[Possible spoilers ahead; but I hear movies are all connected now, so consider this a warning for every movie ever made.]

Making shit up as you go along (the current term for it, I believe, is ‘multiverse’) is in vogue. So fourth-time helmer Lokesh Kanagaraj has made a new film titled Vikram, which draws story elements from his second feature Kaithi (2019) and carefully prepares the place for a fatter cash cow. Shot by Girish Gangadharan (Angamaly Diaries (2017), Jallikattu (2019)) in a dark but warm palette of yellows, reds and blacks, the film expands director Lokesh’s literal if not artistic arsenal to a considerable degree. Guns have gotten a bad rap in the past couple of weeks, but Vikram assures us that, sometimes, there is nothing quite like a cannon to clear some landscape.

The spirit of Christopher Nolan hangs heavily (how else would it hang?) over the film right from its cold open: masked men storm a high-rise, kill a middle-aged man tied to a chair, and record the event on video with the message “This is not a murder; it’s a statement. We are at war against your system.” The killings repeat every week under the same signature, prompting the police to hire a sleeper unit headed by Amar (Fahadh Fasil) to investigate the matter. In the sophisticated narrative setup, Amar discovers that the middle-aged man was Karnan (Kamal Haasan), who is somewhat of a jerk but one with a streak of kindly righteousness. He also learns that Karnan, and the other murdered cops, are involved in the capture of a large consignment of drugs belonging to Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi), who thus has an incentive to trace the masked marauders as well.

The trailer for Vikram enticed viewers with the prospect of seeing three major stars of South Indian cinema come together for the first time (along with a distended cameo by Suriya). Indeed, each pair of the film’s three heroes gets a scene together, and they all meet in the climactic sequence. They are all introduced within the first thirty minutes of the film (cf. Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), where all three stars appear in the first minute), Fahadh following Kamal’s relatively low-key (and ill-advised) entry in the first few minutes. However, we hear Kamal properly only after ninety minutes into the film, his silence helping to sustaining an enigmatic if uncompromised aura around him, and this resurgence, built on a bit of audience-cheating, helps the film shift gears and transition from a mystery to a thriller.

Most visibly, Vikram is a love story between Fahadh’s Amar and Kamal’s Karnan-turned-Vikram, and I wish the film had run with this through line. Amar spends the first hour courting the older man — literally following his footsteps — as a phantom pursuing another; only the masked can unmask the masked, remarks his superior. His Citizen Kane-like investigation builds up the mystique around Karnan/Vikram, whom he imagines inhabiting in the same space as him, a daydreaming paramour. In the end, he even plays midwife to the baby his senior has been nursing. Climbing up and down walls and breaking into houses, Amar is the true heir to the original spy of Vikram (1986). He is veritably Karnan/Vikram’s body double and the film seals this substitution with explicit linkages in costume, makeup and editing.

So far so good. But Vikram’s most flagrant shortcoming is that, unlike Lokesh’s previous feature Master, it does not give the devil its due. The devil here goes by the name of Sandhanam and it has the likeness of Vijay Sethupathi, whose entry is one of the film’s visual highs: emerging like a newborn from an upturned autorickshaw, this bloody, bulky baby executes a neat flip and lands on its feet. Casting off its shirt, it puts on a pair of shades and wraps its hands behind, close to the body. While everyone else in the film is rough and tough, Sandhanam’s brand is soft and pudgy; and Vijay Sethupathi’s dad bod, already on exhibition in Master, speaks harsh truth to the power of his colleagues’ chiselled abdomens. This faux-modest entry perfectly encapsulates the double-coded style of this actor who excels at projecting aggression when he is insecure and vulnerability when in control.

The character, alas, goes unwaveringly downhill from here. Over a debriefing, we learn that the trigamist Sandhanam lives with his extended family of 67 in a Chettinad-style old-world mansion in whose ample basement he runs his drug racket while fronting as a medico. It’s an emphatic parody of The Godfather, with women and kids with broken legs flitting about the house in an orchestrated frenzy rivalling that of the cocaine cooks downstairs. Organized crime? Try organizing a family. But the whirlwind montage insistently glides over this giddy microcosm, just as the film swaps character detail for tics and trappings. Decked up in flamboyant stripes, Vijay Sethupathi is given two golden incisors to broadcast his voice through, which makes him sound like Simbu imitating MGR.

