Pudhupettai (2006)

Pudhupettai

Pudhupettai is Selvaraghavan’s ode to gangster life, telling the story of the rise and fall of Kokki Kumar in the slums of Chennai. It’s brutal and violent, and for the most part Selva doesn’t give his ‘hero’ any redeeming features making this a departure from most other Tamil gangster flicks. At the end of the day, the only real priority for Kumar is himself and trying to keep himself alive, which reflects the film’s tagline ‘survival of the fittest’. The film is shot almost like a documentary, following the wandering path of Kumar’s life rather than having a distinct narrative, and it’s this realism and attention to the details of the characters and their harsh lives that makes Pudhupettai such a fascinating watch.

The film opens with Kokki Kumar (Dhanush) in jail. He seems disorientated, perhaps mentally ill, as he shouts out for anyone who might be listening to him. These opening shots feature Kumar in green with contrasting red light from outside the cell, further isolating him and accentuating his odd behaviour. This colour scheme replicates throughout the film, maybe to illustrate Kumar’s almost split personality but it’s also used to highlight important moments in his life. It’s part of how Selva pulls the story together, using images and brief vignettes rather than long drawn out scenes to develop his characters.

The film then moves to a flashback of Kumar’s early life in the slums of Pudhupettai. He seems a typical young man as flirts with girls and is chastised by his mother for dancing in the streets rather than hurrying off to school. However, violence is never far away. His father is violently abusive and finally one night Kumar returns to find his mother has been murdered by his father. Fearing for his own life, Kumar flees onto the streets to try to make his own way in the world.

He’s not terribly successful at this and eventually turns to begging in the streets where he is accidentally picked up by the police during a raid on drug sellers operating under local thug Anbu (Bala Singh). Anbu’s men take Kumar under their wing and introduce him to their boss, managing to secure him a spot in their gang. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi has a small role here as one of the gang, and there are a few other familiar faces including Aadukalam Murugadoss who also pop up in the background.

Kumar gradually learns how to be a gangster and there is some good humour worked into the scenes where he learns how to use a machete and case the scene before a crime. He also has a mean temper and when backed into a corner by a rival gang lead by Murthy (Prudhviraj) he fights back, killing Murthy’s brother and turning Murthy into an enemy for life. The film follows Kumar as he meets and falls in love with prostitute Krishnaveni (Sneha) and subsequently takes over the area from Anbu after killing his former boss in a dispute over his treatment of Krishnaveni.

Kumar has grand ambitions and with the gang behind him he takes Anbu’s place working for corrupt politician Thamizhselvan (Azhagam Perumal). The body count rises as Thamizhselvan commissions murders and Kumar steadily makes inroads into Murthy’s territory. But then Kumar sees Selvi (Sonia Agarwal), the sister of his main henchman Mani, and he falls instantly in lust. Forgetting Krishnaveni he marries Selvi instead of the real groom at her wedding and immediately has another enemy out for his blood. Mani joins forces with Murthy and the two conspire to bring Kumar down.

This is the seedy side of gangster life and Selva shows the grubby political deals and bloody in-fighting between the rival gangs as something to be expected, rather than as exceptions to the rule. No-one comes out of this looking good and Kumar in particular is not a nice man. At first there seems to be some attempt to explain Kumar’s violent tendencies on his early experiences, but during a drinking session with the gang one night, it’s revealed that everyone has a similar story. It’s even a source of entertainment for the gang as they each tell their stories of abuse and murder and decide who has the funniest story.

It then seems as if there may be some compassion in Kumar when he fights Anbu for Krishnaveni’s freedom, but this doesn’t ever seem to be a grand passion or even much of a love story at all, and Kumar tends to treat Krishnaveni more as a possession rather than a lover. He’s able to completely ignore her when he sees Selvi and isn’t at all bothered by Krishnaveni’s attempt to leave him, until she announces that she is pregnant. That of course makes all the difference, and this is the one part of the film where Kumar genuinely seems to care for someone else. The birth of his son is a momentous event in his life, which makes his son’s loss later in the film more effective than expected.

There are signs that Kumar might be a better man than first appears when he takes on cases where the local people have been affected by corruption and crime after overthrowing Anbu. But this appearance of trying to help the poor turns out to be just an easy way to develop a power base and get support – something that Kumar needs if he wants to further his political ambitions and make a name for himself. I love how each time Kumar seems to be acting more responsibly it’s shown to be just another way to make sure he comes out on top. The pragmatism and cunning he shows seem to be reasonable requirements for someone who aspires to be a top politician, while the extreme violence and disregard for human life explain why Kumar makes such a good gangster.

