Sathuranga Vettai

sathuranga vettai poster

H. Vinoth’s Sathuranga Vettai is an amusing crime caper that follows the exploits of con-man Gandhi Babu as he persuades a large number of gullible people to part with their cash. Naturally, this does not come without consequences and the later part of the film deals with Gandhi’s redemption and his attempts to break free from his life of crime. This is an impressive début for H. Vinoth and despite a tendency to veer into overly dramatic territory towards the end, the film well worth watching for some great dialogue, good characterisations and Natarajan Subramaniam and Ishaara Nair in the lead roles.

The film is divided into different chapters, each describing a con run by Gandhi Babu (Natarajan Subramaniam) and his merry band of helpers, Guru (Dharani Vasudevan), Kumar and Selvam. The first starts with Gandhi and his gang persuading businessman Chettiyar (Ilavarasu) to buy a rare snake which, they tell him, can be sold on at a much higher price. Of course, the snake is a pig in a poke and is anything but rare, but what is more surprising is how superstitious and gullible Chettiyar is, given that he is supposedly a rich businessman with thriving rental and retail investments. I found it hard to believe that he would really believe that a snake could understand him and lose weight because it was homesick, but it did make for some great comedy in the first few scenes. The film also quickly introduces Gandhi’s simple philosophy – the easiest way to deceive people is to find those who are greedy and want to make a fast buck and in his defence, there does seem to be plenty of greedy people out there.

The second con is better realised and seems rather more plausible. This time Gandhi and his followers set up a mass marketing Ponzi scheme selling miracle water to gullible investors. A young woman, Bhanu (Ishaara Nair) approaches Gandhi for a job as she cannot afford to invest in the scheme and Gandhi immediately sees her potential. Her innocence and flair for persuading others to invest makes Bhanu a valuable asset for the gang, but she has no idea that they are all snake-oil salesmen and that their venture is all a con. Gandhi’s seeming altruism leads Bhanu to start to fall in love with the con-artist but once his true activities are revealed, Bhanu is left to deal with the aftermath as Gandhi and his gang skip town with the money.

The next con sees Gandhi arrested and jailed for his crimes. While he is tortured by the police, his gang work hard to bribe the various complainants and ensure Gandhi’s release.

Although their efforts pay off, Gandhi is kidnapped by a gang lead by Vallavan (Vallavan) who have been employed by one of the victims of Gandhi’s previous con. Suddenly the fruits of Gandhi’s criminal past are brought home to cause him more problems and the only way he can escape the gang is to work another con for them. After a convoluted series of deals and double deals Gandhi manages to escape and finds Bhanu who still has feelings for him. But the gang is still on the look-out for Gandhi and his idyllic life with Bhanu is shattered once Vallavan and Senthil catch up with the couple and force Gandhi to carry out one last con.

The story is a good blend of action and drama, with enough comedy to keep the proceedings from ever getting too serious. The final scenes are overly melodramatic as Bhanu goes in to labour while gang member Thillagar (Ramachandran Durairaj) is told to kill her as the rest of the gang force Gandhi to dig his own grave. However, the rest of the film isn’t quite so theatrical, and some of the cons are entirely plausible and seem quite realistically portrayed.

Natarajan Subramaniam is excellent in the lead role and seems perfectly cast as the smooth-tongued salesman with the gift of the gab. He dons different disguises and different accents as part of the role, while his ability to appear cold and calculating works well to give the character credibility. It makes his gradual change of heart once he finds Bhanu and slow realisation that there could be another way of life seem more plausible. H. Vinod gives Gandhi a tragic back story which didn’t seem to be totally necessary but again does make his final redemption more likely, given that up to his meeting with Bhanu his general philosophy is that nothing you do is wrong as long as you don’t feel guilty. His early experiences, described here in animation, do at least give Gandhi an emotional response to work with and overcome his otherwise cold persona. One of the best things about Gandhi’s character is that although he is a criminal, he is totally hopeless when it comes to physical violence. As a change for the usual ‘hero’ in this type of role, Gandhi is regularly beaten up and has no capacity to defend himself whatsoever outside a verbal stoush. That seems quite likely for someone who relies on his wits and ability to run and makes Gandhi a more sympathetic character than expected.

