To most people, Indian cinema is equated with "Bollywood", the film industry based in Mumbai that produced predominantly Hindi language cinema. However, there are 3 distinct movie industries in the country, with the Hindi industry being the biggest and most commercially successful, and the Tamil and Telegu film industries generally perceived to offer lower budget and "artier" fair. One fairly odd phenomenon is that Tamil movies that are successful are often remade in Hindi, often by the same director these days but usually with a different cast. Some recent films have even been made in Tamil and Hindi in parallel, with one film reportedly having the same scenes shot twice with two different casts :p
Anyway, my exposure to Indian film has mostly been through Hindi cinema, and the two Tamil films I had previously seen (Santoshi Sivan's "The Terrorist" and Mani Ratnam's "A Peck On The Cheek" seemed to confirm the notion that the films were more low-key artistic creations. I picked up another Tamil film, Kaakha Khaaka, thinking that it was the original film from which the 2004 Hindi blockbuster Khakee originated. As it turns out, they are actually two quite different films, though there are more similarities than the name (derived from the Khaki uniforms of the Indian police, I believe). Kaakha Kaakha scotches the notion that Tamil films are all artsy and low budget though, being a full-blown blockbuster with plentiful action and song and dance scenes that would fit quite neatly into any Bollywood affair.
I am pretty sure Khakee was influenced by Kaakha Kaakha, even though the stories are essentially quite different. Both are cops and criminals cat-and-mouse affairs filmed in a modern, "edgy" style with plenty of testosterone and quite a dark tone. The influence of Ram Gopal Varma feels strong in them both, and the influence of Hollywood too it must be admitted.
Kaakha Kaakha starts with a man crashing out of a lakeside house into the water, covered in blood, where he sinks to the bottom and has a musical dream about a beautiful girl. Upon the song's conclusion he regains consciousness and struggles out of the lake, and informs the viewer that despite being full of bullets he has to pull himself together and go rescue that girl. The film then goes into flashback mode to fill in the story of who this man is and how he came to this situation. It's fully 2 hours before we return to this point in time, by which time we understand a lot more and have a lot more motivation to want him to pull himself together.
The man is DCP Anbuselvan and he is a cop. He rose up the ranks of the Madras police force and together with a group of his colleagues became somewhat notorious for his tough methods in bringing down criminals. Why go to all the cost of a court trial when a bullet can bring justice a lot quicker? The girl in his musical daydream is Maya, the woman who managed to get inside his stony heart. Obviously in 2 hours they go into quite a bit more detail than that, but I will leave that for the interested viewer to discover for his or her self ;)
Kaakha Kaakha serves up both a solid love story and a solid crime story, with the former dominating at first but giving way to the latter as time goes by. One of the nice things about the typically long running times of Indian films is that they can develop characters and plots in a lot more detail than the average 100 minute action film could dream of, and in 2.5 hours we get a good development of both these strands in Anbuselvan's life. The ultimate collision of these two threads makes both all the more powerful. There definitely seems to be a move towards darker, grittier and more violent films in India in recent years, and Kaakha Kaakha continues this trend, taking the film to some pretty nasty places. This will undoubtedly upset some viewers, but it's all good with me. If you like your films to be feel-good and life-affirming, you probably don't need to read any more of this review 'cause you should know by now that this isn't a film for you.
Another factor that may turn off some viewers is that the film does seem to condone police violence (well, murder to be blunt) as a means of fighting crime. I was hoping that the film would explore the ethics of this viewpoint, and it seemed in many places that it was about to do so but then it never quite did. I ended up sampling some bits of the director's commentary to see what he had to say on the matter, but it seems that he has no particular disagreement with the idea that killing criminals is a generally good approach to fighting crime. The film does seem like it provides some food for thought on the subject whether the director intended it or not though, as one can't help thinking that things might have gone better all round if the cops had actually arrested some of the people they "economically" dispatched.
Apart from this, the script for the film is generally very good - quite tight and logical, and full of nice bits of dialogue and detail that flesh out the principle characters well. Another benefit of the long length of Indian films is that they often give the villains more depth and development than the average Hollywood or Hong Kong crime film, making them equally important characters. Kaakha Kaakha has a really great main villain, played with great charisma by young actor Jeevan. He's a really *bad* bad buy, but it's hard not to like him because he's so charming, and his lack of moral compass seems to be due to bad upbringing rather than a malevolent nature. More amoral than immoral.
The film features impressive production values for the most part, with very high technical skill. However, the direction is a little self-indulgent. The film features the sort of "edgy" jump-cuts and roving cameras of Ram Gopal Varma's COMPANY, but here they seem to be applied without particular reason in many cases, drawing too much attention to themselves and detracting from what they are meant to be showing rather than enhancing it. Too much style for style's sake, I guess (and I normally *like* that in a film). The camera's excesses are amplified by the soundtrack, which is occasionally great but in too many cases is just too bombastic for the scene it belongs too. A little more subtlety in the visuals and sound could have made the film a lot better. When it works, it works really well though.
For most of it's running time the film is very tight, with no down-spots and confident direction. It engages the attention effortlessly, and I found myself very involved in the storyline. Unfortunately, the film flounders a bit at the end, with a climactic scene that doesn't really fit or offer a neat resolution (not the very last scene, which is good, but the final showdown scene). On the commentary track the director admits that he isn't happy with the scene either, but they ran out of time and money and couldn't shoot the scene he had planned. Well, maybe he will get chance when he helms the Hindi remake :)
Final thoughts - if you like gritty, dark crime films with a well developed love story then Kaakha Kaakha ought to please :) It has a few flaws, but they're easily forgiven considering all the things the film does right - and it's certainly an entertaining ride.