Kabali

Kabali

Pa Ranjith’s Kabali is a film that could have been made in 1986 and that is not entirely a bad thing. Rajinikanth stars as Kabali, a gangster released after 20 odd years in jail. His wife and unborn child are dead, killed by rival gangs. What will he do? It’s a lumbering gangster vs gangster story on a large scale, but with a very traditional approach to conflict resolution. A less extravagant looking film than Rajini’s recent outings, it makes up in international locations what it lacks in CGI pyramids.

Rajini is such a good actor I was pleased to see him in a more pared down movie. When Kabali was speaking to foes or minions he laid on the mass mannerisms with a trowel. But when he was with friends he was more nuanced, even funny, and I could kind of see why people loved and followed him. I liked the slightly anachronistic feel, as though time took a while to get going for Kabali again so he was still acting like it was the 80s. Kabali always wore a suit, and that is explained in more detail than almost anything else in the story. I did like the outfit with the scoop necked double breasted waistcoat and hat. Sidenote – I am pretty sure I saw a guy wearing one of Kabali’s pre-transformation 1970s shirts in a 2016 scene.

Now free, Kabali has flashbacks to seeing his wife. He would see Kumudhavalli (Radhika Apte) around the house and familiar places, chiding him then breaking into a loving smile. The way he drifted back to his past or lost track of where he was during these visions made his love and the depth of loss evident. Although his future and present never quite seemed as clear or in focus.

Radhika Apte had the small but important role as Kumudhavalli. Their relationship was established back in the day when Kabali was getting started as a community leader, and she left everything to marry him regardless of their class or caste differences. Unfortunately Pa Ranjith has little idea of how to structure a narrative taking place in multiple time periods and does a lot of telling before showing a flashback, then more telling again. Their scenes together are really nice and Radhika gives her character enough spirit to make an impression even in a limited time. She is 30 playing as a contemporary of a 65 year old, but the make-up team did what they could to remove those differences and Rajini’s wig guys got to trot out some old favourites.

I liked Dhansika as Yogi, although her character went off the boil once she had established her true identity. I couldn’t quite believe an ice cold mercenary could so quickly forget how to deal with a stranger at the door, and her kill rate dropped alarmingly. But Dhansika played her with more edge than I’m used to seeing, and I liked her performance. I also liked the guy assigned to look after them in Chennai who believed there was never not enough time to flirt a bit with the hot gun toting chick.

Kabali is a leader of a gang that only did good deeds (for Tamil people only, of course), but still killed his enemies without hesitation. He was a hero to Tamilians living in Malaysia and committed to helping them stay and thrive, but his views on other races in Malaysia went way past pro-Tamil jingoism and into bigotry on a number of occasions. And how was he going to actually make any money to keep things going? He had rules about not getting into drugs or hookers, but no clear business plan.

Kabali-Winston Chao

Rival (and Evil) Gang 43 had a business plan (import ALL the drugs), and a leader who may have been auditioning to be a Bond villain. Tony Lee (Winston Chao) had an inexhaustible supply of brocade jackets and contrasting bowties (I liked the high buttoned big lapelled peacock blue ensemble best, or maybe the pink), a robust vocabulary of curse words in multiple languages, and a desk shaped like a komodo dragon. Winston Chao looks like he is having a ball and really goes for it in the big moments, while generally being cool and psychotic. He and Rajini play off each other well and despite Tony being utterly despicable I looked forward to his scenes.

Santhosh Narayan’s soundtrack is firmly of the present day, and it suits the fast and crunchingly aggressive world of the story. Also I liked the blending of hip hop and more usual blokey Tamil hero dance styles. Rajini stuck to enigmatic walking and meaningful pointing.

Pa. Ranjith didn’t quite solve the problem of how to reveal the various twists so he had a crack at everything multiple times. Rajini did most of his acting sitting down, which made this quite a talky gangster flick. And these two things combined to make this a bit slow, and not as suspenseful as it should have been. There is a distinct lack of logic that means people and things are there or not there just because. I gave up wondering if the school actually did anything education related! All any student seemed to learn was The Free Life Salute which I don’t believe would be very useful. The fight scenes felt quite slow and sometimes repetitive. A better fight director or sharper editing might have made the difference, and at least given more variety of ways to splash the fake blood around.

