Ponniyin Selvan 1

I did manage to catch PS1 in the cinema (definitely the best way to watch the film), but wanted to watch it again before posting this review. I loved the epic scale, the fantastic costumes and found the story to be relatively easy to follow, despite the large number of characters and location shifts. There is action, intrigue, double-crosses, mystery and suspense as well as the amazing costumes and jewellery – all well worth the 2 hour 47 minute run time and I can’t wait for Part 2!

The story is an adaptation by Mani Ratnam and Elango Kumaravel of the novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. As I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on whether the plot has been changed much, but I suspect that the story has been simplified to make it fit into 2 parts. It’s still pretty clear what’s going on and who’s who, thanks to the defining performances from the stellar cast line-up. The story starts with a quick overview of the Chola dynasty, their defeat of the Pandyas and the appearance of a shooting star in the sky, which apparently signals bad news for the current royal family. After winning his latest battle, the crown prince, Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) sends Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) on a mission to spy on officials meeting at Kadambur palace and report back to the emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) and Aditha’s sister, the princess Kundavai Devi (Trisha). Vallavaraiyan discovers the chancellor of the Chola kingdom Periya Pazhuvettarayar (R. Sarathkumar) is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Sundar and crown his cousin Madhurantakan (Rahman) emperor instead. That’s a lot of long names, but the characters are all so different, that keeping them all straight isn’t as difficult as it may seem!

Pazhuvettarayar is married to Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), an acclaimed beauty who was previously in love with Aditha. Nandini has her own motives and plans to overthrow the Chola empire, but these are much more convoluted than those of her husband and she has allies such as Ravidasan (Kishore), the leader of the exiled Pandya’s. Also involved is Pazhuvettarayar’s brother Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (R. Parthiban), who is in charge of the fort in Thanjavur and who tries to capture Vallavaraiyan when he meets with the king.

Vallavaraiyan is entranced by Kundavai Devi, but she immediately sends him off to Lanka to bring the younger prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) aka Ponniyin Selvan back to Thanjavur. This involves Vallavaraiyan hitching a ride with Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) across the sea and then fighting with the prince before finally  helping Arulmozhi as he evades Pandya assassins to reach the boat sent by his father to bring Arulmozhi home. Along the way Vallavaraiyan is helped by a poet and temple flower seller, Sendhan (Ashwin Kakumanu) and the rather eccentric Thirumalaiappan (Jayaram). There are various other minor characters who add yet more detail and background into the plot, including chieftains, fiancées, defeated princes and various soldiers, servants, government officials and friends of the main characters. It does take a second watch to sort out exactly who everyone is, but Aditha, Arulmozhi, Vallavaraiyan, Kundavai and Nandini are the main players in this first part of the story.

What I really liked about PS1 is how real everything appears. Unlike the fairytale landscapes of Baahubali or sanitised forts in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, here everything seems plausible and historical rather than imagined. The battles are sweaty and bloody, while the fortifications look as if they were made to withstand armies and sieges. It’s more Aragorn in LOTR than Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani. The costumes though are detailed and intricate with plenty of shine and shimmer as you’d expect from a story about kings and their empire. The jewellery in particular is outstanding and just gorgeous. At times I wondered just how Aishwarya and Trisha were managing to walk with all that hardware, but it does give them both a very regal appearance. The hairstyles too are amazing and even the men get in on the costume action with their fancy armour and weaponry.

What really stands out though are the performances, especially the two main female leads and Karthi. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is always good with the right director, and here she is perfect as a woman in conflict with herself. It’s clear that she is suffering and that when she says she has deep wounds, we can see that these are with her all the time. The conflict between her previous love for Aditha, her marriage to Pazhuvettarayar and her commitment to the Pandya’s seems impossible to resolve and Aishwarya ensures this is always present as a shadow across her face every time she is on screen. Her eyes show she is a woman in pain, internally conflicted and caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. When Aishwarya is good, she’s very, very good, and here she delivers in every scene. Trisha too is excellent as Kundavai Devi. She’s regal but still able to unbend when speaking to her friends, and conveys the right amount of political savvy that makes her vitally important to the kingdom. There is a wonderful scene when Kundavai returns to Thanjavur and meets Nandini, where the power play between the two in just a few moments ensures we all know who is really in control of the empire, albeit working behind the scene.

