Saturday, January 20, 2018

A 2017 Tamil films' list

Favourite films

மாநகரம்: pitch-perfect is the word. An exercise in style without a false beat. What's most remarkable about the film is it is slick *and* tonally serious. The plot interlocking here is obviously derivative of Guy Ritchie and the like but it's interesting how Lokesh Kanagaraj wants his film to be more serious and gritty that ultimately aligns the work more with the best of contemporary Tamil cinema than any of the tongue-in-cheek/ironic distance that usually characterizes such derivative works and Guy Ritchie's own filmography. The film also decidedly stops short of becoming a truly grim portrait of the urban landscape (for all the violence in the film, nobody dies! incidentally the director has also talked about how this was a conscious choice...) or a deeper exploration of the proverbial "what's the right thing for an individual to do?" à la Mysskin. But there's often a lurking sense of this question and the film cleverly opts to only point to it rather than dwell on it for its own running time. In other words, the entertainment/thrill of the film's yarn relies on the very violence the film means to decry. But I'd argue the film, to its credit, offers a specific (interesting if sketchy) perspective on violence through one of its lead characters (a very effective Sundeep Kishan). This character clearly (as if to mirror the film's own impulse) emerges as the more forceful/compelling figure in the film than the other lead (Sri's casting here seems a nod to his role in ஓநாயும் ஆட்டுக்குட்டியும் playing a character in a somewhat similar helpless good Samaritan role, though that film is otherwise set in a universe of a very different worldview).

குரங்கு பொம்மை: exceptionally well directed film. This is a film of interiors, all of them so well realised and shot, brilliantly demonstrating how cinematic a film can be even when you're not shooting in real exterior locations (the latter is without doubt something many Tamil filmmakers since காதல் have excelled at). All the turns the film takes are not effective (some of them come off as rather prosaic) but even in that respect, I appreciated the film's earnest attempt to imbue its story with a sense of wider meaning (as opposed to solely into being clever in tying its yarn together).

Interesting but have some/quite a few reservations

தீரன்: அதிகாரம் ஒன்று
Does one thing and does it well. H. Vinoth's project is to imagine an action thriller out of a real life criminal case/investigation. The film has it both ways by making us aware of the broader social context in which the crimes/criminals occur (primarily in just 2 animation segments) and at the same time refuses to let that come in the way of fashioning a straightforward police actioner. The Bawaria gang is villainized in very obvious terms but I liked how the film also in some ways undercuts this by acknowledging that  they exist outside of the broader system/nation-state that has marginalized them (primarily via dialogue but also in the way the gang is depicted from a distance not fully accessible to us except as demonic eruptions); and more importantly by showing, even if only fleetingly, the colonialist nature of the conflict - in the way it depicts the overall operation as one of a modern well-equipped governmental force encountering a primitive group that is much less equipped but also 'untamed' for that very reason and systematically eliminating them (the return of the repressed, if you will).

அருவி
mishmash of multiple ideas, some work, some don't

8 தோட்டாக்கள்: at its best when it is a gritty urban landscape story, less effective and limited when it becomes something else wherein the Mysskin-esque melodrama/sadness and the Hollywood-friendly "heart of darkness" (à la 1 man's descent into pure darkness) seem awkwardly sandwiched, cutting off each other's effectiveness.

(Acclaimed films) I found quite boring and overrated:
ஒரு கிடாயின் கருணை மனு
துப்பறிவாளன்
அறம்

Monday, January 08, 2018

A quick and rough note on வேலைக்காரன்

Found வேலைக்காரன் quite effective. (There, I said it.) Still wondering why it hasn't received even a minimal praise or attention from discerning film-viewing circles...

The movie does tend to get verbose (and the director very much so in his interviews!) and and adds way more scenarios/incidents by way of plot than it needs - to that extent, it's a film of excess and it'd have been better and tauter if it had dwelt on just 1 narrative strand for more time and kept out some of the other narrative strands. But I liked that the film constantly strives to be imaginative, and when it works, it bristles with ideas both in terms of political imagination and (more importantly) storytelling style.