Kamal, Fahadh and Sethupathi are all excellent comic performers, and it must have taken some perversity in imagining them in a largely grim crime saga. The cult of personality that Master gave in to came with the silver lining of offering two actors the space and scope to register as real individuals. Vijay had a great deal of latitude to perfect his poker-faced humour while Sethupathi came out as a champion of the anti-climactic line reading. There’s very little life at the cold core of Vikram, where, in the vein of Nolan, actors are turned into pawns on a chessboard. Whatever warmth exists is to be found at the narrative periphery: at a cut-rate wedding with cheap booze and ordered-in food, presided by a computer network, or in the beatific voice of a female doctor straight out of a Mani Ratnam movie. Save for a handful of tiring references to Kamal’s older films and his political career, the stars don’t stick out the way Vijay did in Master.

The most significant loss in this ironing down is Kamal the person, who is barely to be found in the film. Echoing like a ghost in a shell, his gravel voice possesses a materiality that the body lacks. He is chewing on some item for half-a-shot and one time he drags a line of coke across his teeth, but there is very little of the actorly business with which he generally holds the frame, none of the vocal nimbleness of Uttama Villain (2015). He gets maybe 40 minutes of screen time in all, most of it in the second half. A brief moment finds him in an endearing dialogue with an infant, in an affected slang that he slips in and out of, but the film is more interested in showcasing the 67-year-old operating an assortment of phallic firearms. One shot has Kamal play golf with his left hand, whose meaning, I’m sure, will be explained in Lokesh’s seventeenth film.

The action sequences are illustrative in that sense. Chopped up into too many shots, these passages of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay are vehement in their refusal to show actors in continuous action; there is not much to differentiate the stars from each other in terms of their combat style. In my memory, the only graceful skirmish in the film has longer shots and features none of the three heroes. There is enough here for connoisseurs of kink — chains, leather gloves, masks, handcuffs and bikes — but little of the eroticism associated with athletic bodies performing real stunts. The fight between Vikram and Sandhanam is a wonky green-screen monster, while another involves the camera zooming in and out to general embarrassment. The cleverest clash features Vikram shooting his way to a milk bottle inside his home — a marriage of the hard and the soft that the film needed more of — but it comes on the heels of two other fisticuffs, rendering it a somewhat tedious addendum.

Part of the problem appears to be that Vikram, already 173 minutes long, works with too much material. Scattered across half a dozen prominent locations, the film is forced to proceed in leaps and bounds, with characters appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Director Lokesh’s predilection for cross-cutting is now well-known, but it becomes the primary figure of style here. In contrast to Master, there are few fleshed-out scenes, the accelerated editing pattern washing along otherwise incompatible dramatic incidents scattered across time and space. The resultant soup is powered by Anirudh’s thundering mock-Hans Zimmer score that does most of the heavy lifting, at times substituting for the work of the director.

As an artist, Lokesh Kanagaraj is unassuming and he doesn’t share his peers’ taste for activism through cinema. Despite the sociological interest of the crimes his films deal with — drug trade, juvenile delinquency, police corruption — his thinking is not systemic and these issues remain dramaturgical abstractions. If there is a philosophy to be gleaned from his films, it’s that guns rock, and bigger guns rock more. That may a defensible outlook for a director, but the creeping impression of cynicism about filmmaking that I had with Kaithi — that he is increasingly invested in pushing our pleasure buttons than his own — has just gotten more ammo with Vikram.

Director Karthik Subbaraj is movie crazy. Like many Tamil filmmakers, he is drawn to intertextuality, but has a temperament that doesn’t allow it to get out of hand in the way it might in a Venkat Prabhu film. It shouldn’t be surprising then that he has cast actor Vikram and his son Dhruv as father and son going at each other in his new work titled Mahaan. It’s an enticing setup: a sparkling Vikram creates a suitable springboard for Dhruv, whose first two ill-fated films came from the cottage industry of Arjun Reddy remakes; performing bits from his father’s classic films, Dhruv reminds us, even if negatively, that talent isn’t inherited.

