Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Considering that Manirathnam has made movies against the backdrop of terrorism(Roja), communal riots(Bombay) and the situation in Sri Lanka(Kannathil Muthamittaal), it might seem a little strange to call a simple double biography, his bravest effort. But considering the subjects whose lives he has chosen to capture on celluloid, terming Iruvar his most courageous film would not be that much of a stretch. A thinly-veiled look at the lives of MGR, Karunanidhi and those around them, it offers a fascinating look at TamilNadu politics during the last few decades by shining the spotlight on the two personalities who dominated - maybe even defined - it during that time period.

MGR's reel equivalent is Anandan(Mohanlal), an actor who, after a long struggle, gets the right break and turns hero. His best friend is Thamizhchelvan(Prakashraj), Karunanidhi's big screen alter-ego, who is instrumental in Anandan's rise to stardom, having written the scripts for his movies. Thamizhchelvan is part of the Dravidian social movement and also becomes an important functionary when the party is formed. Anandan joins the party soon after though his move is viewed with suspicion as a move intended solely to further his filmi ambitions. As their ambitions and aspirations clash, they move apart in public life but remain good friends and their mutual respect and admiration for each other never erodes.

Mohanlal and Prakashraj are a study in contrasts here. While Prakashraj is idealistic and intense, Mohanlal is portrayed as a more simple man. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than during their meeting right after the party has been launched, where the former talks in concrete terms about power, poverty and reservations while all Mohanlal wants is a simplistic, all-encompassing "everybody should be happy". Prakashraj is a man with clear dreams and ambitions and well-laid plans for how to achieve them. Mohanlal, on the other hand, is someone who takes things as they come. His ambitions are short-term and he simply resets them once he gets what he wants. But the most obvious contrast is in the way they they handle what life throws at them. Going by the old adage, one could say that Prakashraj achieves greatness while Mohanlal has greatness thrust upon him. This is encapsulated in the fantastic scene where Prakashraj takes Mohanlal to the roof of his house to see the people who have come to see him. Its Prakashraj who first lifts Mohanlal's hand to wave to them but once the actor understands his own power, he gains a sudden confidence, develops a swagger and begins to play to the gallery effortlessly. This difference - the way Mohanlal is reactive while Prakashraj is proactive - seeps into their personal lives too. Like, for instance, the way they end up with their respective second wives. While Prakashraj seeks out Tabu and asks her to come to him, Mohanlal weds Gauthami when she shows up at his house after running away from her abusive uncle. For the most part, these contrasts are portrayed subtly but there are a few scenes(like their respective first marriages) where they are expressed more forcefully.

The relationship between these two contrasting protagonists is so unique, so complicated that it defies conventional definition. Poles apart with respect to ideologies, they go beyond that to work together professionally and also become close friends. They view each other with suspicion even when they are partners and then became overt enemies in politics. But throughout their lives, they never lose admiration and respect for each other. The film captures all the dimensions of this complex relationship beautifully. From their first meeting in the studio, where they are young and filled with dreams and ambitions, to their last, where they are old and tired, the movie depicts all the nuances of their relationship vividly.

While Mohanlal and Prakashraj are treated as equals, there does seem to be a slightly negative edge to Mohanlal's character(maybe Manirathnam was guided by which of his protagonists was alive and which one was dead when the movie was made?). When Mohanlal asks Prakashraj to write scripts, it is to cheat the viewers to make them accept him as a hero; when he joins Nasser's party, it is to further his movie career; when he deliberately goes late to a meeting, it is to demonstrate his power. These are small things but they do add up. And during all these times, Prakashraj is the more dignified one, standing up for what he believes in, observing Mohanlal silently. As for Aishwarya, there seems to a deliberate effort to make her character seem unreal and divorced from Jayalalitha. Her costumes don't really fit the era, she seems a bit too brash and disrespectful for a budding actress, her political ambitions are barely touched upon(barring one scene where she helps the survivors of an accident) and she gets an abrupt, off-screen end.

