Vikram Vedha

While I was watching Vikram Vedha, the author whose work kept coming to mind was Ed McBain.

The film is structurally interesting — the cop and the gangster are cast as Vikramadityan and the Vedalam, and the latter narrates his story to the former as a series of moral conundrums. Each story peels off a later from the story in the foreground. It’s a lovely conceit, so obviously I kept wondering: did the structure come first, or did the story come first? The last time I went through this was when I read McBain’s The House that Jack Built — a murder mystery is told through a series of chapters named after lines of the poem the novel is named for, and the line itself summarizes the chapter.

The other McBain memory came from a novel where a cop is trying to solve a murder and boils it down to a set of people who were staying in the same lodge — I think it was called Killer’s Payoff. Agatha Christie fans might be reminded of a different one, for similar reasons.

Aside: None of the aforementioned observations have anything to do with what I thought of the film, of course. But a film that reminds of Ed McBain gets a few brownie points right there.

I don’t know if I’ve made it sound like the film is an intense cerebral exercise that values structure over content. But make no mistake, this is a wonderfully entertaining motion picture. It has its faults (an unnecessary song sequence, uneven depth of characterization, implausible deductive reasoning around the reconstruction of a crime at the end), but these did not detract from my enjoyment in any way. Director-writers Pushkar and Gayathri clearly know what they’re doing, and are aided by a very competent cast and crew. 

Much of the fun, though, comes from Vijay Sethupathi’s performance. I watched the film in a multiplex in Bangalore, and when his feet first appeared in the frame as he swaggered in, the hall erupted in cheers, and with good reason. The man has, bit by bit, evolved into a leading man with incredible screen presence, talent to burn, and the ability and inclination to work across genres. It also helps that the script is written to focus on him more than on the cop –  I suppose, in a storytelling medium, the storyteller is, in fact, king. 

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Talking heads

Baradwaj Rangan’s series of interactions with contemporary Thamizh directors on Film Companion reminds me of nothing so much as Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies. When Al Pacino introduced Lumet as he was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, he said, “The director directs.” But what does that entail, exactly? This is the question that drives the book, as also this series.

This similarity is most evident in his three part long conversation with Mani Ratnam, which goes into much depth about what instructions he gives to his cast and crew, and what he expects in return. Thanks to the fact that these two people have had a whole book’s worth of conversations prior to this one, there is a level of comfort that makes this one riveting. Irrespective of your opinion of Mani Ratnam’s films, here is a peek into a maker’s thought process, and it’s fascinating how much is revealed.

The two part conversation with Mysskin doesn’t have the same fluency, but that director’s clarity of vision is impossible to miss. Here is a director with such a distinct style that one is naturally inclined to wonder how his mind works. Mysskin doesn’t disappoint.

It also makes for a study in contrasting approaches. For instance, Mani Ratnam’s instructions to Rajeev Menon for a particular scene in Bombay are elliptic bordering on cryptic. Yet you can see how it translates to a certain approach to shooting the scene. Mysskin, on the other hand, does all but specify how the DoP should hold the camera when he writes a script.

Some of the episodes have had a lot more to do with other aspects on the periphery of filmmaking. The one with Vetrimaran, for instance, has to do with the mechanics of promoting a film at the Oscars. The one with Balaji Mohan has to do with the whys and wherefores of making a web series.

I wonder if Baradwaj Rangan’s training as an engineer has had anything to do with how these conversations have unfolded. He is anything but prosaic in his writing (which other critic would think of using a phrase like lysergic rainbow?), but his approach here is akin to that of someone taking apart a gadget to see how it works. From what I could discern, the makers have been willing to oblige. You don’t find yourself listening to a high-concept metaphorical exchange about “the creative process”.

Aside: The language has a big part to play in this — most of these directors are very fluent in English, so the content is not limited by their expressive power. I do hope that the series eventually expands to cover directors who would prefer to have this conversation in their mother tongue, maybe with a smattering of English thrown in. I am sure they have as much to say.

I also wonder if the opportunity to peek behind the curtain robs us of our ability to immerse ourselves in a film. The next time I watch a Mysskin film, would I be more conscious of where the camera is moving? (To be fair, I have wondered about this even with regard to my own habit of blogging about the movies.) Honestly, I am not sure. I suppose in a day and age where live-tweeting a review is a thing, this isn’t the biggest threat to the viewer’s attention that one needs to worry about.

Or maybe our perception of cinema is as much about its making as it is about the end product.  A viewer today is highly unlikely to watch Citizen Kane without having heard about it first, but that foreknowledge does not rob the film of its power. In fact, I think it enhances our appreciation of it. When I watch The Third Man, the knowledge that it was shot in the bombed out streets of Vienna gives the film an additional charge.