Vikram plays Gandhi, a middle-aged professor suffocated by his name and the high-minded ideals of his freedom-fighter father. Following the advice of a Randian mendicant (Ramachandran Durairaj), he decides to live out his desires in the company of bar owner Satya (Bobby Simha) and seedy politician Gnanam (Vettai Muthukumar). This betrayal of Gandhian values outrages his wife Nachi (Simran, in a poorly written role), who walks off from his life with their son Dada (Akshath Das). Nursing resentment at this alcohol-driven dissolution of his family, an older Dada (Dhruv) becomes a teetotalling cop to wipe out his wasteful father’s liquor empire.

Like a number of other screenwriters, Karthik Subbaraj is attracted to character pairs, symmetry, mirroring, reversals of roles. This was already obvious in Jigarthanda (2014), whose clever underlying concept had a filmmaker and a gangster trade places. Mahaan abounds with these structural games, which is indeed what sustain the film. The screenplay is divided into clear halves, with Dhruv Vikram making an appearance at the midpoint — a smart ploy that allows his father to shield him for over an hour and lends the film a new lease of energy.

The first half unfolds like a game of rummy; that is to say, through a series of coincidences and lucky accidents. Having cut loose from his regimented life, Gandhi meets business partners Satya and Gnanam (there is some play around their names which respectively mean “truth” and “knowledge”), who, it turns out, are childhood acquaintances. It is hard to buy that this 40-year-old repressed man can so easily ease into one vice after another, but like a round of cards, that is exactly the hand we are dealt. Vikram is fantastic as Gandhi, and despite such radical distortions his character is subjected to, he gives a sense of a coherent person buried beneath all the gaudy shirts and ridiculous coiffure.

As Gandhi keeps leveling up (down) like a debauched game character, Satya has a religious epiphany that makes him gradually distance himself from Gandhi’s dreams of an empire (ba-dum-tsh). This double transition is conveyed through a montage in which images of Satya becoming a born-again Christian are intercut with Gandhi multiplying his murders: a reversal of the Godfather principle. By the end of the film, the two swap places, with Satya reaping the bitter rewards of Gandhi’s bad company.

The second half, in contrast, is a game of chess, where Gandhi’s perfect hand comes undone by his son’s meticulous scheming. If Gandhi’s journey was that of the id unleashed, Dada’s is the return of the superego. A mirror image of his idealistic grandfather, Dada watches over his father even as a child, ferreting out his petty secrets and telling on him. Gandhi and Dada take turns playing father and son, looking out for each other despite their best judgment. They are both introduced (and later developed) through sequences of stylized violence, Dada’s legal killings somewhat amped up to make us wince. Confusing determination with rigidity, though, Dhruv is less than fantastic; it is hard to make out if he is taking a phone call or getting ready to do crunches.

More pairings and reversals: there are two heroes, two friends, two sons, two wives, two weddings, two separations, two telescoped flashbacks to childhood, two scenes of violence in picturesque landscapes. We are in tic territory when even secondary characters seem to have secondary romances going on. Gandhi loses a son figure in the second half, recalling the way he saved one in the first. With age, he grows his hair long as his wife shortens hers. Dada’s revenge on his father is elaborated like a bloody closure to the traumatic scene of his childhood.

These patterns are alluring, and they give solid form to the film’s argument that people who kill for ideology are as vicious, if not more, as people who kill for money, limited as the latter are by their appetite or conscience. But Karthik Subbaraj contrives his screenplay further for these elements to fall in place. A major set-piece in the second half, set in a police bunker designed like an avant-garde theatre set, finds Gandhi and Dada pointing a gun at each other, a cunning image that the whole sequence (and film) seems to be imagined around. But everything in the set-piece before and after this shot shares none of its zing: Dada is elaborately re-established as a sociopath while Gandhi swings from self-effacing helplessness to super-heroic surety and back.

