Monday, June 25, 2012

Saguni: Both a comedy and political

I’ll be honest. I had never seen Karthi in anything before I saw Saguni this weekend but considering my other option in the theater was the vapid Teri Meri Kahaani, I had no problem plunking down my cash for the film. And, thankfully, Saguni turned out to be worth the time and money. I’m not sure I feel the need to revisit it again on DVD but, as a one-time watch, it’s well worth a look if you enjoy Tamil masala.

Saguni was billed as a political comedy but that’s not quite right because while the first half is mostly comedy and the second half is mostly politics, the two don’t quite mesh together to form “political comedy.” Unfortunately I know nothing about the politics of Tamil Nadu that I haven’t learned from films, so you’ll have to forgive me if I overlook any obvious allusions to contemporary events. (And please feel free to tell me in the comments. I like to learn new things!)

The film opens hard with a scandal-ridden Chief Minister (Chandra Mohan) being hounded by the press. He had been accused of showing dirty SMSs to the luscious Kiran Rathod* and though we all know it’s a set up orchestrated by Bhoopati as soon as we see Prakash Raaj storm on screen in a swosh of fake sympathy, the media takes everything at face value and reports the controversy not the facts. The CM commits suicide and Bhoopati takes over the party and the CM position.

While all this high-profile fuss is taking place, a single man wanders into the frame, picking up a humble vada (?) accidentally dropped by a street vender. He holds it up to his eye, peering through it. The camera pulls back and... it’s Karthi! Karthi plays Kamal, a down-on-his-luck guy whose ancestral home is in danger of being torn down to make way for a subway. He teams up with the always welcome Santhanam, who is playing “Rajini.” Yes, his character is a Rajini fan and, oh my god, yes, are there plenty of jokes cracked about Kamal (Hasaan) and Rajini teaming up.

As Kamal and Rajini wander through the first half of the film, we’re treated to exposition via wonderful fourth-wall breaking comedy storytelling. Kamal spins his yarn and Rajini will hilariously intrude and do things like tell him to speed up or offer past-Kamal advice. This long, involved story includes some pretty funny bits that play with our expectations of heroine introductions leading up to the actual heroine introduction of, naturellement, Sridevi (Pranitha), a wealthy city girl whose mother (the gorgeous Roja) thinks that Kamal is nothing more than a gold digger.

All of this is set up for the political antics of the second half which has Kamal as the machiavellian mastermind behind the rise of a people’s political movement, spearheaded by the divine Raadhika Sarathkumar as the vendor turned money lender “Akka” Ramani and the street preaching comedy swami played by Nassar.

Before I get into discussing the politics of it all, let me state first and foremost that Saguni is an entertaining film. Though there were lots of places that made me (and hopefully others) stop and think, the filmmakers were smart enough to make sure that one didn’t have to stop and think in order to enjoy it. The twinkle in Karthi’s eye as he pulls one over on the ruling elite on behalf of the aam aadmi doesn’t need analysis to be appreciated. Karthi is a joy, obviously. I hadn’t seen him anything before but got shivers during his entrance song. The other performances were almost universally good - the exception being limp noodle Pranitha as the heroine, who seemed to be doing a bargain basement Kajal Agarwal. The songs were catchy and the pacing was okay. The first and second halves of the film don’t quite come together as a whole but since they were both entertaining in their own rights, I think we can forgive that. I would suggest that the DVD makers keep the interval screen in just to make it clear, though.

Now! There are three threads I think are worth mentioning in Saguni. The first is something I’ve happily been seeing more and more of in all sorts of Indian film and that is: women. Though the heroine’s character in the film is pretty much a non-presence (and Pranitha does nothing much to leave an impression either), the film has three very strong female characters - and played by older women, too. Kiran Rathod plays a not-as-dumb-as-she-seems gangster’s moll to Prakash Raaj. Then there is Roja as the heroine’s mother, a powerful doctor with wealth and political connections. She’s very aware of the dividing line between “the help” and the rest. Finally, there is Raadhika Sarathkumar, a tough-as-nails money lender who rises through the political games Karthi plays. None of these characters specifically needed to be female (even the gangster’s moll role could have been played by a son) but that they were women made me happy. The more we see women on screen in roles of power, the more it normalizes women in the public sphere.

Building on that, Raadhika’s character reminded me of something I heard Harish Hande say on an episode of the BBC’s Forum radio show** - that the women who sell vegetables in the market are the perfect capitalists. They look after the community and their money if they want to remain in business. Well, in many ways, Akka’s story is that of the vegetable seller being given power in the broader society instead of just in her local sphere. As Akka is standing and waiting to be sworn into office, we see a brief flashback montage of her hard work. And the way Raadhika captures that disbelief that such a humble woman could be standing here was the emotional high point of the film for me. The movie seemed to be saying: Just think, ladies in the marketplace, this could be you. The power is there.***

The last thread of the film worth discussing is the media. During the podcast I did with Asim and Sujoy where we talked about Rowdy Rathore, Asim and Sujoy asked why the “Don’t Mention” politico didn’t get his ass handed to him at the end of the film. I suggested that perhaps no film could pass the Censor Board showing elected officials being dismissed with mob violence, though I have seen politicians get killed by raving looneys in various films. I was reminded of that remark during Saguni, which features plenty more corrupt politicians that deserve some dishoom-dishoom but instead receive justice via clever comeuppance and/or the ballot box. In this case, the method is via the media, which gets pummeled harder than any rowdy in the film. Far from being brainless, Saguni features some pretty cynical subtext on the media, who are shown just reporting anything that anybody tells them in hopes of stirring up controversy.

Anybody who thinks the aam aadmi is stupid for watching masala instead of more “realistic” films obviously hasn’t been paying close attention to the messages of extreme cynicism about current power structures buried not-so-deeply within such “brainless” films. Overall, I found Saguni to be a good watch. It was funny, quick moving, and gave me a lot to think about. While it’s not going on my list of Best Films of All Time, it’s certainly worth a watch if you enjoy Tamil masala. And Karthi really is adorable.

* Actually they seemed to be giving a nod to the porn-watching congressman case.

** Though now that I Googled it, it appears to be one of his major talking points: e.g. http://forbesindia.com/article/third-anniversary-special/harish-hande-india-can-show-the-right-way-to-do-business/32936/1

*** Quite a subversive message for a so-called “brainless entertainer,” no? Never leave your brain at home. NEVER.

1 comment:

OG said...

I am yet to watch this film FG! Will probably go this weekend.......

but yeah, the politics in TN is just as bad as all the other states in India :) but is interestingly different. The national parties (congress, BJP) have little following in my state, but the scenario is dominated by two parties which are ideologically the same, but hate each other! DMK and AIADMK......

Waiting for your Paiya review ;)

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