Maari (2015)

Maari

After watching the trailer for Maari I nearly give the film a miss, as apart from the obvious draw of Dhanush in a collection of garish shirts the film didn’t really look like my cup of tea. How wrong could I be! Maari may be a standard mass story at heart, but Balaji Mohan has thrown in a number of good ideas that, along with the star presence of Dhanush, deliver a film better than expected. There are a few misses, including a lacklustre heroine and a relatively uninspiring final fight scene but overall Maari is an easy and often very funny watch.

Maari

Maari (Dhanush) is a small time gangster who works for a local don based somewhere in Triplicane, Chennai. Along with his small gang of Sanikilamai (Robo Shankar) and Adithangi (Kalloori Vinoth), Maari extorts money from the shopkeepers in his area, forces people to dance for his entertainment and generally throws his rather insubstantial weight around. As a result everyone in the area hates Maari and his gang, so when a new sub-inspector (Vijay Yesudas) moves into the police station his attempts to arrest Maari seem to be the perfect solution for the area. There is a rumour that Maari was involved in the murder of another gangster some eight years previously and SI Arjun is determined to find a way to prove Maari’s guilt and lock him up for good.

But of course it’s not as simple as that, and once Maari is arrested the locals suddenly find out why they might have been better to stick with the devil they knew. It all ends up, as such things must, with much biffo and a few dodgy CGI effects, but thankfully Maari remains true to himself and is still the same unredeemed petty gangster at the end.

Dhanush plays Maari with plenty of swagger, bravado and a rather impressive moustache. In classic gangster ishtyle he mainly walks in slow-mo with his own personal wind machine for those moments when it’s essential to have a breeze wafting his perfectly styled hair around. Add to that those wonderfully loud shirts, a pristine white lungi, small round sunglasses and a truly terrible chain-smoking habit to make up the classic Tamil gangster package. Of course like every true gangster there has to be a chink in his armour somewhere and for Maari it’s pigeons – he’s a fanatical pigeon racer and the death of one of his pigeons is apparently the reason for his rumoured foray into murder a few years ago.

However there is more to Balaji Mohan’s gangster than first appears and he gives Maari a characterisation that is not particularly deep but does break away from the typical Tamil hero. The first indication occurs when Maari first sees Sridevi (Kajal Agarwal) who has just moved in to the area with her family to open a boutique. The action goes on around Maari as he stares at Sridevi while music swells in the background, and I fully expected there to be the usual ‘love at first sight’, bad guy reformed by good girl storyline. But instead the music stops and Maari threatens to slap Sridevi for her disrespect for him, moving into full extortion mode rather than anything even vaguely lover-like. There is none of the stalking as love aspect either – Maari is only interested in Sridevi as a source of income and even when she starts to help feed his pigeons in an effort to make him fall in love with her he is very reluctant to get involved. He even points out in an evening discussion with Sridevi that he is a safe guy to be around as “real men don’t rape”. It might be a blatant attempt to appeal to the female audience, but this scene got a round of applause from the packed house in Melbourne with even the fanboys in the front row adding their approval.

Sadly Sridevi is a more confused character. She hates Maari for his interference in her boutique but while her attempts at revenge are in character, her later change of heart is rather insipid. I’m not sure who dubbed for Kajal but the voice doesn’t match her appearance although that may be as I’m more used to seeing her in Telugu films. Kajal seems to almost sleep-walk through the part too and there is little energy in her performance with absolutely no chemistry between the lead pair. How is that even possible when Dhanush is at his charming best? Thankfully however the relationship between Maari and the members of his gang more than makes up for the lack of any romance. Robo Shankar is excellent as the wing-man for Dhanush and he mostly has the best comedy lines while Kalloori Vinoth makes an impression in a small role.  Kaali Venkat is good in his role as a police officer and the other actors playing Velu and ‘Bird’ Ravi are solid in these roles. Vijay Yesudas is an unusual choice of villain for a Tamil gangster film, but I found his portrayal of a corrupt and slimy personality quite appropriate and he did a good job in the role. It’s another one of those little departures away from more usual characterisations in commercial films and I appreciate Balaji Mohan’s attempt to do something a little different.

The film looks good with plenty of colour although there aren’t as many full-out dance numbers as I expected. A little disappointing since Dhanush is such a good dancer. Still Anirudh Ravichander’s songs fit well into the storyline, even if at times his background music is rather too loud and distracting.

Maari isn’t a perfect film by any means – the fight scenes aren’t particularly inspiring and the story wanders a little too much – but it’s still an entertaining blend of comedy and action that allows Dhanush full rein to express his ‘bad’ side. I fully enjoyed it and if you’re in the mood for mass masala that has the added benefit of fine performances from Dhanush and Robo Shankar, Maari is definitely well worth a watch.

