Thadam (2019)

Thadam

Magizh Thirumeni’s Thadam takes a little while to get going, but once it does, step by step the film builds into a puzzling conundrum where the identity of a murderer is cleverly concealed until the final big reveal. There are two prime suspects, but which one of them is the murderer and perhaps just as puzzling, why was the victim killed? Arun Vijay is excellent here in a double role that requires him to fight himself (which looks very convincing!), while the story keeps you guessing right to the end. The film does start rather slowly, but there is more going on than first appears and once the investigation kicks in. the twists come thick and fast. Although Thadam initially only had a three day run in Melbourne, it was popular enough to be extended and I’d definitely recommend it as a better than average whodunnit.

The film starts by introducing two men, Ezhil and Kavin, both played by Arun Vijay. First is Ezhil, a successful engineer who runs his own construction firm. He’s chasing after a girl who works in the same building and the first riddle is the correct question he must ask to persuade Deepika (Tanya Hope) to go out on a date. Eventually he works out the critical query and the two quickly becomes an item until Deepika leaves to attend a wedding. Ezhil seems like a nice guy – he’s thoughtful and considerate, has his own successful business, and is prepared to use a bra to illustrate the miracle of engineering that is Howrah bridge. Perhaps not such a great chat-up line!

Kavin, on the other hand, is a crook. He’s a thief and fraudster who, along with his friend and accomplice Suruli (Yogi Babu), cheats anyone and everyone. Kavin is also addicted to gambling which is unfortunate since he seems to be particularly bad at it, losing a large sum of money which Suruli had set aside to repay a debt to a nasty thug. When Suruli can’t pay, Kavin is given a short space of time to organise the funds otherwise his friend will suffer the consequences.

After introducing the two men and their significant others, Magizh Thirumeni throws in a murder. There’s a dark night, a thunderstorm and a vicious attack on a young man in his apartment. SI Malarvizhi aka Malar (Vidya Pradeep) is the chief investigating officer who is initially baffled by the complete lack of clues. No fingerprints, the rain has kept everyone away and the victim Akash doesn’t appear to have any enemies who would want him dead. A chance photograph throws up a potential lead that seems a sure thing once Inspector Gopalakrishnan (Vijayan) recognises the man lurking on Akash’s balcony. He’s had dealings with Ezhil before and is positive that Ezhil is the man in the photograph. But another police station has picked up Kavin and identified him in the photograph too. So, who is the killer? Both men appear identical and the photograph is the only clue Malar has to work with. It turns out that Gopalakrishnan has a personal bone to pick with Ezhil and there doesn’t seem to be anything that links Ezhil to the murder. However, there is a large sum of money missing which leads Malar to suspect Kavin even though she can’t work out how he could have known about the cash. With no answers and only a few days before she needs to either charge or release both men, Malar is desperate to find any link between Akash and either Ezhil or Kavin. Adding to the mystery, Ezhil and Kavin seem to know and despise each other. What is the connection? Why Akash? And who committed the crime?

There are plenty of clues and red herrings alike in this clever story that is actually based on true events. Magizh Thirumeni keeps us guessing as he throws up clue after clue that seem to lead nowhere and Malar’s frustration is beautifully captured as every lead she has turns out to be worthless. I also liked how seemingly meaningless conversations from earlier in the film turn out to be important later on – it pays to take heed of even the smallest comment as almost everything turns out to be significant in the end. This also helps make sense of the first half of the film which is slow and spends a lot of time on the romance between Ezhil and Preethi. There’s also a seemingly pointless con where fraudster Chechi (Meera Krishnan) sets up Kavin as a potential husband for Ananthi (Smruthi Venkat), but both the romance and the con are essential for the reveals in the second half. However, without the benefit of hindsight, the first half just seems overlong and slow until Akash is killed.

On the plus side, throughout the film there is a good mix of action and comedy that helps ensure that the film doesn’t get too lost in the fluffy romance or bogged down in the police proceedings. Yogi Babu has less to do with this than expected and much of the comedy comes from George Maryan as a bumbling police officer and the interactions between Ezhil, Kavin and the cops. Some of this is just too filmi to work in the context of a thriller, but most of the comedy is well integrated into the main story and is genuinely funny. The exchanges between the police and their suspects are also well done but it’s the tangling of the story that really makes this film worth watching as Magizh Thirumeni manipulates us into repeatedly changing our minds as to who is the guilty party.

