Velaiilla Pattadhari (VIP) 2

VIP Poster

Sequels are always tricky. Returning to a popular character or scenario is fraught with unfavourable comparisons, and finding a new story that works while retaining the aspects that made the original film so popular is another minefield to cross. There are a few sequels that turn out better than the original film but they are the exception, and sadly VIP 2 isn’t one of them. However, while it may not be the best sequel ever made, it’s certainly not the worst and as an all-round entertainer, it fares reasonably well. Most of the success is due to Dhanush who carries the film over some occasionally rough ground, but Kajol makes a better than average adversary while the presence of many of the original cast (including Harry Potter) ensure good continuity with the first film.

After dealing with Arun in VIP, the sequel opens with Raghuvaran (Dhanush) still working for Ramkumar (M.J. Shriram) at Anitha Constructions and winning the Engineer of the Year award. This brings him to the attention of Vasundhara Parameshwar (Kajol) who runs the biggest engineering firm in South India. Raghuvaran’s dismissal of her offer of employment rankles, but not as much as his admonishment to be less arrogant when Anitha Constructions wins a big contract over Vasundhara. A self-made woman who has clawed her way up from the bottom, Vasundhara makes it her mission in life to squash Raghuvaran like the bug she perceives him to be, but of course it’s not going to be as simple as she believes.

All the elements are there from the previous film, Raghuvaran’s beloved cycle, his dedication to the memory of his mother, and his unfortunate tendency to drink too much when faced with a problem. What doesn’t work quite so well is the change in Shalini (Amala Paul) from a sensible romantic interest to a shrewish and nagging wife. Supposedly this is due to giving up her job and taking over all the household chores, which to be perfectly honest is enough to drive anyone to grumpiness, but the constant bickering wears thin very fast. Worst still, Shalini’s nagging is supposed to be funny, but it’s just as irritating to the audience as to Raghuvaran’s family.

Kajol is a huge improvement over Arun and his father as the villain of the piece. Her entrance is more typical of a hero as the first glimpse is of her stylish and very pointed stiletto hitting the ground as she arrives at the Engineering awards ceremony. In fact, the crowd reaction was just as loud and enthusiastic for Vasundhara’s entrance as it was for Raghuvaran’s first appearance on screen. Kajol totally owns the role and her arrogance and confidence are a perfect balance to Raghuvaran and Ramkumar’s humility and attention to detail. And yet she’s not evil or out to destroy the poor of society, simply determined to push though her own ideas and methods regardless of anyone standing in her way. However, after a great start, her repeated attempts to get the better of Raghuvaran start to seem petty and churlish rather than decisive and it seems unlikely that someone who had the strength and ability to run a successful company would be quite as petulant and narrow-minded. Still, Kajol is stunning as she sweeps around in her tailored suits and stylish sunglasses, while her menacing dialogues are surprisingly effective.

Raghuvan’s father (Samuthirakani) is a more supportive figure this time round, but his brother Karthik (Hrishkesh) barely gets to say a word and most of the VIP boys suffer the same fate. Without any substantial input, they become a faceless mass without any of the charm or appeal that allowed a connection to develop to these characters in the original film. The film is significantly more focused on Dhanush, who has the acting chops to carry it off, but at the expense of a more coherent storyline. The plot wanders as story and screenplay writers Dhanush and Soundarya Rajinikanth try to include as many of the characters as possible from VIP 1, but run out of things for them all to do. Saravana Subbiah pops up as an unscrupulous developer while Vivek reprises his role as Raghuvaran’s side-kick Azhagusundaram. While both are fine in their roles, the characters seem to be added in, one for comedy and one to have a reason for the fight scenes, rather than have a true background and reason to be in the script. The final confrontation between Raghuvaran and Vasundhara is also a little disappointing although otherwise the chemistry between Dhanush and Kajol is excellent and the atmosphere between the two crackles at each meeting.

Sean Roldan’s music is perfectly fine but the songs don’t have the same anthemic qualities as Anirudh’s previous tunes, a fact underscored every time the original theme for Raghuvaran plays in the background. However, the choreography is slicker than in the first film and the fight scenes are also of a high quality.

If this was a stand-alone film, I would have rated it as a good action movie with an interesting concept and two excellent characters in Raghuvaran and Vasundhara. The addition of a strong and powerful female character works well here, and Dhanush emphasizes gender equality a number of times throughout the film, although it doesn’t quite gel with his wife having stopped work to look after the family home. The problem is that this is a sequel, and while the original elements are cleverly arranged to form the foundation of the film, too much feels to be added simply because it was part of the first film, while VIP2 doesn’t have a strong enough identity to pull away and succeed without that original scaffolding being firmly in place. It is however much better than I expected and both Dhanush and Kajol turn in strong performances under Soundarya’s direction to make VIP2 more than just a film for fans, but one that’s unlikely to reach quite the same cult status as the original movie.