The supporting cast is almost a who’s who. Nasser, John Vijay, Kalaiyarasan and hyperactive Dinesh Ravi are among the ranks of the notional “goodies”. The baddies boast Kishore, Mime Gopi (yes he was a mime) and a host of others. But remember this is a Tamil gangster movie so don’t go getting attached to anyone. That’s all I’m saying.

The subtitle team did a great job (thanks rekhs and harini!). Maybe because there wasn’t much challenge in the dialogues, there were also some descriptive captions of all the many types of laughter Kabali had at his disposal. Some of my favourites were: “Smug chuckle”, “Sarcastic laughter” and “Tickled pink laughter”. Yours?

If the film was a little shorter, and some of the show and tell had been show OR tell, Kabali could have been very good indeed. See it if you miss the mid 80s gangster genre, or you enjoy watching a larger than life on screen superstar. When it’s good it’s good, and when it isn’t you still have Rajini and Winston Chao…and those natty outfits. Magizhchi!

24 (2016)

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For a science fiction film about time travel there is something more than a little magical about 24. Vikram Kumar has come up with a compelling story and made a technically excellent film with a well-chosen cast who all perform beautifully. Suriya is outstanding, favourites Ajay and Saranya Ponvannan are impressive in rather more substantial roles than expected and the whole film is a wonderful masala mix of action, drama, romance, comedy and mystery. Definitely one to catch in the cinema to fully appreciate the VFX but also well worth watching for the expertly crafted story and first-rate cast.

24 combines many of the usual elements of a Tamil film, but although the ingredients may be commonplace the resulting story is refreshingly novel. First there is the rivalry between two brothers; Sethuraman and Athreya (both Suriya), one a brilliant but obsessed and oblivious scientist working on a device that will allow travel through time, and the other his jealous and coldly calculating elder brother who will stop at nothing to steal the device for himself. Moving 26 years into the present day, there is Sethuraman’s son Mani (also Suriya) who knows nothing of his past, his adopted mother Sathyabhama (Saranya Ponvannan) who has sacrificed everything to keep Mani safe and the evil Athreya still trying to track down the device to try to rewrite his own past. These are all familiar plot elements but here cleverly put together to ensure there are plenty of surprises throughout and just when it seems the next step in the journey is inevitable, Vikram Kumar twists the path and the story heads off in an unexpected direction.

The opening scenes are amazing and although supposedly set in 1990, the steam train, cars, motorbikes and fairy tale-like mansion give an older-world ambiance. This is helped by the lighting which is golden, warm and suggestive of candle-light especially when compared to scenes set in the present day that are lit more brightly with colder, bluer lighting. Sethuraman has converted his entire house into a gigantic laboratory to work on his invention, and in typical mad-scientist style he has secret rooms, hidden passage-ways and odd devices everywhere. Think Wallace (Wallace and Grommit) with a bigger budget. Thanks to the intervention of a CGI eagle, Sethuraman manages to create a watch that will allow time travel but before he can celebrate his success, his elder brother Athreya shows up to steal the invention. Suriya’s Sethuraman is a classic bespectacled and nerdy inventor, right down to his abstraction when his wife Priya (Nithya Menen) tries to get him to help with their young son Manikanden and various dangerous substances inappropriately placed for safety around the room. This of course allows for maximum damage when Athreya shows up but paint a picture of a ‘typical’ scientist which Vikram Kumar then turns on its head as Sethuraman turns out to be more practical than first impressions suggest. The opening scene sets the precedent for the rest of the film – there is a good amount of humour, plenty of action and drama with Suriya drawing all eyes and commanding centre stage throughout.

