Saturday, May 31, 2008

King Bee

Sameer Mishra, a 13-year-old boy from Indiana, won the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee on Friday. After successfully spelling several tough words, the word that finally got him the trophy was 'guerdon'. After a couple of years where Indian kids did not win the trophy, the 12 2008 finalists included four Indian kids and the last two finalists were both Indian kids.

While I've always been interested in the Spelling Bee, Friday was the first time I actually watched it on TV. As in the case of any other American show, they managed to make a big show out of the rather nerdy event, injecting it with humor, drama and emotions.

I've always loved learning new words and have always been fascinated by their etymologies(I was probably the only one in my class who actually liked preparing for the Vocabulary section of the GRE back in college!) and so the Bee held all the thrills, emotions and excitement akin to a World Cup or NBA Finals.It was pretty amazing watching the talent, poise and confidence in the kids as they tackled tough words like 'Nietzchean' and 'introuvable'. I knew very few of the words that the kids were called upon to spell('bowdlerize' and 'satyagraha' are a couple I knew) and so watching them come up with the spelling after grasping the pronunciation and understanding the language of origin was spellbinding(pun unintended).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mt. Shasta Trip

We travelled a lot last year and made a long trip almost every month. 2008 has been rather sedate on the travel front with only a couple of day trips to the beach so far. The Memorial Day weekend, which marks the start of summer, also saw us make our first long trip. With our usual travelmates Sundar and family, we drove to Mt.Shasta.

Can't say the trip started off too well. Our first stop, timed so as to coincide with lunchtime, was Shasta Dam. The vista point on the way to the dam was supposed to give us a view of the 3 Shastas(the mountain, the lake and the dam) but with the heavy fog that enveloped the mountain, we had to be satisfied seeing just 2 Shastas. Our plans to spend some time at the picnic area at the dam itself were also dashed by the constant drizzle and so we had to be content with views of Lake Shasta and the dam itself. From there we drove to Burney Falls. Fortunately, the skies brightened up to by the time we reached the Falls. The waterfall was gorgeous and I would count it among the most beautiful I've seen. There was a short walk down to the base of the Falls and a longer hike that looped around it and we did both before heading back to the hotel.

Our original plan was to spend Day 2 in Lassen National park but since some friends said that most of the areas were stillclosed, we moved that to Day 3 and drove up Mt.Shasta. Bunny Flat, at elevation of about 7000 feet, was the highest point we could drive to. There was a lot of snow here and the kids, though ill-prepared for snow, had fun playing in the snow. From there we drove to Turtle Bay, to have a look at the Sundial bridge. The place also included an aviary, a butterfly garden, a Botanical garden and a museum and so we spent some time walking around (the kids had fun feeding the birds at the aviary but there was a small scare as Karthik, in his enthusiasm at being able to touch a cute birdie, grabbed one by the neck, almost strangling it. But his mom was able to pry his fingers off and the grateful birdie, which probably saw its life flashing before its eyes, flew away). After a last-minute decision, we raced to Shasta Caverns and managed to catch the last tour to the caverns. Cavern tours are pretty much the same - stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations - and this one wasn't much different. But it was the first one for Kavya and Karthik and they were captivated enough to make it through the entire, rather tiring tour, without complaining.

After a short stop at the Sacramento River headwater(where we collected some bottled water right from the source), we drove to Lassen Volcanic National Park on Day 3. The rain and fog prevented proper views of the lakes at lower altitudes but the gorgeous snow-covered landscape made up for that as we drove higher. Pretty much everything around us was blanketed by snow and driving through it was heavenly. Lassen is primarily known for its geothermal areas, which are remnants of the area's volcanic activity. With most of these accessible only via hikes, we stopped at one, Sulphur Works, which is right by the road. The steam rising out of vents in the ground and the boiling sulphur were some very unique sights. Drove home straight from the park.

Some photos from the trip can be seen here.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is like meeting an old friend. Spielberg's experienced directorial skills and our nostalgia ensure that the movie is a fun ride. It ranks below Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but thats more a reflection of the enduring quality of those movies rather than an indictment of this one.

