28 August 2011

Cinemascope: Standby; Aadukalam

Pivotal issue lost in weak narrative


Director: Sanjay Surkar
Starring: Adinath Kothare, Siddharth Kher, Avtaar Gill, Dalip Tahil, Manish Chaudhary, Nagesh Bhosle, Reema Worah, Sachin Khedekar, Surendra Pal


Sanjay Surkar's film has several things going for it – good actors, a sharply-etched plot, and an issue that's been waiting to be made into a film: the politics of selection in Indian sport. Stand By's problem is that it never manages to transcend that "issue-based" quality, leaving its characters feeling like mere pegs on which the director wants to hang his point.

This is particularly sad because the actors are capable and well-cast, and given a bit more leeway, could have fleshed out the skeleton of Surkar's plot.

There is Rahul Narvekar (the wholesome-looking Adinath Kothare) a rising football star from a lower middle class Marathi family, whose bank employee father (Sachin Khedekar) has brought him up in the confines of a Mumbai chawl but taught him to dream big.

There is his friend and teammate Shekhar Verma (the gangly Siddharth Kher), son of a rich industrialist (Dileep Tahil) who assumes his son's talent and his own clout will certainly catapult Shekhar into the big league. But Shekhar's talent, such as it is, is frequently overshadowed by a belligerent sense of entitlement. Things get worse when Rahul is selected for the national team, while even his father's efforts can only get him listed as a stand by. An increasingly resentful Shekhar succumbs to his worst impulses, agreeing to be part of a conspiracy to somehow get his erstwhile friend out of the team so that he can get in. Surkar successfully creates the tense atmosphere of a well-fought match, or the suspense of a game in which we know there's going to be foul play. He manages also to evoke some of the nationalism that sports films drum up with such ease (think Chak de India). But he remains so narrowly focused on the backroom deals that plague team selection that we never quite get to know the team. Instead we're caught up in melodramatic events involving Shekhar's and Rahul's respective fathers, presented as rather too black-and-white models of parenthood and citizenship. The low production values and hopelessly distracting songs, with Swanand Kirkire's lyrics trying hard to rise above the laughable choreography, don't help. But hamhanded as it is, this is a film made from the heart.

Of rooster fights and forbidden romance


Director: Vetrimaaran
Starring: Dhanush, Tapasee Pannu, Kishore, Karunas, Daniel Balaji, Jayabalan


Released in January 2011, the Tamil film Aadukalam (Playground) did its makers proud in six categories at the the 58th National Film Awards: Best Director and Best Screenplay for Vetrimaaran, Best Editing, Best Choreography, Best Actor for Dhanush and a Special Jury Award for the veteran actor Jayabalan. Now out on DVD, Vetrimaaran's film joins the long line of recent Tamil films that have come to be referred to as Madurai cinema – the most famous being Paruthiveeran (2007), Subramaniyapuram (2008) and Mynaa (2010).

Like the other films in this increasingly well-defined genre, Aadukalam is a tragic love story that unfolds against the background of a complicated web of events in the streets of Madurai and its hinterland. We have again the poor, unkempt hero who is pure of heart but on the wrong side of the law, and the un-made-up heroine who is simple but strong-willed in opposition to her disapproving family.

But in Aadukalam, the romance between Karuppu (played with great conviction by the popular star Dhanush) and Irene (debutante Taapsee), the Anglo-Indian girl he falls in love with, is somewhat dwarfed by the parallel narrative: the world of rooster fighting. The plot revolves around the long-standing rivalry between Karuppu's roosterfighting guru, Pettaikaaran (the memorably gruff Jayabalan with his shock of white hair) and the local police bigwig, Rathnasamy. Pettai has decided he will no longer compete with the dishonest Rathnasamy, but the latter will stop at nothing to get him to agree to one last fight – lying, bribing and even murder. Finally, Pettai agrees, and the day of the big fight dawns. Rathnasamy has arranged for special roosters from Bangalore, their claws illegally fortified with a substance that will burn the other rooster when touched. Pettai forbids Karuppu to compete, but Karuppu secretly enters his rooster and manages to defeat Rathnasamy's bird three times running. Pettai feels upstaged and begins to plot his comeuppance...

Such are the intricate threads of which Aadukalam spins its web of jealousy and deceit. The love story at the core may seem simple, even simplistic, in comparison – but that is probably the truth of the world it depicts, where men's strongest emotions are reserved for the homosocial space of the street.

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