VADA CHENNAI Movie Review: The Anbu Trilogy …begins!

During the latter half of the movie, we are watching the episode of a good-hearted gangster in the 80s, a smuggler who has won the hearts of the people of his locality with his generous deeds. In one of the scenes, we see the man walk down the dock discussing business as usual, but hands down a pair of binoculars as a gift to a young boy waiting at the shore.  It is much later that it dawns that what we witnessed was also a handover of viewpoints right there, as we find that this boy grows up and stands as a voice of rebellion for the common man against the politicians and scheming corporations decades later much like the gangster was back in his glory days.

Neither of these two men mentioned here though is our lead man Anbu. Anbu (Dhanush) is a goody next door boy who aspires to be a state-level carroms player or ‘flayer’ as they refer in the movie. He always hoped to live the straight forward clean life, but Vetrimaaran’s movie is about how this lad gets sucked into the whole revenge thirsty gangster politics of the hood. And once sucked it, there seem to be no going back.

Of course, the binoculars do come into play. Anbu uses the binoculars to locate the girl he ran into the other night. He spots her, woos her and then, in an attempt to stand up for his love, ends up getting into a scuffle with one of the local gangster. From here on, destiny takes him on a different path where he finds caught between the gang rivalry. And here he opts to stand for the people who helped in the time of crisis.

However, as the  years go by. it all  eventually takes a toll on him and now Anbu, married and matured, realizes that it is eventually time to stand up for what he truly believes in, come what may.

Welcome to Vada Chennai, or simply put –Once Upon a Time in North Chennai. The tale of a young lad who unwittingly ends up being a part of the dreaded gang war of the hood- the very thing he hoped to avoid.


Director Vetri Maaran who has earlier given gems like the national award winning Aadukalam and Visaranai, has come up with yet another stellar work in the form of Vada Chennai – which is said to be the first of a trilogy. It is an ambitious project and Vetrimaaran has come out with a film that Tamil cinema definitely can be proud of in years to come.

It is the gritty realistic portrayal and firm storytelling skills that comes to the fore. Vetrimaaran smartly employs a non-linear narrative which sees the story slip in and hop from one decade to another without ever getting the audience confused. He weaves the narration around important events of history like the passing away of MGR, or the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Also, the movie is narrated in chapter format of various episodes of Anbu’s life which means every time the narration begins to lag, there is an interesting chapter around the corner and you find yourselves hooked back again to the happenings of these people. There is no bowing down to commercial factors, there is no cheap double meaning comedies to keep frontbenchers happy…heck, there is no whistle-inducing entrance even for the lead man.

And yet there is so much happening here. It all begins with the death of Rajan (Ameer). What we are immediately thrust into is a brief update on the various gangsters and characters who are immediately affected by the removal of this vital gang leader. Each of them is interestingly depicted that the director can move into the backstory of any of these characters with ease and we would not raise a complaint. Such is the potential of the world that Vetrimaaran has intricately created, that is warrants for a Netflix/Amazon miniseries.  And why not, because as per the director himself, he has written around five-six hours’ worth of material from which he has narrowed down it to this 166-minute film. Not only does he keep you engaged, he leaves us wanting more.

The plot has ample doses of rich Shakespearean drama as Vetrimaaran lays out his epic tale of betrayal, loyalty and deceit in the narrow lanes of North Chennai. Those who enjoyed those themes in Aadukalam, is certain to get a kick out of this one as well.  The whole thing may play out like a standard gangster fare and does make no attempts to take you by surprise. In fact, you can see where things are headed from miles away, but the scenes are built up in such fine fashion that you are watching it from the edge of your seat in anticipation. One of these sequences is the assassination attempt of one of the gangsters in prison leading us to the interval block. The other is the confrontation scene during a marriage where we watch how things shall unfold, lest it does spill into a Game of Thrones style ‘Red Wedding’.  And of course, the scene where Rajan discovers his gang’s true intention.


Dhanush has emerged to be a superstar over the last decade, no doubt. But here the actor in him takes precedence. The actor is pretty much relegated to the backdrop for much of the portions and serves us, the audience, as an entry point into the mad bad world of these gangsters. All the performers get ample opportunity to shine in their respective roles be it Samutharakani, Kishore, Pawan, Daniel Balaji as the gangsters or Aishwarya Rajesh as the fiery woman who becomes Anbu’s lady love. Special mention of course to director Ameer  Sultan, who literally becomes the heart of the movie with the flashback portion. Andreah Jeremiah too shines and puts in her best to give depth to one the defining roles of her career.

The real gangsta here is Santosh Narayanan who comes up with a feisty score elevating some moments, and then at some key moments, director Vetri Maaran effectively goes into silence which inscribes the impact even further.

The weakness, if any, is the lack of something innovative in terms of story. The tale of gang rivalry and the scheming politicians who use them for their own goals are as old as the hills. We merely see the same tales being repeated, in various languages with merely a change in the setting, be it the Subramanipurams, or the Wasseypurs. It is only the assured and confident way in which it is handled by Vetrimaaran that makes it truly stand out.