Some elements/ideas/strands that I found interesting if modest (in some cases, even somewhat confused):
  • We'll come to the politics of the film in a bit but I suspect one of the reasons this film is not receiving attention among the critics is because it's seeped in mainstream form and conventions. It's to Mohan Raja's credit that the film never mistakes serious purpose for a need to be dull and long-faced (never mind how the director seems to give himself a short shrift in this regard in interviews where he emphasises more on having a message than telling an interesting story). It strives to fold its purpose in a story arc, in the scenarios it invents, employing squarely mainstream storytelling idioms. The staging is all masala in a way that is first of all refreshing and also at times gives the film an edge/potency. Some moments/arcs that are worth mentioning:
    • The dramatic framing of Arivu (Sivakarthikeyan) taking a vow to transition from being a fool on Apr 1 to a worker proper on May 1, for instance, is beautifully done.
    • (Some other reviewers have highlighted this scene.) The scene that involves a live commentary of a local gang fight is again mounted with a sense of drama that has become all too rare. Consider the number of things that you learn as the scene progresses. This is when it's also revealed Arivu considers Kasi annan his chief nemesis. Even the visual of every individual appearing as Kasi has a meaning, as that's how Arivu sees the problematic, as not an individual issue but one of the "winning idea."
    • The scene in the 2nd half where Aadhi a.k.a. Adhiban Madhav (Fahadh Faasil nicely doing his thing) burns down 2 days of stock the workers have produced. We see Aadhi and Arivu rush to the place but at the site, they slow down having a measured dialogue of sorts as if they are witnessing the immediate proceedings from a distance, the products Arivu and co. have built being wasted on fire and other workers in panic trying to escape the fire and/or save the stock for sale, finding their way out, etc.
  • I was more than once reminded of Rajkumar Hirani even if Mohan Raja is never nearly as seamless in pitch as Hirani is, not to forget the latter's wonderful humour. But I'd add here that Hirani's own ideas can sometimes be bloated e.g. in a film like Lage Raho Munnabhai. Incidentally, I think வேலைக்காரன் probably owes a bit to that film in particular. After seeing the film, I realised the FM radio connection of course - it's used as a plot device too in a very similar way - not only for lead characters to reach out to the wider public but also for the principal characters to indirectly have their own conversations in public. But I must add I mean the Hirani influence as a general remark - even the way the film has multiple supporting characters gaining importance in unexpected ways and having their own closures, etc. I particularly liked the visual of Kasi (Prakash Raj), and Kasthuri (Sneha, in a role and segment that's just rushed), the former a local don who served as the hunting dog for his corporate bosses and the latter one of their victims, stranded together and sharing the same pedestal (and yes, in true masala logic, they're in the hospital!), as ultimately victims in their own respects.
Now to the film's politics.
  • First, the representation of the underclass or working class - I'm sure there were some offensive or insensitive bits (that betray the film's outsider gaze) but it's remarkable how the film squarely privileges the working class as the authentic agents of change. In this film's logic, the well-to-do middle class is thoroughly colonized if not complicit (unwashed masses, as it were!), political change if any has to emerge from the working class. This is refreshing amidst the tiresome spate of movies where we see iconoclasts from educated upper middle class rising to some occasion or the other and invariably recoiling back to their cocoons after blaming "dirty politicians" for everything! At some points, it seems this is even placed as a burden of the working class - the analogy between gangsters who kill for money and worker class in the bottom rung of corporate system begged for a more nuanced portrait, the casual equivalence drawn between the two was a glaring overstep - but it must be said that this is a rare film which privileges the worker class in very interesting ways.
  • That brings me to the next point - the onus here is not on the 'moral superiority' of the worker class and the film never degenerates to 'goodness!' i.e. a vague plea from 'a few good people' to an amorphous group (Corporate top rung in this film) to be more humane. This is a trope that even the seemingly political films so easily resort to - the likes of ஜோக்கர் and அறம் come to mind (the former is obviously crafted with care and hits the aesthetic registers a lot more than the latter but I found both of them very blunt in terms of their politics) . The film's hero deploys the very ideas of the system's functioning against itself. But I'm not talking about just that. The very premise of the story arc is based on the assumption that the sociopolitical space is an ever-contingent one with all participating groups bound to it (may I use the word 'interpellated'?) and one open for radical changes. This is exactly what most of the seemingly rousing but ultimately cynical movies miss when they offer little more than a 'berating' of the world we live in (call out politicians or the unwashed masses/people at large for voting them in!). The film keeps the motives of its protagonist simple and targeted and is the first to recognizes that too.
  • The film is dead serious about the fast food industry killing all of us. The film is at its weakest when it goes on about the worst ill-effects of consumer economy but I was very surprised by how it leaps from this (a standard-issue film dealing with some corporate misconduct killing off kids, etc.) to rattling off about modes of production and then to the enormous stakes workers have in the functioning of this economy itself and the system at large. I mean, really, weren't the more thoughtful films suggesting 'returning to mother nature' as the answer?
  • This is what enables the film to fearlessly (some would say doltishly) go the whole hog from disparate, even divergent, strands of consumer activism and underclass social emancipation to full-blooded communism. I for one was charmed by the rousing 'எழு வேலைக்காரா இன்றே!' at all as the film ends.
TBD: If I have something more to add, will just keep adding here. :)

