Category: Tamil Cinema

Action! – Jason Bourne vs. Superstar Rajni

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Last week, more or less by accident, I attended back-to-back screenings of India’s top box office film, Kabali (India 2016) and Hollywood’s latest revamp of the Bourne franchise, simply titled Jason Bourne (US 2016). I’d wanted to see Kabali but Jason Bourne was an ‘impulse watch’, mainly on the grounds that Alicia Vikander and Vincent Cassel are two of my favourite stars. I’d seen two of the previous Bourne films and three recent Rajnikanth spectaculars. The result of this current contest between the action champions of the US and India was, for this viewer, an away win for Superstar Rajni.

Let me deal with Jason Bourne first. The return of Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass, this time with his regular cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (who first came to international attention as Ken Loach’s cinematographer), gave hope to fans of an action film par excellence. Vikander’s casting and that of Cassel matched earlier European casting choices. They were joined by Riz Ahmed in a Steve Jobs type role and the whole package had a very European flavour for a Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately, the script was left to Greengrass and his editor Christopher Rouse and they proved to not be up to the job. In truth, Jason Bourne is four separate action sequences somewhat loosely tied together by the familiar plotline of Damon’s character Bourne trying to find out what his own father did that started this whole chase scenario in which he is pursued by corrupt CIA officials. The novelty is that this time he might expedite a further release of Edward Snowden type secret materials – and in doing so create further problems for the CIA in its link to the surveillance potential of the Riz Ahmed’s character’s new software developments.

In the first major action sequence, Bourne is on the streets of Athens during anti-austerity riots. He’s meeting his ex-CIA ‘insider’ partner played by Julia Stiles. Bourne is in ‘drab’ but she has long flowing blonde hair – easily visible to the satellite cameras of the CIA back in Washington where Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander can track the couple’s every move and release ‘The Asset’ – the assassin played by Vincent Cassel. We never learn what the Greek riot was about (are audiences expected to know the details of Greece’s economic and political problems?), but various Greek bystanders are killed in the mayhem and the action moves to Berlin where Bourne and his local contact make similarly stupid mistakes.  After that it is London and then finally Las Vegas. In each case, the main confrontation is between Cassel and Damon with the CIA mission being compromised by Vikander’s realisation that something may be amiss in what they are doing – or perhaps she has her own ulterior motives?

The action is indeed spectacular but by the fourth sequence it starts to get boring, though I perked up and genuinely laughed when a Police SWAT vehicle crashes into a Las Vegas temple to the fruit machine. In technical terms, the film is very efficiently made, but the script is full of holes. Bourne has no personality and I wanted the Cassel character, who unfortunately has no redeeming features, to end up with Vikander. Perhaps the oddest  aspect of Jason Bourne is the BBFC entry on the film which shows a 12A Certificate and suggests that there is ‘moderate violence’. So, children can’t be harmed by multiple deaths by sniper bullets or beatings in which people are repeatedly hit to a sickening soundtrack. But there are no sexual encounters or drugs so children won’t be affected. The hypocrisy is staggering.

Kabali is, by comparison a lot less slick and at times quite slowly-paced, but it wins because of warmth and wit, because it is actually ‘about’ something and because it has Rajnikanth, genuinely a superstar, mainly in South India, but also in parts of the world with a Tamil diaspora and other surprising places such as Japan. Rajnikanth is now billed as ‘Superstar’ in his film’s credits. Now 66 he has appeared in some 200 films since 1975. His superstar status depends on his affinity with the ‘common man’ in the crowd (I’m not sure about his appeal to the ‘common woman’). Whatever trouble he is in, Rajni’s character will emerge and live to fight another day, mainly because of his lightning reflexes. Kabali reminded me of one of Rajni’s earlier successes as a gang leader in Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi (India 1991). In the new film we meet Rajni as a man who has served 25 years in a Malaysian prison for a crime he feels he was not responsible for – and which was associated with the death of his pregnant wife. He is met at the prison gates by followers who have been waiting patiently for him – and building a school in his honour to train young Tamils in Malaysia who have ‘failed’ or lacked opportunities. But Rajni (Kabali) is a gang leader, albeit one with principles and political ambitions. Flashbacks reveal how he began as the leader of Tamil workers on rubber plantations in Malaysia, striking for better conditions. His enemies are other Tamil gangsters who resent his leadership and reject his political aims and Chinese gangsters led by Peter Lee (Taiwanese actor Winston Chao).

In some ways Kabali is a melodrama. Kabali is ruthless when he first emerges from prison, immediately taking down some of his Tamil enemies. But he is soon distracted by memories of his wife and begins to follow up clues to what really happened 25 years ago. Flashbacks take us into a family melodrama in which we learn of miraculous recoveries. Kabali still has a wife, but he will need to travel to the ex-French colony of Pondicherry to find her. He also has a daughter who emerges in true melodrama fashion – and he has surrogate sons from the school founded in his honour. But all this family business means that Kabali’s enemies have time to organise and the film’s finale will prove whether Kabali can still be a boss in Kuala Lumpur – which offers a cityscape of tall buildings to match any American setting. As one Hindi/Bollywood critic writes, this is indeed a ‘Southern pot-boiler’ but the emotion got to me. Rajni himself remains eminently watchable. He is now playing close to his age and the wig works very well – he looks cool and stylish as a don in his sixties. He dominates the frame and speaks commandingly and he can still use a gun and make his moves.