I expect Karthi to be good, but here he is outstanding as the rather irreverent friend trying to help Aditha but enjoying himself along the way. He has a great relationship with his horse, and the comedy between Vallavaraiyan, his horse Semba and chance met Thirumalaiappan provides excellent contrast to the more serious scenes with Aditha, his close friend Parthibendran (Vikram Prabhu) and Arulmozhi. Karthi is great in the action scenes but even better in his interactions with Kundavai and Arulmozhi and also with Nandini. He hits just the right mix of action, sarcasm, comedy and quick witted political savvy making sure that Vallavaraiyan is an intriguing character, and in many ways more interesting than the two princes. Although Jayam Ravi is good as Arulmozhi, it’s a more serious role and he doesn’t have quite the same impact as Karthi here. I am expecting more in Part 2, given the film bears his name. As Aditha, Vikram on the other hand vacillates between berserker warrior and manically depressed jilted lover as he thinks about Nandini and their broken relationship. At times he’s brilliant, but then he starts chewing the scenery again, and it’s hard to take Aditha’s pain as seriously as that of Nandini. Vikram is still very good, just a little too OTT at times, and hopefully will be more retrained in the second half – or just stick to the action!

The action sequences are exhilarating and mostly a lot of fun. Battles are fought between armies but also on board ships, in chase sequences and on elephant and horseback. There are loads of actions scenes too, so Mani Ratnam seems to have thrown in every kind of battle you can think of, and almost every single weapon as well. The choreography is well done to keep the action exciting, even though we expect the good guys to win. But there is still plenty of tension and the outcome isn’t always quite as expected.

I also really liked A.R. Rahman’s music, mostly the songs but the background music was also good and effective throughout the film. This is probably my favourite.

When you start with a good story, it should make a good film, but not everyone can manage to take such a complex tale and turn it into a blockbuster. Mani Ratnam can and every aspect of this film shows his skill. The story moves on at a fast pace, the characters are all clear with well described motivations, and even the intrigue is dealt with appropriately so that not everything is revealed by the end of the film. I loved every aspect of the film and I hope part 2 is just as exciting. 4½ stars

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!

’96

'96

Separated lovers and a school reunion some 20 years later are the key elements of C. Prem Kumar’s beautiful and spell-binding romance ’96. The title refers to the year Ram (Vijay Sethupathi) and Janu (Trisha Krishnan) graduated from their school in Tanjore and there is a lot of nostalgia here, even for someone like me who left school many years before 1996 and in a different country. For anyone who has ever been to a school reunion, much of this will ring true, and it’s the realism throughout the film that drives investment in the characters and their situations. Everyone here is fantastic and the story completely captivating, making this the best romance film I’ve seen so far this year.

The film opens with a song introducing K. Ramachandran (aka Ram), a wild-life and travel photographer who can see beauty and interest everywhere he looks. We see birds and butterflies look simply amazing through his eyes, and even an isolated group of plants in a sand dune become charmingly scenic. What’s interesting here is that Ram is always alone. When shown eating in a restaurant, he’s the only one there, and while taking photos on the streets, he rarely interacts with the people around him. Even when he’s taking a picture of an actual person, the camera seems to create a barrier between him and his subject. The song ends with Ram on a deserted beach and as the camera pulls away, we can see just how isolated and alone he is, although there is nothing to suggest that this is not exactly how he prefers to be.

Ram also seems to teach photography and, on the way back from one of his teaching sessions, a detour takes him through his hometown of Tanjore. Despite initially instructing his student not to stop in case he has to talk to anyone, Ram ends up outside his old school and after reminiscing with the security guard (Janagaraj) heads inside to his old classroom. Prem Kumar doesn’t give us flashback sequences with chattering students to illustrate Ram’s memories of his school days. Instead, and more effectively, the school is empty and silent, but Ram runs his hands along the marked walls, exactly as he would have done every day at the school, and shouts in glee when he spots his name on an achievement board. The visit sparks some nostalgia and after speaking to his old classmate Murali (Bagavathi Perumal), who adds him to the ’96 class Whatsapp group, the two quickly organise a reunion. The reactions of the group when Ram joins their chat are simply perfect and work well to recreate the different dynamics between the old friends. They’re also very funny, and allow us to see a different side of Ram’s personality which up until this point has been very dour and unapproachable.

