’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.

 

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Kodi (2016)

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Kodi is an interesting political thriller that sadly did not release in Australia with English subtitles. As the film is dialogue-heavy this meant that I missed most of the subtleties of the film, particularly annoying since the female characters seem to have more substantial roles than usual and the plot appears to be well-developed with unexpected twists. However the basic story is pretty easy to follow and the characters all clearly delineated ensuring Kodi is worth the trip to the cinema. It’s still completely baffling to me that in today’s global market the producers would choose to release Kodi overseas without subtitles, although it does follow the recent trend of not including subtitles on Tamil DVD releases either. Come on Kollywood – lift your game!

Dhanush plays a double role in the movie, portraying twin brothers, Kodi and Anbu. Despite being mute, their father (Karunaas) had political ambitions and was prominent in the local party as an activist and avid supporter of the local leader.  On his birth, Kodi was presented to the leader and from that point on it seems that his father transferred all his political ambition onto Kodi, dragging him around to various political events and giving him speeches to declare on his father’s behalf.

Initially Kodi seems relatively happy to follow the party line, but he is horrified when his father suicides right in front of him in order to highlight mercury poisoning at a local factory. Rather than lessen his passion for politics, this ensures Kodi grows into a hot-headed and passionate politician who craves social justice and presumably the power and prestige such a role would bring. As a young campaigner Kodi seems to have a fairly prominent role in the local party office, although there are grumblings from the older generation about the young upstart who seems to be taking a lead role. Along with the problems Kodi faces from his party, his girlfriend Rudhra (Trisha) is also a wannabe politician, except she’s firmly on the opposing side and the two seem to frequently clash in the public arena. Luckily for their romance, they seem to be able to put their opposing views aside once they are alone together and apart from the hassle of having to keep their relationship secret, Kodi and Rudhra happy together.

Anbu on the other hand is a gentler character who works as a teacher at a local college and is content to let his brother lead the charge for democracy. He finds romance with a local egg farmer Malathi (Anupama Parameswaram) although he isn’t above swapping roles with his more volatile brother when the occasion demands it. Dhanush keeps the two characters separate with ease, and not just because Kodi has a full beard and Anbu a moustache. Kodi is harsher, often appearing stern and forbidding, and only leading down his guard with Rudhra. He is argumentative, struts around combatively and is a typical mass hero when it comes to any fight.  Anbu on the other hand is softer, smiles more and even his posture indicates he’s a man who can be more easily pushed around. In his first double role, Dhanush effortlessly makes the two brothers separate individuals, perhaps even more so than real twins as Kodi appears more like an elder brother, and Anbu the younger.

Anbu  discovers more about the mercury factory which leads his brother to some unsettling revelations and as events unfold, Anbu ends up taking his brother’s place in politics. This is where the characterisation breaks down a little, as Anbu playing Kodi is really just the same as Kodi. It would have been even more effective if there had been some Anbu mannerisms left behind, although it’s possible that I missed some of this through not understanding the dialogue.

While Dhanush is superb as Kodi and Anbu, Trisha is just as good as a young and ambitious female politician. She has to battle against the prejudice of both her gender and her youth to win her place in the party and in doing so displays a ruthless streak that serves her well later in the film. Trisha is regal in sober saris that reflect her political ambitions, but lets her hair down in the romance scenes where she is softer and more likeable than in the rest of the film. There are also glimpses of the continuous rivalry between Kodi and Rudhra as they grew up together, with the childhood flashbacks proving more substance and clarity to the two characters. I love the interactions between the two – both in public as rival politicians and in private as their romance heats up. Writer/director R.S. Durai Senthilkumar has ensured that the female role is just as well-developed as that of the male protagonists, and in some ways Trisha has the more thought-provoking role with a complex and ambiguous character.