The release of Kabali in India has been a media event in itself – even outside the South. Kabali‘s producers claimed the biggest ever opening box office for an Indian film. Box office figures in India are always dubious and especially so in Tamil Nadu. Nevertheless the film has attracted huge crowds in the South and has been dubbed into Hindi, Telugu and Malay (where several scenes have been censored) and probably other languages too. In North America, the UK and Australia we are able to see the Tamil original with English subs. One of the most interesting Hindi/Bollywood reviews of the film suggests that Hindi dubbing is very poor for Kabali and that it loses not only Rajni’s great delivery, but also the political subtext of Tamil identity in colonial and post-colonial Malayan history. (Malaysia and Singapore with their significant Tamil diaspora communities are key audiences for Rajni films.) Another article commenting on Rajni’s status as superstar claims that no film script can contain him any more and that the his films will always fail for fans who have enormous expectations. (Rajni fans treat the star like a deity, making offerings to giant cardboard cut-outs of their hero and watching the films multiple times. His fans outside Tamil Nadu will fly in and purchase tickets at inflated prices to see their hero.)

Kabali is directed by Pa. Rajnith, one of the younger feted directors of Tamil cinema. Having not seen his first two films, I’m not sure how Kabali stands up to them. He seems to do an OK job and it’s good that Superstar Rajni can work with the new generation. But surely he can’t go on playing the same kinds of roles much longer? He can certainly act and it would be good to see him take on something new – perhaps something with less action and more politics. But I doubt his enormous fanbase would agree. One thing you can say about Rajni and Kabali is that apart from the Godfather references that helped to build Superstar Rajni’s persona, Hollywood has so far not produced anything to compete with him directly.

Crow’s Egg (Kaakkaa Muttai, India 2014, Tamil)

The family watch the new TV sets

The family watch the new TV sets

One of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently, Crow’s Egg turns out to be a notable début for writer-director-cinematographer Manikandan. Based on the brief blurb in the Leeds Film Festival brochure, I’d thought this might be a children’s film or a kind of social realist drama. But it’s an interesting hybrid drawing upon several different models in order to present something new. At the film’s centre is a simple narrative idea that might come from neo-realism. Two young brothers live with their mother and grandmother in a slum on the outskirts of Chennai. Their father is in prison and the money that should pay for their schooling goes on fees for the incompetent lawyer who has so failed to even get him out on bail (we don’t know what the father has done). The boys contribute to the household income by collecting the coal that falls from the coal trains rattling into the city.

The boys play on a piece of spare land where they ‘harvest’ crows’ eggs from the trees to supplement their diet, hence their nicknames ‘Big’ and ‘Little Crow’s Egg’. When the land is re-developed and an outlet of a pizza chain is opened, the two boys have a new aim – to eat pizza like the people in the adverts on the TV screens (the family appears to be given two TV sets by the state government as part of some new scheme). A single pizza costs 30 times what the boys might earn in a day and so a quest to earn money by any means begins.

If this plot outline suggests a feelgood conventional Hollywood quest narrative, it’s certainly true that the film takes something from the success of Slumdog Millionaire – and it is important that the production was backed by Fox Star studios, the Indian subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, the distributor of Danny Boyle’s film. However, this isn’t an attempt to replicate Boyle and Dod Mantle’s frenetic style. Instead, Crow’s Egg sometimes draws on more realist depictions of slum life such as Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay as well as recent ‘Hindie’ (i.e. Hindi independent) films and aspects of popular Tamil cinema. The music score by G.V. Prakash Kumar and editing by Kishore Te combine in several montage sequences which accelerate the narrative – sometimes by using slow motion as well as conventional montage editing. A little digging reveals that this is the fifth Tamil film from Fox Star to receive a positive response and the relatively high profile of the film in India partly depends on its co-producer, Tamil superstar actor Dhanush.

The local boys waiting to ambush a train. The stick is used to knock the mobile phones out of the hands of passengers sat by open doorways.

The local boys waiting to ambush a train. The stick is used to knock the mobile phones out of the hands of passengers sat by open doorways.

I can’t quite remember the point in the film when I realised that the script was constructing a many-layered satire on contemporary India but I’d be happy to watch the film again to study how the narrative works. The commercialisation of Indian food habits, corruption in policing and local government, TV reporting, healthy eating, the rum shop and drunkenness, inequalities in income, housing policies and land control etc. are all woven into the central story, often in quite ingenious ways. The crucial scene is perhaps the one where the boys’ grandmother sends them to local stalls to buy the ingredients for a pizza topping (onions, peppers, chillies etc.) and proceeds to cook a dosa (a South Indian lentil and rice flour pancake) that resembles the pizza on an advertising flyer the boys have picked up. This little scene encapsulates everything that the satire strives to capture. It does make you wonder why the dosa – in my view the healthiest and tastiest food imaginable – isn’t as widespread as the globalised pizza.

