Vathikuchi is written and directed by debutant P. Kinslin, produced by A. R. Murugadoss, and features the acting debut of Murugadoss’s brother Dileepan. Dileepan plays Sakthi, who lives on the outskirts of Chennai with his parents and sister, and works as an autorickshaw driver. The structure of the film is relatively sophisticated, with a present-day storyline involving Sakthi’s crush on his neighbour Leena, played by Anjali, and numerous flashbacks showing how he unknowingly made enemies of three different people. First, he is robbed by some thugs outside an ATM, but later beats them and their leader up and gets his money back. As a result the leader (played by Sampath Raj) loses respect and ends up destitute. Next, he foils an assassination attempt against a man and his family, making an enemy of the gangster who ordered the assassination (played by Jayaprakash) (this storyline was hard to grasp without subtitles). Finally, a neighbour of Sakthi’s (played by Jagan) has a plan to extort money from a wealthy man – maybe by kidnapping his son? However, the wealthy man helps Sakthi when he is involved in a traffic accident, and as a result of Sakthi’s presence in the wealthy man’s life the extortion plan fails. At the end of the film these three enemies come together to give Sakthi basically the worst 48 hours ever. The final flashback shows us how Sakthi managed to overcome his enemies and is, I think, delightfully cheeky.
The thing I loved about this movie is that while it has the main elements of Tamil masala – a romantic subplot as an excuse for songs, a hero who can beat up a gang of thugs by himself – it has much less of the fantastical which is usually also found in masala. Instead it is rather firmly grounded in reality. This is seen in where Sakthi lives with his family – a series of tiny, identical houses set out on a grid; in the way characters are dressed – his mother’s ‘ugly’ printed cotton saris, Leena’s pant/tunic/scarf combinations; even the villains are more realistically drawn, rather than being dressed in shiny suits and holding court on the ground floor of tacky mansions. And the way Sakthi overcomes his enemies also makes a nod to the more realistic which, as I mentioned, I found quite cheeky, and delightfully so. In this way, it reminded me of a favourite film of mine, Suseenthiran’s Naan Mahaan Alla, which also took entertaining masala elements and grounded them in a more realistic setting. I’d be happy to see this approach become more of a trend in Tamil cinema. I think this is a good debut for Dileepan, who is completely convincing and endearing as the everyman autorickshaw driver, a part which would not have been as effective with a more established actor in the role. I also really liked Anjali’s love interest character, who is taking English lessons, wants a good job in the city, and can do better than an autorickshaw driver, she tells Sakthi at one point (she changes her mind once she learns of his various exploits). She and her girlfriends like to get together to practice their English and hang out at the mall – this segues into a song that is ostensibly about shopping, but I think is more about aspirations toward upward mobility. Finally, many Tamil masala films end abruptly right after the climactic fight scene, so I liked that Vathikuchi includes a coda that shows Sakthi reunited with Leena and his family. This movie deserves to be successful and I hope it eventually gets a nice DVD release with good English subtitles.
Paradesi is the latest film from director Bala. Set in the late 1930s and early 1940s it tells the story of a group of villagers who are tricked into becoming indentured labourers on a tea plantation. The movie starts out strong, introducing us to our protagonist Rasa (beautifully portrayed by Adharvaa Murali), a kind of ‘town cryer’ who beats his drum and makes announcements in his village, his love interest, the spunky to the point of being bullying Angamma (portrayed by the fetching Vedhicka), their friends – a pair of newlyweds, and various family members. The first half is an hour long and goes by quickly. The movie makes us care about these people and then, after the interval, makes us watch as they suffer terribly while labouring on the tea plantation. Unfortunately, after the interval the movie also takes some major missteps that completely ruin its credibility. The decision was made to portray the British plantation owners as drunken buffoons, and maybe the source material did describe them that way (the movie takes its inspiration from incidents mentioned in the 1969 novel Red Tea by Paul Harris Daniel). In that case, an effort should have been made to cast actors who could portray drunkenness realistically. Instead, we get what seems like a group of white tourists rounded up by some casting agent who ‘act drunk’ like a bunch of kids in a high school play. After casting proper actors to play the British characters, they should have found proper voice actors to do the dubbing. In 2013 there is absolutely no excuse for a British plantation owner to have an American accent and his fellow plantation owners to sound vaguely German. Finally, some research into what British plantation owners would’ve worn in the late 1930s and early 1940s should have been done, and costumes created accordingly. Instead we get what looks like, again, a bunch of white tourists at a truly dire fancy dress party. Effort was obviously put into making the Indian characters look historically accurate – their clothes, their jewellery, and even their hair. The fact that the same effort was not put into making the British characters look historically accurate is inexplicable to me. All the scenes featuring British characters feel like they belong in a completely different movie, and as a result any impact the movie could have had is totally deflated.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, towards the end of the film an Indian Christian doctor and his British wife are introduced. They are brought in to treat the labourers who are dying of some unnamed disease. Instead, they turn out to be more interested in converting the labourers to Christianity. At one point they break into a lively song-and-dance that includes making the sign of the cross as a dance move and has them chucking communion loaves into the crowd of labourers. The woman’s bob turns out to be a wig which falls off to reveal a pixie cut (as a white woman with a pixie cut of my own I don’t even know how to react to that). It’s horrible, and not a little offensive. Again, the decision to present the Christian missionaries in this way, rather than with the seriousness with which the other indignities that befall the labourers are presented, is inexplicable to me. Paradesi was supposed to participate in the Cannes film festival this year, but was pulled out so it could receive an overseas release instead. And thank goodness for that. Bala is a true auteur, and his previous films may have merited an international platform. But not this one.