Sangathamizhan

Vijay Chandar’s latest film starts out as a spoof comedy, but ends up as a fairly run-of-the-mill mass entertainer by way of a tired romance and routine ‘villain versus the villagers’ plot. Vijay Sethupathi is always watchable, even in this clichéd action adventure, but the rest of the cast get short-changed by the screenplay, having little to do except either adore or loathe the lead character. There is plenty of action, comedy and even Vijay Sethupathi dancing, but by the end there really is little that makes Sangathamizhan stand out from the rather large pool of similar films.

The opening scene of the film typifies much of the first half. It’s a jumble of mass action and hero-centric plot with a mixed bag of comedy that generally works better than the dramatic dialogue. As aspiring actor Murugan, Vijay Sethupathi has a classic hero entrance before single-handedly reducing a gang of villains to groaning bodies on the floor, while his friend Soori (Soori) cracks a few jokes and performs the usual slapstick side-kick role. It works to some extent as neither Vijay nor Soori seem to be taking any of the dialogue seriously and there are a lot of sideways glances and self-referential jokes in the opening sequences. But the inclusion of a college girl who needs to be rescued from rape, some tasteless jokes about a group of prostitutes and rather humdrum action make this rather more cringeworthy than it needed to be, particularly for the start of the film.

The first half also includes a woeful romance with a truly terrible introduction scene for Kamalini (Raashi Khanna). Murugan crashes Kamalini’s birthday party and then proceeds to scold her for being so generous as to provide him with a free drink at the bar. Somehow this is supposed to make her intrigued by Murugan rather than acting as most women would in this situation and just calling for the bouncer to kick him out of the nightclub. At no point does the love affair between the rich industrialist’s daughter and out-of-work actor seem plausible despite the clichéd and formulaic development of the relationship. The only good thing about their romance is the inclusion of the upbeat and jaunty Kamala (which features men in colourful tutus as backing dancers), even though it doesn’t fit into the narrative at all. In fact, generally the music from Viviek-Mervin is excellent throughout, while the lyrics are beautifully translated by rekhs, who doesn’t just translate the words but makes the lyrics rhyme and scan perfectly. Why doesn’t everyone do this instead of providing literal translations that make absolutely no sense at all?

The plot begins with a courtroom scene where a group of villagers are trying to prevent a copper processing plant from opening in their area. The land appears to have been acquired illegally and for a change the judge seems to be on the villagers’ side, giving the developer just a few weeks to come up with evidence to prove that the factory won’t be a health risk to the villagers. This all becomes much clearer in the second half, which moves into flashback mode to explain the fight between the owner of the copper factory, Kamalini’s father (Ravi Kishan) and the village headman Devarajan (Nassar). Also drawn into the fight is the local politician (Ashutosh Rana) and the rest of Devraj’s family, including his son Sangathamizhan (Vijay Sethupathi).

The tone of the second half is much darker than the first, and from a frivolous romance comedy, it changes into a more dramatic action film. This disconnect between the two halves of the film is jarring as the shift happens suddenly (there is no interval given in Australia) and the mood change is relatively extreme.  Despite this, the second half is actually significantly better since it also includes Nivetha Pethuraj as Thenmozhi, Thamizhan’s romantic interest. Thenmozhi is a better realised character than Kamalini, despite her short time on-screen, with sharper dialogues and actions that actually make sense. Nivetha also has a good on-screen chemistry with Vijay in the romantic scenes between the two characters, which is a significant improvement on the lacklustre interactions he has with Raashi Khanna in the first half. The love story here is also more plausible, making me wonder why so much time was wasted earlier in the film, when the second half has a more convincing story, sharper action and generally improved performances from the entire cast. The main downside is Ravi Kishan’s rather anaemic villain who just doesn’t seem evil or ruthless enough, and Kamalini’s rather bizarre justification for accepting her father’s final fate.

The glue that manages to hold the entire film together (just) is Vijay Sethupathi and his frequent knowing nods to the camera seem to signify that he finds the entire story just as ridiculous as the audience. At times the film dips closely towards satire and throughout the first half I kept thinking that Vijay Chandar was trying to poke fun at the mass genre. But then the second half moves quickly towards more serious topics and the jokes dry up, along with Soori’s virtual disappearance from the screen as the film moves into more straight-up action territory. It doesn’t quite gel there either however as there is too much baggage hanging around from the first half that acts as a distraction. The two characters, Murugan and Thamizhan are also very similar which further undermines the dramatic ‘reveal’ of the finale. The positives are the music, Vijay Sethupathi and rekhs excellent subtitles, but otherwise this is a rather pedestrian and predictable outing that is really one only for fans.

Sindhubaadh

 

Sindhubaadh

S.U. Arun Kumar previously teamed up with Vijay Sethupathi for the excellent Pannaiyarum Padminiyum and police-drama Sethupathi, both of which had well developed and slightly off-beat stories with an interesting array of characters. It’s disappointing then, that in Sindhubaadh, he’s come up with a disjointed story and characters who don’t seem to know exactly who they are supposed to be. Thankfully, Vijay Sethupathi is excellent and his presence, along with a strong performance from his son Surya Vijay Sethupathi is enough to keep the first half of the film engaging, but things go rather more pear-shaped in the second half.