Ishaara Nair is also excellent although at times her character does seem a little too good to be true. She has good onscreen chemistry with Natarajan and the two work well together as a couple, even if for much of the time I felt that Bhanu was much too good for him and deserved more. The rest of Gandhi’s gang are good, particularly as sellers of the miraculous magic pearls, although they have limited screen time. Vallavan and his gang have more to do, and Ramachandran in particular is excellent as a gangster with a heart, even though he keeps it well hidden from the rest of the gang.

Overall this is a clever and rather different film that relies on good writing and excellent characterisations to tell an engaging story. The sheer ordinariness of the characters works in their favour and the simple con schemes are plausible enough to keep the story more realistic than most. The music from Seth Rogan mostly fits well into the narrative with the songs featured on Bhanu and Gandhi’s relationship, apart from one early in the film that’s set in a bar that doesn’t work quite as well. K.G. Venkatesh ensures the film looks good too with plenty of beautiful shots of the countryside surrounding Madurai. H. Vinoth has delivered an excellent first film that delivers in terms of both story and characters. 4 stars.

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Mersal (2017)

Mersal

After drought ravaged farmers in Kaththi and violence against women in Theri, Vijay latest crusade is against corrupt medical practitioners in Atlee’s Mersal. There are few surprises in the storyline which follows a standard revenge formula, but the approach is stylish and the addition of a magician does ensure a few unexpected tricks. Vijay takes on a triple role that puts him front and centre for most of the film, which is just as well since it’s mainly his charisma that lifts Mersal above its well-worn story. But there are also energetic dance numbers, excellent special effects and a credible and suitably nasty villain making Mersal a major improvement on Vijay’s last film and worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Vijay plays a triple role – two brothers (one who is unaware of the other’s existence), and then their father in an extended flashback sequence. The story jumps around a lot as well as moving in and out of flashback so it’s deliberately not always clear which character we are watching at any given time. The film starts with the abductions of 4 men, all connected in some way to the same hospital, although it’s takes a while before we find out who they are and why they have been abducted. The police receive an anonymous tip off which leads them to arrest local hero and all round good guy Dr Marran (Vijay) who is known as the ₹5 doctor due to the fees he charges his patients. His arrest almost sparks a mini riot but once Police Officer Rathnavel (Sathyaraj) begins his interview (which for no good reason is conducted in a derelict building on a construction site) the story of the two brothers starts to unfold.

The other brother, Vetri (Vijay), is a magician and uses his powers to take revenge on the men he feels were responsible for his father’s death. It’s never clear how the brothers ended up separated or why Marran is brought up by his foster mother Sarala (Kovai Sarala) in ignorance of Vetri’s existence, but then Atlee seems to prefer focusing on the result rather than bothering with such basic explanations. Vetri is ably assisted in his magic and in his revenge by Vadivu (Vadivelu) who also moonlights as Maaran’s helper. This means Vetri knows exactly where Marran is and can use that information to his own advantage. While in Paris (really Poland, but close enough), Vetri meets Anu Pallavi (Kajal Aggarwal) who is acting as a general gofer for the rather greedy and lecherous Dr Arjun Zachariah (Hareesh Peradi). Dr Zachariah is the polar opposite of Maaran, believing that good medicine is commercial medicine and the only reason to be a doctor is to turn a huge profit and benefit from the misery of disease. Maraan on the other hand is a proponent of universal free health care as a basic human right, although he doesn’t seem to have really thought through exactly how this style of medical care will be funded if his dream is to become a reality.

While Vetri dances his way into Dr Anu’s heart in Paris, Maaran meets journalist Tara (Samantha) during an interview on a TV talk show. Love blossoms through another song but Maaran’s TV appearance has brought him to the attention of Dr Daniel Arockiyaraj (S.J. Surya) who recognises Maaran as being the spitting image of his father. Daniel and Vetrimaaran (Vijay) had an acrimonious history and Daniel immediately sets out to find and destroy the son of his enemy.

The best part of the film is the extended flashback after the interval which focuses on the reasons behind Vetri’s revenge and Daniel’s antipathy. S.J. Surya revels in his role as a conniving and deceitful doctor in wide collared shirts and spectacular flares but Vijay steals the show here with his performance as a villager with a big heart and even bigger muscles.  Nithya Menen is also superb as Vetrimaaran’s wife Aishwarya (aka Ice), although she does have the best of the three female roles. Her Ice is passionate and inspiring in her devotion to the idea of readily available health care in their village, and she gets the chance to really bring out the emotions of her character well. She also has excellent chemistry with Vijay and this is the relationship that works the best out of the three, although to be fair both Samantha and Kajal get little screen time with the hero and little chance to develop their respective relationships.