Ofcourse, there's no denying that Iruvar's biggest attraction is the fact that it is based on real characters and true events. And the more one is familiar with TamilNadu politics, the better one can savor it. It is fun seeing events we remember reading about or hearing and guessing as to how much of what is onscreen is true. And it is definitely illuminating to watch the lives of the people who ruled TamilNadu politics, see what drove them, view the actual people behind the larger-than-life figures we read about. And the opening message - that proclaims that this is not a true story - notwithstanding, Manirathnam leaves us in no doubt about who his characters are based upon. There's Mohanlal's Malayali accent, which becomes more overt in a private moment with his DGP, when he actually converses in Malayalam; there's Prakashraj's atheist outlook and Dravidian leanings; there's the duo's split over the party's accounts; and there's the shooting that leads to Mohanlal winning the elections. Ofcourse filming the life stories of two revered icons comes with its own pitfalls. The censors have been merciless, resulting many sequences with muted dialogs and abrupt jumps indicating scenes that were cut. Then again, in our society where politicians and actors are deified and any slur on them could result in riots or worse, I guess we should be thankful that atleast what was left made it to the screens.

Tamil cinema has not been kind to politicians. While the treatment might well be deserved, there's no question that the way they are portayed is one-dimensional. The politicians are a corrupt bunch who are present to accept bribes and throw their weight around to exert illegal pressure on cops. There have been a few good ones but they end up at the other end of the spectrum and are saints in a politician's garb. But Iruvar has politicians who are flesh and blood. Scenes we see in any political satire are present here too. We see corruption, politicians switching allegiances at the drop of a hat and loud fights in the assembly. But we also see other sides of the same politicians - sides where they are idealistic, well-meaning and genuinely wish to do good for the people. So, even is one is not familiar with the real-life politicians the characters are based on, the film still works as a realistic political drama.

Mohanlal has a difficult role as he plays a man still revered by millions. Considering that his character arc makes it clear who he is playing, he doesn't have to overstress it and employs MGR's well-known, frequently-imitated movements - the lift of the hand, the distinctive skipping run, the shake of the head - only in the song sequences. The rest of the time, he delivers a lesson on how much can be conveyed with downplayed 'acting'. Whether as the frustrated actor or as the star loved by the people or the politician battling his best friend, he combines his eyes, expressions and body language to play the complicated personality in pitch-perfect fashion. Prakashraj's character doesn't have quite as many nuances but he fits the role perfectly, from the firebrand young politician to the world-weary, more mellow statesman. Aishwarya, in her debut, overdoes the coy, timid bit in her first role(just as she did a few years later in Jeans). She is more at home as the bold, self-assured actress though. Revathi(as Prakashraj's first wife), Tabu(as Prakashraj's second wife) and Gauthami (as Mohanlal's second wife) are underused. Nasser is good as usual in the role of Annadurai while Rajesh has a meaty part as Madhivannan, Nasser's second-in-command who is initially opposed to Mohanlal joining the party but ironically, ends up in his party.

Just as the movie doesn't call itself a true story, the time periods aren't explicitly announced either. But the sets, the props and the costumes recreate the different eras quite flawlessly as film scenes and song sequences are used to mark the transition from historicals to social dramas. Narumugaiye... is a beauty and its Carnatic touch fits the time period it is used in, perfectly. Aayirathil Naan Oruvan..., with its oldish tune and crowd-pleasing lyrics, is probably the song that most touts the fact that Mohanlal's character is based on MGR as he runs and skips and hugs children in quite the same way MGR did in Anbe Vaa's Pudhiya Vaanam.... Kannai Kattikkollaadhe... is one of those energetic, preachy songs loaded with double entendres about the singer's real-life. The jazzy Hello Mr. Edhikatchi... and the simple Vennila Vennila... are instantly catchy. Iruvar would probably count as one of Rahman's best efforts on background score too. The pieces that accompany the key moments in the movie are wonderful and perfectly suit the moods and emotions conveyed onscreen. Santosh Sivan also avoids those visual flourishes that are usually a part of Manirathnam's movies. Barring a few sequences, like the revolving camera over Prakashaj and Tabu, the cinematography is sedate and unobtrusive as befits a docudrama.

