Lost in Tranquility

Thoughts on video games, books, sports, movies, technology and what not.

Moving on

Posted by Balaji Sivaraman on May 15, 2010

After some not-so-serious thinking and as a result of a self-conscious decision on my part to shell out some cash for a self-hosted website, I have moved my blog to Lost in Tranquility. The new site, where I have given a brief thought on the move, should be more of a permanent placeholder for my thoughts than my past two blogs have proven to be.

Thanks for visiting and see you on the other side.

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Aadhavan (2009)

Posted by Balaji Sivaraman on October 21, 2009

Over the course of a fairly high-profile career, K.S. Ravikumar has helmed a variety of entertaining features and, in the process, created a basic formula that he adheres to. This formula is fairly straightforward – lots of laugh-out-loud funny sequences, a few decent action scenes, songs inserted wherever required, and just a pinch of emotion to keep things moving. With Aadhavan, he follows the same template to a certain extent and also proves he can keep up with the latest trends with some energetic action and modern, impressive CGI work. However, while the first half has enough to hold our interest in the proceedings, starting from the beginning of the second half – where things start going downhill – he loses control and the movie moves too far into melodrama toward the end that any interest generated initially is all but lost.

The film opens with the Damakku Damakku… song followed by Aadhavan (Surya) taking out his high-profile target from underwater, leading to a variety of similar targets, making him one of the best assassins around. Aadhavan’s gang consists of mentor and father, Ibrahim Rowther (Shayaji Shinde) and elder brother, Tharani (Anandh Babu making his first big-screen appearance in quite a while). Abdul Kulkarni (Rahul Dev) approaches them with another prominent target in Judge Subramaniam (Murali), who has been poking around in the former’s business involving the kidnapping and murder of children across eastern India. Surprisingly, Aadhavan misses his target and is forced to move into the Judge’s household – which includes Bannerjee (Vadivelu), Thara (Nayanthara), Subramaniam’s mother (Saroja Devi) and the rest of the family – to finish his job. But, his reactions suggest that he wants the latter dead on a more personal level, and is not only in it for the money.

Like Ayan, Aadhavan hits its highest point, in terms of generating adrenaline, in the initial sequences itself. The foot chase that follows the failed assassination attempt is definitely as good as the African one in Surya’s blockbuster from earlier this year. Though it shows an obvious inspiration from the first sequence inside the under-construction building in Casino Royale – the fact becomes more obvious when one notes that the location is of the same type –, Surya performs most of his stunts which enables the level of awe to be maintained on our part. Since I said that this is the apex as far as stunt sequences are concerned, it should follow that the rest of the movie’s action is fairly ordinary and generic failing to involve us like this one.

It should also come as no surprise that Aadhavan is best when in comedy-mode because, time and again, Ravikumar has proved that making people laugh is his forte. This movie also gives Vadivelu a chance to redeem himself after the disappointment of his track in Kanthaswamy, and he doesn’t disappoint. Nearly every scene in which he appears succeeds in making us laugh and though it is fairly standard in terms of what we expect from the comedian – the slightly stuttered speech to show his fear, for example –, it is impossible not to laugh as his attempts at proving Aadhavan’s real identity become increasingly futile. In fact, it would be easy to argue that without Vadivelu many people might have been heading for the exit doors in the first half itself, which they might anyway be doing as we proceed into the second half.

As far as Ravikumar is concerned, I have been entertained to a variety of degrees by each of his movies, but never have I been as bored and disinterested as I was towards the end of this one. The CGI effects used to depict Surya as a 10-year old are definitely high standard for a Tamil movie, in spite of the gimmicky nature of their appearance. (Couldn’t the same sequence have been told with “any” 10-year old in it?) Though not awe-inspiring because we always “know” this is Surya (he also voices these portions), the fact that a lot of effort has clearly gone into integrating it makes us overlook the obvious flaws. However, the flashback sequence itself is so dragging that even the special effects cannot force us to think of it any differently. The amount of people sneering in the theatre when this sequence ended should be proof enough of how languid it actually is. And, the movie drags on for quite some time in order to tie up a lot of the loose ends, eventually culminating in an action sequence that makes us laugh for all the wrong reasons (including a “sticky” rocket launcher, if there is even such a weapon). It wouldn’t be any stretch to say that, by the end, I wanted to forget the entire experience.

