Kalai Arasi (1963)

Kalai Arasi

Post Tik Tik Tik, I’d read a few articles that mentioned Kalai Arasi, which may have a better claim to the title of Tamil cinema’s first space film. Kalai Arasi was released in 1963 and features M.G.Ramachandran, P. Bhanumathi and Rajasree in an adventure that does indeed go to the stars and back (even if the stars look suspiciously like the inside of a film studio). There are some excellent ideas here and good special effects, especially considering the age of the film, but what make it worth watching is a well-told story that ties everything up into a satisfying conclusion by the end. It’s definitely a simpler time as no-one seems to worry about why the aliens all speak Tamil so well, or why they decide to target India either. However with the charming Bhanumathi and MGR in double roles, all you need to do is sit back and watch the space ships fly through the sky and death rays blow stuff up! Note: Kalai Arasi is available on YT, although a number of scenes appear to be missing (in both available versions although the one with the most annoying water mark has 3 more minutes), the quality is poor and of course there are no subtitles, but it’s still watchable and lots of fun.

The film starts with farmer Mohan (MGR) singing on a bullock cart with his sister as they wend their way back home. They come across Vaani (P. Bhanumathi) and her friends whose car has broken down, mainly because Vaani drove it into a pot-hole and ran out of petrol. Needless to say, Mohan is all over the rescue, and it turns out that the pair are already a couple, although all is not plain sailing since Mohan is a poor farmer and Vaani is the daughter of a rich man. Worse still, her father is trying to marry Vaani to her cousin Kannan (P.S. Veerappa) a nasty man with anger management issues, but at least Vaani seems able to cope. There’s a cute scene where she pretends to faint after he shouts at her, and then winks at her maid to let her know she is really OK. Vaani has plenty of personality, and also a great voice which turns out to be her downfall.

A wandering spaceship, on the lookout for musicians to kidnap and take back to their planet happens to see Vaani on their TV surveillance instrument. The leader of the expedition, Thinna (M.N.Nambiar) and pilot Malla decide she is exactly what their planet needs and head off to kidnap Vaani.  On the way they use their ray guns to explode a bear that attacks, emphasising they’re dangerous and aren’t likely to take no for an answer if Vaani resists. Plus ray guns – cool!

The spaceship is really rather wonderful too. It is a bit reminiscent of Flash Gordon but there are lots of panels and dials with flashing lights and mysterious screens.  The space ship’s travels through space are pretty good too, there is even a large asteroid they have to dodge, but who knew that there was so much steam in space! Once in the Earth’s atmosphere the flight becomes a bit shaky but I like how the spaceship is shown flying over temples and fields of workers to show that they actually have reached Tamil Nadu and not some random planet. Scenes shot inside the space ship are jerky with the camera moving erratically as Thinna and Malla walk around stiffly in their shiny and embellished spacesuits. This is explained later. Thinna is wearing a pair of shorts which I don’t think would provide much protection from space, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern, although they are both wearing helmets, goggles and masks.

After kidnapping Vaani, Thinna zooms off in the spaceship while Malla is left behind. Vaani’s disappearance is blamed on Mohan as he was the last person to see her, and Kannan arranges for him to be put in jail. As if this wasn’t enough, Kannan then throws Mohan’s mother and sister out of their house, leading his sister to end up dancing and singing in a brothel. Kannan is also convinced that he’s found Vaani, although he’s really found Valli (Bhanumathi again), a poor mentally ill girl whose father is unable to convince Kannan that she isn’t Vaani. This is Sixties Tamil cinema so Valli is played for laughs, but Bhanumathi is excellent as she portrays Valli’s instability, veering between innocence and violence and always not seeming quite aware exactly where she is or what she is doing. It’s a great performance and a good contrast to her portrayal of Vaani who is confident and poised, even during an alien abduction.