Throughout, Dhanush is excellent despite a tendency to overact in the prison scenes where he has to explain his story directly to the audience. His transformation from a scared adolescent to a violent and cold-blooded criminal is brilliantly achieved, and his tendency to become completely feral when he loses his temper gives the character a chilling authenticity. Here is someone with few morals, who decides what they want and then goes ahead and takes it without worrying about the consequences or the possible price. Sneha does a fantastic job with the character of Krishnaveni and gives her dignity and grace despite her profession and her association with the gang. Krishnaveni seems to genuinely love Kumar, although some of this may be gratitude for helping her escape the brothel, but she brings some normalcy into the storyline and provides a good contrast to all the violence. She’s not completely innocent either and her entrapment of Kumar by mentioning her pregnancy after he marries Selvi is a clever twist, as is Selvi’s nasty dig when she points out that Kumar can’t be sure that the baby is his. It all rings true and despite the buckets of blood and excessive use of knives (check out Kumar’s impressive machete storage cupboard!) this doesn’t seem to be too fantastical a story. The characters all seem plausible too, particularly in the way they let their petty squabbles and problems spill over to affect the whole area.

The rest of the cast are uniformly good too – Sonia Agarwal has less to do than Sneha but she is excellent as the reluctant bride, while Azhagam Perumal has so many backflips that it’s a wonder he can work out which way to look at the camera. Clever writing and good dialogue ensure that everyone has a role to play while the good performances mean it all flows beautifully.

The film is enhanced by excellent cinematography from Arvind Krishna, who makes Chennai look stunningly beautiful one moment and then grimly ugly, just as Selva juxtaposes Kumar’s dreams with the harsh reality of life as a gangster. The songs and background music by Yuvan Shankar Raja also suit the film well with the songs seamlessly flowing into the dialogue and some hauntingly beautiful instrumentals.

At almost 3 hours Pudhupettai is a long film and at times it does tend to drift into indulgent territory, but then it’s so well made that it’s hard to complain. This is a film that seems to get better and better with repeated viewings as more of the story becomes clear. As with most Selvaraghavan’s films, the subject matter is dark and his characters flawed, but the subject matter here suits this type of delivery and as a whole the film works very well indeed. Not one for the squeamish given the preponderance of edged weapons and gory bloodshed but for anyone who enjoys a gangster film, this is one of the best. 4½ stars.

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Karuppan (2017)

Karuppan

After recently watching Rekka, Karuppan feels rather familiar with another foray into ‘mass’ territory for Vijay Sethupathi. R. Panneerselvam’s film is a standard plod through family relationships in a village near Madurai that fails to bring anything new into the genre, despite a few good ideas that unfortunately fizzle out midway through. Vijay Sethupathi, Tanya and Bobby Simha all do justice to their roles, but unfortunately the film lacks the fire it needed to make this a more compelling watch.

The story is set around the time of Jalikkattu and features a number of scenes involving bull wrestling. I really hope that the opening credits had the usual advice that ‘no animals were harmed during the making of this film’ but since everything was in Tamil with no translation I really couldn’t be sure (although these scenes did mainly seem to be CGI). I’m aware that Jalikkattu is a big thing in Tamil Nadu, but from the footage shown here the whole thing seems rather pointless to me and wasn’t at all enjoyable to watch. The reason for including Jalikkattu is that Maayi (Pasupathy) has a bull in the competition and decides that it would be a good idea to wager his sister’s hand in marriage to the man who manages to win the contest. Naturally the hero of the hour is Karuppan (Vijay Sethupathi) who wins the wrestling medal and the hand of Anbuselvi (Tanya) when he manages to make Maayi’s bull fall over.

Needless to say Anbu is not happy about her prospective groom and the method her brother has used to decide on the match, but like any good Tamil girl she threatens to kill herself if Maayi forces her into marriage. By this point I was ready to walk out – surely not even Vijay Sethupathi was going to be able to salvage this one, but then there was a twist to the story and it started to get more interesting. (Mild spoilers ahead)

Maayi had previously matched Anbu and Karuppan’s horoscopes and had already decided that he would be the perfect husband for Anbu, while Anbu had seen Karuppan take a stand against a seller of blue films and liked him for his values. And possibly also for his rather impressive moustache – sadly no subtitles for the songs means I may have made that part up, but it seems just as plausible (it is a magnificent moustache)! So, after a brief song and dance to introduce the prospective bride and groom, Anbu declares that she is ready to marry Karuppan just as soon as he can be convinced that the wedding is not solely due to his winning of a wager. Karuppan has the previously mentioned values you see and doesn’t take the wager seriously.