Crow’s Egg has been around the festival circuit for a year or so now. Its appeal is partly down to the engaging performances of the two leads, Ramesh and Vignesh. The older couples sitting near me in the audience, clearly not cinephiles, applauded the film at the end and seemed to have a very good time. A distributor with a little patience and imagination ought to be able to make this film work on screens in Europe and North America as well as Asia. It doesn’t have the stars and arthouse flourishes of The Lunchbox but it’s just as entertaining.

New posts on Global Film

Just a reminder for subscribers. Reviews of interesting films, mainly from outside the US/UK and Western Europe, are also to be found on our sister site at globalfilmstudies.com

Recent posts include:

Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014)

Stones for the Rampart (Poland 2014)

The Salvation (Denmark/UK/South Africa 2014)

OK Kanmani (India 2015, Tamil)

A cautionary tale

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Roy advised me that OK Kanmani was screening at Cineworld in Bradford: I assume he will post on the film. I went along last Thursday: the film was fine but the presentation left something to be desired. My last post was regarding the failings of the distribution sector, added to by Roy; but the multiplex chains have their own failings

This is the most recent film directed by Mani Ratnam; I think he is the most interesting and skilful filmmaker working in the mainstream film industries in India. OK Kanmani [Madras Talkies 2015, the title is a song at a wedding celebration late in the film] is essentially a Romcom and it is limited by many of the conventions of this genre. Adhi and Tara, Tamil-speakers working in Mumbai, meet and start a romance. He is a designer of games, hoping to hit the big time: she is an architectural student, but she comes from a wealthy family. The ups and downs of young love are embroidered by issues like dementia in a family member and attitudes to non-marital partnerships [live-in]. This adds depth and emotion to the film but there is an absence of the strong social issues that are common in Ratnam’s films.

Technically and stylistically this is a tour de force. Ratnam and his production team produce some of the most visually and aurally interesting productions in contemporary Indian cinemas. The film, in colour and 2.39:1, looks and sounds great. And both sound and vision have slightly unconventional tropes which add interest. The film makes intelligent use of current mobile and tablet technology: there are games sequences, stemming from Adhi’s work: and some beautifully composed sequences of architectural sites visited by Tara. The music is rhythmic with strong beats, but also uses unconventional sounds and instrumentations. One reservation I have is that one aspect of this was undeveloped. Tara and Adhi’s aunt are both skilled in Tamil music, but only once [for plot purposes] do we enjoy their performance.

This is not my favourite Ratnam film, but it is always interesting and a pleasure to watch. But I need to add a few warning notes on my experience. When I got to Cineworld there was no queue at their combined ticket/food counter. But in the previous week when I arrived for a Hindi film there were five people in line: the two front members literally spent at least five minutes going through the Cineworld menu before I was able to persuade a staff member to open up another till.

Thursday though I was quickly in, but I had to walk down two corridors to reach screen 14. When the trailers came on they were for Hindi films, but without subtitles. I trailed back to the ticket person at the entrance. She went off to tell the manager. By the time \I returned to the auditorium the current trailer now had subtitles in English. The opening credits for OK Kanmani came on: they looked interesting but whilst the DCP was in the 2.39:1 the screen was cropped by two curtains to 1.85:1. At this point the staff member arrived to tell me that the manager had stated that the film did not have English subtitles. Given the distributor was a USA company this seemed odd – so we watched and as Adhi shouted his first line of dialogue the subtitle appeared. So I pointed out to the staff member the problem with the curtains. She went off to tell the manager saying it might take a few minutes.

The curtains were gauze so I could see something of the image in the covered parts of the screen. After a while the first song started, during a wedding ceremony. Since nothing had happened I went out and saw another audience member. He said he was going out and would tell the staff that the curtains had not yet been adjusted. I continued watching. When we reached the third song and 35 minute into the film the curtains still shrouded parts of the image. So I again trailed round to the entrance and the same staff member. She told me that the manager had just gone up to sort out the problem. Sure enough when I returned to the auditorium the curtains were slowly moving to reveal the whole widescreen image.

Then to add insult to injury when the intermission arrived I had to listen to a medley from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!

Paulo Cherchi Usai, along with other writers, has predicted the ’death of cinema’. If this comes to pass I would like see prosecutions of the commercial film companies for the manslaughter or even second degree murder of film.

The Golden 50s: India’s Endangered Classics

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara, 1951.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Awara, 1951.

