Rangoon (2017)

Rangoon poster

Rajkumar Periasamy’s debut film is a crime thriller that mixes gold smuggling and kidnapping with friendship and betrayal to tell the story of Venkat (Gautham Karthik) and his two friends Kumaran (Lallu) and Tip Top (Daniel Annie Pope). The film moves between the lush landscapes of Myanmar with vibrantly green fields, sparkling water and gigantic gold Buddhas, to the crowded backstreets of Chennai and the Burmese area of the city near Sowcarpet. There is plenty of fascinating detail about the Burmese Tamil population that adds more layers into a story made engaging by numerous twists and good action sequences. Rajkumar Periasamy packs a lot into the run time of just over 2 hours and with the stunning scenery and excellent soundtrack it’s definitely well worth a watch.

The story starts with a young Venkat as he makes the move with his mother and sister from Myanmar to India, where his father has found work. The year is 1988 and the family move to a mainly Burmese Indian area of Chennai where the food is familiar and the locals all have a similar story to tell. Venkat immediately makes friends with Kumaran when he sees him playing Venkat’s favourite game of Chinlone and the two quickly become inseparable, especially after Venkat’s father is tragically killed shortly after their arrival in the city. Venkat grows into a fairly typical unemployed young man who worries his mother and amuses his friends, but there is little work in his area and his disillusionment means he jumps at the chance of a job when Kumaran introduces him to local gold merchant Gunaseela (Siddique).

However, all is not as it seems and in reality Gunaseela is a gold smuggler who is impressed by Venkat’s enthusiasm and business skills. Gunaseela slowly draws Venkat into the business by taking him to Singapore and showing him the basics of the smuggling trade. Venkat is given the responsibility of looking after his own shop and Gunaseela uses Venkat’s sense of responsibility and loyalty to further draw him into the illegal business. However, despite the shady method used to get the gold, the responsibility turns out to be the making of Venkat and he runs his shop as ethically as he can under the circumstances. It’s the small details Periasamy adds that make this part of the film so convincing, such as the way money is transferred to the dealers in Singapore via a totally unrelated shop and the various methods by which Gunaseela’s gold biscuits are smuggled into the country. The brashness of the smugglers and their nonchalant attitude to the police also ring true while a gold traders association where Gunaseela is a member is as dodgy as they come.

Where the film falls down though, is in the introduction of Natasha (Sana Makbul) as the love interest whose attractions are such that Venkat vows to turn respectable and give up the smuggling trade for good. Natasha is a singer and Venkat notices her when she sings the first lines of her song in Burmese. But Natasha’s background isn’t explored in any detail, and instead, as is usual for heroines in Tamil film, once she is established as the reason for Venkat’s decision to change his career, she is rapidly side-lined and only appears to act as a voice of conscience whenever one is needed. Venkat’s friends too get little in the way of character development which becomes something of a problem later on when the three head to Myanmar for one last big deal. Their motivations for coming on the trip are rather murky and some of the reactions don’t ring true, mainly because it’s hard to decide how they should be reacting, given the little that has been shown of their personalities. However, although most of the characterisations are superficial, both Venkat and Gunaseela fare rather better, and their relationship in particular is nicely explored with enough emotion to make it feel authentic and plausible.

There are some excellent twists in the second half but the fast-paced action takes centre stage and the film loses some coherence as characters appear and disappear before their relationship to the plot is established. However, the action is exciting and often unpredictable while the fight scenes are well choreographed, even if very much in the usual ‘hero beats unlimited number of attackers despite being unarmed’ style. The chase sequences where the police and Directorate of Revenue Intelligence attempt to catch Venkat and his friends are also excellent and the tension rises nicely as Venkat starts to run out of time to solve his problems, and his friends and family start to suffer as a consequence. The plot twists are well handled too, and are frequently unexpected, almost shocking at times, which adds to the tension of the second half.

