Sarkar (2018)

Sarkar

2018 seems to be the year for political movies, particularly those where the hero is an outsider deciding to run for office. After NOTA and Bharat Ane Nenu, this time it’s Sundar Ramasamy (Vijay) a self-styled ‘corporate criminal’ who decides to take on the corrupt Chief Minister during elections in Tamil Nadu. A.R. Murugadoss has added in some real-life scenarios which help add interest to a plot that otherwise features little more than a routine ‘Vijay saves the world’ storyline. After his recent films supporting education for women and rights for farmers, Sarkar seems to be Vijay’s most overt statement so far that he is considering a career in politics, although I do hope that if he ever does follow through, he has a better campaign manager than Sundar does here.

I’m not sure that being a ‘corporate criminal’, ‘monster’ or ‘the Genghis Khan of the corporate world’ are particularly desirable qualities for the CEO of a company in the USA, but that is how Sundar is described by both his rivals and his colleagues. Sundar himself seems to be more of a wealthy playboy as he runs around Las Vegas with an entourage of women and bodyguards before hopping onto a private jet back to India. Apparently we are to believe that Sundar makes this trip solely to cast a vote in the upcoming elections, which seems fairly extreme and makes him more of an environmental terrorist rather than corporate criminal. However, various CEO’s and company directors are able to breathe a sigh of relief that Sundar isn’t planning a takeover of their company, but is simply a strong believer in exercising his democratic right. Instead, after finding out that someone has already cast his vote due to the corrupt practices of the incumbent political party, Sundar turns his adversarial sights to CM Masilamani (Pala. Karuppiah) and his side-kick Malarvannan (Radha Ravi) aka Rendu.

Vijay is always excellent in these sorts of roles where he has to mix stirring speeches with action and a stern but righteous expression. He still looks incredibly young, but this time sports a salt and pepper beard, which does give him some maturity and suits the more serious situations. However, for the most part his character’s actions are not believable and many of the political issues are dealt with too simplistically to be completely engaging. Still, Vijay has plenty of charisma and is able to carry the film easily.

Sundar gives up his day job to run for office, which doesn’t ring true despite his spirited speech to an antagonist crowd about his lowly origins as a fisherman’s son. However the speech itself is excellent with a well thrown tomato is used as a metaphor for greed and the plight of humble workers. Later, Sundar uses his missed vote as a way to educate everyone about regulation 49-P and to convince his audience that every single vote is important. These are some of the best parts of the film, where Sundar motivates the masses and exposes the corruption at every level of government. When Vijay is in full speechifying mode he is very impressive but when it comes back to individual dialogue the unlikeliness of some scenarios does reduce their impact.

Both Pala. Karuppiah and Radha Ravi excel at traditional-minded, self-serving and corrupt politicians, but their conventional behaviour means that most of the confrontations between Sundar, Masilamani and Rendu follow an entirely predictable path.  As their power, prestige and ability to make millions in easy money is threatened, Rendu employs the police and multitudes of disposable minions to remove Sundar from the public eye. He never considers that every action will be recorded by the common man on his/her mobile phone, and that the media is on hand too to record every shady deal, even going as far as to walk out of a TV interview when Sundar arrives. However, Sundar’s response is also classic underdog reaction and despite all the wonderful slow-motion fight scenes and rousing rhetoric, for the most part Sundar is just as predictable as the politicians he opposes.

Perhaps to counteract this old-school predictability, Murugadoss adds another villain in the form of Komalavalli (Varalaxmi Sarathkumar), Masilamani’s daughter. This could have worked well, except for Varalaxmi’s stilted dialogue and odd expression, as if there is continually a bad smell right under her nose. I can’t understand how such a usually expressive actor is so lifeless here, but then little about her character makes sense. She tells her father not to worry, that while Sundar may be a corporate criminal she has been a criminal since birth, but there is no explanation of why. Why is Komalavalli the brains behind her father’s political career?  Why then was she in Canada instead of Tamil Nadu when the elections were being held? So many questions and absolutely no answers. Instead Komalavalli is a one-dimensional character whose sole reason to exist seems to be to cause general misery wherever she goes. While at least her presence does give Sundar an opponent with the smarts to fight back, she’s too little too late and just too shallow to be a completely worthy adversary.

Even worse though is the inclusion of Keerthy Suresh as Sundar’s love interest, Nila. Nila is Sundar’s sister-in-law, although the marriage between Nila’s sister and Sundar’s brother has broken down. Sundar and Nila restart a relationship seems to be more friendship rather than anything else apart from one dream sequence song. For most of the time Nila follows Sundar around, stands in the background, and then follows him around some more. This type of political film doesn’t need a romance, certainly not a nothing of a romance that doesn’t even deserve the word, and there really seems to be little point in including Nila or her jealous reaction when Sundar dances with someone else.

