The Writer, the director or the actor ? : A Whodunnit Of The Cinematic Kind.

Murali Gopy’s most successful work in terms of box office numbers, as a writer is also his weakest turn as one if you ask me. In Lucifer the narrative is functional yet downright bland and totally devoid of any real intrigue and complexity in comparison to what he achieved in films like Ee Adutha Kalathu, Left Right Left and Kammara Sambavam. But there’s one scene that caught my attention and I’m divided because I can’t quite figure out if it was Murali Gopy the writer, Prithviraj the director or Baiju the actor who is to be credited here.

At one point in the tale, the conspiracy theorist played by Indrajith is kidnapped by Baiju and his men and is locked up in a mental asylum. Indrajith kicks and screams when he is being pushed inside and that’s when you see Baiju displaying emotions that you wouldn’t ideally associate with a henchman. Baiju does this in around ten seconds or so and you hardly notice it. I for one did miss it in the theatre entirely and it was by pure chance that I happened to take note on Prime. The emotion conveyed is empathy I presume and the attention to detail here is quite impressive because at this juncture in the film you’re not sure who the bad guys are.

What intrigues me the most about the scene is if it was written to the dot by Murali Gopy or if it’s Prithviraj’s vision as a director at work or sheer improvisation by Baiju who is “staying in character”, so to speak. In any case, while taking nothing away from the writer and the director, the fact is that at the end of the day the onus is on the actor to deliver on screen and Baiju walks away with all the glory here. Malayalam Cinema’s search for the next great character actor, as they’re called in our part of the world could very well end here.

Kaithi : Road Rage.

A semblance of truth and human interest are all it takes for a reader to suspend his disbelief and overlook the implausibility of the narrative, proposed Samuel Taylor Coleridge two centuries back. In Kaithi the director applies this to Cinema as he knows best and thought fit.

Kaithi at the core is essentially your generic Tamil hero vehicle. Lokesh Kanakaraj who impressed with his debut Maanagaram, for obvious reasons have indulged in the trappings of an out and out South Indian commercial entertainer intended for the masses. The director finds inspiration from a multitude of films, namely Con Air, Assault On Precinct 13 and The Departed which itself was a remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs.

Kaithi is a decent thriller but not without failings, which brings me to Coleridge again. Kaithi is also Karthi’s glorious return to the road after Paiyya, sans songs this time around but. The whole premise of the film basically rests on a top cop’s fear of the media which to be fair is not hard to fathom in these times of prime time media trials. Which is why it’s odd that for a plot that’s all about cover up in a small town, the absence of OB vans and frenzied journos stand out like sore thumbs given the number of explosions and mayhem unleashed on screen, but then again, you have chosen to suspend, your disbelief that is.#kaithi

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood : Tarantino’s Tribute To Tate.

This is not a review, simply because it’s impossible to review a Tarantino movie in the conventional sense of the term, no matter what the critics might tell you and then there’s also the conflict of interest factor, me being a self-confessed fan that is. Tarantino indulges, like no other filmmaker but he is celebrated world over like no other too. You have to be a movie buff to appreciate the kind of cinema that Tarantino makes, I feel because this is a guy who started making movies out of pure love for the medium and draws his obsessions and inspirations from all kinds of Cinema, from what’s branded B- Grade to relatively unknown Italian action movies to forgotten Hong Kong flicks from yesteryear, to speak of a few. When you see an actor in a Tarantino movie, you know that he wrote the character with that particular actor on his mind and that the actor was part of some little known TV show or a movie with a cult following from yesteryear that Tarantino grew up watching. Everything has a reason and a reference in a Tarantino movie which you could almost always trace back to some other movie or a show. Legends and lores are galore amongst fans about Tarantino’s uncredited works from his days as a writer and even after his turn as a writer-director. The “Silver Surfer” bit from Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide is what comes to my mind first when I think about one such tale. Pulp Fiction remains the movie that defines him as a filmmaker the most and that’s where you start if you’re discovering Tarantino just now, if you ask me. You will either end up a fan or dismiss him entirely, this, you can be absolutely sure of.