Gautham Karthik really is good here and gets his emotional reactions just right, particularly when he returns to the land of his birth. His confusion and despair later on is perfectly done and fits well with his character’s loyalty and determination to ‘do the right thing’. He does have a voice-over which is occasionally annoying as the dialogue doesn’t relate well to the action taking place onscreen, although that may be a subtitle issue (I’m not convinced though, as generally the subtitles for Rangoon were excellent and included English idioms and slang terms appropriately). What works best is his relationship with Gunaseela and the father/son rapport they develop. This is helped by the jealous reactions of Gunaseela’s right hand man who lingers in the background as an ever-present threat, while Siddique is smooth and supportive right up until things don’t go his way.

The rest of the cast are good and although Lallu and Daniel Annie Pope don’t get a lot to do until the second half, once they get a chance both are impressive despite their limited dialogue. The background music and songs from Vishal Chandrasekhar and Vikram RH fit well into the film while Anish Tharun Kumar does an excellent job with the cinematography ensuring an exotic feel to the portions set in Burma and Singapore while keeping a local and more homely feel to Chennai. Plus there are lots of shots of the food which looks amazing!

Rangoon

The story of Rangoon is excellent and the action well integrated into the screenplay, but the film really didn’t need the romance which comes across as a commercial gimmick without adding anything important other than a couple of good songs. The support characters too needed more time onscreen together to develop their relationships with each other and the major characters, but the two main characters of Venkat and Gunaseela more than make up for these minor flaws, while the film’s various twists keep it entertaining right up to the end. I really enjoyed Rangoon with its mix of drama, action and thrills, and the different landscapes and detailed settings kept the background interesting and realistic. Recommended for the twisty plot, good performances and fast-paced second half.

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Visaranai

 

“Give me the pink one. It’s my lucky lathi. Now let’s get them to confess”.

Vetrimaaran’s film takes a journey through the lawless side of law enforcement, where results matter and truth is often unwelcome. Adapted from M. Chandrakumar’s novel which was inspired by his own experiences, there is a relentless sense of doom pervading this story. Don’t get too attached to anyone!

Four Tamil men have come to Andhra Pradesh to work, sleeping rough in a park to save money. One night they are all picked up by the police. They are brutalised over and over but not told what they are suspected of doing and what they must admit to. It’s all a game to the cops but no one told Pandi, Murugan, Kumar or Afsal what that game is.

Afsal (Silambarasan Rathnasamy) is the youngest and weakest. Frightened of being hurt, and generally shy and inarticulate, Afsal triggered the arrests with a confession under duress and wavers most when under pressure. The four boys stick together and try to find a way out, trusting that their innocence will be recognised. Pandi (Dinesh Ravi) and Murugan (Aadukalam Murugadoss) are the stronger ones, with Pandi the more cynical and Murugan the more placid. Kumar (Pradheesh Raj) is injured badly early on and is a quiet, tense presence for most of his scenes.

The boys go on hunger strike and it seems to work. They are released, given money and told to come back to the station to sign a statement. They stop for a meal, eventually laughing at their strange fortunes. But when they go back, the sadistic Superintendent (Ajay Ghosh) says he couldn’t hit a starving man so he tricked them into filling their bellies. The beatings resume, more vicious than before.

I was struck by all the energy that goes into forcing confessions when maybe with the same expenditure of effort they could track down the real criminals. There is a discussion about finding someone else to take the fall but the boss is worried after all the injuries that the men will complain so he decides they must be found guilty. Eventually all the pressure works, especially the emotional blackmail from Pandi’s boss who knows it’s a set-up but encourages Pandi to take the easy way out for everyone’s sake. Including the police. These poor guys are expendable.

Pandi refuses to make a false plea once he is in front of a magistrate although his Telugu is not up to the finer points of his defence. Luckily for him there are Tamil Nadu police in another court so one is called upon to translate, and even more fortunately he recognises Pandi.  Inspector Muthuvel (Samuthirakani) explains the boys have jobs, never admitted fault, there is no evidence, and they’ve been beaten up for days on end. The magistrate knows Superintendent Rao has form for closing cases with false evidence and the boys go free.

