Thursday, May 7, 2015

Uttama Villain (2015)

I was surreptitiously wiping my eyes as I left the cinema, overcome by melancholy. I had just witnessed Kamal Haasan's (KH) exploration into his own mortality and superstardom. I have to provide an unbiased review. I should... but the emotionality is so overwhelming I find myself holding back tears as I reminisce on the utterly magnificent "Uttama Villain" (UV).

The meta-nature of the film strikes multiple chords with KH's own life. Reality and art become so hard to distinguish, they start to merge as one. The narration switches between Manoranjan's life (as he tries to come to grips with his imminent death) and "Uttama Villain" (the film-within-the-film that parallels Manoranjan's life). The following are rather my observations than a review.

Synopsis: An ageing superstar (*cough* *cough*) diagnosed with malignant brain tumour, chooses to act in a film in which the protagonist (Uthaman) inadvertently cheats death and is hailed as a "Mrityunjaya" (immortal).

Note: From here on, I'll refer the film as 'UV' and the film-within-the-film as 'Uttama Villain'.

Uttama Villain:
Mutharasan (Nasser) betrays Sadaya Varman (Ajay Rathnam) to become the king with the help of Minister Sudalai Muthu (Shanmugarajan). Facing imminent death (as predicted by astrologers) he orders Uthaman to his court to obtain the secret to immortality.

Manoranjan, after providing four consecutive, critically acclaimed films with his mentor Margadarisi (K. Balachander), leaves him to make commercially successful films with Poorna Chandra Rao (or PC Rao - K. Viswanath), his father-in-law.

Manoranjan learns, he had fathered a child, Manonmani (Parvathy Menon), with his ex-girlfriend Yamini. Yamini later marries Jacob Zachariah (Jayaram). Manonmani resents Manoranjan for leaving her mother. In her eyes, he is a villain and Jacob Zachariah (Jayaram), her adopted father, a hero. The 'Mutharasan' character, an iniquitous individual, is the negative side of Manoranjan. He drinks and debauches. Faced with his mortality, Manoranjan wants to rid himself of his 'Mutharasan' persona. Furthermore, in naming the protagonist of the film-within-the-film as 'Uthaman' (virtuous one), Manoranjan hopes to turn over a new leaf.

Uttama Villain:
To gain support and admiration of the public, Uthaman proposes, Mutharasan stage a drama - the story of Iraniyan and Prahaladhan. So now we have a drama-within-the-film-within-the-film; kind of a (Christopher) Nolanesque twist to the narration. Uthaman casts himself as Narasimman and Mutharasan as Iraniyan (for those who don't know, Narasimman kills Iraniyan) and plans on assassinating Mutharasan, using poisoned nails and reclaim the throne for the rightful heir, Karpagavalli (Pooja Kumar), Sadaya Varman's daughter. At the last minute, Mutharasan decides he wants to play Narasimman, claiming it to be more heroic.

Only a genius like KH could pull off something like this twist in the narrative. In the Iraniyan (Uthaman) - Prahaladhan (Karpagavalli) story, Iraniyan demands that Prahaladhan call him God, instead of Lord Vishnu, whom Prahaladhan worships. Here, Manoranjan plays out the story between his daughter Manonmani and himself. He wants Manonmani to forgive him and accept him as her father instead of Jacob. Manonmani later realises, Manoranjan is not to be blamed for his abandonment of Yamini, when she reads a letter to her mother from Manoranjan, which was intercepted by Chokku (M. S. Bhaskar), Manoranjan's secretary, at the behest of PC Rao... much in the same way Sudalai Muthu and Mutharasan intercept the carrier-pigeon sent by Karpagavalli to the neighbouring king. Incidentally this is one of my many favourite scenes in the film: as Manonmani reads her father's letter, Manoranjan removes the 'Theyyam' makeup from his face, revealing his true self... he was not a bad person after all. No one is inherently good or bad; circumstances dictate their behaviours.

Later, in the drama-within-the-film-within-the-film, when Mutharasan appears as Narasimman, Uthaman throws an army of ants thus causing Mutharasan to scratch and poison himself eventually causing his death (in this version Narasimman dies; not Iraniyan - take it however you will). Here, Manoranjan finally overcomes his selfish persona and becomes a 'virtuous Uthaman' (I apologise for the tautology).