In his 9th film, Tarantino indulges like never before. Considering the fact that the premise of the film is all about what Tarantino loves the most, movies, actors and Hollywood, he hasn’t digressed much. Yes, he pays ode to himself in more scenes than one but in many ways this is a new Tarantino too. Set in the fag end of the sixties, 1969 to be precise, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is primarily a tribute from Tarantino to Sharon Tate, who was brutally murdered by members of the Manson family on the fateful night of August 9th, 1969 in her home, in cold blood. Tarantino uses two characters to tell this story, an actor who is at a crossroads in his career played by Leonardo DiCaprio and his stuntman, played by Brad Pitt. They’re to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood what C-3PO and R2D2 were to Star Wars. They have absolutely nothing to do with the central plot but are the devices through which the story develops rather flourishes here. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is Tarantino’s favorite toy in this film. An actor at a crossroads in his career, trying to reinventing himself to stay relevant and not forgotten, Dalton gets most of Tarantino’s attention in the film. Dalton shoots for spaghetti westerns playing the bad guy and Tarantino uses it as an excuse to squeeze in a mini western right in the middle. Tarantino experiments with just the camera in the age of CGI and the shots where the camera tracks and pans during takes and retakes in the film inside this film are displays pure of craftsmanship. Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt on the other hand is the quintessential embodiment of “Amercian Cool”. He is unperturbed by any situation or intimidated by any individual. He comes with a mythical backstory too, like most Tarantino heroes and is an enigma. Then there is Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate and I’m having a hard time figuring out who Tarantino’s new muse is, Robbie or the late Tate. Unlike the fictional Dalton who is literally riding into the sun on screen as far as his career is concerned , Tate whose life ended tragically and mindlessly is discovering fame and elusive success. This has to be the most delicate and touching portrayal of a character, rather a person in any Tarantino movie to date. A slew of other actors too make an appearance in roles that would be otherwise reserved for extras only because it’s again, a film by Tarantino.

Tarantino’s adoration for Sharon Tate as an actress and a person is more than evident from the way he has written and portrayed the character. Tarantino loves performers the most, and one gets an impression that he has the utmost respect for Sharon Tate the actor and he takes the effort to vouch for it before his audience five decades after her passing. The only reason Tarantino made this movie was to travel back in time and put the Manson Family on trial for their horrific act, I feel. Cliff Booth ultimately turns out to be the personification of the rage that Tarantino harbors for the members of the Mansion Family for what they did to Tate. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a true artist’s reaction to a thoughtless act which brought an end to the life of another artist with stars in her eyes, literally. This is revenge, and Tarantino metes it out like he knows best too. Then there’s the controversial Bruce Lee bit, surprising too because Tarantino obviously reveres Bruce Lee and paid him tributes in his Kill Bill movies in the past. The argument that Bruce had to take a beating to establish Booth’s physicality doesn’t hold water for me because that doesn’t quite explain the almost satirical take on the martial arts legend considering Tarantino’s history of fascination with the legacy of Lee. Personally I feel that it’s Tarantino in an introspective mood, demystifying his own personal heroes, and I wonder if the Weinstein fallout has anything to do with it.

Thannermathan Dinangal : Pure Gold.

Human creativity knows no bounds I’m convinced without an iota of doubt, now that I have watched this stellar piece of cinema called Thannermathan Dinangal. No matter how hell-bent popular media is at convincing us with everyday news that it’s a depressing and bleak world out there, I now have faith that mankind will find answers for everything that’s wrong with the world ultimately. Except for the producer, the editor and the cinematographers, everyone else involved from the director to the scriptwriter to the actors, all are relatively newcomers, and it doesn’t show one bit. There are no stars in the film, in fact there are exactly three established actors in the film. Thannermathan Dinangal is the new guy at work who’s so good at what he does that he makes his colleagues insecure from the word go, so to speak. Above all, it’s pure bliss. It’s a time machine for the viewer who is instantly transported back in time to his school days. Your cheeks would most probably hurt like hell by the time youre done watching it, because you just couldn’t stop smiling through the entire length of the film.

