Theri (2016)

 

Theri Poster

After taking on the plight of farmers in Kaththi, Vijay tackles the topical issues of rape and violence against women in Atlee’s latest film Theri. The dash of social awareness is added in to a familiar story where a once tough and capable man is forced to live a quiet and peaceful existence after suffering a great loss, before being forced to take up the reins of his old life again. Sure, it’s predictable, but Atlee breathes a modicum of life into the well worn storyline and adds enough seasoning to ensure Theri is an engaging and entertaining enough watch.

The film opens with a nerdy Joseph Kuruvilla (Vijay) running a bakery in Kerala while looking after his young daughter Nivi (Baby Nainika). Rather incongruously he’s helped in his endeavours by Rajendran (Rajendran) who looks nothing at all like a baker, while Joseph’s unassuming persona seems very un-Vijay-like. However all is soon explained when the film moves into flashback mode to detail Joseph’s previous life as ruthless and efficient cop DCP Vijay Kumar and Rajendran as his driver.

Some years previously Vijay Kumar investigated the case of a gang-rape victim and took the law into his own hands when he found the culprit – the son of minister Vanamaamalai (J. Mahendran). In revenge, Vanamaamalai kills Vijay’s wife Mithra (Samantha) and his mother (Raadhika Sarathkumar), and believes he has killed Vijay and his daughter as well. However Vanamaamalai doesn’t follow the maxim that if you want something done properly you should do it yourself and Vijay escapes with his daughter to a life of anonymity in Kerala. Living as meek and mild-mannered Joseph Kuruvilla though doesn’t come naturally, so it’s no surprise that Vijay’s cover is blown and Vanamaamalai discovers the truth, leading to the inevitable final showdown between the two.

There is a lot that works well in Theri, but there are also a few aspects that don’t. Atlee has done a good job of revitalising the story, but there are few surprises and each step along the way is almost exactly as expected. However, there is a sweet romance between Vijay and Mithra which is well developed and doesn’t quite follow the usual conventions. Samantha too has a better role than most Tamil heroines, Mithra is more than just a decorative love interest and has an important part to play in the story. She has strong opinions of her own, and also commands her husband’s respect since it’s at her request that Vijay buries his desire for revenge and concentrates on ensuring his daughter’s well-being. One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Mithra has a conversation with Vijay’s mother which doesn’t involve the hero, or her wish to be a good wife/mother/daughter-in-law.  Although the content is overly emotional and it’s a very filmi moment, I like the way this scene makes Mithra her own person and not simply an extension of the hero. Samantha is excellent in her role, convincing even when she practically comes back from the dead to make her final plea to Vijay and as always she looks gorgeous throughout.

My biggest problem with the flashback sequence, and in fact the film in general, is the songs. They are particularly frustrating in the first half when they suddenly appear from nowhere and add no real value to the storyline. Not that the songs always have to move the story forward to be worthwhile, but here they have little impact other than to pause the action and don’t even have the benefit of a catchy tune or outstanding choreography to make their inclusion palatable. About the best thing I can say is that they are very colourful – very, very colourful in some cases, and Vijay is competent even if he doesn’t get the chance to bust out too many impressive moves. Eena Meena Teeka is a little better as Baby Nainika is very cute and along with Vijay she hams it up for the camera nicely, but I expect better from a Vijay film!

I have long suspected that Vijay has access to a time machine since as he is as young-looking as ever, even when gleefully bashing goons heads into various parts of a building, and impressively athletic in the action scenes. As Vijay Kumar he appears strong, confident and powerful, but allows a softer side to show during the romance scenes. However, he’s a little less successful as Joseph Kuruvilla, perhaps because docile Vijay seem to be against the natural order of things. He is good in the scenes with Baby Nainika and plays the part of a devoted father well, but very awkward with Amy Jackson in her role as Nivi’s school teacher. That may be because Amy herself looks incredibly ill at ease in a dreadful wig, while her character is so under-developed it takes some time to realise that there is actually a romance developing between the two! I can’t decide if Amy Jackson is just incredibly wooden here, or if her terrible portrayal is due to inadequate writing of her character, but whatever the reason this is the worst performance I’ve seen from her so far.

