24 (2016)

24 Poster.jpg

For a science fiction film about time travel there is something more than a little magical about 24. Vikram Kumar has come up with a compelling story and made a technically excellent film with a well-chosen cast who all perform beautifully. Suriya is outstanding, favourites Ajay and Saranya Ponvannan are impressive in rather more substantial roles than expected and the whole film is a wonderful masala mix of action, drama, romance, comedy and mystery. Definitely one to catch in the cinema to fully appreciate the VFX but also well worth watching for the expertly crafted story and first-rate cast.

24 combines many of the usual elements of a Tamil film, but although the ingredients may be commonplace the resulting story is refreshingly novel. First there is the rivalry between two brothers; Sethuraman and Athreya (both Suriya), one a brilliant but obsessed and oblivious scientist working on a device that will allow travel through time, and the other his jealous and coldly calculating elder brother who will stop at nothing to steal the device for himself. Moving 26 years into the present day, there is Sethuraman’s son Mani (also Suriya) who knows nothing of his past, his adopted mother Sathyabhama (Saranya Ponvannan) who has sacrificed everything to keep Mani safe and the evil Athreya still trying to track down the device to try to rewrite his own past. These are all familiar plot elements but here cleverly put together to ensure there are plenty of surprises throughout and just when it seems the next step in the journey is inevitable, Vikram Kumar twists the path and the story heads off in an unexpected direction.

The opening scenes are amazing and although supposedly set in 1990, the steam train, cars, motorbikes and fairy tale-like mansion give an older-world ambiance. This is helped by the lighting which is golden, warm and suggestive of candle-light especially when compared to scenes set in the present day that are lit more brightly with colder, bluer lighting. Sethuraman has converted his entire house into a gigantic laboratory to work on his invention, and in typical mad-scientist style he has secret rooms, hidden passage-ways and odd devices everywhere. Think Wallace (Wallace and Grommit) with a bigger budget. Thanks to the intervention of a CGI eagle, Sethuraman manages to create a watch that will allow time travel but before he can celebrate his success, his elder brother Athreya shows up to steal the invention. Suriya’s Sethuraman is a classic bespectacled and nerdy inventor, right down to his abstraction when his wife Priya (Nithya Menen) tries to get him to help with their young son Manikanden and various dangerous substances inappropriately placed for safety around the room. This of course allows for maximum damage when Athreya shows up but paint a picture of a ‘typical’ scientist which Vikram Kumar then turns on its head as Sethuraman turns out to be more practical than first impressions suggest. The opening scene sets the precedent for the rest of the film – there is a good amount of humour, plenty of action and drama with Suriya drawing all eyes and commanding centre stage throughout.

The film moves 26 years into the future where Mani is grown up and working as a watch mechanic with no knowledge of his past, or just what he has in an unbreakable box that he cannot open. Athreya is still around too, although after the events 26 years ago he is a crippled shadow of his former self getting around in a motorised wheelchair after waking up from a coma. Athreya is as malevolent as ever and with the help of his trusty sidekick Mithran (Ajay) goes about trying to turn back time 26 years to reverse his accident and regain the use of his legs. Again Suriya does a fantastic job with the character of Athreya – he’s confidently wicked in 1990 when he goes after his brother and his family, and wonderfully warped and bitter in 2016 as a twisted figure in a wheel-chair. Suriya brings the character to life and makes him so much more than a stock evil villain.

Mani is more the kind of character Suriya has played in recent films, but with a hint of mischievousness that differentiates Mani from the likes of Massu and Raju Bhai. There are some well scripted moments between Mani and his onscreen mother Sathyabhama which give Saranya Ponvannan more than the usual mother/son dialogues to get her teeth into. As always she’s the quintessential filmi ma, but here she gets to have a back story and separate personality aside from being a mother and she rises beautifully to the opportunity.

There is also a romance – of course – there has to be a romance! Mani falls for Sathya (Samantha) just as he discovers his father’s watch, and the romance is partly an excuse to showcase all the things the watch can do. The love story is the most conventional part of the film but Suriya and Samantha have good chemistry and Vikram Kumar adds in some light-hearted comedy to ensure the romance doesn’t overcome the action. Girish Karnad, Mohan V. Raman and Sudha as members of Sathya’s family add more background and all are good in their respective roles.

A.R. Rahman provides the music, but it’s around an hour in before the first dance number which is the appropriately electronic sounding Kaalam en Kadhali. I loved Suriya’s dancing in this – it was definitely worth the wait! The rest of the songs are more romantic and fit less well into the narrative, although I did appreciate the black and white co-coordinating costumes in Naan Un. The music itself is lovely, but the songs slow down the narrative and really don’t seem particularly necessary to move the story forward.

Although there is plenty of good comedy in 24, it’s kept light and even Sathyan, as Mani’s friend Saravanan, is more restrained than usual. It is still laugh-out-loud funny in parts though which provides a good contrast to the few more violent scenes, particularly one just before the interval which is shocking in its sudden brutality. However that is the exception and most of the fight scenes rely on intelligence rather than brute force.

24 has the look and feel of a Hollywood film without losing any of its Southern Indian roots. If this had been a Western film, no doubt 3 different actors would have been cast in the different roles of Mani, Sethuraman and Athreya, but in part the film works so well here because it is the same actor in all three roles. Watching Suriya play three very different characters is mesmerising all by itself while ensuring the familial relationship forms part of the story. Plus more Suriya is generally a good thing! The visual effects are slick, polished and look amazing, while the cinematography from S. Tirru is excellent, adding another layer to the story and ensuring a sophisticated look to the film.