Gireesh A.D and his writer Dinoy Poulose who proved their mettle in the bustling short film scene before their feature film debut, belong to the same school of new wave filmmaking in Malayalam Cinema as Lijo Jose Pelliserry, Alphonse Puthran,Dileesh Pothan,Shyam Pushkaran and Basil Joseph. In fact the influence of Ljio’s groundbreaking Angamaly Diaries is more than evident in Thannermathan Dinangal on a visual plane and one can’t but help wonder if the title was influenced by another sleeper hit of the year, Kumbalangi Nights. Was one of the houses in this film featured in  Premam too? ,I have my suspicions. There are but irrelevant observations and takes nothing away from the originality and creativity that has gone into the conception and execution of this film. The writer plays one of the characters too but the film owes a major part of its success to the charm of another find from Kumbalangi Nights, Mathew Thomas. The boy is on a roll here and carries the film with ease on his scrawny shoulders. Nalsen K.Gafoor’ who plays Melvin,  partner in crime to Mathew Thomas’s Jaision plays a significant role in keeping the proceedings on the screen interesting. The talented Anaswra Rajan makes a mark again here.Vineeth Sreenivasan plays another significant character and is one of the three recognised actors apart from Irshad who discovers his funny bone again here and Nisha Sarang who plays a mother who every mother from our part of the world could relate to, though she hardly utters a word. Sabareesh Varma makes a brief appearance The rest of the cast are familiar faces from the writer-director duo’s short films that went viral on social media platforms.

Thannermathan Dinangal is unlike anything that we have seen ever on Indian screens and the only thing thats close in comparision is the American show from yesteryear, The Wonder Years. The film’s charm lies in the fact that it doesn’t try to be a film that’s trying to tell a story about school life in any of the thousands of schools across the State rather it works almost like one of those found footage videos. It’s almost as if a camera was left running at the school.  The greatest success of these first time filmmakers is that they have managed to extract some real natural moments from the untrained ensemble cast. This is one of those films that speaks to every single member in the audience and has to be experienced in a theatre too. Cinema, as I’ve reiterated to the poing of being redudant, is ultimately a universal language that’s capable of bringing people together and Thannermathan Dinangal does it with elan. Imagine a process where couple of filmmakers conceive a particular scene that’s performed to perfection by the actors, which elicits the exact same response from a bunch of stangers in a darkened hall. That’s is why cinema exists in this world as an enduring expression of human creativity and gems like Thannermathan Dinangal are amongst the finest examples of this art form. You need to stop everything youre doing and ring up your friends from school and watch it together and trust me, it would be an experience to last a lifetime. This one’s an instant timeless classic, if I’ve ever seen one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Article 15 : Bollywood Treading Uncharted Waters.

Considering the rather lukewarm responses from fringe groups to Article 15, in comparision to the frenzy that the likes of Padmavat kicked up, I have to admit that I was indeed a bit skeptical about the film. Caste is as much a reality in urban India as it is in the hinterlands and here was a mainstream Bollywood feature that was more than just acknowledging the very existence of the menace. The provocative trailer gave an impression that it was a no holds barred take on the stain of our collective conscience as a country, that the practice is. But the whole time I was watching it, I couldnt but help wonder how the film got made with the backing of a major studio like Zee Studios, in the first place. You would be absolutely in the right to call me a cynic, but given the times we live in, I wouldn’t be entirely in the wrong to feel the way I did, either. But, I guess the film deserves to be lauded just for the fact that it got made, especially in an industry as hypocritical and pretentious as Bollywood.

