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'Michael' is a cake of cliches, its utterly predictable denouement the cherry on top. Why do we need yet another ‘pan India’ film about gangsters that has nothing new to offer?
Written by Sowmya Rajendran
In an early scene in Michael, gangster boss Gurunath (Gautham Vasudev Menon) is reading Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. I found myself wondering what our mainstream cinema would have looked like if the man had never written the book. What would ninety percent of our films be about? Would all the gym bodies who find employment as gangsters in the film industry be in some other charming profession? Perhaps they would at least be in jobs that didn’t require them to scowl so much.
But Puzo did write that book, and Francis Ford Coppola did make a film based on it, and here we are, 50 years later, still trying to recreate some version of it. Ranjit Jeyakodi’s Michael – shot simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu – takes obvious inspirations from the KGF films too. A mother whose death needs to be avenged. A boy who is more beast than child. A promise. A world of crime.
The story unfolds as one gangster telling another about Michael. Predictably, the monologue is in the vein of “Do you know who he is?”, “Do you know what he’s capable of?”, “Do you know what he once did?”. Gangsters in cinema make for the most fascinating storytellers and they’re also the most patient listeners, considering the monologue here lasts for the entire film.
Sundeep Kishan is the grown-up version of Michael. He isn’t a man who talks much, but he’s quick to react, especially if women around him are being harassed in any way. And there’s a surplus of damsels-in-distress in Michael. The actor is deft and precise in the action scenes, but strangely wooden in moments that demand some emoting. Maybe we’re to understand that life’s tragedies have turned him robotic, but at the risk of sounding callous, his back story is so done-to-death that we are hardly moved by it.
Michael works for Gurunath, and the man doesn’t just read Puzo. He also reads Shakespeare and Hemingway. It’s kind of hilarious that even when he’s a gangster, Gautham Vasudev Menon has to be the “classy” gangster. In a world of literal gangsters, he’s a literary gangster. GVM tries, but his performance looks laboured and he seems half embarrassed in some of the scenes. Anasuya Bharadwaj plays his wife Charulatha, a TV serial-type villi who frets and fumes, and is overly protective of her bratty son Amar (Varun Sandesh stuck in a sad stereotype).
Michael is set in the mid-90s, shifting between Mumbai and Delhi. The colour grading and art direction create a convincing retro effect, and Kiran Koushik’s cinematography uplifts the ordinary writing in many sequences. The music (Sam CS) and editing (R Sathyanarayanan) also contribute towards making Michael feel like it has something lofty to offer. The romance with Theera (Divyansha Kaushik), especially, would have been completely unbearable, if not for the technical crew pulling its weight. This isn’t Divyansha’s fault – the actor is stunning, and has plenty of screen presence. In her introduction scene, when she’s dancing on stage, she is absolutely arresting. But then, she’s saddled with lines like, “I like to slap before I kiss”, and things go downhill on the romance front pretty quickly.
When he’s talking about her, Gurunath refers to Theera as a “widow spider” – and it’s an interesting idea. So is the connection that Michael instantly feels with her; I mean, it’s at least a fresh take on the Oedipal attraction that all our heroes develop towards the heroine. She is the femme fatale who will lead Michael to his downfall. Unfortunately, Ranjit soon turns her into this vanilla girl who is weeping, wailing, and held as bait.
Vijay Sethupathi plays a former policeman who is now leading the gangster life. His wife, played by Varalaxmi Sarathkumar, is also a gangster. Is there anybody in this movie who isn’t a gangster or related to a gangster? Even the hapless cows and horses we see on screen belong to gangsters. Anyway, VJS and Varalaxmi are part of a thoroughly unconvincing plot twist, but are fun to watch as relief from the endless stabbings and shootings. The Telugu dubbing for Vijay Sethupathi, however, is nowhere close to the actor’s inimitable dialogue delivery.
The utterly predictable denouement is the cherry on this cake of cliches. What can explain this poverty in imagination? Why do we need yet another ‘pan India’ film about gangsters that has nothing new to offer? “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale, vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man” – Shakespeare wrote this (see, people other than literary gangsters also read Shakespeare) in King John and he couldn’t have been thinking about film critics when he did so. But somehow, when I’m watching the thousandth film about gangsters, I wonder if he indeed was.
Sowmya Rajendran writes on gender, culture, and cinema. She has written over 25 books, including a nonfiction book on gender for adolescents. She was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Bal Sahitya Puraskar for her novel Mayil Will Not Be Quiet in 2015.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.
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