Tughlaq Durbar

With cinemas still closed here in Melbourne. I’ve just got round to watching Tughlaq Durbar online. Advertised as a political satire, the film is based on a good initial idea but the story fails to capitalise on this as well as expected. There is plenty of comedy that works well and Vijay Sethupathi is his usual charismatic self, but overall the film fails to engage especially in the second half. 

Singaravelan (Vijay Sethupathi) aka Singam is a fanatical follower of local politician Rayappan (Parthiban) and has been since birth. In fact, he was born during one of Rayappan’s political rallies, and this seems to have imbued the young Singam with a devotion to his leader that surpasses all other ties. Singam’s mother died shortly after giving birth to his sister, Manimegalai (Manjima Mohan) and after their father also dies, the pair are brought up by the local community. However, Singam’s fanaticism causes him to be cruel and unfeeling to his sister, and as a result she stops speaking to him – although it’s not clear if Singam even notices. The worst thing to note about Singam is that he also hates dogs, something that ensures that to me his character appears as black and evil as possible for a small-time political wannabe. 

Despite the best efforts of the party faithful, who have no time for the young upstart, Singam manages to ingratiate himself with Rayappan. After various shenanigans mainly manipulating Rayappan’s right hand man Managalam (Bhagavathi Perumal), Singam manages to be nominated as the candidate for his home area. However, an argument with Managalam at a party celebration results in Singam being hit on the head, with a rather unusual result. 

Somehow the head injury brings about a split personality with a ‘good’ Singam who loves his sister, likes dogs (already he’s won me over!) and is concerned about  the community, and the ‘normal’ Singam who is only interested in keeping Rayappan happy. I loved how this is shown on screen with Singam’s shadow gradually splitting as he walks down an alley way underneath flickering overhead lights. It makes it really clear what is happening, just as Singam’s sudden appreciation of dogs makes it clear that this is a completely different personality. I also appreciated that Singam develops a left eye blepharospasm when his personality shifts, and his best mate Vasu (Karunakaran) finds this a helpful indication of just when Singam is going to do something unexpected.

Having set the scene with a great idea and a couple of excellent segments where ‘good’ Singam takes over to thwart ‘normal’ Singam’s plans, writer/director Delhi Prasad Deenadayalan seems to run out of steam. Once Singam is nominated to run on the party ticket, the film turns into a rather plodding tale of stolen money and the usual corruption associated with politicians. I couldn’t decide if Deenadayalan was trying to make a statement with some of the rambling dialogues or if he just thought that every film based on politicians should make some mention of corruption. Some of the dialogue is brilliant such as that around Rayappan’s need for an unthinking fanatical follower who will do whatever is needed, or Singam’s response to his sister being abused at her workplace. But outside of the comedy, much of the rest is rote and repetitive. 

Particularly disappointing is the sidelining of Manimegalai, especially since she is apparently one of the reasons behind ‘good’ Singam’s plans for the area and a catalyst for change. There was so much more that could have been achieved using the relationship between the brother and sister but after a good start Manimegalai becomes nothing more than the symbol of the difference between ‘good’ and ‘normal’ Singam.

There is also a rather shaky romance with Kamatchi (Raashi Khanna), the daughter of a local money lender that Singam kidnaps for ransom. It’s mostly one-sided with Kamatchi falling for Singam except for 1 song which feels rather out of place with the switch to Singam mooning after Kamatchi. As the standard love interest, the character of Kamatchi is nothing more than a reason for a fight scene, or a way for Singam to get the money he needs.  Overall, it’s the comedy that works best in the film, with the story seemingly taking second place to the set-up of these comedic skits. Vijay Sethupathi, Parathiban and Karunakaran are excellent comedic actors, and all deliver good performances but the lack of a good story means that the film drags once the set up is done. However, Govind Vasantha’s songs and background score are good, especially the more upbeat political rallying number although none are particularly memorable. The film looks good too, and the lightening in particular is superb in many of the sequences adding to the distinction between the two versions of Singam. 

This should have been a much better film, with a good cast, novel idea and good comedic dialogue. But there is no emotional heart to the film, and without a good follow-up plot, good performances aren’t enough to make this anymore than a one-time watch. It’s not terrible, but the most disappointing part is that Tughlaq Durbar could have been so much more. 2.5 stars.

