Bigil

Atlee’s latest film is a mix of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is Vijay, who shines in a double role despite the rambling and overlong story; the bad is the general misogyny of the screenplay where it takes a man to bring success to a female team who were already heading to the India Finals; and the ugly is some awful fat-shaming which Atlee and fellow screen-writer S. Ramana Girivasan seem to feel is acceptable as motivation. The story follows a retired football player who sets aside his gangster persona to coach a women’s football team, but despite some superficial similarities this is no Chak De. However, getting past the bad and the ugly, Rahman’s music is good, the dancing excellent and there is one part of the story which is more than simply token feminism. For a mass entertainer for the holiday season Bigil isn’t a bad option – it’s just that it’s not anywhere near as good as it could have been.

Michael, aka Bigil (Vijay) is a state level football player who is apparently talented enough to get into the national team. His father Rayappan (also Vijay) is a gangster in Chennai who is savvy enough to push his son towards athleticism and away from rowdyism, recognising that this will inspire others in the neighbourhood. Rayappan is a typical filmi gangster – out to defend the poor and marginalised against everyone trying to exploit them, chief of which is a rival gang, headed by Alex (I.M. Vijayan) and his son Daniel (Daniel Balaji). But neither Rayappan nor Bigil understand the internal politics of football in India which works against his success, and when Rayappan is killed, Bigil gives up his dreams and return to being plain Michael, head of the rowdies in his area and defender of the helpless.

When Michael’s friend and Tamil Nadu women’s football team coach Kathir (Kathir) is injured, Michael is persuaded to take on the task of coach instead. Something the women resent since they blame Michael for Kathir’s injury – which is totally true. The women need a coach in order to be able to compete, but although much of the film takes place in Delhi at the football championships, this is never about the women’s team and their battle to overcome poverty and adversity to win. In Atlee’s film the women are incapable of making it by themselves and need Michael to show them how to train effectively and ultimately goad them towards victory. Michael is able to convince a conservative husband to let his wife compete, persuade Anitha (Reba Monica John) to take off her face scarves and play after she is assaulted with acid and induce Vembu (Indhuja) and Thendral (Amritha Aiyer) to play together as a team. All while simultaneously dealing with gang attacks from Daniel and internal attacks from the Head of the Football association J.K. Sharma (Jackie Shroff). The assumption that the women need a strong and capable man to lead them to victory is condescending and patronizing, but Atlee breezes past this issue so that Vijay can be seen to be a sensitive, caring and motivating kind of guy. Up until he wants Pandiyamma (Indraja Shankar) to get angry out on the field and uses fat-shaming insults to get her there. Not cool at all, and really incredibly disappointing that in 2019 this kind of behaviour is being legitimised by a major star in a big budget film.

That’s the most of the bad and the ugly out of the way – and the rest is the good. Vijay smiles and dances his way through inspirational numbers, kicks a football around the field and beats up the bad guys with plenty of energy and joie de vivre. The fight scenes involve the usual ‘one man-against-the-masses’ sequences, but they are well staged and the stunts are generally impressive. The football action is almost as good, although it does look staged and filmi, particularly compared to films such as Sudani from Nigeria where the action is more realistic.  However Atlee gets points for getting women’s football onto mainstream screens, and for promoting the game as one that everyone can play. It’s also good to see some recognition of the challenges faced by the team members, despite most of these being glossed over and only mentioned in Michael’s motivational speeches. There are two exceptions – Gayathri (Varsha Bollamma) is shown as having to overcome a prejudiced and narrow-minded family situation, although again it’s her husband who makes the decision and allows her to play. Anitha has a much better story as the acid-attack survivor who has to come to terms with her injury and loss of confidence as a result.

The best parts of the film have nothing to do with the women’s team, but instead are focused on Michael and his relationship with his father. As Rayappan, Vijay is simply superb and totally convinces as an older don trying to do his best for his family and his area. The relationship between father and son is beautifully written and the effects well done to allow both Vijay’s to converse together, hug and generally interact as if they were together in reality. The conversations between the two reveal much about both characters, and it’s this emotion that is more truly inspirational than any of the plot around the football team. Here there is some of the best acting from Vijay, where he isn’t a superstar, but instead simply a father trying to do the best for his son (naturally with some great actions sequences too) but there is light and shade to the character and Vijay does an excellent job in portraying these shadows as well as the strengths of the character. Michael is a more typical Vijay ‘hero’ persona, but there is still some depth and again Vijay is excellent in the role.

