Sunday, November 24, 2013

Irandam Ulagam (2013)

Nearly a decade ago, Selvaraghavan made "7/G Rainbow Colony" which told us there is life after love and how suicide is not a solution for heartbreak. A decade later, he gives that message a fantastical twist, asking us to go a step further in reclaiming lost love - even if a step means traveling to a parallel reality. "Irandam Ulagam" is mostly a populist RomCom in the clothes of a high-concept sci-fi fantasy. It is the journey of a Vinod or a Kathir in search of his Divya or Anitha.

I cannot be entirely sure just how much Selva has fumbled here in relation to that one previous big-budget film of his. I haven't seen "Aayirathil Oruvan", but I massively respect the fact that a director took it upon himself to give the people a fantasy film about our absurdly rich history. The same cannot be said for "Irandam Ulagam"; what it lacks in originality, it also lacks in clarity. The end result is a messy compound of undercooked ideas wrapped inside an incoherent and bloated narrative. It's hard to believe someone like Selvaraghavan has made such a corny film about "pure love" and "all the Universe conspiring in helping a person achieve it."

I like how the film didn't resort to excessive spoon-feeding and jumps right into the narrative, expecting us to keep up. We are introduced to our two pairs of protagonists, living in two different worlds. Anushka is Ramya and Varna, and Arya is Madhu and Maruvan respectively on Planet Earth and Planet I-don't-know-where. Selva uses a modern-day setting just to ease audience into a world which is completely strange to them. The two love-stories, if we can call it that, run parallel before it's time for these worlds to collide. Here's where the abstraction begins to take its toll on us. There are long stretches of scenes which make very little sense. To make things worse, an abrupt and unconvincing tragedy is forced upon us.

We don't know if a portal opened on its own to let Madhu in or if this particular Oracle lady, played by a Kalki Koechlin lookalike, made it happen. The Oracle's role in the Kingdom and in Maruvan's family is never explained either. Then there is a subplot about an ongoing war with a neighboring kingdom that felt severely under-explained. It's also very hard to believe that a world, this world in particular, could exist without love. It's such an incredible idea which is so under-explored that it becomes maddening after a point. The film is only too happy to keep aside its ambitions in favor of love failure songs. I just hope Selva doesn't blame the film's failure on audience's inability to comprehend what he's trying to say. It's a poorly directed film and that's the only truth.

You are not in Koyambedu anymore. Myth building is perhaps not Selva's strong suit and his version of Pandora is a proof for that. The issue is not the quality of CG at all; it's just that there's no visual consistency throughout the film's runtime. The geography and its other defining aspects are confusing to say the least. The sky looks different in each scene, populated with distant stars and galaxies thrown together haphazardly. The flora and fauna looks heavily inspired, differing only due to unintentional discrepancies. The natives are all Caucasians with the exception of our protagonists. The derivative nature of the world is a problem especially because all these elements come together and create something improbable. Selva expects audience to take his creation seriously, but won't return the favor by offering a little more insight about the science. But I have to admit the work on one particular variant of a lion was pretty stunning. Sitting two rows from the screen, I found it deeply unsettling.

On the surface, it may be about a man's search for lost love, but beneath the layers of tacky visual effects, I have reasons to believe "Irandam Ulagam" dealt with one unifying theme: feminism. At the very beginning, we are told that the parallel world, the Irandam Ulagam, never prospered because their people never learned to love; a world where the thought of getting a woman's consent never crossed the mind of a man; a world where rape is the natural state of order. Selva gives primeval characteristics to the natives which sadly seem to exist even today in our "civilized" society.  Selva provokes us to think about the world we live in and how we treat our women by drawing parallels which should have ceased to exist long, long ago. He talks about dwindling sex ratio and how turning down a woman's proposal is the worst thing one could do in this day and age.