Monday, July 30, 2007

R.I.P., Ingmar Bergman

Bergman is no more. (Link via India Uncut.) Check out Ingmar Bergman Face to Face, the official site run by Ingmar Bergman Foundation; it has a lot of those wonderful images that Bergman captured in film.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Long, gushing notes on Chennai 600028

Venkat Prabhu’s Chennai 600028, the latest sleeper hit among Tamil films, is an immensely enjoyable film that makes you ask for more, a rarity in itself. I walked in the theatre with quite a lot of expectations and thoroughly enjoyed the film.

The film blends City Of God-style realism with quintessential Tamil pop cinema, full of frothy fun and humour, with great flourish and comes up trumps overall.
Venkat Prabhu matches his unabashed crowd-pleasing instincts (which he seems to have faithfully inherited from his father, Gangai Amaran), inch for inch, with a strong eye for solidly real backdrops, zany humour, sheer wit and inventiveness. Sample this: A father goes ranting, bashing up his son in the middle of the street, “Unnaya pullayaa pethadhukku…” Cut to a guy talking over the phone, “… second show cinema-kke poyirukkalaam!

The film starts with SPB’s voiceover introducing us to the protagonists of the film, which sets up the spirit of what is to follow with assuredness. “Kandippaa innum neraiya cricket!” we’re promised. And, cricket, we get. Street cricket, the game that the entire nation plays, with tennis balls and great passion; one guy brings in the bat, another brings in the stumps, and so on.
The story is that of a local cricket team, Sharks, of Vishalatchi Thoattam (a.k.a. “Sunambu Kalwa”) and its players. The movie starts with the Sharks team losing out to Royapuram Rockers in the finals of the fourth edition of the floodlit gully cricket tournament, Radio Mirchi cup [1]. As it happens, a key player of the Royapuram Rockers team moves in to Vishalatchi Thoattam (his “encroachment” is one of the primary setup for hilarity in the early sequences), finds himself a place in the Sharks team, as another edition of the tournament is about to start.

