Thadam (2019)

Thadam

Magizh Thirumeni’s Thadam takes a little while to get going, but once it does, step by step the film builds into a puzzling conundrum where the identity of a murderer is cleverly concealed until the final big reveal. There are two prime suspects, but which one of them is the murderer and perhaps just as puzzling, why was the victim killed? Arun Vijay is excellent here in a double role that requires him to fight himself (which looks very convincing!), while the story keeps you guessing right to the end. The film does start rather slowly, but there is more going on than first appears and once the investigation kicks in. the twists come thick and fast. Although Thadam initially only had a three day run in Melbourne, it was popular enough to be extended and I’d definitely recommend it as a better than average whodunnit.

The film starts by introducing two men, Ezhil and Kavin, both played by Arun Vijay. First is Ezhil, a successful engineer who runs his own construction firm. He’s chasing after a girl who works in the same building and the first riddle is the correct question he must ask to persuade Deepika (Tanya Hope) to go out on a date. Eventually he works out the critical query and the two quickly becomes an item until Deepika leaves to attend a wedding. Ezhil seems like a nice guy – he’s thoughtful and considerate, has his own successful business, and is prepared to use a bra to illustrate the miracle of engineering that is Howrah bridge. Perhaps not such a great chat-up line!

Kavin, on the other hand, is a crook. He’s a thief and fraudster who, along with his friend and accomplice Suruli (Yogi Babu), cheats anyone and everyone. Kavin is also addicted to gambling which is unfortunate since he seems to be particularly bad at it, losing a large sum of money which Suruli had set aside to repay a debt to a nasty thug. When Suruli can’t pay, Kavin is given a short space of time to organise the funds otherwise his friend will suffer the consequences.

After introducing the two men and their significant others, Magizh Thirumeni throws in a murder. There’s a dark night, a thunderstorm and a vicious attack on a young man in his apartment. SI Malarvizhi aka Malar (Vidya Pradeep) is the chief investigating officer who is initially baffled by the complete lack of clues. No fingerprints, the rain has kept everyone away and the victim Akash doesn’t appear to have any enemies who would want him dead. A chance photograph throws up a potential lead that seems a sure thing once Inspector Gopalakrishnan (Vijayan) recognises the man lurking on Akash’s balcony. He’s had dealings with Ezhil before and is positive that Ezhil is the man in the photograph. But another police station has picked up Kavin and identified him in the photograph too. So, who is the killer? Both men appear identical and the photograph is the only clue Malar has to work with. It turns out that Gopalakrishnan has a personal bone to pick with Ezhil and there doesn’t seem to be anything that links Ezhil to the murder. However, there is a large sum of money missing which leads Malar to suspect Kavin even though she can’t work out how he could have known about the cash. With no answers and only a few days before she needs to either charge or release both men, Malar is desperate to find any link between Akash and either Ezhil or Kavin. Adding to the mystery, Ezhil and Kavin seem to know and despise each other. What is the connection? Why Akash? And who committed the crime?

There are plenty of clues and red herrings alike in this clever story that is actually based on true events. Magizh Thirumeni keeps us guessing as he throws up clue after clue that seem to lead nowhere and Malar’s frustration is beautifully captured as every lead she has turns out to be worthless. I also liked how seemingly meaningless conversations from earlier in the film turn out to be important later on – it pays to take heed of even the smallest comment as almost everything turns out to be significant in the end. This also helps make sense of the first half of the film which is slow and spends a lot of time on the romance between Ezhil and Preethi. There’s also a seemingly pointless con where fraudster Chechi (Meera Krishnan) sets up Kavin as a potential husband for Ananthi (Smruthi Venkat), but both the romance and the con are essential for the reveals in the second half. However, without the benefit of hindsight, the first half just seems overlong and slow until Akash is killed.