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Vikram Vedha

Vikram Vedha

It’s rare that a Tamil film gets a round of applause from a Melbourne audience, but that’s exactly what happened at the end of Vikram Vedha last night. And well-deserved applause it was too. Pushkar-Gayathri’s crime drama pits a righteous police officer against a ruthless criminal, but the line between the two rapidly becomes blurred with a series of moral dilemmas that throw Vikram’s beliefs into question. Both Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi are outstanding and with a well-written story, clever dialogue and insightful characterisations, Vikram Vedha is an absolute gem of a film and definitely one not to be missed.

Madhavan’s Vikram is a member of a police task force whose mission is to remove notorious gangster Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi) and his men from the streets. Vikram is totally convinced that he is on the side of the angels and that the men he kills deserve to die, which as he continually states, means that he has no problem sleeping soundly at night. However, almost immediately Vikram hits some dodgy moral ground when he shoots in cold-blood one of the gangsters who tried to surrender and then reworks a crime scene to his team’s advantage. Already Vikram doesn’t seem quite as shiny white as he wants the world to believe, although as a police officer he stills stands on the right side of the law.

Vedha continues to elude Vikram and his men, resulting in a planned raid into the area of North Chennai where Vedha is rumoured to be hiding out. As the numerous police officers and riot police are gearing up, ready for action, Vedha calmly walks into the police station and surrenders. As entrances go, this has to be one of the best, particularly since no-one seems to recognise the gangster until he sets off the metal detector alarm as he walks into the building. Vijay Sethupathi is always good in the role of a gangster, but his swaggering Vedha is brilliantly executed here with exactly the right amount of confidence and bravado to suit a character who calmly surrenders to a room full of armed police.

Vedha’s surrender seems like sure suicide, but he’s planned everything well in advance, and without any evidence the police can’t hold him. However once faced with Vikram in a cell, Vedha starts to tell him a story which ends with a moral conundrum. The question posed at the end starts to lead Vikram to realise that the world isn’t as black and white as his and Vedha’s respective shirts, and that sometimes the identity of the bad guy is not as clear-cut as first seems.

Vedha is released by his lawyer who happens to be Vikram’s wife Priya (Shraddha Srinath) which leads to another moral dilemma for Vikram. What do you do when your wife is representing the criminal you’re trying to kill in an encounter? Priya is a strong character who won’t back down and refuses to let her husband destroy her first chance to make a name for herself in Chennai. The scenes where the two work to resolve their fundamental differences in opinion and approach to Vedha are brilliantly written and work well as another factor in Vikram’s gradual realisation that good and bad are just relative terms.

As the film progresses, Vedha manages to tell Vikram another two stories, always ending with a question about what is the ‘right’ action to take in each situation and that Vikram struggles to answer. The situation becomes more and more tense after Vikram’s best friend Simon (Prem) is killed during the investigation and Vikram is desperate to know why Simon died. But as Vedha’s tales seem to be leading Vikram to a greater understanding and may hold the clue to why Simon died, they also add more and more grey into his previously monochrome view of the world.

Vikram Vedha

Each story is told in flashback and introduces a number of key characters including Vedha’s younger brother Puli (Kathir) one of the men shot by Vikram in the raid at the start. Varalaxmi Sarathkumar plays Puli’s wife Chandra, another strong character whose behaviour as a child is an excellent foreshadowing of her actions as an adult. I loved her character, particularly when her immediate reaction to Puli slapping her was to slap him back straight away, and her down to earth attitude was wonderfully normal in the middle of all the intrigue and drama associated with Vedha and his gang.

Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi work together brilliantly and the chemistry between the two is the main reason why the film works so well. Madhavan is perfect as the gravel-voiced cop who strongly believes that he is always right (and good), while Vijay Sethupathi completely gets into the skin of a Chennai gangster out for revenge. The short flashbacks are beautifully put together to highlight the main clues, but there are so many twists that the final outcome is kept relatively obscured until close to the end. Kudos to the make-up team who successfully aged the characters naturally and the wardrobe team who managed to find so many different shades of grey for Vikram and Vedha as the story progressed! The shift in clothing sounds really obvious, but it’s done subtly and is more effective than it sounds, particularly as the changes echo the shift in Vikram’s thinking. The premise of what is good, what is bad, and how can we really tell is intertwined throughout every part of the film which also works well to highlight the change in perception Vikram undergoes as he learns more about Vedha and his life.

It’s not just the storyline and the performances that make the film so watchable. P.S. Vinod’s cinematography is excellent while the background score by Sam C.S. enhances the action without becoming intrusive. The songs fit surprisingly well into the narrative without disrupting the action and of course  it’s always a treat to watch Vijay Sethupathi shake a leg – especially as part of a drunken gangster party!

Vikram Vedha is such a clever film, but Pushkar-Gayathri never get too carried away by their own brilliance and keep the underlying story simple. The mixture of morality, crime thriller, action and suspense are expertly blended together without making the central debate of good vs bad either preachy or clichéd. I totally enjoyed every single minute of Vikram Vedha and it’s definitely a top contender for my favourite film of the year. Simply perfect!

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.