Naturally there is also a romance, this time a physiotherapist who comes with Michael to help the team in Delhi. Angel (Nayanthara) has rejected a number of marriages while waiting for Michael to come to his senses and marry her, but apart from this show of spirit, she’s a typical Tamil filmi heroine who just has to look pretty for the songs and support her man through thick and thin. Nayahthara does what she can with the role, but it’s thin pickings despite some good comedy in her introduction. This would have been a much better film if Nayanthara had been the coach and the gangster thread between Michael and Rayappan a side theme, but I guess that’s a little too much to ask for.

The film does look fantastic and the song sequences in particular are brilliantly picturised. There is plenty of colour and A.R. Rahman’s music fits beautifully into the action. Rekhs (aided by Harini) comes through with brilliantly translated song lyrics and even translations of written signs that are significant for the plot. Directors and producers take note – this is how you subtitle a film for an international audience – it makes all the difference when subs are in idiomatic English and easy-to-read yellow.

Atlee does throw everything into this film, and as a result some of the threads simply don’t work within the larger context of the story. Although Jackie Shroff is the main villain, he’s never very threatening, and Daniel Balaji gets a much better storyline and resolution for his character too. He makes a great villain and his flawless performance is one of the highlights of the film. Meanwhile, Yogi Babu and Vivek indulge in some unnecessary slapstick, but the comedy from G. Gnanasambandam and George Maryan is subtler and funnier as a result. The film is at its best when focused on Vijay and this is where Atlee excels. He knows how to make his leading man look good, and how to keep the action exciting. Worth watching for Vijay, the excellent dancing and action scenes and for the colourful spectacle of it all.

Vellai Pookal

The idea of Vivek in a serious role as a cop investigating a succession of disappearances in America is intriguing, but despite some good ideas and the rather more unusual setting of Seattle, the film doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the trailer.  Director Vivek Elangovan and co-writer Shanmuga Bharathi have a story with potential that’s let down by poor dialogue for the inexperienced American cast and a slow introduction that fails to produce the necessary tension. On the plus side, Vivek pulls off his role as a retired detective and there is enough going on to keep the film interesting, even if it lacks enough suspense until near the end.

Vivek plays the role of Rudhran, a police officer in Chennai who investigates crimes by placing himself in the mind of the killer. The opening sequence shows this clearly, if somewhat bloodily, but already there is something just a little off with the screenplay. When Rudhran explains every clue, and conveniently finds the culprit close at hand, it all seems just a little too pat and easy, while the violence of the crime seems unsuited to the perpetrator and the revelation of his reasons. Still, it’s a good introduction and doesn’t show Rudhran as some kind of superhero cop, but rather as someone who relies on his intelligence and his instincts to bring a killer to justice.

This seems to have been Rudhran’s last case before retirement, and at the urging of his Deputy Inspector General (Gajaraj), he heads off to Seattle to visit his estranged son Ajay (Dev). Despite a friendly welcome, Rudhran still seems to have an issue with Ajay, but all is revealed when they arrive home to Alice (Paige Henderson), the white American woman Ajay has married. If his reaction to Ajay is chilly, Rudhran is positively glacial towards Alice, and practically refuses to acknowledge her existence. Later, we learn that this animosity isn’t simply because Alice is white, or even as a result of her attempts to speak Tamil, but rather is due to Ajay jilting the girl he was to marry in India just a few days before the wedding. Rudhran struggles to cope with Alice, the American food and the smart fridge featuring photos of the couple, all of which I found fairly relatable to be honest.

But Rudhran also complains about Seattle being too clean and quiet for him during phone calls to friends back home, as he misses the noise and chaos of Chennai and the excitement of police investigations.  Luckily, Ajay’s work colleague Ramya (Pooja Devariya) live with her parents, Bharati (Charle) and Meena (Sudha Rajasekaran) who quickly establish a relationship with Rudhran.