The support cast are all good. Baby Nainika is cute and appealing, without being too bratty when she demonstrates that she has a tough side too. Mahendran is great on the other side of the camera and is a credible adversary for Vijay, mainly because he is so very normal in every aspect. Like many rich men in politics, he has a sense of privilege and a belief that his wealth gives him a right to power and to do whatever he wants. He has no affectations or megalomaniacal schemes which makes him all the more chilling and a very plausible villain. I always feel a film is improved with the addition of some Rajendran and along with Vijay he provides most of the comedy in the film.

Although the story of Theri isn’t particularly original and Vijay as a cop is also nothing that hasn’t been seen many times before, there is enough action and drama to make the film an entertaining watch. The addition of a stronger female role in Mithra is a bonus and Atlee deserves praise for adding in a child actor without making her cloyingly sweet and too good to be true. The action scenes are all well shot and choreographed, and the film comes together well with a satisfying conclusion and well executed revenge. I would have preferred better songs and no romance with Nivi’s teacher but otherwise I enjoyed Theri and recommend watching for Vijay, Samantha and Mahendran.

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Puli (2015)

Puli

Chimbu Deven’s latest film may be set in a fantasy world of strange creatures and magical beings, but the story itself is mundane without any of the epic sweep required for such a tale. It’s also slow going, with most of the first half a dreary romance between Marudheeran (Vijay) and Pavazhamani (Shruti Haasan), although it does improve post interval once Sridevi and Sudeep appear onscreen. Despite the numerous fight scenes and explicit violence, the simplistic plot seems to be aimed more at children, with every obstacle easily overcome and the obvious outcome never in any doubt. That may also explain the relatively bloodless scenes of dismemberment and general carnage that would more usually be awash with gallons of fake blood, but instead the fight scenes here are frequently lacklustre, dull and repetitive. However there are a few reasons to watch, mainly down to Sridevi in her extravagantly evil queen avatar, good special effects and the always reliable Sudeep and Vijay.

Puli tells the story of a land which has been invaded and settled by a race of demons, who have enslaved the native humans. These Vedalam are easily recognisable by their blue eyes, tendency to sprout fangs when annoyed and ability to fly though the air, although their spiky armour and general arrogant grumpiness are a more distant and therefore safer method of identification. The young Marudheeran arrives in one of the subjugated villages as a baby, floating in a basket on the river, along with a mysterious egg that hatches into a talking bird. The talking bird is pretty well done as far as special effects go, and I was expecting it to be important to the plot in some way, but it really isn’t. Even though there is a sort of reason for the bird’s inclusion at the end, basically it’s a very under-utilized special effect that didn’t need to be able to talk and doesn’t get much chance to do so anyway. Overall this illustrates the problem with most of the special effects in the film. Although they are well done, the effects dazzle for a moment but are then relegated to background noise and ultimately have little to add to the plot. It’s a shame as the film looks fantastical but the uninspired story keeps it earthbound.

Marudheeran is adopted by one of the villagers and is trained by his stepfather in fighting and disguise as part of a general communal wish to overthrow the demons. However once Pavalamalli (Shruti Haasan) returns to the village, Marudheeran spends his time chasing after his childhood friend, much to the displeasure of her parents. Just as Marudheeran and Pavalamalli get married in secret, she is stolen by the demons and Marudheeran sets out with his trusty friends Thambi Ramaiah and Sathyan to rescue her from the impregnable city of Vedalakottai. They plan to disguise themselves as demons to get into the city and then hope they can find Pavalamalli and get out again, but that’s it in terms of preparation. There is no attempt to deal with the epic scale of such an endeavour and make the journey and planning part of the adventure. This means there isn’t any sense of danger or excitement, just a pedestrian slog to find the city and rescue the girl. Nothing new, and could just as easily have been set in the present time anywhere in India with much the same plot and ending.

Still, there are plenty of good ideas in Puli, it’s just that they get such short shrift and don’t have as much impact as they should. For example, Marudheeran and colleagues meet a race of miniature people where there is a brief ‘we can show you the way’ moment and then the little people are used mainly for comedy. However the effects and the cinematography are once again very good, with clever use of seeds and leaves as clothing, and wonderful peanut shell blouses that are simply inspired!