Iruvar - atleast the form that made it to screens - may not be perfect or even Manirathnam's finest film. But as a chronicle of one of the most important and influential periods in TamilNadu politics, its place in Tamil cinema history is assured.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Doubt / The Reader / The Wrestler

Finally catching up on 2008's Oscar contenders and winners...


Can't think of a better title than Doubt for this film because the film's intention is to keep us in doubt all the way through. At the film's heart is the suspicion that Hauffman, a priest, has behaved improperly with one of the students in his school. While the priest pleads innocence, a nun(Meryl Streep), who has her own axe to grind with the priest, is convinced of the priest's guilt and another nun(Amy Adams) is caught in the crossfire. But unlike most movies, Doubt never lets us in on what really happened. We get hints in the form of past issues, we see the behavior of the principal characters and we hear the opinions of the characters as to what happened. But we never get to know what actually transpired. So, based on who we believe and how we interpret the happenings, we are expected to come to our own conclusions. That is both the film's strength and weakness. While it constantly keeps us thinking and guessing, it feels distant and vague because of the lack of catharsis. Overall though, it works mainly because of the performances and the script. Streep is phenomenal as the strict nun while Hauffman alternately earns our confidence and raises our suspicions with a natural performance. Amy Adams shines as a meek nun who gradually gains the confidence to stand up for what she believes in. Viola Davis has a small role as the boy's mother but her emotional speech to Streep is a scene-stealer.


The Reader

Exploration of feelings of guilt and redemption is one of Hollywood's favorite themes. The Reader is one more film to tackle the topic and it does so powerfully and touchingly against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Kate Winslet plays a ticket collector on a tram in Germany. After saving a 15-year-old-boy(David Kross) who falls ill in front of her building, she begins to have a passionate affair with him. She disappears from his life one day and when he sees again a few years later, she is on trial for the murder of Jews while working as an SS guard. The Winslet-Kross affair is morally wrong but the questions it raises pale in comparison to those that come up later. The heart of the movie is their meeting a few years later and the film throws up some complex questions as Kross learns about the horrific past of the woman he was in love with. The film's key point comes when Kross realizes something about Winslet that could save her. The way he treats the information tells us about the tough choice he has made while Winslet's admittance tells us that she is seeking redemption more from herself than from the court. Both of them get another chance at redemption at the end and their actions tell us how much they have changed. Winslet was an SS guard and later has an affair with a young boy but still earns our sympathy on the strength of her performance. Her responses in court convey her frame of mind and though they don't humanize her completely, they do help us understand her thought process. Kross is intense and Ralph Fiennes is perfect as the man who has become emotionally barren because of his past.


The Wrestler

The Wrestler is an emotional, touching story that looks at the sunset years of a man who has made a lot of mistakes and is trying to fix them but not always succeeding. Mickey Rourke plays a professional wrestler who was popular 20 years ago. He is now making money wrestling in exhibition matches but when a heart attack puts a stop to that, he is forced to reassesses his priorities in life. So he tries to reconnect with his daughter and strikes up a friendship with a stripper(Marisa Tomei). The film is a no-frills look at the life of a man who is past his prime and is trying to come to terms with it. It is emotional but never overly melodramatic. Rourke creates a sympathetic figure who was in the limelight but is now alone and lonely and yearns for company. We cheer for him when he appears to be setting things right(like during his stint in the deli counter) and feel sad when things once again derail(he only has himself to blame though). The behind-the-scenes peeks at wrestling are fascinating and confirm some questions we have while surprising us with other revelations of what goes on before and after those matches. Marisa Tomei is good as the stripper who is kinda in the same place as Rourke.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Growing Up

Among recent films, Ayan went into some detail when it came to some nefarious activities(VCD piracy, drug smuggling, drug transport, etc.) going on around us. While admittedly superficial, the behind-the-scenes look did add some realism and excitement to the otherwise cliched endeavors like piracy and smuggling. What really annoyed me though was the general tittering that could be heard from the audience whenever Surya or the other actors talked about anything technical (like, for instance, the chemicals and the reactions they talk about to uncover the drugs smuggled in PiLLaiyAr idols).

