Ponniyin Selvan 1

I did manage to catch PS1 in the cinema (definitely the best way to watch the film), but wanted to watch it again before posting this review. I loved the epic scale, the fantastic costumes and found the story to be relatively easy to follow, despite the large number of characters and location shifts. There is action, intrigue, double-crosses, mystery and suspense as well as the amazing costumes and jewellery – all well worth the 2 hour 47 minute run time and I can’t wait for Part 2!

The story is an adaptation by Mani Ratnam and Elango Kumaravel of the novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki Krishnamurthy. As I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on whether the plot has been changed much, but I suspect that the story has been simplified to make it fit into 2 parts. It’s still pretty clear what’s going on and who’s who, thanks to the defining performances from the stellar cast line-up. The story starts with a quick overview of the Chola dynasty, their defeat of the Pandyas and the appearance of a shooting star in the sky, which apparently signals bad news for the current royal family. After winning his latest battle, the crown prince, Aditha Karikalan (Vikram) sends Vallavaraiyan Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) on a mission to spy on officials meeting at Kadambur palace and report back to the emperor Sundara Chola (Prakash Raj) and Aditha’s sister, the princess Kundavai Devi (Trisha). Vallavaraiyan discovers the chancellor of the Chola kingdom Periya Pazhuvettarayar (R. Sarathkumar) is involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Sundar and crown his cousin Madhurantakan (Rahman) emperor instead. That’s a lot of long names, but the characters are all so different, that keeping them all straight isn’t as difficult as it may seem!

Pazhuvettarayar is married to Nandini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), an acclaimed beauty who was previously in love with Aditha. Nandini has her own motives and plans to overthrow the Chola empire, but these are much more convoluted than those of her husband and she has allies such as Ravidasan (Kishore), the leader of the exiled Pandya’s. Also involved is Pazhuvettarayar’s brother Chinna Pazhuvettarayar (R. Parthiban), who is in charge of the fort in Thanjavur and who tries to capture Vallavaraiyan when he meets with the king.

Vallavaraiyan is entranced by Kundavai Devi, but she immediately sends him off to Lanka to bring the younger prince Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi) aka Ponniyin Selvan back to Thanjavur. This involves Vallavaraiyan hitching a ride with Poonguzhali (Aishwarya Lekshmi) across the sea and then fighting with the prince before finally  helping Arulmozhi as he evades Pandya assassins to reach the boat sent by his father to bring Arulmozhi home. Along the way Vallavaraiyan is helped by a poet and temple flower seller, Sendhan (Ashwin Kakumanu) and the rather eccentric Thirumalaiappan (Jayaram). There are various other minor characters who add yet more detail and background into the plot, including chieftains, fiancées, defeated princes and various soldiers, servants, government officials and friends of the main characters. It does take a second watch to sort out exactly who everyone is, but Aditha, Arulmozhi, Vallavaraiyan, Kundavai and Nandini are the main players in this first part of the story.

What I really liked about PS1 is how real everything appears. Unlike the fairytale landscapes of Baahubali or sanitised forts in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, here everything seems plausible and historical rather than imagined. The battles are sweaty and bloody, while the fortifications look as if they were made to withstand armies and sieges. It’s more Aragorn in LOTR than Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani. The costumes though are detailed and intricate with plenty of shine and shimmer as you’d expect from a story about kings and their empire. The jewellery in particular is outstanding and just gorgeous. At times I wondered just how Aishwarya and Trisha were managing to walk with all that hardware, but it does give them both a very regal appearance. The hairstyles too are amazing and even the men get in on the costume action with their fancy armour and weaponry.