The neighbourhood isn’t as quiet as Rudhran thinks since first Ajay’s next-door neighbour, and then a neighbourhood kid both vanish under mysterious circumstances. Various characters are offered up as potential suspects but the issue is confused by occasional scenes of an abusive man, his bedridden wife and traumatised daughter. When Ajay joins the ranks of the missing the case becomes more than an interesting puzzle for Rudhran and he has to overcome his fears for Ajay before he can focus his skills as a detective.

The bones of the story are good but unfortunately there is too much that is predicable, especially in the long and drawn out set-up to Ajay’s disappearance. Most of the suspects are cliched characters too – there is a black drug dealer, Mona’s muscled boyfriend and a shady and uncommunicative Pakistani neighbour who all fall under Rudhran’s suspicions. This necessitates various plots and diversions by Bharati to allow Rudhran to investigate each suspect, but these don’t all work and mostly seem forced into the story to allow Vivekh and Charle a chance to revert back to their usual comedy schtick. We never get a good feel for the characters of Ajay and Alice, while the investigating police officers are drawn in very broad strokes, seemingly only included to get in Rudhran’s way and demonstrate 70’s TV cop clichés at every turn.

Also problematic are the scenes featuring Ethan (Lionel Flynn) and his daughter Nicole (Gabrielle Castronover) which seem ridiculously over the top and exaggerated. Ethan is purely evil and seems to spend his time dealing in drugs and stolen children, brutalising his wife and daughter and wastefully snorting massive amounts of cocaine. The problem with this is that Ethan is such a complete monster, and so removed from the rest of the storyline, that it seems obvious that the disappearances will be linked to him. This ends up removing any real sense of urgency or tension as we know who the real bad guy is and really are just waiting to see when he will cross paths with Rudhran. As it turns out there is a nice twist, but it’s spoiled by Rudhran explaining what has happened with a voice-over rather than just showing us the action. None of the American cast impress at all, with the possible exception of Gabrielle Castronover who has little dialogue but is still effective in getting her emotions across.

Despite these issues, the film is still watchable thanks to Vivek who really gets into the role, particularly when Rudhran the father has to take second place to the Rudhran the detective. He’s also excellent at portraying his frustration with retirement, with the lack of purpose to his days and his discomfort at being in his son’s house without having solved the problems that exist between them. His fear and frustration roil off the screen and in these moments it’s easy to forget that he’s mainly known for his comedic roles. There are some good scsnes too, such as when Rudhran interviews the missing people in his dreams, and interrogates his suspects – insisting that they all speak Tamil because it is his dream, and that is the language he speaks. These are cleverly done and it’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t show the same attention to detail and preciseness of dialogue that are shown here.

According to their website this was the first film from Indus Creations and it seems to be a collaboration among friends with a passion for theatre and film. As such, this is a good first dip into the murky waters of cinema and the team deserve credit for producing a watchable detective film with a difference. Tighter editing, better use of the American cast including less stilted dialogue would have made this a better film, but it’s still enjoyable and it’s probably the most inventive use of dandelions I’ve seen in an Indian film. Worth a one-time watch for Vivek and the inventive storyline. 3 stars.

Velaiilla Pattadhari (VIP) 2

VIP Poster

Sequels are always tricky. Returning to a popular character or scenario is fraught with unfavourable comparisons, and finding a new story that works while retaining the aspects that made the original film so popular is another minefield to cross. There are a few sequels that turn out better than the original film but they are the exception, and sadly VIP 2 isn’t one of them. However, while it may not be the best sequel ever made, it’s certainly not the worst and as an all-round entertainer, it fares reasonably well. Most of the success is due to Dhanush who carries the film over some occasionally rough ground, but Kajol makes a better than average adversary while the presence of many of the original cast (including Harry Potter) ensure good continuity with the first film.