With the career path Surya is taking, it is obvious that he is trying to emulate Kamalhassan; which is the reason for Ayan, and now Aadhavan, after the heavier Vaaranam Aayiram. The problem with Surya is that he has not yet perfected the art of “acting” in these kinds of casual, formulaic roles. So, even though he can make the comedy portions work, he fails in the serious sequences because he always wants to “act” instead of simply going along with the flow of the movie. It also doesn’t help that the respect built up for his off-screen image takes a hit when Vadivelu compares him with yesteryear greats ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan, M.G.R, Rajinikanth, and Kamalhassan.

The supporting cast is mostly expected to run through the motions. Nayanthara looks very simple and jaded, and is expected to play the standard Tamil cinema heroine, which she can adequately. Shayaji Shinde and Murali (in what sadly turned out to be his last role) are veterans in their own right and are solid, with the latter being especially impressive. Rahul Dev joins the long list of generic Tamil cinema villains. With all the hype surrounding Saroja Devi’s return, she is more or less only used as a tool for comedy, with her now famous tendency to wear too much make-up providing a lot of mileage. Anandh Babu’s return definitely did not generate as much interest as the former’s; and with good reason, because it is definitely not noteworthy. Ramesh Khanna, whose story this is, appears as Nayanthara’s would-be, and proves a decent sidekick to Vadivelu in his comedy.

Harris Jeyaraj’s songs have become very popular, but almost all of them fall into the forgettable category. Hasile Fisile… and Yeno Yeno Panithuli… are great to look at by virtue of the breathtaking locations of South Africa and Iceland on display. Vaarayo Vaarayo… and Maasi Maasi… are largely at fault for the movie’s pacing problems, though Saroja Devi’s decked up appearance as a tribal at the end of the latter will evoke a lot of guffaws. Ganesh’s cinematography deserves some mention for the former two song sequences and also for the initial action sequences.

Usually, any K.S. Ravikumar movie has a certain charm that makes it worth for television viewing, if not for a visit to the theatre. However, it is hard to imagine Aadhavan joining that category. The comedy is certainly laugh-out-loud, but is only prevalent in the first half, and what makes up the rest of the movie largely veers into the “unwatchable” territory that even a TV viewing is hard to recommend, let alone paying money for a theatrical viewing.

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Thiruvilayadal (1965)

Posted by Balaji Sivaraman on October 11, 2009

A.P. Nagarajan is mostly famous as the director of various epics based on historical/mythological characters or Hindu Gods that are often characterized by riveting performances, spellbinding music, and by virtue of them being based on well-known history/religion. Arguably the most popular of his movies, certainly the most entertaining, is Thiruvilayadal, which provides an account of Lord Shiva’s grace in helping his devotees through a series of episodes. Starting with ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan’s arresting performance, K.V. Mahadevan’s timeless music, and Nagesh’s legendary comedy to name a few, I would be amazed if there is an aspect that can be used to qualify film masterpieces absent here. The film has been telecasted on TV every now and then, but it has still lost none of its charm and remains one of the greatest movies in Tamil cinema history.

As the director kindly informs us through a background voice heard during the beginning, Lord Shiva’s benign and kindly nature toward his devotees has been widely written about in the form of various epics, ithihasas, and puranas. This film borrows some of the most prominent episodes from such writings and tries to recapture the same playful nature of the Lord on-screen, and is entirely successful in doing so. Throughout the course of these four episodes, which see Lord Shiva appear in various forms, the film is highly entertaining, while also conveying a variety of messages through each of them.

The film opens with an introduction for Lord Shiva (‘Sivaji’ Ganesan), followed by the fabled “wisdom-fruit” sequence. The ever-mischievous Naradha provides the God with what he calls a unique “wisdom-fruit.” The God, playing along with the former, hands it over to Goddess Parvathi (Savithri), who decides to test her two sons and give the winner the prize. The test is who can complete a round-trip around the world first. Lord Murugan takes his trusted peacock and “actually” completes the task, while Lord Ganesha completes a circle around his parents and equates it to completing a trip around the world, thereby winning the prize. Murugan gets angered on his return as he sees this as his parents favouring their first child, and abandons them without heeding calls from his mother or avvaiyar (K.B. Sundarambal) that this is also one of his father’s playful acts.