On the plus side, throughout the film there is a good mix of action and comedy that helps ensure that the film doesn’t get too lost in the fluffy romance or bogged down in the police proceedings. Yogi Babu has less to do with this than expected and much of the comedy comes from George Maryan as a bumbling police officer and the interactions between Ezhil, Kavin and the cops. Some of this is just too filmi to work in the context of a thriller, but most of the comedy is well integrated into the main story and is genuinely funny. The exchanges between the police and their suspects are also well done but it’s the tangling of the story that really makes this film worth watching as Magizh Thirumeni manipulates us into repeatedly changing our minds as to who is the guilty party.

Arun Vijay is fantastic in the double role, particularly once Ezhil and Kavin have been arrested. The two men look identical but their personalities are different, although similar enough to make both a plausible suspect for the murder. His reaction to the arrest as Ezhil is brilliantly done, while his Kavin is perfectly cocky when brought in for questioning. Also worth mentioning are the excellently done interactions between the two characters. A great job by the special effects team who really made it look as if Ezhil and Kavin were fighting each other, and brilliant acting from Arun who made every interaction between Ezhil and Kavin seem totally natural.

Vidya Pradeep is also excellent as a police officer who has something to prove after being transferred in under a shadow. I really like that she isn’t portrayed as a “female” police officer, but instead she’s simply the main investigator for the murder. This doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a definite improvement over the more usual insistence that any female lead has to either have a romance track or be a comedic figure of fun. Vidya brings a good mix of seriousness and authority to the role along with some lighter moments that ensure her character appears likeable and as approachable as can be expected for a police officer in a murder investigation. Tanya Hope on the other hand has little to do except be romanced by Ezhil, but Smruthi Venkat has a more nuanced role and is good in a small but important role. Less successful is a flashback sequence featuring Sonia Aggarwal as Kavin’s mother that feels overdone in comparison to the rest of the film and doesn’t work as well as it could to explain Kavin’s motivation.

This is a clever whodunnit that keeps its cards close to the chest and doesn’t give anything away until the end. The final reveal is excellent and not wrapped up too neatly which allows some room for reflection. Arun Vijay is brilliant, as too is Vidya Pradeep, but better still is the execution of the idea and the twists and turns along the way. I thoroughly enjoyed Thadam and highly recommend it as a murder mystery that’s shrewdly plotted to be delightfully baffling. Make sure you don’t miss the true stories mentioned at the end too.

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Arjun

 Arjun opens with a bleeding and intense Mahesh Babu staring down the camera. We see a bloody blade, and a gang of rowdies running towards him as he waits in a downpour of rain. It’s a gripping start.

Which then gives way to a happy inspirational song and a flashback. After he kills those rowdies of course. A flashback narrative structure can often diminish the drama as the viewer knows the end point. In this case, Gunasekhar uses the form to heighten the tension. While things had obviously gone wrong, the details emerge gradually. We know Mahesh is waiting to deal with his enemies, but it takes time to discover who they are and what has happened.

Often in a big star vehicle, the supporting characters are mere sketches. But Gunasekhar has populated the film with memorable people played by excellent actors.  As in the previous Mahesh/Gunasekhar project, Okkadu, there is a strong web of relationships that makes it much more engaging. Arjun (Mahesh) is a protective twin determined to look after his sister Meenakhi (Keerthi Reddy). He isn’t one of those sociopath heroes who exist in isolation. There is a pleasantly lived in look to the family home, his office worker parents wear slightly dowdy clothes, and their story is firmly middle class. It’s refreshing to have a hero with a family and to see a sister be more important than a prospective girlfriend. But they are not angels.

Dolce – this is for you!

As always, a film hero who kills bad guys is not doing anything really wrong so we needn’t be troubled by morality. But there does seem to be recognition that there are always consequences. Certainly there is a different rule for the baddies, and especially if they kill good people.

