Wednesday 18 May 2016

Good time: "24"

The current Tamil hit 24 has little to do with Kiefer Sutherland, although it's equally tangled up with time: it very quickly sets a Guinness world record for the number of clock faces per frame, and you lose track of the number of scenes where characters arrive at their destination with mere seconds to spare, or an instant too late. Writer-director Vikram K. Kumar has here constructed a meticulous fantasy premised on our ongoing desire to halt or otherwise control the sands that pass through the hourglass, centred on a star seeking to extend his own moment in the spotlight: Suriya - the host of the Tamil variant of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? - who herein outdoes Shah Rukh Khan in the recent Fan by essaying not two but three characters at different points in the film's frantic, ever-expanding continuum.

A prologue set in 1990 establishes a deadly rivalry between two brothers: happily married - if absent-minded - inventor Sethuraman (this being Suriya #1) and the brooding, homicidally jealous Athreya (Suriya #2). Shortly before Cain does for Abel, and Abel in turn plunges Cain into a decades-long coma, Sethuraman smuggles two cherished items out into the wider world: his infant son Mani, and a wrist-mounted time-travel device locked inside a hand-turned wooden box. Mani will grow up to become - you guessed it - Suriya #3, a rather aimless sort stuck behind the counter of a watch repair shop, where he cluelessly deploys said box to prop up a wonky chair leg. Its contents, however, become a matter of renewed urgency once Athreya emerges from sleep, more twisted than ever, and determined to claim back the machine, along with the 26 years he believes Mani's father has taken from him.

By their very nature, such manoeuvres demand a heightened level of contrivance, yet Kumar demonstrates a watchmaker's eye for engineering wormholes: at every stage, he tempers the rollercoaster preposterousness of the plot with a measure of on-the-ground precision. Reuniting the box with the curlicued key that might open it - thus making the device viable once more - involves a very carefully laid close-up of a gob of chewing gum being discarded outside Mani's shop; getting the device to function necessitates some clever business with a faulty lightswitch. To move us from here to there, Kumar has realised his script needs to function as a machine, and happily everything's plugged in and switched on and pulling in the right direction: the cause-and-effect of the film's first hour is a small marvel, and something the Hindi industry, in particular, could learn a huge amount from.

Once the pieces are lined up and the box is opened, 24 starts to have immense fun with the time-travelling conceit. Mani finds the device allows him to whizz the day back and forward as desired - correcting his mistakes, pre-empting others - and, thanks to a nifty, Sky+-like pause button, to suspend time altogether. There's a lovely visual effect here: having halted raindrops mid-descent, Mani begins to flick at them as though he were popping bubblewrap - just for the sheer heck of it - indirectly providing the opening beats for the film's first musical number after a solid hour of set-up. "A life beyond my dreams is at hand," our hero trills, and it's around this time that Suriya really does start to resemble a moviestar in the Gene Kelly tradition, one who's got rhythm, a girl in his sights, and - best of all - eternity literally at his fingertips.

24 places a lot of time on his side: at 163 minutes, it's a quarter of an hour longer than 2001, the film that famously took us from the Dawn of Man to the Final Frontier. Yet what's quasi-miraculous about it is that Kumar never runs out of good ideas: he always leaves us with something to be amused or gripped by. When we first see Mani's beloved Sathya (Samantha) signing to her parents, the assumption is of deafness on one side or another or both - a development a more sentimentally minded picture might have traded in; it turns out, however, that the elders have taken a monastic vow never to utter a harsh word (and therefore to utter no words) during daylight hours. Mani's attempts to woo her inevitably back up into Groundhog Day territory, as he uses his new-found powers to achieve a desired outcome - but then you never saw Bill Murray ducking out of his dates with Andie MacDowell to ensure Lasith Malinga drops a series-clinching catch. (In India, romantic success may come second to cricketing dominance.)

It's a sign of Kumar's confidence that he can hit the point of intermission (shockingly brutal, even with BBFC-advised cuts) comparatively late, safe in the knowledge he can always wind the clock back and start anew in the second half - although the second half complicates the set-up in ways that prove even more enjoyable. Throughout, this director appears blessed by the best toys and collaborators money can provide a modern Tamil filmmaker with: expansive production design (Sethuraman's cluttered lab is on a par with mid-range Hollywood), sophisticated visual effects, hundreds of extras prepared to strike limbo poses in mid-air whenever Mani pushes pause on his wristwatch, not to mention one of A.R. Rahman's lusher, more keening recent scores, which helps to take the edge off - and adds welcome notes of emotion - whenever matters threaten to become too mechanical.

If the whole suggests - after last summer's Baahubali: the Beginning - another quantum leap forward for Indian cinema (and that Tamil cinema may be harboring the best ideas, and the best ideas men, in this business), perhaps Kumar and co. still have some way to go in matters of psychology. There's no substantial explanation of why Athreya is so angry to begin with, save the understanding that every good story needs an antagonist to set the ball running. (I also suspect a Western movie would get into trouble for making a wheelchair such an essential part of this crooked figure's make-up - although, in Kumar's defence, Athreya has just taken an impromptu header off a viaduct and spent the best part of three decades in a medical coma. You'd have trouble standing up after that.) Whatever: this isn't to deny that 24 is a very good, imaginative, well-executed story - one for which it really would be worth setting aside some time.

24 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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