If there is a single downside in the entire film, it is that these initial sequences can be inordinately slow by any standard. The elaborate set-design and dances that accompany the Sambo Mahadeva… song which introduces Lord Shiva are good, but this sequence itself is quite long and drawn-out. And, three songs immediately follow the “wisdom-fruit” sequence, further slowing down everything to a degree where we want the actual episodes to start. However, once the “movie” itself kicks off, with Parvathi recounting Lord Shiva’s playfulness to a very furious Murugan, it never flags and keeps things moving at a decent pace.

The first episode will be the most instantly recognizable to even people who have not seen the movie. The King of the Pandya land, Shenbaga Pandyan (Muthuraman), announces a flattering amount of gold to anyone who can solve his puzzle relating to the scent emanating from a woman’s hair (in this case, his wife, played by Devika). Inspired by the prize amount, a poverty-stricken poet, Dharumi (Nagesh), does what any person in his situation with his level of talent would: pray to God – who as usual solves his troubles by appearing in humane form. The highlight of this episode (or the movie, for that matter) is of course the verbal duel between Sivaji and Nagesh which has become the stuff of legend, with many a modern movie paying homage to it in its own way. And the “Nettrikkan Thirappinum Kuttram Kuttrame” dialogue is probably one of the most famous quotes in Tamil cinema and popular culture. Notwithstanding the other episodes, the movie touches its apex inarguably in this sequence.

The second and third episodes stand to be the weakest of the four, not because they are not entertaining (which they certainly are), but because they obviously lack the visual energy that pervades both the other episodes. The former sees Dakshan (Parvathi’s father) start a yaagam without inviting Shiva, which angers his daughter. Parvathi doesn’t heed Shiva’s calls and still visits her father requesting him to put an end to this madness. When it proves to be futile, she returns to her Lord, but the difference of opinion still remains. This is probably the only episode which doesn’t have any noteworthy aspect except, possibly, Lord Shiva’s “thaandavam” which serves the singular purpose of highlighting Sivaji’s weak dancing capabilities.

The third episode, in comparison, is definitely much stronger, and sees Parvathi forget her origins and be born as a fisherman chieftain’s daughter. Though it starts off slowly with another song, Sivaji’s reappearance as a fisherman provides some much-needed energy, and the episode itself concludes with an imaginatively picturized fight sequence in water, as Sivaji fights off and defeats a killer whale to win back Parvathi.

Finally, the fourth episode has Lord Shiva return back to Madurai, this time under the rule of Varaguna Pandyan. Hemanatha Bhagavathar (T.S. Balaiah), a carnatic singer of worldwide fame, has finally made his way to Madurai to sing in the King’s presence and prove his superiority once and for all. He poses a challenge to the King that if somebody from Madurai can defeat him, his voice and talent will be laid at the city’s feet and he will never sing again. However, if that person loses, then every man in the Pandya kingdom should henceforth refrain from singing. After everybody in the King’s court refuses to oblige, Baanapathrar (T.R. Mahalingam), who sings devotional compositions in the temple is chosen. The latter, realizing that he is no match in a straight battle with the famous out-of-town singer, prays to God to find a way out of this trouble. Of course, Lord Shiva appears as a woodcutter and rewards his devotee, while also teaching a lesson to Hemanathar.

Regardless of all the movie’s minor problems or for that matter its high points, it can be watched and re-watched any number of times just for ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan’s acting alone, whose radiant screen presence and majestic voice are aptly suited for such a role. Ever since its release, much has been written and said about this portrayal, so I would like to highlight my personal favourite sequence from the movie in order to demonstrate just how good a performance this is: The Paatum Naane, Baavamum Naane song.

Sivaji was one of the very few actors who could make us believe he was actually singing the song. Though T.M. Sounderarajan’s voice and its resemblance to Sivaji’s had a big say in this, the actor’s lip movements and genuine throbbing of the throat are the main reasons. The aforementioned sequence is the perfect example of both this fact and Sivaji’s acting talent. The twinkle in the eye as he gives a fleeting look at the room in which Hemanathar is staying when he sings “Paadum Unai Naan Paadavaithene,” or the rolling of the eyes accompanied by the inimitable smile when he utters “Naan Asainthal Asaiyum Agilam Ellame,” or even the ease with which his various forms handle the Veena, the Flute, and the Mridangam – all provide ample proof as to why he is arguably the greatest actor in Tamil cinema history and why this is decidedly one his best ever portrayals.