This is not to say that you should view cinema the same way. If you’re the kind of person who prefers not to know how panchamritam is made, then this is not for you. I for one hope that these people keep talking.

Movie Review: Kodi

There is a scene at the beginning of the third act of Kodi when Dhanush’s mother, played by Saranya (she must, by now, consider this role about as routine as brushing her teeth) has a conversation with a major character. She starts off saying that she is not happy with what her son has become, but the end of her monologue is a line whose sole purpose is to introduce her son as a swashbuckling character who is now set to conquer his enemies and take on the world. How did she get there from I’m-not-happy-with-what-my-son-has-become? Saranya tries gamely to seem concerned while saying it, but to no avail.

The asinine, shape-shifting nature of the monologue serves to illustrate one of the key problems with Kodi. After a passable first act that introduces the characters and the setting (only the romantic subplot seems tacked on), and an utterly engrossing second act that involves some Machiavellian plotting on all sides, the film’s writer cops out of creating a plausible denouement, choosing instead to take what can charitably called the “mass” route. What could’ve become an engrossing character drama and a whodunit becomes a generic star vehicle.

What is infuriating isn’t what it is, but what it could’ve been. For around 45 minutes to an hour in the middle, the plotting is absolutely top-notch. Two political parties, neither of which can claim moral high ground, fight for power in a small constituency. The prime movers in the locality on both sides are youngsters who have grown up in the milieu — while they are on opposite sides of the ticket, they also happen to be lovers. There’s enough conflict of interest here to make some cement-company-cum-cricket-board executives salivate. This is about as tight a segment as you could hope to find in a political thriller.

And then the writers choose to screw the pooch by making it a mass hero movie. What a waste of plot, of characters, of a performer like Dhanush!

Not that this is the only problem with the film. Trisha gets an absolute peach of a role, but her performance doesn’t match up. Part of the problem is that she simply doesn’t look the part of a semi-urban political mastermind. Had that been all, it would’ve been okay, but it is more than just that. Her body language and dialogue delivery feel way too urbane and reserved. It doesn’t help that her chemistry with Dhanush feels like it would never lead to any biology. Trisha’s strength has been accuracy (a film like Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya hits her sweet spot); this role demands range.

There is a line that features in the trailer: Kodi… parakkutha? We are supposed to think of Rajni, I am guessing. Now, invoking a bad Rajni movie doesn’t seem like such a wise move to begin with. But more importantly, I’m just inclined to tell the filmmaker not to ask questions he won’t like the answer to.

Kabali

Warning: Here be spoilers

After a more-or-less obligatory, yet absolutely rousing introduction to its eponymous hero (Rajni pretty much defines the word ‘swag’), Kabali parachutes us into the middle of a plot that has been unfolding for over twenty five years. We hear names of characters, get snatches of dialogue and flashback scenes that tell us who they are, but it doesn’t help. While it is admirable to avoid having the characters tell each other what they both know just so the audience would understand what’s going on, I found myself having considerable difficulty following the plot.

The immersion is not just into this story but also into this milieu — the Tamilian community in Malaysia. This whole section is not without its rewards, but is hamstrung by a severe lack of two things: narrative fluidity and the ability to evoke a sense of empathy with this community. It feels as though there is a story here that requires a more old-fashioned treatment than the one we get.

It is close to the end of the first act, in an extended interaction between Kabali and an assembled group of youngsters, that the pieces fall into place. This whole sequence, involving a Q&A interspersed with flashbacks, is so effective that one wonders whether the man who could conceive of something like this is the same man who made the 30-odd minutes preceding it.

This entire sequence, and the few scenes that follow, are a prelude to a quiet and surprisingly affecting second act, a lot of which is set in India. These scenes are somewhat reminiscent of Yennai Arindhaal, in the way a leading man puts away his gun in order to focus on something else equally valuable to him. Rajni’s performance here is a thing of beauty — you still see the man you know, but his transition from dreaded gangster to family man feels utterly natural.

And yet, that is not all there is to this segment. Upon landing in Chennai and Kabali makes a comment about how he is first since his grandfather to set foot in India. You wonder for a moment what conditions would have driven the old man, and so many like him, to take up the job of wage labourers in a plantation in a faraway land. You wonder how they would’ve dealt with that strange land with its own language and customs, how they would’ve tried to make a home there, tried to find their own slice of happiness. And you wonder if these visitors from Malaysia realize that they are going through the same process in reverse, back in the land of their forefathers.