The storyline is a little weak in this film. The religious and historical underpinnings of the objects(like the Ark and the Goblet) of the searches in the previous entries infused Indy's search with a certain realism and so the ways he located the objects were interesting and even informative. But the legends of the Crystal Skull and the City of Gold don't quite hold the same appeal here. They are rather unbelievable and even confusing and so the scenes of exposition fall flat.

The movie starts off a little slow. The action sequences(like the one in the hangar) are good but not exceptional. But once the film really gets going, there's no stopping it. Starting with the jeep chase in the jungle, Spielberg hits us with one exhilarating set-piece after another as Indy and his group race to return the Skull to its rightful place. Graphics are employed liberally and conspicuously but considering the direction the story movies in, that's not a big surprise.

The Indiana Jones films were true trendsetters and led to quite a few knock-offs like The Mummy and National Treasure.Though none of these managed to equal the originals, they are more recent. So it is rather unfortunate - maybe even unfair- that a few sequences in Indiana 4 give us a sense of deja vu. We can't help but think of those beetles in The Mummy when we see the acts of the red ants here. And the City of Gold was pretty much the central theme of National Treasure 2.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Coming Soon - Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

20 years is a long gap when it comes to a movie series adding a new instalment. Just ask Stallone, who recently made new instalments of both the Rocky and the Rambo series but barely generated any excitement and was looked upon as an actor simply trying to reclaim past glory. But the excitement surrounding the new Indiana Jones movie, which is releasing tomorrow, just goes to show how enduring the character is. Indiana Jones is donning his fedora and cracking his whip one more time in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and I can't wait to get reacquainted with him.

Nostalgia is a big part of why I'm looking forward to Indiana Jones 4 (it is probably the same for a lot of viewers and the fact that Spielberg is banking on this nostalgia was clear from the trailer, which opened with scenes from the last 3 films) . I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in Casino theater, which, along with a few other theaters like Safire, used to screen English films almost exclusively, in Chennai. The film was sold out the first time and since it just wasn't right to go out to a movie and return without seeing a movie, we ended upseeing the Sivaji-Prabhu starrer Sandhippu in Shanti theater on the way back. The very next day saw us first in line at the Casino ticket counter to get the tickets.

Raiders of the Lost Ark was enormously entertaining and barely let us catch our breath as it went from one adventure to another. The opening sequence where Indy escapes the boulder, the segment where he is caught in the cave with the snakes, the truck chase with Indy hanging on the truck's bottom and the special effects-laden climax all brought us the edge of our seats. And sequences that let us catch our breath, like the marketplace scene where Indy shoots the sword-wielding attacker, made us laugh too. The film was popular enough to make Indiana Jones an instantly recognizable name and so, not surprisingly, subsequent films were named after the character itself. But Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was too dark and perpetuated some offensive stereotypes about India. Inspite of the terrific action sequences, like the action on the rope bridge and the cart-chase in the mines, the dark and depressing feel of the movie made me dislike it. Spielberg made amends in a big way with the exhilarating and exciting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The film once again achieved the perfect blend of action(that amazing tank chase), smartness(X marks the spot!) and humor(Ford's perfect expression after Hitler autographs the very diary his men are looking for) that made the first film so enjoyable. Connery had a blast as Ford's father and the two shared great chemistry as their constant bickering never hid their mutual admiration and love for each other. The film had my favorite climax in the series and Indy figuring out the clues and surmounting each level(especially the 'invisible' bridge), still makes me get goosebumps each time I see the film.

