Massu Engira Masilamani (Masss)

Masss

Venkat Prabhu is a man of many ideas – usually very good ideas – which have resulted in a number of successful films. However for his latest release Masss, he tries to cram as many ideas as possible into the first 20 minutes, and then continues to throw in yet more new ideas throughout the rest of the film. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but not all of his ideas work and it’s even difficult to decide if they work or not because the film has already moved on to the next idea! As a result the confusion of the opening scenes feels like trying to cram a year’s work into 10 minutes before the start of an exam. Situations and characters flash by without a chance to work out who is who, what they are doing and how they fit into the story, and if I did have to answer questions on what was going on, I would fail miserably! However it does get better. Suriya is amazing, and his presence holds the film together even through the odd and even more oddly placed songs. The story starts to make sense and the pace slows down to manageable levels with enough comedy and action mixed in to make Masss well worth a watch and much better than the opening sequences would suggest.

Suriya plays Masilamani aka Mass, a con-man and thief who works with his best buddy Jet (Premgi) on a number of overly complicated heists that involve as much theatricality as they do actual thievery. But they make a mistake when they decide to rob a local don who takes exception to their activities. Mass and Jet only just manage to escape, but in doing so they have a serious car crash which has more implications than they first realise.

I had no idea about the story behind Masss and I think it works better when the events that occur are completely unexpected, so I will leave the details of the story there. Up to this point Suriya works his lovable rogue persona well and Premgi is relatively low-key as his best friend. After the first twist (one of many), Premgi takes more of a back seat in the proceedings which is an advantage to the storyline since he doesn’t quite have the acting chops required for such a major role, although his comedy does work well. Suriya takes centre stage and drives the story forwards with an excellent performance and plenty of charisma. There is a double role too, which is perhaps a little clichéd but still works within the format of the story. Plus double Suriya is always a benefit in my opinion (as long as they are not conjoined twins!).

Nayantara pops up as Malini, a love interest for Masss, but she has very little to do and doesn’t even manage a duet with the hero, so her role could have been skipped without too much trouble. She does look beautiful though, if perhaps a little unconvincing as a nurse, but has surprisingly little chemistry with Suriya. However I’m going to mark that down as not having any real opportunity to develop any sparkage due to the briefness of their time spent together rather than any real problem with Nayantara. Vidyullekha Raman makes an appearance as Malini’s friend and actually makes more of an impact than Nayantara, although sadly she too quickly drops out of the story. However they both fare better than Pranitha who appears totally mis-cast, or at least inappropriately dressed with terrible make-up, for her role as flash-back Suriya’s wife.

The film has a huge cast list and there are a large number of good actors who appear as assorted villains or who are part of a group who help Mass later in the film. Brahmi has a brief role as a corrupt doctor in Malini’s hospital, while Samuthirakani has probably the best realised villain role, although even he only appears occasionally. Parthiban manages a little more screen-time as a police officer on the trail of Mass and has some good one-liners while Karunas, Riyaz Khan and many others provide excellent back-up for Suriya. It seems a long time since I’ve seen Rajendran and it’s great to see him here in a small role as a member of the gang helping Mass even if again he only appears briefly.

The second half follows a more linear storyline, even with the flashback portion and the film settles down to an easier pace. What surprises me is that the film received a U certificate given that there is some fairly extreme violence and at times the film is quite frightening for a young audience, although the kids in Melbourne seem to be made of fairly tough stuff and seemed to take it all in their stride.

Masss is a little overlong and the at times it seems that Venkat Prabhu got a little too carried away with his special effect team. There are times when less really is better and there are a few moments here where more restraint would have had a greater effect. In addition, the songs don’t really fit, apart from one during the flash-back sequence and there are perhaps a few too many nods to other films in the screenplay giving the film a more derivative feel than I think it really deserves. However Suriya is excellent and the background score from Yuvan Shankar Raja makes up for any lack in the dance numbers. This is a film to watch for Suriya, the excellent support cast and for Venkat Prabhu’s occasional flashes of brilliance which occur just often enough to give Masss sufficient unexpected twists to entertain.