Baahubali

Baahubali-Poster

Baahubali is reminiscent of classics like Patala Bhairavi and Gulebakavali Katha, with long lost princes, secluded kingdoms, stunning visuals and swashbuckling action. Rajamouli builds steadily to the cliffhanger climax with some fun, flirting, fighting and flashbacks along the way.

A baby is saved by the sacrifice of a majestic woman. He grows up happy and ignorant in a small village, but is always drawn to the high mountains. He tries to scale the massive waterfall to reach the peaks but always fails. Until one day a vision of a beautiful woman leads him to success and he stumbles into the kingdom of Mahishmati. Grown up and frequently shirtless Shivudu (Prabhas) meets his dream love Avanthika (Tamannaah). She is a warrior on a mission to rescue Devasena (Anushka Shetty), held captive for over 25 years by ruthless king Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati). Bhalla hates Devasena because she once chose his rival, the legendary Baahubali. And Shivudu is the very image of Baahubali. Hmmmm.

The majestic woman was Sivagami, the queen mother, played by the stunning and regal Ramya Krishnan in an extended flashback.

I was so excited to see her in the cast, and even more so that she has a substantial role. Sivagami is reasonable but ruthless, her eyes blaze with power, and her word is the law. She rules the kingdom and Ramya Krishnan commands every scene she is in. Sivagami has a nice dynamic with Kattappa (Sathyaraj), her enforcer and bodyguard. Sathyaraj doesn’t need a lot of dialogue to build a strong characterisation, and as the story unfolds Kattappa becomes more complex and ambiguous. This royal family has some baggage.

There is always a point where a Telugu film hero pushes all others aside so he can do the hero-ing. I quite liked that when Shivudu tells Avanthika that her dreams are now his so he will go free Devasena for her, he actually had no skin in the game and really was doing it to help her. Sure, he had had some run ins with the kingdom guards but he didn’t know who he was or that he might have a more personal interest in the outcome. Avanthika drugged him to give herself a head start and he didn’t reproach her for that either. It was more of a partnership, with Shivudu acknowledging that she wasn’t going to give up just because she had been distracted by his flexing.

Baahubali-Tamanna

I have high hopes that by the time the second movie starts Avanthika’s ankle is healed and she will resume arse-kicking, and will be motivated by having something to fight for rather than a cause to sacrifice herself for. I also liked that Avanthika’s nihilism was displaced somewhat by an appreciation of beauty and her acceptance of love even if it is a filmi cliche.

The subtitle team gave Shivudu an unexpectedly genteel aspect as he frequently said things like ‘oh my!’ and ‘oh my goodness!” which didn’t seem all that warrior like. Prabhas is so genial and his dialogue delivery sounds a bit too modern and mumbly for a genre piece, but he totally commits to the role and does the best dance-fight-makeover I have seen. While I objected to Avanthika being forcibly partially stripped (mostly due to the inclement weather), I did appreciate that Shivudu had a steady hand with the eyeliner. And that Rajamouli had Prabhas cavorting under a waterfall as much as Tamannaah did. Prabhas and Tamannaah make a nice looking couple but I am more interested in seeing how their story ends.

Rana was very impressive, both for his ye olden days shirtless physique and his performance. Rana gave Bhallaladeva enough smirking nastiness to be delightfully hateful but also showed he was a smart and fearless warrior who legitimately had reason to expect he could be king. Bhalla might not go out of his way to remove Baahubali, but he would take advantage of a situation if fate presented. His scenes with Devasena were imbued with the weight of years of brooding and venom and he declaimed the spiteful dialogue with fiery precision. Anushka gave as good as she got so I am looking forward to their backstory being developed in the next film and seeing a bit less of her dodgy weather-beaten makeup.

Baahubali-Kalakeya

The Kalakeya are Ooga Booga natives complete with dodgy “tribal’ accoutrements, falling somewhere on the Mad Max to Lord of the Rings tribal baddies spectrum. They presumably can’t speak Telugu because they are Orc-ish, and I guess choosing another regional language would have opened up various cans of worms so the faux Bushman-esque dialogue may be a smarter workaround than it seemed.

The action scenes are awesome and the final battle is truly spectacular. While there is a heavy reliance on war machines and fancy armaments (I loved Bhalla’s Lawn Mower of Death), the stakes are still very personal. Kalakeya tries to stop Baahubali by literally throwing more people at the problem. It’s a cheesy idea played totally straight and it just about took the roof off the theatre when Baahubali emerged from under the pile of bodies.