From the moment he ran out of the cave with the golden idol, with those poisonous arrows zipping past him, Ford made sure that no one else can be imagined as Indiana Jones. He brought the perfect mix of ruggedness, charm and humor to the role and made Indy as real as possible. So its no wonder that he's back playing Indy at the ripe old age of 65. Joining him is Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Shia Le Bouf, from I, Robot and Transformers plays Indy's sidekick. That is a clever casting move by Spielberg. It allows him to, if he was interested, to spin-off a new series revolving around Le Bouf and the young actor will also bring in younger viewers, who may have been too young to get attached to Indy when the first 3 films came out. A few other regulars from the other 3 films are not returning in Indy 4 but there are apparently new characters that are their equivalents.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has already premiered at Cannes and has garnered both positive and negative reviews, something that doesn't usually happen for Spielberg films. But this is definitely one of those critic-proof, review-proof films that will make loads of money. It certainly is critic-proof, review-proof for me and I'm all set to catch it tomorrow evening.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Inspite of Rajni and Kamal being considered professional rivals for the better part of their careers, they have been extremely cordial off-screen and have never missed a chance to stress their friendship (its easy finding clues to their lack of rivalry in Rajni movies since he makes numerous references to Kamal. Chandramukhi, for instance, opened with a 'Thanks' to Padmasree Kamalhassan while Rajni referred to Kamal directly in movies like Muthu and Sivaji). Though our younger actors frequently refer to Rajni and Kamal as their role models, they did not follow their behavior off-screen and waged a proxy war on each other through their movies not too long ago. Vijay and Ajith routinely took digs at each other in their movies like Tirumalai and Attagaasam while even a younger actor like Simbhu taunted rival Dhanush with some not-so-subtle potshots in Manmadhan. Personal attacks onscreen cheer up an actor's hardcore fans since they frequently equate professional and personal rivalry. But to the larger audience, they just make the actor look cheap and label him as someone who would stoop to any level to strike a few cheap shots.

Thankfully, that phase seems to have ended. Vijay and Ajith have made appearances in functions together, as have Simbhu and Dhanush, and the veiled attacks at one another through movies has also stopped since I didn't notice any pointed dialogs in movies like Kuruvi, Billa, Azhagiya Thamizh Magan, Kireedam or the movies before that.

The enmity seems to have travelled North to Mumbai though and unlike the wars of words waged by our Tamil actors, the war in Bollywood seems a lot more mean-spirited since it is all personal. Recently, I've been reading a lot about some cheap, childish bickering among the top Bollywood stars. The earliest one I remember was a war of words between Amitabh and Aamir Khan, after the latter confessed to not liking the former's Black all that much. Amitabh took that personally and minced no words in his response, telling Aamir that the film probably went over his head. Lately, Amitabh has trained his guns on Shah Rukh, who succeeded him as host of Kaun Banega Crorepati, and questioned the low ratings for that show as well as for Shah Rukh's latest gameshow, Paanchvi Paas.

Lately, blogging seems to be the latest fad for the stars and they've turned their blogs into places to rant. The latest controversy had Aamir write about "Shahrukh licking his feet and being fed biscuits" before he revealed that it was his dog that was named Shahrukh. He did have an explanation about the dog belonging to his house's previous owners and being named by them but the order of the lines left us in no doubt as to his mischievous intent. Amitabh, for his part, drafted an open letter to critic Khalid Mohammad, who had an unflattering review of Amitabh's latest film Bhoothnath as well as the actor's performance in it, and stooped to pretty low levels as he criticized Khalid's track record and made fun of his name.

Though the quality of our movies has a taken a precipitous dip and lags behind the quality of Hindi films, Tamil cinema and its actors seem to better off than their Bollywood counterparts as far as civility and decency amongst our actors goes. Guess we can look at that as the silver lining...

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Appeal

After the non-fiction The Innocent Man and the non-legal Playing for Pizza(both of which I didn't read), John Grisham is back on familiar turf with The Appeal, a legal thriller. I found his last novel in this genre, The Broker, to be a rambling travel guide passed off as a legal thriller and The Appeal is definitely a step up from that.

The Appeal begins where Grisham's own Rainmaker and movies like A Civil Action and Erin Brokovich ended - with a jury awarding a huge sum to the plaintiff in a lawsuit against a big company. Here the company is Krane Chemical and the plaintiff is a woman Jeanette Baker, who lost her husband and son to cancer brought on by drinking the water polluted by Krane. The damage is huge for Krane since the entire county - nicknamed Cancer County now - has a lot more people affected by the polluted water and waiting in the wings to sue the company. As they appeal the case(which will take it to the Mississippi Supreme Court), Krane's CEO goes to a secretive company which promises to replace one of the 9 current judges in the Supreme Court with a more sympathetic judge, which will ensure that the lawsuit will be rejected.

