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.

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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.