OK Kanmani (India 2015, Tamil)

The lovers, Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Thara (Nitya Menen)

The lovers, Adi (Dulquer Salmaan) and Thara (Nitya Menen)

I was excited by the prospect of this film but I hadn’t attempted to read much about it before the screening. Mani Ratnam is acknowledged as one of the innovators of popular Indian cinema, helping to transform Tamil cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s and then moving into Hindi films or dual language versions of the same script. His last (Tamil) film was not released in the UK and his recent films made in Hindi or both Hindi and Tamil did not really work as well as his earlier purely Tamil films. I was delighted then to recognise quite quickly that OK Kanmani is in many ways an updated version of one of my favourite Ratnam Tamil films, Alaipayuthey (2001). I read later that Ratnam deliberately opted for the update to explore what he saw as changes in attitudes towards marriage in India.

In Alaipayuthey the young man is a recently graduated software engineer setting up a new company with classmates. He comes from a wealthy family but at a friend’s wedding he meets a young woman, a medical student from a middle-class family. Their parents refuse permission to marry because of the class difference so they marry secretly and inevitably things go wrong before a happy ending to what is a romance/family melodrama set in Chennai. In OK Kanmani, the young man Adi is a talented computer games designer who arrives in Mumbai from Chennai to work on a new job with friends from the Tamil community. He meets Thara, an architectural ‘intern’ living in a ladies’ hostel. Again they meet at a wedding (a Christian Tamil wedding). The class positions this time are reversed, Adi is middle-class, Thara comes from a very wealthy family in Coimbatore (the rapidly developing second city of Tamil Nadu). Though they are clearly very much in love, neither wants to marry yet. Since both are away from home they are able to consummate their relationship outside marriage without their parents’ knowledge. They must then decide if they want a ‘live-in’ relationship and not a secret marriage. This is the big change between the two films.

As well as this central relationship, Ratnam offers us a long-term marriage, possibly as a comparison or ‘test’ for the younger lovers. Adi is lucky that he is able to rent a room in the spacious house of his brother’s ex-boss, the retired banker Ganapathay. The banker has retired to look after his wife Bhavani, a former singing star of Carnatic music who has developed early stage Alzheimer’s. If Adi and Thara are going to live together in Ganapathay’s house they need to persuade the couple. Inevitably though it is going to be difficult to prevent Adi’s brother and sister-in-law from discovering what is happening. As one comment I read pointed out the brother’s marriage is conventional for the 1990s, thus Mani Ratnam can present three relationships across the decades when the brother and his family make a surprise visit. Adi and Thara’s relationship is contingent on their separate career ambitions. In particular she wants to go to Paris to study further and he knows his talent can take him to North America. How will the relationship survive these potentially conflicting ambitions? Neither wants to marry but marriage is a convention of Indian film narratives as well as Indian society generally.

In ‘updating’ the earlier story Mani Ratnam has made some interesting decisions. He’s returned to work with cinematographer P. C. Sreeram who lensed Alaipayuthey and earlier Ratnam classics with long-term collaborator film editor A. Sreekar Prasad. Also, I understand that the film uses a great deal of live sound – it was certainly noticeable that the dialogue seemed both more spontaneous and more ‘natural’ than the booming dialogue of mainstream Indian cinema. Reading round the film I also discovered that much of what was meant to be Mumbai was actually Chennai. Ahmedabad is one of the cities visited by Thara for its architectural qualities. but it also provided more generic locations. So, Mumbai here is less a city of tourist sites and more a generic urban space excitingly filmed. To add to this sense of the ‘urban’, Ratnam starts the film with a sequence from a videogame. Later we will realise that this is ‘Mumbai 2.0’ the game (presumably in a ‘Grand Theft Auto’ style?) that Adi is developing. Further game sequences including an animated sequence feature later in the film. The music is by maestro A. R. Rahman. I enjoyed the soundtrack in the film but nothing stood out immediately. I’m now listening to the tracks on YouTube and getting more into them. In the clip below (sung by Karthik and Shashaa Tirupati) the lovers are together in a lodge in Ahmedebad – one of the few scenes that aren’t primarily ‘realist’. The song begins with Adi using music software on his iPad and a Bluetooth speaker. This is one of many examples of modern phone and computer technology woven into the narrative.

The film succeeds for me mainly because of the cast. Dulquer Salmaan (Adi), younger son of Malayalam cinema icon Mammootty, is very good with his rather annoying and cocky manner which is easily dealt with by Nitya Menen as Thara. The two work very well together and I found Nitya Menen delightful as an intelligent young woman who is very attractive but not a Bollywood fantasy woman. This couple is matched by veteran Prakash Raj as Ganapathay and Leela Samson as Bhavani. Leela Samson is a highly experienced dancer but this is her first film feature. She steals many of her scenes. Ratnam’s skill is to use her character’s Alzheimer’s in such a way that we realise its serious implications yet she can also be the deflater of serious moments. I won’t spoil the narrative but I agree with those commentators who see the older couple’s intense love as an important element of the film.