The story has a number of twists and turns with the machinations of the two political parties, the plots of the various members and the truth behind the mercury factory all having a part to play. I wish I had understood more of the dialogue as I missed the significance of Kodi and Anbu’s friend Bhagat Singh (Kaali Venkat) and I’m still not sure why Malathi disappeared from the story for most of the second half. This was a shame as Anupama was excellent, as were the rest of the supporting cast. S.A. Chandrasekhar was good in the role of Kodi’s party leader while Saranya Ponvannan was excellent playing the only role she ever seems to do nowadays (but then she does it so well!) as Kodi and Anbu’s long suffering mother. There are only a few songs in the film and these are mostly focused on the two romances, but Santhosh Narayanan’s music seems to fit well, although I did miss watching Dhanush dancing.

Like his previous films Ethir Neechal and Kaaki Sattai, R.S. Durai Senthilkumar concentrates on telling a good story rather than simply showcasing a star or indulging in mass action scenes. As a result, Kodi is an intelligent and engaging thriller, with excellent characterisations and clever twists in the plot. Dhanush does a fantastic job in a double role, keeping his presence somewhat understated so that the focus really is on the story and not the few fight scenes or dramatic speeches. I really do hope that this one releases on DVD with subtitles as it deserves to be seen by a wider audience and I’d love to finally understand all that dialogue.

 

Yennai Arindhaal

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Gautham Menon’s third and final instalment in his ‘police trilogy’ has a more complex and interesting storyline than the previous two films, although there is still plenty of action and more than a few thrills. This time Menon focuses more on relationships, using these to define top cop Sathyadev (Ajith) and his reactions to various events throughout his life. One of the most important is Sathyadev’s relationship with Victor (Arun Vijay), a thug who ends up running an illegal organ trade, and who has a significant history with Sathyadev. Gautham Menon plays with the similarities between the two men who seem polar opposites but in reality have much in common despite sitting on opposing sides of a thin line.  There is also his relationship with his step-daughter Eesha (Anikha Surendran),  Eesha’s mother Hemanika (Trisha Krishnan) and right at the start, his relationship with his father (Nasser) whose murder is the starting point for that thin line.

The film starts by introducing Thenmozhi (Anushka Shetty), a smart modern woman who works as a software engineer. On a flight back from Boston to visit her sister, Thenmozhi ends up sitting beside a man she describes as the most gorgeous she has ever seen, but since she spends most of the flight vomiting into a sick bag it isn’t the most auspicious of meetings.  Her flight companion is Sathyadev, who is there to protect Thenmozhi from a kidnap attempt from the gang of organ thieves, although she doesn’t discover this until later. Somehow Thenmozhi’s heart has been identified as a perfect match for one of the gang’s clientele and a team of dodgy doctors are ready and waiting to perform the surgery just as soon as they can get their hands on her. Sathyadev’s old rival Victor is leading the gang and the film moves into flashback mode to explain the enmity between the two men and Sathyadev’s involvement in the current case.

The flashback goes right back to the murder of Sathyadev’s father, a moment where he had to decide which path to follow and on which side of the line to fall. The possibilities were there – to become a gangster and seek revenge, or to become a police officer and seek justice. No prizes for guessing which way Sathyadev decided to go, or that the very next scene sees him in jail. Of course all is not as it seems. While inside, Sathyadev becomes friends with Victor and the two escape together allowing Victor to marry the love of his life Lisa (Parvathy Nair) and have a jolly good knees up at the wedding.

After Sathyadev reveals himself as a police officer who has only befriended Victor as a way to get to his boss Matthew (Stunt Selva), Victor is devastated at the double whammy of the betrayal and his bad judgement in trusting Sathyadev. Unfortunately Menon doesn’t spend much time establishing the character of Lisa, but from snippets later on, it’s clear that she is instrumental in much of Victor’s later actions and she has a passionate vendetta against Sathyadev. I really wanted to know more about Lisa and why she was so deeply involved in Victor’s wicked schemes, but she glossed over quickly and her motivation is sadly never explored. Victor too doesn’t get as much character development as I would have liked but since he is basically completely evil maybe there isn’t much else we needed to know. As the tension mounts and his schemes are thwarted by Sathyadev, Victor has a couple of excellent hissy fits that perfectly convey his frustration and anger. Although he doesn’t have much scope, Arun Vijay does a good job with the character of Victor and his screaming, spitting frustration boils off the screen in the final scenes.