With such a commanding performance, the only other actors who make any sort of impact are Nagesh and Balaiah. As Dharumi, the former creates what is easily one of his most memorable on-screen characters. A variety of accolades has already been heaped on the role, but what I find most impressive about it is the consummate ease with which Nagesh accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making us take our eyes of Sivaji and fixating them on Dharumi. A hard task in any of Sivaji’s roles, but to achieve it in this movie, and to a degree where we find ourselves incapable of removing our eyes off Dharumi, is proof enough of the late character actor/comedian’s greatness. Balaiah can generally be considered as a much underrated supporting actor who can leave a mark in any movie. As the egoistic singer who thinks the whole world is beneath his talent, he puts in a terrific shift, which injects a lot of energy to the movie, especially after the slower middle episodes.

With the exception of Sivaji, Savithri has the largest amount of screen time. However, this is definitely not one of the actress’ memorable performances, though she is quite suited and adequate for the role. (It has to be mentioned that this owes a great deal to Sivaji, with whom she shares much of the screen during the movie.) Director A.P. Nagarajan makes a cameo appearance as Nakkiran in the first episode and delivers the one critical dialogue with enough zest to firmly etch the role in our minds. Muthuraman, Devika, and Manorama all have minor appearances which further serves to the highlight the significance of the lack-of-ego argument I mentioned in my review of Saraswathi Sabatham.

As is a given in all of A.P. Nagarajan’s movies, the combination of K.V. Mahadevan’s music and Kannadasan’s lyrics stands him in good stead throughout, delivering a truly outstanding soundtrack. The standouts definitely are Paatum Naane Baavamum Naane…, Isai Thamizh Nee Seitha…, and Indroru Naal Podhuma…, all from the last episode. Of special note is the latter in which Balamuralikrishna’s voice and Balaiah’s expressions contribute effectively to craft an all-time great song. The other songs that have become very popular are Pazham Neeyappa… and Gnana Pazhathai Puzhindhu… from the first episode, which sing Murugan’s praise. Podhigai Malai… is also a very melodious number, while Sivaji has a lot of fun in Paarthal Pasumaram. The other songs work well within context of the movie, but are definitely not suited for casual listening on the Ipod.

Looking back at the history of Tamil cinema, few movies would come close to providing the same level of entertainment offered by this one. In a career that has seen him direct such movies as Kandan Karunai, Thillana Mohanambal, Thiruvarutchelvar, and Saraswathi Sabatham, just to name a few, this movie can be argued to be A.P. Nagarajan’s greatest movie. If not, then it is certainly close to the top. And, combined with what can be undeniably termed as a tour-de-force performance from Sivaji at the height of his craft, Thiruvilayadal is certainly one of Tamil cinema’s long standing masterpieces.

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Thiru Thiru Thuru Thuru (2009)

Posted by Balaji Sivaraman on September 30, 2009

Thiru Thiru Thuru Thuru has been unwittingly billed as a romantic comedy by some, but that is not the case. Yes, there is a cute couple at the core of this film, but for almost its entire running time, their relationship is portrayed as something very less. Love rarely enters the picture save for a couple of songs and a few scenes sprinkled throughout, both of which are worked out to provide some sparks and make us believe their pairing. However, the comedy portion of the film works, for the most part. Whether or not that it due to the lack of a traditional romance (something which was the downfall of this year’s Siva Manasula Sakthi), I cannot tell. Still, the light tone of the movie comes as a good welcome relief to the heavier fare we have had recently.

Thiru Thiru… is also director Nandhini’s first film, but she doesn’t bring anything new to the table. She follows the template set by V. Priya, with whom she has worked as Assistant Director, in her two movies so far – Kanda Naal Mudhal & Kannamoochi Yenada. Like the former movie, the lead pair in this film too bicker at each other and engage in meaningless fights (this is traditional in any rom-com), only to realize their true feelings at the very end. And, like both of the aforementioned films, there is an involvement of senior actors (in this case, only one) which undoubtedly works to the movie’s favour. Apart from that, the story is nothing to write home about and the way it is structured, we always know what we are in for right from the beginning.