Meanwhile, Vaani has reached the alien planet and is teaching the world to sing, or at least teaching the princess Rajini (Rajasree) dancing and singing. This goes down well with the locals and Thinna heads back to pick up Malla, who doesn’t seem to have done anything useful, so I’m not sure why he was left behind. By this stage Mohan has been released from jail and has also rescued his sister, although his mother appears to have vanished. Thinking that Vaani has married Kannan, Mohan is wandering through the wilderness when he sees Malla and for no apparent reason (there isn’t even any dialogue) he attacks and kills him. I’m presuming that there is a missing scene here, which explains why Mohan attacks and why he assumes Malla had something to do with Vaani’s disappearance. That would explain why he then sneaks aboard the spaceship too, but maybe he just thought it was a good idea.

Once on the alien planet, Mohan has to deal with different gravity which is brilliantly shown in a sequence where he appears to be almost weightless. This is cleverly done and still looks fantastic, mainly due to MGR’s facial expressions and physical contortions. Even though the background isn’t particularly alien or outlandish, MGR makes it look as if he’s completely out of his depth and struggling – great acting and beautifully filmed too. Luckily for Mohan he meets a minstrel/joker character (also played by MGR) who helps him, and whose place in the palace Mohan is able to take when the joker is unfortunately killed. Once in the palace Mohan finds Vaani, but before they can escape he has to deal with the Princess Rajini’s amorous advances towards him, and Thinna’s murderous tendencies, as well as work out how to pilot the space ship and get Vaani back home.

Kalai Arasi works well because it’s a good story that’s simply been transported into space. The various devices added, such as Mohan’s weightlessness and the aliens’ difficulty with Earth gravity, are cleverly done and show that you don’t need CGI and splashy special effects if you have good actors and clear vision. Some of the things I really liked are that the flunkies on the alien planet rise up onto their toes rather than saluting their superiors, while Rajini has a very impressive suite of furniture that pops out of the wall whenever she presses a button. Director A. Kasilingam keeps everything moving along, as there is a lot to fit in, while writer Raveendar adds some novel ideas that refresh a relatively standard story. There is plenty of good detail, even in the secondary plot lines, which still all reach a satisfactory conclusion by the end. The costume department obviously had a great time dressing the aliens with capes, half capes, shorts, flouncy trousers and lots of embellishments and hair ornaments. I wish this had been filmed in colour to see exactly how OTT everything really was, particularly since Mohan’s borrowed shoes look wonderfully glitzy when paired with the joker’s outfits.

There are couple of really good songs from K.V. Mahadevan, including one featuring Valli and a beautiful duet between Bhanumathi  and Mohan. My favourite though is the very first song with Bhanumathi performing on stage. It’s not all about the singing and dancing either as there is an excellent sword fight and also some standard fisticuffs for those who prefer their fight scenes more traditional.

Although Mohan is the hero of the story, Vaani gets to keep her composure when she’s abducted too. She’s no damsel in distress as she first of all sizes up the situation and then does the best she can. She seems assertive and confident, even on the alien planet and in the end it’s Vaani who successfully pilots the spaceship back to Earth. In fact, none of the women in the story come out of it too badly compared to modern day heroines. Even Mohan’s sister takes action when faced with a life of prostitution, and Princess Rajini may be useless in a sword fight and a drama queen, but she’s sensible enough to lock Mohan in chains when Thinna suggests he might be a flight risk.

It’s not just the women who fare well either. MGR is wonderfully heroic, switching between his simple farmer persona, to confident trickster once on the alien world. His fight scenes are good, and his character is sensibly capable of dealing with every situation as it arises. This is a film where he really does get a chance to show off his acting skills and he nails it every time. I thoroughly enjoyed Kalai Arasi, it’s a real find and I wish someone would consider restoring and re-releasing it with subtitles. Even without the missing scenes it’s a film that does have something for everyone and the space theme is much better than expected. One that’s well worth tracking down if you’re a fan of old B&W movies and want something a little different. 4 stars.