This was one of the real treats at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato. The programme offered eight classics from the sub-continent that spanned the late 1940s to the end of the 1950s. The programme was curated by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur. His film, Celluloid Man (2012), a study of the Indian film archive and archivists, had limited outings in the UK last year. Shivendra writes in the Festival Catalogue:

These films represent a rich and varied cinematic heritage that is in danger of becoming extinct. 1700 silent films were made in India of which only 5 or 6 complete films remain. [These were screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1993]. Tragically, we have lost our first sound film Alam Ara (1931, the film that established music, song and dance as the essential ingredient of popular Indian film). By 1950, India had lost seventy to eighty per cent of its films, and this has been the result of a widespread and complacent belief that film will last forever. We now realise that these eight classics too are in imminent danger of being lost to the world if urgent steps are not taken for their preservation and restoration. Screening these film is not just a reminder of a singular cinematic legacy, but one that is endangered and must be saved.

Chandralekha, 1948, black and white, in Tamil, 193 minutes.

Directed by S. S. Vasan. The script was developed by a group in the Gemini Studio Story Department. It was a Tamil production but an early example of that industry attempting a nation-wide distribution and circulated in both Tamil and Hindi versions. It is an epic film with innumerable songs and dances. Chandra is a young village girl who captures the eye of a prince. Much of the plot concerns the machinations of the prince’s younger brother. The story wanders over action and countryside, including an impressive sequence in a travelling circus. The film ends with a mammoth Drum Dance number that leads into the final battle. If you have watched documentaries on Indian cinema on British TV you will have seen a snippet of this sequence, a popular film clip. In 1948 the film played into the rhetoric of Indian Independence –

The film’s primary conflict – the struggle between the usurper and the rightful heir – would have resonated strongly with Indian audiences, leading them to register all the nuanced allusions and metaphors embodied in the film.

Awara, (The Vagabond), 1951, black and white, in Hindi, 168 minutes.

This is a film directed by and starring Raj Kapoor, one of the most popular stars in the history of Indian cinema.  Alongside him is Indian greatest female star, Nargis. And the film was produced at Kapoor’s own studio, built from the profits of his earlier successes. The film runs for 168 though there was a longer version of 193 minutes. The film, Kapoor and Nargis were also immensely popular in the Soviet Union and Arabia and China. Kapoor’s character is clearly influenced by Chaplin and he exploited the persona in a number of films.

The film follows the son of a judge, unfairly expelled from home and who grows up in the slums and is tutored by criminals. The film ends in a courtroom, where both romance and the father/son conflict are resolved.

Do Bigha Zameen (Two Acres of Land) 1953, black and white, in Hindi, 142 minutes.

The film was directed by Bimal Roy who started in the Bengali film industry and then moved to Bombay and the mainstream Hindi film.  The film shows the influence of Italian neo-realism [Roy had seen De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, 1948 in Calcutta). However much of the film is shot in a studio with a limited amount of location work. Even so it stood out from the contemporary popular film. What also stood out was the performance of Bairaj Sahni as the central character Shambu. He is the victim of an exploitative landlord and ends up in the city struggling to find work and earn a living. The Catalogue notes that:

Audiences around the country greeted it with stunned silence. There was no boisterous acclaim, none of the celebratory music that follows the news of a film becoming a box-office success. It was an acknowledgement that a new kind of cinema had emerged: a cinema in the popular mode, with the ring of truth.

Pyaasa (The Thirsty One) 1957, black and white, in Hindi, 143 minutes.

The film was directed by Guru Dutt. That two of his films were included in the programme gives an idea of his status in Indian film. Dutt also stars as the hero Vijay, and plays opposite another major star Waheeda Rehman as Meena. The music is by a major composer of the period S. D. Burman. Their import is spelt out in the Catalogue:

In Pyaasa Guru Dutt disregarded the conventions of Indian cinema regarding songs. He could use them in fragmentary form or as an extension of dialogue, while at other times, they went beyond the standard length.

Vijay is a poet who

encounters greed and philistinism among the gatekeepers of society, and compassion among its outcasts.

[including Meena].

Mother India 1957, in colour, in Hindi, 172 minutes.

The film is often referred to as India’s Gone With the Wind. This comparison is misplaced, though both films are the most famous and popular examples of their two respective studio systems. Where the Selznick film recycles a reactionary representation of the US Civil War the Hindi film, directed by Mehboob Khan, dramatises in populist terms the class conflict and exploitation involving India’s peasant millions. This is another epic with Nargis in her greatest role as Radha, village girl, wife, mother, widow and finally the matriarch of the title.  The film is crammed with melodrama and song and filmed in evocative colour. The Catalogue notes that Nargis’ Radha

combines the characteristics of both Mother Courage and Mother Earth. Through her we traverse the epic journey of a country from darkness to light.

The filmmaker Mehboob Kahn, like the Government headed by Nehru, was strongly influenced by the Soviet model. In one glorious dance number the peasants in the fields combine in the form of a hammer and sickle.

Ajantrik (Pathetic Fallacy) 1957, black and white, in Bengali, 102 minutes.