One can also whine about the sudden transformation of Anbu during the corporation meeting and the fallout that immediately follows thereafter. Yes, it does come in a bit rushed. Probably some scenes were left behind on the editing table or was dropped out from the original written script. Knowing Vetrimaaran’s way of dealing with things, the former seems more likely.  Maybe a director’s cut is required, what say?

The leading ladies is also a matter of concern. Aishwarya Rajesh starts off strong and daring but as the movie progresses seem sidelined. I hope she does not go the Tamannah way like we saw in the Baahubali saga. And on a personal note, I thought the role of Chandra required a more senior and powerful actress to play the part. It was the kind of role that I thought Jyothika was headed towards in Mani Ratnam’s Chekka Chevantha Vaanam. But alas, it wasn’t to be.  Anyways, I would only be glad to see Andreah proving me wrong in the sequels to come.


Technically, the movie is outstanding. Velraj’s cinematography captures the time periods well. Costume from Amritha Ram remains natural without being all filmi. And special mention need to go to the set design (Jacki) especially the huge prison sets where most of the first half is set in. And hats off to the hard work put in by editor G.B.Venkatesh, R. Ramar to get this beast in its current form from the possibly massive material. VADA CHENNAI is indeed a great team effort with some brilliant cast and crew under the guidance of Vetri Maaran and that passion shines through in the final outcome.

VADA CHENNAI is one of those layered movie, one certain to keep the deep analyzers and movie bloggers busy for months to come as they dig in deep into the visuals and themes of the movies. A movie that gets it all so right is a rare sighting in any film industry, forget just Tamil. And watching this offering, the first installment has set up the board perfectly. The striker is ready to knock down the whites or the blacks, and the queen has taken the rightful position- right at the center of the playing field. For the carrom flayer Anbu, it is game on!  Bring on the sequels!


Cast: Dhanush, Aishwarya Rajesh, Andrea Jeremiah, Samuthirakani, Kishore, Daniel Balaji, Radha Ravi and Ameer

Directed by Vetrimaaran

Music by Santosh Narayanan



In Conversation with the Team of ‘Kallappadam’: Part Two

Here is the link to Part- 1 of this interview.

“I am equally responsible for Kallappadam. Hope you realize that its tougher for a cinematographer to don the grease paint than a director!”, Sriram Santhosh interrupts my discussion with Vadivel with a playful grin. I ask him about his contribution to the Kallappadam project. “Ideally I should have been credited for the screenplay too. Thats how close this project is to me”, Santhosh looks at Vadivel and smiles again. “The idea cropped up in one of our late night brain storming sessions as room mates”.

Continue reading “In Conversation with the Team of ‘Kallappadam’: Part Two”

Rajathandiram Movie Review: Brilliant Deception, Smartly Served!

The ‘con trick’ genre, as I see it, is like walking a tight rope, especially in the context of Indian cinema. Why?  Before I explain the obvious connection, let me briefly take you through the etymology of the genre. A confidence trick (con-trick) is an attempt to defraud a person or group after first gaining their confidence, used in the classical sense of trust. Confidence tricks exploit classic characteristics of the human psyche such as dishonesty, vanity, compassion, credulity, irresponsibility, naiveté and greed. The perpetrator of a confidence trick (or “con trick“) is often referred to as a confidence (or “con”) man or a con-artist.

Continue reading “Rajathandiram Movie Review: Brilliant Deception, Smartly Served!”

I Movie Review: Vikram deserved better!

A young filmmaker way back in the early nineties had the gall to tell the story of a seemingly grey-shaded protagonist who accuses the top government official of the state after looting crores of government money, for his debut film. As if he thought that it was way too much for the audience then to handle, he decided to masquerade it amid-st the rollicking fun of ‘Chikku Bukku’, Gounder’s crude antics, beautifully choreographed yet overtly long action sequences and sadly a cliched heroine’s sister character. The film which was made at a budget of more than five crores for the first time in the South raked in 22 crores at the box-office and shot the young director to instant limelight.

i-am-shankar-interviewAnd thus started the journey of a maker who chose to think ‘large’ (read ‘expensive’) and brand ‘Shankar’ was born. We loved him for what he seemed to be best at – narrating a compelling (though at times flimsy) conflict in the commercial space, while making mainstream cinema seem a lot richer and grandiose than it used to be. He proved this without doubt quite recently in his dream project with the Superstar, when he didn’t sacrifice his story-telling even for satisfying Rajni’s mass appeal, in the process giving us a sincere film that still managed to send the fans into raptures.

Today after seeing his two and half-year old year old mammoth project ‘I’, I had a nagging doubt if Enthiran was only an exception. Had Shankar unknowingly or knowingly reversed his formula yet again? With I, Shankar seems to have taken extraordinary pains to make the final product on-screen look technically astounding, aesthetically stunning, ornament-ally rich and visually exquisite, but has he narrated a compelling conflict in an engaging way? The answer to that would be a more emphatic ‘NO‘ and a less resounding ‘Partly’.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that Shankar is indeed a magician, if not any thing else. It takes a special set of skills and lots of guts to even attempt to visualize and pan out a ‘beaten to death’ linear story of such monotony (believe me when I say that I’s script actually qualifies for a brilliant ten minute short film) into a seeming complex maze of convolutions and grandeur, that we, at times, actually give in to the audiovisual sorcery that is being played on us. Given the discernible illusion of brilliance that Shankar nonchalantly brings to screen, our visual signals to the brain on many occasions trick us into forgetting that the film is dangerously pretentious and shallow. But not for long. Soon reason takes over, and we start questioning the tiresome length and painful predictability. With the film lagging with reference to the key ingredient of good cinema, the I experience turns out to be less wholesome than expected, with visual stupefaction and narrative disappointment constantly at loggerheads.