Arun Vijay is fantastic in the double role, particularly once Ezhil and Kavin have been arrested. The two men look identical but their personalities are different, although similar enough to make both a plausible suspect for the murder. His reaction to the arrest as Ezhil is brilliantly done, while his Kavin is perfectly cocky when brought in for questioning. Also worth mentioning are the excellently done interactions between the two characters. A great job by the special effects team who really made it look as if Ezhil and Kavin were fighting each other, and brilliant acting from Arun who made every interaction between Ezhil and Kavin seem totally natural.

Vidya Pradeep is also excellent as a police officer who has something to prove after being transferred in under a shadow. I really like that she isn’t portrayed as a “female” police officer, but instead she’s simply the main investigator for the murder. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a definite improvement over the more usual insistence that any female lead has to either have a romance track or be a comedic figure of fun. Vidya brings a good mix of seriousness and authority to the role along with some lighter moments that ensure her character appears likeable and as approachable as can be expected for a police officer in a murder investigation. Tanya Hope on the other hand has little to do except be romanced by Ezhil, but Smruthi Venkat has a more nuanced role and is good in a small but important role. Less successful is a flashback sequence featuring Sonia Aggarwal as Kavin’s mother that feels overdone in comparison to the rest of the film and doesn’t work as well as it could to explain Kavin’s motivation.

This is a clever whodunnit that keeps its cards close to the chest and doesn’t give anything away until the end. The final reveal is excellent and not wrapped up too neatly which allows some room for reflection. Arun Vijay is brilliant, as too is Vidya Pradeep, but better still is the execution of the idea and the twists and turns along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed Thadam and highly recommend it as a murder mystery that’s shrewdly plotted to be delightfully baffling. Make sure you don’t miss the true stories mentioned at the end too.

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Kolamavu Kokila

Kolamavu Kokila

Nelson’s début film is a dark comedy that unusually for Tamil cinema, has a female lead and a strongly female-centric storyline.  Nayanthara is the titular Kokila who gets caught up in the drug trade when she needs to raise some money fast, but the success of the film is really down to the strong performances from Saranya Ponvannan and Yogi Babu, along with the family dynamics which help to keep the story grounded. I did struggle a little with some of the comedy as my DVD is not subtitled and the only subs I could find online were patchy and rarely made sense, but for the most part the story is self-explanatory and relatively easy to follow.

The film starts with gangster Bhai (Hareesh Peradi) flexing his muscles and getting rid of a police officer who has been interfering with his cocaine operation. Having convinced us that the drug dealers are a vicious bunch best avoided, the film then introduces Kokila (Nayanthara) who is looking for an increase in her sales assistant salary. She’s the main breadwinner in her family as her father’s job as an ATM security job doesn’t pay well and with her sister at college, every penny counts. However, her sleazy boss suggests that the only way she will get a raise is if she meets him after work and makes it worth his while, so Kokila promptly leaves her job to look for something more rewarding. She ends up working as the manager of a massage company which pays much better and seems to have less risk of sexual harassment. But things take a turn for the worse after Kokila’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) is diagnosed with lung cancer and the family needs to raise 15 lakhs for her treatment.

These introductory scenes work well to introduce the different characters and give a quick sense of who they are. Although Kokila’s father (R.S. Shivaji) has little part to play in proceedings, his passive acceptance of his lot in life illustrates just why the family is in the situation of needing more funds. The interactions between Kokila’s more aggressive mother (Saranya Ponvannan), her sister Shobi (Jacqueline Fernandez) and her father are excellent vignettes of domestic life. Kokila is protective of her father against the rest of the family’s dismissive comments perhaps because Kokila understands the difficulties of working in a dead-end job every day. This introduction also shows Kokila as a strong personality who stands up for herself against her boss’s sordid suggestions, but unfortunately, she loses this confidence later in the film and seems terrified of her own shadow.

Nelson doesn’t let his leading lady jump straight into the drug trade as an easy fix for her problem. Kokila tries a number of different ways to raise the money first. She speaks to relatives, asks for an advance for work and even approaches an NGO, but during a visit to a broker to see if she can sell some land, she inadvertently helps the police apprehend a drug pusher in the building. His boss, Bobby, insists that Kokila make good her mistake and sends her in to retrieve the hidden drugs. So, when all else fails, Kokila decides to approach Bobby and work as a drug mule to raise the cash for her mother’s treatment.

Bobby introduces Kokila to Mohan (Charles Vinoth), one of Bhai’s gang members, who decides that she looks innocent and unlikely to be suspected of carrying drugs, and he immediately employs her to take cocaine to his partner Alphonse (Rajendran). However a number of close shaves with the police lead Kokila to decide she wants out of the operation, but of course it’s much harder to leave than it is to join the business. Finally, after an altercation with Mohan, Bobby comes up with a final delivery of 300kg of cocaine that Kokila must deliver before she can leave.