Vikram Kumar impressed me in Manam with his ability to make a complex story flow easily and he does it again here. Yes, there are a few too many coincidences and no-one seems to worry about what will happen to the future when the past is altered, but these are small issues that don’t seem to matter when the rest of the film is so well done. 24 is an excellent piece of storytelling and the best big budget film of the year so far. Don’t miss it!

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Manam (2014)

Manam

Manam is a beautiful film and a breath of fresh air in an industry usually dominated by beat-‘em-up heroes and the same old innuendo masquerading as comedy.  Featuring three generations of the Akkineni family and Nageswara Rao’s final screen appearance, it could very easily have tipped into trite sentimentality, but Vikram Kumar’s screenplay keeps the film on track with an novel storyline, sweet romances and genuinely funny comedy.  I have to admit that I almost didn’t buy a ticket when I read that Manam was being advertised as a comedy, since without subtitles most of the humour tends to pass me by (even with subtitles in some cases!) but Manam would have been a watchable and entertaining film even without subs.  As it was, being able to understand the jokes and laugh at the same time as the rest of the audience was excellent.  Long may this trend for subtitled Telugu films continue in Melbourne!

Manam Manam

The film starts in the 1980’s with the unhappy marriage of Radha (Naga Chaitanya) and Krishna (Samantha) who bicker and fight even on the occasion of their son’s sixth birthday.  The very next day they are both killed in a car accident, leaving the young Bittu an orphan and his wish to see them happy together unfulfilled.  This doesn’t seem to have held Bittu back however, as the film moves to the present day, and the now grownup Nageshwar Rao (Nagarjuna) is in Mumbai to receive the Businessman of the Year award.  However, on the flight back to Hyderabad, Nageshwar is seated beside a young man who is the image of his late father, and this begins his crusade to bring his ‘parents’ back together again.  Nagarjuna is absolutely perfect here and his child-like wonder at discovering ‘his father’ is brilliantly portrayed.  The scene is well written too, with the just the right amount of comedy to keep it from cloying sentimentality and Vikram Kumar even manages to make the suggestion of such an occurrence seem perfectly plausible.

Samantha and ChaitanyaManamNageshwar reasons that if his father has been reborn, then his mother must be around somewhere too, and to this end he scours the streets of Hyderabad until he tracks down Priya (Samantha) who is the image of his mother and, luckily for Nageshwar and his plans, she immediately feels a connection.  Again Nagarjuna’s determined search is neatly summarised in just a few shots and the obvious unlikely coincidences feel much less contrived than expected.  It help that both Nageshwar and Priya are very likeable characters and Nagarjuna and Samantha ensure their interactions are full of genuine warmth and respect.

ManamNagarjuna

Having found his re-incarnated father and mother, Nageshwar has to find a way to re-ignite their romance.  In the midst of his attempts to bring about true love, Nageshwar finds love himself when Anjali (Shriya) commandeers his car to carry a sick man to hospital.  As it turns out, the older man is Chaitanya (Akkineni Nageswara Rao) who has seen his parents Seetharamudu and Ramalakshmi  reborn as Nageshwar and Anjali.  It’s then his turn to explain the past and try to reunite the lost lovers.

Manam

ANR is the absolute star of the show, and seems to take great delight in playing the octogenarian matchmaker.  He is mesmerising every time he appears, and his facial expressions and reactions to every other character are superb.  For his part, Nagarjuna is quietly competent as Nageshwar Rao with a subtle but effective performance, and his romance with Ramalakshmi in the second half is an absolute delight to watch.  There seems to be something in Temple’s theory that Shriya Saran’s irritation factor is related to the length of her hair, as here she has long hair and is actually pretty good.  Shriya looks beautiful and displays an engaging personality as a 1920’s traditional villager, and she is just as stunning as the cool and efficient Dr Anjali.  I vote Shriya always has long hair in her movies!

Manam

Nagarjuna and Shriya also share good chemistry together, which is sadly conspicuously absent in the romance between Samantha and Chaitanya, although to be fair the script really doesn’t ever let them develop much sparkage except in the way of confrontation.  Despite the lack of passion with Chaitanya, Samantha shines as Priya / Krishna.  She sparkles in her songs, and is full of bubbly enthusiasm as she meets Nageshwara, but her pain at her perceived husband’s betrayal is obvious as is her contempt of Chaitanya’s Nagarjuna.  Chaitanya is also better than usual, although that may be because his role mainly requires him to play a drunk and obnoxious college student which he seems to fit well.  The usual suspects pop up as various mothers, fathers, cousins etc, but do watch out for the brief cameo appearance of Amitabh Bachchan which garnered plenty of cheers from the audience.

Manam

It’s not all perfect though – the inclusion of Ali as a dance teacher is unnecessary and M.S. Narayana’s role is too obvious and crude to fit with the rest of the characterisation.  However Brahmi is good as Nagashwara’s assistant and without any misogynistic humour, he manages a restrained performance that proves he can act perfectly well when required.

Manam benefits from a sweet and  simple telling of a relatively convoluted story.  There are no exciting car chases, no big fight scenes and no cliff-hangers (even though the last few minutes attempt to raise the dramatic tension), but overall it’s an entertaining and watchable film.  All praise must go to Akkineni Nageswara Rao and Nagarjuna for their exemplary performances, but the younger generation hold their own, with even Chaitanya showing that he learnt something from the rest of his family while on set.  Definitely recommended viewing and a last performance to savour from one of the legends of Telugu cinema.