This is not to say that the writing (by Shankar and Suba) is downright uniformly bad or soul-less. I has its moments of cheer, vibrant energy and some really heart-wrenching poignancy that are lifted by the acting performances, but they are very few and far apart. The treatment falters big time, in the way things pan out in a totally expected manner, with no sight of the thrill factor in a purported romantic thriller. The dialogues at many instances are uninspiring, and fall flat, no way measuring up to the gravity of the situation.The antagonists are all weak unlike earlier Shankar ventures, and they mostly come across as a bunch of jokers.

Shankar-I-Movie-PosterAnother issue with I is the way Shankar seems to go on and on with sequences that literally don’t seem to have any say on the proceedings. And its appalling to see a man of Shankar’s caliber resorting to demean a character by her looks and the consequent stereotyping that happens is all in bad taste (for the reason that she seemingly looks like a transgender). The film’s last forty minutes didn’t work for me totally, and was more a mockery of agonising human suffering. It’s highly unbecoming of the writers to deal with life disasters like fatal disease and burns with such insensitivity, in whatever justified circumstances they are depicted in.

To put things in the right perspective, if at all you decide to see I, it’s for two people who have worked their asses off (for lost causes?) and probably given their career best. No prizes for guessing that they are Vikram and PC. Sreeram. Vikram to me, is more of a hard worker and non-quitter than a naturally gifted actor, and he proves it yet again with tons of conviction in I. The grueling torture that he has willingly submitted his body and psyche to, for slipping naturally into the multiple looks catches us literally gaping and dumbfounded. The more you see his inhumane efforts, the more you doubt the ability of this screenplay to tap it to the maximum potential.

i-movie-poster_141054272400Nevertheless this man, Kenny, gives every scene his two hundred percent and makes the film his own to the extent that if you remove him from the equation, it seems like the film (for whatever its worthy of) is non-existent. Here he takes up the quintessential ‘revenge drama’ script and makes it at-least watchable with his drool-worthy body, electrifying screen presence and stylish charm. As the ghastly kyphotic victim, he comes across more than convincing, managing to communicate with his sharp eyes even with at that heavy prosthetic make-up. But how much of all these can save an average script?! Amy Jackson looks a million dollars and slips into the skimpiest of costumes without seeming lewd or inappropriate. Surprisingly she emotes well too, utilizing her meaty role to the fullest. Suresh Gopi has been wasted in an insignificant role.

PC. Sreeram deserves a handful of awards for redefining ‘cinematic elegance’ and  setting a benchmark in cinematography in I. Be it the action sequences or the magnificently shot songs, he essentially makes the film what it is. The ‘Ladio’ and ‘Aila’ tracks scream of world-class visuals, keeping our eyes glued to the screen, as we involuntarily forget to blink. The VFX by Weta Workshop in the ‘Mersalayitten’ number is top-notch and the pristine beauty of China in the ‘Pookale’ track is a sight to behold. Art director Muthuraj deserves special mention for creatively designing the beast’s abode in the ‘Unnodu’ song. Despite the fact that I is more about painstakingly conceived and splendidly executed songs, its also true that their abundance make a coherent narrative totally impossible. A.R. Rahman scores well with his vivacious numbers and a highly relevant background score. The costume design, stunt choreography and  makeup are all bloody brilliant, making it probably the strongest technical film to come out in a long time,

Shankar with I proves that he is more of a visual sculptor than any kind of story-teller. His weakest script till date, is made occasionally engaging and watchable by Vikram’s sincerity and PC’s insanely lovely frames. I walked out of the theater with this thought eating my mind, “Didn’t Vikram deserve better?”


Meaghamann Movie Review: True-blue Action, Served in Style!

Despite the obvious surplus of regional movies that tout themselves as super-hit action dhamakas, an entity called ‘a logical, racy action thriller that truly entertains’ is kind of a rarity. I would even go the distance to compare it to the unicorn as it is only rumored to exist, making it literally ‘next to impossible’ to actually find any in our commercial cinema space. The reasons are many. Our mainstream industry still operates in the understanding that Indians can never really move on from the ‘lunch thali‘ mindset in their movies. The main dish (genre) may be anything under the sun, but irrespective of that, the belief hitherto was that all other 23 essentials must be served to the audience for a ‘paisaa vasool’ experience.Continue reading “Meaghamann Movie Review: True-blue Action, Served in Style!”

Jilla Tamil Movie Review: Clash of the Titans

Cast: Vijay, Mohanlal, Kajal Aggarwal, Sampath, Poornima

Directed by T Neason

Mohanlal in Tamil film JillaJILLA, the coming together of two of the biggest names of the Southern Film Industry was always going to be massive. Such was the buzz and anticipation the project has been generating ever since it was announced that Mohanlal has signed on the dotted line for Vijay’s next offering. The signs too were promising with the Pongal date being locked. The first look posters were well received and the music has already made an impact on the charts. But does this all mean we could look forward to a movie like no other?