This is definitely not the first time I'm hearing this. The same reaction is assured whenever one of our movies brings up anything even remotely technical. Whether its Srikanth talking about water desalination in Kanaa Kanden or even something as simple as Jyothika introducing herself as an M.Tech from IIT in Kaakka Kaakka, it results in an audience reaction that is completely condescending. It could be a lone snigger or a more widespread hoot but it is clearly a patronizing expression that puts down the actors and the movie itself.

I'm not saying that Tamil cinema is beyond reproach when it comes to technical matters. It's not easy watching the way computers are used(misused?) in Tamil cinema and as a software engineer, it wasn't easy to stifle a laugh when Dhanush rolled up his sleeves to start programming with a vengeance in Yaaradi Nee Mohini. I'm just saying that Tamil cinema when it does things right, should be given a chance. In this day and age when so many of us are in similar professions, there is nothing so inherently laughable about our actors portraying college graduates or professionals or scientists or using Google to look up something. After all, we have no difficulty accepting Denise Richards playing a scientist or Keanu Reeves playing a hacker. Why then is it so difficult to accept Jo as an IIT graduate? Or Surya talking about chemical reactions?

Does this attitude come about because we refuse to see the characters our actors portray as separate from the actors themselves? Or is it because our actors try to remain the same whatever the roles they take up? Surprisingly, I've seen this only in the US here, where the majority of the audience is made up of software professionals. Granted I haven't seen an equal number of films back home but the crowd was supportive and cheerful even during all those English phrases and American connections in Vaaranam Aayiram, when I caught it in Abhirami last November. But the same movie here would doubtless result in numerous catcalls and loud comments. While they themselves are professionals living in the US, why are so many viewers unable to accept our actors playing a similar role?

We always hear how Tamil cinema has to grow up. But there are times like these when it looks like its the audience that needs to grow up!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where in the world is Girija?!

Any talk about Idhayathai Thirudaathey - or its Telugu original Geethanjali - invariably brings up the question "Whatever happened to Girija after that?". Its pretty obvious why. After a dream debut via which she captured the hearts of cinegoers as Geethanjali in that film, she appeared in only 1 movie, the Mohanlal-starrer Vandanam, and then completely vanished off the face of the earth (Google and comments on earlier posts have yielded the information that she also acted in another Telugu movie Hrudayanjali and was the first choice for Aamir Khan's Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander and can actually be seen in one of the songs in that movie). There has been no news of her since.

Personally, I can never forget Girija because she gave shape to the first - maybe only? - movie character I ever fell in love with. And that was as much due to her as it was to the way the role was shaped by Manirathnam. I loved her carefree dancing in the rain; I laughed at her mischievous nature as she lured unsuspecting wannabe-lovers to the graveyard; I enjoyed her playfulness as she got Nagarjuna into trouble; I was heartbroken upon learning that her days were numbered; I admired her attitude as she was determined to live the rest of her life to the fullest; I understood her surprise at the realization that she had fallen in love; and I cried when she yearned to extend her life. Her expressions - like the mock dead pose she strikes when Nagarjuna brings her back or the shocked reaction she shows when he proposes to her - are firmly imprinted on my mind to this day. Girija was undoubtedly the biggest reason for Idhayathai Thirudaathey being the movie I watched the most number of times on the big screen.

Thanks to Namita, one of the commentors in the previous post, the question I mentioned in the first paragraph has finally been answered. Turns out Girija has a blog! So we now know that her last name is Shettar, she is a reporter and lives in London (I am a bit peeved though that Idhayathai Thirudaathey doesn't figure in her list of favorite movies on her profile!). Whew! Now I know the meaning of jenma sabalyam :)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Puthaandu VaazhthukkaL