What really stands out though are the performances, especially the two main female leads and Karthi. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is always good with the right director, and here she is perfect as a woman in conflict with herself. It’s clear that she is suffering and that when she says she has deep wounds, we can see that these are with her all the time. The conflict between her previous love for Aditha, her marriage to Pazhuvettarayar and her commitment to the Pandya’s seems impossible to resolve and Aishwarya ensures this is always present as a shadow across her face every time she is on screen. Her eyes show she is a woman in pain, internally conflicted and caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. When Aishwarya is good, she’s very, very good, and here she delivers in every scene. Trisha too is excellent as Kundavai Devi. She’s regal but still able to unbend when speaking to her friends, and conveys the right amount of political savvy that makes her vitally important to the kingdom. There is a wonderful scene when Kundavai returns to Thanjavur and meets Nandini, where the power play between the two in just a few moments ensures we all know who is really in control of the empire, albeit working behind the scene.

I expect Karthi to be good, but here he is outstanding as the rather irreverent friend trying to help Aditha but enjoying himself along the way. He has a great relationship with his horse, and the comedy between Vallavaraiyan, his horse Semba and chance met Thirumalaiappan provides excellent contrast to the more serious scenes with Aditha, his close friend Parthibendran (Vikram Prabhu) and Arulmozhi. Karthi is great in the action scenes but even better in his interactions with Kundavai and Arulmozhi and also with Nandini. He hits just the right mix of action, sarcasm, comedy and quick witted political savvy making sure that Vallavaraiyan is an intriguing character, and in many ways more interesting than the two princes. Although Jayam Ravi is good as Arulmozhi, it’s a more serious role and he doesn’t have quite the same impact as Karthi here. I am expecting more in Part 2, given the film bears his name. As Aditha, Vikram on the other hand vacillates between berserker warrior and manically depressed jilted lover as he thinks about Nandini and their broken relationship. At times he’s brilliant, but then he starts chewing the scenery again, and it’s hard to take Aditha’s pain as seriously as that of Nandini. Vikram is still very good, just a little too OTT at times, and hopefully will be more retrained in the second half – or just stick to the action!

The action sequences are exhilarating and mostly a lot of fun. Battles are fought between armies but also on board ships, in chase sequences and on elephant and horseback. There are loads of actions scenes too, so Mani Ratnam seems to have thrown in every kind of battle you can think of, and almost every single weapon as well. The choreography is well done to keep the action exciting, even though we expect the good guys to win. But there is still plenty of tension and the outcome isn’t always quite as expected.

I also really liked A.R. Rahman’s music, mostly the songs but the background music was also good and effective throughout the film. This is probably my favourite.

When you start with a good story, it should make a good film, but not everyone can manage to take such a complex tale and turn it into a blockbuster. Mani Ratnam can and every aspect of this film shows his skill. The story moves on at a fast pace, the characters are all clear with well described motivations, and even the intrigue is dealt with appropriately so that not everything is revealed by the end of the film. I loved every aspect of the film and I hope part 2 is just as exciting. 4½ stars

I (2015)

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Shankar is a director who has proved in the past to have amazing vision and a seemingly unending wealth of imaginative ideas. Many of his previous films have been visually stunning with incredible effects and novel concepts, but he seems to have missed the mark somewhat with his latest movie I. He has the benefit of an excellent cast and a potentially interesting story, but somehow the sum of the whole is not as good as each individual part. The film has a few too many cringe-worthy moments to make me want to see it again although Vikram is superb, and Amy Jackson is also impressive despite a rather limited role. However their characters aren’t particularly likeable and the story meanders annoyingly along several inconsequential paths before finally reaching the predictable and cloyingly trite end. I’m not even going to complain about the dodgy medicine since there was so much else that bothered me more about the improbable and often distasteful screenplay, but the ‘science’ is just as far-fetched as the rest of the story. Really the only reason I can give to watch I is Vikram and his impressive ability to transform himself into just about anyone, and that’s not quite enough to justify the 3 hours plus of I.

The story revolves around Lingesan (Vikram), a body builder from the back streets whose ambition in life is to win the Mr India competition. Be warned, there is a lot of flexing and posing in the first half hour of the film, while Lingesan tries to win the Mr Tamil Nadu crown from a large number of other over-muscled and over-oiled men in very skimpy bathers. It’s quite impressive that Vikram managed to achieve this look, but it’s not attractive and I was much happier once he put his clothes back on and backed off on the oil. Unfortunately he doesn’t really stop the flexing and posing even when fully clothed.