At this point it seems that OK Kanmani is a big hit with the public in South India and abroad in North America. There isn’t a Hindi version but a Telugu version was released at the same time as the Tamil. Nitya Menen has appeared in earlier Telugu films. Some of the younger critics in India and especially those most interested in the new ‘independent’ Indian cinema have criticised OK Kanmani for its lack of adventure in its depiction of the city and for its weak ending. I’ll agree with this last point, the narrative ‘resolution’ was a disappointment for me but that doesn’t negate the sheer pleasure I got from most of the film. This is a mainstream romance and most audiences will thoroughly enjoy it on that basis. My faith in Mani Ratnam remains.

Official trailer:

Lingaa (India 2014)

Rajinikanth as the Raja in 1939

Rajinikanth as the Raja in 1939

On December 12th Lingaa was released on 4,000 screens worldwide. This release by one of global cinema’s biggest stars was not mentioned by the mainstream press in the UK. The film begins with the legend ‘Super Star . . . Rajni’. And there is no other superstar quite like Rajnikanth (also spelt Rajinikanth), here with a new film on the very day of his 64th birthday. Hospitalised a couple of years ago, Rajni has returned in 2014 with two films. After the ‘motion capture’ film Kochadaiiyaan comes this classic masala film in which Rajni, under layers of make-up and accompanied by a swarm of body doubles, plays two roles as he did in Endhiran, dancing and performing stunts as of old.

Lingaa is interesting for several reasons, not least the marriage of traditional Indian popular film conventions with extensive CGI and some self-reflexive jokes about Rajni himself and this kind of audience-pleasing film. In fact, many of the Indian reviews make the point that the film is as much about Rajni as about the character he plays – at one point the character blows out a candle on his own birthday cake. How many stars are able to co-ordinate birthdate and release date like this?

The narrative involves a contemporary crisis moment for a group of villages near a huge dam in the hills around Madurai in Tamil Nadu (although the film was shot in Karnakata). A devious local politician has a plan to destroy the dam for his own purposes. If I’m not quite clear how this is supposed to work, blame Cineworld’s projection standards since for the first 15 minutes or so the English subtitles weren’t properly on screen and I could only read the occasional line. But just as I was resigning my self to three hours of guesswork, the problem was solved. The elderly village guardian of the temple announces that the only way to defeat the politician’s plans is to find the grandson of the Raja who built the dam during 1939-44 and who locked the temple gates when he was driven out by the British. (The temple was built to protect the dam and at its centre is a lingaam – a phallus) Unfortunately, the grandson has become a sophisticated criminal specialising in heists and he is disinclined to recognise the grandfather who in his opinion condemned the family to poverty.

The grandson is found and persuaded to return to the village and a long flashback details how and why the dam was built. In the final section the grandson saves the day. Both grandfather and grandson are played by Rajni with two different (but visually similar) young female leads playing the modern village girl who is a reality TV presenter (Lakshmi – Anushka Shetty) ensnaring the criminal and the 1939 village girl who helps Lingeswaran to build the dam (Bharathi – Sonakshi Sinha). Rajni reportedly said that dancing with the two much younger women was more difficult than the action scenes, but his unique personality comes across even through the layers of make-up and hair pieces.

Rajini minus the make-up with his two leading ladies, Anushka Shetty (left) and Sonakshi Sinha at the audio launch for the film.

Rajini minus the make-up with his two leading ladies, Anushka Shetty (left) and Sonakshi Sinha at the audio launch for the film.

If Lingaa is subjected to too much scrutiny it doesn’t hold up. There are numerous ‘mistakes’ in chronology and the casting of the evil young British collector (and the other British roles) doesn’t work at all. But the film is enormous fun and it has great vitality. In the trailer below you’ll spot the musical numbers that play with scenes from Mission Impossible and Pirates of the Caribbean. The modern day criminal has a small group of henchmen/stooges and I was constantly reminded of 1940s Hollywood and the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope ‘Road films’. At one point one of the stooges demands that the action be speeded up as “there is another show coming on soon” (Lingaa runs to over three hours with its Intermission). At another point there is a joke about A.R. Rahman’s music. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is one of Rahman’s best scores but perhaps it will grow on me.

Lingaa has first appeared in Tamil and Telugu versions, the two biggest South Indian language cinemas which together rival Hindi cinema. The Hindi version will appear on December 26. Overall this will be the biggest pan-Indian release of 2014. Rajni also has a large fanbase in South-East Asia as well as the diasporas in Europe and North America. He is also well-loved in Japan. The film has been generally well-received as good value entertainment. But it does also have some interesting political statements. A highlight is the speech that the Raja delivers to the workers from the villages after British attempts to undermine progress. He exhorts them all as Indians, irrespective of caste or creed, to work together for India, a potent message during the Second World War and the rise of the Independence movements. This same message crops up during an attack on a train carrying Lingeswaran during his earlier period as a British Collector (he is a Cambridge-trained engineer and a senior member of the Indian Civil Service). The attack has echoes of Zhang Yimou’s wu xia films – The Curse of the Golden Flower).

Most of all Lingaa is about Rajni and the fans are already turning out in their droves. Early reports are that the film has joined the ‘100 crores club’ after just 3 days worldwide. (That’s around £10 million if my arithmetic is correct.)

