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.

Pithamagan

Pithamagan is not a film for the faint hearted. Like other Bala films, it deals with society’s poorest and most disadvantaged – in this case, he delves into the world of cremators, petty con artists and drug pedlars.  And yet it’s very watchable, with excellent performances from Vikram, Suriya and the rest of the cast making Pithamagan much more than just another film about the miseries of being poor and outcast.

The focus of the film is the relationship between Chittan, an orphaned cremator and Sakthi who is a small time criminal. Chittan is born in a graveyard and brought up there by the cremator who seems to do his best for the child. However Chittan grows up to be unable to deal with society; he cannot communicate in words, and is unable to understand the basic tenets of normal behaviour.

After his guardian dies, Chittan ventures into the local town where he creates mayhem before being rescued by Golmathi, a local cannabis dealer. He ends up following Golmathi home, and since she has a kind heart and feels sorry for another orphan like herself, she helps him to find a job. This turns out to be at a cannabis farm and when it is raided by police, Chittan ends up in jail. There he meets Sakthi who also feels sorry for Chittan and tries to help him cope with life inside prison. Sakthi is a petty crook who runs street tricks and confidence games which seems to have given him a performers approach to life. He has a sunny disposition and a positive outlook despite his circumstances and occasional rather interesting dress sense.

After Sakthi is released from jail he works with Golmathi to secure Chittan’s release, and along with Manju, a student who was once victim to Sakthi’s confidence tricks, the friends then spend most of their time together. They work on improving Chittan’s appearance and behaviour, and try to get him away from the drug trade with mixed results.  However, the local drug baron has other ideas and the final conclusion is as bloody and gruesome as you might expect.

While the story itself is rather predictable, overall the film works well and this is down to the chemistry between Vikram and Suriya. Vikram seems to be able to take any disability and make it instantly realistic. I really believed that he was blind in Kasi and here he is totally convincing as the mentally disturbed Chittan. His facial expressions are just perfect and he really does appear to be totally wild and uncontrolled. It’s hard to define exactly what Chittan’s problem is, but as a scientist (and brain researcher!) I’m immediately intrigued and want to analyse the cause of his condition.  Is he simply a wild child – raised without the benefit of society and therefore unable to function within its rules? Or is it more organic and he has a functional neural developmental problem? I tend to favour the latter as the cremator who took him in was able to speak and obviously had some idea of how to interact with the townspeople. So the total inability of Chittan to communicate and relate seems to be something more than just growing up with little social contact. It also doesn’t explain why he was able to fight so well, but obviously that was essential to the plot and we can’t ask for too much realism I guess. I love that he left the policeman upside down in the shot below – the fight scenes really were good in this.

I also find it interesting that in so many of Vikram’s films, his character is somewhat crazed, and he is completely convincing each time! But as good as Vikram’s performance here is, I think that Suriya manages to equal it. This is the first film where I have really ‘got’ Suriya’s appeal. I’ve seen him in a number of films and while I thought he was good as the cop, or the good guy, or even as the bad guy, I’ve never felt that he’s been anything more than that . But Suriya is absolutely fantastic in this film. He is funny and charming, and breathes life into the story. Most of the comedy comes from Sakthi and his various cons, and without this balance Pithamagan would have been very grim indeed. Suriya’s character has plenty of flaws but at heart he is kind and his relationship with Chittan allows this side of his character to flourish.

Sakthi’s friendship with Chittan is cleverly developed throughout the story and makes it credible that the two would end up as constant companions. Chittan seems initially perplexed by Sakthi’s benevolence towards him but soon realises the benefit of a friend. And later, Chittan’s obvious jealousy when Manju is spending time with Sakthi is both childlike and logical since Sakthi has become the centre of his world.

Sangitha is perfect as Golmathi with her paan-stained lips and philosophical approach to life. Her character is another orphan and her initial pity for Chittan seems similar to how she would feel for a stray dog. But as a drug dealer and someone who is shunned by the local community (unless they want her product), she is able to empathise with his alienation and is the first person to start opening up his world. Golmathi’s emotions and reactions are all plain to see on her face which helps make her character much more sympathetic.

On the other hand, the first time I watched this film I really didn’t like Laila’s character and felt that she over played the schoolgirl. But on re-watching, I think she was supposed to be a fun character with a sense of adventure and an awareness of the possibilities of life which was intriguing to Sakthi. However I think Manju is a much less believable character than the others, and her presence is often more irritating than anything else. Initially her father seemed to be quite strict, even taking her to the jail to beg for Sakti’s forgiveness for her actions, which in itself seemed a really strange thing to do. But then later on in the story, her family seem to let her do whatever she wants, despite knowing that the man she is involved with is a convicted criminal. They do turn up to support Manju in the end, by which time it seems to be too late and is perhaps just a way to make a contrast to the other characters  whose only family is each other. Manju’s presence also provides another dynamic to the relationship between the two men since she becomes a barrier between them. But my biggest issue with her character is her inability to articulate what had happened to Sakthi, and this is a major flaw in the story for me. While I’m quite sure that in real life people become too distressed to be able to communicate, here it just didn’t seem to suit her personality, even allowing for her youth. It was also just a bit too over the top and filmi for a story that relies so much on gritty realism – at least for most of the film.

There is one other odd note, which is the protracted interlude with Simran. This completely changes the nature of the film and lasts just a bit too long. In fact it reminded me of the Hindi film Shakti, where Shah Rukh Khan turns up for an item song and ends up taking over a large part of the final scenes. While the song here is fantastic, and I love it, it stops the flow of the story and the subsequent scenes initially feel out of place as the pace abruptly changes again. But here it is anyway, since both Simran and Suriya are brilliant and it’s very funny.

I think Pithamagan is an excellent film despite a few flaws with the pacing. The friendships are successfully portrayed and the action is fast and well choreographed. Vikram’s grunting and animal noises are interesting and effective, and so much better than his singing which is absolutely brilliant in its tonelessness. I wonder just how hard Vikram had to work to make it sound that bad! The music by Ilayaraja is quite beautiful but not particularly memorable, especially since it’s often used as a backdrop for more of the story. Overall though it’s the performances that make this film worth watching and I would recommend it for Vikram and Suriya who are both outstanding. 4 stars.