Along with Pongal and Deepavali, Tamil New Year's day has also been a day looked forward to by movie buffs because it was one of those special days when several movies got released. The most exciting one was probably Tamil New Year's day in 2005 as we had movies from both Rajni(Chandramukhi) and Kamal(Mumbai Xpress) releasing, with Vijay's Sachein bringing up the end. But since then, the day has lost its luster, so to speak, in terms of movie releases. 2006's April 14th wasn't too bad with Ajith's Tirupathi leading the pack. But 2007 gave us the first hint that New Year's day was losing its place as a day favored for releases. Cheran's MaayakkaNNadi was the most high-profile movie to reach theaters that day and the less said about the other releases the better. It was slim pickings again last year with Santosh Subramaniyam being the only notable movie to hit theaters. In fact, producers seemed to be avoiding New Year's day intentionally as high-profile movies like Yaaradi Nee Mohini and Arai En 305-il KadavuL opened just a few weeks before or after New Year's day.

This year April 14 sees no new movies being released for, apparently, the first time in the history of Tamil cinema. I had been hoping that Sarvam would make it but the combination of IPL and the Lok Sabha elections seems to have kept movies away from theaters. Though there's nothing to see, there is something to read though. Reviews of Laadam, TN-07-AL-4777, 1977 and Ayan are online @ bbreviews :)

Wish you all a very Happy New Year!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Its Personal!

Nandita Das' recent movie Firaaq (which I haven't seen) is apparently about the lives of some Muslims affected by the riots in Gujarat. Bharadwaj Rangan's review of the film led to several responses that criticized the one-sided nature of the film and used it as an example of a general bias towards the Muslim community when it comes to the press and even some forms of entertainment. Such responses led to this column where Rangan talks about reviewing films whose themes clash with ideas and beliefs we hold close to our heart.

I agree with most of the things he says there. It is definitely the filmmaker's prerogative to pick the subject matter of the film and decide the viewpoint that he/she wants to present. But Rangan also says that "For the purposes of a review, however, a film is evaluated on simply one criterion, and that’s how well it goes about doing what it set out wanting to do." That is a statement that made me think. Is it really possible for a reviewer to be completely dispassionate about a film? Is it possible to completely disengage oneself emotionally from a film just because we know that we are going to write about it? And if it is possible, does that make the review any less honest?

I've always been the first to admit that my reviews are biased. I've even gone as far as saying that every reviewer is biased and that its precisely the bias that makes a particular reviewer's opinions unique and interesting. And the bias is not just when it comes to favorite actors and actresses. It can be on the subject matter itself, the way it is handled, the director's style, certain aspects of the movie, etc. Bias on a movie's subject matter itself usually arises from the viewer's background, religion, caste and life experiences. This bias is naturally quite strong and that is what makes it difficult to evaluate a movie simply based on how well it achieves its goal.

Its easy to take sides in masala movies where the lines are clearly drawn. The movie itself might be well-made or badly put together but we always know who is good and who is evil and it is pretty obvious who we should root for. But the boundaries are not so clear when it comes to movies handling serious, heavier topics. And that's when personal preferences come into play and affect our opinion of the movie.

The role played by one's own experiences was made clear to me on this very blog a while back. I came down rather heavily on the vulgarity in Boys and said that the sequences where Shankar showed the heroes brushing up against women in public places were infinitely more vulgar than the more explicit scenes in New. My argument was that since the guys in the movie were the heroes and weren't shown as being punished for their acts, this would instigate even more youth to indulge in the same kinds of acts in real life. Some of the commentors who were against my stance brought in a recent post where I ranted against the banning of smoking in movies and said that the two weren't really different since the government's argument was that people were taking up smoking after seeing the actors smoke on screen. I did have some arguments as to how they weren't the same but they weren't really convincing.

But its quite clear why I reacted differently to the depiction of vulgarity and the depiction of smoking. When it came to the boys' behavior, it was something I disliked because I had heard my mom and my cousin sisters complain about the same kind of behavior after their everyday bus journeys. On the other hand, while some of my friend in school and college were smokers, I hadn't really seen anyone taking up smoking just because his favorite actor lit up on screen. So while the reel happenings were similar, my real-life experiences made me have totally different reactions to the two cases.