This was the second feature of Ritwik Ghatak, a Bengali filmmaker. Ghatak’s films, whilst observing some of the conventions of popular cinema, fall outside the mainstream. He is a key figure in the development of what became known as the ‘parallel’ or New Indian Cinema. In this film

Literally, the tile Ajantrik extends the word ‘jantrik’ (mechanical) to suggests its antithesis.

The plot, which follows an unconventional structure, concerns a taxi-driver Bimal and his vehicle, a battered old Chevrolet, called Jagaddal. Ghatak himself commented on the film re the idea of the machine:

It is something that is alien. [T]his apathy may be due to the fact that all change and the very introduction of the machine age was the handiwork of foreign overlords.

(Quoted in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen, BFI 1994). Those authors add that the film suggests that

the forces driving the speed of change disregard and thus destroy the slower, more human tempo at which people adopt and incorporate change into their networks of social relations.

Madhumati, 1958, black and white, in Hindi, 149 minutes.

This was the second film directed by Bimal Roy in the programme, and was scripted by Ritwik Ghatak. It features one of the popular stars of the period Dilip Kumar as Anand. The plot involves a haunted mansion, ghosts and reincarnation. The film falls within a genre known as Indian Gothic – which will give some sense of its style and atmosphere. The film was immensely popular and weaves the generic tale into a tapestry of songs, dances, folk-style humour and traditional tropes.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers), 1959, black and white CinemaScope, in Hindi, 144 minutes.

This was the last film on which Guru Dutt put his name as director. It is a doomed tale of a successful filmmaker whose career goes into decline when his personal life goes awry. There is a strong element of autobiography in the film: Dutt committed suicide in 1964, aged only 39. Dutt plays the lead character Suresh, whilst his favoured actress Waheeda Rehman plays Shanti.

The music is by S. D. Burman, though the songs and dances are not integrated into the film story as well as in the earlier Pyaasa. What is most memorable about the film is the cinematography by V. K. Murthy. This was the first occasion that I was able to see a film print in the full widescreen format; earlier screenings had been cropped to 1.37:1. This is a film of shadows, which are used in an exemplary fashion. The chiaroscuro lighting in many of the studio sequences is beautifully done. Dutt and Murthy also have a mastery of the crane shot, with one striking flowing camera movement during the climatic sequence of the film.

The screenings were preceded by Indian Newsreels of the period, some of more interest than others. The films were mainly screened in 35mm prints, the majority from the National Archive of India. Unfortunately three films were screened from Blu-Ray discs, not a format that could do justice to these great films. When there were not subtitles on the print digital titles were projected in both English and Italian. We did miss the lyrics for several songs in this way.

Shivendra Sing Dungarpur is a founder member, along with some illustrious names from the Indian film Industry, of the Film Heritage Foundation. This foundation aims to campaign for the restoration and preservation of the Indian film heritage. Many of these great classic films from the sub-continent are only in video formats in the UK – so I applaud their intent. A Website for the Foundation is under construction and will be found when uploaded at – www.filmheritagefoundation.co.in

 

Biriyani (India 2013)

Sugan (Karthi) and Priyanka (Hansika Motwani). Parasu (Premgi Amaren) is in the background.

Sugan (Karthi) and Priyanka (Hansika Motwani). Parasu (Premgi Amaren) is in the background.

In the last couple of years the UK exhibitor Cineworld has expanded its releases of Tamil films beyond London, showing them in areas like Bradford where the local South Asian languages are more likely to be Urdu, Punjabi or Bangla. Previously I have had to watch major Tamil films in Hindi dubs in local multiplexes but now there are Tamil releases – but usually only showing once nightly and too late for public transport. Biriyani therefore marks a change – a major Tamil release which has matched the screening schedules of Hindi releases, showing several times a day for the first couple of weeks. Since much of my experience of Tamil cinema has been with the acclaimed films of Mani Ratnam/Rajiv Menon or Shankar, I was keen to see something more solidly mainstream.

Biriyani is a major production directed by Venkat Prabhu and starring Karthi. Like blockbuster productions in other industries, the film has been trailed for over a year and then subject to various changes of release date (releases are often timed for religious holidays). Shooting was extended over many weeks in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu as well as in Hyderabad. The film was finally released in December 2013 on over 1,000 screens ‘worldwide’ in both Tamil and Telugu versions.

Outline

The two central characters are Sugan (Karthi) and Parasu, two bright graduates in Chennai. One is very successful with women, the other is not. Their actual employment details are unclear but the plot sees them helping to launch a new motor dealership (lots of product placement for Mahindra).  This involves Sugan upstaging his on-off girlfriend, a local TV reporter and impressing a local business tycoon with the help of Parasu’s IT skills. Later, the two men, who are fond of a drink, find themselves at a biriyani food outlet on the highway where they meet a femme fatale, Maya. They awake the next morning to find a corpse in their car. How did it get there? What have they done? Why are they being chased by the police?