There is also a ridiculous fight scene backstage at the Mr Tamil Nadu championships with Lingesan managing to fight off multiple opponents including his arch-rival Ravi (M. Kamaraj). Ravi is a much better contender for the title of Mr Tamil Nadu so it’s a little surprising that he takes Lingesan as an opponent so seriously, but at least there is a relatively valid reason for the ongoing enmity between the two men, even if it does seem unlikely.

Lingesan is also obsessed with model Diya (Amy Jackson) to the point where he purchases absolutely anything she has endorsed, and I do mean absolutely everything. It’s quite creepy initially but does move out of stalker territory once Diya and Lingesan meet and Lingesan starts behaving like a 13 year old besotted schoolboy instead. It’s not a lot better but at least it’s funnier. Santhanan provides the rest of the comedy as Lingesan’s brother Babu, and for the most part he’s reasonably amusing, although a comedy track really wasn’t needed given just how ridiculous the plot becomes in the second half of the film.

From body builder to model is apparently as simple as getting a haircut and shaving off a moustache and with that Lingesan transforms into successful model Lee on the basis of one ad campaign and a romance with his muse Diya. However to get to this point Lingesan has pissed off quite a few people including the obnoxiously sleazy model John (Upen Patel) who is furious at being foiled in his attempts to get Diya into bed. Diya’s transgender make-up artist Osma (Ojas Rajani) also falls in love with Lingesan and is hurt and vengeful after his rather forceful rejection of her advances. John’s behavior is fairly gross but nothing unexpected for a masala movie, but the ‘romance’ between Osma and Lee is badly developed and feels more homophobic and derogatory than necessary. I can’t decide if Shankar was trying to be clever here and make a point about how the world views people who are transgender given that the film is based in the advertising world and uses image and ideals of beauty to develop the plot, or if this really was just a bad piece of writing, but it’s hard to watch whatever the reasoning.

Interspersed with the frothy romance are flashes to the present day where a hunched and grossly deformed Lingesan has kidnapped Diya on her wedding day, and the story gradually shifts to a tale of vengeance and medical improbability. Here at least the idea of image and beauty does get a little more developed although the masala element is still very much to the fore. Lingesan seeks revenge on the people who have caused his illness and as scientific reality goes out the window the story gets ever more ridiculous until the Beauty and Beast song seems quite normal and believable by comparison. It’s also a pleasant relief from all the disfigurement and maiming, although like other songs in the film it’s not well integrated into the narrative.

There are a number of more mundane inconsistencies such as the sudden turnaround in Diya’s treatment of hunchback Lingesan and Lingesan’s continued strength and agility given his deformed body. Not that any of the rest of it makes any more sense, but there is too much that is implausible and the story becomes too far-fetched to take seriously. However there are also far too many scenes where the people variously handicapped as a result of Lingesan’s revenge are ridiculed and mocked for their appearance and disability. It’s part of the plot sure – these are people who now look as ugly on the outside as they are on the inside, but I found this really quite shocking and abhorrent, particularly as it’s meant to be part of the comedy and is anything but funny.

This is definitely Vikram’s show and he does do an amazing job in portraying the two different faces of Lingesan.  Amy Jackson is much better than I expected, and the rest of the cast are all good given that they are all overshadowed by the powerhouse that is Vikram. The special effects by Weta Workshop are also very well done, and it’s such a shame that the story doesn’t come anywhere close to matching the visuals of the film. Of course it’s a story set in a world where image is all and appearance trumps substance at every stage so perhaps that’s not too surprising after all.

Bheema

Bheema centres on the key players in a gang and their interactions with rivals and police in Chennai. It’s quite a sanitised version of the criminal underworld, and little detail  is revealed about the nature of how these guys make a living. But it has two fantastic actors at the forefront, a delightful bromance, and a focus on characters that makes the who and why of the story more interesting than the what.