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Chennai 600028

Chennai 600028

The opening moments of Venkat Prabhu’s debut film seem to be setting the scene for a retelling of West Side Story, with two rival cricket teams called the Sharks and the Rockets replacing the American street gangs. But surprisingly the rivalry between the two teams isn’t the focus of the story at all. It’s smarter than that. Yes, there is plenty of cricket and even some cross-team rivalry, but Chennai 600028 mainly follows the different players from the Sharks team for one year, with all the highs and lows you’d expect in any character drama. Essentially, it’s a story about an everyday group of friends, connected by locality and a passion for their cricket team.  None of the actors were well known at the time, and they all fit easily into the roles of regular guys, some of whom have jobs and some of who are still at college, but who all hang around together to play gully cricket. With some clever dialogue and good situational comedy, Venkat Prabhu ensures that despite a rather rambling storyline, the film has plenty of laughs and enough memorable characters to make the film an entertaining watch.

The Sharks team live in the Chennai area of the title and are introduced one by one by a narrator who describes them by their cricket skills; although generally some other identifying characteristic is also given. This is incredibly useful as there are 10 named team members and it’s very easy to lose track initially of just who is who and where they fit into the team. The film starts off with the defeat of the Sharks for the fourth time by the Rockets, mainly due to a dismal performance from supposed ‘all-rounder’ but actually terrible player and tail-ender Seenu (Premji Amaran). He’s the bumbling fumbler who cannot take a catch to save his life, but is generally loud and obnoxiously cheery despite his limited cricketing talents. Premji is a little more restrained here than in later films such as Goa, and he’s mostly funny thanks mainly to a good rapport with the other characters and some witty and well written dialogue. I didn’t know that Premji was also a musician, and he is responsible for the background score as well as one of the songs – pretty impressive!

Along with their most recent defeat, the Sharks players all have their own problems, although lack of money is the most regular feature in their discussions. The money is for their regular drinking sessions, which allows them to sit and talk about life, cricket and women, which eventually leads back to money, of course! It all fits in well with their various personalities and since the characters are all engaging and seem to fit well into their roles it comes across as a genuine look at life in the area. Plus we get this song, which perfectly captures the group of friends out drinking and having a good time.

Things change when Rocket team member Raghu (Jai) moves into the Visalatchi Thottam area with his family. Raghu feels that his world has come to an end, nicely illustrated by some excellent histrionics in the bathroom, and this does indeed seem to be possible given his initial reception by the locals. He’s looked on with suspicion and to add to his woes, his old team are too far away for Raghu to make it to regular practices, meaning he’s left out of their line-up for matches.

Raghu is one of the central characters for the story and Jai is excellent here in his first main role. His initial arrival into the new area is hilarious, and in just a few scenes he imbues Rahgu with plenty of charm and appeal, making his eventual acceptance into the rival team seem more plausible. His resemblance to Vijay is also part of the comedy, but best of all are his scenes with Karthik (Shiva Sundaram) starting from when a fight seems inevitable. Karthik is in love with Selvi (Vijayalakshmi) who is the sister of Karthik’s teammate Pazhani (Nithin Sathya) and therefore, for some obscure reason, off limits. Raghu’s father on the other hand is friendly with Selvi and Pazhani’s father, so inevitably Raghu is often seem chatting to someone who does at least acknowledge his existence. Karthik has some wonderful lovelorn expressions as he sees his rival on the field appear to become his rival in love and the interactions between the two potential adversaries are very well done.

Aravind (Aravind Akash) is also in love with a wealthy girl Swetha (Kristine Zedek) who regularly comes in to the coffee shop where he works. This is a rather more implausible romance, which is made more unlikely by the couple mainly only appearing together in song. These romantic songs also slow down the pace of the film and seem somewhat out of place in an otherwise more realistic and upbeat film.  Aravind is fine in his role as part of the cricket team and amusing as a guy in love but Kristine has very little to do and doesn’t impress in her few moments on screen.

