Sunday, October 14, 2012

Maattrraan: Double the Suriya; Double the fun

My friends, it’s a bit difficult to get back into the swing of things with writing reviews. So, forgive any rustiness. And, first, a caveat on my take on this film in particular. I saw it without subtitles so I missed all the dialogues and more fidgety bits of the plot. However, I would say that those two things only account for about 15-20% of the film. I had no difficulties following along thanks to the clear visual storytelling from KV Anand; emotive performances from Surya, Kajal, and the rest of the cast; and a smattering of English at crucial moments that I can only assume was there to help non-Tamil viewers like me. I have to admit that at times I forgot I couldn’t understand a word that anybody was saying.

So, you’ll have to forgive me if I get some details wrong but I think I got the main point of the film: Maattrraan is twisty-turny mystery masala film about living with loss, the price of perfection, and bawdy jokes about threesomes. Also, and quite delightfully to this old lefty liberal, it’s a big FU to Big Food and Big Pharma.


Surya stars as conjoined twins Vimal and Akki, who are linked by a flesh band on their abdomens - much like famous conjoined twins Chang and Eng, except instead of a liver, the twins share a heart. Vimal, the left twin, is the one with the heart. He’s studious and clean-cut. Akki, the right twin, is more easy-going and fashionable. The twins live with their loving mother (lovely Kannada actress Tara) and their genetic scientist cum businessman father Ramchandran (Sachin Khedekar, who Hindi film fans might recognize from Ajay Devgn’s Singham, Tees Maar Khan, etc.)

Vimal and Akki both fall for the beautiful Anjali (Kajal), a Russian language specialist and translator. And who wouldn’t when the three meet-cute after Anjali has overdone the wodka - and is seeing double - and she seems relieved that the two Suriyas are actually two Suriyas. (It all brings to mind this song.)

Papa Ramchandran is owner and CEO of a company that makes a “fortified” milk powder called something like Energiron, which has “scientifically” proven to make kids grow up healthy and strong. BUT! There is a mysterious Russian spy, the voluptuous Volga (Irinia Maleeva), who seems to be using Anjali to get to the twins and sniff out information on company trade secrets.

Who is Volga? What actually goes into Energiron? How will the threesome resolve their love triangle? Does the presence of an aerial dancing Isha Sarvani indicate that Suriya has a circus fetish (and, if so, I approve)?

Unlike 99% of the other reviews out there, I won’t give the answer away... at least until later in this piece but you will be warned.

Watching a film without understanding much of the language is a unique experience. You pick up the story from context clues and maybe a recognizable word here or there. And, for me, without subtitles, I find myself able to appreciate the visuals, audio, and editing a lot more. And, luckily for me, KV Anand - formerly a photographer and cinematographer - provides a lot to appreciate visually. From scene composition to lighting to costuming choices, it was a very pretty film. The only sticky part was a fight scene just before the interval, where it seemed that the fight coordinator had trouble figuring out how to use the twins to best effect.

The special effect used to create the conjoined twins seems to be the same one that was used for The Social Network and it was fairly seamless. Suriya and his body double had a nice chemistry and you could really feel the brotherly affection between them. Major props to Suriya and his unnamed body double for taking what could have easily been a joke and turning it into a touching relationship.

One of the things I was most curious about going into Maattrraan was how the characters of the conjoined twins were going to be used. Were they going to be strictly for comedy like American film Stuck on You? Or would their physical disability be used to beat us over the head with trite life lessons like in recent Hindi film Barfi? The answer is... neither. But it is an integral part of the plot, as I'll explain below in the spoilers section.

Also, visually speaking, I’d like to give a shout out to whoever was doing the costuming. Kajal looked gorgeous in every scene and I want all of her outfits from this movie.

The music from Harris Jayaraj was also excellent, as was both the audio editing. Just a small example, there is a scene set at an auction and every time (one of) Surya’s characters raises his hand to bid, there is a little drum flourish. It goes a steady rhythm until there is a pause as Surya’s characters fight and after a beat, the flourish again. But the songs were really, really nice. I’ve come to enjoy Harris Jayaraj’s music quite a bit. His songs have got sort of a laid-back AR Rahman Chennai Sound vibe. Or maybe I just like the break from the increasingly Punjabi-fied sounds of Bollywood. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Before I get into spoilers, let me just say flat out that I would recommend this one - especially since there have been twenty minutes of exposition trimmed from the post-interval half. Not only was it unexpectedly touching but it gave me a lot to think about. e.g. Is it the lack of corporate money the reason that mainstream films with a strong anti-capitalist message can still be made in Tamil Nadu and doesn’t Kajal Agarwal remind you of a young Sridevi?

However, like previous KV Anand film Ko, Maattrraan is full of twists and turns that it’s better not to spoil yourself for... so this is your warning before I get into spoilers. I’m going to limit myself to two but they are fairly big - though perhaps easily guessed, if you are the type who likes to figure out the plot during the film and then complain that it’s predictable instead of just sitting back and letting the filmmaker lead you.

During one of the slower expositions sequences during the second half of the film, I found myself asking if the conjoined characters were necessary or if it was just a (very effective) gimmick, but by the end I was convinced. Leaving aside the fact that Vimal and Akki’s brotherly love is the strongest bond in the film, the physical deformity of the twins plays a key part in unmasking the villain of the piece - yes, Ramcharan the genetic scientist. We get our first hint of something off about him at the beginning of the film when he gives the go-ahead to the doctors to kill Akki in order to have one “perfect” son. Fortunately their mother intervenes and saves both of her babies. Ramcharan is obsessed with outward perfection - with his quest for the Superman. Of course, the physical imperfection of his twins, along with Akki’s lazy attitude and seeming lack of ability, would be an embarrassment to him.

The real turning point of the film comes when Bimal is killed and his heart his transplanted into Akki. Not only for the extreme pathos during the song “Yaaro Yaaro” - the scene where Akki tries to stand for the first time on his own and tips over because he isn’t used to his brother not being there beside him made my tears flow - but because here we have the “defective” twin, finding out who he is. Due to the fact that I didn’t understand the dialogues, I’m not sure if Bimal was the intended Superman and he got saddled with the “regular” Akki but that was the impression that I got. And if that is the case, then seeing Akki grow into a good person - not a perfect or superhuman person - was a nice counterpoint to Ramcharan’s obsession with perfection.

I can safely say that Maattrraan is by far the best masala film I’ve seen all year and I hope it does well, especially for Suriya’s sake after his 7aum Arivu was underappreciated. And maybe he can team up with Isha Sharvani and do a circus film next!

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