Ponniyan Selvan-1: As Ambitious As It Can Be

I abandoned the search of the English version of Kalki’s blockbuster 5-part book series ‘Ponniyan Selvan’ when I heard that the movie is being made by Maniratnam. What more can I ask for when my favourite director is at the helm of making it. The trailer released, and I was impressed by it. It seemed to pack many characters and complex political drama surrounding it. I was also glad that it was not presented as a visual wonder that is often set as a standard for period films.

However, when I first pitched the idea of going to this movie, titled as PS-1, I didn’t receive a favourable response from my Telugu family and friends. This is often not the case, as there is normally some sense of interest to go to the movies, especially those with their favourite leading cast – Vikram, Karthi, Trisha, and Aishwarya Rai. For me the name Maniratnam alone is enough, and the cast and crew are a bonus. Later I gather that the title played spoilsport for this apathy. The title doesn’t give the context for Telugu speaking audience, especially when they have never heard of Kalki’s novel or the characters in it. Maniratnam’s Telugu dubbed versions normally get a relevant Telugu name, but not in this case perhaps for rightful reasons to stay true to the novel. The only enthusiastic response came from my son, who somehow found an analogy of the movie title with his PlayStation PS-4. I booked for Telugu version of the movie.

A friend sent me a cheat sheet with the family tree of the movie characters along with their actors photos. I resisted looking at it, for I was afraid that it might reveal some story that could spoil my movie watching experience.

The first ten minutes of the movie sets the context well, as was given away by the online reviews and critics. Aditya karikalan (Vikram), the Chola prince sends his comrade/friend Vanthiyathevan (Karthi) to find out the conspiracy brewing within his own Chola clan and meet his sister Kundavai (Trisha) to give her an update. Vanthiyathevan embarks on this journey. We get introduced to the character Nambi (Jayaram) who seemed a proud vaishnavite beating a shaivite with a stick, followed by Vanthiyathevan’ s rebuke that both the gods are equal. What was the reason to show this sectarian conflict of that period? Was that a subterfuge from Maniratnam’ s liberal mindset to say all Gods are the same, I wonder, especially when this scene has no bearings on further proceedings through the movie.
This is followed by a beautifully composed and choreographed devaralam attam (God’s dance) song. Post this scene, many characters come too fast, especially during the main reveal of the conspiracy that Vanthiyathevan embarked to find out. I realise at this point this movie deserves much more attention – I keep my popcorn aside as it’s crunching intervenes my concentration. Too many characters is one thing, and some names they bear (along with the aliases) are hard to register especially to the non-Tamil speaking audience. There was a mention of the name ‘Aditya’ by a character. My wife pokes me on my shoulder and whispers ‘who is Aditya’?. I say it is Karikalan, the elder son of Sundara Chola. At another instance, my son pokes on my other shoulder and whispers “who is Ponniyan Selvan?” I tell him that it is Arulmozhi Varman (Jayam Ravi), the younger son of Sundara Chola. He opens his mouth again, but I shh him anticipating his next question for which I don’t have an answer.
The introduction of leading ladies Kundavai (Trisha) and Nandini (Aishwarya Rai) are certainly high points. Kundavai is a woman of wit and her every word seem measured and delivered. In one instance, she dismisses the plans of formidable Pedda Pazhuvettaraiyar (Sarath Kumar) and Chinna Pazhuvettaraiyar (Parthipan) with quick repartee. The theatre applauds, and I say keep coming. Nandini, wife of an old man Pazhuvettaraiyar has a conniving presence, and seem to have multiple histories easily making up 3-4 subplots.
I also see characters of Vaanathi (Shobhita) and Poonguzhil (Aishwarya Lekshmi), and wonder who they are, and why are they not introduced properly.
Arulmozhi’ s character wins a war and shows humility and respect deserving the movie title. There is also a mystique element to the story – an old character ‘mooga rani’ saves Arulmozhi from an ambush. Her face isn’t shown at this point, but my wife exclaims she sees Aishwarya Rai (how did I miss that dual-role?). The movie ends on a decent cliff hanger, not the kind where we speculate ‘why did Kattappa kill Bahubali?’