Sarkar isn’t a bad film, it’s just a surprisingly ordinary offering from a film-maker who normally delivers a more exciting and well-polished story. Vijay is excellent and the film technically looks great with well choreographed fight sequences and good use of crowd scenes. A shout-out to for the generally very good subtitles, although none of the writing (including a very long piece of text at the start of the film) was subbed. Still, good to see other groups using the same style as Rekhs and adding English idiom rather than direct and nonsensical translations. The other departments are all fine too. A.R. Rahman’s music doesn’t particularly stand out apart from Oru Viral Puratchi, but it is well placed in the film and works as a rousing to action song while the others generally blend into the screenplay without disrupting the action.

The support cast, including Yogi Babu and a large number of students, voters and election officials are all very good and the parts of the story that deal with the mobilisation and politicalisation of the ‘common man’ are well handled. It’s really the predictability of the film that brings it back to earth and the knowledge that whatever happens, Sundar will best his political foes. His path to power seems to happen very easy, and very quickly here – there are massive poll swings from 5% to 80% literally in the course of one day, and a voting result that can be swayed in just a few hours. If only it were that simple! Overall, Sarkar is a watchable and reasonably entertaining film that works fine as a political stepping stone for Vijay but just could have been that little bit better. Worth watching for Vijay, Radha Ravi and the idea of what could happen when ‘ common people’ take action!

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NOTA (2018)

NOTA

NOTA is a bilingual political /coming of age drama that ends up a step above routine thanks to Vijay Deverakonda’s engaging performance as a reluctant CM. It also helps that director Anand Shankar adds a number of real-life events to Shan Karuppusamy’s story which gives the film more impact. I watched the Telugu version as there were limited shows in Tamil here in Melbourne, and the switch from Tamil Nadu to Telangana didn’t make much difference despite most of the incidents deriving from known political issues in Chennai. The main let-down is the villain of the piece who is poorly realised and under-utilised, however there is enough here to make NOTA worth at least a one-time watch.

The film starts with a song and a drunken pool party for Varun’s (Vijay Devarakonda) birthday. Varun is a video-game designer based in London, but is home to celebrate his birthday and to visit an orphanage he supports. However, on the way back from the party his car is pulled over by the police and rather than being booked for a drink driving offence, instead Varun is rushed home. Varun’s father Vasudev Subramanyam (Nassar) (Vinothan Subramani in the Tamil version) is the Chief Minister for Telangana, but he is stepping down after being prosecuted in a corruption case. Now as an Australian I’m very used to the top political position changing hands frequently, but here the party makes the choice of the new leader. The situation is different in India where the CM gets to choose his successor and Vasudev picks his own son who is intended to be simply a place-holder until the court case is finished. Varun has no interest at all in politics and just wants to be able to head back to London and his life there, but his general fear of his father ensures that he stays in India and does as he’s told.

Mainly this means Varun stays at home, out of the public eye, and signs whatever documents various faceless party men place in front of him. This he does, without even sparing a glance at the documents he’s signing, until everything suddenly comes crashing down after Vasudev is found guilty of corruption. Suddenly it’s no longer a game and real lives are at stake, pushing Varun out of his complacency and bringing him into direct conflict with the party, and his father. This is where a number of those real-life events are brought into the film, such as the Chennai flood, scandals over the fixing of labels to donated meal packets and politicians treated to a stay at a resort. But there are clichés too. Varun gets pulled into the murky world of politics after a riot where a young girl is killed in a bus fire and her mother’s sooty hands leave symbolic marks over his clean white shirt. His response is an impassioned speech which is overly theatrical and to some extent banishes the authentic feel that Anand Shankar manages to create for some of the earlier scenes between Varun and his political mentor, journalist Mahendran (Sathyaraj). For most of the film however, the dialogues and scenarios are appropriate and create a believable character in Varun.

Vasudev Subramanyam was an actor before moving into politics (of course!) and Nasser does an excellent job with his character. Initially it appears that Vasudev is the ‘bad guy’ as he keeps his family under rigid control, but later events paint him in a more ambivalent light which adds interests to the story. Also good is Sanchana Natarajan as Kayal Varadarajan, Varun’s political rival. Her father is the leader of the opposition party and Kayal is determined to bring down the man she dubs the ‘rowdy CM’ by any means possible, regardless of their previous friendship in college. Thankfully Anand Shankar doesn’t burden the film with an unnecessary romance between the two, but instead gives Sanchana free rein to make her character charismatic and a real challenge to Varun, as might be expected in real life.