Grisham manages to make a Supreme Court judge's election as interesting as a Presidential election. The way in which a no-name candidate is groomed and made a strong contender is fascinating and with Presidential campaigns now going on, a number of parallels can be drawn with the campaigns in the book and in real-life. Both the way the candidate himself is convinced and the way his campaign is conducted are interesting and show the importance of perception and how much can be done with money. There are some smooth operators in play and they way they operate is scary but interesting.

Grisham's characters lack the depth or shades of gray that would make them interesting and the lack of subtlety is amateurish. Its also pretty clear where the author's sympathies lie. When the characters are bad(like the people at Krane), they are really evil - they lead fake lives, they are bad parents, they don't care about anything except money, etc. - and when characters are good(like the husband-wife team arguing against Krane), they are almost saintly - they are the perfect family, they are religious, they always look out for their friends and so on. The man picked to become the judge ends up being the only interesting character as he struggles between his conscience and the allure of the post.

The book doesn't proceed exactly as expected and goes on beyond the point where we expect it to end. But the ending then is more than a little disappointing. Grisham takes things in the direction we expect with a particular incident but doesn't follow up on those expectations. This breaking of our expectations is usually a good thing but not here since the eventual ending feels rushed.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Missing Masala

Masala films have been an inseparable part of Tamil cinema since the days of MGR. Offering a little bit of everything(action, romance, sentiments and comedy) that typically go into movies, films in the masala genre constitute pure escapist fare whose only aim is to entertain. But lately, this staple of Tamil cinema has given us few good entries with reliable directors and popular actors letting us down.

So what makes a film a masala film? The hero must be a simple, good man (no dark side or even shades of gray to muddy things up) and someone the common man can identify with. He must have a strong, worthy adversary to go up against. The film should have a simple, linear storyline whose primary - and mostly only - goal is to pit the hero against the villain. The film should incorporate action, romance, comedy and sentiments, with action being the primary component. And finally, the hero should triumph over the bad guy in the end and get the girl. Those are pretty much the basic elements of a masala film and how effective each of them is and how well they are put together makes all the difference between a good one and a bad one.

The golden period for masala films in Tamil cinema was probably the 80s. S.P.Muthuraman, with AVM behind him and Rajni and Kamal in front of the camera, spearheaded the movement with a series of films that were unapologetic masala films. Murattu Kaalai, Sakalakalaavallavan, Nallavanukku Nallavan and Thoongaadhe Thambi Thoongaadhe were some of the blockbusters that this combination delivered. Directors like Rajasekhar(Maappillai, Kaakki Sattai) kept the genre going into the 90s. Dharani, K.S.Ravikumar and Hari are probably the directors keeping the masala genre alive today. The revenge theme, which routinely saw our heroes avenging the death of their parents or the rape of their sister, has gradually given way to the theme of the hero going up against someone more powerful than him. The bad guy could be a cop, a rowdy or a politician but all that matters is that he is more powerful than the hero.

I enjoyed all those aforementioned masala films from the 80s. But the list is considerably smaller if we go back only a few years. Excluding Rajni films, which fall into a whole different category, my Top 5 masala films in the past few years would probably be Run, Gilli, Saamy, Dhill and Dhool. Personally, I feel that its the violence overdose that's killing off the genre. Once the violence becomes realistic and bloody, the movie takes on a certain seriousness and it then becomes oddly disconcerting to see the comedy track or flashy duets. This was why movies like Aaru and Saravanaa didn't work for me.

Every actor dreams of becoming Rajni and since those masala films of the 80s were a key part of Rajni ascent to the top, every present-day actor treats a masala film as his ticket to superstardom. But its getting increasingly difficult tocraft really good masala films. Considering the last films of our top stars, both Kuruvi and Bheema flopped while Billa, which could be considered the antithesis of our conventional masala film(it had no romance, no comedy, no sentiments and the action was subtle and stylized) was a big hit. Could this be a sign of changing audience tastes? Are masala films, as we know it, finally losing their charm?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Menon Says...

Rediff has an interview with Rajiv Menon, who has worked as cinematographer for a few movies(including Manirathnam's Bombay and Guru), apart from directing Minsaara Kanavu and Kandukonden Kandukonden. He's talked about his favorite scenes and not just in his own movies. But the interview made me ask a couple of questions of my own...