Arjun (Ajmal Amir) works as an art director in Srinivasan’s (Mouli) ad-film company. He is very close to his boss, almost like a son; he constantly arrives late to office, lies for fun, is irresponsible in serious situations, and is irregular in almost every respect. Archana (Rupa Manjari), who works in the same company, is his polar opposite, i.e. perfect in every sense. When asked the amount of time remaining till a meeting starts, she replies with the exact time right to the minute; she likes everything to be kept organized and has hardly lied to her parents in all her life. With a lead pair like that, there is no surprise in how the film ends. So, what we have left is the situation these two are put in to provide some comic relief.

Their company is about to gain a big contract, which will definitely boost their status and also alleviate some of the boss’ problems. Obviously, trouble occurs when the baby supposed to act in the ads catches a fever forcing them to look for an alternative, or risk losing the contract. Arjun finds the perfect choice in the middle of the road, but as he is requesting the mother, she meets with an accident. It is not after everything is finalized that he finds out that the mother is missing from the hospital. Now, he, along with Archana who joins in on this seemingly wild ride, has to take care of the baby and find the parents in order to obtain their signature on the agreement.

By any measure, the film would have been very hard to recommend if not for Mouli’s involvement. A veteran of stage and film, his comic aptitude and versatility is known to everyone. As the absent-minded boss who has a hard time remembering names more than anything else, he gets the best lines and his delivery extracts every bit of comic juice out of them. In comparison, Ajmal and Rupa, as the lead pair, are more straightforward when playing their characters. I never could agree with popular opinion that Ajmal deserved his Best Supporting Actor filmfare award for Anjaathey. The complaint I had against him in that film was he was wooden in quite a few scenes. In this movie, he changes that opinion somewhat; and although the main requirement is good looks which he has, he shows a marked improvement in general, which is a good sign. Rupa shows none of the first-time jitters that plague new faces on-screen and is less inhibited than most others. For a newcomer, that is definitely heartening to see even though she isn’t stressed too much.

Thiru Thiru… has also been dubbed as one of the first fully digital Tamil films, shot completely using the Red One camera. If that is truly the case, then its effect remains largely unnoticeable to the naked eye; but the cinematographer goes a long way in maintaining the light tone of the film with bright and crisp colours. The picturization of the Jillena Veesum… song is quite good mainly due to the colourful locations on display. Mani Sharma’s music is largely forgettable, and his background score is more or less a full-on assault on our senses.

Like many similar movies, Thiru Thiru… is not going to win any awards or have an impact on the viewer. Though not all of the comedy hits the mark, and the movie shows a tendency to fall into slapstick on more than one occasion, it achieves what it sets out to do and packs a decent level of comic punch that makes for light viewing. If you have nothing else to do and decide to watch a movie for time-pass, it should be this one.

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Saraswathi Sabatham (1966)

Posted by Balaji Sivaraman on September 29, 2009

Saraswathi Sabatham is the kind of movie that will make us reminisce about the grand old age of Tamil movies, for a variety of very different reasons. For one, it is based on the Hindu Goddesses, but doesn’t involve a child falling into a ‘hundial’ or an evil wizard trying to overpower God. It is also basically a “message” movie about the elementary qualities of life, but, unlike today’s movies, that message comes about only because of the interesting premise set up by the movie’s story. And most importantly, it features an ensemble of cast of actors and actresses who were probably in the prime of their careers at the time. Since that is something which will never happen in today’s climate, this movie works as a great reminder of a time where our top actors worked together without a hint of ego on display.

The film’s underlying premise is very simple. Which is better: knowledge, wealth or strength? In the opening sequences, we see the mischievous sage Naradha (‘Sivaji’ Ganesan) visit Saraswathi (Savithri, as the Goddess of Knowledge), Lakshmi (Devika, as the Goddess of Wealth) and Parvathi (Padmini, as the Goddess of Strength), and pose each of them with the above question. This sets up the clash between the three to see which quality is more essential. To this effect, Saraswathi provides Vidyapathi (‘Sivaji’ again), who is dumb by birth, with a voice and intelligence making him wise and all-knowing. Lakshmi makes the poorest girl in the country as the next queen to the throne, Naachiya (K.R. Vijaya), providing her with unquestionable wealth and fame. Parvathi transforms one of the biggest cowards into Veeramallar (‘Gemini’ Ganesan), the bravest and strongest man in the land, who also goes on to become Naachiya’s commander-in-chief. As the three come to grips with their new God-given gifts, they also battle each other to prove their superiority (obviously the Goddesses’ hands are involved in this also).