Mahaan is powered by its transitional bits rather than its big scenes, which invariably fall flat. There are three sequences featuring Gandhi and Satya at various stages of their friendship and life. The second of these is poignant, although perhaps redundant, but the other two are quite trying, especially the final one that is set up to resolve another symmetric dilemma: Dada lives if Satya dies and vice versa. An inexplicable scene between Gandhi and his wife Nachi is shoehorned late into the film in order to satisfy the logic of what is to follow.

On the other hand, Mahaan’s tedious passages are also frequently intertwined with its finer qualities. Gandhi’s first fight scene — and I suspect this is where many viewers will take leave of the film — is set in a scenic location surrounded by mountains. As a heavy tries to kill his son with a hammer, Satya cries out in prayer at a crucifix in the distance. Gandhi stops the hammer just as it is about to go down. It’s a rank Tamil movie cliché, but the way it is shot, with Gandhi’s arm jutting out of the sky as if it were the hand of God, shifts the scene’s focus to Satya’s revelation. Unbelievable though the ensuing fight is, there is something in the combination of the locale, Gandhi’s flashy clothes and the pseudo-single shot filmmaking that holds it all together.

As a director, Karthik Subbaraj can often be weird; not weird enough to be creative like Shankar, just weird enough to stick out. He loves his intercutting: the early scene of escalating hysteria where Nachi walks off on Gandhi is finely separated across two groups of actors. The gratuitous quarter hour at the end is split between three spaces and two timelines — a demanding device for the viewer to process. Another effect of modern Tamil films trying to pack 200-minutes worth of narrative into 150: action and dialogue overlapping; we would see items being exchanged across shots while or before we hear about them, as when Gandhi wears his new glasses before we learn that they’re a birthday gift.

Karthik Subbaraj can ask us to make impossible leaps of faith in following Gandhi’s descent into the dumps, but he can also be overly logical in covering his trail, with countless inserts and exchanges whose sole purpose is to cement story gaps. There are fetish images here, like Gandhi with a Tommy gun, but also purely odd ones like Gandhi discarding a movie ticket in the shower drain or a politician literally jumping in joy after having his visitors thrown out. Now that Jai Bhim (2021) has shown us that décor details could be adjusted weeks after a film’s release, Karthik Subbaraj may even consider adding a few more Gandhi photos or crosses in the background.

Raavan

Men On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown 
(Image courtesy: Raavan Official Site)

Towards the end of Mani Ratnam’s long-awaited Raavan (2010), one of the characters looks at the camera and says “You shouldn’t have turned back”. He might well have been talking to the person behind the camera. Raavan is a visual and narrative mess, with lots going for it and even more going against it. What seems to be a major hammering on a minor flash of brilliance has taken over three years to make. There is nothing much about the plot of Raavan that you already haven’t read in your schoolbooks and seen in your televisions. I suggest you read the Wikipedia entry on Ramayana and plug in the actors’ names beside the characters’ yourself. You wouldn’t be very wrong. There are, however, two major changes to the text that writer-director Mani Ratnam has done. One; the back story of Ram has been removed altogether and a new back story for Raavan has been added which attempts to put things in his perspective and to justify his acts. The second and the more important change is that Raavan has been relegated from a higher caste to a lower one. The second change opens up a number of new possibilities given the setting of the film.

Throughout his career, with a few exceptions, Mani Ratnam has been interested in writing stories in which personal drama plays out along and against national affairs and topical issues. Almost all these ‘issues’ that he deals with could be traced to newspaper articles or cover stories (communal riots in the city of Bombay, cross border terrorism in the far east and north, student protests down south, the LTTE, business scams etc.). It is true that there is seldom any rigor in these analyses, but where Mani really scores is in the other layer of these stories, in which he deals with people who are stuck in (or, less frequently, who help create) these social and political upheavals. He seems to be more interested in the lives of these ‘individuals’, without the trappings of any ideology, and the relationship between them. More often than not, these issues have been a pretext for exploring the fears, apprehensions and hopes of these individuals, who seem to be suddenly thrust into these agitations. As a result, the issues themselves stick out like a sore thumb even when they are handled with solemnity (Compare one of these with a film like Alaipayuthey (2000) where he completely de-politicizes the drama to break down the tale to human levels. The result is a completely bourgeois film, but also arguably the director’s most honest work to date).

