Vikram Vedha

Vikram Vedha

It’s rare that a Tamil film gets a round of applause from a Melbourne audience, but that’s exactly what happened at the end of Vikram Vedha last night. And well-deserved applause it was too. Pushkar-Gayathri’s crime drama pits a righteous police officer against a ruthless criminal, but the line between the two rapidly becomes blurred with a series of moral dilemmas that throw Vikram’s beliefs into question. Both Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi are outstanding and with a well-written story, clever dialogue and insightful characterisations, Vikram Vedha is an absolute gem of a film and definitely one not to be missed.

Madhavan’s Vikram is a member of a police task force whose mission is to remove notorious gangster Vedha (Vijay Sethupathi) and his men from the streets. Vikram is totally convinced that he is on the side of the angels and that the men he kills deserve to die, which as he continually states, means that he has no problem sleeping soundly at night. However, almost immediately Vikram hits some dodgy moral ground when he shoots in cold-blood one of the gangsters who tried to surrender and then reworks a crime scene to his team’s advantage. Already Vikram doesn’t seem quite as shiny white as he wants the world to believe, although as a police officer he stills stands on the right side of the law.

Vedha continues to elude Vikram and his men, resulting in a planned raid into the area of North Chennai where Vedha is rumoured to be hiding out. As the numerous police officers and riot police are gearing up, ready for action, Vedha calmly walks into the police station and surrenders. As entrances go, this has to be one of the best, particularly since no-one seems to recognise the gangster until he sets off the metal detector alarm as he walks into the building. Vijay Sethupathi is always good in the role of a gangster, but his swaggering Vedha is brilliantly executed here with exactly the right amount of confidence and bravado to suit a character who calmly surrenders to a room full of armed police.

Vedha’s surrender seems like sure suicide, but he’s planned everything well in advance, and without any evidence the police can’t hold him. However once faced with Vikram in a cell, Vedha starts to tell him a story which ends with a moral conundrum. The question posed at the end starts to lead Vikram to realise that the world isn’t as black and white as his and Vedha’s respective shirts, and that sometimes the identity of the bad guy is not as clear-cut as first seems.

Vedha is released by his lawyer who happens to be Vikram’s wife Priya (Shraddha Srinath) which leads to another moral dilemma for Vikram. What do you do when your wife is representing the criminal you’re trying to kill in an encounter? Priya is a strong character who won’t back down and refuses to let her husband destroy her first chance to make a name for herself in Chennai. The scenes where the two work to resolve their fundamental differences in opinion and approach to Vedha are brilliantly written and work well as another factor in Vikram’s gradual realisation that good and bad are just relative terms.

As the film progresses, Vedha manages to tell Vikram another two stories, always ending with a question about what is the ‘right’ action to take in each situation and that Vikram struggles to answer. The situation becomes more and more tense after Vikram’s best friend Simon (Prem) is killed during the investigation and Vikram is desperate to know why Simon died. But as Vedha’s tales seem to be leading Vikram to a greater understanding and may hold the clue to why Simon died, they also add more and more grey into his previously monochrome view of the world.

Vikram Vedha

Each story is told in flashback and introduces a number of key characters including Vedha’s younger brother Puli (Kathir) one of the men shot by Vikram in the raid at the start. Varalaxmi Sarathkumar plays Puli’s wife Chandra, another strong character whose behaviour as a child is an excellent foreshadowing of her actions as an adult. I loved her character, particularly when her immediate reaction to Puli slapping her was to slap him back straight away, and her down to earth attitude was wonderfully normal in the middle of all the intrigue and drama associated with Vedha and his gang.

Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi work together brilliantly and the chemistry between the two is the main reason why the film works so well. Madhavan is perfect as the gravel-voiced cop who strongly believes that he is always right (and good), while Vijay Sethupathi completely gets into the skin of a Chennai gangster out for revenge. The short flashbacks are beautifully put together to highlight the main clues, but there are so many twists that the final outcome is kept relatively obscured until close to the end. Kudos to the make-up team who successfully aged the characters naturally and the wardrobe team who managed to find so many different shades of grey for Vikram and Vedha as the story progressed! The shift in clothing sounds really obvious, but it’s done subtly and is more effective than it sounds, particularly as the changes echo the shift in Vikram’s thinking. The premise of what is good, what is bad, and how can we really tell is intertwined throughout every part of the film which also works well to highlight the change in perception Vikram undergoes as he learns more about Vedha and his life.