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Tik Tik Tik

Tik Tik Tik

Tik Tik Tik is basically Armageddon meets Gravity meets Now You See Me set in space. Plus a whole mish-mash of ideas from other HW movies which may have been thrown in as an attempt to hide the planet-sized plot holes, of which there are many. It’s not that you need the usual suspension of disbelief to enjoy this film – Tik Tik Tik requires complete ignorance of scientific knowledge, in fact best to leave any common sense way out past Pluto too, as the film has little logic and few attempts to include anything resembling realistic scientific fact. Now that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if Shakti Soundar Rajan had decided to make a comedy set in space, but despite the presence of Ramesh Thilak and Arjunan as bumbling side-kicks, Tik Tik TIk tries to be a serious space drama and that’s where it ultimately falls down.

The story goes like this: there is a giant asteroid hurtling towards the Earth, but somehow no other nation has noticed the impending disaster about to strike. But that’s OK, because it’s apparently a selectively damaging asteroid that’s going to hit the Bay of Bengal and only obliterate Chennai and the rest of Southern India. Naturally the Indian Army have a plan – which is to send a magician-thief and his two mates into space to steal a 200 mega-tonne nuclear warhead. This has been hidden in a heavily guarded space station because where else would you hide a highly illegal nuclear bomb? Then the team need to fire the bomb into the centre of the asteroid, which will split perfectly into two and narrowly avoid the Earth, not causing any problems at all as it easily avoids the Earth’s gravitational pull. Oh, and the team have six days (and a few odd minutes) to find the thief, train him how to be an astronaut, steal the bomb and save the world.

None of that seems too ridiculously far-fetched to be honest – after all, it’s no more ridiculous than the idea that only the USA can deal with any potential planetary threat. It’s what happens once they are in space where the really preposterous stuff starts. The plan to steal the bomb is terrible, badly plotted and riddled with convenient coincidences, although the action sequences themselves are actually quite good. However, rather more problematic is the addition of a secondary plot that includes a villain who tries to sabotage the mission. Unfortunately, the characterisation here is particularly weak and poorly written. The villain’s actions don’t seem likely or credible and there is no justification or good reason (other than the vague mention of money) for them to act the way they do. The introduction of the whole sabotage plot is also rather odd and fails to generate any of the required tension. After plenty of action where imprisoned thief Vasu (Jayam Ravi) is selected for the mission, demonstrates his credentials and learns how to deal with zero gravity, the villain’s addition feels lacklustre and feeble in comparison.

Jayam Ravi is fine a kind of modern-day Robin Hood – using his magic tricks to steal from the wealthy for the benefit of the poor. He’s obviously a nice guy who has been imprisoned by the ‘corrupt system’ and he’s made even more human by his relationship with his son Aarav. Vasu’s wife is dead making him a single father, and there is even a sweet song to show just how special his relationship is with his son. This is important later on, as Vasu is more concerned with keeping his son safe rather than saving the world, which is a major factor in how the mission plays out.

However, Jayam isn’t a natural action hero and although he does well in most of the choreographed action sequences, once in space he seems rather shell-shocked and passive while carrying out General Mahendran’s (Jayaprakash) orders or when attempting to trick the captain of the Chinese space station, Captain Lee (Aaron Aziz). It gives him the appearance at times of almost sleep-walking though some scenes, and ends up removing any tension that the film really needs. After all, the Tik Tik Tik of the title refers to the ticking clock that’s counting down the hours and minutes until the asteroid strikes and over 40 million people are wiped out, but you wouldn’t know that given the often laid-back approach to the mission from Vasu and his friends Venkat (Ramesh Thilak) and Appu (Arjunan).

On the other hand, Nivetha Pethuraj is excellent as Swathi, one of the co-captains running the space mission, and she is efficient and decisive throughout. Thankfully her character is vital for the mission and is shown to be a competent engineer with good reason to be in the story with no hint of any romantic interest at all. The unexpected equality also applies to the Indian army where two of the top generals are also female, as is a large part of the scientific team behind the space mission. It’s also good to see Vincent Asokan in a more heroic role for a change and he works well with Nivetha as the other captain on the space mission, although mostly he is unhappy with the inclusion of a group of scrappily trained thieves on such an important mission. And I have to say he does have an excellent point!