Well, maybe we are pushing our luck there. Because at the end of the day, it still is a Vijay vehicle which also translates into what one refers as the ‘mass’ entertainer. And unfortunately these so-called mass entertainers come with the staple curses …that of a screenplay plagued by songs that pop out of nowhere, bodies and cars flying around in the name of action and not to mention the crude humour on display. Those still persists, and we have to make peace with whatever remains on the platter.Continue reading “Jilla Tamil Movie Review: Clash of the Titans”

Kannathil Muthamittal – When Mani Sir Bid Adieu

Of course GURU was a proficiently manufactured biopic, but it could as well have been made by Milan Luthria. AAYUTHA EZHUTHU had its sparks of brilliance, yet one struggles to even remember the names of its lead characters. And RAAVANAN, well, we Mani Ratnam fans bought that DVD just so we could burn it on Dussehra. And because of these films, KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL will always be that special one with which we saw the last of Mani Sir, the master who wielded the power to etch characters in your mind for a lifetime, the craftsman who mesmerized you with visuals so simply executed, yet poetic enough to make you gape with awe, the genius who ensured even the most stone-hearted left the theatre with that lone tear struggling to squeeze out of the corner of their eye.

KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL, or A PECK ON THE CHEEK as it was known in the international film festival circuit, stands tall in Mani Ratnam’s body of work not just for its superlative craft, but more so for its emotional connect. A film Iranian in its approach, yet replete with spectacle synonymous of Indian cinema, Ratnam explored an issue as significant as the Sri Lankan civil war through the eyes of Amudha, a nine-year-old girl. Beautiful characterization, heart-wrenching performances, superlative usage of music and song to express emotion, and gorgeous cinematography are just some of the aspects that make this film so memorable.

Fans of pre-Roja Mani Ratnam often argue KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL is overtly melodramatic, slow, sappy and too simplistic a view of a very serious issue. Ratnam would perhaps plead guilty, but quite unapologetically at that. Ultimately the perspective of the film is that of a child who could not possibly comprehend the complexities of war, but become aware of and be terrified by it. As it is with most Ratnam films, the big canvas of the war is simply an excuse to draw importance to a very simple story at the crux.

On her ninth birthday, Amudha’s parents disclose to her that she was adopted. Her parents, Thiruchelvan and Indra are progressive thinkers who believe she has a right to know the truth. Despite repeated warnings from Ganesan, Indra’s father, who argues that a nine-year-old will find it difficult to process something like this, the couple reveal the truth anyway. Amudha instantly regresses into a state of confusion, her mind filled with questions about why her birth-parents gave her up. She confides in her grandfather, who explains to her that she was adopted from a refugee camp. One fine day, Amudha goes missing, having hopped on a bus to Rameswaram. When Thiruchelvan and Indra find her, realizing how important it is for her questions to be answered, they agree to take her to war-torn northern Sri Lanka to locate her birth-mother.

A lesser director would have perhaps resorted to keeping identities of characters a mystery, trying to surprise audiences by connecting dots at key points to keep audiences interested. Ratnam instead lays all the cards out face-up from the beginning. He opens his film with Dhileepan and Shyama’s marriage (J.D. Chakravarthy and Nandita Das in delightful cameos). The Sri Lankan army encroaches into their territory soon after as Dhileepan leaves to fight for his people while a pregnant Shyama is forced to escape to India on a raft. On the journey, she hears from the boatman that Dhileepan has been injured in an explosion. Shyama arrives in India, gives birth and Ratnam cuts directly to nine years later to Amudha introducing us to the people around her and drawing us into her world. From here on, KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL unravels through her eyes.

The beauty of this film lies less in the plot points and more in the way Ratnam writes and shoots each scene. To begin with, his casting is detailed and absolutely flawless even in the smallest of roles. Be it Nandita Das and Pasupathy as siblings or Prakash Raj as the Sinhalese friend who helps Thiruchelvan’s family look for Shyama, each look their part to perfection. Even gutsier is Ratnam’s audacity to cast two significant stars of the time, R. Madhavan and Simran and relegate them to supporting roles, allowing P.S. Keerthana to take the lead as Amudha. Madhavan as the obnoxious writer is a scene-stealer while Simran as a mother of three made the best of what was her career-best role. And trust Mani Ratnam to extract ridiculously real performances from children. P.S. Keerthana’s performance exemplifies the kind of maturity and multi-faceted emotions seasoned actors are associated with. If for nothing else at all, filmmakers who are fortunate enough for an audience with Mani sir should pick his brain about how to communicate with child actors. The scene below where Thiruchelvan reveals the truth to Amudha about her adoption exemplifies not just Ratnam’s mastery of directing performance, but the genius with which he can shoot and construct such a simple piece of plot in such an interesting manner.

