individual persona as a result. I also love the way all the pieces of the story interlock, finally all coming together like a giant jigsaw puzzle while the final climax keeps changing just as you think it’s all over. Well worth watching for the excellent performances and multi-layered story that feels scarily possible. 4 stars.

Goli Soda

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Goli Soda is a masala movie with a difference – there is the usual mixture of action, comedy and romance, but this time the protagonists are four adolescents from Koyambedu market in Chennai and the action mainly takes place within the confines of the marketplace. The four are all orphans who have grown up in Koyambedu and Goli Soda follows their struggle to discover their own identities and what happens when their livelihood and self-respect is threatened. While the scale of the story may be small, the theme of teenagers trying to fit in and develop their own self-worth is universal, even if most don’t have to face quite the same obstacles or start with quite so little. S.D. Vijay Milton’s film has engaging characters and an interesting and rather different story to tell, making Goli Soda well worth a watch.

Saetu (Sree Raam), Kuttimani (Murugesh), Pulli (Kishore) and Sitthappa (Pakoda Pandi) are all friends who live and work together in the market. They unload produce during the early hours of the morning, working for Aachi (Sujatha Sivakumar) who pays them according to the amount of bags they have carried into her business. The boys live rough in the market and spend the rest of their time running amuck, ogling the local girls on their way to school and wasting time with market porter Manthiravan (Imman Annachi). The relationship between the four is well depicted with the expected amount of teasing and banter in any group of young men, but there is also plenty of support for each other and together they form a tightly knit family. This is perfectly illustrated when they all share the same ‘best’ t-shirt to wear as they wave at their chosen girl from the safety of the building roof. Regardless of the fact that none of the girls can probably see exactly what they are wearing, they swap the t-shirt so that each feels he looks his best with the limited resources they have. It’s a brief moment but shows their easy camaraderie and how much they rely on each other.

When Aachi finds out that one of the girls they are chasing is her own daughter Yamini (Chandhini) she convinces the four that they ned to do something more with their lives and approaches market kingpin Naidu (Madhusudhan Rao) for a loan. Naidu gives them the use of an unused godown which the boys turn into a small restaurant, named Aachi’s mess in honour of their mentor. They are surprisingly successful too, and take everything very seriously, even down to selecting the right covering for their makeshift tables. They’re helped in their endeavours by Aachi and Yamini and also by Vanmathi (Seetha) another friend who has her own share of problems but manages to take a glass half full approach to life. However Vanmathi is quite committed to her philosophy of one plant, one flower in relationships and only being willing to help if it is definitely true love and not just time-pass!

Problems arise when Naidu’s brother-in-law Mayil (Vijay Murugan) starts to frequent Aachi’s mess, demanding alcohol and non-veg dishes, even spending the night there with his cronies. The subsequent fall-out when the boys turn on Mayil threatens Naidu’s hold over the market and it seems as if Saetu, Kuttimani, Pulli and Sitthappa will lose everything, including possibly their lives as they battle to hold on to the little they have. Aachi, Yamini and Vanmathi are also all affected and in a departure from the normal masala formula, the two girls end up taking part in the fights with Naidu’s men and help the boys in their campaign to regain their restaurant.

What Goli Soda does is take the usual masala issues of bad guys vs good guy and translate them into the world of four adolescents. Instead of land grabbing politicians and gangsters we get petty criminals who take over the boys’ space and take away their sense of self in the process. That space is important as it’s the first Saetu, Kuttimani, Pulli and Sitthappa have had that is theirs to do with as they please – or at least as much as they can in a rented shop. Their insistence on choosing the tablecloths and making tables and benches for the restaurant becomes significant as it’s the first time they have ever had any say in their surroundings. The restaurant becomes their space and defines how they appear to the rest of the market – they are no longer simply nameless coolies, but instead are Aachi’s mess boys.  The successful business confers a sense of self-worth they did not have before and makes each someone rather than just another orphan. Loss of their space means they are back to being nothing – and that’s not something they are going to let happen if at all possible.

The film has a number of fight scenes where the four adolescents take on Mayil and his gang. This could have been ridiculously unbelievable, although perhaps not any more so than in the usual mass film where the hero is able to fling villains around without too much effort, but the choreography here is better than that. There is a lot of slapping and basic survival tactics which makes it seem less incredible that the boys could take on grown men and not suffer horrendous injuries, while the casual brutality of the gang seems plausible. The story overall works as the boys are all typical young men with the usual wants and desires – new clothes to look cool in front of the girls for example, but they also have a sense of responsibility which comes from having something which is theirs alone. All the young actors are fantastic in their roles and each is completely believable – even down to the blubbering and pleading when they are first faced with the prospect of being beaten up by Mayil and his gang. Sujatha Sivakumar is also excellent in her role as Aachi, giving the boys a constant in their lives and imbuing discipline without losing their respect.

Although it’s a simple story, Goli Soda packs a lot into 2 hours. All the masala elements are there, but trimmed of any excess to suit the younger protagonists, making for a neat and crisp narrative that easily pulls the viewer into the world of Koyambedu market. The dialogue is fun, snappy and suits the characters while the documentary-style of the camera makes the scenes in the market feel very natural. Goli Soda is something just a little bit different and recommended viewing for a movie with a message that avoids being preachy or overly sentimental. 4 stars.