Unfortunately for the future happiness of the couple, there is a potential cloud on the horizon. Kathir (Bobby Simha), Maayi’s brother-in-law, had his heart set on marrying Anbu and when he can’t persuade Maayi that the whole wager idea is wrong, he decides to break the couple up by any means he can. Kathir is a sneaky villain and rather than gathering a gang of men to beat Karuppan into submission straight away, he goes for subtle and insidious goading of Maayi and the other villagers. This is done well with the odd piece of gossip dropped into the conversation, a nudge on one of the villager’s shoulders during a town meeting to get him to say his (obviously pre-prepared) piece and plenty of slanderous hints dropped around the village. Kathir is sweetly two-faced too, supporting Karuppan and speaking well of him to his face, but back-stabbing him as much as possible behind the scenes, and Bobby Simha does an excellent job of making this all seem very plausible.

Karuppan doesn’t help the situation by falling into Kathir’s traps which include getting outrageously drunk and insulting his in-laws at a temple function for his marriage. Kathir ensures that one of the people insulted by Karuppan is local gangster Varusanadu Sadha (Sharath Lohitashwa), setting Karuppan up to be dealt with by the gang if Kathir’s other plans fail to break up the marriage. Bobby Simha is very good here and he ensures his character has no redeeming characteristics. He keeps the characterisation low-key but effective to deliver a rather less physical but no less nasty villain.

Anbu is frustrated by her new husband’s failure to keep on the straight and narrow and when an estrangement occurs between her brother and her husband, she’s back to trying to kill herself without making any attempt at reconciliation. Sigh. Thankfully, apart from her suicide attempts, Anbu is a sensible and down to earth character, so there is hope that the whole situation can be resolved – after a major fight scene of course.

What works well here is the relationship between Karuppan and Anbu which quickly develops despite the unconventional betrothal. Vijay and Tanya have good chemistry together, while the mix of love scenes and quarrelling is typical of any couple trying to make a life together. One of the standout scenes is when Karuppan learns that Anbu is pregnant and his joy and happiness are perfectly portrayed. Vijay Sethupathi fits well into the role of a blustering but good-hearted farmer who adores his mother and his new wife, and he ensures the emotional scenes are effective without being too over the top.

Also good are the interactions between Karuppan and his uncle (Singampuli), particularly as they indulge in old Tamil film song karaoke together when drunk. They enact the different male and female roles, mouth the words and generally amuse the crowd with their antics in a couple of sequences that are very well put together.

Anbu is an interesting and generally strong character, although I couldn’t understand why her first impulse was to kill herself every time she ran into a bit of bother. Unlike most film heroines, Anbu isn’t afraid to let her husband know that she finds him attractive and she has enough confidence in their relationship to handle the ups and downs of Karuppan’s drinking. She’s decisive and doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations in her marital relationship and in effect she is a much better ‘bull-tamer’ than Karuppan could ever be, particularly since the bull she is taming is Karuppan himself. So, it doesn’t make sense that she isn’t able to deal with the issues between Karuppan and Maayi and effectively discourages the two from talking to each other. Or that she doesn’t confront Karuppan more directly in the second half of the film and slap some sense into him, as she does in the first half.

The film starts badly, gets steadily better throughout the first half, but loses its way in the second before an unexciting and overly contrived finale. The songs from D. Imman are good and mainly well placed, although the lack of subtitles made them less effective for me given that at least two were used to move the narrative forwards. The best are pictured on Vijay Sethupathi and Tanya, although Vijay does some inspired uncle dancing which is definitely a highlight!

Karuppan has an interesting heroine, a more complicated than usual villain and a charming hero, so it should work better than it does. Despite the good characterisations, the story itself is pedestrian with everyone tending to behave quite traditionally despite the set-up suggesting more unconventional approaches. However, still worth watching for the chemistry between Vijay and Tanya, an excellent take on a sneaky villain and those uncle dances.

Rekka (2016)

Rathina Shiva’s 2016 film is a by-the-numbers mass action film that relies heavily on Vijay Sethupathi’s charm and ability to fully inhabit a character, but still fails to deliver a completely engaging story. Rekka mixes the usual masala ingredients with a plot about a crusading lawyer on a mission to unite couples in love, but there is nothing here that hasn’t been done many times before. What does make the film worth a look is the spectacle of Vijay Sethupathi acting his way through a typical hero role complete with dramatic walking, slow-mo fight scenes and big song and dance numbers. Simply – Rekka is Vijay does mass!

The story follows Shiva (Vijay Sethupathi) as he kidnaps reluctant brides on their wedding day and reunites them with their one true love. Surprisingly he seems to find a large number of separated lovers in Kumbakonam and everyone seems to think that Vijay is performing a fine civic service with his matrimonial kidnapping business. However, he seems to have made a mistake when he kidnaps the wife-to-be of local gangster David (Harish Uthaman) who turns up at Shiva’s family home to discover exactly who has run off with his fiancée. David has more reasons to make him unhappy as his rival Cheliyan (Kabir Duhan Singh) has killed David’s younger brother, apparently as a way to up the feud between them. It seems an odd reason to take a life, but that’s not the most irrational plot point by a long way.

