Vada Chennai (2018)

Vada Chennai

Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai is an excellent gangster film and a promising start to his planned trilogy. As with his earlier work, Vetrimaaran’s characters here are complex and their relationships with each other are tangled and multilayered, while the action is more straightforward although often brutally violent. The film lays a solid base for the character of Anbu (Dhanush) but also provides a detailed introduction to a multitude of other characters, all of whom contribute to Anbu’s development and his gradual fall into rowdyism. However, this isn’t a film solely about Anbu, but rather a story about an area of Northern Madras and the people who live in ‘the hood’, which ensures the film delivers more of an impact and gives a larger canvas to develop the main players. With an exceptional cast, detailed characters including strong female roles, and the exemplary performance of Dhanush, Vada Chennai is a compelling story that has all the elements to be a classic of the genre.

The first half of the film switches back and forth in time as various key characters are introduced and their background story revealed in a series of ‘chapters’. Anbu wants to be a carrom player, and Vetrimaaran plays on this throughout the film, using the analogy to show that every small action starts a reaction, the impact of which start yet more reactions, and so on in an ever-widening ripple effect. From that perspective it’s hard to say where the story of the film starts. Is it at the beginning of the film where there is a gruesome murder, or where Anbu saves one of Senthil’s men from being knifed during their registration at Chennai prison? Or is it when Anbu meets Padma (Aishwarya Rajesh) during a thieving spree when a riot breaks out after Rajiv Gandhi’s death? The constant throughout is Anbu’s reluctance to enter into the violence he sees all around, and his desire to succeed as a carrom player, although his ambition seems doomed almost from the start.

Initially the film revolves around the rivalry between two gangsters, Senthil (Kishore) and Guna (Samuthirakani). Both are out to kill each other and they each control separate wings in Chennai prison. However, they don’t start out as enemies and the beginning of the film shows Senthil and Guna along with Velu (Pawan) and Pazhani (Sai Dheena) collaborating in a murder. In a particularly grisly moment, they throw their blood-stained weapons, still festooned with goblets of flesh, onto the table in a restaurant before discussing the recent death of MGR and the likelihood of Jayalalitha replacing him as Chief Minister. After the murder, Guna and Velu go to jail, expecting to be swiftly bailed out by Senthil, but when this isn’t the case, their rivalry is quickly escalated to an all-out war between the two factions.  Vetrimaaran brings politics into the story early, showing that the gangsters are canny enough to use the politicians for their own ends, but also as a foreshadowing that politics; local, gangster and state are behind much of the skulduggery later in the film.

Anbu enters this atmosphere in the prison and after a number of incidents finally manages to fall under the protection of Senthil, with whom he shares a common bond in their love of carrom. Anbu is almost an ‘accidental gangster’ having grown up in a shady area of North Chennai and associated with various gang members for all his life. But it’s after he meets Padma and the two begin their relationship that his problems really start. When local rowdies start to give Padma a hard time, Anbu is moved to protest their actions. One thing leads to another, and Anbu is suddenly running for his life along with Padma’s brother (Saran Shakthi). From here Anbu continually tries to get back to life as a carrom player, but it turns out that the gangsters have another role for him to play.

The rich detail in every part of the film ensures that every character is realistic and the various events occur organically within the plot. Every aspect of prison life seems to be captured by the camera, including the method used by the inmates to smuggle drugs in and out of the jail, while life in the slum area of North Chennai is just as intimately shown. Each character is built up from numerous different interactions along with the flashbacks that add depth and a rationale for their behaviour. Ameer is brilliant as Rajan, a smuggler and gangster who was also a protector of the people and who stood up to the local politicians when they wanted to clear the entire area for their own money-making projects. Rajan is the man who first encouraged Anbu to take up carrom and his influence is felt across the story, although he doesn’t appear until late in the film.

Also excellent are Samuthirakani and Kishore as Guna and Senthil, while Daniel Balaji is another standout in his role as Thambi. In contrast to Vetrimaaran’s previous films, he has two strong female characters here who also have important roles to play in the story. Aishwarya Rajesh’s Padma bursts onto the screen as a foul-mouthed thief, but her interactions with Dhanush are brilliantly done, with the romance between the two always feeling realistic and plausible. The scene where Anbu goes to ask her father for her hand in marriage is a rare spot of comedy in a generally dark film, but it still fits well into the narrative, as does Padma’s insistence that Anbu shaves before his wedding. Unfortunately the gangsters intervene and it seems as if Padma will also take a second place with her husband.

