Maharaja: Vijay Sethupathi and the non-liner storytelling elevate a standard revenge story.

July 15th, 2024

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The movie also deserves appreciation in how it portrays a rape survivor who wants to confront her attacker telling him in clear terms on how she isn’t going to live in shame.

Starcast: Vijay Sethupathi, Anurag Kashyap, Sachana Namidass, Natarajan “Natty” Subramaniam and others

Director and writer: Nithilan Swaminathan

Producers: Jagadish Palaniswamy and Sudhan Sundaram

Production Companies: Passion Studios etc.

Cinematography: Dinesh Purushothaman

Streaming site: Netflix

Some movies are elevated through a gripping screenplay more than the plot. Nithilan Swaminathan’s Maharaja is a very good example of this. On the surface it is about a father who wants to catch the perpetrators who have caused mayhem in his simple life, what makes the movie engaging though in spite of the gruesome violence is the back-and-forth narrative along with the intricate setting that throws in a lot of clues making the viewers think.

Contrary to the title Vijay Sethupathi’s Maharaja is no king nor is he some business magnate. He works in a saloon. The life of this Maharaja revolves primarily around two things. One is his work, and the other is the daughter Jyothi (Sachana Namidass). Jyothi is a spirited teenager with dreams of being an athlete. It may sound bizarre but both of them worship a dustbin by the name of Lakshmi. We are told that this dustbin had saved Jyothi’s life. In an outlandish turn of events Maharaja goes to the station to file a case about a missing dustbin. The cops take him for a crazy guy and try to throw him out of the station, but Maharaja doesn’t budge constantly saying that he wants the dustbin back. Eventually the police agree to look into the case as Maharaja offers a huge amount of the money. What starts off as a simple case unravels many secrets leading to many twists and turns.

Vijay Sethupathi as the doting father

Vijay Sethupathi Maharaja talking about the missing dustbin

A strong aspect of Maharaja are the police station scenes where Vijay Sethupathi pleads to the cops about the missing dustbin. Yes, the scenarios may appear ridiculous but the earnestness with which Vijay Sethupathi repeats the story is amusing and moving at the same time. Although the viewers are laughing there is an undercurrent of tension too.

While the investigation is going on Nithilan Swaminathan introduces the viewers to another important character played by filmmaker and actor Anurag Kashyap. Anurag Kashyap is also a common man called Selvam. Selvam is a loving father to his daughter Ammu but there is a dark side to his life unknown to the wife. Initially the viewers wonder how this man is connected to Maharaj’s life but the director has connected the dots expertly. The police characters lead by Natarajan “Natty” Subramaniam have also been written fairly well. They start off as a bunch of opportunistic cops but end up developing a conscience towards the movie’s end.

Anurag Kashyap as the other father who has secrets of his own

It goes without saying that Vijay Sethupathi is the backbone of Maharaja. In the police station scenes, he leaves you in splits, at the same time his portrayal of a desperate father touches an emotional chord. Anurag Kashyap’s lip sync does take some time getting used to, but he brings in the required menace, at the same time there is a major reveal related to his character in the climax, this humanizes Selvam and Anurag’s breakdown deserves distinction marks. Among the rest Sachana Namidass shines in one intense confrontation scene.

Some portions of Maharaja though could have done with better writing. Case in point Mamata Mohandas as the PTI teacher Aasifa.  She is a mother-like figure to Jyoti. The bond needed more impactful scenes for the viewers to feel the motherly love of Aasifa, another problem with the movie are the gruesome scenes of violence involving the women. Particularly bothersome is a scene meant to establish the villainy of Selvam and co. The close-up shots make it nauseating.

O2: A Strong Cautionary Tale For Humankind

Nayanthara is one of those few actresses who has struck a perfect balance between doing glamorous roles and also strong female parts. She has always experimented with different kinds of genres. The results haven’t always been on point but that hasn’t stopped the actress from taking risks. O2 directed by GS Viknesh is one such film. The director juxtaposes the concept of two maternal figures, one being Mother Nature and other is Nayanthara playing a widowed mother Parvathy.