Rajnikanth is one of the Indian cinema stars featured in Chapter 10 of The Global Film Book which also discusses the previous Rajni starrer Endhiran.

Official trailer (Tamil version):

Biriyani (India 2013)

Sugan (Karthi) and Priyanka (Hansika Motwani). Parasu (Premgi Amaren) is in the background.

Sugan (Karthi) and Priyanka (Hansika Motwani). Parasu (Premgi Amaren) is in the background.

In the last couple of years the UK exhibitor Cineworld has expanded its releases of Tamil films beyond London, showing them in areas like Bradford where the local South Asian languages are more likely to be Urdu, Punjabi or Bangla. Previously I have had to watch major Tamil films in Hindi dubs in local multiplexes but now there are Tamil releases – but usually only showing once nightly and too late for public transport. Biriyani therefore marks a change – a major Tamil release which has matched the screening schedules of Hindi releases, showing several times a day for the first couple of weeks. Since much of my experience of Tamil cinema has been with the acclaimed films of Mani Ratnam/Rajiv Menon or Shankar, I was keen to see something more solidly mainstream.

Biriyani is a major production directed by Venkat Prabhu and starring Karthi. Like blockbuster productions in other industries, the film has been trailed for over a year and then subject to various changes of release date (releases are often timed for religious holidays). Shooting was extended over many weeks in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu as well as in Hyderabad. The film was finally released in December 2013 on over 1,000 screens ‘worldwide’ in both Tamil and Telugu versions.

Outline

The two central characters are Sugan (Karthi) and Parasu, two bright graduates in Chennai. One is very successful with women, the other is not. Their actual employment details are unclear but the plot sees them helping to launch a new motor dealership (lots of product placement for Mahindra).  This involves Sugan upstaging his on-off girlfriend, a local TV reporter and impressing a local business tycoon with the help of Parasu’s IT skills. Later, the two men, who are fond of a drink, find themselves at a biriyani food outlet on the highway where they meet a femme fatale, Maya. They awake the next morning to find a corpse in their car. How did it get there? What have they done? Why are they being chased by the police?

Commentary

The film actually starts with a flashback from the point where the central pair are being chased by the police. This takes us to the Intermission (in a film lasting 149 mins) and the second half provides the climax and an explanation of the mystery. This is a mainstream masala movie structured as a ‘buddy movie’ involving a murder mystery, film noir, action, romance and comedy. ‘Romance’ is perhaps the weakest element and more emphasis is placed on action and (black) comedy – the film has had some censorship difficulties because of the violence levels. I was surprised by the extent of the drinking and this was first Indian feature I’ve seen with the frequent on-screen warnings about excessive alcohol use (rather like the warnings on cigarette packets). I was also a little surprised by the more ‘open’ acknowledgement of sexual activity between some of the characters – i.e. in this kind of mainstream blockbuster. Overall, I felt that while the film shared the same ingredients as mainstream Hindi blockbusters, there was a real difference in how these ingredients were used by the filmmakers.

In my limited experience, Tamil films are sometimes more adventurous in their camerawork and use of effects – and, at the same time, somehow more ‘realist’, more ‘connected’ to local culture than their Hindi counterparts. Biriyani demonstrates this with a startling array of devices including motion capture, animation, references to social media technologies etc. The central characters are seemingly more wealthy than most of their audience given their lifestyle, but even so they don’t seem so divorced from mainstream Tamil culture. I was struck in the second half of the film how the plot developed so that a whole network of friends came to the aid of the central character played by Karthi – rather in the way of the group in a ‘new Bollywood’ film like Rang De Basanti.

One scene in particular highlighted the overall difference between Biriyani and many Hindi films. This was a song and dance sequence which appeared in the middle of a chase and involved a flash mob dancing on the platform of a Chennai railway station. I need to see the sequence again but as I understand it, it provided a new clue in unravelling the mystery, a different pleasure in enjoying the song and dance performance and a tribute to a local star (the object of the flash mob). All this gave the impression of being seamlessly shot in a public place with passengers looking on.

Overall, I found the film entertaining even if I didn’t enjoy most of the drinking and sexist jokes. I can see that some audiences would find the film too ‘tricksy’ in the way the plot is handled re the mystery (which also involves a supposed corruption investigation). The script cleverly uses references to the Hollywood hit comedy Hangover and also seeds clues and ‘pre-echoes’ of what might happen later, almost like a Hitchcock thriller.

Karthi and Hansika Motawi in one of the dance sequences which seems to refer to the stage sets of MGM musicals such as 'An American in Paris'

Karthi and Hansika Motwani in one of the dance sequences which seems to refer to the stage sets of MGM musicals such as ‘An American in Paris’

The film has a soundtrack composed by the prolific Yuvan Shankar Raja, youngest son of the legendary Ilaiyaraaja. I’m not in a good position to judge but it seemed good to me.

I’m pleased that Tamil cinema is getting a bigger profile in the UK but because the industry does not yet publish data on budgets, box office etc. in the same way as Hindi cinema, the industry does not have the profile it deserves in the international market. My own calculations suggest that in terms of films produced and audience numbers, Tamil cinema definitely figures in the international Top 10. There are something like 80 million Tamil speakers worldwide and in India the Tamil industry is well supported. Chennai rivals Mumbai as a production centre.