Prakash Raj is Bala Nayagar, a Madurai based bigwig. His wife, played by the still striking Saritha, is his perfect life partner Andal. She knows what he likes to eat, his moods, and when to kill people who annoy him. When their son Uday (Raja) wants to marry college sweetheart Meenakshi they are furious as his engagement to a rich girl had been fixed. The couple are enthusiastic but only moderately successful killers, and many of their schemes to remove Meenakshi fail to comedic effect.

Saritha and Prakash Raj seem to have a side bet on who can out-over-act the other and are great fun. But despite the often ludicrous shenanigans, they each have an intensity that makes them genuinely menacing at times. Prakash Raj can turn from jovial to chilling calculation in a blink and Saritha is his match.

Mahesh also crosses paths with Rupa (Shriya) – a very annoying girl who invites her own downfall by….blowing a kiss at him. Yes! This cannot be allowed without some form of payback. How dare she! The only way honour can be satisfied is if he stalks her, then harasses her until she marries him.

The romances play out very differently. Meenakshi and Uday love each other but neither feels they can upset their parents’ plans. Arjun lays down the law – Meenakshi will not elope and if Uday wants her, he has to tell his parents and all must be done out in the open. This is how he introduces her to the Nayagars. The song gets full points for colour, movement and excellent use of locations. Plus – parrot costumes.

There is a theme of blood being thicker than water, and even before things start to take a turn, Arjun is determined not to abandon his sister once she is married. Meenakshi is in peril, often unaware of the danger and even defending her in-laws much to her twin’s dismay. Keerthi Reddy has a nice rapport with Mahesh although her role dwindles once she enters her in-laws home. She has some intense scenes as she shows her pain at her brother’s actions. Although Meenakshi is often passive, it rarely seems that she is passive through a lack of sense. As with some other characters in the film, it is a blend of mass genre cliché and soap opera – this time damsel in distress mixed with modern bride meets traditional family. The parallel of Meenakshi as a divine being and as his sister is not lost on Arjun. The goddess gives comfort and support when his sister turns away, and maybe a small nudge of coincidence.

Of course, Rupa lives in Madurai with her domineering dad (Tanikella Bharani). Arjun’s pursuit of Rupa at first seems more about putting her in her place than any romantic attachment, but it is amusing. I am also grateful to the subtitle team who kindly explained the wordplay.

Rupa is a really silly character but she does gain appeal over time.  She offers to help Arjun when he is at a low point, which makes him see her in a new light (perhaps the light of her doing what makes him happy). Shriya gives a very energetic performance, initially edging onto the Genelia Manic Pixie Dream Girl scale but kind of endearing once she settles. One thing I like about Shriya is that she never seems overawed by her co-stars, and she just goes for it and claims her bit of the screen. She withstands a varied but determined assault by the wardrobe team in the songs. As a couple she and Mahesh have some chemistry but mostly they seem to have fun in their dances. This is my favourite of their duets, choreographed by Lawrence.

Mahesh is superb. His anguish over Meenakshi and his playfulness with Rupa are equally believable, and no one emanates fury like he does. Thanks to a thoughtful screenplay, Mahesh has room to act as well as showcase his heroic chops.

He uses his lanky frame and the baby faced killer stare to great effect. Some scenes with Meenakshi were really emotional, and he showed the conflict and worry that drove Arjun. It helped give the eventual denouement a much greater urgency and sense of consequence. It also made his super killing powers seem almost believable as it was clear Arjun was desperate to protect his sister at any cost. He did seem to wear more layers of shirts as the film progressed. Was this a visual representation of his attempt to stave off external threats? Or just a change in the weather? But his shirts were not the only item of clothing to make me look twice.

The excellent fights directed by Vijayan range from almost lyrical to frenetic. Even his mother gets Arjun to sort out bad guys for her so his skill and bravado have some basis in the story and aren’t just a post-interval acquisition. Arjun has a fairly laconic style, always looks like he knows he will win, and he can fight under water which is very handy indeed.