One of the other issues with the film is the lack of suspense and tension, as the time limit before the asteroid crashes into the Earth seems to be forgotten for much of the second half. There is some excitement with Vasu bouncing around in space and with the team fighting the Chinese onboard the space station, but there is none of the background tension that should come from an impending sense of doom if the mission fails. This ends up derailing the plot right when it should be at its most exciting and a ‘twist’ right at the end makes for a very unsatisfying conclusion to the film.

However it’s not all bad. Despite the problematic plot and dodgy science, there is still quite a bit to enjoy in this space heist/disaster movie. The special effects are pretty good and there is a real attempt to make the space mission more than just a glorified reason to roll out said effects. Much of the action during the space scenes is well done while the training and take-off sequences are excellent. The comedy around Vasu, Venkat and Appu trying to adapt to space is funny and both Nivetha Pethuraj and Vincent Asokan are good in their roles as ‘serious astronauts’. While the plot may have huge holes, the film is mostly entertaining and at just over 2 hours it’s also well edited to avoid any unnecessary or overlong scenes. Shakti Soundar Rajan also deserves some credit for attempting the genre and for setting a large portion of the film in space. While it may not be as successful in terms of plot, there is plenty of vision and some good ideas here which hopefully will encourage more filmmakers to aim for the stars.

Aruvi

Aruvi poster

Arun Prabhu Purushothaman’s debut film is a difficult film to categorise. It’s a drama, a satire, even at times a comedy, but mainly it’s a delicious slap at reality TV, patriarchal society and that god of us all, money. Although by the end the film becomes overly mawkish and drags out the remaining scenes, Aditi Balan puts in a tremendous performance as Aruvi that powers through the final sentimentalism. Her top-notch performance, along with an absolutely incredible Anjali Varathan ensure that Aruvi is a memorable watch and another excellent addition to the new wave of Tamil cinema.

The film starts with a police interview. Aruvi (Aditi Balan) is a suspected terrorist and as Special Investigator Shakeel (Mohammad Ali Baig) tries to understand just who Aruvi is, Arun Prabhu fills in the background for the audience with short vignettes that dip into Aruvi’s life story. We see Arvui as a young child, growing up in the countryside with her adoring father, who stops smoking just because she tells him it smells bad. If only everyone else would listen to this simple truth! As she grows up Aruvi gets a brother, Karuna (Arnold Mathew) and the family moves into the city.

Aruvi misses the countryside and tells her father that she doesn’t like the move, but she soon adapts and fits easily into school life. She’s not a particularly nice person – she teases other students and in one memorable scene refuses to give a fellow student a sanitary pad – but she is a typical teenager making it hard to understand how she ended up being interviewed by the police as a suspected terrorist.

These background scenes are interspersed with the aftermath of whatever event has led to Aruvi’s arrest. Her father is called to be interviewed, her friend Emily (Anjali Varathan) is also arrested, and we see snippets of how they have interacted with Aruvi in brief flashes, just as if each question has stimulated the memory of the character. It’s beautifully done and keeps the audience guessing before slipping into a more traditional flashback starting with Aruvi in college. Aruvi is studying psychology along with her best friend Jessy (Shwetha Shekar) and the two seem totally normal until the day Aruvi throws up in class. Anyone who has ever watched an Indian movie before knows exactly what this means, and as the story then moves on to Aruvi arguing with her parents and brother before finally being thrown out of the house, that assumption seems logical. Except that Arun Prabhu keeps the reason for Aruvi’s estrangement from her family ambiguous until later events reveal exactly why her family has turned against her.

Aruvi takes shelter first with Jessy, but then moves in with Emily, a transgender who helps take care of Aruvi and helps her find a job. Emily then helps Aruvi get accepted on to a reality TV show, where guests tell their stories and are invited to confront the people they feel have ‘done them wrong’. Here, Aruvi gets to confront three men whom she accuses of raping her, and this is where everything starts to go wrong, leading to the terrorist accusations.