Shiva and his father Ratnam (K.S. Ravikumar) have seen David slaughter someone in cold blood in downtown Kumbakonam, so they know exactly what kind of person they are dealing with. With Shiva’s sister Kavitha getting married, David has the perfect opportunity for revenge with the result that Shiva agrees to kidnap a girl from Madurai and bring her to David as his new wife. What Shiva doesn’t know is that the girl, Bharathi (Lakshmi Menon) is engaged to Cheliyan and her father Manivasagam is a corrupt politician with an army of thugs of his own. Added in to all of this are the mysteries of Mala (Sija Rose), who appears to Shiva as a hallucination, and Selvam (Kishore), a down and out doctor that Shiva tries to help.

So far the story isn’t too bad. Standard masala fare but the fight scenes are fun with plenty of gravity defying, 4WD smashing antics and although Vijay Sethupathi looks awkward and uncomfortable in the big dance numbers, he looks much more at ease in the action sequences. However, things go downhill fast when he travels to Madurai and finds the girl he has to kidnap. Lakshmi Menon’s Bharathi is a few shillings short of a pound and literally just sets eyes on Shiva for a few seconds before deciding that he is the love of her life. Well, okay, I get that it’s Vijay and he is pretty cool, but Bharathi just looks and leaps into elopement without any more thought than a lemming when faced with a cliff.

A few seconds later and we see where Bharathi gets her craziness from, as her mother’s reaction to her proposed elopement is a directive to make sure she says goodbye to her grandmother. No, just no – anyone that ditsy would want the full-blown wedding experience even if she was the daughter of some bigwig in Madurai and already engaged to a ruthless gangster. Especially if she was the daughter of some bigwig in Madurai! Nothing about the whole elopement seems right and the developing love story between Bharathi and Shiva is hindered by the lack of chemistry between the two actors. Shiva just wants to get back his sister’s wedding and be done with the crazy lady, while Bharathi seems too mentally unhinged to know what she actually wants. None of it makes any sense, but then that is the beauty of mass masala – it doesn’t need to make sense!

There’s still the mystery of Mala, and the second half has a flashback sequence to explain why Shiva goes around stealing brides and why he feels so guilty about Selvam. It’s rather long winded and since Mala and Selvam are more peripheral characters, Rathina Shiva spends more time than seems necessary on this part of the story. The flashback does tie up a few loose ends but since it really doesn’t matter why Shiva kidnaps reluctant brides, it seems to be a needless diversion from the main story.

Lakshmi Menon’s Bharathi is disturbingly manic and makes some bad choices that further reduce the characters credibility. No-one could ever really be that dim as to run away with someone they had just met unless they were really in desperate circumstances, and Bharathi doesn’t appear to be distressed by her upcoming engagement at all. There is a vague explanation later, but it’s not particularly persuasive so for the most part I kept thinking Shiva needed to cut his losses and run far, far away.

Vijay Sethupathi really is the saving grace of the film and his presence makes up for a lot of the inadequacies of the script and screenplay. Somehow, even though he’s playing a mass hero, Vijay still finds moments where he is an ‘actor’ rather than a hero, with the result that Shiva is a more appealing character than expected. His introduction scene has him playing chess, not the usual activity of choice for most action heroes, and he has some good emotional bonding moments with his father. This is his film all the way, and he makes his character work, no matter how ludicrous the situation. He’s better than expected in the slo-mo walking scenes and absolutely fabulous in the fight sequences where he twirls villains around his head like batons and systematically smashes them into SUV’s, street stalls piles of boxes and any other staple mass prop that happens to be around.

The rest of the cast has less to do, but Harish Uthaman is fine as a generic snarling bad guy, although even though he has less screen time, Kabir Duhan Singh does appear more frightening and genuinely nasty in his role as Cheliyan. Sathish pops up as Shiva’s friend Keerai and is good in a role that requires him to tone down the comedy. D. Imman’s music is OK, but doesn’t make me want to re-listen to the soundtrack, while everything else about the film is pretty much as standard for a mass movie.

This isn’t a Vikram Vedha or even a Sethupathi, but it is a Vijay Sethupathi film and that makes it a touch above standard mass fare. A less demented heroine would have helped immensely but the standard story of good guy vs bad guy still works despite the distractions Rathina Shiva throws in the way. Not Vijay’s best film in 2016, but still worth a watch to see him in full-on mass hero persona wiping the floor with assorted bad guys and gangsters, while still keeping his trademark sweet smile. 3 stars.