The idyll is interrupted by yet another fight sequence, one that heralds the beginning of the last act where Kabali takes care of business once and for all. This section isn’t any more violent than the average gangster saga, but for a Rajni movie it feels positively blood-soaked. It is also, sadly, the weakest portion of the film. Apart from wrapping things up, there is hardly anything here to admire here. The ending especially feels tacked on. It is not implausible given the world these characters inhabit, but it feels less like an organic development and more like a nod to an earlier, acclaimed film involving another man who rose from humble origins as part of a Tamil community in another place to become a dreaded gangster.

The trouble with watching any Rajni starrer, especially one with the kind of pre-release hype this one has come with, is that it is difficult to divorce the experience of seeing Rajni from the experience of seeing this film. A lot of it has to do with the gravitational field of the superstar, which bends space, time, screenplays and performances around him.

By far the most interesting thing about Kabali is that the relativistic effect of Rajni is kept to a minimum. There are scenes that pander to the screaming audiences, but we’re not simply watching an awestruck director paying homage to a star he’s grown up worshipping. We’re watching a storyteller with a point of view and a lot of things to say, and there’s not a lot of room for hero worship on that agenda.

And that, unfortunately, is also what makes this such a problematic film. Ranjith wants to tell the story of a gangster trying to regain his place after coming back from prison, and an old man searching for relevance. But he also wants the film to be about this place, these people, this subculture of Tamilians who have lived in Malaysia for generations and are still clawing their way up a long, slippery slope.

It is possible to make a good, even great film that is about all these things and have Rajni in it. But this film is not it. But if Kabali‘s most egregious fault is that its conception is not matched by its execution, that is not such a bad thing.

ps: Oh, and there’s a sly little Iron Man reference. And in a Rajni movie at that. Especially apropos, don’t you think?

Thani Oruvan

After an intriguing opening sequence, Thani Oruvan settles down to the serious business of making us want to throw up. There is only so much hero glorification nonsense that I can take, and this film reaches that quota in fifteen minutes. It’s not that the guy isn’t smart, or that the tricks he uses to catch criminals aren’t interesting. It’s the way his adoring friends keep talking about his greatness that gets to me. What part of “show, not tell” does this filmmaker not understand?

Then a funny thing happens. The villain comes into view. While the hero is smart and boring, this guy is smart and interesting. It helps immensely, I think, that the villain is played by Aravind Swamy. Our cinema is no stranger to suave villains, but the suavity is so often of the overblown, put-on variety that it is a relief to see the real article.

Once the film shifts its focus to the cat and mouse game between the hero and the villain, we’re off to the races. There is some bang-bang to be sure (this is a cop drama, after all), but most of the action is cerebral. The feral edge of something like Yennai Arindhaal is missing here, but this is not necessarily a drawback.

There is a line that appears in the beginning: Tell me who your enemy is and I will tell you who you are. The film seems to take this idea very seriously, in ways that are sometimes obvious (the hero and the villain ‘choose’ each other to do battle with) and sometimes not so much.

Much of what makes the film’s latter portions work is the fact that each of these two characters begin to see themselves a lot more clearly as a result of the other’s existence and actions. It’s surprising how much introspection there is for a film in this genre. There is a tendency to get a bit too cute (like right at the end), but this is still much better writing than average.

Sometimes, films that focus on the need that heroes and villains have for each other end up losing a bit of perspective. Both characters have bigger fish to fry than obsess about each other (although to be fair, it takes a while for one of them to realize this, and that too only after someone else points it out to him). That sort of clear-headedness is as rare as it is gratifying.

Love is probably the one thing most explored in cinema, and it is a potent enough feeling to deserve that. There is, however, another very potent emotion that is often underrated but especially comes into focus in a cop drama: respect. It is the reason why the centerpiece of Michael Mann’s Heat is a quiet conversation between a cop (Al Pacino) and a thief (Robert De Niro) over coffee in a diner. We get enough films where the hero and the villain shout variations of “Aaaeei!” at each other. A lot more than enough, actually. So, when a couple of smart people face off against each other, we are instantly riveted.

Whatever the film’s title might lead you to believe, this is a duet, not a solo. And that might be the best reason to watch it.

Freeze Frame #165: Anjali

Now, it’s no secret that this is one of my least favourite Mani Ratnam films. He got some things gloriously right, but I found it a touch too melodramatic, the kids a touch too annoying (and I wasn’t much older when it came out), the Revathy character a touch too whiny… I didn’t walk away from the film with the warm and fuzzies, and that has nothing to do with the fact that the eponymous character dies at the end.