Master (2021)

I loved Lokesh Kanagaraj’s last film Kaithi, and was interested to see how he would approach having a big name star for his latest movie. Not that Kathik isn’t a star (he definitely is!), but there are certain fan expectations for a Vijay film and as might be expected Lokesh follows most. However Master is more than simply another star vehicle and thankfully there are some touches that make this a cut above the usual Vijay mass film. For instance, the villain here is just as important as the hero – in fact he has more of a backstory and quite frankly a more interesting story arc. The obligatory ‘romance’ is practically non-existent and here Vijay plays a more dislikeable hero with more flaws than I’ve seen before. It’s not a perfect movie, but better than I was expecting and with both Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi on screen together, a real treat for fans of both.

The film opens with a young Bhavani (Master Mahendran) being menaced by his father’s enemies after they have murdered his family. He’s thrown into a juvenile detention centre where he is beaten and bullied, leading Bhavani to develop a tough persona and his own ‘superpower’ from years of pounding his fist into the wall. Moving forward to the present, and the now adult Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi) has taken control of the trucking industry using the young inmates of the detention centre as his criminal associates. Most notably he uses them to take the blame for his various illegal acts, while plying the youngsters with drugs and alcohol to keep them compliant.

Meanwhile, a college teacher John Durairaj aka JD (Vijay) is struggling with his job. Although he is loved by the students for his stance on student rights, the headmaster and other staff dislike him, possibly due to his popularity with the students, although this doesn’t ring true. When a contest for a new student president descends into violence, JD is quickly ousted from his job and moved to the juvenile detention centre to take charge of the facility as the new ‘Master’. JD quickly discovers the facility is beset by corruption and after a distressing incident involving two of the inmates, he starts to make changes in his own life. The idea seems to be that to change the facility he first has to change himself. After discovering links between Bhavani and his juvenile pupils, he sets out to destroy Bhavani and redeem the inmates.

So far so good, the story is engaging if rather predictable, and the addition of a good and personable villain really helps. As expected for a Vijay film, the action sequences are well choreographed and executed to a high standard. Those involving Bhavani and the various people who stand between him and the coveted Union leader’s position are made even more awesome by his ‘super-power’, which harks back to those hero fight scenes where the hero can manage to defeat hundreds of men without even breaking a sweat! There is a terrific extended sequence with JD in a police station, and it’s clear that all these small fight scenes are leading up to the big finale between JD and Bhavani, which also does not disappoint. While I would have liked a few more fight scenes with Vijay, overall, in terms of action, Master gets the recipe just right. The songs too are excellent. The energy and exuberance in this opening number with Vijay is simply spectacular!

What also works well is the development of Bhavani as a villain. Initially the character evokes sympathy for the way he was treated, and in many other films this would be the track that turns someone into a hero. But not here. Instead, after being powerless as a teenager, Bhavani becomes corrupt and willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone for his ambition.  Lokesh uses Vijay Sethupathi’s voice for the young Bhavani, I think modulated to sound younger, and it’s works well to anchor Bhavani’s persona in what he experienced as a youth. Vijay Sethupathi uses his physicality to really dominate in the film and I loved that here was a villain that I could really enjoy. There is some comedy and naturally lots of cool mannerisms that meant I was rooting for Bhavani in every single fight (well, the people he was fighting were just as corrupt) at least until he locks horns with Vijay. I am a big Vijay Sethupathi fan, and it was good to see him as the villain of the story for a change.

Interestingly, Vijay’s character JD had much less character development, although there is a long sequence at the start that introduces him and deals with his issues in the college where he works. This part of the film does drag and it also introduces characters that don’t add anything much to the story. Although they do appear at the end, by that stage I’d forgotten who they were and why I should care about their fate. Indeed, the entire introduction sequence only had 3 points of note, all of which could have been established in a fraction of the time. 

JD’s introduction sequence does feature new teacher Charu (Malavika Mohanan) who has a crush on JD. But s is so often the case in these big hero films, there was simply no point to Charu’s character and unfortunately, she adds little to the story. Her crush doesn’t go much further and attempts to bring her into the story using ‘connections’ in the detention facility fall rather flat. The only part of her story I enjoyed was when young inmate Undiyal (Pooviyar) manages to save her from a gang of thugs while JD is unable to do anything but watch. That felt much more like a Lokesh Kanagaraj touch. The best scenes are those with Vijay and the kids in the detention facility, and in these the mix of comedy, action and tension is just right. The contrast between Bhavani’s scenes of menace and destruction are used well to contrast with the gritty but still lighter scenes in the facility. I just wish there had been more of this and less of the ‘fluff’ and window dressing,

