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Siraj Syed


Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 

 

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The Scorched Forest-Part I-The Kindling, Review: The Killing Fields

The Scorched Forest-Part I-The Kindling, Review: The Killing Fields

A twenty-one years old man, whose father died in an accident, is at the bottom end of the class pyramid. Living in abject poverty, he, his mother and sister, work as daily-wage labourers and have a huge debt to repay to a money-lender. The ‘man’ of the house chops (removes) harmful thorns from the plants and trees in a field, for a paltry sum, which is barely enough to help keep the kitchen fires burning. This beginning will give you no clue of what is to come, or what The Scorched Forest-Part I-The Kindling is all about. It is about two gangs of contract killers in Mumbai, and their bitter, murderous rivalry. Familiar territory to Hindi film buffs, this Tamil film, which has the Tamil title of Vendhu Thanindhathu Kaadu (The Scorched Forest)-Part I-The Kindling in an English sub-titled version, was shown to the media on Friday night, a day after its release. It is a mixed bag, with some originality but largely repeated situations and events. Except for its length, at 165 minutes, it is watchable.

Muthuveeran is at his job when the forest suddenly catches fire. He manages to escape by jumping over some plants, lands on his back. It is later found that he has some 20-30 thorns, the very thorns he had removed, embedded in his back. Those deep, bleeding wounds do not cause the rustic lad Muthu much pain, but when the owner of the forest comes to his home and asks to be paid a large sum as compensation for the destruction of the forest, which, he claims, was caused by Muthu’s ‘beedee’ (a type of thin, smaller cigarette, made out of rolled leaves and tobacco, tied together; smoked by millions in India), Muthu threatens to chop him down with the sickle. For his part, the owner says he will teach Muthu a lesson he will never forget. This gets his mother very worried, because she fears anything could happen if her headstrong son decides to take on the wealthy landlord.

Next morning, she takes him to a relative, who lives some distance away. He has settled in Mumbai, but has come back to build a house in the village, having made it big in Mumbai. The mother asks her relative for help to get her son a job, considering he is a B.Sc. Sympathetic to her cause, he offers to help Muthu get a job in a nearby village, but the mother pleads with him to send him to Mumbai, far away from the wrath of the landlord, and he accepts her request and books him a train ticket. Muthu is asked to sleep in that house while his mother is told to go and fetch his identity papers.

Co-incidentally, Muthu over-hears a phone conversation between the man and someone in Mumbai, and suspects that his benefactor might be involved in some underworld dealings. Moreover, he sees a gun lying around, which confirms his suspicions. In the night, the man gives Muthu an envelope, and asks him to post it in the morning, “at any cost”. In the morning, it is found that the man committed suicide by hanging himself. Muthu takes the gun, decides to go to the address on the envelope and find his job. He also plans to investigate the matter of his mentor’s suicide.

This is probably the 20th film written by B. Jeyamohan, putting together his Tamil, Malayalam and one Kannada efforts. His pen captures the raw earthiness of the village in the first few scenes very well, and then orchestrates the metamorphosis of that raw earthiness to cold, ruthless murders, by and in Mumbai’s South Indian gangs. Interestingly, the two gangs he has delineated are run by Tamilians (from the South Indian state of Tamilnadu) and Keralites (from Tamilnadu’s neighbouring state of Kerala), and there are no Maharashtrians, who are the locals in Mumbai, involved.

He brings in a lady called Durga, as the Big Boss’s spokes-person, who could be a South Indian, from the way she speaks, and the Big Boss, who has a Muslim name, Raoof, rather late into the story. While Durga intervenes in the mob rivalry, the Big Boss dishes out commands on video calls. Charting gangster operations and inter-gang rivalry is not a challenging proposition, but the crux lies in the detailing. One gang uses a ‘parotta’ (the South Indian version of the North Indian ‘paratha’; a flat, round, oily bread) shop-cum-restaurant as a front, while the other operates under the guise of a hair cutting salon.

Co-incidences are almost always the easy way to push a story forward, but here, the meeting of Muthu and Sridharan at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Train Terminus, both South Indians, both having come to Mumbai to escape poverty and seek jobs, both asking each other the way to their destinations, and the two landing up in opposing camps, one at the ‘parotta’ shop while the other at the salon, have a tremendous bearing on the story. Instead of becoming rivals, they become friends. Muthu will become a hoodlum in the Tamilian Kajee’s squad while Sridharan will end up being made to work as a sex slave to the gang’s boss, Kutty Nair. Coming to the woman in Muthu’s life, this track is an example of poorly written screenplay. Named Paavai and speaking good Hindi, she works in a ready-made garment shop, where Muthu goes to buy underwear. It is love at first sight for him, while she is guarded. How the relationship develops is probably among the weakest links in the tale.