The Truth Disclosed

With the bulk of the film banking on an emotional connect with Amudha, Ratnam almost stops his film at points of her emotional turmoil and accentuates, explores and expresses those emotions deeper using music. For example, after Thiruchelvan’s talk with Amudha at the beach, she sits with her mother on the swing being fed her dinner, confused and scared of how her brothers might react if they find out that she was adopted. She incessantly and insecurely asks question upon question, an entire gamut of thoughts running through her mind as her mother struggles to comfort her. It’s almost as if at this point, Ratnam decides that a conversation simply will not do. The scene seamlessly leads into the haunting “Oru Deivam Thantha Poove” song where Vairamuthu’s lyrics and Rahman’s music capture what the mother wants to say, while Ratnam and cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran use the visuals to explore Amudha’s emotions. The song opens on the beach with Amudha standing atop an uprooted tree, a metaphor for how she feels, unaware, confused about her own roots and beginnings. In the subsequent stanza, Ratnam has her run up and down inside an abandoned boat as Chandran follows her movements with his camera. The same song is repeated later in the film, picturized with father and daughter this time, as a search for peace and meaning after Amudha witnesses a suicide bombing in Sri Lanka. No multi-million rupee sets, no European locations, just some magic-hour sunlight and simplicity creating meaning and images that refuse to leave your mind.

Exploring Emotions through Simplicity

KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL was Mani Ratnam’s first collaboration with cinematographer Ravi K. Chandran who contributed a unique style to the director’s visual language. Ratnam’s previous collaborations with P.C. Sriram, Rajeev Menon and Santosh Sivan exemplified a more classical visual sensibility. While Sivan played with light and composition, Chandran played with movement. In much of the film, the camera is almost always moving, almost as if to emulate the protagonist’s energy. The film marked Ratnam’s transition to a post-modern visual language. This film stood strong because that transition still remained anchored and grounded in the director’s penchant for character depth and emotion. In his subsequent films however, that post-modern visual language gained prominence while characters became flatter and drama watered down.

Watered-down, the drama of KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL is certainly not, for Mani sir milks each and every scene dry to its last remaining drop of melodramatic value. Amudha, like any other child, never quite has much clarity of thought, and Ratnam uses this quality throughout to extract and play on conflict, internal and external alike. One moment she resents her mother, the other she fears hurting her. One moment she appears understanding and appreciative, while at others she can be downright rude and cranky. Indra isn’t the unrealistically strong mother either. She has her moments of weakness, her own insecurities. In the midst of it all stands Thiruchelvan, willing to put his life aside for his daughter, to help her find peace, no matter what the circumstances.

But it’s not all just family drama Ratnam serves up. In fact, the director can barely resist his penchant for romance and subtle humour as he cuts to a poignant flashback where Thiruchelvan explains to Amudha how she adopted him and Indra as opposed to it being the other way round. The romance begins with Indra reading a heart-wrenching story Thiruchelvan writes about Sri Lankan refugees and a lone child born to a woman who decides to go back to her homeland. The scenes of Thiruchelvan proposing to Indra so he can adopt Amudha, the subsequent scenes breaking the news to his elder sister and Indra’s father are laced with subtle, real humour, poignancy and the signature Mani Ratnam class.

Romance is not all that Ratnam shows off, for with his new-found cinematographer and editor, the shutter speed on the camera is cranked, bombs explode and limbs fly in a spectacular battle scene between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil fighters. “Ridley Scott ain’t got nothin on me!” screams Ratnam as in the midst of all this razzle-dazzle, he still ensures he maintains Amudha’s point of view.

In the Line of Fire

With ALAIPAYUTHEY, Ratnam had changed editors from the very talented, classical and seamless Suresh Urs to the more edgy Sreekar Prasad. Though also contributing significantly to Ratnam’s transition into a post-modern cinematic language, Prasad ensured that the basics of emotional juxtaposition were always in place. In KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL, he exhibits a tremendous sense of pacing and rhythm, while not missing opportunities to have a little fun cutting songs and action scenes. The ramp effect is perhaps one of the most annoying additions to post-modern film editing, yet Prasad uses it tastefully in songs like “Sundari”. KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL won a National Award for Best Film Editing, in addition to awards for Best Tamil Film, Audiography, Child Artiste, Lyrics and of course Best Music for the Mozart of Madras.

One of A.R. Rahman’s most underrated soundtracks, KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL is also one of his most soulful. Be it the hypnotic “Vellai Pookal” that Ratnam uses to open the film with, or the Sri Lankan styled “Signore”, Rahman attempts several innovations that sadly went unnoticed and unacknowledged by the public at large. His background score was impactful, though some argue that it was perhaps a tad over the top, almost too Hans Zimmerish in many a scene.

While Mani Ratnam certainly strikes a chord with character and drama, KANNATHIL MUTHAMITTAL has been called for its overt Pro-Tamil stance, and even for its simplistic portrayal of the Sri Lankan Civil War. These criticisms are perhaps out of place for if anything, the stance Ratnam takes in this film is purely humanitarian. Yet he doesn’t shy away from expressing concern. In a seemingly preachy discussion between Harold Vikramasinghe and Thiruchelvan about war, Ratnam includes a line about how Amudha’s generation might perhaps be able to find a solution to end the fighting. This, right after Ratnam follows an irate Amudha into a marsh where she is suddenly surrounded by child soldiers with AK-47s in hand. Mani sir often writes between the lines, and we have learned equally well to read between them. The only problem now is that he has stopped writing in those places while we still continue to search there.

