Bairavaa (2017)

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Step into the cinema at any point during Bairavaa and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for almost any of Vijay’s previous films. The only thing that seems to vary in these masala outings is his attire, while everything else (love interest, villain, ‘comedy’ friend, evil henchmen etc) is identical. In his latest mass film Bairavaa, even the trusty masala formula fails to deliver as expected mainly due to poorly realised villains and dull, repetitive fight scenes. Not even the songs are inspiring and it’s only Vijay’s presence and on-screen charisma that makes it possible to sit through the full 169 minute run-time. There are some laughs, one or two fight scenes that work a little better than the rest and a couple of good songs but overall Bharathan’s latest release fails to impress.

Bairavaa (Vijay) is a recovery agent for a bank who don’t seem to mind that he uses rather direct methods to reclaim outstanding funds. This leads inevitably to the first fight scene as the bank manager sends Bairavaa out to collect money from a thug who likes to play cricket. The fight itself is quite cleverly choreographed with Vijay imitating cricket stars and using a cricket ball instead of his fists to flatten thugs, but despite the novelty it isn’t particularly exciting and there is absolutely no sense of suspense. It’s a given from the start that Bairavaa will be walking out of there with the money and that all of the rowdies will be writhing around on the floor. And that’s the problem with almost every other fight scene in the movie too. Even when the numbers of rent-a-thugs get upped and then upped again, there is no stopping the one-man army that is Bairavaa. The fights become an unending parade of rowdies being thrown up, down and around in slow-mo while Bairavaa barely breaks into a sweat. The exceptions mainly come in the second half when there is a little more at stake, but overall, even with a few stylish moves thrown in here and there, the fights are mostly monotonously predictable and uninspiring.

After meeting Malarvizhi (Keerthy Suresh) at a wedding and falling instantly in love, Bairavaa discovers she has a problem back home in Tirunelveli after she is attacked by a gang of thugs at Koyambedu bus station. This leads to a flashback that explains her predicament and why she is being targeted by businessman and self-styled champion of education PK (Jagapati Babu). PK is aided in his various criminal activities by Kottai Veeran (Daniel Balaji) and his merry gang of rowdies, while Malarvizhi is supported by her sister (Sija Rose), grandfather (Vittal Rao) and Uncle Narayanan (Thambi Ramaiah). Malarvizhi has taken PK to court to prove that he was responsible for the death of her friend Vaishali (Aparna Vinod) in his substandard medical college and that the college’s explanation for her death is completely untrue. PK has been warned by the judge that the upcoming final hearing should not interrupt Malarvizhi’s studies or endanger her health with the result that instead of killing Malarvizhi, PK tries every possible method of intimidation to make her break down and give up her fight. Naturally Bairavaa takes up Malarvizhi’s cause and immediately starts to oppose PK and his allies.

Sadly PK is a one-dimensional villain who does little other than sneer at the camera and order his seemingly self-replicating gangs of thugs to put an end to Bairavaa. His henchman Kottai Veeran has a little more to work with, but both men are purely obstacles to be overcome in Bairavaa’s pursuit of the girl. There is presumably some sort of message in the revelation that some private colleges are purely money making exercises and Malarvizhi does her best to promote the cause of independent women everywhere, but at the end of the day she is reliant on Bairavaa to defeat the thigs. Her methods of contacting solicitors, providing evidence and the like are casually destroyed by PK and Kottai Verran using methods that seem unlikely to work in real life. Malarvizhi is a fairly typical Tamil heroine in that she has some backbone and a promising career but still falls for the hero in less time that it takes her to find the bus home to Tirunelveli. I’ve yet to see Keerthy Suresh in a role that I think she can do justice too, and this doesn’t seem close. She looks uncomfortable in the songs and while there is some reasonable chemistry between her and Vijay it’s much like the rest of the film – pedestrian and predictable.

There are a number of other threads that seem to have been added to and appeal more to the modern market. Harish Uthaman appears as Malarvizhi’s abusive brother-in-law Prabha who has the world’s fastest rehabilitation after he gets beaten up by Bairavaa. Generally the police and judicial system are honest and the comedy is kept to a minimum with Bairavaa’s friend Shanmugam (Sathish) having only limited time onscreen. Thambi Ramaiah as Malarvizhi’s uncle Narayanan has even less time on screen, which in this instance is definitely for the best.

The songs too are disappointing and often oddly placed although Vijay’s dancing is still the highlight, but even here the energy seems subdued. At least until Papa Papa which is definitely the pick of the bunch. I can usually find something to enjoy in a Vijay film, despite the often wafer-thin plots, but I was hard pressed to find much in Bairavaa. It’s a strictly by the numbers mass film with little animation and even less ingenuity. At 169 minutes Bairavaa does feel like an endurance test and much could have been shortened (all those slow-mo fight moves and echoing repeats!) to improve the film flow. One strictly for the fans, and even then be prepared for a less than thrilling experience.

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.