What makes the film work so well are the peripheral characters. The story starts off well, but a combination of unlikely scenarios and a few too many coincidences mar the second half. Also, Kokila seems way to meek and nervous to ever go against the gangsters so it doesn’t make sense that she would take such tremendous risks and try to beat them at their own game. Nayahthara always has the same expression, downcast eyes and a stammering voice when dealing with Mohan and Bhai, and this continual overly meek appearance that ensures that there is very little tension or suspense as the story unfolds. There is never any glimpse into what Kokila is really thinking, and although she deceives the gangsters it seems to be almost by accident, since she always seems so scared of everyone. I wish there had been some acknowledgment of her plans and visible reactions from her when she did outsmart the gangsters which would have put an entirely different spin on the whole shenanigans. Instead it’s Saranya Ponvannan who steps up and really makes her presence felt as a determined and very capable ally in Kokila’s fight against the gangs. She’s scared but feisty and steps out of her usual mother role to play a very competent scam artist! She is the strong character here, and I love how she deals with potential rapists while the rest of the family appear shell shocked by her capacity for violence. It’s a brilliant portrayal that literally saves the second half of the film.

Yogu Babu is also excellent here and he provides most of the comedy in the first half, first appearing as grocery store owner Sekar who is in love with Kokila and is determined to marry her. Although much is made of his appearance and the unlikely match-up between him and Kokila, the real jokes start when Sekar gets mixed up in the family’s attempts to deliver the 300kg of drugs. Also dragged in is Shobi’s suitor Lakshman Kumar (Anbu Thasan) who mostly seems mentally deranged to me but that could be partly due to the lack of subtitles.

The character of Shekar fits well into the narrative and  Yogi Babu has perfect comedy timing, particularly when he realises exactly what is happening and the danger he has mistakenly stumbled into. I also love this song where he declares his love for Kokila. A brilliant tune from Anirudh and simply perfect choreography!

The film looks incredibly stylish and cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan sets up each frame beautifully. He contrasts colour and shape to produce some stunning images while still capturing Kokila’s reluctance to smuggle drugs and her family’s desperation. The images are also an excellent contrast to the sleazy world of drugs and the grubby men involved in the trade. Nelson uses these contrasts to good effect, and if only the character of Kokila had had the same light and shade this would have been a much better film. Instead, while there are many excellent individual scenes in the film, overall it starts to drag towards the end when the interactions between Kokila and the various gang members become repetitive and less convincing. On the plus side though, Nayathara is excellent in scenes with her family and in the first half her characterisation works well with the story. Also good is Anirudh Ravichander’s soundtrack and I really love the songs here. There is a good mix of haunting melody and more upbeat music, including the excellent Kabishabaa Coco (aka the gibberish song!)

Although Kolamavu Kokila isn’t perfect, there is enough here to make it a worthwhile watch. Using a heroine instead of a hero is inspired and the black comedy around the central figure of Kokila works well. There is a good story here and it just needed a little more variation in Kokila’s character to give it some extra tension and suspense which would make it a great story. Despite the one note in her characterisation, Nayanthara holds the film together well and does make an empathetic central character. As a début film it’s definitely better than average and well worth catching for Nayanthara, Yogi Babu, Saranya Ponvannan and the awesome soundtrack. 3 ½ stars.

Kolamavu Kokila

Petta (2019)

petta

Karthik Subbaraj is a self-confessed Rajinikanth fan (he even mentions this in the movie credits) and his latest film can best be described as a fan’s ode to the Superstar. Petta is a step back in time to the classic Rajinikanth of the nineties with punch dialogues, trademark poses and bucket loads of swagger and attitude. The mass style brings the superstar persona to the forefront and, particularly in the first half, relies heavily on Rajni’s charisma and screen presence to deliver an action-packed masala adventure. Although there are still plenty of twists and turns, the first half of Petta is a departure from the previous style of film making from Karthik Subbaraj and the characterisations and detail of the story suffer as a result. But with Petta being such a marvellous return to form for Rajinikanth, the film is still an absolute treat for fans.

