This review contains light spoilers.
I miss Suriya. I really do. I know, I know, he hasn’t been missing and consistently stars in one or two movies every year. But I miss the Suriya who actually used to act. There was a time in the early 2000s where Suriya wasn’t just one of the best actors in India, but the world. Under the guidance of directors Bala and Gautham Menon, Suriya performed in some of the more riveting Indian films of the time.
I consider his big four to be Nandha, Mounam Pesiyadhe, Kaakha Kaakha, and Pithamagan. And I would also throw in Mani Ratnam’s Ayitha Ezhuthu and A.R. Murugadoss’ Ghajini into the mix. But that version of Suriya is no more, replaced with a version of Suriya whose broad acting range has been reduced to two defaults: “Charming smile” and “angry screams.”
In Vignesh Shivan’s Thaana Serndha Kootam, Suriya is once again the sometimes smiling, sometimes screaming (though, thankfully not as loud and frequent as seen in the Singam franchise) mass hero, except this time in colourful 80s make up. Which brings us to the first issue I have with this film. Why is it set in the 80s?
Usually, when a movie is set in a particular time period that isn’t the present, there is a purpose. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is set in the 1910s because it is the origin story of a character who is more than a hundred years old, whose first major accomplishment is putting an end to World War I. Apparently, Thaana Serndha Kootam is set in the 80s because Vignesh Shivan’s wanted to have song sequences where his characters donned funky colours. I guess this is more of an observation than an issue or criticism. After all, the 80s setting doesn’t detract from the detract; It just does nothing for it.
Thaana Serndha Kootam starts off in an interesting fashion, with Iniyan (Suriya) accompanying his friend who’s at a job interview at a police station. The police officer says that in order to be appointed, they need to pay a large sum of money. Iniyan quips before slapping the police officer and then…
KICKASS OPENING SONG!!
Once again, this is composer Anirudh at his very best (when is he not at his best?). I would be surprised if Sodakku isn’t the best Indian dance anthem of 2018. This is a great song with a decent dance sequence, that would have been much better had it been Vijay or Dhanush grooving instead of Suriya, which is once again more of a random thought than actual criticism.
Unlike his friend, Iniyan aspires to be a CBI officer. But he too fails the interview because of the corrupt system. And that is what Thaana Serndha Koottam is about — the corrupt system, the money hungry assholes that run it and how it ruins the lives of honest, capable folk.
Iniyan assembles a ragtag crew of colourful personalities who have been screwed over by the system and begin raiding the corrupt, posing as CBI officers. This is revealed in a twist of sorts — and boy, are there twists and turns at every corner here. Initially, the tone throws you off. Where did Ramya Krishnan come from? Why is she suddenly a CBI officer too? And why on earth is she overacting, riding the fine line between serious and comedic? Only after the first raid, which is a gut-busting, laugh out loud sequence is it revealed that these are a bunch of jokers posing as CBI officers. Immediately the movie becomes that much more interesting.
Vignesh Shivan has a distinct style and for that, he deserves applaud. Stylistically, Thaana Serndha Kootam isn’t like any mass-masala we have seen before. We got a glimpse of this unique style in his directorial debut, Naanum Rowdy Dhaan, but here, it is on full display. Vignesh Shivan establishes a comedic bounce at the start of the film and never lets go of it. The funnies are there throughout, even in the most serious of scenes. The characters always seem to be winking at the camera as if to say, “Hey! We know we’re in a movie, so let’s just play around.”
It’s an interesting concept for sure, which many people are going to love. And while I do enjoy watching movies like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok for taking this approach as well, these types of movies just don’t stick with me. I prefer movies to be earnest, where characters don’t behave like they know they’re in a movie. I want the worlds that are set up in each film to feel real. I want there to be a sense of danger and be emotionally moved by it. This movie will not move you emotionally, at all.
Even so, there are moments of brilliance to be found here. Quite often, this movie plays like a deconstruction of your typical Indian masala. In one scene, Iniyan comes home and tells his dad about his job interview. Iniyan says he gets the job, but the dad knows he’s lying. Iniyan and his dad get into an argument. The dad goes into the bedroom. Minutes go by and the dad doesn’t come out. An air of tension starts to fill the frame. Iniyan starts banging on the door. No response. He calls out to his dad. No response. F**k! We know where this is heading. We know what has happened. The music swells….. and the dad opens the door. Wait, what? “Can’t you even let me use the toilet in peace?… Why would I commit suicide if you didn’t get a job?” AMAZING.
The problem is, the movie doesn’t commit. It wants to be different, but it also wants to be the same. The tone is messy at times and that is bothersome. If you want to make an all-out ridiculous (in a smart way) deconstruction of a masala flick then go all out. Don’t laugh at the suicide cliche in Tamil movies and then go on to include an actual suicide scene immediately after.
Vignesh Sivan’s treatment of the female characters is commendable. Ramya Krishnan has a prominent role in this movie that requires her to actually perform. Here she has two personalities (no, she’s not Anniyan). When she’s at home, she’s a loving mom with so many kids, even she can’t remember all their names. When she’s part of Iniyan’s crew, she’s a badass named Janshi Rani, a character like Sivagami in Baahubali except with a comedic twang.
There is also a great exchange somewhere at the start of the movie between Iniyan’s friend and his wife. When Iniyan’s friend comes home from the job interview, he sees his wife talking to a man. He asks her, “How can you let another man into our house and talk to him when you’re married?” To which she replies something along the lines of “Stop being self-righteous. You’re someone who can’t land a job and can’t put food on the table for your family. Once you do that, you can school me. You’re a suspicious fool, but it’s because of you I had to borrow money from that man.”
There’s also a line where Suriya’s Iniyan says he has fallen in love with Keerthy Suresh’s Madhu because of her wits and courage. She also doesn’t let him toy with her feelings in an alpha-male fashion. The whole notion of “women should chase men” that was once mentioned in Rajnikanth’s Baasha is flipped on its head. Here gender doesn’t matter. Both can do the wooing. I do find it baffling that Vignesh Shivan didn’t include Keethy Suresh as part of the ragtag crew. She isn’t as bad a character as say Tamannah in every single movie that isn’t named Baahubali, but a simple fix could have made her much more prominent.
We’re later introduced to Karthik’s character, Kurinji Vendhan. He’s the badass higher ranking officer the CBI calls when they’re unable to catch the CBI imposters. His introduction is interesting. We see him as a relentless cop, who will shoot you, regardless of who you are, if you’re a bad person. His methods may be unhinged, but he’s a good man. Except in the last act of the movie, he becomes an asshole. Then he becomes a good man again. Karthik’s performance is excellent, but his character is all over the place.
In fact, the story as a whole feels all over the place. It’s as if Vignesh Shivan had all these ideas to set up the movie but didn’t know what to do with them all. Like the one corrupt CBI character who’s initially set up as the villain. You would expect that in the end, Iniyan will expose his wrongdoings and Kurinji Vendhan will put a bullet through his temple. But that entire set up is just ignored COMPLETELY, for a climax that has our hero screaming some righteous messages — Good God, haven’t we had enough of this? — and then more twists and turns that are boring and unnecessary.
I am going to give this movie a slightly higher rating than I initially wanted to after walking out of the cinema because of Vignesh Shivan’s unique style and vision. He’s willing to experiment and that’s always something that directors, especially young ones, should do. But this experiment is very much a hit or miss. The tone is all over the place and Vignesh Shivan gets lost in his own twists and turns. I left feeling underwhelmed. 2018 is billed as one of the biggest years in the Tamil side of Indian cinema, particularly where mass-masalas are concerned. But this is a rocky start. A+ for Anirudh, though.
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