It’s not just the storyline and the performances that make the film so watchable. P.S. Vinod’s cinematography is excellent while the background score by Sam C.S. enhances the action without becoming intrusive. The songs fit surprisingly well into the narrative without disrupting the action and of course  it’s always a treat to watch Vijay Sethupathi shake a leg – especially as part of a drunken gangster party!

Vikram Vedha is such a clever film, but Pushkar-Gayathri never get too carried away by their own brilliance and keep the underlying story simple. The mixture of morality, crime thriller, action and suspense are expertly blended together without making the central debate of good vs bad either preachy or clichéd. I totally enjoyed every single minute of Vikram Vedha and it’s definitely a top contender for my favourite film of the year. Simply perfect!

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Kavan (2017)

Kavan

K.V.Anand doesn’t tread any new ground with his latest film Kavan, revisiting a theme of land and water contamination by big business that’s been seen many times before. But rather than making another ‘message’ or pure action film, here we are firmly in masala territory, and that’s what helps make Kavan such a watchable film. It’s set in the world of television and journalism where breaking news is the key to big ratings and in this new post-truth world of alternative facts, the machinations of one TV station to keep ahead of the competition don’t appear quite as far-fetched as they may have done a few months ago. Writers K.V. Anand, Subha and Kabilan Vairamuthu have come up with an entertaining screenplay and some excellent dialogue that drive the story along despite numerous diversions. With great performances from Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian, Kavan is more engaging and enjoyable than expected, even with the 160 minute run-time.

Vijay Sethupathi is Thilak, the only student in his class who wants to make documentaries rather than work in films or TV which immediately identifies him as someone more interested in facts and the truth than entertainment. However, he ends up working at Zen TV, alongside his former girlfriend Malar (Madonna Sebastian) who doesn’t want a bar of him after their acrimonious break-up. Initially Thilak does well, impressing channel owner Kalyan (Akashdeep Saighal) with his novel approach, but it doesn’t take long until Thilak’s moral stance gets him into trouble. Kalyan is prepared to put anything on-screen as long as it will lift ratings and he isn’t above manufacturing news either. Alongside corrupt politician Dheeran Maniarasu (Bose Venkat) he spins facts out of all semblance of the truth to promote Dheeran Maniarasu’s political career and his own TV channel. The inevitable clash comes about due to Dheeran Maniarasu’s involvement with a chemical company which is polluting the local area.

Activists Mira and Abdul (Vikranth Santhosh) are friends of Malar who fall foul of the politician and his rowdies and their subsequent search for justice sees Thilak and his friends leaving Zen TV for good. They team up with Mayilvaganan (T. Rajendar) who has a small struggling TV channel and start their campaign to broadcast the truth.

Now, initially I found Rajendar’s comedy jarring and out of sync with the slick styling of the rest of the film, but as the story moves on, and Malar and Thilak start to work with Mayilvaganan, his eccentricities become more relevant and I found his scenes to be really funny. His routine may not change, but Rajendar is good at what he does and that can be very effective, especially as here when administered in small measured doses.

The move to Mayilvaganan TV has the added bonus of demonstrating how to renovate on a budget, if you should ever feel the need to know, and of course the new revamped channel starts to become popular as it spreads the true story of Dheeran Maniarasu’s various corrupt practices.

The story plans out exactly as expected but there is a good mix of drama, comedy, action, and just the smallest amount of romance as Malar and Thilak put aside their differences. Despite the total lack of surprises, the film keeps us interested by keeping the story topical – there are mentions of recent events such as demonetisation and the Chennai floods – and adding plenty of good snappy dialogue. Vijay Sethupathi is always very watchable and he excels yet again, ensuring that his character’s belief in truth and honesty in reporting never come across as preachy or too sanitised. No matter how ridiculous the plot (running through woodland carrying a camera chasing a car and still managing to arrive in time to catch the action for instance), it somehow always seems possible in the face of Vijay’s absolute confidence and sincere belief in the role he is playing. He looks the part of a journalist, and I loved the brief glimpse of laser eye-correction surgery to ditch his glasses before he went on-air as a talk show host. Shame though as he looks good in specs!