Writing Between Lines

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)

Iruvar: A Tale Of Two Men

Friendship! It makes the world go round. It can move mountains. When you are surrounded by your friends, you feel like you can do anything. This masterpiece by Mani Sir is an ode to Friendship. It is a brilliant tale of how 2 men, as different as chalk and cheese sadly let their ambition come in the way of their love for each other leading to a gargantuan political conflict that ends up influencing the political topography of a state. It is a tale of their lives with and without each other and what paths they end up taking and how it all ends for them.

Iruvar is the tale of Anandan (Mohanlal), a man who has come up the hard way in life. He is a very talented actor and is eagerly waiting for his chance under the arc-lights. He is a sensitive man, proud, and patient, but slowly beginning to give in to despair.
It is the tale of Thamizhchezhvan( Prakash Raj), A man who knows the difference between right and wrong. A man who wants to make a difference and change all that is bad about society. He is confident bordering on arrogant, but he is sincere and is ready to commit sacrilege when it comes to old outdated customs and traditions.

From their 1st meeting, it’s quite clear that Thamizh is the leader of the pack and Anandan is more than willing to follow. Thamizh mentors Anandan and they end up making a great cinematic team of writer and actor. While Anandan is content with becoming the hero of a few movies, Thamizh has larger ambitions for himself. He is a prominent lieutenant of the firebrand leader Velu Annachi (Nasser) who is unhappy with the way Tamilians have been sidelined in national politics and wishes to carve out a separate identity for them and Thamizh is more than willing to fight by his side for this.

The story then focuses on their gradual rise to fame as Anandan slowly becomes one of the Superstars of Tamil Cinema and Thamizh begins to gain fame as a politician. Things come to a head when Annachi wishes to give Anandan a bigger role in the party and Thamizh begins to feel sidelined. That is when jealousy rears its ugly head and slowly a rift is created between the 2 friends. One thing leads to another and Anandan forms his own party. Then on begins a game of one upmanship between them before age catches up with the duo.

I’ll be frank. I am not at all familiar with the relationship between MGR and Karunanidhi on whom the above characters are based. I am also not familiar with the movies MGR has done and have maybe watched one or two on TV. So, I may have missed out on a lot of significant details in the movie which many others who are more well versed with the situation may have noticed.

Mohanlal is a gifted actor. I say it now and I will always say it in spite of all the absolute crap that he has been acting in lately. What I’ve loved about Lalettan is that acting comes so naturally to him. It is always a pleasure to see him on screen and this movie is no exception. I never saw Anandan as MGR. I saw Anandan as this innocent young man who slowly evolves into somebody who understands the world around him and does not take any rubbish from it. The evolution of Anandan has been done brilliantly and equal credit goes to both Mani sir and Lalettan for having worked really hard on the character. His best sequences include the one where he is demoted to play the role of an extra. The expressions that he shows tell us why he is one of the best actors in India. Also, the scene where he climbs to the terrace of Thamizh’s house and is surprised at the crowd waiting downstairs for him.

And what can one say about Prakash Raj. I was just left stunned with the intensity with which he has done this role. He did not just act as Thamizhchezhuvan, He BECAME Thamizhchezhuvan. The confidence with the slight hint of arrogance in his eyes, the force with which he delivers his speeches, those moments of silence where he ponders over what may have been, the tenderness with which he interacts with his wives, the fondness with which he looks at the CM’s chair when he is first elected into office, his grief at Anandan’s death and the way he pours it all out in one of the best monologues I’ve ever heard. He truly deserved the National Award that year and it’s a shame that directors would rather have him act in those terrible roles as a hamming villain.

Aishwarya Rai. I see her in this movie and I wonder to myself, What the fuck happened? Be it the innocent but sensible Pushpa or the ambitious and scheming Kalpana, She handles both roles with such finesse it’s hard to believe that it was only her first movie. Of course, equal credit must go to Rohini for having done a wonderful job dubbing for her. Pity that she never delivered any other performance as good as this in the rest of her career (Ok, Maybe Guru, But nothing else).

The rest of the ladies however, Tabu, Revathy and Gautami were kind of under-utilized I felt, but then again, to be fair, It was not their story. The rest of the supporting cast too did brilliantly, but special mention must go to Nasser who is crackling as the fiery Ayya!
This movie was shot by Santosh Sivan and I must say he does a brilliant job of it. Every frame, is captured so beautifully that you wish that the movie goes on and on and on and you could just keep watching. The songs are shot so beautifully that you don’t feel that they act as speedbreakers in the narrative. The music and background score by Rahman are absolutely brilliant. My pick of the lot would be Aayirathil Naan Oruvan sung with aplomb by Mano and shot beautifully.

This movie is truly one of Mani Sir’s finest works. A tale of friendship with a backdrop of the evolution of a state. Just brilliant!