Ponniyan Selvan is a great political thriller, my favourite genre, and engaged us completely. Every character seemed to have a backstory and motivation, and knowing that would have brought in a sense of empathy towards those characters. It could also be challenging to understand the movie for anyone going with a clean slate, thereby begs a little preparation to understand the world of Cholas. Even after watching the movie I still don’t know who some of those characters are, and I wonder if this story is better suited for a web series than a two part movie. I have to take the same approach as that of Christopher Nolan’s movies and watch the movie once again to understand the subtext and the breadth of the characters.
Karthi as Vanthiyathevan is the real hero with devilish charm. Vikram, though has limited screen time, excelled in a banter with Trisha reflecting on his love interest.

The technical aspects are great – who am I to pass a verdict about the technicalities when the master storyteller himself is supported by such a formidable crew and actors. The locations, costumes, and the visual appeal was great and stay true to its setting. AR Rahman’s background score and songs, as beautiful they are, appealed little more modern than the story’s set up. The screenplay is highly abridged from the novel, and could have given a little more space for audience to grasp the proceedings. The direction itself, as ambitious as it can be, mounts this movie at the right scale. I am now all prepared to fully experience the second part (cheat sheet, here I come).


Saaho in this Ruthless World

In a fictional city called Waaji, two Jetman pilots hover over the skies to catch Saaho who is riding a high-speed motorbike. Saaho then clings onto one flying Jetman and shoots up to the sky before crash landing on a high-rise building. Later, he dons that Jetman gear himself and stands tall with that Jetpack wings spread, revealing a macho look akin to a superhero with an ethereal vibe. He then dives into the sky himself to save his love from falling off a helicopter. This cliff-hanger moment is not usually seen in Indian movies. On a normal day, I would expect collective gasps from the audience followed by cheers or claps. But that wasn’t the case on that Sunday evening, as that Vmax theatre was marred by less than 5% occupancy owing to the blatant negative reviews all across. For any movie enthusiast, it will be disheartening to see such low patronage to an Indian film that had high expectations and budget.

There may be multiple reasons for that outright negativity – one of them for sure is the high expectations set by the trailers that are hard to match with a sensible content. The trailer is one of the finest that you can see in the recent times – beautifully edited and supported by excellent background score that promises many edge of the seat moments, leaving you wanting more trucks to roll on the big screen, more goons be kicked and bigger guns fired, but of course intertwined through a coherent plot. In the trailer when Prabhas broke the jaws of a baddie who remotely looked like WWE’s Undertaker in the backdrop of high octane ‘bang bang’ music, there is this adrenaline rush even though you don’t know why they are fighting. A natural expectation is that you would enjoy these fights more on the big screen as, by then, you will have an emotional connection established with the characters. But that wasn’t the case unfortunately. The screenplay was too fast, perhaps, taking audience knowledge for granted. There are many ‘been there, seen that’ moments from Hollywood movies, but still it would have been engaging if it had brought in the emotional involvement right from the beginning. There are many frivolous objections that I have – for e.g., how did an honest and not so ebullient female protagonist tunes into ‘psycho saiyyan’ forgetting her job? Why does it looks like a dubbed movie at times even in its original language? What are a python and a black panther doing in a residential building? Or perhaps there was a context to it that I missed when I blinked. I will be too kind and ignore this nit-picking.

Having said this, there is a lot to appreciate too. A movie is not just a three hour experience, it is the collective sum of all the buzz and excitement it brought in right from the first teaser along with its marketing content until its actual viewing and the debates that follow. It succeeded on that front by creating a pan India buzz. It has all quintessential Indian movie elements – sly heroism, powerful villains, romance, beautiful locations captured by excellent cinematography, action sequences, refreshing background score etc. For the first time we are talking about Hollywood standards. Hollywood movies enjoy stupendous budgets and worldwide viewership and also have great technicians with advanced technology at their disposal. This movie is taking some of the baby steps in that direction, and it deserves a chance for that aspiration and the sheer audacity it exhibits in getting there.