Kodi (2016)

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Kodi is an interesting political thriller that sadly did not release in Australia with English subtitles. As the film is dialogue-heavy this meant that I missed most of the subtleties of the film, particularly annoying since the female characters seem to have more substantial roles than usual and the plot appears to be well-developed with unexpected twists. However the basic story is pretty easy to follow and the characters all clearly delineated ensuring Kodi is worth the trip to the cinema. It’s still completely baffling to me that in today’s global market the producers would choose to release Kodi overseas without subtitles, although it does follow the recent trend of not including subtitles on Tamil DVD releases either. Come on Kollywood – lift your game!

Dhanush plays a double role in the movie, portraying twin brothers, Kodi and Anbu. Despite being mute, their father (Karunaas) had political ambitions and was prominent in the local party as an activist and avid supporter of the local leader.  On his birth, Kodi was presented to the leader and from that point on it seems that his father transferred all his political ambition onto Kodi, dragging him around to various political events and giving him speeches to declare on his father’s behalf.

Initially Kodi seems relatively happy to follow the party line, but he is horrified when his father suicides right in front of him in order to highlight mercury poisoning at a local factory. Rather than lessen his passion for politics, this ensures Kodi grows into a hot-headed and passionate politician who craves social justice and presumably the power and prestige such a role would bring. As a young campaigner Kodi seems to have a fairly prominent role in the local party office, although there are grumblings from the older generation about the young upstart who seems to be taking a lead role. Along with the problems Kodi faces from his party, his girlfriend Rudhra (Trisha) is also a wannabe politician, except she’s firmly on the opposing side and the two seem to frequently clash in the public arena. Luckily for their romance, they seem to be able to put their opposing views aside once they are alone together and apart from the hassle of having to keep their relationship secret, Kodi and Rudhra happy together.

Anbu on the other hand is a gentler character who works as a teacher at a local college and is content to let his brother lead the charge for democracy. He finds romance with a local egg farmer Malathi (Anupama Parameswaram) although he isn’t above swapping roles with his more volatile brother when the occasion demands it. Dhanush keeps the two characters separate with ease, and not just because Kodi has a full beard and Anbu a moustache. Kodi is harsher, often appearing stern and forbidding, and only leading down his guard with Rudhra. He is argumentative, struts around combatively and is a typical mass hero when it comes to any fight.  Anbu on the other hand is softer, smiles more and even his posture indicates he’s a man who can be more easily pushed around. In his first double role, Dhanush effortlessly makes the two brothers separate individuals, perhaps even more so than real twins as Kodi appears more like an elder brother, and Anbu the younger.

Anbu  discovers more about the mercury factory which leads his brother to some unsettling revelations and as events unfold, Anbu ends up taking his brother’s place in politics. This is where the characterisation breaks down a little, as Anbu playing Kodi is really just the same as Kodi. It would have been even more effective if there had been some Anbu mannerisms left behind, although it’s possible that I missed some of this through not understanding the dialogue.

While Dhanush is superb as Kodi and Anbu, Trisha is just as good as a young and ambitious female politician. She has to battle against the prejudice of both her gender and her youth to win her place in the party and in doing so displays a ruthless streak that serves her well later in the film. Trisha is regal in sober saris that reflect her political ambitions, but lets her hair down in the romance scenes where she is softer and more likeable than in the rest of the film. There are also glimpses of the continuous rivalry between Kodi and Rudhra as they grew up together, with the childhood flashbacks proving more substance and clarity to the two characters. I love the interactions between the two – both in public as rival politicians and in private as their romance heats up. Writer/director R.S. Durai Senthilkumar has ensured that the female role is just as well-developed as that of the male protagonists, and in some ways Trisha has the more thought-provoking role with a complex and ambiguous character.

The story has a number of twists and turns with the machinations of the two political parties, the plots of the various members and the truth behind the mercury factory all having a part to play. I wish I had understood more of the dialogue as I missed the significance of Kodi and Anbu’s friend Bhagat Singh (Kaali Venkat) and I’m still not sure why Malathi disappeared from the story for most of the second half. This was a shame as Anupama was excellent, as were the rest of the supporting cast. S.A. Chandrasekhar was good in the role of Kodi’s party leader while Saranya Ponvannan was excellent playing the only role she ever seems to do nowadays (but then she does it so well!) as Kodi and Anbu’s long suffering mother. There are only a few songs in the film and these are mostly focused on the two romances, but Santhosh Narayanan’s music seems to fit well, although I did miss watching Dhanush dancing.

Like his previous films Ethir Neechal and Kaaki Sattai, R.S. Durai Senthilkumar concentrates on telling a good story rather than simply showcasing a star or indulging in mass action scenes. As a result, Kodi is an intelligent and engaging thriller, with excellent characterisations and clever twists in the plot. Dhanush does a fantastic job in a double role, keeping his presence somewhat understated so that the focus really is on the story and not the few fight scenes or dramatic speeches. I really do hope that this one releases on DVD with subtitles as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and I’d love to finally understand all that dialogue.