Jai Bhim

It took me a few weeks to watch this film as I just couldn’t get past the brutalisation of Rajakannu, Sengeni and their families by the police. However, it’s well worth sticking it out past the first hour as the film ends up as an excellent legal drama with superb performances from the entire cast. In particular, Lijomol Jose stands out as a tribal woman fighting for justice against an entire system which discriminates against her at every turn while Suriya excels in a more subdued role as the advocate fighting for justice.

The film starts with a demonstration of wanton discrimination with prisoners being selected to be charged with false cases based on their caste. It’s a short and callous scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film illustrating that there is no mercy and no justice for those who have no social standing or who cannot afford bribes. The film then moves to Rajakannu (Manikandan) and his family trapping rats for the local famers and catching snakes. Although they have been employed by the landowners to carry out this work, they are treated as vagabonds and ruffians, seemingly due to their poverty and inability to rise above their lowly status. The tribal people live in a vicious circle of being unable to obtain the rights other villagers take for granted as they cannot obtain documentation, without which they cannot vote, register for land or tribal grants and are therefore not seen as existing at all.

In the midst of all this callous and barbarous treatment, Rajakannu and Sengeni (Lijomol Jose) hope for a better life, dreaming of one day owning a brick house in the village. It’s somewhat ironic then that Rajakannu has to leave and work as a labourer making bricks while Sengeni is pregnant and stays at home to look after their daughter. However, a jewellery theft at the local headman’s house results in Rajakannu being accused of the crime after he was known to have been at the house to catch a snake, despite being nowhere in the vicinity at the time. As Rajakannu is away at the brick factory, his brother Iruttupan (M. Chinraasu), his sister Pachaiammal (Sujatha), his brother-in-law Mosakutty (Rajendran) and the very pregnant Sengeni are all taken to the police station and tortured to find out his whereabouts. Once they have Rajakannu, the two women are released, but the torture continues for Rajakannu and the other 2 men as the police, Sub-Inspector Gurumurthy (Tamizh), Constable Veerasamy (Supergood Subramani) and Constable Kirubakaran (Bala Hasan) try to beat a confession from them.

Arriving at the police station the next day, Sengeni is told that her husband Iruttupan and Mosakutty have all escaped, but there is no trace of them anywhere. Desperate, Sengeni enlists the help of Mythra (Rajisha Vijayan), an educated woman who has been teaching the adults to read and write. Mythra also struggles to make her voice heard, but on finding out about a lawyer who fights pro bono for human rights cases she enlists his help for Sengeni. Once Chandru (Suriya) takes the case, Sengeni finally has someone who is listening to her who will fight for her right to justice.

The first hour of the film is unforgivingly brutal and difficult to watch. The torture of the women and men is shown in enough detail to make for gruesome viewing, and it seems to be never-ending. In between the scenes of beating and torture, the general social injustice shown to the tribal people is also shockingly inhumane, particularly since it is shown to be so casual and ingrained with villagers who themselves are living quite poorly. It took a couple of attempts for me to get through this section of the film, as it really is quite horrific and depressing. Thankfully, once the court case starts, there is more optimism and despite the investigation team having to revisit the horrors of the men’s imprisonment and torture, there is respect for Sengeni and her determination to find out the truth. 

Chandru is assisted by IG Perumalsamy (Prakash Raj) who, despite his dislike of lawyers and support of police brutality, vows to conduct a fair and thorough investigation. As more and more corruption comes to light, Advocate General Ram Mohan (Rao Ramesh) takes over the police defence and attempts to get the case thrown out of court. Perhaps unrealistically, Chandru seems to have little difficulty in getting the judges to see his point of view. He is able to get time to conduct investigations and support for his questioning of witnesses without too much difficulty and his speeches in court are simple and to the point. The drama and suspense is kept for the investigation into what has happened to the 3 men, with Chandru racing across the countryside trying to find witnesses who can discredit the police story. There is also constant pressure on Sengeni to back down which includes more intimidation from the police as well as offers of large amounts of compensation if she will drop the case.

What makes this film for me is the strength and determination shown by Sengeni in the face of so many obstacles. Despite her lack of literacy and knowledge about the legal system, she is steadfast in her desire to find out the truth no matter how impossible it seems. Lijomol Jose is simply brilliant and her portrayal of Sengeni drives home the almost insurmountable challenges faced by someone of her status trying to challenge the state authority. She makes Sengeni’s love for her husband a natural extension of their family life together, and her terror while in the hands of the police, followed by her devastation when Rajakannu disappears is perfectly shown. The character of Sengeni comes alive in her capable hands and she invests the audience in her story at every step.

Suriya is also excellent, although his performance focuses more on Chandru’s determination for justice rather than on flowery court speeches or dramatic discoveries. There is little backstory and no explanation of why he so strongly supports human rights, but despite this he is credible as a lawyer and the more restrained performance suits the story. It also helps to focus attention on Sengeni and the police brutality as the key elements of the film. The contrast between his more humane approach and that of almost everyone else in the film, also emphasizes how endemic discrimination against people like Rajakannu and Sengeni is within the rest of society.  