But, that’s not all there’s to it; in parallel, runs the stories of individual players of the team, in different threads. The film infuses the stock Chennai elements (or, the elements of any urban or semi-urban place of Tamilnadu, for that matter) with generous doses of masala and fun, but without ever making the mix reek of even a wee bit of fakeness or banality. Be it, the love that develops from cursory glances and courteous smiles, the consequent betrayal that’s felt when the same cursory glances and courteous smiles fall on some other guy, a friend who comes with the thoodhu, the possessive owner of the bat with which the team plays, or that one fellow in a gang who finishes up all the booze, the film reaps rich from real people we’ve known all our life, and serves it all in a refreshing package, that is rich in droll humour and unapologetic willingness to entertain. (Premgi Amaran, Gangai Amaran's second son, dons the mantle of an overt comedian in the film.)
And, mind you, this is the kind of film that could have gone wrong in a hundred ways, could have struck all wrong notes, if it had taken itself seriously, even a wee bit seriously. Recalling all those “youth flicks” of 90s will instantly remind us of this. (As if to elicit the same, there’s even a teasing reference to Kannedhire Thondrinaal.) Those films picked their stock elements from real life too, but handled them in absolutely irredeemable ways, resulting in terrible films. The typical Madras elements – figures, friends, love (the most popular archetypes are here: a guy loving a dear friend’s sister, a coffee shop attendant loving a rich brat girl), the karpu in friendship, et al. surface in this film as well, but the film handles them in such an offhanded manner, and yet with such sensitivity, that, at times, I was positively stunned. The film’s wonderful ending, more than anything else, stands as a testimony to this. (I don’t want to spoil this for the readers, suffice to say that the film has a cracker of an ending and the last shot of the film is the best I’ve seen in years!)

There are just too many delicious moments in the film that one would be more than just inclined to forget the few forgettable moments. (The story of Aravind sticks out like a sore thumb though, there’s not anything much interesting in it, it comes of use only for the song-and-dance routines.) From the pop-culture nods and references to the spoofs of stock elements of Tamil films, even the inserted bits mostly work pretty well, while some of the bits are indeed predictable, but never actually off-putting.
The film has no story arc as such (nor does it contrive ponderous, heavy-handed “insights” into its various themes, individual redemptions or a collective salvation!), but when the scenes themselves are as well fleshed out and funny as this, to hell with story arcs! I must confess, there were moments in the film when I just wanted to watch these fellows talk, gang up, booze together, and play cricket.

A round of applause (ah, cut the stiff-upper-lip tone, add a ‘wow!’) for the spot-on performances, all of them are spontaneous, nonchalant and heavily restrained, even if a bit amateurish at times. You won’t remember the names, but every one of them makes a mark. Even the ones who appear just for a couple of scenes strike a chord – like, say, the Royapuram Rockers team captain (who looks every inch like that). Many such outlier moments are lovely here. The Royapuram team guys call Raghu back to the team for a match over the phone, (the screen splits, first into three, and then settles for two, one for each end) he evades from giving an affirmative answer, and the guy on the other end takes the phone off his ear for a moment and says in a matter-of-fact tone, “semma gaandu-la irukkaan da.” – a simple scene, but well fleshed and strikingly real.
I was especially impressed with Shiva (Radio Mirchi RJ) who plays Karthik, the Sharks team captain, with that quintessential Madras accent you rarely see in films, mixing his restrained persona with wry humour and nice comic timing, Nitin Sathyaa (who was anything but notable in his previous outings) as Palani, and Jai (music director Deva’s son) as Raghu, the new team member, who play the main roles with wonderful spontaneity. Either it’s the spot-on casting that did the trick, or Venkat Prabhu is quite fantastic in extracting spontaneous performances out of his actors.

The soundtrack score reeks a bit of rap and hip-hop, but works pretty well with the film, if one’s willing to overlook that aspect. [2] The background score by Premgi Amaran works even better.
The camera work is restless and patchy, pulling every trick (or gimmick, if you will) in the book to keep us engaged, employing “unsteady” cams, jump cuts, ramping shots, freeze frames (the freeze frames in the marina beach side bet match are sidesplitting!), colour tones, etcetera, with no restraint whatsoever. But, much of those doesn’t go in vain, but is rather put to good effect. If not anything else, it packs in all the plethora of detailing in impromptu mode, like in the montage in the title song, or in the scenes of cricket matches.

This is a greatly assured and brilliant debut from Venkat Prabhu. Please take a bow. Three cheers to SP Charan and the entire team as well for giving us such an entertaining film. Just, go watch. This one’s for the ages.