Mandy Takhar as Maya, the femme fatale

Mandy Takhar as Maya, the femme fatale

Actors and filmmakers move frequently between the various South Indian cinemas and also into Hindi and other Northern industries. In Biriyani, the two female leads are both from outside Tamil Nadu. Hansika Motwani is a Sindhi speaker born in Mumbai and Mandy Takhar who plays the femme fatale is ‘Punjabi-British’ and from Wolverhampton. If you haven’t seen a Tamil film, now is your chance to experience a different popular Indian film. I could have gone to see Dhoom 3, but I think I made the right choice.

Official studio trailer: 

Nanban (Friend, India 2012)

The three college students played by (from left) Jeeva, Srikanth and Vijay

Remakes are a way of life in the popular Indian film industries. Hollywood is always a source of ideas as well as films from other major industries – ‘unofficial remakes’ – but the main traffic in remakes is between the different language cinemas. Many titles are made in one language and then simply dubbed into one or more others. Sometimes films are made in two languages almost simultaneously by the same director – most famously by Mani Ratnam with Raavan/Raavanan (2010) and Yuva/Ayitha Ezhuthu 2004 – in each case a Hindi and a Tamil production with different casting. Most common , however, is the simple remake of say a Malayalam film as a Tamil production or a Telugu film as a Hindi production.

Nanban is one of the major Tamil films of the year, a blockbuster aiming at the religious festival period which includes Pongal and lasts from 13-16 January. Nanban is a remake, but not just any remake. It is the official Tamil remake of one of the biggest-selling Bollywood titles of all time, 3 Idiots (2009) starring Amir Khan. To meet this challenge the producers Gemini Film Circuit hired Shankar, the successful director of the last two blockbusters from Superstar Rajnikanth, Sivaji and Endhiran.

In my posting on 3 Idiots I expressed my disappointment in the failure of screenwriter Abhijat Joshi and director Rajkumar Hirani to properly represent the satire on the education system offered by the novel Five Point Someone by Chetan Bhagat. The bad news is that Nanban uses the Joshi/Hirani script almost to the letter and therefore suffers from the same problems associated with changes in character roles and insertion of comedy routines at the expense of satire and observation about higher education in India. The good news, from my perspective, is that Nanban is even more enjoyable on its own terms and is arguably a ‘better’ film – whatever that means.

I’m prejudiced because I tend to prefer Tamil films to Bollywood. It isn’t a fair comparison I know because I’ve only seen the best of Tamil Cinema and I suspect that the routine mainstream Tamil features are not quite the same. The problem has been that we simply don’t get the UK Tamil releases up here in West Yorkshire. But for some reason, Cineworld decided this year to screen two Tamil films in their original language during the January festival season in Bradford. Usually we have to make do with a Hindi version (e.g. of Raavan and Robot – the Hindi dub of Endhiran). I’m guessing that there are very few Tamil speakers in Leeds/Bradford – a few hundred at most – whereas there are many thousands of Urdu/Hindi speakers. The question is, how many of the Urdu/Hindi speakers in the South Asian diaspora want to read English subtitles in order to access a Tamil film? I don’t know, but in the afternoon showing of Nanban there were just three people in the audience, one of whom might have been a Tamil speaker. I should stress that Nanban has done very well in the UK. Over the opening weekend it took £113,000 from just 24 prints (across the UK – see locations here) with a screen average of over £4,700 for No. 13 in the chart – and all this from a new independent distributor ‘RJ Overseas’. I wonder what they will make of the experiment? I hope it continues.

So why do I prefer Nanban to 3 Idiots? I think that there are three reasons:

1. The casting offers four younger actors for the ‘3 idiots’ and the principal’s daughter. It’s interesting that the production used two Tamil actors, Srikanth and Jeeva, who closely resemble Madhavan (once himself a Tamil star) and Sharman Joshi. Vijay, very much a rising star in Tamil Nadu, takes the Aamir Khan role and  Ileana D’Cruz takes the Kareena Kapoor role. All four were believable as both students in their early twenties and successful young thirty somethings. I was amazed to discover that Vijay was actually 36 when he made the film – even so, he’s eight years younger than Aamir Khan. The problem with the Bollywood version is not just that the stars are too old but that they are also so identifiable with a specific star persona. This is probably true of the Tamil stars too. I don’t know the Tamil star image, but the actors seemed to give performances less marked in this way.

2. Although the script sticks closely to 3 Idiots, the songs and their ‘picturisation’ are quite different. Shankar pulls out all the stops with shoots in Europe and the Andaman Islands. The songs themselves by Harris Jayaraj weren’t particularly memorable for me – but some of the lyrics (all of which were translated in the English subs) are extraordinary. One song includes the word ‘love’ sung in several different languages. Costumes, settings and camerawork work well together and the other feature of the film’s presentation is the use of animated inserts and visual effects – from companies in Hyderabad and Shanghai.

