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, 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.