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)

Iruvar – The Doomed Masterpiece

Gopala Ratnam Subramaniam Iyer perhaps knew somewhere at the back of his mind that the political saga he was about to embark on after the hugely successful BOMBAY, could be doomed for failure. What he perhaps never imagined was that he was about to create a cinematic masterpiece so brilliant and haunting, neither government, nor box-office could prevent it from engraving itself in the hearts and minds of Indian cinephiles. IRUVAR was bold, not just for it’s fictionalized exploration of the epic M.G. RamachandranM. Karunanidhi relationship, but for the cinematic trends Mani Ratnam chose to break, or as some may argue, return to.

The 90s were the age of A.R. Rahman’s Muqabla and Humma Humma. Shankar had stormed into the scene with a string of commercial spectacles. Audiences preferred action and gimmickry to the more simplistic, script and character-oriented family dramas that dominated the earlier years. Technology had taken over the Kodambakkam film industry and filmmaking became an excuse to play with these new toys. Audiences didn’t seem to mind either, for to be awed and nothing less, they went to the movies. Star or not, every producer was making money.

And then there was Mani sir. Neither Kollywood’s newly acquired toys, nor Rahman’s rhythms fascinated him anymore. At a time when theatres boasted of their gargantuan cinemascope screens, Ratnam stuck his middle finger up and shot his film in a classical 4:3 aspect ratio, unthinkable in an industry that has refused to even consider anything lesser than scope for decades. While other filmmakers flew to exotic, colourful, foreign locations to shoot their songs, Mani sir chose to stay home and shoot them in Black & White. Rahman’s synthesized sounds and loops were replaced with veenas and violins, thavils and timpanis, brasses and bass.

In what was perhaps the riskiest of casting decisions, Ratnam cast a living legend to play a past one. Such is the brilliance of Mohanlal’s layered performance that minutes into the film, you forget the thespian’s persona and are sold on Anandan being MGR. Equal to the task was the relative rookie Prakash Raj as Tamizhchelvan (M. Karunanidhi) who would go on to win the National Award for Best Supporting Actor for his career-defining performance. Prakash Raj was selected after talks with the initial choice, Nana Patekar failed, following rejection of the role by several thespians such as Mammootty, Kamal Haasan and Mithun Chakraborty. A magical ensemble surrounded this duo, each leaving behind a memorable presence regardless of screen time. Be it Revathy as Tamizhchelvan’s demure wife or Gauthami as the abused heroine seeking refuge at Anandan’s home, the detailing in their acts is impeccable. Lest we forget the mesmerising Tabu in her cameo as Tamizhchelvan’s lover, or Nasser commanding his scenes as Aiyya, the Anna Durai character. And yes, there was Aishwarya Rai too, making her feature film debut, impressive, yes, impressive, in a spunky double role.

Ratnam plays out the political saga linearly, starting from Anandan’s days as a struggling actor to his chance meeting with Tamizhchelvan in a studio set that sets the foundation for a friendship that would change the very nature of politics in Tamil Nadu. Prakash Raj’s role may have been slotted in a Supporting Actor category, but let it not disguise the fact that IRUVAR narrates a parallel story of two men, not just a sole protagonist. Ratnam chronicles Anandan and Tamizhchelvan’s rise in cinema and politics respectively through the first act, laying the seeds for a meeting of political ideology and influence. Tamizhchelvan writes politically and nationalistically charged lines which Anandan heroically performs on screen, sending Tamil Nadu’s cinema-mad public into frenzy. Anandan is the face of the fervor, his fans willing to dance to his every tune, yet he doesn’t know it. Tamizhchelvan spots a man capable of defining history and in what is perhaps one of the film’s most exhilarating scenes, strips Anandan off all his innocence, giving him his first raw taste of power.

Anandan tastes power for the first time.

Yet, Tamizhchelvan fears for the corruption of politics by cinema, opposing the party’s decision to recruit Anandan as a member. The stage is set for a brewing ideological clash between two best friends, held together by one man, Aiyya (Anna Durai). In one of the most telling scenes of the film, Ramani reminds Anandan that he is late for a political rally, only to realize he already knows it. Anandan takes Kalpana (based on Jayalalithaa) along for the ride, strategically making his entrance at the rally in the middle of Tamizhchelvan’s speech, just to test his power. When Tamizhchelvan denies him a ministry position, Anandan knows he has what he needs to fly solo.

Testing his power.

The epic battle scales heights Anandan and Tamizhchelvan perhaps never imagined it would. In the midst of it all, Ratnam fashions a scene of stupendous poignancy where the friends who have turned foes come face to face. The mastery of Mohanlal’s and Prakash Raj’s performance speaks volumes without any words about the war which has become bigger than them, escalated to a point of no return.

While IRUVAR is a fictionalized account of the MGR-Karunanidhi tale, Ratnam doesn’t shy away from anecdotal references. Like MGR, Anandan is shown to have Keralite roots, he is accidentally shot by a reigning villain during a movie shoot, MGR’s move to provide every unemployed man with a cycle-rickshaw to earn a living is referenced in a song, even the oft-heard rumour of Jayalalithaa bearing an uncanny resemblance to MGR’s first wife is blatantly played out with the casting of Aishwarya Rai in a double role. And this very quality of the film was perhaps its undoing, for Ratnam failed to fictionalize his script enough to escape the wrath of political parties. The film was initially denied a censor certificate by a cowardly board that seemed more vested in the interests of references to politicians still in the game. IRUVAR was eventually cleared by a special revision committee, with severe dialogue cuts, which Ratnam would mask with Rahman’s scintillating score, edited for dramatic impact. Despite the clearance, politicians threatened legal and physical action if “objectionable” portions on the Dravidian movement weren’t removed. Mani Ratnam did not relent, but eventually, exhibitors did. Was it political vendetta that forced them to do so, or a dumbed down audience more interested in the kind of political film where a man becomes Chief Minister for a day, jumps on buses and beats the living daylights out of goons, we may never know.