3. This is a bit more tricky. As a broad generalisation I would say that Nanban offers something closer to a representation of a ‘real India’. This is partly achieved through location shooting (the main location is a college in Tamil Nadu and Simla in the earlier film is replaced by Ootacamund and Coimbatore) and partly through casting. The minor characters root the film in the South. Many characters are darker-skinned and Dravidian in appearance. But . . . there seems to be an aversion to using darker-skinned young women for the dance sequences and on reflection I do think Shankar could be charged with a potentially racist portrayal of the sister of one of the three (i.e. the young man from a poor background). Both my viewing colleague and I winced at the portrayal of this young woman (the ‘joke’ is that no-one will marry her because she is ‘ugly’ – and ‘too dark’?). See a local response, arguing this point strongly. I’m reminded of the similar wince-inducing representations in the UK production, East is East (UK 2002).

On the whole, I enjoyed the film very much despite its failure to develop a strong satire and I was particularly impressed with Vijay. Even though I could predict every scene, I was entertained for the whole three hours and towards the end I was ridiculously moved by the very sentimental take on friendship – but then, I find it hard not to cry in Hollywood films sometimes.

Much of my initial interest in 3 Idiots was focused on how the film would perform internationally. Nanban hasn’t got quite the same level of initial international exposure, though it is out in North America, UK and Australia as well as Singapore and Malaysia. It may eventually find its way to South Korea and other parts of East Asia. Unfortunately it has already suffered quite badly from piracy – though most cinemas in Chennai were completely sold out for the first five days before the film actually opened. A Telugu dubbed version opens in Andhra Pradesh on 26 January (some of the Tamil stars have a following in Telugu Cinema).

Gemini HD Trailer (no English subs):

Malaysian Cinema Part 2: Exhibition

The Veenai Odeon in Georgetown, Penang – built before 1960 and now the only traditional cinema in Penang showing the latest Tamil releases.

In most film territories around the world, screens are dominated by Hollywood and popular ‘domestic’ cinema. Malaysia is a striking exception in that although Hollywood is present and overall takes the largest proportion of the nation’s box office takings, it nevertheless has to share the pot with films from the three different film cultures representing Malaysia’s principal ethnic groups plus a significant minority of films from elsewhere in Asia.

There are at least a couple of useful websites covering film in Malaysia and I’m going to use these alongside the annual Focus International Market Reports and some primary research based on newspaper cinema listings.

Malaysia as a film market

To place the Malaysian film market in perspective, according to Focus 2010, Malaysia is a ‘mid-market’ film territory, ranked alongside Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong (now increasingly enmeshed with the mainland Chinese market). Malaysia is relatively small (28 million population) but also relatively affluent with a per capita income well ahead of all the others, barring Singapore and Hong Kong (both, in a sense, ‘special cases’ in their roles as important financial centres and entrepôt ports). In 2009, Malaysia produced only 25 local titles but still managed to capture nearly 14% of its total box office. With total admissions of 44 million, Malaysia was well ahead of larger countries such as Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. The country is ‘underscreened’ and there is plenty of capacity for expanding the market. With a per capita attendance rate of only 1.59 visits per year (compared to the 4.63 of Singapore) we might expect to see expansion in the market.

What’s on?

The Star is one of the English language newspapers in Malaysia and on Saturday 22 January it carried display ads from Malaysia’s six major cinema chains, Cathay, Golden Screen, Lotus 5 Star, MBO, BIG Cinemas and TGV plus one single screen. I checked all the titles being advertised. Some were playing several times a day others only once and I was slightly confused by some of the ads for ‘de luxe screens’ – I wasn’t sure if I was double counting. Still, the results do reveal some of the interesting facets of Malaysian exhibition practice. Helpfully, the convention is to list the language of each title in the ad, so I am at least confident of the range of titles.

Here are the raw results which show the number of prints from each producing country/language across all screens.

Hollywood: 176

Domestic Malay: 53

Tamil: 75

Chinese (Mandarin & Cantonese): 47

Thai: 18

Japanese: 16

Indonesian: 6

Hindi: 5

Iranian: 3

South Korea: 2

What do these figures mean in actual film titles? The Hollywood films are usually either the family orientated blockbusters (Gulliver’s Travels and the latest Narnia film both played during our stay in Malaysia) or action titles such as Faster, Season of the Witch and The Tourist or comedies such as Meet the Parents.

The Malay language numbers refer almost exclusively to Khurafat with occasional listings for two other horror films. The Indonesian, Korean and Thai imports all seem to be horror or action. The ‘art film’ sector appears to be confined to Kuala Lumpur which boasts three cinemas screening the Iranian title The Song of Sparrows (the Iranian 2009 Academy Award entrant) and one showing Dhobi Ghat in Hindi (the other Hindi screenings are mainstream Bollywood). The Japanese title was the main new 3D offer – an important development in the face of Hollywood 3D domination. This is Shock Labyrinth 3D: House of Horror, a 2009 film by shlockmeister Shimizu Takashi which is very poorly rated on IMDB and is only now creeping around international markets.

Great Day (Malaysia 2011)

There were surprisingly few Chinese films on release in the period just before the New Year, but two titles stand out, Great Day and Homecoming are both family comedy-dramas for the New Year and both appear to be products of the domestic Malaysian-Chinese industry. The Yahoo Malaysia Movies website synopsis:

Great Day tells the story of two uncles who live in an old folks home. Aggravated by an argument and with the help of Ah Hock and Ultraman, the two men decide to escape from the home and find their children, just to show off whose children are better. The fun catches on with odd circumstances one after another, but in the end of the day it’s going to be a big reunion at the old folk’s home.