Unusually, Vijay doesn’t fit as the hero of the film as well as he should, at least initially. His introduction and the subsequent fight scenes establish his character as more of a trickster and comedian while his pursuit of Pavalamalli is pedestrian and lacking animation. It’s not until the second half of the film where he comes up against his nemesis General Jalatharangam (Sudeep) that Marudheeran starts to properly fill the role of the warrior hero and Vijay gets a chance to throw his energy fully into the part. Just about at this time though there is a flashback sequence where Vijay plays his father – a man born to be in a shampoo commercial and doomed by his reliance on slow-mo fighting and accompanying wind-machine. I did appreciate Vijay’s mastery of the hair toss though and once he gets into full warrior mode, there is no stopping him.

Sudeep is good in a role that lets him convey volumes with just a look and a sneer, although he really needed more time onscreen being evil to make his character thoroughly despicable. Jalatharangam is a fairly standard villain but Sudeep imbues him with an arrogant coldness that works well and there’s just enough sliminess added for good measure. Sridevi too makes the most of her role as an evil queen and shows what a fantastic actor she is even with her limited time onscreen. She totally owns each scene when she appears and her sweeping presence lifts the energy of the film. She has the best costumes and stunning make-up but these go almost unnoticed beside her commanding presence and expressive eyes. And she plays a harp – perfect! I hope this, and her recent appearance in English Vinglish mean that we will get to see more Sridevi films in the future – she is the best thing about Puli for sure.

Hansika Motwani plays Queen Yamanadevi’s daughter and at least Chimbu Deven doesn’t make the mistake of trying to get her to actually dance in any of her songs. Hansika looks good and has an amazing peacock outfit at the end but doesn’t do much else of note in the film, although she does manage better chemistry in a few brief moments with Vijay than Shruti does in an entire romantic song. Overall Devi Sri Prasad’s songs are fairly uninspiring and the choreography rather repetitive, but Vijay is energetic and the backing dancers are enthusiastic in a range of diverse costumes.

Except for Sridevi, Puli mostly disappoints with a weak story and fairly nondescript songs. Sudeep and Vijay are fine but both characters need better definition and depth rather than simply relying on the ability and star power of the actors. Both do what they can, but the film could have been so much better with just a little more complexity. Good cinematography from Natarajan Subramaniam and great visual effects make Puli worth watching on the big screen but probably only for fans. Otherwise probably best to wait for the DVD where the fast forward button will make Puli a more enjoyable watch.

Kaththi

Kaththi

AR Murugadoss and Vijay last got together for the excellent action adventure Thuppakki, but although Kaththi has a good storyline and Vijay is at his best, it doesn’t quite manage to re-create the same magic. This time Vijay appears in a double role that allows him to explore a more restrained character as well as his more usual action hero, and he manages both with aplomb. However the film suffers from variable pacing and odd song placement, while the inclusion of a poorly developed romance adds to the general unevenness.  Still, double the amount of Vijay, the absolutely brilliant older men who make up the support cast and the inclusion of some of the best conceived fight sequences I’ve seen so far this year all ensure Kaththi is definitely well worth a look.