Admittedly, I have doubts about why no one can see him in what seems to be a fairly clear pool, but whatever. The climax of the film is dramatic, suspenseful, over the top and totally improbable but completely compelling.

The Madurai set has stunning architecture and decorative flourishes and the crowds provide concealment, camouflage and distraction. The film combines the lush visuals of the temple set with opulent interiors, the intense jewel like colours of silk saris and excellent lighting. The camera work and edits are in keeping with the tone of each scene. The CGI, while a bit dodgy, was used for maximum impact. The soundtrack is OK but I remember the picturisations more than the music so I wouldn’t say Mani Sharma had done anything outstanding.

See this for fine actors, great visuals, exciting action and of course a hero you can count on. Mahesh delivers – Arjun is a winner! 4 ½ stars.

Heather says: While I didn’t enjoy this as much as Temple I think it’s an interesting story and the relationship between Arjun and his sister is well developed. Mahesh is excellent as the faithful brother who will do anything to keep his sister safe and happy and it’s really his performance which makes this more than just a run of the mill action film. I also liked Kirti Reddy  as Meenakshi and thought her early scenes with Arjun were convincing in showing the rivalry and the affection between the two

I did find it a little incredible that Arjun’s mother Kamala was quite happy to set her son up to face a room full of rowdy’s and then walk away and leave him to it.  While I appreciate her faith and confidence in her son, I’m more inclined to agree with Meenakshi’s view that it wasn’t a very responsible attitude for a parent to have. It was a quite a novel approach though and as Temple mentioned, did set up the fight scenes for the rest of the film very well.

I loved Prakash Raj here as the father intent on marrying his son to his best advantage, but he was totally outdone by Saritha as his wife. She was fantastic in her obsession with the 1001 crore dowry and her expressions as she was either murdering someone or extorting her husband to murder were brilliant. Combined with Kamala, this has to be the film with the blood-thirstiest mothers I have seen and they both added a totally new dimension to the filmi ma character. I loved them!

On the negative side though, I couldn’t understand the point of Shriya’s character at all. It doesn’t help that I really don’t like her as an actress, but the plot with Rupa seemed to be stuck on as an after-thought. I don’t think a romance was necessary, particularly since her character had no relationship to anyone else in the plot, and it could have been omitted without any disruption to the rest of the story. My irritation with Rupa in this film was inversely proportional to the amount of clothes she was wearing. In the opening sequence while she was teasing Arjun wearing skimpy clothes she was incredibly annoying and I really hated the first song with her. Later on, when she was more modestly dressed in a sari I was better able to ignore her and her presence wasn’t quite as grating.

While the main story of Meenakshi’s marriage and murderous in-laws was engaging and the action thrilling, there was a little too much fluff in the rest of the story for me to become totally engaged with the other characters. A winner in terms of Mahesh’s performance and worth seeing how Gunasekhar proves Arjun can walk on water. 3 ½ stars.

Pokiri

Pokiri is my favourite Mahesh Babu film, along with Athadu. I’ve seen the Tamil remake Pokkiri, and endured Wanted in Hindi (for completeness) and neither of them holds a candle to the original. Puri Jagannadh combines a strong story with striking visuals to make a gory, suspenseful action masterpiece. The story is set in the murky world of cashed up property developers, corrupt cops and parasitic crooks (the ‘land mafia’). Justice seems to reside outside of the legal system, but it isn’t immediately clear where.

We first see Pandu (Mahesh Babu) when he lures a gang out of their own territory and beats them to a pulp after kindly offering to leave a door in the shed open so they could run away if they got scared. He celebrates with a dance in which he beats people up. He then hooks up with the gang who he has just beaten up, including Subbaraju, employed by off shore crimelord Ali Bhai. Jyothirana as Mona shows an interest in Pandu that is not purely professional, and I can see why she might have been disappointed in his answer.

