Subramaniapuram (2008)

Recently we have seen Kollywood produce some very good young directors who have come out with movies that aren’t your typical run-of-the mill entertainment. Last year it was Venkat Prabhu with Chennai 600028 and the Pushkar-Gayathri duo with Oram Po. These movies were not what you would have expected from Tamil cinema, say, 10 years ago. With today’s producers being ready to take risks with such “independent” films sans big stars, we are starting to see some unknown names from Kodambakkam making it big. This year, it is the turn of M. Sasi Kumar, who has provided us with the year’s biggest surprise in the form of Subramaniapuram.

Subramaniapuram begins in the year 2008 with scenes showing the Madurai Central Prison. As a man is released from jail, he is met by someone with a knife and stabbed. We are not shown who both these persons are. The movie then flashbacks to 1980 with Kasi (‘Ganja’ Karuppu) meeting ex-councilor Somu and his brother, Kanugu (Samudhirakkani) requesting help to get his friends Azhagar (Jai) and Paraman (Sasi Kumar) out of jail. They do the needful and both of them are let out. The importance of these initial scenes is that the former scene is always on the back of our minds as we constantly think about who the person released from jail is and who stabbed him and the latter scene does the important job of establishing the dependency that the three friends have on the men with all the power that make us understand their actions later on.

The movie then goes on to show the day-to-day activities of all of them. Somu is not in any kind of authority anymore and the only people who show him any kind of respect anymore are Azhagar, Paraman, Kasi and their friends. Azhagar and Somu’s daughter Thulasi (Swathi) have feelings for each other which Paraman disapproves of regularly. Soon it comes to the time when another important political position has to be handed out by Somu’s party and it goes to a rival politician which infuriates Kanugu, who then uses his goodwill with the three friends to manipulate them into killing the rival so that the route gets cleared for Somu to come back to power. It is not until Azhagar and Paraman are put in jail that they realize they have essentially been tricked in one big political game and how they exact their revenge forms the rest of the story.

The story has shades of all the recent gangster films like Pattiyal and Pudhupettai. However, while his contemporaries have chosen more modern locales with guns as the platform for gangster films, Sasi Kumar elects to take us back in time to the 1980s to tell his violent tale. It proves to be a very wise decision because that is what elevates Subramaniapuram above most other films. The authentic depiction of 80’s Madurai provides the best platform visually for such a movie with every aspect right from the slang to the dressing and especially the village locales being brought on screen vividly and wonderfully.

Another big difference between the aforementioned gangster movies and Subramaniapuram is the realization of the main protagonists. Pattiyal created a pair of gangsters that we neither cared for nor related with, while Pudhupettai chose to completely antagonize its gangster. In choosing three average Joes, Sasi Kumar has made it sure that we get connected with his heroes. The first half is largely responsible for this with scenes showing the friends looking out for each other and immediately coming to one another’s aid in case of trouble. This helps us empathize with them when they decide to take revenge for the wrongs that have been committed against them. A few dialogues also bring this to the forefront where we realize that this violent life was not one of their choosing and instead has been thrust upon them and they have to live with it if they want to survive in this brutal world.

With every other aspect of the movie falling into place perfectly, the biggest burden falls on the main actors to perform their roles well and while there are no screen-stealing performances, they do get the job done effectively. Jai shows that he still has a long way to go to reach the top with a mixed performance. He overdoes the smile in the romantic portions quite a bit and while his face isn’t suited for the role of the tough guy, he certainly produces a competent and believable performance in the second half. Sasi Kumar is as good on the screen as he is off it and comes out with a very strong performance as the guy with the soft heart inside the rough exterior. ‘Ganja’ Karuppu, whose comedy has been becoming stale recently, shows that there is more to him than just funny one-liners. Samudhirakkani’s solid performance plays a major role in realizing a truly detestable and manipulative villain. Swathi is mostly expected to look innocent with a shy smile which she provides adequately. However, a few scenes near the end of the second half show that she can emote quite well actually which is certainly heartening to see in a new heroine. The actors rounding out the group of friends also come up with decent performances and no member of the overall supporting cast is left wanting.

The off-screen crew (which contains quite a number of new names) provides wonderful support to Sasi Kumar. Cinematographer Kadhir with his effective usage of natural lighting for most of the movie is largely responsible for bringing the 1980s world to life before our eyes. Some newcomers in the form of costume designer K. Natarajan and Art Director B. Rembon are also critical in preserving the overall 80s feel of the movie and are certainly ones to watch out for in the future. Debutante music director James Vasanthan delivers one of the best melodies of recent times in Kangal Irandaal… and the picturization on Jai and Swathi with scenes accompanying the lyrics does not disappoint. Kadhal Siluvayil… contains some good lyrics toying with one’s belief in love and plays right after Jai has been imprisoned. The background score is responsible for elevating the effectiveness of the scene during many places.