Homecoming

Homecoming is a Malaysia-Singapore co-production mining the generic possibilities in stories about Malaysians working in Singapore. Both these films, as far as I can see, include dialogue in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkienese and Malay and I suspect that they are also subtitled in English and/or Mandarin/Cantonese. They have a good chance of cleaning up before the arrival of the fifth sequel to the Hong Kong New Year Favourite All’s Well Ends Well. The other Chinese titles on offer are action films like Shaolin with Jacky Chan.

Kaatu Rani ('Queen of the Jungle')

The strong showing for Tamil films might possibly be explained by the local festivals at this time of the year (e.g. Thaipusam and Thai Pongal). There is usually at least one Tamil film in each large multiplex and also in traditional cinemas such as the Penang Odeon shown at the head of this post. Distributors take the current Tamil film release from India on a ‘day and date’ basis and these may last a couple of weeks. Siruthai is an action comedy, Kaavalan is a romantic drama and Aadukalam a sports film based on cockfighting in Madurai. At the same time, there appears to be a local Malaysian Tamil industry and I came across Kaatu Rani in a newspaper cutting from the New Straits Times. This local horror film was made for just RM180,000 (around £37,000) with local cast and crew but some post-production in India. After two première screenings in local cinemas the film was scheduled for an immediate DVD release. Subtitled in English the film will also be sold in Singapore, Sri Lanka and India.

This posting has ended up much longer than I thought, so I’ll discuss what I’ve found out about the Malaysian film industry generally in a third post.

Endhiran (The Robot, India 2010)

Aish and Rajni with a damaged hand from Chitti

Already quoted as the most expensive Indian film so far, Endhiran (the Tamil title – it is also dubbed into Hindi as Robot and Telugu as Robo) opens with something I’ve read about but not seen before – a credit for ‘Superstar Rajni’. Many (most?) South Indian stars have just the one name, but Rajnikanth doesn’t even bother with that. Promoted by his fans as India’s highest paid star, Rajnikanth plays opposite the Queen of Bollywood, Aishwarya Rai – who is of course equally at home in the South. She looks stunning throughout the film and she also looks like she’s having a wonderful time, pitching her performance perfectly so that it never topples into camp, but still radiates with her enjoyment.

Whatever anyone says about Rajnikanth, he sure works hard as he is on the screen for virtually the whole film and not just once but twice at the same time. The plot introduces us to Rajni as Dr. Vaseegaran, a scientist working in robotics who has produced a fully-functioning android robot, finished to look just like himself and named ‘Chitti’. ‘Vasee’ wants to present his robot to the Indian Army – to save the lives of those who might be killed on the battlefield. There is no suggestion as to how Vasee might have funded the years of work necessary to produce the robot – nor is there discussion of how much he might earn from the Army. This is a certain kind of Indian patriotism which reminded me of Mani Ratnam’s Roja and is referred to as ‘Tamil nativity’ by Indian film scholars. Two problems stand in Vasee’s way. He has neglected his girlfriend Sana (Aishwarya Rai) and his boss at the lab/research group, Dr. Bora is jealous. Bora (Danny Denzongpa) demands that Vasee improves Chitti’s intelligence so that he won’t attack people without reason – an interesting reference to Isaac Asimov’s ‘Three Laws of Robotics’. (The script for the film derived initially from work by the scientist and writer Sujatha who died just as the film was going into production.) As Vasee works on upgrading Chitti he succeeds in developing emotional responses in the robot – which inevitably means that he/it will fall for Sana. In the second half of the film Dr. Bora becomes more obviously the villain and in the final action scenes, Chitti is turned into a killing machine and duplicates himself many times in some amazing action scenes.

It’s hard to know where to begin evaluating a film like this. The cliché about Indian popular cinema is made flesh in the ‘masala movie’ – the ‘spice mixture’ of genre elements. Endhiran is the ultimate masala movie. There is romance (the scenes when Vasee is trying to win Sana back in the first third). There is science fiction with high-end visual effects, comedy is throughout and so is action. The songs and dances and are all there – and then there are the talking mosquitoes (!) and an animatronic baby shown in its ‘real’ mother’s womb.

To take the film on its own terms, I would argue that:

  • Rajni and Aishwarya Rai are very good – both together and separately. They are genuine stars with undeniable charisma and a chemistry on screen. The difference between Rajni and the Bollywood stars is that Rajni has remained a star for the ‘ordinary fan’. The former bus driver from Maharashtra doesn’t comport himself like an upper middle-class star who appeals more to NRIs.
  • The music from A R Rahman is also very good and the choreography by Prabhu Deva is excellent. The location shooting at Machu Picchu is a first, I think, and the interior sets work well with nods to Metropolis and Star Wars.
  • The CGI work from India, Hong Kong and Hollywood (The Stan Winston’s Studio work is evident in the nods to Terminator etc.) is incredibly inventive. I’m not familiar enough with Hollywood effects these days to make a real comparison but Endhiran‘s look pretty good to me.