What we do know is that IRUVAR, for its craft and Mani Ratnam’s fearlessness, is a landmark in Tamil cinema. Santosh Sivan’s majestic frames are studied by cinephiles all over India even today. Who needs cinemascope for a film to look epic? Ratnam and Sivan reinforced that the classical ratio still stood firm as the frame to capture the most expressive compositions. Sivan deservedly won the National Award for Best Cinematography for his work. Be it the previously cited scene of Anandan realizing his power or the one where he speaks on stage with the camera circling around during the speech, Sivan’s work blended the classical style of the early days with movements better known to the post-modern era. Yet, it is his use of natural light in static interior compositions and spectacular deep-focus photography, rarely ever seen in Indian films such as in the scenes below that exemplify his mastery.

Composition and Use of Natural Light in Interiors

Spectacular Deep-Focus Cinematography

The scene Santosh Sivan fanboys swear by. Score takes over dialogues that censors killed.

Equally significant is Suresh Urs’ editing which never allows a dull moment in a film clocking in at 2 hours and 38 minutes. The juxtaposition of shots is as meticulous as the shots themselves, allowing performances to play out, milking each for emotion to the maximum. The concept of “less is more” has never been exemplified better in Indian cinema editing, as Urs is never insecure about staying on shots without cutting away, as long as the shot itself is enhancing and diversifying the value of the scene. It remains a pity Urs’ edit was marred by censor cuts. The recently deceased Art Director Samir Chanda often goes unmentioned in discussions on IRUVAR and inexplicably so. The detailing of the time period is dexterous and impeccable. From the movie sets that Anandan shoots in to the detailing of the exteriors, Chanda’s work is exemplary.

IRUVAR sees Mani Ratnam speak a cinematic language that is perhaps still alien to a majority of the Tamil mainstream audience. Yet, he maintains a mainstream format of filmmaking, replete with lip-sync song interludes, which he uses craftily as part of his narrative. One of the most eye-popping of them is the politically charged “Udal mannukku, uyir thamizhukku” interlude, voiced by actor Arvind Swamy, shot in stunning Black & White, in angles and compositions reminiscent of a Kurosawa battle scene, which finishes with a rousing ovation at a local movie theatre.

A.R. Rahman brings back the style of the 50’s and 60’s in much of the songs with nasally sung melodies, heavy use of the accordion and harmonica, and even a superlative exploration of jazz and the blues in Hello Mr. Ethirkatchi and Vennila Vennila respectively, the latter sung to utmost perfection by the amazing Asha Bhosle. It is often argued that at times the songs hamper IRUVAR’s flow, at one point, two of them literally popping up back to back. But the music and picturization are so wonderful, Ratnam makes it difficult for viewers to keep up their complaints.

Fifteen years after IRUVAR’s release, or close to forty years since its setting, the film remains topical even today. The DMK-AIADMK rivalry in Tamil Nadu still prevails, the inseparable relationship between politics and cinema still plagues creativity, Tamil filmmakers still fear to tackle mature, political subjects, while the audience has moved towards patronizing a brand of cinema that couldn’t be farther away from what Ratnam attempted with this film. Yet, IRUVAR will live on, not just as Mani Ratnam’s greatest and boldest film till date, but also the only, albeit unofficial cinematic account of Tamil Nadu’s political history.

As I conclude this recollection of my favourite Tamil film of all time, I’d like to showcase the excerpt below that exemplifies every aspect of IRUVAR’s craft, and ends with the film’s single-most memorable line.

Read more reviews on MANI RATNAM BLOGATHON:

1. Pallavi Anupallavi (Kannada) 2. Unaroo (Malayalam) 3. Pagal Nilavu (Tamil) 4. Idaya Kovil (Tamil) 5. Mouna Ragam (Tamil) 6. Nayagan Tamil) 7. Agni Natchathiram (Tamil) 8. Geethanjali (Telugu) 9. Anjali (Tamil) 10. Thalapathi (Tamil) Take 2 Thalapathi (Tamil) 11. Roja (Tamil) 12. Thiruda Thiruda (Tamil) 13. Bombay (Tamil) 14. Iruvar (Tamil) Take 2 Iruvar (Tamil) 15. Dil Se…(Hindi) Take 2 Dil Se…(Hindi) 16. Alaipayuthey (Tamil) 17. Kannathil Muthamittal (Tamil) Take 2 Kannathil Muthamittal(Tamil) 18. Yuva (Hindi) 19. Aayutha Ezhuthu (Tamil) 20. Guru (Hindi) 21. Raavanan (Tamil) 22. Raavan (Hindi)