Lisa is the love of Victor’s life, and as such is his greatest weakness. For Sathyadev, it’s Hemanika, a Bharatanatyam dancer he meets while working undercover as an auto driver. The romance between the two is sweet and develops slowly, allowing Sathyadev to show a more introspective and human side. Hemanika has a daughter, Eesha, and for all her modern outlook (divorced single mum) she’s strangely reluctant to believe that Sathyadev can really love another man’s daughter as his own. This part of the film is beautifully done and Trisha is superb as she expresses all of Hemanika’s hopes and fears for the relationship.  Her characterisation is subtle but effective and fits perfectly into this more emotive storyline.

Of course we know it’s not going to end well, and as events unfold Sathyadev is left to look after Eesha on his own. Rather than brushing this off as an inevitable consequence of the relationship and using Eesha purely as a bargaining tool against Sathyadev in the later scenes, Gautham Menon instead uses the developing relationship to give deeper insight into Sathyadev’s character. The way Sathya breaks the news of her mother’s death to Eesha is poignant and natural while the road trip the two take to allow Eesha to grieve for her mother is an excellent depiction of Sathyadev’s developing fatherhood, particularly when set against his memories of his own father. These two parts of the film, Sathyadev’s romance with Hemanika and the development of his relationship with Eesha are sweet and gentle and really should be out of place in a rough and tough cop drama, but their inclusion is perfectly done, and adds so much to Sathyadev’s characterisation that instead they feel essential to the story development. These are my favourite scenes in the film and Ajith is perhaps surprisingly good at showing this more tender side. I’m more used to his manic killer persona in films like Vedalam but he does an excellent job with a more introspective character here and is good at displaying compassion in his developing relationship with Eesha. Just as good is his frustration and helplessness as he tries to change to a desk job for her sake and realises he just can’t continue as a police officer if he wants to keep Eesha safe.

Perhaps the only misstep in the film is the character of Thenmozhi . Although she starts off as a strong and independent character, once she meets Sathyadev she seems to lose all reason and self-respect, propositioning him despite overhearing what appeared to be an intimate conversation he had with someone else. As the film progresses she becomes more and more of a doormat and seems to lose all of her gumption as the threat to her life increases. Anushka does the best she can but her character is too much a victim to allow much sympathy for her plight.

Along with the mostly excellent characterisations, the more mass elements of the film are also well done. The fight choreography works well and there is a good mix of different styles – knife fights, good old fisticuffs and a number of gun battles. Stunt Selva has cameo as the gangster Matthew and Gautham Menon himself pops up as a police intelligence officer. The film looks stunning too, and the cinematography by Dan Macarthur (an Aussie – yay!) is excellent, particularly during the scenes with Eesha and Sathyadev travelling around India. Harris Jayaraj’s music works well too and is a perfect soundtrack for some of the most poignant moments in the film, such as Eesha showing Thenmozhi her mother’s picture and Sathyadev braiding Eesha’s hair before she goes to school. A word too about Anikha Surendran who is very good as Eesha and conveys many emotions throughout the film simply and easily and perfectly suits the role of Sathyadev’s adopted daughter.

Yennai Arindhaal shows just how good an action thriller can be when there is more to the story than just the action. The characterisations are excellent and provide motive and the reason for Sathyadev and Victor to act the way they do. There is so much happening in this film and yet it is still the story of a cop and a villain and a plan to illegally harvest organs. Well written, well acted and beautifully put together this is definitely one to savour. 4½ stars.