On the day of the reunion, Murali and Ram’s ‘sister’ Subhashini (Devadarshini) are careful not to mention Janu as Ram scans the crowd looking for the girl he loved back in high school. When Janaki Devi aka Janu arrives, she too spends her time scanning the crowd, until she spots Ram, and immediately goes to speak to him, despite the best efforts of Subhashini to keep the two apart. Janu is now married and lives in Singapore with her young daughter, but when she sees Ram, the years fall away and we are swept back into the past.

The flashback sequence shows the romance between Ram and Janu, and it’s a beautifully sweet and innocent love affair. The young Ram (Aadithya Baaskar) is shy to the point of not being able to speak to Janu, and his contortions to avoid touching her even by accident are simply perfect. Young Janu (Gouri G Kishan) is more confident, for example she sings regularly for her class, but she is just as head over heels as Ram. The flashback sequences are a beautiful slice of nostalgia, with songs and film posters from the era, while Prem Kumar has perfectly captured young love with all its silences, confusion, embarrassments and raw emotion. Aadithya Baaskar and Gouri Kishan are superb and play the young lovers perfectly while the support cast including Niyathi Kadambi are also excellent and capture the atmosphere of school life well.

Back in the future, there are more silences and pent up emotion when Ram and Janu meet. Gradually over time they start to talk and the mystery of what happened to Ram, and why he left Janu becomes clear. Along with talking for most of the night, Janu also takes Ram to the barber (Kavithalaya Krishnan), and as he loses his bushy beard and wild hair, Ram seems to lose some of his reserve too and opens up to Janu.

The emotion here is incredibly powerful, and although the film moves slowly it’s the right pace for these two separated lovers as they gradually discover each other again. The same mannerisms are there as in the flashback sequence, and the sheer depth and intensity of the emotion makes for compelling viewing. However, it’s not all awkward silences, potent emotions and age-old frustrations. Prem Kumar has crafted a well-rounded story with comedy perfectly timed to lift the mood just whenever it seems about to become too self-aware or dip into melodrama. It also helps that the two leads, Vijay Sethupathi and Trisha Krishnan have scintillating chemistry and both are at their absolute best throughout the film. I’m always appreciative of Vijay’s versatility and having just seen him power through Chekka Chivantha Vaanam as a cop, and previously as a smart gangster in Vikram Vedha, this is an amazingly abrupt turnaround to a shy, socially awkward loner. He takes the role up to another level entirely and completely brings Ram to life so that we can feel his insecurity and shyness, but also see through all of that to the genuinely sincere person beneath. Trisha too is brilliant here, and her natural reserve works well for Janu while she has an air of sophistication that echoes her character’s usual life in cosmopolitan Singapore. She delivers too in terms of emotion and this really is an outstanding performance from her throughout. I was simply captivated by both Ram and Janu, and like everyone else in the theatre was completely invested in their relationship and longing for some kind of happy ending. Both characters carry equal weight in the film too, which keeps the dynamic more appealing and ensures a better understanding of the characters.

The music for the film is a mix of old and new. Janu only sings songs by S Janaki, and there are timeless Ilaiyaraaja melodies as a result, while the new music from Govind Menon is beautifully melodic and fits seamlessly into the film. The playback singers do an amazing job too, and this is one of the most memorable soundtracks I’ve heard for a while. The subtitles too are well done (I’m not sure who was responsible) and they have taken time to think about the song lyrics and even added in translations of some of the written word.

There really isn’t anything to dislike about ’96. The performances are exemplary and the story is impeccably detailed and perfectly told. There are so many amazingly poignant scenes too – Ram puling out his old school shirt from a suitcase under his bed, the moment when Janu puts her hand onto the gearstick of Ram’s car and his reaction when he goes to change gear and inadvertently touches her hand, the moment when Janu sings for Ram in his apartment, and the final scenes in the airport – just incredible. I loved every single minute and cannot recommend this movie highly enough to anyone who likes their romances to be nostalgic, bittersweet and full of emotion.