There is a side plot involving Karthik’s brother Guna (Sampath Raj) but mainly the action revolves around the team members, their relationships with each other and their ambition to finally win the Radio Mirchi Cup.  There are no standout heroes, just a regular group of mates and that’s what appeals most about the film. Venkat Prabhu has captured plenty of camaraderie, but included discord and division to spice up the story and the blend is just about perfect. The cricket scenes are nicely placed in the film too – not too many, but enough to keep focus on the team rather than on just the individuals.  The commentary is also excellent (although that just might be my subtitles) and reflects the general standard of cricket commentary the world over!

Chennai 600028 is an excellent début and a good indication of what to expect from Venkat Prabhu as he uses most of the same ingredients (and often the same actors) in his subsequent films such as Saroja, Goa and Mankatha. Mainly Chennai 600028 is a film about people, their lives and their dreams, and only after those details are fully realised is a story superimposed on top.   It works because of the very ordinariness of the characters – these are guys that can be seen on every patch of ground, anywhere it’s possible to set up stumps and standing around on every street in Chennai. That is the charm of the movie. Recommended for excellent performances, witty dialogue and a film that  captures the intensity and ubiquitousness  of street cricket in India.  4 stars.

 

Saroja

Saroja is a fairly standard thriller with a decent dose of dramatic tension thanks to some very good performances and loads of visual flair. I ordered the Tamil DVD but was sent the Telugu dub, which apart from the obvious difference also cast Srihari instead of Jayaram in a pivotal role. I quite like Srihari as an actor, and as I speak neither language subtitles are subtitles, so I was happy enough. I’ll be referring to characters by their names in the Telugu version.

Prakash Raj is Viswanatham, a successful Hyderabadi businessman. He is a self centred man, in an uneasy marriage and not giving his teenage daughter Saroja as much attention as he gives his breakfast.

That is until Saroja (Vega), is kidnapped. It’s one of my favourite Prakash Raj performances as he conveys fear, despair and regrets with only a scant amount of dialogue. His reactions and expressions are just perfect. There is a scene where he and his wife are watching home movies of Saroja. They can’t look at each other as they have an intimate conversation that is realistically awkward and painful.

The depth of characterisation established so simply helped me care about what happened to Saroja since it meant so much to her father.

Saroja gets an intro song about girl power and the evils of alcohol, which she delivers after sneaking out of her window to get to the gig. She is largely absent until late in the film as the drama is centred on the police operation to find her, but her character is established as resourceful and independent.

Srihari is Viswa’s friend Ravi, a charismatic policeman who takes on this very personal case. Srihari running isn’t exactly a greyhound so the chase scenes had me worried, but he is an authority figure and pillar of strength. Ravi orchestrates the police activity to recover Saroja and is on hand to witness the devastating effect the kidnapping has on his friend. There is a bit more complexity to his role than just a standard crusading cop though and Srihari and Prakash Raj share some excellent eye to eye moments. I don’t really buy his excuse for something he does, but it wasn’t a big deal overall.

There is a second storyline that will collide with the straightforward police procedural. It centres on a group of friends, totally unrelated to Viswanatham and his concerns.

Vaibhav is Rama Swamy.  The girl he loves (Kajal Aggarwal in a brief appearance) gets engaged to his friend Ajay. He is trying to make the best of his lot and comes across as a moody but not unpleasant guy. Ajay (Shiva) is a soap actor who thinks he is a little more special than he is, and tries to get by on what he considers to be charm. He gets some of the better intentionally funny lines as he cites his TV serial commitments as a reason for avoiding anything he doesn’t want to do. Rama’s older brother Renga Swamy (SP Charan) is the average guy – happy, married with a daughter, middle class, comfortably podgy. Premji Amaren (brother of the director) is the comic relief, Ganesh, and almost every time he opened his mouth I wanted to kill him. To be fair, his straight dramatic scenes were good and a few of the jokes were funny.  Every time he saw a pretty girl, badly dressed angels would cavort around her, and the angels got grumpier as they had to keep reappearing for different girls.

But the comedy track mostly involved Ganesh acting stupid and grimacing wildly. If you find a man screaming his lungs out at the sight of a rat, or telling everyone loudly why he has to be quiet, funny maybe you’ll like him more than I do.