There are a few oddities in this part of the film though. There is a sudden jump between Ice’s admission into the hospital and her final fate without much explanation of what goes wrong. Also, a potential fight between Vetrimaaran and Daniel’s henchmen is over before it begins with the gang all lying on the ground bleeding and moaning seconds after they approach Vetrimaaran. I’m not sure if these cuts are an Australian specific issue since I haven’t seen any mention of them in any other reviews, but it does seem odd and makes these final flashback scenes seem rushed and a little confusing.

Although the main focus of the film is Vijay, the rest of the support cast are all good, including Rajendran as an unlikely Health minister and Kaali Venkat as an auto driver whose daughter died due to corruption in the health service. The music from A.R. Rahman doesn’t stand out as anything special, but it does fit into the screenplay well while Atlee places the songs wisely throughout. G.K. Vishnu works wonders with the cinematography and the effects are magical despite the sometimes cheesy nature of the tricks. Watch out for a scene where Vijay fights with a deck of cards – the fusion of the magic storyline into a standard masala tale is a better fit than I expected. Of course the real magic here is that Vijay seems to be growing younger with each new film and he’s just as energetic as ever too.

However Mersal is more than just a revenge drama and there is a definite political slant to the story. To start with, medical negligence and corruption is an emotive topic, that has been much in the news recently with a series of high profile deaths in the Indian medical system. Vetri makes a rather political statement towards the end of the film as he speaks to the crowd outside the courtroom and asking why India can’t fund heathcare as well as Singapore when the Indian government collects a much larger amount of GST. This is much more direct than Vijay’s message about suicidal farmers in Kaththi and does come across as a warning to the current government that they are being judged as lacking leadership in this issue. Vijay underscores the political theme with several nods to MGR, including a scene where Vetrimaaran walks in to a cinema to accuse village officials of corruption just as MGR strides onto the screen in the background. Is this the next stage in Vijay’s political campaign or is he just making the best use of his star power and philanthropic tendencies? Only time will tell, but in Mersal, Atlee has combined politics and entertainment without diluting the message or preaching to his audience- something a lot of Holywood films could do well to emulate.

 

Karuppan (2017)

Karuppan

After recently watching Rekka, Karuppan feels rather familiar with another foray into ‘mass’ territory for Vijay Sethupathi. R. Panneerselvam’s film is a standard plod through family relationships in a village near Madurai that fails to bring anything new into the genre, despite a few good ideas that unfortunately fizzle out midway through. Vijay Sethupathi, Tanya and Bobby Simha all do justice to their roles, but unfortunately the film lacks the fire it needed to make this a more compelling watch.

The story is set around the time of Jalikkattu and features a number of scenes involving bull wrestling. I really hope that the opening credits had the usual advice that ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this film’ but since everything was in Tamil with no translation I really couldn’t be sure (although these scenes did mainly seem to be CGI). I’m aware that Jalikkattu is a big thing in Tamil Nadu, but from the footage shown here the whole thing seems rather pointless to me and wasn’t at all enjoyable to watch. The reason for including Jalikkattu is that Maayi (Pasupathy) has a bull in the competition and decides that it would be a good idea to wager his sister’s hand in marriage to the man who manages to win the contest. Naturally the hero of the hour is Karuppan (Vijay Sethupathi) who wins the wrestling medal and the hand of Anbuselvi (Tanya) when he manages to make Maayi’s bull fall over.

Needless to say Anbu is not happy about her prospective groom and the method her brother has used to decide on the match, but like any good Tamil girl she threatens to kill herself if Maayi forces her into marriage. By this point I was ready to walk out – surely not even Vijay Sethupathi was going to be able to salvage this one, but then there was a twist to the story and it started to get more interesting. (Mild spoilers ahead)

Maayi had previously matched Anbu and Karuppan’s horoscopes and had already decided that he would be the perfect husband for Anbu, while Anbu had seen Karuppan take a stand against a seller of blue films and liked him for his values. And possibly also for his rather impressive moustache – sadly no subtitles for the songs means I may have made that part up, but it seems just as plausible (it is a magnificent moustache)! So, after a brief song and dance to introduce the prospective bride and groom, Anbu declares that she is ready to marry Karuppan just as soon as he can be convinced that the wedding is not solely due to his winning of a wager. Karuppan has the previously mentioned values you see and doesn’t take the wager seriously.