Kamal Haasan has surrounded himself with absolutely fantastic actors and each deliver an award-worthy performance. One couldn't ask for a better film to be the last in one's career as UV has been for K. Balachander. The scene where he breaks down in his office upon hearing Manoranjan's tumour, made me wonder why KB hadn't acted more in films. M. S. Bhaskar, often underutilised, moved the theatre to tears, where he begs Manoranjan's forgiveness for being the catalyst in Manoranjan's failed relationship with Yamini. Jayaram, Parvathy Menon, K. Viswanath, Urvasi and Andrea Jeremiah all provide fantastic support to Kamal Haasan.

But it's the man himself, Kamal Haasan, who arrests the viewer with his acting that left one speechless and quivering in the cinema.

When Jacob reveals that Manoranjan sired a daughter, KH's face registers a whole gamut of expressions within a matter of seconds that left me speechless and quivering in the cinema. KH has the ability to arrest the viewer with just his eyes. But the clincher for me was the scene where Manoranjan reveals his illness to his disillusioned son, Manohar (Ashwin, a newcomer) who starts to cry uncontrollably. As he holds his son, Manoranjan sees a gaggle of onlookers hanging on the wall waving at him and wanting to be acknowledged. The helplessness of Manoranjan is painfully evident as he motions his fans to give him a private moment with his inconsolable son. KH shows the price of being a celebrity, having had experienced such situations in his own life. There was barely a distinction between Kamal Haasan (reality) and Manoranjan (art).

Death is a fact of life. Manoranjan hopes to live forever in the hearts and minds of the audience to attain immortality. Because being forgotten is a fate far worse than death.

UV is a Felliniesque (8 ½) showcase for KH. And he makes the most of it. Yes, there are certain things that could've been better. But those issues are trivial compared to UV as a whole. Watch it. Cherish it.

  • சாகா வரம் போல் சோகம் உண்டோ (is there anything sadder than being immortal?)
  • தீராக் கதையைக் கேட்பார் உண்டோ (is there anyone who would listen to a never-ending story?)

Cut to black.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

O Kadhal Kanmani (2015)

Did OK Kanmani break new ground?
Has Mani Ratnam pushed the envelope?
Is Mani Ratnam Back?


Ahmedabad. A. R. Ameen's young voice pervades our subconscious with the haunting rendition of "Maula Wa Sallim". Thara (Nithya Menen), a student of architecture, films what seems to be a place of worship. As she pans her iPad, capturing the immense beauty of the structure, she films Aadhi (Dulquer Salman), who had ingratiated himself in her trip, leaning on the structure. She stops and the camera focuses on her features for a few precious seconds and that is one of the many scenes in O Kadhal Kanmani (aka OK Kanmani, aka OKK) that proves Mani Ratnam leaves nothing to chance to cement his comeback in this most memorable, light-hearted tale of love.

A master storyteller can captivate audiences with a wafer-thin storyline with his magic. And who better than Mani, a genre unto himself, to pull it off? He has come up with a colourful mixture of a Gen-Y romantic pair juxtaposed with that of a matured, well-rounded (but not without its own issues) relationship between Ganapathy Uncle (Prakash Raj) and Bhavani Aunty (Leela Samson). Say what you will, but Mani is amazing at creating rich characters and writing cracking dialogues and he has not failed to impress here. He can be forgiven for his last, disastrous outing (which will not be named) and has yet again set a template which would unquestionably inspire filmmakers in future.

Nithya Menen steals the limelight and is utterly iridescent as Thara. Leave it to Mani (and GVM) to write strong, female characters (a huge void left by K Balachander). All it takes are the expressive, arresting eyes of Nithya Menen to portray Thara's joy, anger, doubts and a whole range of emotions. Apart from the scene mentioned above, Nithya excels where she (Thara) confesses to Ganapathy Uncle her love for Aadhi in a subdued manner on the balcony. Dulquer has scored as Aadhi who is playful and contemplative at times. Both Nithya and Dulquer are magnificently pitted against each other in the church-wedding-scene, where they converse in 'almost-mime' at the beginning of the film. Even though Aadhi and Thara are at the forefront, it's with Prakash Raj and Leela Samson, I invested emotionally. Prakash Raj underplays (only if directors could get the best out of him this way) and Leela Samson is magnificent with her fragility (onset of Alzheimer's) and zingy one-liners. In my book Mani Ratnam gets full points on casting.