Another facet of Mani Ratnam’s writing is his fascination with people working on the wrong side of the law. Right from Velu Nayakar, through Deva, Liaqat, Meghna, Inba/Lallan, Gurukanth Desai and up to Beera, all of Mani Ratnam’s central characters have been exploiting legal loopholes and even defying the legal system. All of them have a moral justification for their deeds and, with the probable exception of Inba (one of the director’s best characters, for he is the product of both an ideology and his free will), all these characters have their own definitions of what is objectively good and what is not. And this moral relativism is what they seem to consider as their redemption and it is what redeems them in the audience’s eyes (What makes the character of Velu Nayakar profound is his inability to morally assess this feature of his). Throughout, Mani’s attempt has always been to, if not construct a holistic and unbiased view of the world, recognize the ‘other’ as human and empathize with their situation. A fan might say that Mani is a silent rebel. But the truth remains that Mani Ratnam has always been an armchair liberal. In nearly every one of the cases above, he leaves the issues unresolved, as if they never existed in his film, and the audience unquestioned. He involves himself deep enough so as to raise questions and make us reflect about the state of the nation temporarily, but keeps himself aloof enough to avoid assuming or giving us responsibility.

But that is not to say that he should be resolving these issues and should propose a direction (which would be too much to ask and which runs the risk of making the films propagandistic – a fatal move for a director who works within the establishment), but the least he could do is test our own moral standings and elicit a complex response from us, as did the last Tarantino movie. Mani is a master of bad endings and even he can’t object to that complaint. Everywhere, he has resorted to either indifference or populist didacticism to restore the film to conventional pop-cinema trajectories. A special note must be made for the ending of Yuva/Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), despite its crudeness, where, for once, the director throws away the armchair and retains the liberalism. That brings us back to Raavan, which sure does imbibe all these traits above. The villagers in the film are obviously based on the Maoist settlements of central and south-eastern India and their leader Beera is a resistance fighter combating the police and armed forces.  The plot points are heavily inspired by Operation Green Hunt, but the region of interest for the director, predictably, remains the triangle of characters at its heart. Oh, but there’s also something going on in the background of these characters. For the second time, after his reworking of the Mahabharata in Thalapathy (1991), Mani Ratnam resorts to an existing mythological text for a template.

 

[Raavan (2010) Trailer]

Mani Ratnam could have been faithful to the text, playing it out in its entirety and stressing and modulating key sections of it to reveal its inherent sexism and chauvinism and, subsequently, investigate how such a flawed text governs our behaviour. Or he could have stuck, as was his style so far, to the Maoist issue alone and examined the tensions underneath. Instead, Mani relocates the Ramayana into this politically charged narrative, making a few key changes for the sake of authenticity, and compromises both possibilities. Many of the characters in Raavan don’t exist for their own sake, but only to play other characters and to complete an existing narrative framework. Now, this isn’t the film’s biggest problem, but for viewers familiar with the text, it goes on to become monotonous and self-parodying. It is also a bit appalling to see a director like Mani Ratnam going for such banal character mapping. The film’s biggest problem is, however, its viewpoint. Now, the point that the film tries to be making is that there is a Ram and Raavan in every one and that it’s only a matter of context that one becomes the hero and the other the villain. But the whole film shows otherwise. There is not one virtue bestowed upon Dev or one vice assigned to Beera (Being an officer in the police force is the only positive thing about Dev, but Ratnam drains that position of any goodness). It’s all still black and white. The film never moves on to the grey area that it claims it is in. This lack of a moral complexity denies the film any real resonance. It is made clear from the very beginning that Beera is the one the audience needs to root for and Dev is the one to be cursed (The casting only worsens the problem, with Abhishek Bachchan being less easier to hate than the newcomer Vikram). Mani does not balance the sides, as is required, he merely swaps them.