Sathyaraj is excellent, as is M.S. Bhaskar as Vasudev Subramanyam’s right hand man, only ever referred to as Bhai. What works well here is Bhai’s adherence to the party line and his uncritical support of Vasudev even though he disagrees with his choices. Also telling are the numerous ‘yes-men’ who all abase themselves in front of Vasudev and act much the same way with his son. However a side-plot involving a financial swindle doesn’t fit well into the plot and the entire thread involving the ‘God-man’ who is manipulating Vasudev behind the scenes is clunky and poorly written into the main action. Inevitably these side excursions start to drag down the rest of the film, and despite some good dialogue between Varun, Mahendran and Vasudev, the second half feels stodgy and is hard to digest. Which is a shame as there is much to like in the underlying political story. Varun’s coming of age within the political system is handled well, and his rivalry with Kayal works well to initiate Varun into the dirty side of politics.

There are only 2 songs in the film and both are modern dance numbers, one for Varun’s party and the second at a nightclub where Varun has been drugged.  C.S. Sam’s music is fine but doesn’t particularly stand out and the generic background dancers add even less to the choreography. I’ve added the Telugu version as this is the one I saw in the cinema, but the link to the Tamil version is here.

If the film has stuck more closely to the political issues then this could have been a very good story indeed. Instead the various sub-plots dilute the impact of the political scenes and it’s only the strong performance from Vijay Deverakonda that prevents his character from becoming just another mass movie hero out to save the world. Thankfully there is more backstory and just enough intrigue to make NOTA worth a look, while the real-life political situations do add another level of realism to the plot. The excellent support cast are also well worth catching as they all do justice to their roles. Overall, not a bad début for Vijay Deverakonda in Tamil cinema and another interesting choice for an actor who only seems to be getting better with each film.

Vada Chennai (2018)

Vada Chennai

Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai is an excellent gangster film and a promising start to his planned trilogy. As with his earlier work, Vetrimaaran’s characters here are complex and their relationships with each other are tangled and multilayered, while the action is more straightforward although often brutally violent. The film lays a solid base for the character of Anbu (Dhanush) but also provides a detailed introduction to a multitude of other characters, all of whom contribute to Anbu’s development and his gradual fall into rowdyism. However, this isn’t a film solely about Anbu, but rather a story about an area of Northern Madras and the people who live in ‘the hood’, which ensures the film delivers more of an impact and gives a larger canvas to develop the main players. With an exceptional cast, detailed characters including strong female roles, and the exemplary performance of Dhanush, Vada Chennai is a compelling story that has all the elements to be a classic of the genre.

The first half of the film switches back and forth in time as various key characters are introduced and their background story revealed in a series of ‘chapters’. Anbu wants to be a carrom player, and Vetrimaaran plays on this throughout the film, using the analogy to show that every small action starts a reaction, the impact of which start yet more reactions, and so on in an ever-widening ripple effect. From that perspective it’s hard to say where the story of the film starts. Is it at the beginning of the film where there is a gruesome murder, or where Anbu saves one of Senthil’s men from being knifed during their registration at Chennai prison? Or is it when Anbu meets Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh) during a thieving spree when a riot breaks out after Rajiv Gandhi’s death? The constant throughout is Anbu’s reluctance to enter into the violence he sees all around, and his desire to succeed as a carrom player, although his ambition seems doomed almost from the start.

Initially the film revolves around the rivalry between two gangsters, Senthil (Kishore) and Guna (Samuthirakani). Both are out to kill each other and they each control separate wings in Chennai prison. However, they don’t start out as enemies and the beginning of the film shows Senthil and Guna along with Velu (Pawan) and Pazhani (Sai Dheena) collaborating in a murder. In a particularly grisly moment, they throw their blood-stained weapons, still festooned with goblets of flesh, onto the table in a restaurant before discussing the recent death of MGR and the likelihood of Jayalalitha replacing him as Chief Minister. After the murder, Guna and Velu go to jail, expecting to be swiftly bailed out by Senthil, but when this isn’t the case, their rivalry is quickly escalated to an all-out war between the two factions.  Vetrimaaran brings politics into the story early, showing that the gangsters are canny enough to use the politicians for their own ends, but also as a foreshadowing that politics; local, gangster and state are behind much of the skulduggery later in the film.