Pandu has all the typical hero attributes – the vestigial mullet hairdo, he’s invincible, he just has to break into dance and everyone around him joins in, he never gets lost or stuck in traffic and he is never stuck for a one liner. Despite his refusal to injure women and children, he will kill without remorse and his intensity in explaining how bad he is seems to indicate perverse pride in his achievements. Pandu is an anti-hero and there is no pretence made that he is really a good guy although of course he has a back story that explains much once it is revealed. Mahesh’s performance is totally committed to the crushing action scenes, and he is expressive in the emotional moments. Pandu is a baby faced killer with few if any scruples, although he seems to have caring friends (including Ajay) and occasional flashes of levity.

But I really had to question if someone who solved all their problems with such brutality would be any easier to deal with if he was motivated by love rather than anger. Dead is dead after all. But it’s Mahesh, so Pandu was never going to be left painted as a complete villain for the whole film.

Pandu is attracted to Shruthi and knows they are all wrong for each other. Oh God, what to do?

Ileana is Shruthi; young, pretty and pouty. Her storyline justifies wearing midriff-baring lycra as she is an aerobics instructor, and the sole breadwinner in her family. She still has the very flexible working hours and extensive wardrobe a film heroine needs. Slimy S.I Pasupathi (Ashish Vidyarthi in a creepy performance) hits on her and her mother, and pays rowdies to stage a fake rape to ruin her and prevent her marrying.

When Pandu finds out he pursues the perpetrators and none of them walk away from the encounter. But Shruthi isn’t grateful or smitten as a result – she is more fearful of her own lack of judgement in pursuing Pandu.

She struggles with her attraction to Pandu and her revulsion at what he does, especially following a squelchingly bloody fight set at Golconda. Ileana is given dialogue that illustrates Shruthi’s strength of character and should show this inner conflict but almost everything emerges as either a simper (I love him!) or a teary whine (he’s so mean!) and she missed the mark. Perhaps it was a question of maturity – she played Shruthi as a girl rather than a young woman which I think this needed.

The songs by Mani Sharma are highly enjoyable and so are the picturisations, possibly not always for the intended reasons. Who needs a comedy sideplot when you have those lanky pale legs in a lunghi?

The romantic duets look less successful as I don’t think there is sufficient chemistry between the couple, or enough actual dancing in their songs together. But I love the backing guys in this.

Brahmi is the neighbour who dresses 30 years too young and keeps cracking on to Shruthi. Mercifully he is mostly quarantined in a sideplot with Ali and Venu Madhav so they torture each other and I ignore it. It’s not really that bad as comedy sideplots go, but I fast forward in their scenes. I would like to suggest that comedy uncle types from all film industries should held in a secure facility on a remote island. There should be a strict ‘one in, one out’ policy that would keep their screen presence manageable. Sunil would be free to roam as he pleases because I find him funny.

Prakash Raj is the shadowy don, Ali Bhai. He is menacing from a distance, but seems less calculating and more self obsessed when he joins the mainstream of the drama. He has some fancy shirts and nasty habits that sometimes tip Ali into caricature.

Ultimately it is Ali Bhai who drives the final showdown. He humiliates and kidnaps the daughter of the ACP to have a bargaining chip. Once again the police are shown as powerless – forced to lie about an arrest to prevent political interference – and working outside the law to deal with this criminal.

Rape is a common threat against the women in Pokiri. It is treated as something serious, although in a very filmi way.  But then Puri Jagannadh shows a rapist’s father demanding to know why his son’s reputation is being ruined. The fact that his son filmed himself raping the girl doesn’t seem to worry him as much as seeing the footage on the TV news. There is also criticism of the tabloid media who glorify and collude with criminals for the sake of sensation and ratings yet demand law and order. Mona sells the rape film to the press and Pandu asks if she is a woman to be able do that to another woman. No such question to the guys in the gang – maybe we aren’t meant to expect morals from them. And of course, that old Telugu film chestnut; if a good person kills a bad person, was it really a crime? Behind all the blood splatter and gunfire there were some interesting notions floating around but they were never going to get in the way of the action.