The film begins off with a bird’s sorrow as her chicks are being killed due to deforestation by human beings. From there we go to the home of a seven year old boy called Veera. Veera suffers from a life threatening disease called cystic fibrosis. He is heavily dependent on the oxygen cylinder for breathing. From the very beginning Veera is used to represent the repercussions of tearing down the natural resources. A hope comes for Veera in the form of a corrective surgery. Parvarthy makes a quick decision to go ahead with it. The mother and son are joined by more characters as they travel by bus to Kochi for the surgery. These characters include a corrupt cop, an ex-MLA, inter-caste lovers etc. In a horrible twist of fate they get trapped within the bus, the nature unleashes its anger in the form of a horrific landslide. The rest of the film plays out as a claustrophobic thriller. Nothing more about the plot can be revealed.

It is not easy to make a thriller/drama set mostly in a single location. It needs enormous talent from both the director and also the actors to hold the audience’s attention. But director GS Viknesh does a good job in keeping the audiences engrossed. He makes you feel the wrath of nature.

GS Viknesh is also immensely aided by the acting talent of Nayanathara. The actress is in splendid form. She shoulders the weight of the film effortlessly. There are many shades to her character. She is someone who can be unapologetically selfish, self-serving and also violent too. Nayanathara sinks her teeth into the role and makes the audiences root for her. Just like mother earth Paravathy will also go to any lengths to save her son from danger. The parallel between these two maternal figures has been brought out brilliantly by the director.

Rithivik as Veera holds his own. He is particularly impressive in the high-octane emotional moments. Among the rest Bharath Neelakandan is terrific as a vicious cop.

The cinematography by Tamizh Azhagan is perfectly in sync with the narrative.  He does a commendable job in capturing the claustrophobia. The audiences feel that they themselves are in that situation.

The scenes where we see the fight for oxygen also strikes a chord. The reason being many lives were lost in the second wave of Covid due to the limited supply of oxygen.

The only bits that rankle in the film are those involving the inter-caste couple. They don’t add much to the film.

In a nutshell O2 is a largely gripping thriller that leaves you thinking.

Saani Kaayidham: Keerty Suresh Scores An A Plus In This Engaging But Problematic Revenge Saga

Arun Matheswaran’s Saani Kaayidham is an amalgamation of two strong influences. One is Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen and other is Quentin Tarantino’s films. Much like Bandit queen here too the director mixes up caste and violence on women. The scenes of revenge on the other hand remind you of the Tarantino’s films. There are multiple shots of the villains being stabbed and tortured. The film is definitely not for the faint hearted. The story of Saani Kaayidham isn’t particularly new but what makes it engaging are the performances of Keerty Suresh and Selvaraghavan. Arun’s direction is at his strongest when he deals with the dynamics between these two. The direction in the revenge portions is less sure footed but more on that later.

Keerty Suresh and Selvaraghavan play half-siblings (Poni and Sangaiyah) respectively. Both of them have faced trauma beyond measure due to an unjust tragic event. Poni works in the police department but that doesn’t stop the upper caste men from raping her. Their excuse for raping her is the husband who stands up to the upper caste men. After being let down by the court and police she sets out on a journey of revenge with her half sibling Sangaiyah. The rest plays out like a cross between Bandit queen and Kill- Bill.

The basic theme of Saani Kaayidham is how a woman always becomes a soft target when men face humiliation and fight in their own worlds. This aspect has been brought out strongly by the director.

In the initial portions we see a strained relation between Poni and Sangaiyah. But once they get together the dynamics slowly change. There is an undercurrent of emotions that come to the surface. This entire process has been well developed by both the writers and the director.

Both Keerty Suresh and Selvaraghavan deliver outstanding performances. After Mahanati it looked like the actress in Keerty was lost. But here Keerty makes more than a strong comeback. She makes you feel the loss of Poni with her terrific acting. She expresses a lot through her fiery eyes. Keerty also gets to perform some action scenes and also punch lines that are generally reserved for men. Needlessly to say she rocks it.