The TV show is a brilliant idea, and allows Arun Prabhu to satirise such shows, as well as the media in general – the headline chasing tactics, talking head opinions shows (of which India seems to have hundreds!), but also shows the police having to act responsibly due to the media presence. The hypocrisy is stunning. Presenter Shoba Parathsarathy (Lakshmi Gopalaswamy) acts like a diva despite working for a small TV company as a reality talk show host – she’s no Oprah! Shoba turns on the charm as soon as the camera is rolling and moves easily from discussing Aruvi’s trauma one moment to a tacky advertisement line for the sponsors before cutting to a break the next, something Aruvi parodies brilliantly later on. The hierarchy of the studio is lampooned, with the little people including the security guard, a runner for the show and the junior producer also getting their share of the ridicule as Aruvi turns the tables on the entire production. This section is brilliantly done and Arun Prabhu uses the talk show as a way for Aruvi to highlight the helplessness of women in Indian society. But Aruvi also comments on the evils of more than just rapacious men, describing the middle class as spending machines who further enrich the wealthy of the world, while themselves gorging on the poor and trampling them further into the ground.

What’s disappointing is that Aruvi forgives the three men, one of whom is unconscionably violent, and the full horror of their crimes is never brought to bear. Although Aruvi initially goes onto the TV show to demand an apology from these men, they are instead made out to be the victims of her ‘attack’, when in reality all three deserve to be arrested rather than Aruvi. But then that is part of the point. The patriarchy of Aruvi’s society does not allow her to be the victim here, and she has no right to complain about her life even though she has had no control over what has happened to her.

Aditi Balan is incredibly powerful in the lead role, first as a typical teen, then student and finally a young woman trying to cope when her whole world has fallen in around her. Her final dialogues, which could have come across as overly cloying and maudlin are instead transformed simply because of her poignant and heartfelt performance. Perfect casting and an excellent performance are what make Aruvi such a compelling story.

While all the cast are excellent, Anjali Varathan shines as Emily and it’s a lovely change in Tamil cinema to have a transgender as a sympathetic character. She’s easily the most compassionate and decent person in the entire film with some of the best lines too. Anjali makes her character come alive in after only a few short scenes, making Emily the most memorable character after Aruvi. I love her introduction as she good-naturedly searches for a possible underwear thief in their building, and her care of Aruvi is beautifully shown. In a film that’s all about those on the margins of society, Emily is an outstanding standard bearer to prove that people are just people. No more, no less.

There are many small throwaway moments that also help lift the film above the ordinary. Jessy’s reaction to Aruvi when she goes to see her after the arrest is perfect middle-class guilt. The interactions between the crew members in the TV studio are well captured as are the reactions of the various homeowners and a funeral party as the police prepare to storm the TV studio. The décor too rings true, while Aruvi and Emily’s wardrobe choices are perfect for the characters they play. No glamour and OTT make-up here, except for Lakshini Gopalaswamy as she hits the nail on the head with her portrayal of TV persona Shoba.

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There is a secondary theme that deals with another issue that society in India seems to brush under the carpet, but I don’t want to reveal too much since Aruvi does a much better job of explaining. Suffice to say that Arun Prabhu wants to draw our attention to how poorly society treats those who are perceived to be different, although he does rather draw out the final scenes as a result.

The music from Bindhu Malini and Vedanth Bharadwaj is beautiful and suits the film perfectly. The songs develop naturally from the events and are incorporated well into the narrative. Shelley Calist’s cinematography makes the countryside stunning particularly whenever Aruvi visits one of her namesake waterfalls. The comparison between the clear water and Aruvi’s own problems might be a trifle clichéd but it’s effective, as is Aruvi’s gradual isolation in ever smaller rooms as a symbol of her shrinking horizons. Aruvi is not a perfect film, but it is different. It’s rare to get a female-centred film that doesn’t include a major romance or have male characters eventually take centre stage. This is a film that talks about the difficulties women face day to day but not as a rampaging feminist agenda, but rather simply shows how time and time again women are made to feel at fault even when this is blatantly untrue. One to watch for the excellent performances, novel approach to a story and a real heroine for our times. 4 stars.

Aruvi