A: On Minsaara Kanavu - "If I could change something about the film, it would be the climax when Kajol leaves both Arvind Swamy and Prabhu Deva and becomes a nun."

Q: Its been a while since I saw Minsaara Kanavu but I distinctly remember Kajol and Prabhu Deva pairing up at the end while Arvind Swamy became a priest. So is this one of those movies where the climax was changed due to public pressure or has Menon forgotten his own film?

A: "I dubbed Minsara Kanavu as Sapnay because it was easy. I didn't do that with Kandukondain because remaking or dubbing humour is very difficult. One can dub actions and emotions but humour cannot be dubbed."

Q: So Kandukonden Kandukonden was a comedy?

A: On Devar Magan - "It was such a great film that it was dubbed in Hindi as Virasat, starring Anil Kapoor, Amrish Puri, Tabu and Pooja Batra."

Q: Did Menon really not know the difference between dubbing and remaking?

Airport Alone?

Recently saw Home Alone and though I still enjoyed the movie thoroughly, I thought the basic plot point - a family forgetting a kid when going on a vacation - was too far-fetched. Guess not!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Iron Man

Of late, there's a feeling that the superhero genre, particularly the first instalment that inevitably explores the origins of said superhero, has reached saturation. The elements of this instalment - an incident that leads to the superpowers, the superhero coming to terms with his newfound powers, the attempts to hide his superhero persona, etc. - are familiar and there are only so many ways these can be presented. But Iron Man proves that the genre still has some steam left in it. The film abides by all conventions of the genre but still manages to be a fresh, exciting addition to the ever-expanding roster of big-screen superheroes.

Unlike with Superman or Batman, I was not familiar with Iron Man before. In fact, the first I heard of this superhero was when I saw the previews for the film. So I did not know about the man(Tony Stark) inside the suit, his background as a weapons manufacturer, his stint as a prisoner in Afghanistan that led to him designing the first prototype for the Iron Man or the subsequent transformation to a full-blown superhero. This might have been the reason why I was engrossed in these portions but then again, I didn't know the origins of the Fantastic Four either and found the first film in that franchise to be a big bore. So its gotta be the small things that are unique to Iron Man. The fact that Stark was a bad guy before turning a new leaf allows his character to seem more human and the fact that Iron Man came about mainly because Stark wanted to escape makes his origin a little more believable.

Iron Man is not big on action and is the better for it. Director Jon Favreau, who also has a small role as Stark's assistant, manages to make the characters 3-dimensional. So we get to know them and like them and enjoy the interactions between them rather than simply wait for the next big action set-piece. Whether its the under-the-surface romantic tension between Stark and Pepper Potts(Gwyneth Paltrow) or the friendship between Stark and army man Terence Howard, the conversations are always smart and filled with subtle humor. And even though I was unfamiliar with SHIELD and the other Avengers, the running joke about the long-winded name of the organization was funny. And had a nice punchline (I missed Samuel L.Jackson's cameo though, since I read about it only after coming back from the movie. But caught up with it via some videos of the same on the web).

It goes without saying that the special effects are impressive but the good thing is that they don't overwhelm the proceedings. Iron Man's flights are as exhilarating for us as they probably were for him and things get blown up good too. But the big action set-piece, the climactic fight between Iron Man and Iron Monger is probably the least interesting segment of the movie. With the fight essentially being a clash between two computer generated metal creatures, the sequence looked like something out of Transformers, with only a fraction of the excitement .

Robert Downey Jr. is not the first actor I would think of when to play a superhero but he carries it off with aplomb and makes it all his own. Inspite of the whole change-of-heart scenario, Stark is someone who never seems to take things seriously and Downey is perfect for the role. He has some delicious lines and utters them with a distinctive style that is all his own. Paltrow is sweet and likeable without getting on our nerves while Terence Howard perfectly conveys the touch of humor when its needed. Usual good guy Jeff Bridges does a turn as villain but apart from his looks, which scream bad guy, he doesn't bring anything special to the role.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

5 New Reviews

Reviews for Vedha, Thozhaa, Nepali, Arai Enn 305-il Kadavul and Kuruvi are now online @ bbreviews.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Saawariya / U Me Aur Hum


Saawariya is Sanjay Leela Bhansali's adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's short story White Nights. Looking great but lacking heart, it is a unique but detached experience.

