The Verdict: Suraj Venjaramoodu, Akshay Kumar and the return of MGR

September’s report card is here – a superlative Suraj Venjaramoodu in Kaanekkaane, Arvind Swami heralding the return of MGR in Thalaivii and an Akshay Kumar film that never feels compelling.

In this column published every month, I single out The Best, The Worst and The Most Unexpected across Indian film and television in the month gone by. Consider it a report card. In September, a father investigated his daughter’s death, a secret agent battled hijackers badly, and a Tamil movie icon was brought alive — again.

The Best

Kaanekkaane (SonyLiv)

Halfway through Manu Ashokan’s Kaanekkaane, a character is struck by a massive blow. It shakes him to the core, wounds him, leaves him reeling… Yet he collects himself and walks to a tea stand. He buys a glass, sits calmly by the road, drinks the tea and — as if also swallowing the bitter truth — finally allows himself to break down. Suraj Venjaramoodu, who was so terrific in The Great Indian Kitchen a few months ago, shines in this Malayalam drama as Paul Mathai, an older gentleman, a bereaved father left haunted by his loss.

Right from the start, that loss seems to be entirely his own. His grandson has all but forgotten his mother, his son-in-law has remarried, and people advise Paul to drop legal proceedings against the truck driver who accidentally hit his daughter. Is there a point in taking action against someone who made a mistake? Paul is fixated with responsibility; the accident may be a mistake, but leaving an injured woman on the side of the road is an act of malice. To him, the culprit is a criminal for abdicating responsibility. For making no attempt to right the wrong.

In this murky, sensitive film, Paul stumbles upon truths that break his heart, and while his quest for comeuppance defines Kaanekkaane, concerns similar to his own are echoed by his adversaries. His son-in-law Allen (Tovino Thomas) is trying to be a good parent in his own way, as is Allen’s new father-in-law, who is just trying to look out for his own daughter. Paul expresses his life’s desires modestly with a masterfully written monologue — one of his wishes is to befriend his grandson a bit — knows it is too late for his own dreams, but that he could find succour in justice.

What, however, does delayed justice serve? The greatest strength of Kaanekkaane, written by Bobby and Sanjay, is that as Paul investigates and introspects, the film makes the audience wonder who they should be rooting for — and why. Tovino Thomas exposes the helplessly anguished Allen, plummeting in his own estimation. Aishwarya Lekshmi, as his new wife, displays her own guilt and her own expectations.

Paul, like the audience, observes them closely, his climactic choices dictated by what he learns about the characters and his hopes for them. All he wants, after all — as with the truck driver — is for the culprit to accept the extent of their mistakes. To own their guilt. That, if anything, may help Paul finally own his loss.

The Worst

BellBottom (Amazon Prime)

Apparently, Hindi filmmakers believe that the R in R&AW stands for Revenge. Nora Fatehi was brought into the Intelligence agency in Bhuj because she wanted to avenge her brother’s life, and now the primary motivator in BellBottom is Akshay Kumar’s character losing his mother to a hijack — which makes him the best candidate to ward off hijackers. A senior R&AW officer kidnaps him, tells him in cruelly graphic detail how his mother was killed, and then asks if he wants to join the service. “Game on or game off?”

Off would have been the right answer. Most things are in Ranjit M Tewari’s childish movie where Indira Gandhi (played, for some inexplicable reason, by Lara Dutta) speaks with a heavy Punjabi accent. The lesser said about the visual effects and action sequences the better. Kumar isn’t bad — he is never the worst thing in his movies — yet the film never feels compelling. It tries too hard to be cool but, everyone can’t carry off the generously flared pants of its title. It keeps tripping up.

The Most Unexpected

Arvind Swami in Thalaivii (Netflix)

Thalaivii is not a good film. The Jayalalitha biopic puts the ‘amma’ in ‘amateurish,’ yet Arvind Swami sparkles as a superlative MGR.

He isn’t called MGR, though. The film’s makers call him MJR, as if altering a letter of that revered name would work as disguise, and Swami conjures a lovely performance. He wears the actor’s demigod-like stardom elegantly, but with a sense of self-awareness, as if inhabiting an ornate costume. Not only does MGR cast a still-long shadow, but considering that the great Mohanlal also played MGR (back in Mani Ratnam’s 1997 film Iruvar) this is a particularly tough costume to fill.

Swami makes the part his own right from an early dining table scene where his wife tells him to cast a younger girl in his films to maintain the illusion of his own youth, with him reluctantly nodding approval as he eats. There is a deftness to the performance — especially when Swami mugs it up for the camera on screen, actually enacting the MGR films — and while this is a film about the leading lady, the gentleman waltzes away with it.

Raja Sen is a critic, author and screenwriter, currently working on a film he isn’t allowed to talk about.

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