Vijay plays Kathiresan, a thief on the run after engineering a clever escape from jail. Kathiresan’s path crosses that of his lookalike Jeevanandham (also Vijay) when an attempt is made on Jeevanandham’s life. Jeevanandham is an activist, fighting against a multinational company for the water rights of his small drought-stricken village, although his fight is one being waged through the courts rather than anything more physical. Despite being forced off the road and shot several times, amazingly Jeevanandham survives, and Kathiresan makes the most of their identical appearances by switching identities with his unconscious double. This ensures Jeevanandham is sent back to jail, while Kathiresan is free to make good his escape before the authorities find out the truth. You’d have thought that perhaps changing identities with a man who obviously had problems of his own might have been a bit risky, but Kathiresan doesn’t seem in the least bit worried as he happily takes on Jeevanandham’s identity.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long before Jeevanandham’s troubles come calling on Kathiresan. After leaving Jeevanandham in hospital, Kathiresan spends some time as his alter identity and ends up staying at the old people’s home run by Jeevanandham. As a result, he gradually gets drawn into Jeevanandham’s fight against the company trying to force the villagers off their land. Nasty company owner Cedric (Neil Nitin Mukesh) tries a little blackmail, and when that fails to work, resorts to basic intimidation tactics. Of course the thugs are expecting the more passive Jeevanandham rather than escaped convict Kathiresan and his friend Dhanu (Satish), so things don’t work out quite as Cedric plans.  In addition to foiling the attempts on his life, Kathiresan and Dhanu concoct various schemes to help the villagers win the pending court case, or at least bring their plight to the attention of the media. It’s not all fighting and mayhem and there are some clever plans and ideas that make Kathiresan a more three dimensional and interesting character. Of course when it is fighting and mayhem Vijay is in his element and the inventively staged fight sequences work well to keep things moving along. There are some very clever ideas and just the right amount of comedy here, and it’s frustrating that less attention to detail has been given to other important aspects of the film.

Part of the problem I have with the film is with the character of Cedric and his multinational company.  Cedric is very one-dimensional and his company is painted as unethical and completely evil without any redeeming features or basic humanity. While that is perhaps plausible twenty odd years ago or so, I cannot see such a company surviving long without coming up against an activist group somewhere – this is supposed to be a multinational company after all. There is the same old-fashioned and redundant feel to Cedric (I kept thinking of old black and white silent movies with men in long black cloaks twirling their moustaches and laughing while tying hapless women to train tracks – he’s that kind of villain) and this only serves to make  his threats appear cartoonish and completely unrealistic. Neil Nitin Mukesh doesn’t get the chance to do anything other than sneer and attempt to look menacing which doesn’t really convince with his floppy hair and oversized sunglasses, so he’s relatively ineffectual as a villain.

Also on the minus side is the really quite pointless romance between Kathiresan and Ankitha (Samantha) which never really gets going although the couple initially do look good together.  Samantha appears to be added in to the cast solely as a ‘reason’ for the songs, but even there she is relegated to wandering around and posing, while Vijay dances up a storm in the background. It’s such a waste of a good actress, and frustrating since the romance just makes a long film longer without actually adding anything worthwhile to the story. At least the songs from Anirudh Ravichander are enjoyable and the choreography suits Vijay’s energy and style even if their placement often feels random.

One other issue I have with the film is the manner in which A.R. Murugadoss uses the serious social issues of farmer displacement, difficulties with land ownership and water rights and industry encroachment on farming areas for the purpose of light-hearted entertainment. It’s hard to define exactly why this made me uneasy but it’s the main reason why I didn’t enjoy this film quite as much as expected.  I am sure that A.R. Murugadoss had the best motives in wanting to shine a light on the problems faced by farmers in India, but the treatment of their plight here is rather too heavy handed to be entirely comfortable.  The farmers’ problems are somewhat overshadowed by the exploits of the hero as he deals with the corporate villain in typical masala style, which seems to reduce the real life day to day difficulties of surviving drought, debt and corrupt officials down to a well-choreographed fight scene and some snazzy special effects. It could be argued that anything that raises awareness of the problem is beneficial, but I feel that the treatment of their plight here is rather too simplistic. These are heavy and very real issues and I doubt that such an easy and fast resolution is possible in the real world. However, there is a good rousing speech by Kathiresan which highlights the social injustices faced by the farming community – not just in India but the world over – and perhaps that is enough of a start in the right direction.

Despite the issues I have with the film, it’s still an entertaining watch. The story is well thought out and I like that Kathiresan has to use his brains and not just hammer his fists through any opposition. It’s clever and there is some good comedy incorporated into the story with nary a comedy uncle in sight.  The support cast of old men who make up the displaced villagers are uniformly excellent and Satish is good as Vijay’s side-kick. Vijay is of course the main reason to watch the film and his milder but still passionate performance as Jeevanandham highlights just how good an actor he is when given the opportunity. Perhaps Kaththi doesn’t quite hit the highs of Thuppakki but it’s almost there and hopefully means we will see another A.R. Murugadoss and Vijay collaboration soon.