Director T.J. Gnanavel wrote the screenplay which is based on a true story according to IMDb etc. (Rather annoyingly the subtitles didn’t translate any of the written material on screen, which I think covered this aspect of the film).  While the story is compelling, the overly long and frequently repeated scenes of police brutality and torture seemed unnecessary and at times almost voyeuristic. Perhaps Gnanavel was trying to shock his audience and drive home the issue of police violence, but for me they made the film difficult to watch as the torture scenes went on and on without any end in sight. What I found more shocking was the casual discrimination faced at every turn by the tribal people, something that had a more lasting and significant impact than all the violence shown in the police station because it was more realistic and believable. Despite these issues with the screenplay, the characterisations of the main characters are all excellent and once past the torture scenes the rest of the film works well. Issues of caste and social justice are often harrowing to watch but the overwhelming feeling from Jai Bhim is one of hope and resilience, despite the downbeat start to the film. The music from Sean Roldan is also emotive and fits well with the screenplay while S.R. Kathir’s cinematography impresses with his skill at framing and his contrast between the claustrophobic scenes in the police station and the light and air of the courtroom.

As I wrote at the start, this was a difficult film to watch, which I think was the point T.J. Gnanavel was trying to make. I’m not sure if this was the best approach for such an important subject and I’m sure that making the torture scenes shorter would still get the message across just as well without reducing the impact. If you can make it through the first hour, the rest of the film does impress. Not for the faint-hearted but well worth it for Suriya, Lijomol Jose and the rest of the excellent cast. 4 stars.

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.

Thaanaa Serndha Koottam

Thaanaa Serndha Koottam

I really enjoyed Suriya’s latest movie, although I haven’t seen the original Special 26, and wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a rollicking heist movie, with Suriya playing a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, albeit in 1987, as he and his merry gang thieves disguise themselves as CBI officers to rob various high-profile victims of their ill-gained wealth. With Suriya on top form, the support cast generally excellent and plenty of humour in the engaging screenplay, Thaanaa Serndha Koottam is well worth catching in the cinema if you can.

The film is a remake of Neeraj Pandey’s 2013 hit, Special 26, although director Vignesh Shivan has apparently given it a Tamil twist. Both films are based on a real-life robbery that took place in Bombay in 1987, and Thaanaa Serndha Koottam is set in the same timeframe, allowing for some period features such as the white ambassador cars that Iniyan and his gang use to pose as Government officials, and posters of old films displayed in the background. It also means we get such delights as the costumes and sets in this wonderfully OTT song from Anirudh Ravichandra:

The story goes like this. Suriya is Iniyan, an aspiring CBI officer who is rejected for his dream job mainly because corrupt officer Uthaman (Suresh Chandra Menon) holds a grudge against his father (Thambi Ramaiah). At the same time, many of Iniyan’s friends are struggling to find work due to corruption within the system and the high bribes needed to secure a position. Iniyan’s solution is to gather together a team of like-minded people who are willing to take part in his audacious scheme to rob the rich. And because the money they steal hasn’t been declared to the government, the victims are unwilling to report the crime, ensuring that Iniyan and his team escape scot-free every time.

Iniyan then gives all his ill-gotten loot away, ensuring that his character keeps an altruistic image despite his criminal activities. As the heat builds in Tamil Nadu, the gang move their operations to Hyderabad where they can’t speak the language. I could totally relate to their default use of words they had learnt from Telugu movies, although I’ve never found it to work quite so well for me, and the resultant confusion is perfectly developed into a very funny scene. Brahmi makes an understated appearance as a Telugu CBI officer while the Charminar is visible in almost every shot to make sure we know the action is now happening in Hyderabad!

There is a romance too as Iniyan falls for a girl who is drawn into his schemes. He doesn’t ever seem to find out her name, and I wasn’t clear on her connection to the original robbery, although to be honest I suspect there may not actually be one. Keerthy Suresh is fine as Iniyan’s love interest but really has little to do apart from appear in the songs and create the odd diversion in the storyline.

The rest of the gang get better characterisations and even some back story to flesh out their various personas. Ramya Krishnan in particular is fantastic here and makes a scarily believable CBI officer. As “Jhansi Rani’, she uses her piercingly chilling glare (perfected in Baahubali) to excellent effect as she storms into various establishments demanding they hand over their illegal savings. Then in a blink of an eye she becomes regular housewife Azhagu Meena, planning her eldest daughter’s wedding and dealing with her disabled husband. I love her in this role, and it’s fantastic to see her in such a strong and effective role that combines comedy and drama so well.

The others in the team, KP (Senthil), Ondi (Sivashankar) and Muthu (Sathyan) have smaller roles, but still add plenty of interest to the proceedings, and ensure that the team appears as a real gang rather than just an odd collection of people Iniyan has gathered together.

Against them are the real CBI officers and Kurunjivendhan (Karthik), an honest if somewhat overly enthusiastic police officer who helps Uthaman in his search. Nandha is also good in a small but important role as a rookie police officer who is conned by the gang while Yogi Babu, RJ Balaji and Anandaraj all have successful cameos.

Anirudh Ravichander just keeps producing the hits as he delivers yet another great soundtrack, managing to make the songs all sound as if they really do all come from the eighties. For the most part they’re well integrated into the film too with appropriate picturisation that suits the ambiance.

The only real miss in this film is the end, where the story switches gear and becomes a more typical Tamil herocentric finale with action, drama and a few too many pontificating speeches. It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise engaging film, but thankfully there are some last-minute shenanigans over the end credits to make the audience leave with a smile.

Overall this is a fun film and with such a great cast of characters and the always charismatic Suriya, Thaanaa Serndha Koottam turns out to be an enjoyable and overall very funny watch. Worth catching for Suriya, Ramya Krishnan and Anirudh’s soundtrack.