Article 15 opens to an extensive disclaimer that vouches that the film is entirely fictional and that it has no intentions to malign any religious sentiments with it’s content. Then, in a first for the Indian film industry, we hear Bob Dylan’s iconic “Blowing in the wind” playing in the background. That was only the first in a long line of firsts for mainstream Hindi Cinema, we soon realise. We are presented with Ayushman Khurrana’s suave sophisticated cop who’s still wet behind his ears and is seen riding in a cop car with a copy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India by his side, on his way to take charge as ACP in a town that’s somewhere between Lucknow and Ayodhya, as we learn from the driver. I’m absolutely clueless about the relevance of the book here, unless it was just a direct to reference to the title. The film flags it’s intentions early on when the young cop asks his driver to stop for a drink of water and is told that they were passing through a locality where the residents belonged to a lower caste and that even their shadows were outcast for the upper castes which obviously made up the passengers.Yes, these are cops, government employees, sworn in by the only written word that matters, the Constitution. The top cop, of course would have none of it and he’s here to break the rules. When he’s not seen in his uniform, he is seen sporting a suit most of the time which could very well be an ode to the man who is the architect of our Constitution, Dr.B.R. Ambedkar whose name is taken as a slogan on many occassions in the film. This newbie cop from Delhi is supposed to be the personification of that class of our society who are impervious and oblivious to the malices of the caste system. In fact he’s so clueless that he actually asks his subordinates to explain to him the caste heirarchy of the team he’s leading, including his own. That’s a hard sell in a realistic film with an IPS officer as the central character. The film clearly draws inspiriation from the Badaun rape case and works like a police procedural and a thriller too with the search for a missing girl added to the plot. In his journey into the heartlands of Northern India, the cop comes across a range of characters from corrupt cops to politicians to local businessmen with vested interests to the subjugated to the rebels, which brings us to another character, that of a Dalit leader. played passionately by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub. He’s the hero who doesn’t get to be the hero. The saviour has to be one from the priviliged class, the film underscores and that’s almost the only instance where it defeats itself. The mood of the film comes to the fore the most in a most disturbing scene where a manual scavenger is seen to be emerging from a manhole, it’s an image that stays with you for long because if you care to think and pause for a moment, you know that it’s most probably happening that very moment in some part of our country for real.

The makers have left no stone unturned in their efforts to portray the horrors of the caste system on screen for a wider audience. The detailing is impeccable. The CBI officer from South India played by Nasser is named Panicker, for one. The script is basically a tour de force for Gaurav Solanki’s skills as a writer I feel, considering his history as a writer with a conscience and unrelenting views. There’s more than one dig at the ruling government, but then the whole film is supposed to be one too. Anubhav Sinha who debuted almsot two decades back with the extended music video that Tum Bin was, has come a long way indeed and his recent Mulk  dealt with a touchy topic too. Despite all the gritty realities that the film doesnt shy away from throwing the audience’s way, one cant but help feel that the ending was almost fairytale. The greatest criticsm that could come the film’s way, rightly too is the fact that it’s the Brahmin hero who appears as the saviour here. Ayushman Khuranna’s Ayan Ranjan could very well be Lord Ram even, given his perfect gentlemanly demeanour and conduct. Isha Talwar plays his love interest and serves the purpose of a moral compass to on more than one occassion, in fact he is almost entirely dependent on her when it comes to his social awareness. Article 15 is far from perfect but it is indeed the bare it all for Bollywood filmmakers who have been sweeping caste under the carpet, on screen for decades. It is pasteruization, it’s the Small Pox vaccine, it’s the Moon landing, as far as Bollywood is concerned.

Unda : The Trajectory Of A Well Aimed Misfire.

What’s Unda? No, its not a Malayalam movie that’s upholding an age old tradition by misspelling the Hindi word for “egg’. Unda ,apart from other things is also the malayalam for bullet, yes the one that goes into a gun’s chamber not the one that’s ridden. So much for disambiguation. Unda was in the news early on not just because it was a Mammooty vehicle. The man at the helm was Khalid Rehman, who impressed with his debut, Anuraga Karikkin Vellam. Moviegoers were obviously curious to see the result of the collaboration. Now that the shots have been fired, it’s time to check the target sheets to see if it’s a hit or a miss by Mammooty and Khalid Rehman this time around.