The film follows the exploits of Petta (Rajinikanth), a man who comes to take up the position of hostel warden at a boarding school on the recommendation of the local minister. He gives his name as Kaali and immediately goes about restoring law and order in the hostel by evicting a group of bullies terrorising new students. Chief of these is Michael (Bobby Simha), the son of a local rowdy (Aadukalam Naren) who is also involved in various black-market schemes in the area. Petta brings order and structure to the hostel while at the same time assisting one of his students Anwar (Sananth Reddy) with his love affair. The results in a brief romance with Mangalam (Simran) and elicits some excellent advice – when faced with a problem, first play your favourite music and dance before making any decisions. The perfect maxim to live by!

The first half of the film sets up the character of Petta as a righteous man who is willing to do what it takes to win, but who is ultimately on the side of good. Classic Tamil hero stuff and Rajni plays the tough hero persona with his usual flair. Along the way he plays old Tamil movie songs on an ancient radio and indulges in trademark Rajni antics with cigarettes, sunglasses and various other props. Many of his poses recall his earlier blockbuster films while the dialogue is sharp and on point, raising plenty of cheers from the audience in Melbourne. Karthik Subbaraj has written the character to recreate the perfect storm that is SuperStar Rajinikanth, but this means that the other characters have little back story and even less time in front of the camera. Petta is front and centre of every frame – beating up bad guys, making the perfect dinner and setting the world to rights – just as we want him to do, but the lack of a build-up or real motivation for Petta makes some of these scenes just a bit too predictable.

Petta has a mysterious past and eventually it catches up to him in the second half necessitating a move to Uttar Pradesh. Here the plot starts to thicken and Karthik Subbaraj remembers to add his signature twists to the storyline. Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays Singaaram, a long time enemy of Petta who is out for blood and determined to get rid of Petta once and for all. His son Jithu (Vijay Sethupathi) is well placed to take on the task as he’s the chief rowdy in charge of Singaraam’s various dubious enterprises and has no issues at all with either murder or mayhem.

While he’s a fantastic actor, Nawazuddin Siddiqui seems a bit too pathetic and weedy to be an effective villain in a Tamil movie. Although his personality is bitter and twisted, his lack of physicality doesn’t play well, and his reliance on guns and explosives rather than his bare fists somehow seems to be cheating. Or maybe I just watch too many mass films! Vijay Sethupathi on the other hand is excellent and his entrance provoked just as many cheers from the audience in Melbourne as did Rajinikanth. He is perfect as a vicious thug who is still able to think on his feet and the scenes between Vijay and Rajinikanth are simply superb. The various twists and turns add more interest to the story and it helps that Jithu and Singaraam get more backstory with a flashback sequence and some good dialogues.

Rajinikanth looks amazing in this film and he moves more freely here in the dance and fight sequences than in his other recent films. S. Thirunavukarasu’s (Thiru) lighting and cinematography is beautifully done to maximise the different settings, particularly when the action moves north and the characters are surrounded by a festival in the streets. Peter Hein’s action sequences work well and the various locations too. The different areas of the hostel, a street market and a warehouse full of chairs allow him to create some novel situations and moves while a sequence with Petta practising with nunchucks in front of a fire is brilliant. Anirudh’s music fits well into the style of the film, especially with the wonderfully upbeat Aaha Kalyanam and SP Balasubrahmanyam appearing on the track Marana Mass. Sadly there was no credit given for the subtitles, but these were generally OK, although again very much of the literal translation type, so didn’t always make sense. Also in white which was frequently made illegible by the background. However at least the subtitler made the effort to identify the various classic songs used so that was a win – and as always, I’m very grateful for subtitles, full stop.

Unlike Karthik’s earlier movies like the excellent Iraivi, the female roles here are all of the ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ variety and despite the additions of a couple of romances they are totally superfluous to the plot. Malavika Mohanan has the best realised role while Trisha, Simran and Megha Akash have very little to do. The flashback sequence has a brief appearance by Sasikumar and J. Mahendran and the usual ensemble of support actors make up the various gang members on one side or other of the conflict.

What really works about Petta is the interplay between Rajinikanth and the various characters in the second half. The mixture of violence, punch dialogues and occasional comedy all fit perfectly into a plot that keeps changing tack. Singaraam may not be the best chief villain, but his nasty weaselly ways are novel and Nawazuddin Siddiqui has some great expressions as he flits between giving orders to kill and worrying about where Petta will pop up next. While it’s fantastic to see Rajni in such good form, it’s in this part of the film where everything comes together – star, story and support cast, to produce an almost perfect whole. This probably is a film that has something for everyone, with enough old-school Rajni to please his fans, a good character driven story in the second half for those who prefer his later incarnations in films such as Kaala and some characteristic Karthik Subbaraj storytelling for fans of the director. All this and Vijay Sethupathi too – highly recommended!