Madonna Sebastian too is charming and plays the role of a modern career woman well. Her early scenes with Vijay are brilliant and I liked Malar’s gradual realisation that actually Thilak wasn’t such a bad guy after all. For a commercial entertainer this is a better than usual female role where Malar isn’t just the love interest, but has a reasonably substantial part to play in the story too. The romance too is very low-key and more an acknowledgement that the two are in a relationship rather than the more usual excuse for a flurry of songs. This is pretty much all of the romance in the film – nicely condensed into one song from Hiphop Tamizha.

The friends, including a rather subdued Jagan, are all good too, although they don’t have much to do for most of the film. Vikranth Santhosh stands out as the activist and his impassioned appeals for justice come across as more heartfelt and sincere than expected for a masala film.

As in Ayan, Akashdeep Saighal as the villain is the weak link for me, although this is likely due to the sketchiness of his character. All the hair tossing and posing suit the character of a TV mogul better at any rate and his acting has improved slightly, but I didn’t buy into the character of Kalyan at all. Bose Venkat is much better as the corrupt politician and does appear appropriately duplicitous throughout the film. It’s often the villain that lets these films down, but since it’s the policies of Kalyan rather than the character that Thilak and Malar are fighting, it’s not as important that Kalyan fails to make much of an impression.

Basically Kavan is a masala entertainer that doesn’t pretend to be anything ese. There is never any sense that the film is trying to be a serious exposé of the TV industry, or that the various feminist, Hindu-Muslim brotherhood or land right speeches are meant to generate a response; it’s simply a story to enjoy in the theatre with a box of popcorn. It is overlong and there are a number of diversions that aren’t at all necessary but the dialogue is good, the performances generally excellent and the masala mix is just about right. Worth watching for Vijay Sethupathi, Madonna Sebastian and a vision of alternative facts that’s perhaps a tad more realistic than may have been planned.

Iraivi (2016)

Iraivi

Karthik Subbaraj’s third film is rather darker than his previous two, with less comedy and a serious theme about women who have to endure the poor decisions of weak men. It’s a film where the female characters are defined by the men, and the story is told through male eyes although the women generally are stronger and less flawed than their husbands. While the relationships are the core of the film, there is an overlying story that involves theft, murder and deception and although it’s another excellent film from Karthik, I kept thinking throughout that this would have been more powerful if he had shown more of the women’s viewpoint. However, highlighting the flaws in his male characters and ensuring that they don’t appear heroic is in itself a departure from the norm in Indian cinema, as is focusing on the plight of the women trapped in realistically troubled relationships. In Iraivi, Karthik has made another film that is not easy to define but one which will hopefully start conversations and make audiences think a little harder about the definition of abuse.

The film starts and ends with the women, even beginning and finishing with the same image of a hand outstretched in the rain. The rain is used throughout as a metaphor for freedom, with each of the women expressing a wish to stand in the rain and get ‘drenched’. In the images and dialogue shown over the opening credits, Ponni (Anjali) is a schoolgirl, with the acknowledged somewhat old-fashioned dream of making a good marriage and living the rest of her life in domestic bliss. Vazhini (Kamalinee Mukherjee) is shown to be a strong and confident woman who has defied her family to marry the man she loves while Meenakshi (Vadivukkarasi) is upset by her husband’s demeaning attitude towards her, which has been an unceasing constant throughout their life together.

When we next see Yazhini and Meenakshi, each has been changed by the men around them, while we get to see Ponni’s transformation during the story. Meenakshi has had some kind of fall and/or stroke. She is reaction-less in a bed in hospital and her two sons, Arul (S.J. Surya) and Jagan (Bobby Simha) blame their father Dass (Radha Ravi). He admits to being the cause of his wife’s hospitalisation, but despite the fact that she never moves and never speaks, Meenakshi has become their focus for any of the problems Arul and Jagan face. No matter that she cannot communicate, she is still their mother and that bond is as strong as always.