Chinna (Prakash Raj) is the local hard man. He started small in a small town and has risen to become one of the biggest crimelords in Chennai. His business dealings are never overtly discussed but he is presented as a ‘good’ gangster. He looks after the defenceless, his guys don’t attack women and children, and he plays by ‘the code’. Prakash Raj is perfectly cast. He makes Chinna likeable, roguish, aggressive and menacing by turns. Chinna is under threat from an old associate (Raghuvaran) and has an uneasy and crumbling detente with the local police. Things are getting tougher, but he is not one to back down. There is a lot more to the character than just being a figurehead, and I liked the glimpses into Chinna’s past, his conversations with old advisors, his wife, even the police, that showed different facets. He thought through the consequences, he reacted emotionally to some situations and I could understand the loyalty Chinna inspired because he seemed real yet powerful. I always enjoy seeing Prakash Raj in a more substantial role, and this is one of my favourites.

Sekar (Vikram) is an enigmatic figure, shadowing Chinna and despatching his enemies before Chinna can. The reason for his obsession eventually emerges via flashback, and it reinforces the notion that justice is not delivered by the law, and what makes a man is the ability to beat the living daylights out of another man. Sekar believes in instant justice, delivered as he sees fit. Even the police in Bheema argue that they can’t operate with the constraints of bureaucracy and low budgets, and have to break the rules to achieve what they see as justice. Sekar is given the name Bheema by the police in recognition of his strength and his role in Chinna’s life.

Sekar’s sole ambition was to one day join Chinna, his role model for strength and justice and a more satisfying father figure than his ineffectual policeman dad. I’ve often wondered why characters stick with their gangleader and don’t just leg it when things get crazy. Writer Sujatha provides a backstory and motivation that gives more to these guys than just being the good baddies. Vikram switches effortlessly from the full throttle action sequences to gazing mistily at Chinna or quarrelling with Shalu, and his physicality suits the invincible Sekar. Vikram’s rapport with Prakash Raj is one of my favourite things about the film and they play off each other very well.

It’s a man’s world, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Vikram steals the focus from the item girl in this song, and Prakash Raj is the one to be almost upskirted.

What sets Bheema apart from other grim gangster fairytales is characters having a life, or at least ideas, outside of the job. Chinna was in love with Padma but they drifted apart. Sekar, ever the loyal lieutenant, reunites them.

Prakash Raj does some delightfully girly fidgeting and stammering, and can’t hide either his happiness or trepidation at marrying his old flame.

Padma (Lakshmi Gopalaswamy) is gorgeous and her scenes with Chinna have a warmth and maturity that suits the slightly older lovebirds. They talk about the risks of her being part of his life, and she is firm in her assertion that she has no illusions. I found the dialogue rather flowery but the emotions came through and they seemed to have a deep mutual affection. He talks to Padma about Sekar, since Sekar is like family and Padma is in charge of the household. She and Chinna make fun of Sekar when they find out he is turning into a gooey romantic wittering about flowers, and their playful banter is another glimpse into the relationship.

Sekar loses his focus on being a thug when he starts to think of love and  Shalini (Trisha). He knows that his priorities have shifted and he can’t rely on himself to be as focussed, fearless and impulsive as he once was.  Chinna lets Sekar go, in a scene more like a breakup than an exit interview.

Unfortunately, Shalini (Trisha) is stupid and irritating for almost all her time in the story. I’m not sure why Indian film heroines characterise innocence by appearing to be dim-witted but Shalu is dumb as a box of rocks and about as interesting. Sekar falls through the roof into her courtyard one night, landing on her. Because of this, she decides he is the one, manufacturing reasons to be near him and imagining they share likes and dislikes based on absolutely no evidence. I did find her stalking Sekar mildly amusing just because it is a bit of turning the tables, but that was all I could see in her favour until quite late in the piece.

Once Sekar succumbs, Vikram and Trisha generate some chemistry and that made their relationship seem vaguely plausible. I liked that they had playful but still intimate scenes together as things developed, and it helped make up for the brain-dead start.