Selvaraghavan also fits effortlessly into his role. He is the perfect foil for Keerty Suresh’s Poni. His role is comparatively more understated but the actor makes sure that the audiences don’t forget him.

The one major drawback of Saani Kaayidham is the excessive violence. It gets nauseating after a point. The vigilante justice is a trope which has been seen in many films, the presentation of the vigilante justice in this one is similar to what we have seen in other films of this genre.

As an audience you get the feeling that the director is glorifying the violence. Agree that Poni deserves justice for what she has undergone but that is no excuse for the blood curling violence that the director employs.

Another issue with the film is the lack of sufficient family scenes between Poni, her husband and the child. Addition of some family scenes would have given more emotional heft.

The villains are all one dimensional as expected. They are mere cardboard cutouts than flesh and blood characters. At the beginning the villains are shown to be very powerful but by the end they are reduced to being powerless.

In a nutshell, Saani Kaayidam is engaging but would have worked more if the director had taken a different approach.

Jai Bhim: A Hard-Hitting Drama that Holds A Mirror To Society

Before dissecting Jai Bhim it is necessary to give a huge round of applause to the pair of Surya and Jyotika for producing a film of this sort. Director T.S Gnanvel uses Surya’s role of a firebrand lawyer to talk about the horrors of custodial torture and the deep- seated rot in our criminal system. The role of Surya is based on the real life lawyer Chandru who fought for the downtrodden. The director makes sure that the actor’s star power doesn’t over power the narrative. It also helps that Surya blends in with the narrative. He delivers his lines with absolute conviction and makes you believe that he really believes in them.  The breakthrough performance though comes from Lijo Mol Jose as Sengani.

The film begins off in the year 1994. You have a couple who belong to a tribal community called Irulas, it is a tribal community in Chennai. They are living a life of dignity and have dreams of a successful future. One day theft happens in the president’s house and Sengani’s husband Rajkannu (Manikandan) is framed as a thief. From here on we see the open showcase of police brutality, atrocities and the game of power that crushes the marginalized. The scenes of the police atrocities are blood-curdling but they still need to be watched for the way it showcases the reality. The other important members of the cast include Prakash Raj and Rao Ramesh. Prakash Raj on one hand is the righteous police officer who becomes an ally for Surya later on; Rao Ramesh on the other hand is the lawyer who will go to any lengths to protect the evil police officers.

The best part of Jai Bhim is how the director builds up the characters of the couple. There is no big rush to introduce the character of Surya. As a result you journey with these characters and when tragedy strikes your heart goes out for them. However, the issue here is not confined to the couple only. The bigger picture is how so many men and women of that community are subjected to all this. Their only fault being born as Irulas.

There are many scenes in the film which shake your conscience. A scene which deserves a particular mention is the opening act. You see the police officers literally segregating people based on caste. This scene sets the tone for what is to follow.

Sean Roldan’s music tells a story of its own. The songs are not mere fillers but they move the story forward. The best example of this is the song which is used to establish what the character of Surya stands for.

Jai Bhim has also got some subtle humor. Most of this comes from MS Bhaskar who plays a Brahmin lawyer. His character is of someone who subscribes only to faith and has no ideology. We mostly see him pass comments on the proceedings. Some of his comments raise chuckles.

The cinematographer SR Karthir also deserves appreciation for the way he captures the atmospherics of both the court scenes and also the Irula village.

The biggest achievement of Jai Bhim is how T.J Gnanavel is successful in achieving the balancing act. He is able to do equal justice to the characters of both Sengani and Chandru.

Out of the rest Rao Ramesh makes a meal out of his negative role. He is successful in making you hate him. His scenes with Surya elevate the courtroom proceedings.

By the end of Jai Bhim you will clap for the real life Chandru and want to find out more about him.