[1] – One of the many brand placements. We’ve Raaga.com, IndiaGlitz.com et al.
[2] – A bit of clarification needed. Isn’t there a guy uttering – spashtamaa – “otha!” a couple of times in the stanzas of the remix version of “Jalsa”? Or, was he going “what the…?”

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Not-so-short notes on Paruthiveeran

Note: Please do yourselves a favor, dear readers. Go watch Chennai 600028, easily the best film of the year, as yet. Saroja, saamaan nikaalo!
Rest of you all, who are still reading this post, this is another dull, “not-so-short” notes on a month-and-half old film – a modified version of a quick write-up
(albeit with a lot of additional notes and changes, I’m afraid) on the film I originally wrote soon after I saw the film, but didn’t publish for reasons best known to none.

Ameer’s Paruthiveeran (just like his previous venture, Raam) is yet another of those “new age” films, remarkable in its mise-en-scène, but unremarkable in its aspiration; and spotlessly hollow in its inspiration. In short, insipid filmmaking.
The film is set in Paruthiyoor, right in the heartland of rural Tamilnadu, commendably capturing the characteristically sultry locations, the people and their mud-walled houses, the native dialect and the way of life, with an assured hand. But, that’s all there is to it.

Veeran (Karthi), the protagonist of this film, is a one-dimensional caricature; a stereotype of the sandiyar image, conceived without much sensitivity, the few moments that betray the vulnerability of the character notwithstanding. Ameer establishes his protagonist as an aruvaal-happy, aimless urchin that we perceive through films and media – pleased at ourselves in finding it all senseless – through a series of sketches which in essence pander unreservedly to the audience (curiously enough, pander to both the “urban class” and the “rural class” with equal success here!), but passed off as something more serious and ambitious. Veeran’s ultimate objective is to be serve a term in the Chennai Central Jail. This is digestible if said in wry humour, but the director wants us to take this at face value, as a fact. In a realistic portrayal, we expect protagonist to exist within a real system. But, here, Veeran is, well, a veeran, the hero, even if not in the traditional sense. He can just go sever the ear of a policeman, or knock down a seemingly significant denizen of the village, for petty reasons; well, actually, for the laughs. Honestly, I too laughed at some of the nakkal-naiyyaandi jokes in the beginning, but grew tired of them too soon.

Thankfully, post-interval, the story actually unfolds, and, there are some good moments with Muthazhagu (Priya Mani) – the scene where she’s thrashed by her dad (a moving moment when she scoffs at her paatti asking for more food), and the scene where she tearfully pleads with Veeran work pretty well; the stock, grayish-toned flashback with the kiddies romancing, notwithstanding. But, the love story – after Veeran heeds to Muthazhagu, that is – is developed so hurriedly that there’s little one has had invested on their love as the climax draws near. And, the denouement sticks out like a sore thumb.
Here, I must digress a bit and elicit a problem that I face with a lot of films. (I’d say positively argue that it’s a natural problem with story-telling in general.) A problem with stories that take unexpected turns coming out of nowhere. Yes, it’s so characteristic of fickle human life and all that, but then you expect the filmmaker to reflect on the same, or at least acknowledge that. Else, it’s like a bad television show, as Woody Allen would have put it.
As if this abrupt turn wasn’t enough, the film conveys a silly moral out of this for the story. Muthazhagu says, “Nee senja paavathai ellaam en madiyila aethittiye da…” Now, this can be taken as a dying woman’s rambling, but Ameer is actually serious about it. Ameer’s viewpoint on Veeran is dubious and conflicting in its truest sense. It’s supposed to be a realistic portrayal of a hoodlum, but he is severely censuring of Veeran’s indulgence in petty crimes and hollow bully attitude.