Unluckily for Pandi and friends, the Tamil cops need their help in return. Sure enough, they help kidnap a high profile money launder KK (Kishore) from the courts. Back in Tamil Nadu, Kumar gets dropped off along the road but the others are taken to the station along with KK. KK tells Muthuvel that the last move in this game will be to tie up all the loose ends, like Muthuvel himself. And KK is a very smart man. About to leave, the guys are asked to clean the station building before they go. The ominous music says that was a bad idea, and I think Pandi knew it too.

Vetrimaaran mostly sticks with realism, creating a sense of the world just out of sight of the mainstream. The dark side is literally dark, with much of the film shot in night time and dimly lit interiors. The scenes are beautifully composed and I felt immersed in Pandi’s world, and the feeling of being entangled and lost. The spike of fear when the cops start torturing people is visceral, the relief when it stops and the terror of those waiting their turn also feel real. There is a foray into black and white for a couple of climactic scenes that struck me as annoyingly filmi. I wasn’t sure if it was censored because of all the gore or just cleverness, but regardless it was too tricksy. Other more successful visual metaphors were derived from the core of the drama – the movement between light and dark, between high and low places, people up to their necks in muck wading through sewers. The pace drags a little when the boys are hanging around doing the cleaning, and there is a little too much helpful exposition to get everyone on the same page, but these are minor issues.

Dinesh Ravi carries most of the film as Pandi was the enquiring mind, the calculating observer, and the loyal at heart.  His reactions and interactions with Samuthirakani give the story a centre and conflict that held the other strands together. Samuthirakani has gravitas and a wry humour that sparks up when Muthuvel is at ease. He is the cop who knows what is right, wants to be clean, but is coerced by his higher ups. Kishore is also impressive as the sly money man who can’t believe he will run out of friends or dollars. The dialogue is often sparse and meaning is layered through action and reaction. This is a man’s world. There is a budding romance (Anandhi as Shanthi), and a female cop (Misha Ghoshal) who deliberately forgets her phone so Pandi can call for help and that is it. All the supporting performances are good, but there are so many fleeting character appearances that the police dissolve into one huge despicable khaki organism.

I am not really surprised that the film failed to make the Oscars. A dog eat dog world with no hope of justice, and with the police at the heart of the darkness, seemed like a hard sell.

This is an accomplished film with some exceptional performances. It’s not an easy watch due to the casual brutality. It made me question why such a topic is still so current. And there is no moral or redemption to send you whistling on your way. Just death, lies, greed, and a promise of more of the same. 4 stars.

Kavan (2017)

Kavan

K.V.Anand doesn’t tread any new ground with his latest film Kavan, revisiting a theme of land and water contamination by big business that’s been seen many times before. But rather than making another ‘message’ or pure action film, here we are firmly in masala territory, and that’s what helps make Kavan such a watchable film. It’s set in the world of television and journalism where breaking news is the key to big ratings and in this new post-truth world of alternative facts, the machinations of one TV station to keep ahead of the competition don’t appear quite as far-fetched as they may have done a few months ago. Writers K.V. Anand, Subha and Kabilan Vairamuthu have come up with an entertaining screenplay and some excellent dialogue that drive the story along despite numerous diversions. With great performances from Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian, Kavan is more engaging and enjoyable than expected, even with the 160 minute run-time.

Vijay Sethupathi is Thilak, the only student in his class who wants to make documentaries rather than work in films or TV which immediately identifies him as someone more interested in facts and the truth than entertainment. However, he ends up working at Zen TV, alongside his former girlfriend Malar (Madonna Sebastian) who doesn’t want a bar of him after their acrimonious break-up. Initially Thilak does well, impressing channel owner Kalyan (Akashdeep Saighal) with his novel approach, but it doesn’t take long until Thilak’s moral stance gets him into trouble. Kalyan is prepared to put anything on-screen as long as it will lift ratings and he isn’t above manufacturing news either. Alongside corrupt politician Dheeran Maniarasu (Bose Venkat) he spins facts out of all semblance of the truth to promote Dheeran Maniarasu’s political career and his own TV channel. The inevitable clash comes about due to Dheeran Maniarasu’s involvement with a chemical company which is polluting the local area.