The film moves 26 years into the future where Mani is grown up and working as a watch mechanic with no knowledge of his past, or just what he has in an unbreakable box that he cannot open. Athreya is still around too, although after the events 26 years ago he is a crippled shadow of his former self getting around in a motorised wheelchair after waking up from a coma. Athreya is as malevolent as ever and with the help of his trusty sidekick Mithran (Ajay) goes about trying to turn back time 26 years to reverse his accident and regain the use of his legs. Again Suriya does a fantastic job with the character of Athreya – he’s confidently wicked in 1990 when he goes after his brother and his family, and wonderfully warped and bitter in 2016 as a twisted figure in a wheel-chair. Suriya brings the character to life and makes him so much more than a stock evil villain.

Mani is more the kind of character Suriya has played in recent films, but with a hint of mischievousness that differentiates Mani from the likes of Massu and Raju Bhai. There are some well scripted moments between Mani and his onscreen mother Sathyabhama which give Saranya Ponvannan more than the usual mother/son dialogues to get her teeth into. As always she’s the quintessential filmi ma, but here she gets to have a back story and separate personality aside from being a mother and she rises beautifully to the opportunity.

There is also a romance – of course – there has to be a romance! Mani falls for Sathya (Samantha) just as he discovers his father’s watch, and the romance is partly an excuse to showcase all the things the watch can do. The love story is the most conventional part of the film but Suriya and Samantha have good chemistry and Vikram Kumar adds in some light-hearted comedy to ensure the romance doesn’t overcome the action. Girish Karnad, Mohan V. Raman and Sudha as members of Sathya’s family add more background and all are good in their respective roles.

A.R. Rahman provides the music, but it’s around an hour in before the first dance number which is the appropriately electronic sounding Kaalam en Kadhali. I loved Suriya’s dancing in this – it was definitely worth the wait! The rest of the songs are more romantic and fit less well into the narrative, although I did appreciate the black and white co-coordinating costumes in Naan Un. The music itself is lovely, but the songs slow down the narrative and really don’t seem particularly necessary to move the story forward.

Although there is plenty of good comedy in 24, it’s kept light and even Sathyan, as Mani’s friend Saravanan, is more restrained than usual. It is still laugh-out-loud funny in parts though which provides a good contrast to the few more violent scenes, particularly one just before the interval which is shocking in its sudden brutality. However that is the exception and most of the fight scenes rely on intelligence rather than brute force.

24 has the look and feel of a Hollywood film without losing any of its Southern Indian roots. If this had been a Western film, no doubt 3 different actors would have been cast in the different roles of Mani, Sethuraman and Athreya, but in part the film works so well here because it is the same actor in all three roles. Watching Suriya play three very different characters is mesmerising all by itself while ensuring the familial relationship forms part of the story. Plus more Suriya is generally a good thing! The visual effects are slick, polished and look amazing, while the cinematography from S. Tirru is excellent, adding another layer to the story and ensuring a sophisticated look to the film.

Vikram Kumar impressed me in Manam with his ability to make a complex story flow easily and he does it again here. Yes, there are a few too many coincidences and no-one seems to worry about what will happen to the future when the past is altered, but these are small issues that don’t seem to matter when the rest of the film is so well done. 24 is an excellent piece of storytelling and the best big budget film of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

Goli Soda

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Goli Soda is a masala movie with a difference – there is the usual mixture of action, comedy and romance, but this time the protagonists are four adolescents from Koyambedu market in Chennai and the action mainly takes place within the confines of the marketplace. The four are all orphans who have grown up in Koyambedu and Goli Soda follows their struggle to discover their own identities and what happens when their livelihood and self-respect is threatened. While the scale of the story may be small, the theme of teenagers trying to fit in and develop their own self-worth is universal, even if most don’t have to face quite the same obstacles or start with quite so little. S.D. Vijay Milton’s film has engaging characters and an interesting and rather different story to tell, making Goli Soda well worth a watch.