The good parts of the film; the fight scenes, Anirudh’s music and Vijay Sethupathi as a villain, are all excellent. Vijay is awesome in the fight scenes and his interactions with the kids in the detention facility are really cute. But where Master really falls down is the length. The film is really long and there is much that just feels unnecessary and indulgent. The screenplay seems loose and at times not coherently put together with a number of side alleys and diversions that should have been curtailed. The additions and distractions slow down the plot and the film only comes back to life when either JD or Bhavani are centre stage without all the extra padding weighing them down. An action film with Vijay should be tight and exciting from start to finish but sadly, Master isn’t, not quite. But it’s still a fun watch and I did enjoy watching Vijay Sethupathi as a villain and Vijay’s foray into the educational system. Thanks to rekhs and her excellent subtitles the film is also easy to understand while the production is slick and polished. I wish I’d been able to watch this in the cinema with a huge crowd, which would have helped get through some of the slow sequences. But even at home, Master is still a good film and definitely a better than average watch.  

Ka Pae Ranasingam

P Virumaandi’s debut film is based on a real-life story about the difficulty in repatriating a deceased husband back to India. While the content is fascinating, unfortunately what should have been an emotional story centring around Aishwarya Rajesh’s character is instead hijacked by prolonged episodes of backstory and political messaging. As much as I love Vijay Sethupathi, this needed to be much less about his character and more about Ariyanachi as his wife, especially given Aishwarya’s fine performance throughout. 

The film opens with Ranasingam (Vijay Sethupathi) absent from his village as he is working for an oil company in Dubai. His wife Ariyanachi (Aishwarya Rajesh) is looking after the family in his absence and is shown to be the perfect daughter, bringing water to the home, looking after Ranasingam’s parents and sister, and supervising the building of their new house. However, at their daughter’s ear-piercing ceremony, a messenger arrives to tell the family that Ranasingam has died in Dubai during a protest. The family are devastated but unaware that this is only the beginning of their heartache as they try to bring his body back to India.

The film then goes into the first of many flashbacks to explain how Ariyanachi and Ranasingam met when he was dowsing for water on her father’s farm. Ariyanachi’s initial scepticism is gradually worm away by Ranasingam’s amazing ability to find water, and also by his dedication to social issues and equal rights for all. Throughout, despite his propensity for protest and disregard for the local police, Ranasingam, still shows respect for the law and a belief in the political system that at times seems oddly naïve given the obvious corruption at all levels. However, Vijay Sethupathi is on top form here and his portrayal is of an easy going and happy man who knows when to take a stand, but who at heart wants only the best for his family.

Having established the relationship and given some indication of why the authorities may be inclined to believe the protest allegation despite evidence to the contrary, Virumaandi should have left it there and concentrated on Ariyanachi’s struggles to bring her husband’s body home. Instead, the film keeps flashing back to instances in Ranasingam’s life which really don’t add much more to the story. Rather, they detract from the emotional build-up that Aishwarya achieves with each of her scenes and end up mostly just dragging the pace of the film back. Given that the film has a run time of just under 3 hours, there is a lot of unnecessary back story here that could easily have been cut without affecting either the tone of the film or the impact of the story at all.

Thankfully Aishwarya Rajesh is excellent and hits every emotional note just right. Her frustration at her inability to get any answers in palpable and infuses every frame. Although her grief is more restrained, it’s still a poignant backdrop to the second half of the film and Aishwarya gives Ariyanachi plenty of dignity along with amazing resilience and a determination that feels very real. Although it seems perhaps too obvious, the moment where Virumaandi contrasts the return of Sridevi’s body with the interminable red tape and delays that meet Ariyanachi’s every attempt to repatriate her husband’s body does make an impact, more so because he doesn’t dwell on the disparity but moves quickly on to the next problem.

Some parts of the story are overly dramatic which doesn’t seem necessary given that the underlying tale is poignant enough to not need any further embellishment. Many of the flashback scenes refer to farmers rights, but these work much better when shown as part of Ariyanachi’s life in the village. Similarly, the social issues tackled by the film are most effective when part of the story, such as when Ariyanachi struggles to prove that she is indeed married to Ranasingam since the couple have no legal documents to show that the marriage took place. These scenes are where the film really comes to life, and Aishwarya Rajesh ensures that every scene is realistic and completely believable.

Although there are issues with the film’s length and the incessant flashbacks, overall this is one that deserves to be seen. The emotional storyline is carried well by Aishwarya Rajesh and the support cast, while the social issues are clearly important to highlight in these days of increasingly politicised issues around water rights and the increasingly large international workforce. I wish there had been more of a focus on Ariyanachi’s story, but there is still a lot to enjoy in Ka Pae Ranasingam. Well worth watching for Aishwarya Rajesh, Vijay Sethupathi and an introduction to the issues surrounding the death of workers overseas. 3 ½ stars.