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

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Thaanaa Serndha Koottam

Thaanaa Serndha Koottam

I really enjoyed Suriya’s latest movie, although I haven’t seen the original Special 26, and wasn’t sure what to expect. What I got was a rollicking heist movie, with Suriya playing a kind of modern-day Robin Hood, albeit in 1987, as he and his merry gang thieves disguise themselves as CBI officers to rob various high-profile victims of their ill-gained wealth. With Suriya on top form, the support cast generally excellent and plenty of humour in the engaging screenplay, Thaanaa Serndha Koottam is well worth catching in the cinema if you can.

The film is a remake of Neeraj Pandey’s 2013 hit, Special 26, although director Vignesh Shivan has apparently given it a Tamil twist. Both films are based on a real-life robbery that took place in Bombay in 1987, and Thaanaa Serndha Koottam is set in the same timeframe, allowing for some period features such as the white ambassador cars that Iniyan and his gang use to pose as Government officials, and posters of old films displayed in the background. It also means we get such delights as the costumes and sets in this wonderfully OTT song from Anirudh Ravichandra:

The story goes like this. Suriya is Iniyan, an aspiring CBI officer who is rejected for his dream job mainly because corrupt officer Uthaman (Suresh Chandra Menon) holds a grudge against his father (Thambi Ramaiah). At the same time, many of Iniyan’s friends are struggling to find work due to corruption within the system and the high bribes needed to secure a position. Iniyan’s solution is to gather together a team of like-minded people who are willing to take part in his audacious scheme to rob the rich. And because the money they steal hasn’t been declared to the government, the victims are unwilling to report the crime, ensuring that Iniyan and his team escape scot-free every time.

Iniyan then gives all his ill-gotten loot away, ensuring that his character keeps an altruistic image despite his criminal activities. As the heat builds in Tamil Nadu, the gang move their operations to Hyderabad where they can’t speak the language. I could totally relate to their default use of words they had learnt from Telugu movies, although I’ve never found it to work quite so well for me, and the resultant confusion is perfectly developed into a very funny scene. Brahmi makes an understated appearance as a Telugu CBI officer while the Charminar is visible in almost every shot to make sure we know the action is now happening in Hyderabad!

There is a romance too as Iniyan falls for a girl who is drawn into his schemes. He doesn’t ever seem to find out her name, and I wasn’t clear on her connection to the original robbery, although to be honest I suspect there may not actually be one. Keerthy Suresh is fine as Iniyan’s love interest but really has little to do apart from appear in the songs and create the odd diversion in the storyline.

The rest of the gang get better characterisations and even some back story to flesh out their various personas. Ramya Krishnan in particular is fantastic here and makes a scarily believable CBI officer. As “Jhansi Rani’, she uses her piercingly chilling glare (perfected in Baahubali) to excellent effect as she storms into various establishments demanding they hand over their illegal savings. Then in a blink of an eye she becomes regular housewife Azhagu Meena, planning her eldest daughter’s wedding and dealing with her disabled husband. I love her in this role, and it’s fantastic to see her in such a strong and effective role that combines comedy and drama so well.

The others in the team, KP (Senthil), Ondi (Sivashankar) and Muthu (Sathyan) have smaller roles, but still add plenty of interest to the proceedings, and ensure that the team appears as a real gang rather than just an odd collection of people Iniyan has gathered together.

Against them are the real CBI officers and Kurunjivendhan (Karthik), an honest if somewhat overly enthusiastic police officer who helps Uthaman in his search. Nandha is also good in a small but important role as a rookie police officer who is conned by the gang while Yogi Babu, RJ Balaji and Anandaraj all have successful cameos.

Anirudh Ravichander just keeps producing the hits as he delivers yet another great soundtrack, managing to make the songs all sound as if they really do all come from the eighties. For the most part they’re well integrated into the film too with appropriate picturisation that suits the ambiance.

The only real miss in this film is the end, where the story switches gear and becomes a more typical Tamil herocentric finale with action, drama and a few too many pontificating speeches. It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise engaging film, but thankfully there are some last-minute shenanigans over the end credits to make the audience leave with a smile.

Overall this is a fun film and with such a great cast of characters and the always charismatic Suriya, Thaanaa Serndha Koottam turns out to be an enjoyable and overall very funny watch. Worth catching for Suriya, Ramya Krishnan and Anirudh’s soundtrack.

Sathuranga Vettai

sathuranga vettai poster

H. Vinoth’s Sathuranga Vettai is an amusing crime caper that follows the exploits of con-man Gandhi Babu as he persuades a large number of gullible people to part with their cash. Naturally, this does not come without consequences and the later part of the film deals with Gandhi’s redemption and his attempts to break free from his life of crime. This is an impressive début for H. Vinoth and despite a tendency to veer into overly dramatic territory towards the end, the film well worth watching for some great dialogue, good characterisations and Natarajan Subramaniam and Ishaara Nair in the lead roles.