On a positive note, the performances are impressive on the whole (Saravanan warrants special mention). Karthi is pretty good for a debutant, but he’s way too earnest and slightly overdoes his act, constantly “offering” us something, through gestures, body language and a bit exaggerated dialect et al. There’s not one lazy moment where we’re not “told” who he is. Also, I am much ambivalent about the extensive usage of native, amateur actors. The dialect is spot-on, but the dialogue delivery is so hurried (I don’t mean ‘fast’ here), and the acting is shuffled. (So much for the native flavour, the dialect is actually inconsistent at places. Some chaste Chennai slang words pop in the dialogue. Lazy writing.)
More brownie points for Yuvan’s superb music score – “Ariyaadha Vayasu” and “Ayyayyo” stand out among the songs – which works so well for the film.

Baradwaj, in an excellent review (albeit a positive one) as usual, puts forth an excellent set of points, making almost this entire write-up redundant – the movie’s preference to sensationalism (a nice dig at how the hero of today “won’t just switch off the lights, he’ll leap up and break the glass bulbs with his aruvaa!”) over sensitivity (though am surprised that he brackets Pithamagan along with), on how “[t]he infrequent bits of exposition are almost apologetic,” how the last act of the movie was curiously unmoving (not curiously so, in my case).
Well, as for me, I don’t go to theatres determined to see a story unfold per se, but it’s not that bad an idea, I think.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Not-so-short notes on Pachaikkili Muthucharam

Note: This is a modified version of a quick write-up on the film I originally wrote soon after I saw the film, but didn’t publish for reasons best known to none.

Gautham, in his latest offering has admittedly attempted making a “Balu Mahendra-meets-Quentin Tarantino kind of film.” Even a mere suggestion that a blend of those two eminent filmmakers’ style would result in such a horrendous film is enough to make one wince much. Refrainment from bombarding us with ramping shots and jump-cuts in general, and employing rather serene camera movements, whimsical fade-ins and fade-outs doesn’t automatically qualify as “Balu Mahendra style” of filmmaking.

The first half, on basis of which Gautham has taken the unintentional dig – or so I call it, is as meandering as it gets. Sarath Kumar and Jyothika alight trains, travel, talk to, and sit next to (the sheer number of shots of the two brushing against each other would serve as a lesson to film students), and develop love for each other. (Not to forget their frequent tiffs about paying bills at restaurants, and for the taxi-drives.) Let’s not get into the “Quentin Tarantino half.”
The few moments that actually work in the film – like, the scene with Sarath Kumar and Andrea after they get to know about their kid’s medical ailment, or when Jyothika teases Sarath Kumar saying, “illannaa, ippo dhaan thalai nimindhu paakkareengalo ennavo…” – are so unobtrusively woven into the narrative, in which, otherwise, each moment gets cornier than the last.
Dialogue in Gautham’s films has always touched horrendous standards, but, the dialogue of this film takes the cake. It is one thing to write wannabe-smart lines at the expense of naturalness, realism and suchlike, but it’s something entirely different to write supposed-to-be-keeping-it-real lines that no self-empathetic human being would utter at any moment of one’s life. In a standout scene, Sarath Kumar and Jyothika, coming after a secret date, are bothered by some hoodlums, Sarath stands up to the situation, fights them, (and is also hurt) and saves Jyothika. The lady picks up the man’s hand, looks at the bruise and asks “Enakkaagava?
[This line takes the top honour for the corniest line of the year, ranking alongside similar jaw-dropping lines from his previous outings like “Freeze!”, “Ilaavukkaaga!”, “Back home, they call it the Raghavan instinct!” I’ve been campaigning for this from day one, by the by.]

No prize for guessing that Harris Jayaraj’s background score must have been unspeakably painful. (The popular violin bit, which I liked until I watched the movie, is played vociferously, almost a dozen times, when the protagonist and the antagonist bump into each other.)
Jyothika doesn’t grate as much as she’s capable of, Sarath Kumar safely keeps out of any sort of “performance,” Andrea is ridiculously young for the role. The one who played the cab driver takes the top acting honours.

I don’t get Gautham’s films, but this is easily his worst film. I’d rather prefer an unpretentiously escapist fare like Minnale, which, in my opinion, is his most interesting work. (The readers may gasp.)