’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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Chekka Chivantha Vaanam (2018)

Chekka Chivantha Vaanam

Mani Ratnam’s latest is a surprisingly conventional crime drama that pits three brothers against each other as they vie to take over their father’s gangster business. Unusually there is little character development for each of the brothers, so it does take some time to become connected to the film and get to grips with exactly who is who (and who is sleeping with who). However, the finale is excellent and does keep you guessing right up until the end, while Vijay Sethupathi, Arvind Swami and Jyothika are all superb throughout.

Prakash Raj plays the ageing gangster Senapathi who survives an attack by two assassins dressed as police officers at the start of the film. His wife Lakshmi (Jayasudha) is also in the car, and it’s interesting that their conversation prior to the attack mentions Sena’s infidelities rather than introducing the family members or focusing on the crime empire. However, it’s not until the end that this and other snippets of information come together to make a satisfying whole and many of the seemingly throwaway statements are much more revealing than they initially seem.

Sena’s three sons all return home as their father and mother are rushed to hospital and it doesn’t take long until they are all at each other’s throats, arguing over who will take their father’s place. The eldest son Varadan (Arvind Swami) complains that Sena treats him as just another henchman, when he feels that he deserves better and has the best claim to inherit his father’s empire. The middle son Thyagu (Arun Vijay) lives in Dubai where he spends most of his time on a yacht discussing real estate projects with wealthy Arab backers. He seems to be more a businessman than a gangster and his stylish dress and polished wife reinforce that impression. The youngest son Ethi (Silambarasan) is a drug and gun runner currently based in Serbia and definitely at the bottom of the pecking order, a fact he seems to accept without too much rancour.

None of these men appear to have what it takes to run a criminal network as they indulge in petty arguments and spiteful digs at each other. Each has their own flaws that seem to disqualify them for the top job. Varadan is the most like his father but he lacks initiative and follows a predictable and well-trodden path as he pursues his father’s attackers. Varadan immediately accuses his father’s rival Chinnappadasan (Thiagarajan) of being behind the attack but it seems to be the easy option and doesn’t require Varadan to be anything other than the thug he has always been. Thyagu is slick and more polished, but despite his cutthroat business skills, he seems to lack the violent mentality needed to maintain control over the motley collection of gangsters so, despite his egotistical belief that he is the obvious choice of heir, he seems unlikely to survive long in Chennai. Ethi is unpredictable and erratic, and doesn’t seem to have the necessary concentration span to be able to successfully run a crime business.

Rasool (Vijay Sethupathi) is Varadan’s childhood friend, and the two have remained close over the years despite Rasool being a police officer. At the start of the film, Rasool is suspended from the police force for an overzealous attack on a student, so he has plenty of time to help out his friend while attempting to get his suspension overturned. As the brothers squabble amongst themselves, Rasool is always there to help keep the peace, just as long as he stays off the alcohol.

Varadan is married to Chitra (Jyothika) who is loyal to her husband despite his affair with TV reporter Parvathi (Aditi Rao Hydari). She’s an incredibly strong character who seems determined to hold the family together through the sheer force of her willpower alone, but when the brothers finally descend into open warfare all her support is with her husband in spite of everything he as done. At one point I was hopeful that Chitra was going to turn out to be the last one standing, but alas that wasn’t to be and she stays true to her character until the bitter end. Thyagu’s wife Renu (Aishwarya Rajesh) is less supportive of her husband, particularly when she ends up in jail after drugs are hidden in their apartment, while Ethi’s shortlived romance with Chaaya (Dayana Erappa) seems to only be included to act as the catalyst for his later suspicions when Chaaya is shot and killed on their honeymoon.

Initially the brothers unit in their search for the men behind the attack on Sena, but after Sena’s death it turns into a free for all as Ethi and Thyagu team up in opposition to Varadan, while accusations fly as to who was the real culprit behind the assassination attempt. Chinnappadasan is also out for blood after the brothers target his family and kill his son-in-law while the police have also vowed not to stand-by and let the gangster take over the city. The death toll rises inexorably as the brothers get closer and closer to finally determining who will take Sena’s place as head kingpin and their various rivals also close in for the kill.

The problem here is that for most of the film the brothers are only lightly sketched and we don’t know why they have chosen to act as they do. The women in their life are even more broadly drawn with just enough detail to know who they are and how they relate to Sena and his sons. There is a daughter as well, but she appears only briefly during the celebration for her new baby and I didn’t even manage to catch her name. This lack of any real motivation for the brothers makes it difficult to relate to their characters and, since none of them are particularly likeable, it’s also hard to decide who to support in their struggle to take over the top spot. Some of the support cast also appear to be completely superfluous, and it’s not until quite late in the story that the reason for the inclusion of, for example, Parvathi or Chaaya, becomes clear. But once the final twist in the tale is revealed, suddenly everything makes more sense, and many of the scenes with Lakshmi, Chitra and the others take on a deeper meaning. As too does the squabble between the brothers, and that ensures Chekka Chivantha Vaanam is a much more intriguing film than it first appears.

A.R. Rahman’s music threads through the screenplay with different themes recurring as the characters come and go, and the songs mostly occur in snippets over pieces of the action. Santosh Sivan is in charge of cinematography and does a very capable job, although what is most interesting is what is not shown except in brief glimpses, almost too fast to catch. In keeping with the twist at the end, the final images of Rasool and the three brothers in a circling jeep at the top of a cliff are the most stunning. The ground is a rich red, while the sky is a vibrant blue and the sea a restless azure, making a vivid contrast between the stark but grandiose scenery and the petty, backstabbing action taking place in the jeep.