Okay, it does a little bit. Here’s what I wrote some years ago:

And to top it all off, the most annoying death scene in the history of cinema. If that little girl had screamed “Ezhundiru Anjali, ezhundiru” one more time, Mani Ratnam could’ve made Anjali 2: Night of the Living Dead as his follow-up feature.

But it did have a few knock-out moments, my favourite being the scene where Arjun, the elder child, bonds with Anjali. This occurs in the aftermath of a fight where Arjun gets into a scrap with some kids in the neighbourhood who have been harassing Anjali. It would be easy to interpret his actions as “Ah, so he does love his newfound little sister”, but I think it’s probably a bit more and less than that. There’s a bit of an impulse to do the right thing, a bit of whatever-my-issues-she’s-still-my-sister… However he feels about her, he hasn’t yet consciously acknowledged it.

That comes when he sees how Anjali reacts to his injuries. The way I state it, it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s amazing how perfectly that little scene works.

Watch how he sees her as though for the first time, beyond whatever preconceived notions he had up until then about this “different” little kid who seems to have turned his life upside down. (It’s not as dramatic as that in reality, but wouldn’t it have seemed like that to him?) His reaction is the first time a character in the film deals with his or her prejudice and defeats it. The rest of the film is mostly just about the others following suit. It is, in my opinion, the scene most emblematic of the film’s central theme.

However, the reason why this scene has been on my mind recently has nothing to do with pride or prejudice. You see, my daughter recently bit my leg hard while throwing a tantrum. And even now, several days later, she keeps pointing to the place where the remainder of a scab is still barely visible, looks a bit remorseful and gives it a quick kiss.

What’s that line by Dr. Seuss about the Grinch’s heart growing three sizes at Christmas?

OK Kanmani

Let’s start with the meet cute at a church wedding — it is a rom-com after all. They recognize each other from a brief glimpse at the railway station some days ago. They’re sitting on opposite sides of the aisle, so their initial few lines are whispered and mimed. He asks her for her phone number.

Notice how she hesitates for just a second before she goes ahead and mimes it to him by putting up nine fingers, then three and so on. Watch how their subsequent whispered conversation over the phone involves exchanging cynical statements about marriage — you sense that their relish comes at least in part from the fact that they’re having this conversation at a wedding.

Observe how PC Sreeram shoots the scene, focusing on one while blurring the other as they exchange witticisms, as if to indicate how, at this stage in their relationship, the focus is still singular, not plural. This is the first of many sequences in the film where the visual strategy plays a big part in how Mani tells the story, and the kind of conscious thought that seems to have gone into the picturization is one of the highlights of the film. A key conversation in the end happens in the midst of a downpour. Using the rains to provide percussion to the emotions unfolding on screen is nothing new, but rarely have I seen it done so skilfully.

Listen to how the characters speak and observe the conscious strategy there. The older characters speak in fuller, longer sentences while the younger ones seem to be having a spoken conversation that might as well have been on Twitter or Whatsapp.

There is much straight talking in evidence. When Adi’s sister-in-law confronts Tara with the evidence that they’re in a live-in relationship and asks “What’s happening here?”, she responds with “Blackmail, it looks like. Why are you having this conversation with me instead of with him?”

And yet, the plot is about how straight talking is not always the same as real honesty. There is a moment late in the film between an older couple (played wonderfully by Prakash Raj and Leela Samson), where she is told that she has Alzheimer’s and asks a simple, wrenching question. For the younger couple watching them through a crack in the door, that kind of emotional honesty is almost too much to bear even listening to.

It is only after they reach a certain level of physical exhaustion that they find that they no longer have the mental energy to expend in walling themselves off from each other or even themselves. The last half hour is a thing of beauty, in its construction as well as execution.

This is a film that does so much so gloriously right.

And yet I walked out of the movie theatre feeling a tad underwhelmed. I felt like a narrative of this size might have worked better with a shorter running time. All those repeated shots of the couple canoodling all over a gorgeously shot Mumbai felt a bit like a relentless Instagram feed from a cute couple who look good together, but need to ease off on the sharing. The abbreviated Mani Ratnam-speak between the lead pair got a bit tiring after a while. I found myself longing for adult conversation. I couldn’t wait for them to get home so that I could see more of Prakash Raj and Leela Samson.

I found myself imagining a film with roughly the same overall plot, but where the screen time given to the two couples was more or less reversed. More to the point, I found myself wanting to see that movie instead.

Maybe, like the Danny Glover character says in every Lethal Weapon movie, I’m getting too old for this shit.