Yazhini is married to Arul, a film director whose last film is being held hostage by his producer after the two had a falling out. Arul is living in limbo until he can secure his film’s and has become an alcoholic as a result. He gets into fights in bars when drunk but is not physically abusive to his wife and daughter, but instead subjects them to his mood swings and depression, and the general uncertainty of living with an alcoholic. S.J. Surya is excellent in his portrayal of a weak and selfish man who cannot cope with his loss and has become bitter and completely self-absorbed in his misery. Kamalini too is very good in a role that captures well how many women become trapped by their circumstances. She threatens Arul with divorce but at the same time still loves her husband and tries very hard to be as supportive as she can. However, Arul’s alcoholism and refusal to move beyond his own self-pity makes it difficult to Yazhini to see any other recourse other than to leave, taking their daughter with her. The dialogues between the two are excellent, and the sense of frustration and despair from both Arul and Yazhini underpins every scene. As the story unfolds, it’s Yazhini who emerges as the winner, able to change and adapt she moves on with her life while Arul is stuck in the same self-destructive pattern. Even after going to rehab, his selfish nature has not changed and everything is still about getting his film released – even losing his wife isn’t enough of a jolt to dislodge him from the familiar rut of self-pity and single-minded focus on his film above all else.

Michael (Vijay Sethupathi) grown up with Arul and Jagan and considers them as family with Arul as his best friend. He is in love with a young widow Malar (Pooja Dewariya) but she has no interest in anything other than a physical relationship and rejects his proposals of marriage. Malar is an interesting character – she is a woman who knows what she wants and is not bothered about societies perception of her behaviour, but I felt that there was something rather contrived about her character and despite Pooja’s best efforts, Malar didn’t quite ring true for me compared to the other characters.

When Michael’s parents arrange a marriage with Ponni he callously informs her on their wedding night that he has been forced into the marriage and can never be the man of her dreams. Her female relatives advise her that this is usually the case, but that Michael will change with marriage, however when Ponni tries to engage with Michael he shuts her out at every opportunity. In almost every scene with Michael or Ponni there are background details or snippets of dialogue which seem to foreshadow their relationship. When it seems that Ponni’s preganancy might be the turning point in their relationship, Michael is arrested and sent to prison, leaving Ponni to deliver and bring up her baby by herself. It’s again brilliantly written to illustrate the effect on Ponni as the happy-go-lucky school girl is transformed into a weary and accepting mother, managing to cope as best she can. Anjali is fantastic throughout and the dialogue again is perfectly written to illustrate the difficulties of women in what is a fairly typical relationship, no matter where in the world or whatever the cultural background. Vijay Sethupathi is on top form too as a man who is easily led by his friends and finds it difficult to admit to mistakes, even though at heart he isn’t a bad person.

The third character in the story is less successful, and Bobby Simha never quite manages to make his Jagan as believable as the other two. Jagan is jealous of Michael as he loves Ponni himself and decides to do something about it when he sees her distress when Michael goes to jail. Ponni’s reaction is certainly not what I expected in a film, but it is what could happen in real life, whereas Jegan’s monologues about the oppression of women and the evils of society seem more filmi and contrived than likely to occur in reality. However, Jagan does give an interesting contrast to the other two men, and is a more typical film character while providing the overlying story of artefact theft and deception against which the various relationships are all developed.

The story meanders about haphazardly while establishing the main characters and displaying their motivations. There are repeated themes and foreshadowing of events to come, but the final outcome is difficult to predict and the twists along the way are unexpected and genuinely surprising. What stands out are the individual performances from S.J Surya, Vijay Sethupathi, Kamalinee Murkharjee and Anjali, all of whom are superb. There is able support from all the other actors including a restrained appearance from Karunakaran as Arul’s friend Ramesh. The background music from Santhosh Narayanan is effective and the songs good, although in general these don’t add anything to the film. Sivakumar Vijayan’s cinematography is outstanding, often using the lighting to heighten the drama while ensuring that every scene is perfectly arranged for maximum impact.

Karthik has payed exquisite attention to detail, and the set-up and execution of every scene is beautifully planned to deliver maximum impact. On repeated watching, the small details start to emerge and the links between events become clearer. It’s a film that actually becomes better the second and third time around and I suspect that every time I watch Iraivi there will be another detail I missed the first time. It’s not perfect however; the film is long and some of the diversions taken don’t add anything worthwhile to the story, while despite starting off well, the female characters start to lose some of their definition and eventually only react to the actions of the men. It’s still an intriguing film and one I highly recommend for a different look at relationships between men and women. 4½ stars.