Sunday, October 25, 2020

A bloody good movie! - A review of "Kuruthi Punal"

Diwali 1995 offered a delectable variety for moviegoers across genres.  If Muthu was a typical commercial vehicle for Rajni, Makkal Aatchi was a rare highlight for RK Selvamani, post his early hattrick of successes.  But the film that I will remember for its cracking fireworks will be PC Sreeram’s Kuruthi Punal.  An official remake of Drohkaal, it is a gripping, violent film.  That it is also thought provoking at many places is a reason why the film stands above other action films.

The plot of Kuruthi Punal is uncomplicated.  Two best buddies, Aadhi (Kamal Haasan) and Abbas (Arjun) plan a covert operation to infiltrate a militant group headed by Badri (Nasser).  The success of their effort, Operation Dhanush, hinges on their protégé Siva (Arvind Krishna) and his ability to earn the trust of Badri's gang and pass on valuable information to Aadhi and Abbas.  The trials and tribulations of this pair, the impact that this operation has on them and their families, is depicted in a gritty, focused manner. 

The absence of songs is not the only element of Kuruthi Punal that we can adduce as evidence of the filmmaker’s convictions.  This is a taut, tight film that is interested in delving deep into the characters’ psyche and motivations instead of framing a good vs evil battle.  The film focuses as much on the vulnerability of the protagonists as it does on their bravery.  As a result, there is none of the instant gratification of the traditional police stories.  This talky film demands a bit of patience and reflection of the viewers.  Also, as was seen in films like Thani Oruvan decades later, the film is brave enough to have a sharp, quick thinking antagonist.  In fact, it is the Badri character who, especially in the latter portions, calls the shots in the brinkmanship between law and outlaw.  So, even though the film’s posters may have reeked of bravado and style, the actual film is a meditative exploration of the highs and lows of the protagonists.

Actor Madhavan once quoted Kamal as saying that, “it is okay to take the back seat in service of a film.”  That is exactly what Kamal does here.  Even though Arjun may have had limited screen time, it is his Abbas character that sparkles at several places.  It is his sacrifice that spares Kamal’s family of a certain death at the hands of the Surendar character.  There is a lovely moment where Arjun excoriates Kamal (“What shit are you talking, man?”) where you witness that unspoken privilege that their friendship offers him.  Their relationship is showcased beautifully.  Little choices like them wearing identical outfits, Arjun saying, “En Siva romba getti…I am sorry, nambo Siva” are all instances of a kinship being projected in an unfussy manner.  Kamal, as a writer, has always been fond of depicting a sibling-like relationship between a man and his friend’s wife. (This was seen in Hey Ram, Dasavatharam and Manmadhan Ambu as well.)  And Geetha’s (who plays Arjun’s wife) outburst as she tugs onto Kamal is a deeply poignant scene.  Kamal, the actor, gracefully cedes the spotlight to his fellow actors in these scenes because of the demands of the script.

Of course, the man that steals the spotlight, its bulbs and wires, is Nasser.  In what is arguably his career best performance, he turns in a searing portrayal of an antagonist who is “driven by ideology.”  Notice his body language change in the scene where he realizes that Kamal has identified him as the leader of his group; it is a bravura performance.  He is the core around which the plot pivots in the second half.  Fully aware of the responsibilities Kamal and PC have placed on his broad shoulders, he rises to the occasion with an incredibly arresting performance. 

Like Kamal the writer, the entire technical crew contributes handsomely to the singular vision of the film.  Be it the sound design (for the first time in Tamil cinema, the sound of bullets feel real), PC's stupendous cinematography (especially the interrogation scenes) and Mahesh’s rousing background score, they all work in perfect unison with one another.  Together they enhance the film’s impact in a thoroughly professional manner, never once calling undue attention or yanking the viewers out of the mood of a scene.

The violence in the last 45 minutes of the film is intensely graphic.  But as with all the other elements of the film, the unflinching violence does not feel out of sync with the story.  Starting with Nayagan, Kamal has rarely shied away from realistic violence.  Even if one could argue that he overdoes it from time to time, it is impossible to not register the impact of it when it fits into the script as organically as it does in Kuruthi Punal. 

Watching it 25 years after its release, the film has aged incredibly well, its central themes still largely relevant.  Kuruthi Punal is a good example of what characterizes Kamal Haasan’s best works – they stand the test of time because they were ahead of their times to begin with.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Viral Positivity: A review of "Putham Pudhu Kaalai"

COVID-19 has had an adverse impact on the lives and livelihoods of people across industries and social strata.  The film industry is clearly one of the affected ones, with stalled releases, closed theaters and a minimal amount of shooting.  Amidst the general dreariness comes an Amazon Prime release with a sunny, hopeful title – Putham Pudhu Kaalai.  It is an anthology that showcases the works of five supremely talented filmmakers.  The common threads that spin these disparate yarns are positivity, hope and redemption.  And all five stories take place during the lockdown. 

The segments are helmed by Sudha Kongara, Gautham Vasudev Menon, Suhasini Mani Ratnam, Rajiv Menon and Karthik Subburaj.  Of the five, two made a terrific impact on me, for entirely different reasons.  Two others were, in my mind, qualified successes.  And one was a disappointment.  Here are my more detailed thoughts on the stories.