Khalid Rehman has based this film on a real life incident that he reportedly came across in a news column in a Malayalam daily, about a battalion of men from the Kerala Police who were sent to Chattisgarh to provide security for a leg of the 2014 Parliamentary Elections to be held in a constituency in a region plagued by Maoist insurgency. The men faced severe hardships in unfamiliar situations they’d never imagined they’d come across in their comparatively laid back duty days back in Kerala. The film, we were told, was supposedly a realistic retelling of the experiences of these men. Much of that is indeed true. Incidentally, the director’s debut film also had a cop character who was far removed from the regular movie cop, played by Biju Menon. That Khalid Rehman has a penchat for impeccable detailing in setting up complex scenes, as much in terms of the surroundings and enviornments that his characters dwell in, as the characters themselves, was more than evident in his debut film. Those skills come to the fore here again, when he takes the viewers on a journey with the characters into the jungles of Chattisgarh. He is extremely frugal with his actors and they deliver exactly what he demanded from them, in terms of screen space and dialgoues, nothing more nothing less. His greatest success as a director in Unda is the fact that this frugality is imposed on everyone from the realtively greehorn-ish Lukman to the Big M himself. There’s no contesting the fact that the script is king here and for me at least, ironically it’s the script that fizzles out in a whimper towards the end and let’s the film down ultimately. To draw from a fitting analogy, the movie follows a tracjectory in its narration that’s akin to that of a bullet, the eponymous Unda with it’s peak, crest and the inevitable drag towards the end. A slew of promising actors, namely  Shine Tom, Rony David, Arjun Ashokan, Lukman, Gokulan and Noushad make up the band of cops who are led through their ordeal by Mammooty and Director Ranjith, who features in an extended cameo. Asif Ali and Vinay Fort appear in scenes which almost had me thinking that the wong movie was being streamed. The USP of Anuraga Karikkin Vellam was that it came across as a consistent exercise in breaking cliches and stereotypes, right from casting to characters to the plot itself. Unda does that a lot, for most parts but it fails to sustain that motivation towards the end.

Unda is not a bad movie by any stretch of imagination, it is in fact a very good film, considering the fact that the lead actor’s last three releases in Malayalam were  the de-facto hit Madhuraraja, the-blink-and-you-miss-at-the-box-office Oru Kuttanadan Blog and that lingering assault on human intelligence that Abrahaminte Santhathikal was. This brings us to the definition, rather the redefinition of the idea of a “good film” these days. In terms of lead actors, these are films where the actors don the roles of regular human beings and doesn’t pack a punch or a kick that defies every known law of physics. Mammooty’s Mani in Unda is one such character but hardly throws him any challenge the entire length of the role. The man could play a character like this in his sleep. Then we have the politics of films. These days, every other movie is political in it’s narrative to the point that it’s almost obligatory. There has to be a mandatory addressing of some sort of discrimination for a film to be taken seriously and Unda does it bit too when it takes on caste here. Though this welcome change could very well be attributed to an increasing awareness amongst makers and viewers about the social realities and circumstances that we opt to turn a blind eye to for the sake of amity, in the absence of an adept screenwriter, this could take a toll on what makes Cinema or any fiction worth our attention, drama. This is even more truer for films based on real life incidents and this is where a film like Virus scores over Unda when it infuses gripping drama into its narration. For a realistic film dealing with real incidents, though I’m not privy to the details of the original incidents, I  felt that the film defeats itself when it opts for denial of ground realities ultimately and works to pan out it’s politics in a different direction entirely. This and the last couple of scenes did not work for me exactly which is why I feel that the movie is a well aimed misfire.

NGK : Tamil Stars Care About Farmers, Do You?