Andrea Jeremiah is also superb and has an almost Shakespearean role as first Rajan’s and then Guna’s wife, Chandra. She has a godmother who interprets various omens and predicts the future, most notably proclaiming Anbu as ‘the one’, while Chandra herself is a complex character whose dialogues always seem to have a number of meanings. Andrea Jeremiah initially seemed out of place, but as the film develops and her character evolves she ends up fitting perfectly into the role and her initial aloofness makes perfect sense. Dhanush is perfect as Anbu and completely fulfils the role of a gentle man, driven to violence by events outside his control. He easily slips into the role of a teenager but his real strength lies in the more complex older Anbu who has to deal with his time in prison where everyone seems out to get him. The gradual development of Anbu’s character over the course of the film is brilliantly done and Dhanush captures each facet of his personality and slowly allows the persona to develop. It’s another masterful performance and it’s only at the very end where the change from gangster to ‘voice of the people’ seems rather too abrupt, perhaps because the rest of the characterisation has been so slow and detailed in development.

This rushed feeling at the end is really the only downside to the film. In interviews Vetrimaaran has said that he initially had over 5 hours of film which he has condensed to 164 minutes, which may account for the hurried feeling and the final fast metamorphosis of Anbu. However, despite this, the detail included in the film is comprehensive and the layering of events and characters is a major plus that works to build the entire world of North Chennai inhabited by the characters. There are also some stand-out action scenes in the midst of all the character development. A fight that breaks out at a carrom competition in the jail is beautifully filmed as the protagonists battle it out while simultaneously holding up the shelter over their heads. The initial murder, which is shown in detail later on, is also excellent with a brilliant build-up of tension in the moments leading up to the actual attack. Velraj perfectly captures all the action and despite the dark tones, his cinematography paints a surprisingly colourful picture of life in the area, while some scenes, such as a pursuit though lines of hanging washing are excellent in their picturisation.

Although there are a number of songs in the film, these are used only in short bursts to highlight a particular scene, but Santhosh Narayanan’s background score is perfect and thoroughly enhances the film without being intrusive. Some of the melodies are beautiful and it seems a shame that they aren’t heard in full in the film, but there really is no opportunity for any love songs or dance numbers and with so much else in the film, they really aren’t missed.

After working together on Polladhavan and Aadukalam, Vetrimaaran and Dhanush have again produced another excellent collaboration in Vada Chennai. As the first part of a trilogy there is inevitably a lot of time spent on setting up the story, but here that is so detailed with numerous interwoven threads, that the film is almost complete in itself. The strong cast and compelling storyline ensure that even at almost three hours the film doesn’t feel overlong and the final scenes deliver plenty of anticipation for the next instalment. Hopefully there won’t be too long to wait!

 

 

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Kadaikutty Singam (2018)

 

Kadaikutty Singam

Pandiraj’s latest film is a village-based family drama with an extended cast and surfeit of relationships that ends up feeling more like an over-stretched soap opera. The story focuses on the only son of Ranasingam (Sathyaraj) but it’s his various sisters, their husbands and Ranasingam’s two wives that make the most impact in the rather wandering screenplay. The film includes a number of social messages and the story tends to disappear under the requirements to include the benefits of a career in farming and a myriad of moral issues associated with ‘traditional’ village life. However, Karthik does a good job with his role, the support cast are excellent and the film is full of colour and light, even if it does have an overly melodramatic finale.

The film starts with the story of Ranasingam and his quest for a son. His first wife Vanamadevi (Viji Chandrasekhar) has four daughters which leads to Ranagingham casting his eye about for a second wife. He ends up marrying Vanamadevi’s sister, Panchamadevi (Bhanupriya) who promptly also has a daughter, but before Ranasingam can marry for a third time, Vanamadevi falls pregnant again, and this time the baby is a boy. By the time Gunasingam (Karthi) has grown up, his five sisters have all married and two have grown up daughters of their own. The expectation is that Gunasingam will marry one of his two nieces, but when he sees Kannukiniyal aka Iniya (Sayyeshaa) he is immediately smitten, making a family marriage seem unlikely. Luckily for Gunasingam, Iniya reciprocates his feelings and the two happily embark on a relationship. However, there are a few obstacles to overcome, such as Iniya’s politician uncle Kodiyarasu (Shatru) and Gunasingam’s sisters who all vociferously object to the match.

What works well here are the relationships between Gunasingam and his sisters, and between his sisters and their various husbands. Mounika, Yuvarani, Indhumathi, Deepa and Jeevitha play the five sisters who all have distinctly different personalities, and are all convinced that they know what is best for their younger brother – that’s marriage to either Aandal (Arthana Binu) or Poompozhil (Priya Bhavani Shankar) and a life spent running the family farm. Gunasingam has no problem with the latter half of that plan as he’s proud to be a farmer, and makes a point of announcing his monthly salary (1.5 lakhs) and giving expensive gifts to his family. However, Gunasingam only thinks of his nieces as ‘family’ and he’s determined to marry ‘soda-girl’ Iniya, so-called because she runs a soda business. These parts of the story are well nuanced and I like that Iniya has a successful life by herself and isn’t just on the look-out for a husband to take the place of her Uncle Kodiyarasu. Apparently Iniya’s family follows the same uncle/niece marriage idea, but that’s mainly a method for Kodiyarasu to irritate Gunasingam. Kodiyarasu is a politician, but he’s firm on the idea of caste and involved in an honour killing which leads Gunasingam to report him to the police. The feud between the two men seems mainly to be an excuse to include the message that casteism is bad, and of course, the obligatory masala fight scenes.