Saawariya's story is the same as Iyarkai, as a newcomer to a place falls in love with a woman only to learn about her past love and is then stuck between helping locate her lover and hoping that he never returns to her. Even details about the woman waiting at a specific place - its a bridge here while it was a lighthouse in Iyarkkai - are similar which leads me to wonder if Iyarkai's director got his inspiration from White Nights too. The way the story is presented on screen is where the two movies differ though. While Iyarkai set it in Andaman and allowed the unique scenery and life of the port town to bring intimacy and realism to the film, Saawariya goes for the exact opposite effect by setting the story in a make-believe land and turning it into a near-musical.

It does work though because the film sure looks gorgeous. Freeing himself from the shackles of realism in the very first scene, where a voice-over informs us that the place exists only a girl's mind, Bhansali makes the town a picture-perfect place. The sets are grand even if unrealistic and blue, in all its shades, dominates the palette. There are large signboards, bright lights, nice people and elaborate song sequences. But there is also the sad love story and the noir feel as most of the film is set in the dark(I'm not sure there was any scene set during the day). The fairy-tale aspects clash with the noir touches, giving the film a unique, almost-surrealistic feel.

This picture-book look never allows us to get involved in the film though. The performances are sincere and the pieces are in place but at no point did the film invoke any emotions. We never feel for anyone and don't really care how the love triangle is resolved. So the climax - which is a lot more low-key compared to Iyarkai, by the way - doesn't move us.

Ranbir Kapoor has a boyish charm but there are a few scenes where he carries the innocent look a bit too far and ends up just looking a bit dumb. But he doesn't show any first-film jitters though. The movie loses no chance to convey his heritage, right from his dresses to the name of a bar displayed quite conspicuously. Sonam Kapoor is more subdued as the role demands. Rani Mukherjee is luminous as a prostitute - with a heart of gold ofcourse - who has a soft corner for Ranbir while Salman is seriousness personified in a cameo.

U Me Aur Hum

Ajay Devgan's transformation from action hero to romantic hero was surprising but even more surprising is his choice of subject for his directorial debut. Featuring him with wife Kajol, U Me Aur Hum is a film that portrays a couple's life as one of them is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease. A bit too superficial to have an impact, it is still a confident debut from the actor-turned-director.

The film is cleanly divided into two sections featuring completely different emotions and tones. Neither segment is particularly original or emotionally deep but they work well together. While the first half introduces us to Ajay(Ajay Devgan) and Piya(Kajol) as they fall in love and get married, the second half focuses on their lives as Piya is afflicted with Alzheimer's. Ajay's courting of Kajol isn't too original as he learns about her without her knowledge and then impresses her by feigning similar tastes. But there are a few fun moments and we do get to know and like the couple, which is what the section aims for anyway. The film creates believable supporting characters as Ajay's friends and the way they rally around the couple after their troubles is heartwarming.

The troubles Ajay and Kajol face after Kajol is afflicted don't have the impact of the troubles faced by the protagonists in similarly-themed films like Thanmatra. The problem is that the time period here is too long and we hardly see a fraction of it. The few incidents we see are touch our hearts on the whole, the film barely skims the surface of the situation's seriousness. Kajol's behavior in some places puts us in doubt as to her exact afflection and the film's ending feels artificial and contrived too.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Kuselan Update

[Pic Courtesy -]

Pretty much the only compliment that can be given to director P.Vasu is that he wraps up his films pretty quickly. That's the only part of him being Kuselan's director that gives me atleast a little joy since the movie seems to be progressing pretty fast and seems all set to hit screens as early as August. The above picture is from the shooting of the film's climax in a school in Udumalai. Nice to see thalaivar once again looking young and stylish in his favorite white-and-white dress.

Considering the long wait we had for Sivaji and the upcoming guaranteed wait for Robot, it'll be nice to see thalaivar on the big screen in 2008 and Vasu will make sure that happens. With Kuselan this year, Sultan in 2009 and Robot in 2010(I'll be amazed if it makes it to theaters before then, considering Shankar's leisurely pace of film-making), we're looking at three thalaivar movies in the next 3 years. Its been a long time since we had this kind of situation.