Aishwarya Rai in one of the set piece dances

The Machu Picchu dance sequence

Overall, credit is due to director S. Shankar and cinematographer R. Rathnavelu for producing a film which matches Hollywood for less than half the cost. The reported budget is Rs. 162 crores (1,620 million or $36.5 million). It also easily matches and possibly exceeds Bollywood (i.e. Hindi Cinema). Reliable box office figures are hard to come by in India and especially in Tamil Nadu. What we know so far is that this film has broken records everywhere in its home state and amongst the diaspora in the Gulf and Malaysia. It performed only modestly in the North being outgunned by the Bollywood release Anjana Anjani. But in the UK, Endhiran triumphed. On just 30 screens it made No 11 in the chart with a screen average of nearly £10,000 or three times more than most of the other top entries. In North America it was even more sensational, making No 12 with a screen average of nearly $24,000 on just 64 screens. The Telugu version, Robo, was also on 36 screens and made over $5,000 per screen. In both the US and the UK, Endhiran outscored the Bollywood release despite showing on less screens.

Film fans in the South are unique. Rajni is treated like a demigod. There are unconfirmed reports that tickets in Chennai multiplexes were exchanging hands at Rs 1,000 or Rs 1,500 ($30 or more) – the usual price is Rs 100 or less. Some Chennai cinemas opened at 4.30 am to accommodate crowds. Even in Dubai, screenings began at 7.30 am. We watched the Hindi-dubbed version in Bradford in a more or less empty cinema in the afternoon. I wish we could have seen it in London with a wild Tamil crowd.

I need to see it again to work through everything that happens: I’m particularly interested in Vasee’s temper and the way in which he ‘mistreats’ the robot. But I think I can safely say that anyone truly interested in global cinema should go and see this in the cinema. If this is still ‘regional cinema’ I’ll start talking to mosquitoes! The latest news is that Shankar is thinking of re-making 3 Idiots as a Tamil film. I wish he would consider instead adapting Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States which takes a Punjabi guy to Chennai in pursuit of the girl he wants to marry. That could really bring North and South together.

Official website

YouTube trailer (the quality of the trailer does not match the film) from Sun Network, the major South Indian media conglomerate that wholly financed the film:

Mani Ratnam and three Raavans

Mani Ratnam with his star Aishwarya Rai, who plays Ragini in both versions of Raavan/Raavanan

Major Indian filmmaker Mani Ratnam looks set to achieve an increased global profile (not before time). He is scheduled to be honoured at the Venice Film Festival in September where both Hindi and Tamil versions of his new film based on characters from the Ramayana will be screened.

But will it do any good in the Western media? I fear perhaps not. The film exists in two versions made at the same time in Tamil (as Raavanan) and Hindi (Raavan) with a third dubbed version, titled Villain in Telugu (I think that this is a dub of the Tamil film). All three were launched domestically and internationally on June 18. In the UK the Hindi version went out on 52 prints but only 13 prints of the Tamil version were released. On the quietest weekend of the year in UK cinemas (during the opening stages of the World Cup) both versions were ahead of all other major titles in terms of screen averages – with the Tamil version attracting nearly twice as many punters per screen as the more widely distributed Hindi version. Both films made the Top 15. Reliance Entertainment released the Hindi version alongside the Tamil and the dubbed Telugu versions in North America where the company now owns 190 screens under the BIG Cinemas brand. The launch was on 40 screens in 20 cities. In India, the film is already being deemed a ‘super hit’ in the South but a ‘flop’ in the North.

Unfortunately, the two films are not being reviewed in the mainstream UK and US media to any great extent – and when they are, reviewers tends to be fairly clueless about what they are seeing. In the UK, the Guardian assigned the film to one of its assistant writers on film, Cath Clarke, and this is what she wrote (in its entirety):

“Bollywood golden couple Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan star in this absurdly extravagant melodrama, rife with cliches, song-and-dance showstoppers, macho action sequences and lush tourist board-approved landscapes. Bachchan plays low-caste tribal leader Beera, a Robin Hood figure who kidnaps the local police chief’s feisty wife (Rai) in retaliation for a crime crackdown. Maybe it’s the forest air, or a touch of Stockholm syndrome, but she takes a liking to her captor; heaven knows why since Bachchan hams it up like Toshirô Mifune at his most snarlingly crazy-eyed. Meanwhile, her husband (Vikram) gives chase, bearing down with the full weight of the law. Which is hardly surprising since flashbacks show what a cracking wife she is, fetching him his dinner while singing sweet songs and dancing alluringly.” (Guardian 18 June)

Clarke wants to attack what she sees as the film’s sexism, which is fair enough, but she seems unaware of the Ramayana connection or the basic conventions of Indian popular cinema. It’s an indication of the sub-editor’s lack of knowledge that the film is referred to as the Tamil version. (Abhishek Bachchan is not in the Tamil version – which sees Tamil star Vikram changing roles from police chief to abductor.) Just to pick up two other ways in which this review is wrong-headed. First, the motive for the abduction is not because of a ‘crime crackdown’ – as Clarke should have noticed in the second half of the film. Second, the (admittedly spectacular) forest scenes are not there because they are ‘tourist-board approved’, but because the Ramayana action is situated in the forest, the contemporary references need the forest (see below) – and of course, spectacular settings are part of the conventional generic mix in mainstream popular Indian Cinema. There are only a couple of choreographed dance sequences – most of the music score underpins narrative development.