The boys set out on a roadtrip from Chennai to Hyderabad to go to a one day match. After driving for a few hours, including about 257 snack and pee breaks as well as a run in with Brahmi, they are delayed by a major road accident and decide to take an alternate route.

The storylines intersect when the guys take a wrong turn in the dark and end up in a spooky factory complex occupied by the imposing Sampath (Sampath Raj) and his gang, who have Saroja captive. The adrenalin rises from this point until the film’s conclusion as the boys try and extricate themselves from their perilous situation and accidentally seem to be rescuing the girl. There is always time for a dance break though! Kalyani (Nikitha) and Sampath entertain the troops and I have to say seeing all the bad guys in a dance number was a lot of fun.

The ‘heroes’ and the baddies are ordinary guys and the fights and chases are consistent with that. There are no amazing flying leaps and stunts, but there is a strong feeling of the fear and effort in those scenes which is amplified by the lighting and composition of the shots and Saravanan’s cinematography is impressive. Even when things got less believable, the characters remained true to themselves and didn’t develop superpowers. There is some question in my mind as to how well these guys could navigate an unfamiliar place in the dead of night, but whatever. I thought Vega was convincing and in most scenes looked like a school girl. There were signs of a romantic attraction between her and Ram that I thought was a bit not right in view of their character ages. It’s just a fleeting thing but was it necessary for it to be there at all?

The Yuvan Shankar Raja (Venkat Prabhu’s cousin – what a family) soundtrack is good and the range of musical styles supports the full span of the drama. While the songs are well placed in the story, I’m not sure all the picturisations were necessary. The montages sometimes caused a break from the overall mood as they were even more stylised than the rest of the film. The direction relies on gimmicks but that visual interest and excitement helped to give a standard plot a bit of freshness. The story doesn’t completely rely on the visuals so I didn’t feel it was too glossy for its own good. The performances, especially Prakash Raj’s, are compelling on their own.

It’s a film where the outcomes probably won’t surprise anyone, but the way those things happen might. If you want a modern looking comedy/drama/thriller that’s not too heavy on gore and showcases some good character actors, give this a go.  4 stars!

Heather says: Saroja has all the right ingredients to make a good film with an interesting story, excellent cast lineup and snappy dialogue. But it suffers a little from a very long set up with perhaps too much detail in some scenes and not enough in others. There are also a few scenes where the action takes place in poorly lit sets and I found it very hard to tell what was going on. However, once past the slow beginning, it’s a very enjoyable watch as it blends comedy with action and drama in a way that is rare in Tamil cinema. I do like the way the action is preceded with a date and time stamp in the opening sequences as it gives the feel of an American cop show and plants the idea that time is important. Although perhaps this isn’t followed up quite as well in later scenes. The introductions to the various characters are generally good, but I would have preferred director Venkat Prabhu to spend a little more time with Saroja’s family. It is clear that Viswanathan is caught up in his work and doesn’t have time for his daughter, but I think a little more information about the family dynamic would have made their characters more sympathetic. It took more time to get a feel for Saroja and her father as a result, although this may very well have been intentional, as we learn about the family as the film goes on, just as the four friends do.

The interaction between the friends is well done, and feels very realistic. Perhaps it’s not quite as realistic though that they remain undiscovered sneaking around the bad guys’ lair with all of their arguing and long conversations. But the comedy in these was good and the story was well played out in these scenes. The action sequences, at least those that are visible, are also well choreographed and there are some really good ideas in the execution of the various fight sequences.

I liked the twist at the end which I did not see coming at all, although I thought the justification by the villain was rather weak. In it for the money alone might have worked better, but it was still a good ending. I also enjoyed the comedy with Ganesh seeing angels appearing around pretty girls. All of the four characters worked well for me as they each had some endearing character traits and some really off-putting ones – just like in real life. They seemed like much more normal guys than typical filmi heroes which makes the film more interesting to watch.

This is the first of Venkat Prabhu’s films I’ve seen and it’s inspired me to find his others. I’d say skip over a lot of the set-up and then sit back to enjoy a really good action comedy. 3 ½  stars.