Long before the Kisan Long March, we saw Ilaya Thalapathi Vijay lamenting the cause of the farmers on the big screen in A.R.Murugadoss’s Kaththi . Now, Murugadoss was smart enough to realise that when you tackle as grave and complicated an issue as the plight of  farmers in a film, you simply cannot pull it off with a single Vijay, so we ended up getting two for the price of one, saviours I mean. In stark contrast, we are presented writer-director Selvaraghavan’s latest, NGK where Suriya is seen fighting the farmer’s fight, on his own. Incidentally Suriya had played twin roles  in another Murugadoss film about saviours, 7am Arivu. Murugadoss’s heroes are always simple men with simple answers to complex issues and gets the job done with a Kaththi (knife) or a Thuppakki (gun), in comparision to Selvaraghavan’s leading men who are troubled individuals who almost always can’t even rescue themselves, leave alone the people who look up to them. But then, Murugadoss and Selvaraghavan are two directors at the far ends of the narrow spectrum that commercial filmmaking is and if direction was a jungle, Selvaraghavan could rightly be called a different animal. From psychological thrillers to gangster drama to  fantasy to sci-fi, Selvaraghavan has lent his touch to diverse genres with varying success in the past and now he has attempted to give the political thriller a twist of his own.

Suriya plays Nanda Gopalan Kumaran in this eponymous film about a regular citizen who is distressed by everything that’s wrong with the political establishment, not a first in Tamil films, Shankar almost made a career out of it, but given Selvaraghavan’s repertoire, it was something to look forward to, right from the day the news broke that the director was teaming up with Suriya who was in much need of a box office resurgence too. The last time Suriya played a politician was in Mani Ratnam’s Ayutha Ezhutha and he played it with elan. Michael Vasanth looked and talked every bit like the leader he was. In last year’s Sarkar we saw Murugadoss getting Vijay to spreadeagle down on Tamil polity and transforming governments overnight, literally. Selvaraghavan however, would have none of that for Suriya. Unlike Sarkar’s protagonist who transforms the system in a jiffy, in NGK, it’s the character who undergoes a transformation. NGK is essentially as much an exercise in character study as of the social circumstances that the director asks the cinematographer to pan his lens across. It basically shows us how individuals with the noblest of intentions make compromises and resort to dishonorable acts once the tentacles of the system closes in on them. In the same breath, NGK is also Selvarghavan’s most commercialised hero to date. Nanda Gopan Kumaran holds a PhD and left a cushy job with an MNC to take up organic farming. He’s at arms length for people in need, literally. Trained in mortal combat too he is, apart from being a cook with a Midas touch , we learn later. Naturally, NGK’s opponents are the ones reigning in the traditional political power centres who control everything with the aid of a PR army, which is a true reflection of the times we live in. This also brings us to one of the prominent female characters in NGK’s story, played by Rakul Preet, the other being his wife, Sai Pallavi in a rather one dimensional role.

Politics has been the natural retreat for actors in the South of the country and in the recent past we saw two of the most prominent stars putting an end to decades of speculation by launching their own parties. NGK is provocative when it reflects subtly on such attempts to revamp the prevalent political narrative and tentatively present the political realities which these new crop of parties would inevitably face sooner or later. The choices they make would decide if they will previal or perish. Even in a state as starry eyed as Tamil Nadu, it’s no hidden fact that the days of MGR and Jayalalitha are long gone. Even with all his on screen charisma, no political commentator would expect Rajnikanth’s or Kamal Hassan’s party to be anything more than an ally to one of the major league players, at the end of the day. To cut him some slack, Selvaraghavan is not selling a pipe dream like Murugadoss but true to his roots as a filmmaker has tried to hold a bleak and morose mirror to the political curry pot in the underbellies of the state. Selvaraghavan the writer has been let down by Selvaraghavan the director in the past, especially when the canvases were large, I feel.  He reminds me of a kid who goes to school prepared for his exams but has an anxiety attack at the last moment and makes a mess of the answer sheet. In NGK, too Selvaraghan passes, only barely. NGK is no call for political upheaval, rather it’s a warning sign which says, Okay you want change but enter at your own risk.