Maruvan conquers a feared beast to keep Varna from falling onto the bed of the King, but this understandably doesn't sweep her off her feet. It's still an agreement between two men, with no place for her consent.  She would even kill herself rather than be married to a man (why this world even has a system of marriage, we will never know.) Varna eventually has a change of heart towards her man. There's a crackling scene where Varna and Maruvan draw swords at each other in the middle of their fight with a common enemy. Perhaps that's the only way to solve the menace of inequality. Together. But the lines often get blurred and the subtext doesn't reflect coherently on the screen. Who are those people in black robes who want to create a world with one king, one religion and one God? What do they represent? How can a world that doesn't respect women be revering a female prophet? Is she a slave to them? It's questions like these that keep me up at night.

I cannot imagine any other actor besides Anushka to play the female lead. The character demands a big girl and big is what she is. In spite of being a fairly lengthy film, there are many scenes in the film which feel rushed. Maruvan goes from being a village bum into an invincible warrior of sorts in the blink of an eye. He becomes so good at fighting that the clashes at the end become pointless. The idea of a kingdom which is on the cusp of experiencing love for the first time is all good, but Selva does too little where there was scope for so much more. And he does it with utter lack of finesse. For all I know, thematically, the film might not even be as deep as I am willing to give it credit for.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Arrambam (2013)

If watching Ajith put his sunglasses on while walking in slow motion to an abused theme music is your idea of a good movie; if you have no trouble rooting for a character with inarguably messed up moral issues; if you think consistent logic is not an imperative element in a script, then "Arrambam" is the film for you. You two deserve each other. For the rest of us who expect more, this thoroughly joyless film will seldom offer any of it. 

Vishnuvardhan knows only one way to make his films chic - by populating them with good looking people using bloody expensive things. It worked for him in "Billa" because, let's face it, we had never seen anything like it before. He had the liberty to go the distance in "Billa" because it dealt with people who happened to be filthy rich gangsters. "Arrambam", on the other hand, is a film about a bunch of people who cannot be in possession of that kind of money. The reason is because people in this story are risking their life to bring to justice those very corrupt and powerful people celebrated in "Billa".

But Vishnu wants to have it both ways. He doesn't give up the pizzazz and bestows upon his working class characters a swag life which they could never possibly afford. He has them own cool gadgets, plant fancy explosives, fly around the world undetected, drive Ducatis and own big-ass yachts. Then he also makes them give us a moral science lecture and go all "Rang De Basanti" on a politician who swindles public money.  

Arya's Arjun is the character we are initially supposed to root for. He plays a brilliant computer hacker named who probably owns a special computer with a button that has the words "Start hacking" written on it. Maya suggests Arjun's name to AK (Ajith) because he once hacked into SSN Engineering College's super-protected network and changed her attendance percentage. He is caught with people whose motives remain unknown to us and we are supposed to fear for his life. AK threatens to kill Arjun's girlfriend if he fails to hack into stuff. But the problem is that the girlfriend (named Anitha; played by Taapsee Pannu) is so magnificently stupid that a part of you wishes AK would put us all out of our misery by putting a bullet in her brain.

Vishnuvardhan is a good director.. when it comes to making music videos. Otherwise, there's nothing worthy about his technique at display in "Arrambam". There's a scene near the beginning where Nayanthara gives the fakest performance humanly possible when her character Maya gets abducted by some goons. Are we supposed to be surprised when she reveals that she had been in on the plan all along? Wow. Wonderful piece of direction there, man. You had me good. The style of "Arrambam" is highly derivative and instantly reminiscent of a dozen other movies. A lot of the film takes place in Mumbai, the new terror capital; but unlike, say, "Thuppakki", the city here has no real character and just lying there. But in a film where the characters themselves have no personality, expecting something from the locale is admittedly asking for too much.

Do directors who make films like "Arrambam" really think people of India do not have access to Hollywood films? I am not saying that "Arrambam" is inspired by one particular movie; I am saying that it has shades of one too many typical, dumb American action movies. We have seen those films already and we do not want you to try and fail at recreating the same with Indian actors. Watching you attempt making them is like watching a monkey on a rollerskate. Don't get me wrong; all I ask for is hints of originality in a story with convincingly believable treatment. 