But is the film any good you ask? I’m really not sure. I was never less than gripped throughout, but I want to see it again before making a final judgement. The easiest course is simply to pass you over to Srikanth on The Seventh Art website since his extended discussion is far better informed than I could manage (and there is a fascinating long discussion in the Comments section). Perhaps it is most useful if I fill in some background and focus on aspects of the global status of the film. I’ve only seen the Hindi version (around here Urdu is the major South Asian language) but I’ll hope to see the Tamil version on DVD.

Raavan is a recognisable Mani Ratnam film in two ways:

1. It teams him up with his usual collaborators – fellow Southerners, Santosh Sivan as cinematographer and A. R. Rahman as composer and with familiar stars: Bachchan and Rai. (The couple were in Ratnam’s previous film, Guru, 2007. Rai also appeared, in her first film role, in Ratnam’s 1997 Tamil feature, Iruvar.) Like all Ratnam’s films since the early 1990s, the production company was Madras Talkies, Ratnam’s own company.

2. It features a central relationship set against one of India’s major social/political issues – in this case the guerilla wars between the security services and Maoist groups in the forests of North/Central Eastern India.

It is different in the conscious attempt to replay one of India’s most famous stories – the Ramayana. An earlier Ratnam film Thalapathi (1991) did something similar with Mahabbaratha. That film too had a high profile because of the status of its Tamil superstar hero Rajnikanth, but I don’t think that Mani Ratnam made the references to the classical tale quite as prominent.

We know a lot more about what Mani Ratnam hoped to achieve with Raavan/Raavanan because the film has been so well promoted and marketed. The official website offers a press pack for both the Hindi and Tamil versions. Bachchan and Rai have promoted the film solidly through personal appearances, as has A. R. Rahman. The coverage has stimulated a great deal of interest – and, inevitably, some disappointment amongst fans and critics.

Ragini takes a fall, but is caught by a tree – a suitable metaphor for the performance of the film, 'falling' in Northern India but saved by the response in the south?

Global box office

I’m most interested in what the fate of the two film versions tells us about Indian Cinema and its profile in the global cinema market. When you begin to investigate the figures, some interesting conclusions can be drawn. Here is how I see it after the first weekend:

Global performance (both versions combined): $8.5 million from 2309 screens in 25 territories for a $3,708 screen average – placing it at No 8 in the chart but with a screen average at No 3. (Screendaily figures)

When we try to breakdown this figure, we can find some data on the major territories.

Box Office India reports a ‘disappointing’ overseas take of $391,000 in UAE and $143,00 in Australia. In North America the take was $480,000. However the North American figures do not distinguish between the language versions. The UAE and Australian figures similarly do not seem to include Tamil figures.

IBOS often seems to me to be a highly dubious source of box-office data. On several previous occasions I’ve seen statements about films being a flop or ‘disaster’ only for the film to go on to produce healthy results (e.g. My Name is Khan). The website seems more intent on ‘bringing down’ superstars rather than actually reporting data carefully. In this posting, IBOS offer a damning report on ‘box-office failure’:

“Reliance Big Pictures’s claiming a Rs. 53 crore combined weekend worldwide gross for Raavan with the Hindi Raavan collecting 38 crores in opening weekend, the Tamil version Raavanan collecting 11 crores and Telugu Villain only 4 crores. [A crore is 10 million.]”

There are two problems here. One is that there are no official collection figures for either Tamil or Telugu films published for public consumption. The other problem for IBOS is that although Reliance seem to have most of the distribution rights for the film, in the UK the distributor is Ayngaran International for the Tamil version – following a long collaboration with Madras Talkies. Ayngaran is now part of Eros, a major competitor for Reliance. Ayngaran has also held onto the rights for all other territories outside India (but presumably has done a deal in North America), so I wonder how accurate these ‘worldwide’ figures from IBOS are? If you want to see the Tamil version it is now playing on 15 sites in the UK and also in Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Singapore, Denmark, France, Holland and Germany as well as the US. All the cinemas showing the film are listed on Ayngaran’s website.

It would seem that the film has done reasonably well in Tamil Nadu where audiences generally have a more favourable response to films with classical references. Another report I’ve read suggests that because there was an unusual 5 day holiday in the state to coincide with a major ‘cultural conference’, the release was well-timed. Even so, we are left with what IBOS suggests is the clincher. The total production budget (funded by Reliance) was 100 crores, requiring a box office of 200 plus crores to break even. IBOS (rather gleefully it seems to me) suggests that the film won’t make this. Another news report suggests a wave of pirate copies and bit torrent downloads is undermining the release. Finally, the 4 crores box office for the Telugu version is heralded as evidence of a hit by Entertainment1 India. This is film in India today, but I think I’ll wait another couple of weeks before accepting all these figures. For the moment, I’d just urge anyone who gets the chance to watch any of the three versions of the film and make up their own minds.