The rights for Kuselan were recently snapped up by Pyramid Samira for Rs. 60 crores. Even considering Sivaji's stupendous success, that's an amazing number. For one, Rajni is just playing a guest role here. Sure its going to be much bigger than Mammootty's role was in the original but its still a guest role in what is definitely not a 'Rajni film'. Also, the film's reach in the Kerala and Hindi markets may not be that strong since the original, Katha Parayumbol, was a blockbuster in Kerala and a Hindi remake, Billo Barber, is currently being made by Priyadarshan, with Shah Rukh Khan playing Rajni's role and Irfan Khan reprising Pasupathi's role. Considering these factors, the price tag for Kuselan simply indicates the value of 'Brand Rajni' after Sivaji. I guess Kuselan has made KB a Kuberan!

The cast of Kuselan seems to be expanding each day. It's already known that Nayanthara is paired with Rajni while Meena plays Pasupathi's wife. Prabhu, Vadivelu, Kushboo and Sneha are also said to be in the cast. Mamta Mohandas, who was the heroine in Sivappadhigaaram, is the latest addition to the film. According to Mamta, Kuselan is the name of Rajni's film inside the film and she plays its director. She also has a fast song with him. But most intriguing was her statement that she has a combination scene with Rajni and another superstar and that the star will play a cameo and come towards the end of the film. Considering that it is KB's production, her comment has me wondering if it could be Kamal. What a casting coup that would be!

Monday, May 05, 2008


With Dhill, Dhool and Gilli, director Dharani showed us that he had mastered the art of creating fast-paced, well-balanced masala films that had no dull moments. All of them were variations of the David vs. Goliath story of a common man going up against someone way more powerful and spiced up the basic story with action, comedy, romance and sentiments. The formula's intact in Dharani's latest film Kuruvi but something goes drastically wrong in the way it has been translated to the screen. Predictable, outdated and boring, it is a disappointment, more so because it is from the same team that gave us the enormously entertaining Gilli.

Vel(Vijay) is a racecar driver who lives with his extended family. He has been the breadwinner for the family ever since his dad Singamuthu(Manivannan) abandoned them after accumulating a lot of debt. Vel learns that Cocha industries, based in Malaysia, owes his dad a lot of money and working as a kuruvi(someone who transports goods between Malaysia and Chennai), he travels to Malaysia to recover the money from Cocha. With Cocha(Suman) unwilling to hand over the money, Vel robs his diamond, apart from unwittingly capturing the heart of Cocha's sister Devi(Trisha), and returns to Chennai. Little does Vel know that his dad and his employers are being held as slaves on a piece of land that is jointly owned by Cocha and an MLA Konda Reddy(Ashish Vidyarthi).

Dharani's previous three films were so successful since he mixed brain and brawn in the right proportion. The heroes there beat up the bad guys too but they also came up with clever plans that put the villains in trouble or helped them escape their clutches. But Kuruvi relies on brawn almost exclusively. Whether Vijay challenges the villains in their own place or is caught in a tight spot, he only flexes his muscles and rarely puts his brain cells to use. Even opportunities for some clever planning, like the diamond heist, are left unused. Ofcourse, the villains here are not the kind who call for such cleverness. Suman doesn't kill Vijay even when he is face-to-face with an unarmed, jailed Vijay and after planning en elaborate death for him, walks away without checking if he is actuallydead(apart from being thick-headed, he is also apparently thick-skinned since, at another point, he doesn't realize that he is actually hurt enough to be bleeding!).

Vijay's first car race starts off as a perfectly good, well-filmed race capable of giving the film a rousing start. But then as Vijay's car loses its gas pedal and he clenches the cable between his teeth to continue the race before dramatically leaping over the finish lane, it is transformed into a cheesy, ego-massaging stunt. This kind of an over-the-top punchline exists for every action sequence(in another example, a nice little chase through tight streets is ended by a ridiculous leap from a building to a railway track bridge), rendering them completely ineffective (even the romance is not spared from this sort of action as Vijay saves Trisha while hanging on a rope with fireworks exploding the background). And when the action is not exaggerated, it turns violent with Vijay's choice of weapons being an axe and a knife. When a film that is primarily an action thriller is filled with this kind of exaggerated action sequences, boredom sets in pretty quickly.