Vijay Sethupathi is Thiru, a petty street thief who is hearing impaired. He lives with his adopted son Super (Surya Vijay Sethupathi), although the actual story behind their relationship is shrouded in various tales they spin Thiru’s uncle (George Maryan). Thiru’s lack of hearing allows him to sidestep his uncle’s attempts to sell their house to grab some fast cash and their tussles provide some of the comedy in the first half. Thiru is a pretty laid-back guy who doesn’t seem to have too many problems with his deafness and seems happy to continue on his slightly crooked path through life. Super is a perfect side-kick and his high spirits offset Thiru’s more relaxed approach to life.

Meanwhile Venba (Anjali) has returned from Malaysia where she’s been working in a rubber plantation to pay off family debt. Her family are trying to arrange her marriage but Venba’s loud strident voice puts off potential suitors. For the hearing impaired Thiru though, she’s the one person he can hear easily and he instantly falls in love with her voice. But Venba isn’t interested in marrying a thief, leading Thiru to try and change her mind by the tried and trusted method of stalking and harassment. And, as only ever happens in the world of movies, this tactic works – and now it’s Venba’s family who aren’t impressed with the prospect of a thief for a son-in-law. By this stage though Venba is quite prepared to sacrifice her family for a man she despised only a song or so ago, and she returns to Malaysia just to finish up her job there, promising to be back in a couple of days.

Unfortunately for Venba, the corrupt owners of the rubber plantation where she was employed are involved with a much larger criminal gang. When she arrives back in the country she’s sold to a consortium who are involved in the skin trade, with a more literal meaning than usual. Venba manages to get word to Thiru who sets off for foreign shores using the name Sindhubaadh in his fake passport with Super in tow. But this is where the story starts to break down. There are way too many coincidences that are used to patch over the gaping plot holes as Thiru crosses Thailand and into Cambodia in the search for Venba. Along the way, Thiru just happens to meet people who can both speak Tamil and point him in the right direction, including Vivek Prasanna who is trying to buy back his daughter from the same gang. There’s also a Tamil speaking police-man and the chief villain, Ling (Linga) coincidentally is a Tamilian adopted into the Thai gang.

Ling is a typical caricature of a bad guy who has a big build up as a vicious and remorseless killer, but ultimately ends up fairly ineffectual, resorting to screaming threats and petulant displays of bad temper. The mullet really doesn’t help either. Also strange is Thiru’s sudden emergence as a mass-style hero who can easily vanquish the thugs who stand between him and Venba. He’s a one-man army as he develops sophisticated traps, kills his opponents with a quick twist of the neck and survives everything that is thrown at him. At one point, Super throws a stone at a 4WD which flies through the window, hits the driver and causes the entire car to flip over. And that’s not even the most ridiculous part of that entire scene. It’s just all too much of a change from the easy-going persona of the first half and the continual coincidences just make the story even more ridiculous.

There are some good points though. Despite the clichéd romantic plotline, Anjali and Vijay have excellent chemistry together, and Anjali is good as the capable but loud Venba. It’s unfortunate that she has less to do in the second half, but she excels at looking terrified and at least she does get a chance to fight back. The best relationship though is that of Thiru and Super, and there is a wonderfully joyful camaraderie that shines out of everything they do together. Their father/son dynamic translates well into the story and Surya is developing into a fine actor. His comedic timing in particular is fantastic here, and his cheeky grin perfectly suits his character. In reality it’s this dynamic and the scenes between father and son that keeps the film from total disintegration in the second half.

Another plus point is a brief but well written scene with a prostitute who was one of the women seen working with Venba earlier in the film. She has information for Thiru and unexpectedly S.U. Arun Kumar treats their interaction sensitively with reactions from Thiru that are much more in keeping with his earlier persona. Sadly, it doesn’t last, and we’re quickly back to the mayhem and slaughter, but it does show that there are some good ideas here despite the lack of overall cohesion.

I really wanted to like this film. There is the makings of a decent story hidden under all the unnecessary travels across SE Asia, poorly utilised hearing impairment and extravagant Thai gangster plot. Vijay, Surya and Anjali are all excellent and make their characters engaging despite the inconsistencies in behaviour. It’s also encouraging to see a film about people trafficking that isn’t voyeuristic but gets across the horror of being treated like a commodity and the fear that prevents escape, even if that’s mostly subsumed under the action adventure. Technically too, the film has been well put together and the subtitles by Aarthi are clearly visible and grammatically correct.  What lets the film down is the screenplay which just doesn’t come together once the story leaves India and all the extra threads to the story that mainly just add confusion. Sindhubaadh ends up as a formulaic mass action film that isn’t terrible but doesn’t have any of the magic expected from the pairing of Arun Kumar and Vijay Sethupathi. Worth watching once for the father and son relationship that genuinely lights up the screen.

 

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