However, the film’s redeeming factor lies in the way it sketches these decidedly good and decidedly bad characters. Dev (Vikram) is the icon of a perfect male god. He is macho, sporting a neatly trimmed moustache, well-built, determined and self-assured. But he also seems to be overconfident of his seemingly infallible masculinity to the point of being sexist. His egocentricity defines the world with respect to himself (the camera gyrates around him quite a few times). He considers his wife and his gun to be fairly interchangeable objects which could be used to demonstrate his power. Mani Ratnam floods the mise en scène with phallic symbols when dealing with Dev. Wielding razors, pistols, sunglasses and cigarettes throughout, Dev is the ultimate patriarch who can control the people around him at will. Or so he thinks. This vanity is his biggest vice. And the disillusionment of that masculine vanity is the cause of his fall. Dev seems to be more interested in killing the man who kidnapped his wife than rescuing her or finishing the mission he is assigned. It is the thought that his wife may have found a better man – that his wife’s fantasies might have outgrown his capacities – that frustrates him more than the fact that she is kidnapped. In that respect, Dev has a lot of counterparts in Hollywood including Dr. Harford of Eyes Wide Shut (1999). What Dev is fighting for is, then, his own potency that has been snatched away by this sociopolitical outcast. He can only do this by killing off any man whom his wife may have considered better. And that is what he sets out to do.

Beera (Abhishek Bachchan), on the other hand, lies exactly at the moral and physical midpoint between Ragini and Dev. He is a man who’s more self-aware and empathetic. He has already realized his own limitations as a ‘man’ the moment his sister was snatched away by the police force some time ago (“It was my fault” he says). Unlike Dev, he is a very progressively thinking person and believes in equality. And unlike that Ram, who can not see anything but lies on Ragini’s face, this Raavan trusts her with his life (and his phallic gun, if you will!). But he is also a man on the verge. He could flip over to the other moral side any time soon. His “jealousy” could turn out to be an obsession. Why, he teeters on the boundary between life and death every day. Each one of his ten imaginary heads might be saying a different thing every time. His temptation of avenging his sister by reciprocally violating Ragini is undone by the fact that both Ragini and his sister are merely variations of each other (This implicit aversion towards “miscegenation” in Raavan is but one of the very many narrative, visual and thematic elements that the film shares with The Searchers (1956), a film that is also set at the native frontier and the film that Raavan wants to emulate). These two people who leapt towards death without fear are the only persons who could stand up to Beera and speak. They are the only ones who prevent him from becoming a Dev. This idea of living on the edge is continually underscored by the film’s visual strategy that employs highly expressionistic landscapes. Beera is usually located on a dark cliff beyond which there are only the white waters of death (and redemption?). He is regularly seen straddling dark geographical structures and the white mist-like atmosphere. Even when he is a mysterious, dark, fearful figure, he is associated with harsh light. Samir Chanda’s production design is noteworthy in this regard. Beera’s idea of redemption is a very subjective one and his vindication seems to be in making Dev realize how morally integral he is, despite his caste, and how unethical Dev is, despite his social and legal standing. Of course, for this he throws his political objective to the wind, as does Mani Ratnam.

Ragini (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) is the symbol of moral strength purity in the film. She’s the only character in the film who could safely be called “objectively good” (for one, Aishwarya Rai is significantly fairer than the other two men in the film. Politically incorrect? May be. Cliché? Definitely). In some ways, she is the mirror image of Dev, and surely the better half, and repudiates all that he stands for. She’s the only person in the film who gets to see the full picture. She acts fairly rationally and, unlike the men, knows no class, creed or ideology (Amusingly, she almost exclusively moves vertically within the frame throughout the film – plummeting and ascending, skidding and rising amidst the rocky mountains – as if transcending the rigid ‘horizontal’ notions of class). She knows no fear in front of Beera, for she has nothing to be afraid of, unlike Dev and his entourage. Beera is just an arbitrary terror for her. And this independence of hers is what brings Beera to earth from his demigod status. These are very interesting characters, no doubt, but our response to them remains highly one-dimensional. As a result, the film turns out to be as one-dimensional and biased as the text it wants to deconstruct. And yes, the film that Raavan wants to be has already been made ten years ago. And how!

 

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