Saetu (Sree Raam), Kuttimani (Murugesh), Pulli (Kishore) and Sitthappa (Pakoda Pandi) are all friends who live and work together in the market. They unload produce during the early hours of the morning, working for Aachi (Sujatha Sivakumar) who pays them according to the amount of bags they have carried into her business. The boys live rough in the market and spend the rest of their time running amuck, ogling the local girls on their way to school and wasting time with market porter Manthiravan (Imman Annachi). The relationship between the four is well depicted with the expected amount of teasing and banter in any group of young men, but there is also plenty of support for each other and together they form a tightly knit family. This is perfectly illustrated when they all share the same ‘best’ t-shirt to wear as they wave at their chosen girl from the safety of the building roof. Regardless of the fact that none of the girls can probably see exactly what they are wearing, they swap the t-shirt so that each feels he looks his best with the limited resources they have. It’s a brief moment but shows their easy camaraderie and how much they rely on each other.

When Aachi finds out that one of the girls they are chasing is her own daughter Yamini (Chandhini) she convinces the four that they ned to do something more with their lives and approaches market kingpin Naidu (Madhusudhan Rao) for a loan. Naidu gives them the use of an unused godown which the boys turn into a small restaurant, named Aachi’s mess in honour of their mentor. They are surprisingly successful too, and take everything very seriously, even down to selecting the right covering for their makeshift tables. They’re helped in their endeavours by Aachi and Yamini and also by Vanmathi (Seetha) another friend who has her own share of problems but manages to take a glass half full approach to life. However Vanmathi is quite committed to her philosophy of one plant, one flower in relationships and only being willing to help if it is definitely true love and not just time-pass!

Problems arise when Naidu’s brother-in-law Mayil (Vijay Murugan) starts to frequent Aachi’s mess, demanding alcohol and non-veg dishes, even spending the night there with his cronies. The subsequent fall-out when the boys turn on Mayil threatens Naidu’s hold over the market and it seems as if Saetu, Kuttimani, Pulli and Sitthappa will lose everything, including possibly their lives as they battle to hold on to the little they have. Aachi, Yamini and Vanmathi are also all affected and in a departure from the normal masala formula, the two girls end up taking part in the fights with Naidu’s men and help the boys in their campaign to regain their restaurant.

What Goli Soda does is take the usual masala issues of bad guys vs good guy and translate them into the world of four adolescents. Instead of land grabbing politicians and gangsters we get petty criminals who take over the boys’ space and take away their sense of self in the process. That space is important as it’s the first Saetu, Kuttimani, Pulli and Sitthappa have had that is theirs to do with as they please – or at least as much as they can in a rented shop. Their insistence on choosing the tablecloths and making tables and benches for the restaurant becomes significant as it’s the first time they have ever had any say in their surroundings. The restaurant becomes their space and defines how they appear to the rest of the market – they are no longer simply nameless coolies, but instead are Aachi’s mess boys.  The successful business confers a sense of self-worth they did not have before and makes each someone rather than just another orphan. Loss of their space means they are back to being nothing – and that’s not something they are going to let happen if at all possible.

The film has a number of fight scenes where the four adolescents take on Mayil and his gang. This could have been ridiculously unbelievable, although perhaps not any more so than in the usual mass film where the hero is able to fling villains around without too much effort, but the choreography here is better than that. There is a lot of slapping and basic survival tactics which makes it seem less incredible that the boys could take on grown men and not suffer horrendous injuries, while the casual brutality of the gang seems plausible. The story overall works as the boys are all typical young men with the usual wants and desires – new clothes to look cool in front of the girls for example, but they also have a sense of responsibility which comes from having something which is theirs alone. All the young actors are fantastic in their roles and each is completely believable – even down to the blubbering and pleading when they are first faced with the prospect of being beaten up by Mayil and his gang. Sujatha Sivakumar is also excellent in her role as Aachi, giving the boys a constant in their lives and imbuing discipline without losing their respect.

Although it’s a simple story, Goli Soda packs a lot into 2 hours. All the masala elements are there, but trimmed of any excess to suit the younger protagonists, making for a neat and crisp narrative that easily pulls the viewer into the world of Koyambedu market. The dialogue is fun, snappy and suits the characters while the documentary-style of the camera makes the scenes in the market feel very natural. Goli Soda is something just a little bit different and recommended viewing for a movie with a message that avoids being preachy or overly sentimental. 4 stars.