Commentary

The film actually starts with a flashback from the point where the central pair are being chased by the police. This takes us to the Intermission (in a film lasting 149 mins) and the second half provides the climax and an explanation of the mystery. This is a mainstream masala movie structured as a ‘buddy movie’ involving a murder mystery, film noir, action, romance and comedy. ‘Romance’ is perhaps the weakest element and more emphasis is placed on action and (black) comedy – the film has had some censorship difficulties because of the violence levels. I was surprised by the extent of the drinking and this was first Indian feature I’ve seen with the frequent on-screen warnings about excessive alcohol use (rather like the warnings on cigarette packets). I was also a little surprised by the more ‘open’ acknowledgement of sexual activity between some of the characters – i.e. in this kind of mainstream blockbuster. Overall, I felt that while the film shared the same ingredients as mainstream Hindi blockbusters, there was a real difference in how these ingredients were used by the filmmakers.

In my limited experience, Tamil films are sometimes more adventurous in their camerawork and use of effects – and, at the same time, somehow more ‘realist’, more ‘connected’ to local culture than their Hindi counterparts. Biriyani demonstrates this with a startling array of devices including motion capture, animation, references to social media technologies etc. The central characters are seemingly more wealthy than most of their audience given their lifestyle, but even so they don’t seem so divorced from mainstream Tamil culture. I was struck in the second half of the film how the plot developed so that a whole network of friends came to the aid of the central character played by Karthi – rather in the way of the group in a ‘new Bollywood’ film like Rang De Basanti.

One scene in particular highlighted the overall difference between Biriyani and many Hindi films. This was a song and dance sequence which appeared in the middle of a chase and involved a flash mob dancing on the platform of a Chennai railway station. I need to see the sequence again but as I understand it, it provided a new clue in unravelling the mystery, a different pleasure in enjoying the song and dance performance and a tribute to a local star (the object of the flash mob). All this gave the impression of being seamlessly shot in a public place with passengers looking on.

Overall, I found the film entertaining even if I didn’t enjoy most of the drinking and sexist jokes. I can see that some audiences would find the film too ‘tricksy’ in the way the plot is handled re the mystery (which also involves a supposed corruption investigation). The script cleverly uses references to the Hollywood hit comedy Hangover and also seeds clues and ‘pre-echoes’ of what might happen later, almost like a Hitchcock thriller.

Karthi and Hansika Motawi in one of the dance sequences which seems to refer to the stage sets of MGM musicals such as 'An American in Paris'

Karthi and Hansika Motwani in one of the dance sequences which seems to refer to the stage sets of MGM musicals such as ‘An American in Paris’

The film has a soundtrack composed by the prolific Yuvan Shankar Raja, youngest son of the legendary Ilaiyaraaja. I’m not in a good position to judge but it seemed good to me.

I’m pleased that Tamil cinema is getting a bigger profile in the UK but because the industry does not yet publish data on budgets, box office etc. in the same way as Hindi cinema, the industry does not have the profile it deserves in the international market. My own calculations suggest that in terms of films produced and audience numbers, Tamil cinema definitely figures in the international Top 10. There are something like 80 million Tamil speakers worldwide and in India the Tamil industry is well supported. Chennai rivals Mumbai as a production centre.

Mandy Takhar as Maya, the femme fatale

Mandy Takhar as Maya, the femme fatale

Actors and filmmakers move frequently between the various South Indian cinemas and also into Hindi and other Northern industries. In Biriyani, the two female leads are both from outside Tamil Nadu. Hansika Motwani is a Sindhi speaker born in Mumbai and Mandy Takhar who plays the femme fatale is ‘Punjabi-British’ and from Wolverhampton. If you haven’t seen a Tamil film, now is your chance to experience a different popular Indian film. I could have gone to see Dhoom 3, but I think I made the right choice.

Official studio trailer: 

Nanban (Friend, India 2012)

The three college students played by (from left) Jeeva, Srikanth and Vijay

Remakes are a way of life in the popular Indian film industries. Hollywood is always a source of ideas as well as films from other major industries – ‘unofficial remakes’ – but the main traffic in remakes is between the different language cinemas. Many titles are made in one language and then simply dubbed into one or more others. Sometimes films are made in two languages almost simultaneously by the same director – most famously by Mani Ratnam with Raavan/Raavanan (2010) and Yuva/Ayitha Ezhuthu 2004 – in each case a Hindi and a Tamil production with different casting. Most common , however, is the simple remake of say a Malayalam film as a Tamil production or a Telugu film as a Hindi production.

Nanban is one of the major Tamil films of the year, a blockbuster aiming at the religious festival period which includes Pongal and lasts from 13-16 January. Nanban is a remake, but not just any remake. It is the official Tamil remake of one of the biggest-selling Bollywood titles of all time, 3 Idiots (2009) starring Amir Khan. To meet this challenge the producers Gemini Film Circuit hired Shankar, the successful director of the last two blockbusters from Superstar Rajnikanth, Sivaji and Endhiran.