The film is divided into different chapters, each describing a con run by Gandhi Babu (Natarajan Subramaniam) and his merry band of helpers, Guru (Dharani Vasudevan), Kumar and Selvam. The first starts with Gandhi and his gang persuading businessman Chettiyar (Ilavarasu) to buy a rare snake which, they tell him, can be sold on at a much higher price. Of course, the snake is a pig in a poke and is anything but rare, but what is more surprising is how superstitious and gullible Chettiyar is, given that he is supposedly a rich businessman with thriving rental and retail investments. I found it hard to believe that he would really believe that a snake could understand him and lose weight because it was homesick, but it did make for some great comedy in the first few scenes. The film also quickly introduces Gandhi’s simple philosophy – the easiest way to deceive people is to find those who are greedy and want to make a fast buck and in his defence, there does seem to be plenty of greedy people out there.

The second con is better realised and seems rather more plausible. This time Gandhi and his followers set up a mass marketing Ponzi scheme selling miracle water to gullible investors. A young woman, Bhanu (Ishaara Nair) approaches Gandhi for a job as she cannot afford to invest in the scheme and Gandhi immediately sees her potential. Her innocence and flair for persuading others to invest makes Bhanu a valuable asset for the gang, but she has no idea that they are all snake-oil salesmen and that their venture is all a con. Gandhi’s seeming altruism leads Bhanu to start to fall in love with the con-artist but once his true activities are revealed, Bhanu is left to deal with the aftermath as Gandhi and his gang skip town with the money.

The next con sees Gandhi arrested and jailed for his crimes. While he is tortured by the police, his gang work hard to bribe the various complainants and ensure Gandhi’s release.

Although their efforts pay off, Gandhi is kidnapped by a gang lead by Vallavan (Vallavan) who have been employed by one of the victims of Gandhi’s previous con. Suddenly the fruits of Gandhi’s criminal past are brought home to cause him more problems and the only way he can escape the gang is to work another con for them. After a convoluted series of deals and double deals Gandhi manages to escape and finds Bhanu who still has feelings for him. But the gang is still on the look-out for Gandhi and his idyllic life with Bhanu is shattered once Vallavan and Senthil catch up with the couple and force Gandhi to carry out one last con.

The story is a good blend of action and drama, with enough comedy to keep the proceedings from ever getting too serious. The final scenes are overly melodramatic as Bhanu goes in to labour while gang member Thillagar (Ramachandran Durairaj) is told to kill her as the rest of the gang force Gandhi to dig his own grave. However, the rest of the film isn’t quite so theatrical, and some of the cons are entirely plausible and seem quite realistically portrayed.

Natarajan Subramaniam is excellent in the lead role and seems perfectly cast as the smooth-tongued salesman with the gift of the gab. He dons different disguises and different accents as part of the role, while his ability to appear cold and calculating works well to give the character credibility. It makes his gradual change of heart once he finds Bhanu and slow realisation that there could be another way of life seem more plausible. H. Vinod gives Gandhi a tragic back story which didn’t seem to be totally necessary but again does make his final redemption more likely, given that up to his meeting with Bhanu his general philosophy is that nothing you do is wrong as long as you don’t feel guilty. His early experiences, described here in animation, do at least give Gandhi an emotional response to work with and overcome his otherwise cold persona. One of the best things about Gandhi’s character is that although he is a criminal, he is totally hopeless when it comes to physical violence. As a change for the usual ‘hero’ in this type of role, Gandhi is regularly beaten up and has no capacity to defend himself whatsoever outside a verbal stoush. That seems quite likely for someone who relies on his wits and ability to run and makes Gandhi a more sympathetic character than expected.

Ishaara Nair is also excellent although at times her character does seem a little too good to be true. She has good onscreen chemistry with Natarajan and the two work well together as a couple, even if for much of the time I felt that Bhanu was much too good for him and deserved more. The rest of Gandhi’s gang are good, particularly as sellers of the miraculous magic pearls, although they have limited screen time. Vallavan and his gang have more to do, and Ramachandran in particular is excellent as a gangster with a heart, even though he keeps it well hidden from the rest of the gang.

Overall this is a clever and rather different film that relies on good writing and excellent characterisations to tell an engaging story. The sheer ordinariness of the characters works in their favour and the simple con schemes are plausible enough to keep the story more realistic than most. The music from Seth Rogan mostly fits well into the narrative with the songs featured on Bhanu and Gandhi’s relationship, apart from one early in the film that’s set in a bar that doesn’t work quite as well. K.G. Venkatesh ensures the film looks good too with plenty of beautiful shots of the countryside surrounding Madurai. H. Vinoth has delivered an excellent first film that delivers in terms of both story and characters. 4 stars.