Orange Mittai

Essentially Orange Mittai is a road movie, but this isn’t a typical journey. Here, the vehicle is an ambulance and the trip one to a hospital taken by a cantankerous patient with heart problems who enjoys riling the ambulance driver and EMT. And while the story is about the journey both physically and metaphorically, it’s also a story about fathers and sons, about loneliness and even to some extent about failings within the health system in rural India. Biju Viswanath gently infuses comedy throughout the tale and allows the story to focus on the developing relationship between the EMT Sathya (Ramesh Thilak) and patient Kailasam (Vijay Sethupathi). Along with the gorgeous cinematography, it’s the simplicity of the story and the genuine view of isolation portrayed that make this such a great watch.

The film starts with EMT Sathya and his ambulance driver Arumugam (Arumughan Bala) attending the scene of a car accident. The driver is drunk, and after delivering him to the hospital, the dialogue between Sathya and Arumugam quickly establishes their individual characters and the ongoing tone of the film. Sathya is concerned about the driver and lets us know by a quick conversation with the nurse that he has informed the patient’s family, who are on their way. He also stops Arumugam thieving money and other valuables from their hapless patient in a scene that demonstrates his innate honesty and compassion, but Biju Viswanath also uses this to illustrate the friendship between the two men, despite their widely differing morals and work ethic. It’s a lovely beginning that quickly sets up their relationship, followed by similar brief conversations that give more background to Sathya. His father died a year ago, and when Sathya is praying, Arumugam comments that he could have shown his father this sort of respect when he was alive. It’s a throwaway line in an early scene but it resonates throughout the film, as Sathya ends up dealing with another older man who has issues with his own son.

Keeping to the theme of fathers, early on there is meeting between Sathya and his potential father-in-law (Trichy Manivannan) to begin discussing marriage with Kavya (Aashritha). Initially it appears as if Kavya’s father disapproves of Sathya, but despite misgivings he gives his permission to the marriage, as long as Sathya gives up working as an EMT and comes to work in his business instead. But that’s not what Sathya wants. He’s happy enough with Kavya, but his job means more to him than just his salary, and he’s not prepared to give it up just to appease his father-in-law. He doesn’t argue or explain his motivations, just simply asks for a day to think about it, which exemplifies his conciliatory approach to conflict seen throughout the rest of the film.

Sathya is given the job of collecting a heart attack patient from a remote location and taking him to the hospital. When Arumugam and Sathya finally make their way to the house (it’s inaccessible by ambulance) there is tense music and tilted camera shots through the gate railings and underside of a cart. It all seems to be pointing towards some supernatural event or violent shock, but the reality is rather less dramatic. The house is big, and there are faded pictures on the walls hinting at a past glory, while the rest of the house seems to be slowly decaying. When they finally find him, the man they have come to help is alone and has a grumpy and unconciliatory attitude making him prickly and difficult to deal with. He expects much but is not at all grateful, which alienates both Sathya and Arumugam right away. However Sathya is an expert in dealing with such disrespect – he deals with it every day from his supervisor and the hospital doctors, so he’s able to cope with Kailasam’s orders and quirks, eventually getting him into the ambulance and on his way to the hospital.

Naturally the journey doesn’t go smoothly and there are various interruptions along the way. Throughout it all, Kailasam is difficult, demanding and a typical grumpy old man. Vijay Sethupathi doesn’t quite look old enough for the character despite colouring his hair grey, but he does get the mannerisms spot on. In particular, his nosiness about Sathyam’s relationship is brilliantly written and seems completely natural, as does his general dissatisfaction with the world at large. As the journey unfolds it’s clear that Kailasam has a fractured relationship with his son, and since Sathya is dealing with issues related to his own father, the expectation is that the two will develop a father-son style relationship. To some extent this does occur, but not until later – after Sathya has come to realise it’s easier to feel compassion towards someone he’s not related to, and begins to understand that loneliness is behind Kailasam’s difficult persona.

Ramesh Thilak frequently appears in Tamil films as the friend or sidekick, often in a comedy role, but here he plays the central character which allows him to show a more serious side. Sathya is basically a decent person who just wants to be able to help people, and Ramesh does an excellent job of blending understanding and compassion with frustration, exasperation but also acceptance as Sathya deals with Kailasam, his demanding supervisor and a hospital doctor who has no respect for his skills. He also hits the right note with his girlfriend, even giving her some good advice as he finally tells her what he really wants in his life and that it’s up to her to decide what she really wants too. Unusually, the romance is merely a side note to the film rather than a central plot point –  it’s why Sathya is distracted at work and gives Kailasam an opportunity to give out some advice, but there are no odd duets or long involved romantic scenes. This is a much more down-to-earth film that doesn’t need any of this kind of drama, and the story works much better as a result.

The comedy in the film also seems to flow naturally, with Ramesh and Arumughan Bala working together beautifully to produce the laughs. Arumughan is the typical hapless idiot who will always do or say the wrong thing, but his relationship with Sathya has more to it than just these comedy interactions, which makes for a more interesting journey.

Although there are a few misses, for the most part the story gently builds a relationship between Sathya and Kailasam, even though the latter is resilient almost to the end. With Kailasam’s estrangement from his son, the friendship that develops with Sathya is bittersweet, which may be why the film is titled Orange Mittai, also referencing the bitter orange sweets Kailasam eats on his journey to the hospital. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi is credited as co-writing the film with Biju Viswanath, who is responsible for the stunning camera work and for editing the film as well as directing. This depth of involvement is perhaps why Orange Mittai at times seems indulgent, for example when Sathya stops to let an exuberant Kailasam dance in the moonlight, but this is only a minor point since overall the story is told simply and with care and attention to detail. I enjoyed the slow development of an unusual friendship and the meandering journey from hospital to hospital with a patient who really just wanted a day out and a break in routine. One to savour and enjoy as a simple reflection on the complexity of human relationships. 4 stars.