While the arguments with Kodiyarasu go on in the background, Gunasingam attempts to deal with his sisters who try everything in their power to break his relationship with Iniya. Being family, they know exactly where to attack for the most impact, and eventually the argument leads to a schism in the family. Added to the rift between the sisters, Panchamadevi leaves Ranasingam, but unfortunately, despite being potentially the most interesting thread in the drama, this gets only brief screen time and isn’t fully developed, presumably because there is so much else going on at the same time. Much of the writing here is excellent, and it’s a shame that the rather more predictable ‘villain’ thread keeps intruding into the more compelling family drama.

The romance between Iniya and Gunasingam mainly takes place during a song, which is probably enough time given that it’s the fall-out from their relationship that is more interesting. Although Sayyeshaa looks somewhat out-of-place in a Tamil village drama, she is otherwise fine in the role. Her Iniya has plenty of charm and personality despite limited time on-screen, and her romance with Karthik is plausible. Karthik too is good as a confident and dedicated farmer who buckles under pressure from his family. He’s energetic in the fight scenes and dance numbers, and his various speeches about how wonderful it is to be a farmer aren’t as pompous and patronising as expected. He also has good rapport with the various members of his family and gets his inner conflict across well. His best relationship is with his nephew (who is roughly the same age) Sivagamiyin Selvan (Soori), which is used to add light-hearted comedy that’s mostly relevant to the story. Soori is actually very good here and he handles the role intelligently which helps add more depth to Karthik’s character.

I enjoyed the songs from D. Imman which are catchy enough in the cinema, although not particularly memorable. The film looks good too, and cinematographer Velraj captures both the colours of the countryside and the warmth of the community. A word too about the subtitles from Rekhs and team, which are easy to read and in proper grammatical English – yay! Rekhs has also subtitled any significant written signs which is a delight and really does help with understanding the story.

Overall Kadaikutty Singam has too much going on to be truly successful. It’s also let down by an overly dramatic finale that fizzles just when it should be starting to heat up. However, the family relationships are well done and I love the realistic interactions between the sisters and their husbands. There are a few too many moral messages too, although it’s hard to complain given that they fall into the – ‘girls can do anything’ and ‘caste isn’t a barrier to relationships’ baskets that still need more promotion in cinema. It’s also good to see farming portrayed in a more positive light with a nod to the importance of the people who feed the nation. Worth a one-time watch for Karthik, Soori, the excellent support cast and the well-written family relationships.

Thanga Magan (2015)

Thanga magan

I was rather apprehensive about watching Velraj’s new film, given that VIP was such a huge hit, and follow-up films from new directors can be rather hit and miss. However with Dhanush on board again surely things couldn’t go too badly wrong? Well, no, at least not completely. Thankfully Velraj doesn’t simply try for a VIP 2, but instead starts with a rather different atmosphere and a more mature and responsible hero, although he does venture back into more familiar territory as the story reaches resolution. He’s also enlisted a generally excellent cast who keep the film entertaining even if the story does falter somewhat in the second half. Still, for a follow up film it’s not a bad attempt and Dhanush is as good as always ensuring Thanga Magan is worth a watch.

The opening scene is possibly one of the best in the film, and works well to raise questions and draw the audience into the story. As the rain pelts down, Thamizh (Dhanush) shepherds his pregnant wife Yamuna (Samantha) and his mother (Raadhika Sarathkumar) into a small and rather grimy house, ably assisted by his friend Kumaran (Sathish). By everyone’s depressed and miserable faces, it’s clear that something terrible has happened and that this is a major step downwards for the family, reinforced by Thamizh immediately setting out to look for a job.  That’s the cue for an extended flash back sequence that explains why Thamizh is unemployed and his family have had to relocate and downsize into such an undesirable location.

The flash back starts with a young Thamizh roaming around Chennai with his two friends Kumaran and Aravindh (Adith Arun). The three students spend all their time together until the day Thamizh sees a girl at the temple and instantly falls in love. Hema D’Souza (Amy Jackson) is an apparently intelligent, modern Tamil woman who has some very definite ideas about what she wants from life. She’s a student too, studying architecture, and isn’t afraid to berate Thamizh when she thinks he is following her. But after such a strong beginning, Hema becomes more of a caricature, drinking beer and allowing a mildly physical intimacy that ensures she isn’t going to be the one leaving with the guy – Hema is much too liberated to get a happy ending in a Tamil film!