Tughlaq Durbar: A Fun Political Satire

Delhi Prasad Deenadayalan’s Tughlaq Durbar is an interesting political satire which looks at what if our politicians had a conscience and it stopped them from doing something wrong. It is this twist which makes Tughlaq Durbar different from other ones of this genre. The debut director is in control for most part in the way he handles the subject, it also helps that Vijay Sethupati is in good form after some indifferent performances in Uppena and the recently released anthology Navarasa.

Vijay Sethupati plays Singaravelan aka Singam. He aspires to be the next counsellor of his area. Singam is born during a political rally and he grows up thinking that he’s destined to be a politician. He does everything in his power to win the trust of Rayappan (Parthiban). Singam slowly rises in the ranks of the party and goes on to become the trusted aide of Rayappan. The twist comes in when Singam has an unfortunate accident which leaves him with an unusual condition. Singam starts experiencing events where his conscience takes control, as a result he is not able to do anything wrong. As the story progresses we see him Singam fighting with his split personality and struggling to take control of his life. What makes Tughlaq Durbar work is how the director uses the theme of the dual personalities in Singam. He uses this theme to look at the inner battle of Singam and how Singam eventually grows a conscience. Politics here isn’t that important. Another good thing is that it doesn’t use Singam’s condition to mock him or have easy laughs out of it.

Parthiban as Rayappan is another character that makes Tughlaq Durbar an entertaining watch. The scenes between Vijay Sethupati and him are a major highlight of Tughlaq Durbar.

Out of the subplots the track of Singam’s friend Vasu (Karunakaran) works well. The friendship between these two comes as natural on screen.

Lastly Sathyraj’s cameo towards the end is well placed. Satyaraj’s cameo helps the film to end on a high.

What would have made the film better though is the treatment of the female characters. Rashi Khanna as Kamatchi is just there for sake of it. The love story could have been far better etched; however one good thing about the love story is that Kamatchi doesn’t return back to Singam just because he develops a conscience. The sister played by Manjimma Mohan also had the potential to be better. She is mostly there to ponder on what the hell is going on.

Watch Tuglaq Durbar for the duo of Vijay Sethupati and Parthiban.

Maara: For The Wanderer Within You

Dhilip Kumar’s Maara is one of those films which need patient viewing. The reasons are – one, the pace, two, the concept of magic realism. It is good that the film is released on Amazon and not in theatres.

Inspired from Dulqer Salman’s Charlie it tells the story of Maara played by Madahavan as discovered by Paaru played by Shraddha Srinath. Paaru is a restoration architect and a relentless romantic. When she goes to Kerala for an assignment she comes across some paintings by a person called Manimaaran/ Maara. Impressed by his art she tries to know more about him. Since he is elusive she tries to know about him through the real characters he drew. What follows is a stunning visual imagery mixed with the charm of Madhavan. Apart from being a painter Maara is also a wanderer who touches people’s lives. However, he is not a wanderer just for the sake of it. There is a larger purpose for it.

The first thing that strikes you about the film is the heavy influence of Imtiaz Ali and also Sanjay Leela Bhansali to an extent. Just like Imtiaz Ali’s films here also you have the concept of finding yourself and also the right atmospherics. You can also see the influence of the poet Rumi who himself is an inspiration to filmmakers like Imtiaz Ali.

Two things stand out most in Maara. One is the fantastic cinematography by Dinesh Krishnan and the art direction by Ajayan Chelissery. The painted roads, the ageing houses and the grass peeping out of the walls are all done well. Everything is aesthetically very good and works well for the camera. The art direction is equally well complimented by Dinesh Krishnan who captures the beauty of the landscapes and the created set designs.

As regards to the main plot it is definitely a ‘Feel Good’ story. Maara is jovial, friendly and empathetic to people irrespective of their status. In short a Good Samaritan. Among his interactions with people my favorite one is that of sex worker Selvi played by Abhirami. It reminds you of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya. The character of Madhavan itself is written well and the actor plays it with his trademark charm. He shines in both the light moments and also the emotional scenes. One of my favorite lines of Maara is “they will only remember the reason why you died and not you.’’ He says this to a girl who tries to commit suicide. The supporting cast also works well. Mouli as Velliya is particularly impressive as the person who brings up Maara. He plays his part with a perfect mixture of cuteness and strictness. His love for Meenakshi and the pre climax scene when he finally meets her leaves you emotionally moved.