In this present day where almost every movie that releases contains some well-known Tamil cinema cliché, it is surprising to note that this film almost contains none and is probably the better for it. With its unflinching portrayal of violence, wonderfully realized characters, strong lead performances and great support from the entire crew, Subramaniapuram is the best movie of the year so far and is worth a watch for anyone who likes entertaining and engrossing cinema.

Aegan (2008)

NOTE: Since Aegan is obviously inspired by Main Hoon Na, I will make certain references to the latter and comparisons in the vastly different qualities of both movies. So, there might be some minor spoilers when these comparisons are made, not that it matters anyway.

Ajith is on a comeback run after a few years when all his movies were quite average really. After the blockbuster success of last year’s Billa, he has decided to put his trust on new director Raju Sundaram to keep his box office run going. Aegan borrows the basic script of a cop going undercover as a student from the Hindi Shah Rukh Khan starrer Main Hoon Na and provides Ajith ample scope for comedy and action and he doesn’t disappoint. However, Ajith’s casting is about the only thing that Aegan gets right and almost everything else about the movie is below-average at best and it is not quite the diwali entertainment that was promised.

John Chinnappa (Suman) is a dreaded criminal who is wanted by the police on a number of crimes. Ram Prasad (Devan) is his right-hand man and best friend and knows everything about John. Ram Prasad decides to split with John after the latter chooses to put the lives of innocent people in danger and surrenders to the police and becomes an approver. However, when the police are escorting Ram to the court, their convoy is attacked and Ram runs on the loose fearing for his life. A short introduction about Shiva (Ajith) follows showing his ruthless streak in dispatching criminals. Shiva is then sent undercover as a student to St John’s College where Ram Prasad’s daughter Pooja (Piaa) is studying in order to protect her as well as keep tabs on Ram if he comes to visit her.

Once undercover Shiva finds it difficult to overcome his gruff exterior and befriend Pooja and her boyfriend Narain (Navadeep). He also falls for new chemistry teacher Mallika (Nayanthara) and tries to woo her. Giving him company inside the college are the principal (Jayaram), the peon (Sathyan) and his police aide (V.M.C. Haneefa). How he tracks Ram Prasad and brings John Chinnappa to justice forms the rest of the story. Oh and did I mention that there is a side track featuring Shiva’s attempt to reunite his father (Nasser) and his separated wife (Suhasini).

What Main Hoon Na did was merge all the above elements into a wonderful whole that provided great entertainment with lots of comedy, over-the-top action and just the slightest amount of sentiment to keep the proceedings interesting. Aegan delivers only in the comedy aspect. The scenes inside the campus with Ajith trying to blend into his new surroundings and get into Piaa’s good books to keep an easy eye on her and his wooing of Nayanthara are certainly funny with Ajith proving to have wonderful timing. Even though these sequences are directly inspired by Main Hoon Na with the funny principal trying to do his best to assist the undercover cop in his mission and Ajith going into dream mode every time Nayanthara passes by, they are still funny nonetheless and certain dialogues and scenes are sure to please Ajith fans.

One of the main aspects in which Aegan doesn't deliver is with its villain. Sunil Shetty’s solid performance provided a cool and chilling villain in Main Hoon Na. Suman’s John Chinnappa is a bit of a caricature in comparison. The role has been made into a one-dimensional regular Tamil villain with unwanted comedy inserted and it is probably single-handedly responsible for bringing down the overall quality of the movie. Sriman as Suman’s right hand man does not do the movie any favors and is another big minus.

Raju Sundaram also fails miserably in tying all the loose ends up in the climax. In Main Hoon Na, the track involving Shahrukh’s quest to make his half-brother and stepmother understand his father was integrated neatly with the main storyline and added some nice sentiments to the mix. In Aegan, the track has been brought very late on in the movie and it is absolutely unnecessary and only the director can explain his decision in bringing such an angle to the movie. The story and screenplay falters horribly in the final twenty minutes of the movie and as a result, everything built up during the college sequences are wasted.

As I stated in the beginning, Ajith’s casting is spot on for the role. There are some obvious references to his past movies and usage of the world “thala” during apt sequences is intended solely to please his fans. Ajith gets to enjoy himself after a long time and his scenes with Jayaram and Haneefa are a lot of fun. Nayanthara certainly doesn’t dress like she is a college professor but looks quite hot really and that is all is required of her. Navadeep looks like he has not improved his acting from Arindhum Ariyaamalum and is not stressed too much. Piaa manages to impress as the girl who is not too fond of her father’s profession. Nasser and Suhasini are wasted in miniscule roles. Jayaram, Haneefa and Sathyan all produce decent performances to maintain the light tone of the movie throughout.