Dhanush does his usual thing of managing to appear much younger than he really is, and as the relationship between Thamizh and Hema is fairly typical of young and infatuated lovers he doesn’t have to stretch for the role. In comparison Amy Jackson seems rather out of place and despite all the physical intimacy she has little chemistry with Dhanush leading to a relationship that never appears realistic on her side. Amy looks older than Dhanush too, which doesn’t help, but at least when they do finally split it’s reasonably plausible with his immaturity at odds with her ambition finally leading to the separation.

After the break-up Thamizh falls in line with his mothers’ wishes, getting a job working in the tax office with his father and agreeing to an arranged marriage with Yamuna. Yamuna is the ideal traditional wife; quiet, shy and happy staying at home all day to help her mother-in-law. She’s a complete contrast from Hema, but in her own way Yamuna is just as much of a caricature, following the description of classic filmi wife to the letter. Samantha is a much better actress than the character of Yamuna requires, but she still manages to shine despite her rather one-dimensional role. At least she has plenty of chemistry with Dhanush and even if the relationship is an old-fashioned and clichéd version of marriage they do seem to have a mutual respect and a partnership that was lacking between Thamizh and Hema.

The first half works well and Dhanush is on top form as dutiful son, young lover, then husband and father-to-be. He transitions from one to the other very naturally and it’s good to see him have a happier relationship with his family than he usually portrays in his films. Samantha is also excellent here and both K.S. Ravikumar and Raadhika Sarathkumar provide solid support as Thamizh’s parents. The love stories are both sweet in their different ways and there is some good and funny dialogue too which ensures that all the drama doesn’t get too overpowering.

The second half is where things start to go a bit pear-shaped when the story moves on to the problems with Thamizh’s father (K.S. Ravikumar) and his boss Prakash Kumar (Jayaprakash). There is a missing file, possibly some missing money and the flimsy storyline has very little substance but plenty of artifice. It’s a credit to the actors involved that the film still entertains even though large parts of the story don’t make much sense and there are too many large plot holes. The villain of the story is Aravindh who was neglected and left out of everything while Thamizh and Satish were off romancing Hema and her friend – apparently that’s enough of a reason to make you a total jerk and a criminal to boot.  However Aravindh is an ineffectual adversary and suffers from his absence in the first half of the film, leaving him without any real depth to his character. Adith does as well as he can with a very sketchy role, but it’s not enough to make Aravindh a plausible opponent. On a plus note though, Amy Jackson reappears and is much better in this part of the film, while Dhanush is excellent at depicting Thamizh’s growth as a dependable husband and supportive son as he investigates what really happened with his father. Even though the story needs a large suspension of disbelief, there is still some good dialogue and the relationship between Thamizh and Yamuna is well developed and beautifully pictured.

The main problem I have with Thanga Magan is the end. Unfortunately after spending two hours establishing Thamizh as a kind and thoughtful son and husband, the climax suddenly sees him turn into the swaggering, mass-dialogue spouting fighting machine last seen at the end of VIP. Perhaps Velraj couldn’t think of how else Thamizh could win the day, but the abrupt transition is at odds with the rest of the film and seems unnecessary. Thamizh could have achieved the same result without all the posturing and fighting, particularly since the fight scenes aren’t particularly well choreographed and the dialogue is clunky and more suited to a battlefield than a discussion in an office. Dhanush still manages to carry the mass-hero dialogue and posturing well of course, but the film deserves a more satisfying climax that meshes better with the rest of the film.

Although Thanga Magan doesn’t deliver as well as VIP, particularly in regards to the storyline in the second half, the performances are very watchable and Dhanush is simply excellent. He has the ability to show his character’s growth and maturation throughout the film, while still telling the story and ably supporting the rest of the cast. He always appears very natural, whether he’s playing a young student or a more matured married man, and never seems to be obviously ‘acting’. Sathish too does a good job, fitting the role of Thamizh’s ‘side-kick’ while he shares a natural rapport with Dhanush which ensures the comedy between the two works well. Samantha is the other standout performer and even if her role of a submissive wife is rather clichéd, she still plays it with grace and dignity and a good sense of humour. Anirudh supplies the music and it works well for the songs although none are as instantly catchy as I’ve come to expect from his previous soundtracks. I was also a little disappointed by the lack of dancing in the picturisations, as most of the songs are montages to show the two romances. They are all appealingly shot and look good, but I do miss watching Dhanush dance! Worth watching at least once for Dhanush, Samantha and Sathish and an amusing and entertaining first half.