After dealing with Arun in VIP, the sequel opens with Raghuvaran (Dhanush) still working for Ramkumar (M.J. Shriram) at Anitha Constructions and winning the Engineer of the Year award. This brings him to the attention of Vasundhara Parameshwar (Kajol) who runs the biggest engineering firm in South India. Raghuvaran’s dismissal of her offer of employment rankles, but not as much as his admonishment to be less arrogant when Anitha Constructions wins a big contract over Vasundhara. A self-made woman who has clawed her way up from the bottom, Vasundhara makes it her mission in life to squash Raghuvaran like the bug she perceives him to be, but of course it’s not going to be as simple as she believes.

All the elements are there from the previous film, Raghuvaran’s beloved cycle, his dedication to the memory of his mother, and his unfortunate tendency to drink too much when faced with a problem. What doesn’t work quite so well is the change in Shalini (Amala Paul) from a sensible romantic interest to a shrewish and nagging wife. Supposedly this is due to giving up her job and taking over all the household chores, which to be perfectly honest is enough to drive anyone to grumpiness, but the constant bickering wears thin very fast. Worst still, Shalini’s nagging is supposed to be funny, but it’s just as irritating to the audience as to Raghuvaran’s family.

Kajol is a huge improvement over Arun and his father as the villain of the piece. Her entrance is more typical of a hero as the first glimpse is of her stylish and very pointed stiletto hitting the ground as she arrives at the Engineering awards ceremony. In fact, the crowd reaction was just as loud and enthusiastic for Vasundhara’s entrance as it was for Raghuvaran’s first appearance on screen. Kajol totally owns the role and her arrogance and confidence are a perfect balance to Raghuvaran and Ramkumar’s humility and attention to detail. And yet she’s not evil or out to destroy the poor of society, simply determined to push though her own ideas and methods regardless of anyone standing in her way. However, after a great start, her repeated attempts to get the better of Raghuvaran start to seem petty and churlish rather than decisive and it seems unlikely that someone who had the strength and ability to run a successful company would be quite as petulant and narrow-minded. Still, Kajol is stunning as she sweeps around in her tailored suits and stylish sunglasses, while her menacing dialogues are surprisingly effective.

Raghuvan’s father (Samuthirakani) is a more supportive figure this time round, but his brother Karthik (Hrishkesh) barely gets to say a word and most of the VIP boys suffer the same fate. Without any substantial input, they become a faceless mass without any of the charm or appeal that allowed a connection to develop to these characters in the original film. The film is significantly more focused on Dhanush, who has the acting chops to carry it off, but at the expense of a more coherent storyline. The plot wanders as story and screenplay writers Dhanush and Soundarya Rajinikanth try to include as many of the characters as possible from VIP 1, but run out of things for them all to do. Saravana Subbiah pops up as an unscrupulous developer while Vivek reprises his role as Raghuvaran’s side-kick Azhagusundaram. While both are fine in their roles, the characters seem to be added in, one for comedy and one to have a reason for the fight scenes, rather than have a true background and reason to be in the script. The final confrontation between Raghuvaran and Vasundhara is also a little disappointing although otherwise the chemistry between Dhanush and Kajol is excellent and the atmosphere between the two crackles at each meeting.

Sean Roldan’s music is perfectly fine but the songs don’t have the same anthemic qualities as Anirudh’s previous tunes, a fact underscored every time the original theme for Raghuvaran plays in the background. However, the choreography is slicker than in the first film and the fight scenes are also of a high quality.

If this was a stand-alone film, I would have rated it as a good action movie with an interesting concept and two excellent characters in Raghuvaran and Vasundhara. The addition of a strong and powerful female character works well here, and Dhanush emphasizes gender equality a number of times throughout the film, although it doesn’t quite gel with his wife having stopped work to look after the family home. The problem is that this is a sequel, and while the original elements are cleverly arranged to form the foundation of the film, too much feels to be added simply because it was part of the first film, while VIP2 doesn’t have a strong enough identity to pull away and succeed without that original scaffolding being firmly in place. It is however much better than I expected and both Dhanush and Kajol turn in strong performances under Soundarya’s direction to make VIP2 more than just a film for fans, but one that’s unlikely to reach quite the same cult status as the original movie.