It's a heartless film from an inept director who believes one scene of mass poisoning is somehow enough for audience to root for AK, who himself is misguided and driven by revenge and a misplaced sense of justice. This elaborate scheme to bring down a corrupt politician comes into being after the death of an honest policeman- someone who also happened to be AK's dear friend. He is so overcome by inconsolable rage that he plans to steal zillions of dollars from the offshore accounts of all the dirty Indian politicians. But here's the catch: AK doesn't seem to have a problem that many innocent cops are getting killed along the way. He is shooting point blank at hapless constables who are taking him to prison. How do you expect audience to root for a cause which is reeking with hypocrisy? Don't tell me it was necessary for the greater good. In my book, no amount of money is worth the lives of those nameless cops. Don't give me that macro bullshit when the whole incident was set in motion by something so micro, so personal.

In Ajith's defense, I agree it has become hard for actors like him to break past preconceived notions that his fans hold in their mind. To them, it doesn't matter that their idol is playing a character who holds an iron box a few inches from a baby. If Thala is occupying a frame, they will cheer. But even if you isolate yourself from the reactions of fans, the movie still clearly comes off as to be designed for those very people. Right from the random opening song, it appears to be playing to the gallery. If you take away Ajith's offscreen persona from the character, there's little reason to root for the protagonist. There's nothing inherently cool about his AK. Through the course of the movie, you don't get to know him at all. He is just an amalgamation of certain very generic character traits.

Without getting into the fuckall climax and the absurd epilogue, let me just say "Arrambam" is as sophisticated as that Shut down button in its title art. Perhaps "Make it simple" is not the most appropriate mantra for the film.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

All in All Azhaguraja (2013)

Well, it was bound to happen someday. After three consecutive hits, Tamil cinema's luckiest filmmaker has made a film that's so awful, its success would result in me losing faith in our people. It's not like M. Rajesh is new to making bad movies. I absolutely loathed "Siva Manasula Shakthi" and "Oru Kal Oru Kannadi", but enjoyed "Boss (a) Baskaran" quite a bit. It's just that none of his previous films have been a catastrophe of this magnitude.

Rajesh has made a conscious effort to make his fourth film different from his previous three. The difference is that it showed a hint of having a proper story in its early minutes. But that's where the deceit lies. It's still the same old trash - only less funny and more unbearable. There's Santhanam playing a drag queen for whom an old man develops feelings. Boy, I wonder if this is the first time in our history that a film has tried to milk humor out of a man dressed as a woman. For the sake of tackling a period setting, Rajesh creates a laboriously painful backstory involving Prabhu which does nothing to make the film better. 

Raja (Karthi) runs an obscure television channel and tells his parents that he wouldn't marry until he makes his channel the best in the market. Kalyanam (Santhanam) is a friend/employee/lapdog who continues to stick around and do things for Raja for reasons unknown. Raja is a total loser who does nothing to achieve that goal of his.. a goal which we are made to believe is what driving the film. The moment he meets the girl, he throws everything aside and inadvertently does everything to sabotage her career. The film is over-written with too many subplots, none of which make any sense. 

I had a minor panic attack when I noticed on the Censor board certificate that the film's running time was close to 180 minutes. That's about as long as Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather". With only five minutes worth of humor, you have to be on a suicide mission to make such a long film with so little to offer.

"Azhaguraja" is a deeply misogynistic film which treats its lead female character terribly; I felt very sorry for Kajal Aggarwal's Devi Priya. She is the most adorable Grammar Nazi in the world. She shows her displeasure when Raja sends a note along with a bouquet that reads, "I Love U", and asks him to spell 'You' correctly without exactly being a dick about it. There's an excess of the typical OTT elements in her character, but there's some novelty too. She isn't swept off her feet that easily. She manages her father's cinema and wedding hall, and wishes to make a mark in the entertainment industry in some way. But then something very awful happens. She meets Raja who irresponsibly kills her self-confidence and turns her into a consolatory "housewife". He brings her down to his state and eventually makes her say, "I Love U". He domesticates her, that bastard. 

Performance-wise, Santhanam is decent with his peculiar idiosyncrasies. At least he makes an effort. I don't know if it's just me but every time I see Prabhu, I immediately think of his Kalyan Jewellers advertisements. MS Bhaskar is worth mentioning, but that's about it. "Azhaguraja" is punishingly long, achingly unfunny and doesn't deserve any audience at all. Kill it with fire!