Unfortunately for the future happiness of the couple, there is a potential cloud on the horizon. Kathir (Bobby Simha), Maayi’s brother-in-law, had his heart set on marrying Anbu and when he can’t persuade Maayi that the whole wager idea is wrong, he decides to break the couple up by any means he can. Kathir is a sneaky villain and rather than gathering a gang of men to beat Karuppan into submission straight away, he goes for subtle and insidious goading of Maayi and the other villagers. This is done well with the odd piece of gossip dropped into the conversation, a nudge on one of the villager’s shoulders during a town meeting to get him to say his (obviously pre-prepared) piece and plenty of slanderous hints dropped around the village. Kathir is sweetly two-faced too, supporting Karuppan and speaking well of him to his face, but back-stabbing him as much as possible behind the scenes, and Bobby Simha does an excellent job of making this all seem very plausible.

Karuppan doesn’t help the situation by falling into Kathir’s traps which include getting outrageously drunk and insulting his in-laws at a temple function for his marriage. Kathir ensures that one of the people insulted by Karuppan is local gangster Varusanadu Sadha (Sharath Lohitashwa), setting Karuppan up to be dealt with by the gang if Kathir’s other plans fail to break up the marriage. Bobby Simha is very good here and he ensures his character has no redeeming characteristics. He keeps the characterisation low-key but effective to deliver a rather less physical but no less nasty villain.

Anbu is frustrated by her new husband’s failure to keep on the straight and narrow and when an estrangement occurs between her brother and her husband, she’s back to trying to kill herself without making any attempt at reconciliation. Sigh. Thankfully, apart from her suicide attempts, Anbu is a sensible and down to earth character, so there is hope that the whole situation can be resolved – after a major fight scene of course.

What works well here is the relationship between Karuppan and Anbu which quickly develops despite the unconventional betrothal. Vijay and Tanya have good chemistry together, while the mix of love scenes and quarrelling is typical of any couple trying to make a life together. One of the standout scenes is when Karuppan learns that Anbu is pregnant and his joy and happiness are perfectly portrayed. Vijay Sethupathi fits well into the role of a blustering but good-hearted farmer who adores his mother and his new wife, and he ensures the emotional scenes are effective without being too over the top.

Also good are the interactions between Karuppan and his uncle (Singampuli), particularly as they indulge in old Tamil film song karaoke together when drunk. They enact the different male and female roles, mouth the words and generally amuse the crowd with their antics in a couple of sequences that are very well put together.

Anbu is an interesting and generally strong character, although I couldn’t understand why her first impulse was to kill herself every time she ran into a bit of bother. Unlike most film heroines, Anbu isn’t afraid to let her husband know that she finds him attractive and she has enough confidence in their relationship to handle the ups and downs of Karuppan’s drinking. She’s decisive and doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations in her marital relationship and in effect she is a much better ‘bull-tamer’ than Karuppan could ever be, particularly since the bull she is taming is Karuppan himself. So, it doesn’t make sense that she isn’t able to deal with the issues between Karuppan and Maayi and effectively discourages the two from talking to each other. Or that she doesn’t confront Karuppan more directly in the second half of the film and slap some sense into him, as she does in the first half.

The film starts badly, gets steadily better throughout the first half, but loses its way in the second before an unexciting and overly contrived finale. The songs from D. Imman are good and mainly well placed, although the lack of subtitles made them less effective for me given that at least two were used to move the narrative forwards. The best are pictured on Vijay Sethupathi and Tanya, although Vijay does some inspired uncle dancing which is definitely a highlight!

Karuppan has an interesting heroine, a more complicated than usual villain and a charming hero, so it should work better than it does. Despite the good characterisations, the story itself is pedestrian with everyone tending to behave quite traditionally despite the set-up suggesting more unconventional approaches. However, still worth watching for the chemistry between Vijay and Tanya, an excellent take on a sneaky villain and those uncle dances.