Activists Mira and Abdul (Vikranth Santhosh) are friends of Malar who fall foul of the politician and his rowdies and their subsequent search for justice sees Thilak and his friends leaving Zen TV for good. They team up with Mayilvaganan (T. Rajendar) who has a small struggling TV channel and start their campaign to broadcast the truth.

Now, initially I found Rajendar’s comedy jarring and out of sync with the slick styling of the rest of the film, but as the story moves on, and Malar and Thilak start to work with Mayilvaganan, his eccentricities become more relevant and I found his scenes to be really funny. His routine may not change, but Rajendar is good at what he does and that can be very effective, especially as here when administered in small measured doses.

The move to Mayilvaganan TV has the added bonus of demonstrating how to renovate on a budget, if you should ever feel the need to know, and of course the new revamped channel starts to become popular as it spreads the true story of Dheeran Maniarasu’s various corrupt practices.

The story plans out exactly as expected but there is a good mix of drama, comedy, action, and just the smallest amount of romance as Malar and Thilak put aside their differences. Despite the total lack of surprises, the film keeps us interested by keeping the story topical – there are mentions of recent events such as demonetisation and the Chennai floods – and adding plenty of good snappy dialogue. Vijay Sethupathi is always very watchable and he excels yet again, ensuring that his character’s belief in truth and honesty in reporting never come across as preachy or too sanitised. No matter how ridiculous the plot (running through woodland carrying a camera chasing a car and still managing to arrive in time to catch the action for instance), it somehow always seems possible in the face of Vijay’s absolute confidence and sincere belief in the role he is playing. He looks the part of a journalist, and I loved the brief glimpse of laser eye-correction surgery to ditch his glasses before he went on-air as a talk show host. Shame though as he looks good in specs!

Madonna Sebastian too is charming and plays the role of a modern career woman well. Her early scenes with Vijay are brilliant and I liked Malar’s gradual realisation that actually Thilak wasn’t such a bad guy after all. For a commercial entertainer this is a better than usual female role where Malar isn’t just the love interest, but has a reasonably substantial part to play in the story too. The romance too is very low-key and more an acknowledgement that the two are in a relationship rather than the more usual excuse for a flurry of songs. This is pretty much all of the romance in the film – nicely condensed into one song from Hiphop Tamizha.

The friends, including a rather subdued Jagan, are all good too, although they don’t have much to do for most of the film. Vikranth Santhosh stands out as the activist and his impassioned appeals for justice come across as more heartfelt and sincere than expected for a masala film.

As in Ayan, Akashdeep Saighal as the villain is the weak link for me, although this is likely due to the sketchiness of his character. All the hair tossing and posing suit the character of a TV mogul better at any rate and his acting has improved slightly, but I didn’t buy into the character of Kalyan at all. Bose Venkat is much better as the corrupt politician and does appear appropriately duplicitous throughout the film. It’s often the villain that lets these films down, but since it’s the policies of Kalyan rather than the character that Thilak and Malar are fighting, it’s not as important that Kalyan fails to make much of an impression.

Basically Kavan is a masala entertainer that doesn’t pretend to be anything ese. There is never any sense that the film is trying to be a serious exposé of the TV industry, or that the various feminist, Hindu-Muslim brotherhood or land right speeches are meant to generate a response; it’s simply a story to enjoy in the theatre with a box of popcorn. It is overlong and there are a number of diversions that aren’t at all necessary but the dialogue is good, the performances generally excellent and the masala mix is just about right. Worth watching for Vijay Sethupathi, Madonna Sebastian and a vision of alternative facts that’s perhaps a tad more realistic than may have been planned.