That's what I mean when I say that a viewer with some personal investment in the subject matter of a film would find it extremely difficult to view the film impersonally. So a Hindu who lost a loved one in the riots would likely have an adverse reaction to Firaaq. Just as a deeply religious man may feel KadavuL is a bad movie. And a Brahmin may find Idhu Namma AaLu to be offensive.

I like watching movies and penning down my thoughts about them. And I do try to remain neutral. But sometimes, it does get personal...

Sunday, April 05, 2009


The 80s and 90s were the glory years for the masala movie in Tamil cinema. But with the cliched, crass films from the likes of Vijay, Simbhu and Arjun, the term 'masala film' has understandably become a rather derogatory term these days, referring to films targeted only at the front-benchers. Ayan, the second film by K.V.Anand, who is back in the director's chair after Kanaa Kanden, restores some respect to the genre. It serves up its masala with style and smarts and shows us, especially in the first half, that a good masala film can work for everybody.

Das(Prabhu) smuggles everything from pirated VCDs to diamonds and Deva(Surya) is his right-hand man who does the legwork for their missions. Kamlesh(Akashdeep Saigal) is their main rival. Eyeing a bigger slice of the pie, he is willing to entice Das' longtime customers as well as transport drugs, something that Das refuses to do. Chittibabu(Jagan) is the latest addition to Das' group. Deva and Chitti's sister Yamuna(Tamannah) fall for each other but the subsequent happenings complicate things quite a bit.

Ayan's first half offers further proof that its not what a movie offers but rather how it is presented that is important. The film has all the familiar afflictions of masala movies like poor logic, weak characterization and an unconvincing romance. But its easy to overlook these because the proceedings are just so darn entertaining. The Surya-Tamannaah romance is too quick to earn any emotional investment but their funny first meeting and subsequent sweetness make sure we don't miss the emotional aspect. Similarly, Jagan and Tamannaah don't make a very convincing brother and sister but Jagan's string of comments(like the ones when Tamannaah arrives to buy a cellphone) are so hilarious that its easy to look past that.

Ayan has enough minor twists and plot developments to keep going beyond the initial game of one-upmanship between Prabhu-Surya and Akashdeep. The twists - including the key one - are rather weak but they keep the momentum from flagging too much since they add some new dynamics to existing relationships and introduce some interesting scenarios. The film also offers some interesting behind-the-scenes look at some of the smuggling operations and though they don't feel as meticulous or gritty as the bike stealing operation in Padikkaadhavan, they do add some realism to the proceedings.

But the film begins to slow down soon after. The twists keep coming and the film employs the old adage "It has takes a thief to know a thief" in an interesting manner but it seems to start spinning its wheels. Both the plot points and the way Anand presents them - surprising us first and then rewinding to show us what really happened - are no longer surprising since they start to feel repetitive.

Anand's first film as director, Kanaa Kanden, was an intelligent thriller that relied more on brains than brawn. Brawn takes the upper hand in Ayan, which is a much more overt masala offering than the earlier film, but that doesn't turn out to be such a bad thing since Anand turns out to be equally adept at picturizing action. With quick editing, judicious use of stunt doubles and an athletic Surya, he gives us one of the best foot-chases we've seen in Tamil cinema. A car chase in Malaysia is terrific too. The hand-to-hand fights are energetic and when they are not, the locations(like the spectacular mountains in South Africa) keep us hooked anyway.

Surya has developed the swagger and confidence that comes with stardom(and we know he's a bona fide star when the sight of him in the getups of some of his previous roles makes us wanna cheer). The initial negative shades of his character don't come as much of a surprise but it does irk when he apparently takes a video of an innocent girl being molested(to get her dad to change teams) instead of saving her. Tamannaah looks pretty but has little to do. Jagan is the life of the movie and shows perfect comic timing. He makes almost all his jokes work. Akashdeep is a new face but doesn't bring anything new to his role. PaLa PaLakkura... and Vizhi Moodi... are picturized well with some good laughs as they give us a peek into the lives of Surya and Tamannaah. Thoovum Poomazhai... and Nenje Nenje... are more old-fashioned duets with the locations in the latter being particularly breathtaking.