This is a film that I want to see again now that I know the ending. I suspect that there are clues scattered along the way although on reflection I can only identify a few, and I know that more will becone clear on a second watch through. I also didn’t catch the music as well as I should as I was concentrating too much on the action. The actors too appear much better on looking back, as the whole point of that lack of characterisation and interaction is only revealed at the end. It’s hard to say much without revealing the final twist but it’s the end that does make Chekka Chivantha Vaanam well worth watching and overall one of Mani Ratnam’s better films, despite the initial slow build.

Junga (2018)

Junga

A Vijay Sethupathi film never fails to be entertaining even when, as in this case, the story fails to impress. Gokul’s latest is a comedy that alternates between some hilarious, laugh-out-loud moments and scenes that fall conspicuously flat, mainly due to the ridiculous plot. When the comedy is good, it’s very good, but when it’s bad it’s pretty meh and not helped at all by the glaring plot holes. Still, Junga is not meant to be taken seriously, and Vijay Sethupathi strolls through all the mayhem raising laughs with his take on a parsimonious criminal out to win back his family fortune.

The film starts with Junga (Vijay Sethupathi) being removed from jail by two policemen who plan to kill him in an encounter. Sadly, despite the presence of Rajendran as one of the officers, these are some of the least successful scenes in the film where the dialogue seems forced and not remotely amusing. Luckily this is only a brief introduction to allow Junga to begin relating his life story, which is where all the action happens.

The flashback shows Junga as a small-town bus conductor (all comparisons with Baasha are deliberate) whose love for a Telugu girl (Madonna Sebastian) leads to him taking on a persistent and unwanted stalker and his gang of friends. This foray into fighting shocks his mother who reveals that he is genetically predisposed to violence as he is actually the son of Don Ranga and the grandson of Don Lingaa; gangsters who lost all their money due to their extravagant celebrations and poor accounting skills. Junga’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) and grandmother (Vijaya) bewail the loss of the family fortune, particularly a picture hall in Chennai which was Junga’s mother’s dowry. Junga vows to be a money conscious Don and heads back to Chennai to restore his inheritance along with his best mate YoYo (Yogi Babu).

Junga quickly builds up a reputation as a cheap option for those seeking intimidation or assassination skills, but fails in his attempts to buy back Cinema Paradise from its new owner, Chettiyar (Suresh Chandra Menon).  Plan B involves heading to Paris to kidnap Chettiyar’s daughter Yazhini (Sayyeshaa) and thus force him to hand over the theatre. Naturally all does not go to plan and Junga’s kidnap scheme is foiled by the Italian mafia who have their own plans for Yazhini.

The first half has plenty of excellent comedy, mainly based around Junga’s miserly tendencies and extreme economies to save money. The film is irreverently tongue in cheek and pokes fun at classic Tamil films as well as modern-day tropes and even at the actors themselves, most of which works well. Radha Ravi channels Marlon Brando as the head of the Committee of Dons who are morally outraged by Junga’s discounted thuggery while Yogi Babu provides solid back-up as Junga’s chief henchman.  The first half has some good fight scenes too along with the best of the songs, including the wonderfully colourful Amma Mela Sathiyam.

The second half falters when the action moves to Paris and the Italian mafia muscle in. What does work is Junga’s obvious pain when he realises just how much money he has spent and the various jokes around the confusion between Parry’s (in Chennai) and Paris (in France). Best of all are Saranya Ponvannan and Vijaya who swagger around as a brilliant double act and completely steal the show as Gangster Amma and Gangster Patti. They have the best lines as they try to shake down Chettiyar and it’s great to see Saranya Ponvannan have a chance to step out of her usual standard mother role, albeit in a small way.

What doesn’t work is the whole storyline with the Italian mafia and French police, although we do get a great fight scene with an umbrella and some good car chases. But there are just too many silly plot holes that stop some of the comedy dead in its tracks while the rather contrived romance between Junga and Yazhini doesn’t work at all. After good chemistry with Madonna Sebastian and an amusing end to that whole episode, the love story with Sayyeshaa is limp and anaemic without even the benefit of any comedy to lighten the romance.

As with Oru Nalla Naal Paathu Solren, Vijay Sethupathi gets to wear some outlandish costumes as part of his trip to France and when he plays the roles of his father and grandfather. There is plenty of moustache twirling along with flamboyant gestures which have become Vijay’s signature comedy style, but he is very funny in this persona and his charm and charisma are almost enough to carry the film through the problematic second half. Almost, but not quite. Thankfully, Vijay is ably supported by Yogi Babu and the double act of Saranya Ponvannan and Vijaya who ensure their scenes are funny and help to keep the plot (such as it is) moving along.

Junga is a film that works when the action is kept close to home with the comedy centred on Vijay Sethupathi and his Don Amma and Don Patti. The more action-based sequences disrupt the flow and don’t fit into the overall pace of the film, even though the fight sequences are well choreographed. They also drag out the film which is already overly long by the time Yazhini is kidnapped. However the songs are good, the comedy for the most part is very funny and Vijay Sethupathi is excellent in the title role. Junga isn’t consistent, but it is hilarious in parts and that, along with the enthusiastic cast make it worth at least a one-time watch.