I can't find words to laud A. R. Rahman, P. C. Sreeram and Sreekar Prasad. Technically OKK is epic beyond description. Other directors should learn from Mani Ratnam on placing music in their films at just the right time without exacerbating the viewers. ARR has come up with a winner of an original soundtrack ranging from effervescent trendy tracks to traditional Islamic to Carnatic compositions. Whether it is a face or a landscape, PC's camera captures the beauty that is restrained. Special thanks to Sreekar Prasad (and Mani, of course!) to have not included unnecessary scenes (which in my opinion, there were none) to pad out the length of the picture (something that "Yennai Arindhaal" suffered from in the recent times)..

Complaints? None. Well... Unlike "Mouna Raagam" or "Alaipayuthey" (you know the comparison was around the corner!) there is no melodrama. The characters don't face Himalayan challenges. It could be argued that Mani Ratnam made a very grounded film for this generation and prevented Aadhi and Thara from high intensity (overly cinematic?) situations. And Mani Ratnam has his own "Thaali" ("Mangala Sutra") sentiments. Was it a necessity for Aadhi and Thara to get married? (If not, I highly suspect the Censor Board would've given the film an 'A' certificate!). Apart from these minor disputes which could be easily ignored, Mani Ratnam has come up with a love story, showing that while generations differ in opinions and lifestyles, the nature of the people are the same when it comes to certain emotions or feelings. Oh, and at the same time, Mani Ratnam has subliminally announced to all (fans and critics and naysayers alike) that he is still, the master of his craft.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Between the Lies

Would you really want to know -
- of the faux velvet sheets
of a cheap motel room
waiting to be burned?
Were with them discarded
a solitary night of intense passion
or the mere warmth of a cold winter night?

Would you really want to know -
- of the agony of the silence
of the lost words of a lost play
lying in wait for its author?
Were with them unsaid
vain verses and solitary stanzas
or mere hopes and lavish dreams?

Would you really want to know -
- of the golden effigy
lighting up the starless night
crackling with an eerie glow?
Were with it burned
the lies in the heart of men
without a trace, never to be spoken of?

Would you really want to know -
- of the early morning dreams,
of the desolate beach house
watching its last silvery moonlight?
Would with it crumble, the laughter and sorrows
as the warm amber rays of a brand new day
dissolve into the quiet ocean?

Sometimes it's best to leave them alone
- those who leave questions unanswered
- those who respond with sad smiles and slight nods
- those whose lips tremble mid-sentence
- those whose tears flow freely
- those who have given up and given themselves up for a crime they didn't commit
Sometimes, it's best to leave them alone...

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Maryan (2013)

Unfortunately. Unfortunately I have to begin this review with "Unfortunately", because unfortunately Tamil film fans who are used to the frenzied expressions of stars with some kind of weapon(s), looking directly into the screen, breaking the fourth wall and our senses, delivering kitschy, out-dated dialogues with volumes set to eleven, will find "Maryan" quite tedious and sluggish. It is quite unfortunate indeed that, while people cheered on an abysmal-at-best Singam-2, Tamil (or any other) film fans have sadly overlooked a technically-sound, engaging (in my opinion) tour-de-force film by Bharat Bala.

Does love have the power to move mountains? How does love instigate courage? Is there a limit to human endurance? Watch Maryan to find out. The love story in itself is nothing new. Girl loves boy; boy ignores girl. After a while, boy falls in love with girl. But, the treatment of it, especially the scene when after realising he in fact loves her, Maryan (Dhanush) trying to catch Panimalar's (Parvathy Menon) eye in a church during a wedding - absolute bliss; the viewer is never left with a bitter aftertaste due to the beautiful composition of director Bharat Bala.

I bet you will not see Dhanush and Parvathy Menon on screen; we are voyeurs to the lives and relationship of Maryan and Panimalar. For that, you will need actors with extraordinary screen presence and Dhanush and Parvathy Menon deliver the most powerful performances you will witness in recent times. Kudos to Bharat Bala and Sriram Rajan for writing a strong-willed character of Panimalar (unlike most female characters who appear for song-and-dance routines and be all "bubbly") for Parvathy Menon who with her emotive eyes makes us fall in love with her at first sight. Dhanush, if some of his recent characters have placed him among one of the very best actors, with his portrayal of Maryan, takes it... no travels onto a different plateau of acting. Portraying sadness, anger and fear as he is forced to call his employers to pay the ransom for his release (just that one scene should be sufficient to be shown in acting classes), cries and screams and breaks your heart, pleading in broken-English to release him and switching to Tamil so the terrorists would not understand that he in fact, is really on the phone with Panimalar.