The climax is brilliant. A slight twist is revealed – when will senior policemen learn not to tell their kids about top secret operations? All the bad guys converge on Binny Mills and Pandu wreaks havoc. There are dismemberments, impalements and all manner of gore, in a beautifully choreographed and filmed sequence that takes full advantage of the location and film technologies. I think there’s a bit too much slo-mo glass smashing, but I can forgive the excited over-use of new technology toys. Vijayan created some iconic set pieces in the fights and they really are stunning.

The support cast are there largely to contribute to the body count although Sudha as Shruti’s mother and Master Bharath as her little brother have some key scenes. Ajay and Subbaraju make the most of their roles and both exude menace and a dark comedic edge. Nasser has a small but crucial part in the drama. I liked Sayaji Shinde, the ACP, in his more restrained scenes. Mumaith Khan turns up too for the obligatory item number.

I think this is Puri Jagannadh at his best. He has the strong visual sense and a knack for picking up interesting concepts, which in Pokiri is meshed with an engaging story and some good performances. If you don’t mind your action bloody and unapologetic, this is for you. 4 ½ stars – a small deduction for Ileana’s snivelling.

Heather says: This was my first Mahesh Babu film, and what an introduction! I think Pokiri has one of the best hero entrance scenes when, after plenty of running feet and leg shots, there is that wonderful moment when Mahesh finally bursts onto the screen surrounded by flying vegetables and chillies. Brilliant! It’s definitely one of Mahesh’s best films where his acting and the action element all come together perfectly to create the total package. I saw the Tamil version Pokkiri with Vijay first and although I think that’s also great, the original Telugu film is definitely much better.

I like the way Pandu transitions from the total action hero and baby faced killer (who is not a nice guy at all), to the devastated son later in the film. There seem to be more shades of grey in the character of Pandu than in some of Mahesh’s other roles and it makes him much more interesting – especially as the film progresses and we learn more of the back story. He does still have an astonishing ability to be able to defeat an average of 20 opponents all by himself which seems to be pretty much obligatory for any Mahesh character. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all!  Pokiri does have some excellent action and fight scenes, and some of the methods used to dispose of various villains are very clever indeed. Full marks to Vijayan for some smart action segments and memorable fight choreography. It’s not just Mahesh who excels in Pokiri though. I’m a big fan of Ajay and his presence in any film always makes it just that little bit better. He’s great here as Pandu’s friend and as usual has some wonderful expressions, particularly as Pandu and Shruthi clash.

I like Ileana here too, as she is convincing as the girl who falls in love with the bad guy despite all her reservations.  Her acting in the scenes where her family is threatened is good and although her reaction to the thugs who burst in on her is a little too weepy for me it does come across as right for her character. I enjoyed the interactions between Pandu and Shruthi although there wasn’t too much chemistry between the lead pair. I put this down to the fact that it would be hard to be very romantic with a guy who spends most of his time systematically slaughtering his way through the various gangs in Hyderabad and Shruthi’s revulsion for Pandu’s lifestyle tends to comes across more clearly than anything else. However they do look good together in the songs and the romance works well enough. The various villains are all excellent although Prakash Raj is perhaps a little too much of a caricature in his role as Ali Bhai. Ashish Vidyarthi deserves special mention for being particularly disturbing as the corrupt cop, and Sayaji Shinde was also good as the police commissioner.

The only downside to the film is the terrible comedy track, although it’s actually better here than in the Tamil version with Vadivelu. While I don’t mind Brahmi’s amorous landlord persona, the scenes with the beggars played by Ali and Venu Madhan are incredibly annoying and just slow down the action. Get rid of that and this would be as close to perfect as it gets. As it is it’s still a fantastic watch for all-out Mahesh action – 4 stars.