After endless, staggered titles, one reads that the film is directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon, who also owns an advertising agency. Menon was born in Kerala to a Keralite father and Tamilian mother, and grew-up in Tamilnadu. This fact must have stood to his great advantage in characterisations. In between all the mayhem, he gives enough scope to his main artistes, and a few supporting cast, to get under the skins of their characters. The ease with which poker-faced Muthu, using a gun for the first time, starts shooting effortlessly, and gets all eight shots bang on target, resulting in eight corpses, is unconvincing. As is the ambivalent attitude of Paavai, who seems to dilly-dally at first, then accepts Muthu’s advances, then pulls back again, then turns a deaf ear to his gun-toting and order-killing side, and agrees to marry him.

Menon must be commended for bringing back the lip-sync songs, a genre that is fast dying, although they stick out like sore thumbs with the brutal ambience in which they find their own niche. Watch the lead pair sing the lines, oblivious of the world around them, as they stand or walk or travel, with only the lines rendered, facing each other. The beginning and interlude music is left to have its own effect.

Perhaps Gautham Vasudev Menon felt that to counter-balance the gory gunning and throat-slitting, he needed to have several other non-violent tracks. The beginning was one such non-violent component. Then there is the romance. We then have the friendship between Muthu and Sridharan, next comes the camaraderie between Muthu and an older lieutenant of his own gang. Also included is a love story between Sridharan and Sapna, who works for his boss as a maid. I am avoiding mentioning the deviant sex slave angle is detail, which, quite obviously, has been almost totally removed by the sensors. A few lines of tell-tale dialogue remain. Granted the screenplay would have dictated these tracks, but Menon could have used directorial discretion. As it stands, all this has meant adding extra minutes to the story, which, in the end, strikes you as a chronicle of horrific crimes committed by the two gangs and the less than token presence of the police, not an emotional drama. Incidentally, Gautham directed the Hindi film Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Men, released at the turn of the century, a remake of his first Tamil film. One critic has accused Menon of copying scenes from Hongkong-based master director Wong Kar Wai’s films, an accusation that I cannot either second or dismiss, because no such scenes come to my mind at the time of writing this review.

Muthuveeran comes alive due to a greatly restrained performance by Silambarasan Thesingu Rajendar (STR), actor, director, writer, composer, dancer, music director, lyricist and playback singer, son of director T. Rajendar. I am sure he needs a few more vocations to add to his CV! On the other hand, this also means he has to be poker-faced and exhibit no, or very little, emotion, necessary activity for any actor. Aged 39, he plays a 21 year-old, and that is asking for too much. His lady love, Paavai, is played by Sidhhi Idnani, and one could wager that Sidhhi is not a Sindhi or a Kachchhee. And one could lose. Her parents are Ashok Idnani and Falguni Dave, but so far, she has worked only in Gujarati (Falguni is Gujarati), Tamil and Telugu films, none in Hindi. She is comely, buxom and shows potential. Raadhika Sarathkumar (daughter of Tamil actor, late M.R. Radha) plays Muthu’s mother, and if her not-too-old pictures are anything to go by, this 59 year-old may soon be cast in roles that do not involve sobbing and wailing (she must have done many of those already), which is what she is made to do, mainly, in The Scorched Forest, Part I-The Kindling.

Siddique as Kutty Nair, alias Kuttybhai is interestingly portrayed, as a person who likes challenges, but depends on his retinue to implement his dirty deeds. He is also fond of Sridharan, and makes him dress as his kept woman, which is how he treats him too. Neeraj Madhav earns a lot of sympathy as the weak-willed man, Sridharan, who, in any case, has no choice, but dares to fall in love with his boss’s maid. Appukutty plays the diminutive Saravanan well. A surprise package is Jaffer Sadiq A. as Rawther, though it beats me why a reputed shooter/contract killer should resort to using the knife and jumping up and down cup-boards. There is a lot of Hindi spoken in the film and one of the actors playing a native Hindi speaker is Deepak Dutt Sharma. Others in the cast are Delhi Ganesh, Aadithya Baasker, Aangelina Abraham, Bava Chelladurai, Kavithalaya Krishnan, Tulasi, Sara, Richard James Peter, Phathmen, Manikandan, Geeta Kailsam, Shrisha, Ajmina Kassim, Jaisinth, Sathya and Shivamani as the Big Boss, Raoofbhai.

A highlight of the film is the music by A.R. Rahman, both the background score and the five songs. These include a couple of soft romantic duets, and one about the lives of gangsters, without the preponderance of electronic instruments. One of the songs is titled ‘Malippoo’ while another is called ‘Marakuma nenjam’. We hear a lot of strings in the score, which is a Rahman characteristic. Both the cinematography by Siddhartha Nuni and editing by Anthony could have been better. Part of the credit for the fluid action scenes must go to American Lee Whittaker, as also part of the discredit for too much action, and causing too much confusion, with dozens of persons battling it out on more than one occasion in a single frame. The second half does become a little predictable in its action content.

With a long list of home-grown and imported gangster films, some excellently made, some just watchable, as their ‘peers’, B. Jeyamohan and Gautham Vasudev Menon had their work cut out for them. They have managed to make a movie that should be seen. It does not have the physiognomies of one that will shake-up the system and announce its arrival with a 21-gun salute. But blazing guns, choppers, knives and filling fields it has aplenty.

Rating: ** ½

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtJsH5--wkM

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

India



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