I considered titling this “Suriya and his pecs”. Really, is there something I am missing here? He unbuttons his shirt so much! And it’s not to show off the six pack, it’s to show off his blossoming pectoral muscles.
This is a nice little time capsule of a movie. I’ve mostly been watching Tamil/Telugu action films from the past couple of years. This isn’t old enough to be a “classic”, something that has stood the test of time and only the most important and best made survived, but it is also distinctly not the same as the more modern films I have seen.
(Remember dreadlock wigs? Don’t miss those at all)
For one thing, and this is small but important, Tamannah looks totally different! She is skinny and young and looks like someone you could pass on the street and think “that young woman is pretty” but not think “that must be a movie star”. Her clothes aren’t quite as fancy and fitted, they are more just jeans and t-shirts off the rack. Her hair isn’t perfect, her make-up isn’t perfect. And her posing isn’t perfect, doesn’t feel like every expression and every gesture is the ideal of feminine grace and beauty.
This sounds like I am picking on Tamannah, saying she was unattractive back then or too fake now. But I’m not really, I’m just looking at how the films have changed in the past ten years, and the presentation of the heroine is a noticeable part of it. Heroine’s now are expected to be perfect, perfectly made up and perfectly lit and perfectly practiced. And so are movies, no funky little bits, no unexamined moments. Everything will be picked apart by obsessive internet writers (like me!). And by critical audiences, it all has to be smoothed out and logical and politically acceptable now.
Ten years ago, Tamannah didn’t wear make up, and her brother went to brothels. And Suriya traveled the world, working with rebels in the Congo and pirating DVDs. Oh, and also he had ridiculously large pectoral muscles.
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Kind of a confusing plot while I was watching it, and then I thought about it later and realized it is actually super simple. It was just structured in such a way that little bits kept peeling off one by one instead of the whole picture being revealed. What we eventually discover is that Suriya is the son of a minor criminal who supports himself and his mother as he goes through college by picking up smuggling jobs for his mentor/foster father, a kind hearted peaceful smuggler and friend of Suriya’s dead father who feels he owes the family to help out. Suriya on one of the jobs befriends Jagan, another young man from a decent family looking for extra money. Jagan introduces Suriya to his sister Tamannah and Suriya and Tamannah fall in love. But then Suriya learns Jagan was a turncoat, sent by a rival smuggling gang to infiltrate his gang. Suriya and Jagan fall out, and Suriya and Tamannah break up. But Jagan is betrayed and killed by his gang and Suriya has a change of heart. He and Tamannah work together, along with a decent cop, to bring down this other gang and avenge Jagan. And in the end, thanks to his good work on this case, Suriya is offered a consulting position with the anti-smuggling unit of the police.
Okay, even that description is too complicated. I will make it super simple. Suriya is a smuggler. Suriya befriends Jagan and falls in love with Tamannah. Jagan is killed. Suriya avenges Jagan and becomes a police officer. It’s a classic basic plot that has been used over and over again. Bad boy turns good after death of friend and falls in love along the way. What makes it different are the little flourishes around the edges.
(Oh, and of course there is an item song)
And this film is full of flourishes! Mostly around the concept of smuggling. This is a new-old smuggling film. Old, in that it captures the wit and lightness of smuggling as shown in the 1970s movies (at least, the Hindi 1970s movies, no idea what the tradition is of smuggling in Tamil films). And new, in that it intelligently uses aspects of life in 2009. DVD smuggling instead of gold. Diamonds hidden under a water bottle label. Sneaking things through airport security instead of off a boat off shore.
That last is a big part of it, airports versus boats. In the 1970s version (again, at least in Hindi), smuggling was about the world drifting near the shores of India and smugglers scavenging parts of it off of the boats. In the 2000s version, it is about smugglers going out into the world and triumphantly gathering goods to bring back to India. The world isn’t coming to them, they are going out and conquering the world. A skewed illegal version of the shift from “Mere Joota Hai Japani” to the NRI hero.
It’s also a surprisingly sensitive view of the world. Okay, sensitive and insensitive. Most of Suriya’s smuggling is done in the Republic of the Congo. And there is a discussion of how they are purchasing diamonds from rebels in order to fund their fight against their oppressors. Rebels, who are not total characatures. They get money from off shore bank accounts and are smart enough to know who to trust and who not to trust. And to have earned Suriya’s loyalty. While the Indian buyer for whom the smugglers are middleman is dismissed as a coward cheating the government, Suriya travels back to the Congo in order to make sure his rebel friend who he respects is not cheated by giving the diamonds to the wrong contact. There is a clear message of smuggling as a means of fighting against a corrupt government, that governments control their people by controlling the flow of goods.
(And then there’s also the vision of Africa as a place where people are gunned down in the street and everyone has AIDs)
But there is also an example of smugglers as those who break government rules in order to harm people, these fences that keep us safe. The enemy smuggler, he sends drugs in and out of the country, something that Suriya’s group would never do. And he uses human mules, no intelligence needed, just a willingness to risk their life carrying drugs in their stomach.
Beyond the drugs, this is the clearest difference between Suriya’s group and the bad group. Suriya is a talented smuggler because he uses his mind, his abilities. That is why his boss values him. He is seen as a person. But the bad group, they just see people as tools, buyers or mules and nothing else. And that is why Suriya eventually ends up working with the police. Not in some abstract form of disgust, but because one police officer treats him decently, like a person, not a tool or a problem.
Tamannah isn’t just a tool either. She isn’t a major part of the film, but she has agency and personality. Suriya meets her when he bursts into her room looking for her brother and finds her undressed, and of course he is attracted to her looks first of all. But nothing happens until she comes looking for him and flirts with him over a cell phone until he finally gets the hint and reciprocates. When he learns her brother was fooling him, she breaks up with him. Not because of her brother, their relationship is separate from that, but because she learns he distrusted her feelings, though she might have been tricking him. And after her brother’s death, she has a change of heart and goes back to him and actively works with him in their revenge. Not merely there for decoration during love songs, but tricking her way into houses and planting bugs. Years before Alia did the same thing in Raazi.
Suriya’s mother is a little more than a mother, chooses to turn him into the police at the end in order to save him instead of just silently enduring. Tamannah’s brother is a little more than an unfaithful friend. He is a turncoat who is loyal to his gang, but he also sincerely liked Suriya and wanted him to be with his sister. He’s also a little more than the usual “brother”, he isn’t protective and worried about Tamannah dating Suriya, and he also isn’t overly eager and arranging it, he is just there to the side while she makes her own decisions, occasionally rolling his eyes at their lovey-dovey talk.
It’s not a great brilliant movie, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it whole-heartedly. But it is just that little more exciting, little more adventorous, little more brave, and a little more rough around the edges in a way I miss from recent films. If you have been missing that as well, give it a try. Oh, and also if you have a thing for Suriya waving his breasts around.