Academy Award Winner A. R. Rahman. 'nuff said. While "Netru Aval Irunthaal" and "Enga Pona Raasa" tug at your heartstrings, "Nenje Ezhu" (additional thanks to Kutti Revathi) proves just the song to inspire Maryan to walk 300 km across the vast, barren desert to survive, brought on by the love he has for Panimalar. The songs are expertly placed without lagging the pace of the story. The camera of Marc Koninckx is just visual poetry at its heightened best. The editing by Vivek Harshan has garnered some criticism but I felt it was justified for the story.

One aspect that did not work for me was the bad guys, who were nothing more than mere adolescents, being tough with their AK-47's and strong, hallucinogenic opiates. While it is a sad state of affairs in Africa, the child soldiers did not create an impact as I would have wished. But even here the writers stand out; earlier in the film Maryan says "ellaarum nammala maathiri manushanga thaane" (everyone is just like us; we are all humans). This dialogue reverberates strongly as Maryan is kidnapped along with his co-workers and treated horribly (to say the least) and even when (SPOILERS) his co-workers are shot down, mercilessly in the course of the film. The film may not be without its flaws, but it is an essential watch. It is a quite quiet film (read it again, carefully, in case you missed it!). (SPOILERS) The reunion of Maryan and Panimalar itself is quite a serene one; there is not much of breaking-down emotional dialogues and/or sweeping background music score (Musicploitation?). Glances are exchanged and they are in each other's arms. You need seasoned actors to convey that, and they DO with flying colours. Maryan is a true testament to human endurance brought on that ubiquitous meaning/message of love.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Vishwaroopam (2013)

Terrorism; the word on the lips of many fear-inducing conversations, apocalyptic visions and knock-knock jokes. What is it all about? Kamal Haasan takes this touchy subject as the underlying theme of his latest film "Vishwaroopam", a slow burning thriller, which is more than your run-of-the-mill shootout with an open-ended climax, paving way for Vishwaroopam-2 (hopefully we get to see the sequel).

Without mulling over the story too much, which is after all, a classic battle story between the good and evil (but the defining lines are murky), we see the "behind the scenes" of what makes a terrorist, their ideals and the indoctrination of children to make them fight against anything and everything that is not part of the terrorists' belief system. It is a relief to watch fully fleshed-out characters of terrorists (or fighters as they likes to call themselves), whereas one-dimensional terrorists were the norm in most films. The training of Al-Qaeda by the protagonist/antagonist ("everyone has a double role, okay?") takes up most of the mid-section of the film and is beautifully shot by Sanu Varghese as the picturesque Afghan landscapes provide the backdrop for some of the most gruesome scenes.

Some scenes are exceptional, especially where the main antagonist Omar (chillingly portrayed by Rahul Bose), uses his hand to mimic a gun and points it at his own son's temple and mouths "boof" (because his son wants to be doctor and not a Jihadist), which, is more eerie than the actual gunfights. The US military incursion into Afghanistan has been painstakingly shot (and, if I'm not mistaken, the first appearance of a Black Hawk in a Tamil film) and a couple of death scenes may prove too graphic for some viewers. The screenplay cleverly switches between timelines and some dialogues bring the house down (Alfred Hitchcock has even said that a slight comic moment would be amplified in a really tense situation). A good example is that scene between an interrogator and Nirupama (Pooja Kumar).

Interrogator: So, you must pray to Allah, huh?
Nirupama: No… My god has four hands.
Interrogator: What kind of god has four hands? How do you crucify him?
Nirupama: We don't crucify our god!
Interrogator: Then?
Nirupama: We dunk him in the sea!!!

Shankar-Eshaan-Loy provide excellent background score to the film, especially the scene where, with blasting klaxon sound (the intro to "Evanenru Ninaithaai", the timid Kathak-dance teacher Vishwanath transforms into "Wiz", a mean-green-killing-machine. As a performer, writer and director, Mr. Kamal Haasan has excelled in making an exceptional film on an international stage which is bound to take Tamil cinema to the next (or next-next?) level, if it weren't for the petty politics and media-hungry-scum circling the listless waters hungrily, piggy-backing on Kamal Haasan's celebrity. I have seen the film THREE times in the cinema; I could not find ONE scene depicting Islam/Muslims in an offensive manner. Here's a certificate the Indian censors forgot to give this film: "Rated I: For Intelligent Viewers Only".