Orange Mittai

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Super Deluxe

Super Deluxe

Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe is a significant step up from his previous film Aaranya Kaandam, aided by a sumptuous colour palette from P.S. Vinod and Nirav Shah, and the presence of a number of top actors from the South. Included are the likes of Vijay Sethupathi, Samantha, Fahadh Faasil, Ramya Krishnan and Mysskin but the newcomers are just as good and hold their own against the established stars. It’s an interesting story too, although after a good start the middle section does wander and become rather self-indulgent before ending with a stronger finale. It’s still a compelling watch, not just to discover what happens in the various threads, but also to spot influences, note the repeated motif’s and ultimately try to figure out just what Thiagarajan Kumararaja is trying to say. Super Deluxe isn’t for the faint-hearted – the language is strong and there are a number of confronting themes, but the juxtaposition of topical issues and out-and-out fantasy is intriguing even with a close to 3 hour run time.

The film consists of a number of different threads which don’t interconnect as such, but instead superficially intersect and occasionally influence each other. The first involves a cheating wife Vaembu (Samantha) and what happens when her husband Mugilan (Fahadh Faasil) discovers her infidelity when her lover has the bad taste to die during their lovemaking session. Next there are a group of schoolboys who arrange an elaborate plan to bunk school and watch porn movies. Their problems start when one of the four recognises his mother Leela (Ramya Krishnan) in the movie and the ripples from his subsequent actions have far-ranging consequences. Part of this sparks an existential crisis for Leela’s husband Dhanasekaran (Mysskin) who has become a faith healer after surviving the tsunami by holding on to a statue of Jesus. The other boys end up in trouble when they try to raise the funds to buy a new TV and end up in a truly out of this world experience. And then there is the story of Shilpa (Vijay Sethupathi), a transgender woman trying to reunite with the wife and young son she left behind many years before. It’s a fascinating blend of narratives and some of the stories work better than others. Or perhaps it’s more that some parts of each story are simply brilliant (and brilliantly simple), but then at times Thiagarajan Kumararaja and his co-writers seem to get carried away and try just that little too hard to be edgy and confrontational.

As well as a lot of swearing, there is a lot of sex in this film. Vaembu is first seen in bed with her lover, the teenage boys are obsessed with sex (although that’s not surprising) and there’s a creepy cop (Bagavathi Perumal) whose rapacious tendencies provide an important plot point in two of the stories. One of these is nasty but effective, while the other is too drawn out and staged to be convincing. In those parts where the film is subtle and suggests rather than shows, it is more chillingly real and packs more of a punch compared to the more filmi scenes with Vaembu, Mugilan and SI Berlin. Perhaps it’s a consequence of too many writers (Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K. Sekar and Thiagarajan Kumararaja are all credited with the screenplay), but Vaembu and Mugilan’s story is the least successful for me, despite fine performances from the two actors. Their relationship just doesn’t ring true and the characters are an odd mix of modern and traditional that doesn’t seem plausible. However, I appreciate that the fallen woman gets a shot at redemption and isn’t permanently tainted by her infidelity. Something which is also the case with Leela who is proud of her film achievements and sees no reason to disavow her presence in a porn movie. It is refreshingly different even if at times there is a feeling that some of the dialogue has been written by grubby little boys sitting and sniggering at the mere mention of sex. That may be more to do with the subtitles though as I have read a number of comments that some concepts weren’t translated accurately, particularly in respect to Ramya Krishnan’s character.

The most successful thread is that of Shilpa, and despite all the issues around a cis male actor playing a trans woman, Vijay Sethupathi is much more here than just a man in a wig. The issues here feel true to life, shocking as they are, as Shilpa tries to navigate a brief visit to her son’s school and faces prejudice and abuse at almost every turn. Ashwanth Ashokkumar is outstanding as her son Rasukutty and although Gayathrie has very little screen-time as the abandoned wife, she makes a strong impact as her facial expressions say so much more than any dialogue could possibly manage. Vijay transforms himself yet again and adds many layers and nuances to his character, alternating between comedy and tragedy but still providing a sense of the underlying weakness that drove Shilpa to abandon her family.

The first half has a lot of well-written comedy but immediately after the interval the film shifts into more serious territory. The pace is also more uneven in the second half, and the labyrinthine feeling of diving down a rabbit hole, so well done in the first half, falters as the frenetic pace slows. There is still a lot going on though, and with the richness of the visuals the film at times becomes almost overwhelming. There are close-ups of ants running up and down a door frame for example – the implication initially seems fairly straight forward, but is it really? There are so many questions and possible explanations for even the simplest shot and it seems that every single part of the set could have a secondary meaning. This is a film that I think does need multiple viewings, and I’m sure that I will see more detail each time.

There are plenty of film references here too – to both Indian and Western films and probably a lot more cultural references that completely passed me by. Despite the variability in the second half this is definitely a film that I’d recommend for the sumptuous visuals, excellent performances and intricate story. Thiagarajan Kumararaja has built a complex world that tries to encompass the natural, unnatural and everything in between. The best part about Super Deluxe is that he so very nearly succeeds.

 

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!