Anbu enters this atmosphere in the prison and after a number of incidents finally manages to fall under the protection of Senthil, with whom he shares a common bond in their love of carrom. Anbu is almost an ‘accidental gangster’ having grown up in a shady area of North Chennai and associated with various gang members for all his life. But it’s after he meets Padma and the two begin their relationship that his problems really start. When local rowdies start to give Padma a hard time, Anbu is moved to protest their actions. One thing leads to another, and Anbu is suddenly running for his life along with Padma’s brother (Saran Shakthi). From here Anbu continually tries to get back to life as a carrom player, but it turns out that the gangsters have another role for him to play.

The rich detail in every part of the film ensures that every character is realistic and the various events occur organically within the plot. Every aspect of prison life seems to be captured by the camera, including the method used by the inmates to smuggle drugs in and out of the jail, while life in the slum area of North Chennai is just as intimately shown. Each character is built up from numerous different interactions along with the flashbacks that add depth and a rationale for their behaviour. Ameer is brilliant as Rajan, a smuggler and gangster who was also a protector of the people and who stood up to the local politicians when they wanted to clear the entire area for their own money-making projects. Rajan is the man who first encouraged Anbu to take up carrom and his influence is felt across the story, although he doesn’t appear until late in the film.

Also excellent are Samuthirakani and Kishore as Guna and Senthil, while Daniel Balaji is another standout in his role as Thambi. In contrast to Vetrimaaran’s previous films, he has two strong female characters here who also have important roles to play in the story. Aishwarya Rajesh’s Padma bursts onto the screen as a foul-mouthed thief, but her interactions with Dhanush are brilliantly done, with the romance between the two always feeling realistic and plausible. The scene where Anbu goes to ask her father for her hand in marriage is a rare spot of comedy in a generally dark film, but it still fits well into the narrative, as does Padma’s insistence that Anbu shaves before his wedding. Unfortunately the gangsters intervene and it seems as if Padma will also take a second place with her husband.

Andrea Jeremiah is also superb and has an almost Shakespearean role as first Rajan’s and then Guna’s wife, Chandra. She has a godmother who interprets various omens and predicts the future, most notably proclaiming Anbu as ‘the one’, while Chandra herself is a complex character whose dialogues always seem to have a number of meanings. Andrea Jeremiah initially seemed out of place, but as the film develops and her character evolves she ends up fitting perfectly into the role and her initial aloofness makes perfect sense. Dhanush is perfect as Anbu and completely fulfils the role of a gentle man, driven to violence by events outside his control. He easily slips into the role of a teenager but his real strength lies in the more complex older Anbu who has to deal with his time in prison where everyone seems out to get him. The gradual development of Anbu’s character over the course of the film is brilliantly done and Dhanush captures each facet of his personality and slowly allows the persona to develop. It’s another masterful performance and it’s only at the very end where the change from gangster to ‘voice of the people’ seems rather too abrupt, perhaps because the rest of the characterisation has been so slow and detailed in development.

This rushed feeling at the end is really the only downside to the film. In interviews Vetrimaaran has said that he initially had over 5 hours of film which he has condensed to 164 minutes, which may account for the hurried feeling and the final fast metamorphosis of Anbu. However, despite this, the detail included in the film is comprehensive and the layering of events and characters is a major plus that works to build the entire world of North Chennai inhabited by the characters. There are also some stand-out action scenes in the midst of all the character development. A fight that breaks out at a carrom competition in the jail is beautifully filmed as the protagonists battle it out while simultaneously holding up the shelter over their heads. The initial murder, which is shown in detail later on, is also excellent with a brilliant build-up of tension in the moments leading up to the actual attack. Velraj perfectly captures all the action and despite the dark tones, his cinematography paints a surprisingly colourful picture of life in the area, while some scenes, such as a pursuit though lines of hanging washing are excellent in their picturisation.

Although there are a number of songs in the film, these are used only in short bursts to highlight a particular scene, but Santhosh Narayanan’s background score is perfect and thoroughly enhances the film without being intrusive. Some of the melodies are beautiful and it seems a shame that they aren’t heard in full in the film, but there really is no opportunity for any love songs or dance numbers and with so much else in the film, they really aren’t missed.

After working together on Polladhavan and Aadukalam, Vetrimaaran and Dhanush have again produced another excellent collaboration in Vada Chennai. As the first part of a trilogy there is inevitably a lot of time spent on setting up the story, but here that is so detailed with numerous interwoven threads, that the film is almost complete in itself. The strong cast and compelling storyline ensure that even at almost three hours the film doesn’t feel overlong and the final scenes deliver plenty of anticipation for the next instalment. Hopefully there won’t be too long to wait!