ILamai Idho Idho (Directed by Sudha Kongara) – A tale of two middle-aged people contriving an opportunity to spend time with one another, this short features some terrific acting by veterans Jayaram and Urvashi as well as a charming young pair in Kalidas Jayaram and Kalyani Priyadarshan.  While the ambition of the conceit is laudable, the film suffers from trying to accomplish too much in too little time.  One of the chief pleasures of films that focus on senior actors is the opportunity to listen to them explain their life’s choices, wants and desires.  The premise, which involves two younger actors as well, does not get fleshed out well.  There are some sparkling moments of humor such as Jayaram doing an impression of a yoga retreat teacher - Urvashi’s measured expressions during this phone conversation are priceless.  But on the whole, the short has a half-baked, rushed feel.  The closure is akin to a door shutting abruptly than the smooth, delicate movement that this story demanded.

Avarum Naanum- AvaLum Naanum (Gautham Vasudev Menon) – The awkward sounding title aside, this is my favorite of the five stories.  This is a poignant, powerful story of a grandfather (MS Bhaskar) and his granddaughter (Ritu Varma) reuniting in the former’s house and spending quality time with one another.  Gautham Menon brings writer Reshma Ghatala’s script to life with a sureness of foot, despite the material not being in his tried and tested zone as a director.  The milieu, the posh surroundings and the English lines might sound familiar.  But the character of the grandfather, superbly played by MS Bhaskar, is not the type that you typically see in GVM’s films.  Here, the director is content to let the camera focus observantly on the main characters.  There are none of the frills or indulgent stylizations that have marred some of his previous work. (The staging of the pre-intermission scene of Neethane En Ponvasantham comes to mind.)  But the detailing, be it Bhaskar’s black leather watch or the “Lost in Math” book on his desk, is immaculate. 

If GVM’s goal was to tell an honest story with utmost conviction, he surpasses his goal handsomely.  And he is aided in no small measure by MS Bhaskar.  Bhaskar is the master of the monologue.  Be it talking about a toilet business in Oh My KadavuLe or his dead son in Mozhi, he can show remarkable restraint and let out just the right amount of emotion at just the right times.  His extensive experience as a voice artist is amply evident in his modulations.  He delivers an enormously moving talk about his daughter and her excellence in music.  The casual way in which he talks about rubbing shoulders with a doyen like Abdul Kalam is in sharp contrast to the way he speaks about his immense pride in his daughter and the incalculable loss that he had suffered.  This scene is a character acting tour de force.  Full credit to Ritu Varma for playing an apt foil to this powerhouse without losing the identity of her character. 

Coffee, Anyone? (Suhasini Mani Ratnam) – This story features an elderly couple where the husband assumes the role of the primary caretaker for his ailing wife.  Their three daughters are inherently good, well-meaning human beings who are poles apart from one another in character.  In the short running time, Suhasini expertly establishes these characters. 

Some of the lines snap and sizzle with truth, wit and wisdom.  For instance, Kathadi Ramamurthy’s line about the futility of assessing what is right vs wrong, drips with profundity.  Anu Hasan glows in the scene where she tells her mother about her long-awaited pregnancy.  Sruthi Haasan nails the video call scene. (The pottu on the laptop is a delightful little touch.) But Suhasini, the actor, plays her role at a pitch that just doesn’t feel right.  Her overemphatic style of acting feels like it belongs to another era.  For instance, the way she acts when woken up by her sister, feels completely false.  Ditto for the reaction to her sister’s pregnancy.  But as a writer, she takes very few missteps.  The psychological reasoning and motivations of the characters all feel just right.  Sruthi Haasan’s resentment owing to being a late child, is especially realistic.  Though the ending may be a bit twee, the rays of hope and faith do shine brightly nevertheless.

Reunion (Rajiv Menon) – This was my least favorite of the five stories.  This was all the more disappointing because Menon’s previous work, the magnificent Sarvam ThaaLa Maayam, was a film whose impact lingered for days after I had watched the film.  A tale of two friends who rekindle their relationship in unexpected circumstances, Reunion had very little that resonated with me. 

None of the performances - Andrea Jeremiah, Sikkil Gurucharan and Leela Samson – are especially memorable.  While Andrea is able to bring out the rebellious, maverick spirit of her character, she is unable to do justice to the quieter, more vulnerable moments.   Beyond the nerdy appearance that fits the Doctor’s character like a glove, Gurucharan does not have the effortless charm or lightness of touch that would have made his interactions with Andrea more spontaneous.  And I may be in the minority.  But I find Leela Samson as an actor with limited range who plays every role of hers at the same pitch.  While there are a couple of tender moments between her and Andrea, I could not resist the thought that a better actress like Radhika would have brought more heft to the admittedly well-written character.  And Menon’s writing too felt surprisingly shallow at places.  Substance addiction is too loaded a subject to be addressed in a couple of perfunctory vignettes.  Even the “I will seek professional help” line felt like a throwaway comment.  In short, Reunion would have benefited from a little more realism and a little less forced positivity.