The biggest problem with the film is the character of Paaru played by Shraddha Srinath. It is written very loosely and on top of it the actress doesn’t help her cause either. In fact you feel happy that Madhavan has only one scene with her and that too at the end. Her battles with the family have also not been dealt convincingly enough. They are forgotten midway through. Also you don’t see a single scene where Paaru is doing restoration work as she is supposed to do.

The pace of the film is also a major villain. It is only at halfway point that you get a sense of what the director is trying to say, that too only for niche audience. For the rest it will go over their head.

Paava Kadhaigal: Disturbs You But Not In The Right Way

Caste based killing is a subject that is relevant even to this day and when told in an engaging manner it gives you good results like Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi film Sairat or even Article 15, but Paava Kadhaigal (Sinful Stories) will make you lose faith in human beings particularly parents, this in spite of having formidable directors like Gautam Menon, Sudha Kongara and Vetrimaaran.  The commonality between this and Putham Pudu Kaalai apart from being an anthology are the directors Gautam Menon and Sudha Kongara. While Putham Pudu Kaalai left you with a happy feeling this anthology leaves you thoroughly depressed and also makes you wonder what was going in the minds of the directors when they decided to make this one.

The first story is about a transgender Sathaar (played by Kalidas Jayaram). Sathaar dreams of marrying his childhood friend Saravanan. But Saravanan is in love with Sathaar’s sister Sahira. Although the incidents of Sathaar being teased by village bullies are realistic, the episode feels like more of a documentary and it is also poorly structured. Kalidas Jayaram tries his level best to elevate the proceedings but it is a lost cause. This is very sad since Sudha Kongara had proved her worth as a director in Soorarai Pottru where she took on a familiar underdog story and made it work.

Vignesh Shivan’s Love Panna Uttranum is a story of two sisters both played by Anjali. We are told that one of the sisters is a lesbian who is in love with Penelope played by Kalki Kochelin. The other sister is looking for her father’s approval to marry someone outside their caste. The biggest issue here is the treatment of LGBT. This is particularly reflected in the scene where a character misreads lesbian as ESPN. It is meant to play out as a comic scene but it doesn’t bring much laughs. The LGBT thing looks more like an add on and needed more meat. The only thing which remotely works here is the character of the father who positions himself as an anti-caste leader but in reality he is not.  Anjali in a dual role is mostly there to cry while Kalki looks completely out of place as the foreigner.

Gautam Menon’s Vaanmagal sounds poetic but it is anything but that. This segment deals with sexual assault of a minor girl and how it leaves a scar on the family. The father character is played by Gautam Menon himself and the mother character is played by Simran who returns to screen after a long time. Much like the segment in Putham Pudu Kaalai Gautam Menon goes out of his comfort zone once again but this time the result is far from pleasing. The most disturbing thing about this one is the scene where we see Simran pushing her daughter from a mountain top.  Though it turns out to be not real but the thought itself is very regressive.

Vetrimaaran’s Oor Iravu stars Sai Pallavi and Prakash Raj as daughter and father. The story is in two timelines one in the present where Sai Pallavi’s character returns to the village for a supposed baby shower. The other timeline is the past where Prakash Raj’s character goes to his daughter’s house to make amends. There is no denying that the climax is gut wrenching and does jolt you but it doesn’t affect you the way that Sairat climax does. The biggest reason being too much negativity never works and since you have already had so much of negativity in the other three stories you feel like screaming at the director. Also it is tough to buy into what Prakash Raj’s character does particularly given his caring attitude in one of the timelines.

In totality Paava Kadhaigal might have started with the good intention of showing the evils of caste, LGBT prejudices and honour killings but it went totally overboard. Given the times that we live in with so much stress this film is completely avoidable.