In my posting on 3 Idiots I expressed my disappointment in the failure of screenwriter Abhijat Joshi and director Rajkumar Hirani to properly represent the satire on the education system offered by the novel Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat. The bad news is that Nanban uses the Joshi/Hirani script almost to the letter and therefore suffers from the same problems associated with changes in character roles and insertion of comedy routines at the expense of satire and observation about higher education in India. The good news, from my perspective, is that Nanban is even more enjoyable on its own terms and is arguably a ‘better’ film – whatever that means.

I’m prejudiced because I tend to prefer Tamil films to Bollywood. It isn’t a fair comparison I know because I’ve only seen the best of Tamil Cinema and I suspect that the routine mainstream Tamil features are not quite the same. The problem has been that we simply don’t get the UK Tamil releases up here in West Yorkshire. But for some reason, Cineworld decided this year to screen two Tamil films in their original language during the January festival season in Bradford. Usually we have to make do with a Hindi version (e.g. of Raavan and Robot – the Hindi dub of Endhiran). I’m guessing that there are very few Tamil speakers in Leeds/Bradford – a few hundred at most – whereas there are many thousands of Urdu/Hindi speakers. The question is, how many of the Urdu/Hindi speakers in the South Asian diaspora want to read English subtitles in order to access a Tamil film? I don’t know, but in the afternoon showing of Nanban there were just three people in the audience, one of whom might have been a Tamil speaker. I should stress that Nanban has done very well in the UK. Over the opening weekend it took £113,000 from just 24 prints (across the UK – see locations here) with a screen average of over £4,700 for No. 13 in the chart – and all this from a new independent distributor ‘RJ Overseas’. I wonder what they will make of the experiment? I hope it continues.

So why do I prefer Nanban to 3 Idiots? I think that there are three reasons:

1. The casting offers four younger actors for the ‘3 idiots’ and the principal’s daughter. It’s interesting that the production used two Tamil actors, Srikanth and Jeeva, who closely resemble Madhavan (once himself a Tamil star) and Sharman Joshi. Vijay, very much a rising star in Tamil Nadu, takes the Aamir Khan role and  Ileana D’Cruz takes the Kareena Kapoor role. All four were believable as both students in their early twenties and successful young thirty somethings. I was amazed to discover that Vijay was actually 36 when he made the film – even so, he’s eight years younger than Aamir Khan. The problem with the Bollywood version is not just that the stars are too old but that they are also so identifiable with a specific star persona. This is probably true of the Tamil stars too. I don’t know the Tamil star image, but the actors seemed to give performances less marked in this way.

2. Although the script sticks closely to 3 Idiots, the songs and their ‘picturisation’ are quite different. Shankar pulls out all the stops with shoots in Europe and the Andaman Islands. The songs themselves by Harris Jayaraj weren’t particularly memorable for me – but some of the lyrics (all of which were translated in the English subs) are extraordinary. One song includes the word ‘love’ sung in several different languages. Costumes, settings and camerawork work well together and the other feature of the film’s presentation is the use of animated inserts and visual effects – from companies in Hyderabad and Shanghai.

3. This is a bit more tricky. As a broad generalisation I would say that Nanban offers something closer to a representation of a ‘real India’. This is partly achieved through location shooting (the main location is a college in Tamil Nadu and Simla in the earlier film is replaced by Ootacamund and Coimbatore) and partly through casting. The minor characters root the film in the South. Many characters are darker-skinned and Dravidian in appearance. But . . . there seems to be an aversion to using darker-skinned young women for the dance sequences and on reflection I do think Shankar could be charged with a potentially racist portrayal of the sister of one of the three (i.e. the young man from a poor background). Both my viewing colleague and I winced at the portrayal of this young woman (the ‘joke’ is that no-one will marry her because she is ‘ugly’ – and ‘too dark’?). See a local response, arguing this point strongly. I’m reminded of the similar wince-inducing representations in the UK production, East is East (UK 2002).

On the whole, I enjoyed the film very much despite its failure to develop a strong satire and I was particularly impressed with Vijay. Even though I could predict every scene, I was entertained for the whole three hours and towards the end I was ridiculously moved by the very sentimental take on friendship – but then, I find it hard not to cry in Hollywood films sometimes.

Much of my initial interest in 3 Idiots was focused on how the film would perform internationally. Nanban hasn’t got quite the same level of initial international exposure, though it is out in North America, UK and Australia as well as Singapore and Malaysia. It may eventually find its way to South Korea and other parts of East Asia. Unfortunately it has already suffered quite badly from piracy – though most cinemas in Chennai were completely sold out for the first five days before the film actually opened. A Telugu dubbed version opens in Andhra Pradesh on 26 January (some of the Tamil stars have a following in Telugu Cinema).

Gemini HD Trailer (no English subs):

Malaysian Cinema Part 2: Exhibition

The Veenai Odeon in Georgetown, Penang – built before 1960 and now the only traditional cinema in Penang showing the latest Tamil releases.

In most film territories around the world, screens are dominated by Hollywood and popular ‘domestic’ cinema. Malaysia is a striking exception in that although Hollywood is present and overall takes the largest proportion of the nation’s box office takings, it nevertheless has to share the pot with films from the three different film cultures representing Malaysia’s principal ethnic groups plus a significant minority of films from elsewhere in Asia.

