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.

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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.

Kolamavu Kokila

Kolamavu Kokila

Nelson’s début film is a dark comedy that unusually for Tamil cinema, has a female lead and a strongly female-centric storyline.  Nayanthara is the titular Kokila who gets caught up in the drug trade when she needs to raise some money fast, but the success of the film is really down to the strong performances from Saranya Ponvannan and Yogi Babu, along with the family dynamics which help to keep the story grounded. I did struggle a little with some of the comedy as my DVD is not subtitled and the only subs I could find online were patchy and rarely made sense, but for the most part the story is self-explanatory and relatively easy to follow.

The film starts with gangster Bhai (Hareesh Peradi) flexing his muscles and getting rid of a police officer who has been interfering with his cocaine operation. Having convinced us that the drug dealers are a vicious bunch best avoided, the film then introduces Kokila (Nayanthara) who is looking for an increase in her sales assistant salary. She’s the main breadwinner in her family as her father’s job as an ATM security job doesn’t pay well and with her sister at college, every penny counts. However, her sleazy boss suggests that the only way she will get a raise is if she meets him after work and makes it worth his while, so Kokila promptly leaves her job to look for something more rewarding. She ends up working as the manager of a massage company which pays much better and seems to have less risk of sexual harassment. But things take a turn for the worse after Kokila’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) is diagnosed with lung cancer and the family needs to raise 15 lakhs for her treatment.

These introductory scenes work well to introduce the different characters and give a quick sense of who they are. Although Kokila’s father (R.S. Shivaji) has little part to play in proceedings, his passive acceptance of his lot in life illustrates just why the family is in the situation of needing more funds. The interactions between Kokila’s more aggressive mother (Saranya Ponvannan), her sister Shobi (Jacqueline Fernandez) and her father are excellent vignettes of domestic life. Kokila is protective of her father against the rest of the family’s dismissive comments perhaps because Kokila understands the difficulties of working in a dead-end job every day. This introduction also shows Kokila as a strong personality who stands up for herself against her boss’s sordid suggestions, but unfortunately, she loses this confidence later in the film and seems terrified of her own shadow.

Nelson doesn’t let his leading lady jump straight into the drug trade as an easy fix for her problem. Kokila tries a number of different ways to raise the money first. She speaks to relatives, asks for an advance for work and even approaches an NGO, but during a visit to a broker to see if she can sell some land, she inadvertently helps the police apprehend a drug pusher in the building. His boss, Bobby, insists that Kokila make good her mistake and sends her in to retrieve the hidden drugs. So, when all else fails, Kokila decides to approach Bobby and work as a drug mule to raise the cash for her mother’s treatment.

Bobby introduces Kokila to Mohan (Charles Vinoth), one of Bhai’s gang members, who decides that she looks innocent and unlikely to be suspected of carrying drugs, and he immediately employs her to take cocaine to his partner Alphonse (Rajendran). However a number of close shaves with the police lead Kokila to decide she wants out of the operation, but of course it’s much harder to leave than it is to join the business. Finally, after an altercation with Mohan, Bobby comes up with a final delivery of 300kg of cocaine that Kokila must deliver before she can leave.

What makes the film work so well are the peripheral characters. The story starts off well, but a combination of unlikely scenarios and a few too many coincidences mar the second half. Also, Kokila seems way to meek and nervous to ever go against the gangsters so it doesn’t make sense that she would take such tremendous risks and try to beat them at their own game. Nayahthara always has the same expression, downcast eyes and a stammering voice when dealing with Mohan and Bhai, and this continual overly meek appearance that ensures that there is very little tension or suspense as the story unfolds. There is never any glimpse into what Kokila is really thinking, and although she deceives the gangsters it seems to be almost by accident, since she always seems so scared of everyone. I wish there had been some acknowledgment of her plans and visible reactions from her when she did outsmart the gangsters which would have put an entirely different spin on the whole shenanigans. Instead it’s Saranya Ponvannan who steps up and really makes her presence felt as a determined and very capable ally in Kokila’s fight against the gangs. She’s scared but feisty and steps out of her usual mother role to play a very competent scam artist! She is the strong character here, and I love how she deals with potential rapists while the rest of the family appear shell shocked by her capacity for violence. It’s a brilliant portrayal that literally saves the second half of the film.

Yogu Babu is also excellent here and he provides most of the comedy in the first half, first appearing as grocery store owner Sekar who is in love with Kokila and is determined to marry her. Although much is made of his appearance and the unlikely match-up between him and Kokila, the real jokes start when Sekar gets mixed up in the family’s attempts to deliver the 300kg of drugs. Also dragged in is Shobi’s suitor Lakshman Kumar (Anbu Thasan) who mostly seems mentally deranged to me but that could be partly due to the lack of subtitles.

The character of Shekar fits well into the narrative and  Yogi Babu has perfect comedy timing, particularly when he realises exactly what is happening and the danger he has mistakenly stumbled into. I also love this song where he declares his love for Kokila. A brilliant tune from Anirudh and simply perfect choreography!

The film looks incredibly stylish and cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan sets up each frame beautifully. He contrasts colour and shape to produce some stunning images while still capturing Kokila’s reluctance to smuggle drugs and her family’s desperation. The images are also an excellent contrast to the sleazy world of drugs and the grubby men involved in the trade. Nelson uses these contrasts to good effect, and if only the character of Kokila had had the same light and shade this would have been a much better film. Instead, while there are many excellent individual scenes in the film, overall it starts to drag towards the end when the interactions between Kokila and the various gang members become repetitive and less convincing. On the plus side though, Nayathara is excellent in scenes with her family and in the first half her characterisation works well with the story. Also good is Anirudh Ravichander’s soundtrack and I really love the songs here. There is a good mix of haunting melody and more upbeat music, including the excellent Kabishabaa Coco (aka the gibberish song!)

Although Kolamavu Kokila isn’t perfect, there is enough here to make it a worthwhile watch. Using a heroine instead of a hero is inspired and the black comedy around the central figure of Kokila works well. There is a good story here and it just needed a little more variation in Kokila’s character to give it some extra tension and suspense which would make it a great story. Despite the one note in her characterisation, Nayanthara holds the film together well and does make an empathetic central character. As a début film it’s definitely better than average and well worth catching for Nayanthara, Yogi Babu, Saranya Ponvannan and the awesome soundtrack. 3 ½ stars.

Kolamavu Kokila