Miracle (Karthik Subburaj) – A wildly entertaining little story of two crooks, this is Karthik Subburaj at his humorous best as he delivers yet another witty tale with his trademark twists and turns.  Bobby Simha seems to turn up as a performer only when Karthik is at the helm.  And he sinks his teeth into the role, having fun on screen after a long time.  Matching him step for step is his partner in crime, Sharath Ravi - here is an actor with impeccable coming timing, to watch out for.  The two, along with the director, have oodles of fun – ditto for the audience- in a segment where neither the story nor its cast takes itself too seriously.  While this may be a lighthearted, slight effort, it is still a sharp, smart film that does not take the audience’s intelligence for granted.   

Overall, Putham Pudhu Kaalai is a fine start for filmmakers who want to invest the time, effort and money in anthologies with multiple perspectives on a subject or a theme.  The good news is that as long as they care to look, there are stories abound for filmmakers to pick from.  And that thought makes me feel as positive as I did watching this anthology.  

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Missed Spotlights #5 – Raghuvaran in Thotta Chinungi

Most leading men of Tamil cinema have an inexplicable reputation for staying away from playing characters with shades of anything other than white.  On those rare occasions that they play a baddie, they feel compelled to also play a more traditional heroic role.  The exceptions are few and far between such as Ajith in Mankatha.  But even setting aside potential negative market implications of playing a villain, even playing characters that have flaws seem to make these men develop cold feet.  We have to be thankful to character actors such as Prakashraj for having the luxury to portray well-fleshed out characters that are not saddled with the pressure of being squeaky-clean.  But in my book, the man that blazed the trail for such characters was Raghuvaran.  While he played the traditional villainous characters memorably in movies like Baasha and Mudhalvan and straightforward, good men in films like Mugavari, where he created a niche was playing characters that made difficult life choices.  Be it hiding the existence of a child in Anjali, surreptitiously reviving ties with a former love interest in Aahaa, he was marvelous in well-written, complex roles.  Near the top of that list is his character in KS Adhiyaman’s Thotta Chinungi. 

Raghuvaran in Thotta Chinungi

Raghuvaran plays the role of a vulnerable man who gets to marry the love of his life (an excellent Revathi).  But post marriage, he starts to lead a life of disappointment and resentment.  Revathi’s tacit, unspoken love for her husband is in sharp contrast to the latter’s expectation of a demonstrative, nurturing, maternal woman.  Adhiyaman shows remarkable maturity in showcasing these two characters, both inherently good but vastly different in thought and expression.  Adding further complexity to this relationship are Revathi’s close friend (Karthik, turning in a mature performance) and her brother (Nagendra Prasad).

It is a lot easier to play a character that tears up outwardly when compared to playing a role where one has to project inner anguish on screen.  I have often felt that certain actors have a way with their eyes that makes it easy for them to project inner pain.  And Raghuvaran was a master at that.  The eyes that could unleash uncontrollable rage in antagonist roles could project vulnerability equally well.  And add to that a voice that could crack just the right amount to bring out the emotion of an atrophied heart, Raghuvaran’s performance in Thotta Chinungi becomes spellbinding. 

Four sequences merit mention.  These are important points in the arc of Raghuvaran's character.  As disparate points, they are remarkable enough.  But as dots that help sketch the arc of his character, they form parts of a deeply satisfying and profound experience.  The first one is a casual sequence in the kitchen where Karthik barges in uninvited.  Raghuvaran is taken aback but pays attention to Karthik’s every word and gesture.  Karthik utters a casual line about Revathi’s cooking and her future child that Raghuvaran memorably reiterates in the final scene.  The second is the scene in the middle of the night where the volcano implodes.  Raghuvaran collapsing onto the sofa as he blunders backwards is a masterful exhibition of body language in service of an emotion.  The third sequence is the one where Raghuvaran dissects his own character in a conversation with his sister – the “nallavana kettavana” phrase, to me, is as impactful here as it was in Nayagan.  And the fourth one is the climax where he reconciles with Karthik.  There are no grand gestures or flowery prose.  Just a simple restatement of a desire that had been expressed by Karthik (in the kitchen scene).  The economy of words and nuance of expression join hands to wrap up the movie on a delicately emotional note.

I once had the opportunity to interact with Anu Hasan after reading her delightfully sunny book, “Sunny Side Up.”  In that conversation, I had told her that the reason I liked the book over many other non-fiction books was her candor.  The frank self-analysis of herself gave me the impression of a friend sitting beside me and sharing life experiences as opposed to someone preaching from a pedestal.  I state this because that is how I demarcate between image-conscious heroes and bold character actors who play lifelike characters.  Raghuvaran might not be alive anymore.  But he has left behind such an important body of work.  An oeuvre that is filled with characters who have ‘taught’ their own life lessons by just projecting human experiences in an honest, authentic manner.  That is the sort of lesson that is loaded with meaning.  That is the kind of impact that endures indelibly despite the winds of time.


The four sequences that I cited are at the following points in the video below:

32:10 min, 1:39:05 min, 2:11:50 min, 2:18:20 min