There are at least a couple of useful websites covering film in Malaysia and I’m going to use these alongside the annual Focus International Market Reports and some primary research based on newspaper cinema listings.

Malaysia as a film market

To place the Malaysian film market in perspective, according to Focus 2010, Malaysia is a ‘mid-market’ film territory, ranked alongside Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong (now increasingly enmeshed with the mainland Chinese market). Malaysia is relatively small (28 million population) but also relatively affluent with a per capita income well ahead of all the others, barring Singapore and Hong Kong (both, in a sense, ‘special cases’ in their roles as important financial centres and entrepôt ports). In 2009, Malaysia produced only 25 local titles but still managed to capture nearly 14% of its total box office. With total admissions of 44 million, Malaysia was well ahead of larger countries such as Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. The country is ‘underscreened’ and there is plenty of capacity for expanding the market. With a per capita attendance rate of only 1.59 visits per year (compared to the 4.63 of Singapore) we might expect to see expansion in the market.

What’s on?

The Star is one of the English language newspapers in Malaysia and on Saturday 22 January it carried display ads from Malaysia’s six major cinema chains, Cathay, Golden Screen, Lotus 5 Star, MBO, BIG Cinemas and TGV plus one single screen. I checked all the titles being advertised. Some were playing several times a day others only once and I was slightly confused by some of the ads for ‘de luxe screens’ – I wasn’t sure if I was double counting. Still, the results do reveal some of the interesting facets of Malaysian exhibition practice. Helpfully, the convention is to list the language of each title in the ad, so I am at least confident of the range of titles.

Here are the raw results which show the number of prints from each producing country/language across all screens.

Hollywood: 176

Domestic Malay: 53

Tamil: 75

Chinese (Mandarin & Cantonese): 47

Thai: 18

Japanese: 16

Indonesian: 6

Hindi: 5

Iranian: 3

South Korea: 2

What do these figures mean in actual film titles? The Hollywood films are usually either the family orientated blockbusters (Gulliver’s Travels and the latest Narnia film both played during our stay in Malaysia) or action titles such as Faster, Season of the Witch and The Tourist or comedies such as Meet the Parents.

The Malay language numbers refer almost exclusively to Khurafat with occasional listings for two other horror films. The Indonesian, Korean and Thai imports all seem to be horror or action. The ‘art film’ sector appears to be confined to Kuala Lumpur which boasts three cinemas screening the Iranian title The Song of Sparrows (the Iranian 2009 Academy Award entrant) and one showing Dhobi Ghat in Hindi (the other Hindi screenings are mainstream Bollywood). The Japanese title was the main new 3D offer – an important development in the face of Hollywood 3D domination. This is Shock Labyrinth 3D: House of Horror, a 2009 film by shlockmeister Shimizu Takashi which is very poorly rated on IMDB and is only now creeping around international markets.

Great Day (Malaysia 2011)

There were surprisingly few Chinese films on release in the period just before the New Year, but two titles stand out, Great Day and Homecoming are both family comedy-dramas for the New Year and both appear to be products of the domestic Malaysian-Chinese industry. The Yahoo Malaysia Movies website synopsis:

Great Day tells the story of two uncles who live in an old folks home. Aggravated by an argument and with the help of Ah Hock and Ultraman, the two men decide to escape from the home and find their children, just to show off whose children are better. The fun catches on with odd circumstances one after another, but in the end of the day it’s going to be a big reunion at the old folk’s home.

Homecoming

Homecoming is a Malaysia-Singapore co-production mining the generic possibilities in stories about Malaysians working in Singapore. Both these films, as far as I can see, include dialogue in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkienese and Malay and I suspect that they are also subtitled in English and/or Mandarin/Cantonese. They have a good chance of cleaning up before the arrival of the fifth sequel to the Hong Kong New Year Favourite All’s Well Ends Well. The other Chinese titles on offer are action films like Shaolin with Jacky Chan.

Kaatu Rani ('Queen of the Jungle')

The strong showing for Tamil films might possibly be explained by the local festivals at this time of the year (e.g. Thaipusam and Thai Pongal). There is usually at least one Tamil film in each large multiplex and also in traditional cinemas such as the Penang Odeon shown at the head of this post. Distributors take the current Tamil film release from India on a ‘day and date’ basis and these may last a couple of weeks. Siruthai is an action comedy, Kaavalan is a romantic drama and Aadukalam a sports film based on cockfighting in Madurai. At the same time, there appears to be a local Malaysian Tamil industry and I came across Kaatu Rani in a newspaper cutting from the New Straits Times. This local horror film was made for just RM180,000 (around £37,000) with local cast and crew but some post-production in India. After two première screenings in local cinemas the film was scheduled for an immediate DVD release. Subtitled in English the film will also be sold in Singapore, Sri Lanka and India.

This posting has ended up much longer than I thought, so I’ll discuss what I’ve found out about the Malaysian film industry generally in a third post.