Chinna is a surprisingly sentimental old school don and sometimes that works against him, as he plays by rules others are starting to disregard. Sekar idolises Chinna and can’t abandon his old boss but feels compelled to take Shalini away. Once the other players sense weakness in Chinna, they start closing in. How will it all work out?

There are indicators. Shafi is in the support cast in Chinna’s gang. And Shafi does tend to play characters that bite the hand that feeds them. Also, I have developed a theory. In the imaginary Tamil Film Writing School in my mind, the compulsory class on ‘Ways to End a Film – Traditional (aka Everyone Dies (Rape Optional)’ is well attended. The final elective class ‘Ways to End a Film – Creative Writing (aka ‘No Rape, No Murder – stop being so lazy and think of something else’) falls the day after the big end of year dinner and people are either too hungover or they’ve already got enough credits to graduate, so most students don’t go. Thus there is generally one ending for a Tamil film, regardless.

I quite like the songs by Harris Jayaraj, but the picturisations of the romantic duets seem to exist mostly as a safe channel for the wardrobe department to vent their creativity.

The support cast includes so many reliable character players but the focus isn’t on them and I barely paid any heed to Ashish Vidyarthi, Tanikella Bharani, Shafi, or Raghuvaran among others. Chinna and Sekar dominate the story and Prakash Raj and Vikram likewise dominate the performances.

Linguswamy has directed an action packed film that doesn’t feel hurried or slapdash, and it is very satisfying to a point. The ending was a disappointment and yet almost exactly what I expected. The action scenes are typically excellent as is standard for this genre. There were some nice little extras – when Sekar belted a group of guys with a metal pipe, they chimed like bells as they dropped. The editing is good and the quick cuts and occasional use of effects enhance the sense of urgency or disorientation. It’s a very competent film and a pleasure to watch.

If you’re lukewarm on the South Indian gangster genre, this could be well worth a look. It has better than usual characterisations, some excellent performances and good production values. And one of the best filmi bromances. 3 ½ stars!

Heather says: I’m a fan of Tamil gangster films and usually enjoy anything by N. Linguswamy, but Bheema was rather disappointing all round. Instead of the usual well-developed storyline and strong characterisation I expect from such an accomplished director, Bheema staggers from fight scene to overdone fight scene without any real justification for the characters acting in the way they do. Rahguvaran is ineffectual as the ‘evil’ don Periyavar and his feud with ‘gangster with a concious’ Chinna seems clichéd and unimaginative. The second part of the film which concentrates on the new Police Commissioner and his vendetta against the gangs is more convincing but still seems formulaic and just not that interesting. The relationship between Chinna’s new lieutenant Sekar and the rest of the gang could have been made into something more exciting but instead it’s thrown in towards the end to try and spice up the climax. Something which only works to a limited extent. However, it’s good to see that Shafi continues his quest to always play the smarmy, self-satisfied sycophant and he does his usual thing here as one of Chinna’s men to good effect.

Despite the issues I have with the story, Bheema is saved to some extent by the excellent performances from Prakash Raj and Vikram who both breathe life into the film. I agree with Temple that their camaraderie feels very genuine and the interactions between the two do much to make up for the dreariness of the plot. Vikram’s character is very much the strong silent type and he does a good job with the rather dour Sekar, but Prakash Raj steals the show as the gangster with a heart. His romance is perfectly played and he brings out a human side to Chinna making him much more than just another world-weary gangster. Despite his good performance, Vikram looks rather over muscled here and I confess that I prefer him in more character driven roles such as in Pithamagan and Kasi where he has more range to work with. The one-man indestructible army of Sekar was just a little bit too much to take, especially with the distracting musical sound effects and overly loud soundtrack during the fight scenes.   The implausible relationship between Shalini and Sekar was another disappointment and the two never felt comfortable together –  odd, considering the considerable chemistry the two actors shared in Saamy. In fact there is much more sparkle between Chinna and Sekar!

Bheema does have a good soundtrack and there are moments where the film starts to grab your attention, but sadly they’re just not sustained. Worth watching once for Vikram and Prakash Raj but that’s all. 2 ½ stars.