Notwithstanding the interesting set-up and story, the film’s biggest attraction is, of course, the cast. Not only does the movie feature two of Tamil cinema’s acting greats in ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan and ‘Gemini’ Ganesan, but also the most famous actresses of the time in Savithri, Padmini, K.R. Vijaya and Devika. When you think of the last time in recent memory that anything close has been attempted, you would probably go back to 1999’s Suyamvaram, but even that was mainly put together in order to obtain the world record. When combined with the fact that this movie is considered an ensemble for its female leads (with today’s heroines being used only for eye-candy, this is another thing to remember fondly) coming together as much as its male leads, it further drives home the fact that our yesteryear actors had little or no ego clashes coming in the way of sharing screen space.

Even with such a cast, the acting honours would obviously have to go to ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan. Of all the people who have played Naradha on-screen (and there are quite a few), none would probably come close to matching Sivaji. The mischievous glint is obviously visible in his eyes as he plays around with the three goddesses in order to obtain the obvious answer to the question. (Note him especially in the single sequence with the three in tandem.) As Vidyapathi, he also brings the dignity and ego of the knowledgeable character to life. Although K.R. Vijaya and ‘Gemini’ Ganesan are legends in their own right, the pride seen in Sivaji’s face and body language as he talks about the power of knowledge is unmatched by the former two. (In fact, such a comparison will be deemed unfair on all three by many; I just felt it is worth mentioning in the context of the movie.)

The above statement aside, K.R. Vijaya and ‘Gemini’ Ganesan are perfect for their respective roles. The self-importance of the queen, with all her wealth and fame, is skilfully depicted by the former. And since good screen-presence is the main pre-requisite for Veeramallar, the latter fits the bill perfectly. Savithri, Devika and Padmini are essentially in the background, but their sequences with each other and Naradha serve as special highlights. Nagesh and Manorama raise quite a few laughs with their separate comedy track (though it does fit in with the other characters in the movie). The actors playing Lord Shiva and Brahma are largely unknown to me, while a very young Sivakumar appears as Lord Vishnu.

Another major highlight of the film is K.V. Mahadevan’s music combined with Kannadasan’s lyrics. Agara Muthala Ezhuthellam… is the best song with each line starting from each of the Tamil alphabets in sequence, but the other songs don’t lag behind either. Kalviya Selvama Veerama… features great lyrics from Kannadasan underlining the significance of each of these qualities in life. Dheivam Iruppadhu Enge… is sung in praise of the wealth of knowledge and also sets up the straight head-to-head between knowledge and wealth. Thai Thandha Pichaiyile… has become the staple for a variety of beggary-related comedy scenes over the years, while Gomatha Engal Kulamatha… is a perfect song for the “Mattu Pongal” festival. Uruvathai Kaatidum Kannadi… and Rani Maharani… are mostly obscure remaining largely unheard outside the movie. T.M. Sounderarajan and P.Susheela are the only two voices heard in all the songs, and are the main reason why it is considered such a stellar soundtrack to begin with.

Despite all the high-praise accorded to the film, there are a few elements that can be off-putting for some viewers. Some sequences in the film do move quite slowly, but that is essentially a quality shared by all movies released at the time. The set design and costumes will also feel more akin to a stage-play than a movie; again, another aspect that is not unique to this movie alone. However, these are only worth mentioning for what they are: minor nitpicks.

Saraswathi Sabatham has become a staple for TV viewing on Saraswathi Pooja and Vijayadasami days. (In fact, I wrote this review the very next day after Vijayadasami.) And though not as good as director A.P. Nagarajan’s certain other films (Kandan Karunai and Thiruvilaiyadal, for starters), it is still a very entertaining film in its own right and is worth a watch on TV or by finding yourself a VCD.

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