It has many flaws, of course, mainly from a story telling perspective, but there are many other areas it attempts to make up for. Audience can have any view, it’s their prerogative. But that vehement criticism from the regular movie critics is a bit unfair. Am not undermining their credentials, but critics are having a whale of a time trashing it from every corner. A renowned movie critic on a national channel observes it as a 3 hours pounding headache. He smirks on the TV while I sulk in my couch silently contemplating how he became a movie critic when any movie, good or bad, can give him headaches, given that reviews are his day-to-day job. Other reviewer says we could buy 100 apartments in Mumbai with 350 crores instead of making this movie. What will happen to the critics if makers abandon movies for real estate investment? Assuming this is just a rhetoric to make a point, where is the love for movies when plain vitriol precedes objective criticism? There are some honest reviews too that have differentiated the good and the bad.

Last I heard, the movie is still making decent business worldwide despite that epic failure talk on the first day. And for that, a big Saaho (salute) for its existence in this ruthless world.

Spyder meets the Dark Knight

There is hardly any challenge in Indianising, or even Tamilising the concept of Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’. All you need is a Friday night, a pub, and a talkative friend for the inception of a storyline. For the rest, such as screenplay and characterizations, you need Murugadoss of course. The Batman’s take on the historic Joker will have international patrons for many reasons. Both Batman and the Joker made an intellectual connection with the audience. Their strengths and weaknesses are already known to people that gives leverage to get into the dark story from the word go.

Spyder’s Shiva is a self-appointed vigilante just like the Batman, but unlike the Batman, he isn’t rich and doesn’t have fancy gadgets that he can throw off the hook. He works in an intelligence bureau secretly tapping the phone calls and that gives him access to the technology that Batman has with alerting crime. Shiva’s intelligence is well established all the way from suspecting impending crimes through to figuring out the real killers.

On the other hand, the Joker is an epitome of evil. This evil is not just sinister, but also charming; not just intimidating, but also fascinating. The mushy voice and lip-smacking mannerisms bring more appeal to the already menacing character. It needs a dedicated investment of time to emulate joker’s character topology. It is aptly done through the flashback episode of Bhairavudu, the Indian version. The deconstruction of his psychological journey from his birth in the graveyard through to his childhood as a sadistic personality disorder may look too raw and boring to some audience but it is worth the time spent.

Joker’s capture is one of the glory moments where the Batman overplays him after by a chilling chasing episode. The capture of Bhairavudu was equally interesting albeit unconvincing. Shiva uses live thermal imaging technology, just like the Batman did, to figure out the number of hostages that Bhairavudu has taken in. He then speaks to five different women of different regions of Andhra Pradesh, on the phone, to motivate them to save the hostages. I realized that the scene was conceived well when my wife clapped as a Rayalaseema woman was empowered on phone. The Telangana, Kostha and Hyderabad applauses became even louder striking the right chords with different sections of the audience. Those middle-aged women roll up their sleeves to take up this adventure; they fall and then rise to save the hostages. This total episode looked refreshing and liberating because, for a change, the hero has taken a back-seat and let the women do the job.

After the joker is apprehended, the Batman realizes that nabbing him cannot stop a sequence of destructive events that were already triggered by the joker by manipulating various unsuspecting individuals. Alternatively, the nabbing of Bhairavudu promises a sequence of edge-of-the-seat thrilling events at the beginning, but what follows is a series of misfires. Shiva saves the people from a heavy rolling boulder that’s unleashed onto the streets filled with people. Taking a cue from earlier audience reaction, my 7 years old son clapped. But this time he was all alone in appreciating, as the audience seemed to have rejected the pretty basic CGI.