Yuvan Shankar Raja’s music is quite average really but the Aegan background score accompanying Ajith’s entry and fight sequences is good thankfully. Ajith has managed to improve his dance skills greatly and it is evident in Hey Saala… and Odum Varaiyil… both of which provide him with some fast movements and he doesn’t falter at all. Raju Sundaram has unsuccessfully tried to capture the group dance spirit of the initial college song from Main Hoon Na in Yahoo.... The stunt sequences are quite underwhelming and the climax fight especially contains some grainy shots which I am not sure Raju Sundaram intended to signify style but they are not good-looking in all honesty.

Rocky Balboa (2006)

Rocky Balboa is a kind of nostalgic trip down memory lane for Sylvester Stallone. It is reminiscent of the 1976 evergreen classic Rocky in more ways than one and by Stallone’s own admission, it is the final movie in the long-running Rocky series which apparently overstayed its welcome with movies Rocky III, IV and V.

I first saw the original 1976 Rocky a few years ago and being a fan of uplifting motion pictures, I loved it. The story of a relative unknown in Rocky Balboa being given a shot at becoming world-champion by holder Apollo Creed and lasting 15 rounds and almost winning the match is still as inspiring as ever. Of course, the movie is now heralded as a classic by everyone alike and if you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you do right away.

I decided to stay away from sequels Rocky III, IV and V when I heard they were nothing like Rocky and Rocky II. So, why make a sequel for a long-forgotten series 16 years after the last one was universally regarded as a failure and made even hardcore fans detest the series. I tend to think Stallone wanted a proper send off (as was suggested by his reaction to the reception of Rocky V) for the series and the character -- one which people will remember for all the right reasons instead of wondering why Stallone did not stop with I and II.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) starts with the title character living a lonely life in 2006 following the death of Adrian in 2002. His son, Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia), has distanced himself from Rocky in an effort to make a life of his own instead of forever being in his father’s shadow. Rocky now runs a successful Italian restaurant, Adrian’s, telling tales of his boxing bouts and letting everyday pass by. Paulie (Burt Young) still visits his restaurant from time to time sharing fond memories of Adrian. Rocky comes across Marie (Geraldine Hughes) one day as he casually tours Philadelphia and finds someone in a very similar situation to himself. He befriends Marie and takes her son into his care and even offers her a position in his restaurant.

In the meantime, the current heavyweight champion of the world is Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver). And TV ads are about as to who is the better champion in his prime, Dixon or Balboa. They even go as far as to create a computerized bout between the two to see who wins. Dixon is not at all impressed with people calling Balboa a better fighter who fought through much better opponents and had the tougher bouts.

Rocky, however, cannot stop thinking about Adrian and constantly keeps visiting her grave. He realizes he has to do something he loves to take his mind off his late wife and plans of coming out of retirement and is actually granted a boxing license. Mason Dixon’s manager takes hold of the opportunity and arranges for an exhibition match between Rocky and Dixon which he sees would generate ample money and boost Dixon’s popularity in general. Of course, as is a given in Rocky movies, what follows is a rousing match where winning isn’t everything.

The movie features some of the best acting and writing Stallone has come up with in recent memory. The scene where he tells his son that he should be responsible for making his own life and not put the blame on others is a prime example of this featuring wonderful dialogues and acting. In fact, Stallone’s performance is so good that it makes you wonder why he did not choose to play more performance-oriented roles like this in his career instead of the more adrenaline-fueled action roles which we have come to associate with him. Burt Young returns as Paulie and is solid as ever. Geraldine Hughes and Milo Ventimiglia are the newcomers in Rocky’s family and provide good performances as Marie and Robert. Antonio Tarver’s Mason Dixon does remind one of Carl Weathers’ Apollo Creed; however, it is still a decent performance by the actor who is a pro boxer in life.

Rocky Balboa contains more than one nod to the 1976 classic. The scene where Balboa starts training for his final bout could have probably been lifted directly from Rocky had it not been for the fact that both Stallone and his character have aged considerably. Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly - Theme for Rocky” is still as rousing as it was the first time the world heard it in 1976 and you cannot help but sit up and cheer as it plays in the background to Rocky’s latest training sessions. The final battle is also reminiscent of the Rocky vs. Creed match from Rocky.

Overall, Sylvester Stallone has achieved what he set out to do with this movie. As everyone (including Stallone) says a final goodbye to The Italian Stallion, Stallone has made sure that Rocky’s character remains firmly etched in our hearts. Rocky Balboa will evoke wonderful images of the path that the title character has taken from 1976 to 2006 and serves as a fitting send off to one of cinema’s most loved heroes.