Rajinikanth in 'Annaatthe', streaming on Netflix (Image: screen grab)
It’s simply amazing that Tamil, Malayalam and even Telugu movies offer a smorgasbord that is as wildly different as these two films are. Both have violence, one overt and the other hits you in the face with an uprooted bar stool. Both eminently watchable!
Churuli director Lijo Jose Pellissery has a unique talent: he can turn violence into poetry. In Jallikattu, his paen to the violence that lurks in the hearts of men (and women), it's like a magnificent broadway musical. He turns that quality into cacophony in Ee Ma Yau (Eesho Mariyam Yauseppu or Jesus Mary Joseph) where two families fight over one dead man. But here, in Churuli (Maze), the violence in a forest setting will ensnare you in its green labyrinth and yet remind you of strange poetry, despite the vituperation that flows like water.
The beginning is innocuous enough. A woman’s voice tells the story of a monk who unintentionally picks up a demon that has assumed the shape of an anteater and carries it around on his head (literally and figuratively) as he travels through the forest. The forest is confusing, but since the anteater offers to give the monk directions, the monk just follows gratefully, getting lost. And then he is lost forever.
Churuli means a maze, and even though there is a maze-like forest, the film is a clever story of deception. The first deception: Two policemen assume fake identities as they go undercover to catch a criminal who has duped many and raped young boys. The criminal is believed to be hiding in a village called Churuli. There’s the second deception, you think! The village is called a labyrinth… Shouldn’t the two policemen know what they’re getting into?
We see that the bus drops the two off at a forest’s edge, armed with just the name of the village and the name of the criminal. They also have another deception ready to mislead the simple villagers: They are in the village to work for a guy digging pits on his rubber plantation. I was taken aback not by the strange rickety jeep going over an almost rotten bridge (an ominous sign that there may not be any going back…). The jeep driver brings the passengers to a liquor shop and laughs as he says to the owner: I bought two fat eels for you!
The two policemen come across as lambs for slaughter and the locals look nothing like the simpletons they are meant to be… The two policemen end up in a Hotel California situation: they can check out of the toddy shop any time they like, but they can never leave…
We soon discover that the forest too is complicit in the gigantic deception game. Is it spinning an evil web? We have to start looking at villagers again as evil too. Or should we not? The craft of this storyteller is how he makes us, the audience, a part of this deception. The fireflies at night, the mist, the strange creatures calling out, the poisonous spider weaving its web ensure that the two policemen stay lost. Even after they find the man they were looking for, we as the audience wonder if they will ever get out or if they really have the right guy. After all, each of the villagers has run away from the real world and is living in the forest under assumed names. Perhaps Shajivan should have taken it as a sign and run away from the village as soon as the old granny chases him with an axe.
The film is a great watch, and yes, it’s playing on SonyLIV. The end will keep you grinning (just as the two policemen do) because the director has engaged you in one big deception. It’s just that in some places the story seems to run on and on, not really going anywhere until the last 15 minutes. Perhaps that is the result of entering the Churuli...
Annaatthe, on the other hand has the one and only Superstar Rajinikanth. Everything else just gets drowned out in the chorus of ‘Vaa Swami!’ (‘Come, my Lord!). It’s an old-fashioned fisticuff fest and you are high on the octane…
There is a story, of course. And you’ll find parallels with Jyothika’s Udanpirappe (My sibling) playing on Amazon Prime Video. But this one has the boss, the one and only Rajinikanth. He plays the brother, Annaatthe, not just to the people (he’s head of the gram panchayat and a just and good village chief), but to Thangai Meenakshi (Little Meenatchi, to be precise) played by the very pretty Keerthy Suresh. The bond between the siblings is so good, you will want to crack your knuckles in the old-fashioned way. Even though the scene of Rajini receiving his sister at the train station is meant to be comical, the explanation given by his sidekick Pachakili (the ever so awesome Soori in his blindingly colourful shirts) to a kid in the train brought a lump to my throat.
The fun at the police station with Prakash Raj’s threats is a treat to watch. That's an old-fashioned Rajini fun scene. Prakash Raj gets madder and madder as only he can, trying to threaten the cops into replacing his important goons in the lock-up with less important ones, and Rajini interrupting him with name-calling that gets funnier. And the ever-so-polite cop saying with folded hands, ‘No worries, sar, that was an old desk!’, ‘No worries, it was an old bench…’
And just when you think Prakash Raj kidnapped Thangai for a showdown, you realise it’s not easy! As they say in Bollywood: Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost! The twist in the tale takes Annaatthe to Kolkata where of course he becomes ‘breaking news’ because ‘someone called Annaatthe is beating up all the bad guys'.
This is where my logical mind asks: Why is lawyer Pattammal (the gorgeous Nayanthara), who was defending Prakash Raj, suddenly practising law in Kolkata? If Thangai is in Kolkata, why hasn’t she seen or read the news and concluded that the Annaatthe that everyone seems to be talking about could just be her brother who is also called Annaatthe?
But then a baddie falls head-first on the camera and logic too flies out and crashes with the baddie. The fun has begun! Annaatthe is a shadow who saves his sister from disaster after disaster. Her pursuers die in many many creative ways. And you will whoop with delight at every one of them, especially how Annaatthe manages to stay out of sight.
I loved the disco fight and, of course, the shot where he announces to the big bad baddie Manoj Parekar played rather well by Abhimanyu Singh. Annaatthe’s shadow looms large on the building: a shot only fans will recognise as whistle podu shot! This movie is not subtle from any angle, but hey, I loved it!
Oh yes, how Manoj gets his just desserts is very cool. The turmeric on the edge of the photos, the ‘turmeric water’ splash… Rajini’s familiar smirk as he rides the motorbike just makes for a happy watch. But the bigger baddie is yet to be seen. And just when you think it’s going to Prakash Raj, it’s the scary brother Uddhav (the eternally angry Jagapathi Babu) whose rivalry with Manoj is about legitimacy. For a minute you think the movie should have ended with Manoj but then it wouldn’t be a Rajini movie, would it? Give yourself lots of time for popcorn because there’s going to be lots of violence. I loved the Kolkata house set that Thangai and Pattammal live in. Lots of attention to detail here which is unexpected in an action movie.
The ending is expected, with the baddie losing and Superstar winning. And you are completely satisfied. Netflix has a winner here, and you will see it trend on it’s top ten list! I preferred the original Tamil version with English subtitles to the Hindi one. Somehow, ‘How you die depends on the enemies you make’ doesn’t have the same impact in Hindi (Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada versions are also playing on Netflix simultaneously).
While Suriya’s Jai Bhim shocked you with the graphic violence and made you root for Justice Chandru who is doing great work in real life, these two films will make you look at violence from totally different points of view. Each one is awesome for its genre. And while you hunker down at home as much as possible to save yourself from a pandemic that seems to reinvent itself, these films are a great way to stay in!
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.