Joker’s escapades are a class apart, one, for instance, is evident when he blows up the hospital by a remote trigger. He displays finesse, and nonchalance in the act of pressing the remote. On the contrary, Bhairavudu’s histrionics are never caught in the act of performing a crime. While the hospital building detonates supposedly by a time-based detonator, he is only caught grinning. What started as a promising character that could remain in the books for years have stooped down in the climax by an insane fistfight, as the audience squirmed in their seats. All the more, Joker and Bhairavudu are not street fighters; their strength is their intelligence and their nefarious mind. The triumph of the Batman is not judged by the death of the Joker, but by the death of the Joker’s ideology that people can be manipulated for their selfish survival needs. This is translated to lazy sermons given by Shiva that people are united in helping others.

All said and done, more power to you Murugadoss and Mahesh – keep dreaming big, even if it is getting inspired from a benchmarking script, but please uphold the dream through to the execution; and most importantly leave the Tom, Dick, and Gouthams of the world alone to whine.

Bahubali 2: Epic Conclusion

The Bahubali mania entered our house almost a month ago when the trailers were released. We have seen many larger than life movies such as Avatar, Avengers and The lord of the rings, but surprisingly none of them had the effect that Bahubali had – probably because of the emotional connect to the regional story, and must also be owing to the marketing strategy that the makers deployed through various channels to increase movie’s reach. My six year old son had replaced his style icon from spider man to Bahubali, and his current favourite movie from ‘Kong: Skull Island’ to Bahubali, and understandably so.

Before we entered the theatre, I warned my son to empty his bladder that there will be no wee breaks, for I didn’t want to miss any single scene of this visual extravaganza, but partly also because I paid a ruthless $40 per ticket even for the child and I want bang for every buck. The titles began to roll showing a recap of memorable scenes from ‘Bahubali: the beginning’ etched through sculpted images with the backdrop of Keeravani’s mellifluous ‘Oka Pranam’ (Telugu version), followed by Amarendra Bahubali’s grand entrance against a raging elephant. This giant start has asserted my cause to pay attention to the happenings that has been rendered so well on screen.

I normally try to watch any movie as objectively as possible without any empathy on the story/content/characters, but my critic’s hat was instantly replaced by that of a fan as the proceedings unfolded.  The movie was engaging right from the word go that it didn’t give me the scope to astutely observe the other aspects of movie such as cinematography, camera position, the supporting actors etc., which I am used to look for.

There is a lot to like in this film. Its scale is far bigger than part 1, and as the makers suggested, there is so much emotional drama that never bores us. It is a simple story of two cousins’, one upright withholding dharma from all corners, and the other deceitful whose innocent smile hides far more sinister mind along with ever scheming father to usurp the throne and still wanting more.

The screenplay was tight that there seemed to be no extra scene. Contradictory to the many reviews, the humour in first half is engaging that shows the other side of Kattappa. The Kunthala kingdom is enchanting with the CGI looking far better than its predecessor. The only complaint, if I have any, is that Devasana was a bit more aggressive than required for a bride-to-be during her confrontations with Sivagami. If only she played smart, she may have even saved Bahubali, or probably not. But then alas, even Bahubali can’t escape the saas-bahu fiasco (pun intended).

Now the infamous question “why Kattappa killed Bahubali?” was more of an expression that’s used to raise intrigue, as honestly, I was more interested in whodunit than ‘why’dunit. The sequences leading to Bahubali’s death is believable and poignant that there will more likely not be a dry eye watching it. The screenplay was interlaced by creativity at every possible level – palm trees used as catapults, bulls with flaming horns, multi arrow archery, telescope created through crystal viewers (reminded me of Shrek series). A discerning eye can find many faults in the making – for instance, the quiver never falls short of arrows despite delivering many in a fight. But I chose to ignore them in order to keep the fun afloat.