Thankfully, the romance and comedy relieve the boredom somewhat. Vivek, as always, has some funny lines and moments(the time he is caught at the airport metal detector is the best of the lot) and tags along with Vijay to keep things moving. The romance isn't particularly imaginative but with Vijay and Trisha sharing good chemistry, it has enough fun and cute moments to keep us interested.

With the loud villains, the isolated land and the workers trapped as slaves, Kuruvi reminds us of the second half of Thagappansamy once Vijay moves to Cuddappah. Thats not a good comparison since all adjectives that applied to that film - silly and outdated, to name a couple - apply to this one too. With Vivek out of the picture and Trisha on hand just for the duets, Dharani struggles to move the story forward and employs obvious, irritating tactics(like Ilavarasu requesting Vijay to control his temper) to stretch things out. There are a few attempted comedy interludes but they are unfunny and seem out-of-place considering the seriousness of the proceedings. The area is gorgeously barren and the diamond-mining delivers a unique setting(as shown in the quick fight between Vijay and Ashish Vidyarthi) but these are wasted by the dragging screenplay.

Vijay is his usual, energetic self, throwing in his usual comic expressions, punchlines and Rajni dialogs(here it is "Unmaiyai Sonnen"). Of late, he has started trying out complicated steps that look more like exercise than dance steps and this takes the fun out of Dandanaka Darna.... The simple but graceful steps in Palaanadhu... and Mozhu Mozhunnu... are a lot better to look at. Trisha goes through the entire first half with a bemused expression that suggests that she wasn't taking things too seriously. She looks cute though some of the dresses in some of the song sequences don't suit her too well. Suman doesn't make much of a impact, especially since he is immobilized for quite a bit of time while Ashish Vidyarthi gets on our nerves with his shouting.

This kuruvi flies real low.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Duma Key

Duma Key is my first Stephen King book. Hailed as one of the greatest living American writers, King is primarily known to pen novels in the horror genre and that kept me from picking up his books earlier. I've recently been trying to expand my reading beyond the thriller genre and thought I'd give Duma Key a shot. The strong characterization and vivid imagery made it clear why King is so popular but the supernatural elements didn't do much for me and so I finished the book with mixed feelings.

Egdar Freemantle, a building contractor, loses his right hand in a construction accident. He is considerably banged up and his wife, after experiencing a few of his bouts of uncontrollable rage, divorces him. Edgar's psychiatrist advices him that a change of location would do him good and asks him to once again take up sketching as a part of rehabilitation. So Edgar moves to Duma Key, an undeveloped strip of the Florida coast. Once there, he meets Elizabeth Eastlake, a woman whose history is tightly bound with that of the area, and her helper Wireman, who seems to have a mysterious past. Edgar himself discovers a talent for painting and soon learns that his paintings have more power than he ever imagined.

King has an uncanny knack of conveying the characters' innermost thoughts and this comes in handy since the novel is a first-person narrative. We understand exactly how Edgar feels and his thoughts(about his lost hand), fears(about the house and the strange happenings) and feelings(for his ex-wife and daughters) are wonderfully conveyed. This helps, especially when the novel begins to move into the supernatural realm, since it makes things more believable. As Edgar begins painting masterpieces and slowly comes to terms with the fact that Duma Key is special, we accept it more easily since we've been with him as he discovered things. And though we meet the important characters only through Edgar, they feel well-fleshed out too since we've been privy to Edgar's thoughts about them.

As Edgar comes to grips with his talent and ponders over his relationships, the story leans towards the psychological. The suspense is also built up very well as we learn bits and pieces of Elizabeth's history and understand exactly how it ties in to all the strange things Edgar's been experiencing.

This book has made me realise that horror in written form doesn't have much of an effect of me. The pshychological aspect of the book gradually gives way to the supernatural but the supernatural elements are never scary. King is very imaginative and his imagery does create some vivid images, especially on that last action-packed mission that Edgar and Wireman go on, but since they are not scary, the book isn't intense or gripping.