With the larger than life imagery clamouring for every attention, the almost 3 hour duration and three unwarranted pee breaks claimed by my son (thanks to the jumbo coke) didn’t appear long and I didn’t want the saga to finish.

Now as I sit back to reflect on the movie, I silently salute the might of the director that has left nothing to imagination, but instead converted every imagination to reality. In short, it has taken movie watching experience to a new level.

As much as we like to see it one more time, the mental effort to muster another $40 each for the entire family seem to be a true bahubalian task.

Bahubali Review

**** Spoiler Alert ****

It has been a strange feeling throughout the months of June and July with Bahubali taking a front seat on all the social media platforms via the TV/YouTube interviews, Twitter feeds and Facebook posts.

As a preparation to see the movie, I deliberately attempted to learn as much about it through the above said mediums. The preparations include discerning the movie trailer scene by scene and correlating with behind the scenes that were available for quite some time. One such analysis include the prediction of a scene if it had a real back ground or mere overlays of CGI on the green screen backgrounds. These preparations helped me to succinctly judge the mastery of visual effects that were claimed to be top notch, and create my own opinion before and after watching the movie without being carried away by the storm of reviews.

The movie released and garnered appreciations from all the corners. Truth be told that I derived great pleasure with all the great reviews and the box office success that it claimed, especially in North India.

After watching the movie, I remembered back in 2005 when I have first seen the two volumes of “Kill Bill” and the visionary behind it in the name of Quentin Tarantino that had a big story which better be told in two volumes for its sheer size. He redefined the concept of character build up and the storytelling using visuals. There were always such great storytellers in India but fell short of explaining them in a grand scale using larger than life characters and visuals.

This movie is the biggest motion picture in India – hands down and no questions asked, though this cannot be compared with the likes of Lord of Rings in terms of visual grandeur and scale, arguably owing to the budget and reach of those Hollywood flicks. While reflecting on the movie, I came across multiple reviews with aspects not liked by reviewers and viewers, but I didn’t find any fault with them for my own reasons listed below –

  1. The avalanche escape looked very artificial, but I don’t complain as it takes huge effort and amount to recreate them especially given its triviality within the story
  2. The romance in the first half looked far-fetched, but I don’t complain given that they are to be shown during the character build of protagonist in order for us to root for him throughout
  3. The makeup of Devasena is a bit convoluted, but I pass that one
  4. The item song is ill-placed, but I enjoyed the visuals and gave me a break before gearing up for war that would demand every attention non-stop for the next half hour. Also this has set up a platform to show other provinces existed apart from Mahismathi

Strangely, none of the reviews talked about the inconsistency in the characters and the the partial success in depicting the war strategy on the screen.

1. The great characters of Sivagami, Kattappa and Amarendar Bahubali failed notice the nurturing ego in Bhallaladeva and the potential grave consequences of it

2. The kingdom of Mahismathi and the architecture of it didn’t change even after 25 years (you may want to ignore this one)

3. The greatness of the kingdoms is majorly defined by the wars waged and the strategies laid by the emperors that look beyond glaring perils with the loss of kin, people and economy. While the strategy of attack (and the execution of it) takes the greatest priority, there are other aspects to it such as preparation of ammunition, food and water for soldiers that dehydrate during long lasting wars.The demand to examine these details may look far-fetched but the attention to these details define the epic nature of a movie.

Now given that the leads here chose to use Trishula Vyuha strategy, I was intrigued to see how that is put to use and reap the benefits. But was surprised to see that there is no clear portrayal of it. The hand gestures by the lead characters to convey the action plan to the army throughout the war seemed repetitive for a varied set of actions performed. The motivational speech by Bahubali seemed out of place amidst the anger and chaos rendered through the war.

Nevertheless, these observations are not the reflections of its shortcomings and on the contrary, it filled my heart with joy to see the fictional story, characters, kingdom that were only defined in the text books (and the likes of Amar Chitra katha) to be unfolded on a large screen. This very attempt is hugely commendable and the result is for all of us to see.