The production design is beautiful and this is well worth seeing in a cinema just for the gorgeous fairy tale design and for all the things. The waterfall! The CGI is sometimes clunky but it does create the right impression even if specific moments are not seamless. I am not sure what I think about the watermark that appeared on screen whenever a CGI animal was in the shot. I wasn’t fooled for a second by the bull that Rana wrestled but I admit I was paying more attention to his shoulders than the bovine opponent. A fight scene in the ice and snow is poetic and deadly like a masala-fied  Zhang Yimou, and the subsequent toboggan escape is pure Bond. There were about 20 shoemakers credited in the end titles. After some discussion Heather and I decided that it must be hard to make shoes that don’t look like shoes but that still do the trick. Bravo cobblers! Take a bow goldsmiths!

MM Keeravani’s soundtrack left minimal impression on me as I was caught up in the story and visuals. The item number Manohari was a stand-out; sensual, saucy, and a bit silly. The girls got handsy with Prabhas as as lots of drunk guys swayed past on ropes or acted as platforms for the ladies. He was more like a prop for the girls, and they used his lanky frame to excellent effect.

Rajamouli has a knack for casting. I’d never thought of Sunil as a leading man but Maryada Ramanna proved otherwise, and we all know the real star of Eega. Casting Ramya Krishnan as Sivagami is genius, and while I was slightly disappointed that Anushka had so little time on screen in this first film I am very VERY excited about seeing her character in the finale. The support cast are all pretty solid and the multitude of characters are distinct and memorable from Shivudu’s villager family to the minor royals and the forces out to liberate Devasena. Oh, and Rajamouli himself, finally venturing out of the end credits and into the main film.

SS Rajamouli has a great sense of how to translate narrative into visuals and how to build the world he needs to tell his story. Baahubali is truly grand and still totally masala, true to its Telugu roots. See it!

Heather says: Baahubali is an epic film in every sense of the word and I loved every minute! It really is sweeping fantasy adventure on a gigantic scale and I will need to watch it again (and again!) to fully appreciate all the amazing detail. From the sheer immenseness of the towering waterfall in the opening scenes and the lavish Kingdom of Mahishmati to the delicate design of the jewelry and everything in between, the film looks amazing – due no doubt to the cast of thousands mentioned in the end credits. But it’s not just a visual spectacle, as Rajamouli breathes life into a classic mix of mythology and folklore to provide an entertaining and captivating story, naturally along with a good dash of derring-do and plenty of flexing of muscles!

I’m a big fan of Prabhas and he really came into his own once he got a sword in his hand. I was quite impressed by his rock-climbing technique too, although he did seem to miss a few good cracklines that might have made his ascent somewhat easier. However it’s not all just about the muscle flexing, and Prabhas does have plenty of likeable charm throughout and adopts a suitably commanding presence on the battlefield. Rana was every bit as good and he seemed to relish the occasional ambiguity of his character even while embracing the dark side.As Temple mentions, Peter Hein’s action is excellent on every level, and the epic battle scene in the second half is simply superb. I prefer to think of Bhallaladeva’s device as the spinning scythes of doom, perhaps betraying my love of LOTR, but there is plenty of other weaponry to make my inner fantasy nerd happy.

Rajamouli is also to be congratulated for including four strong female characters who all have important roles to play in the story and who don’t fade into the background when the hero appears. Ramya Krishnan surely must have the best eyes in the business and her imperial mannerisms were perfectly delivered. I think I need to adopt her attitude for my lectures – my word is the law! Great also to see Tamannaah’s warrior role wasn’t just an excuse to let her run around in skimpy attire and wave a sword, inappropriate winter clothing aside. She did get to do some real fighting and looked appropriately fierce when required. Like Temple I was disappointed in Anushka’s make-up but I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about her character and Sathyaraj’s excellent Kattappa in the conclusion. With amazing production and excellent performances from all the cast, plus Rajamouli’s legendary story telling skills, Baahubali is not to be missed. Just make sure you see if in the cinema for the full effect. All I can add is roll on part 2!

Megabirthday 2015

inexplicable Chiru

Another year, another Megabirthday just around the corner! We’ll be celebrating things Chiru related during August and of course everyone is invited.

I’m still struggling to decide on a research topic for this year. So far I have the following under consideration:

  • Megastar, mini toga
  • Break dance, Shake dance, or Snake dance?
  • Chiru the Cowboy (aka Beth’s perennial request)

Thoughts? Suggestions?

Let me know if you post something Chiruesque and I’ll collate and publish the links. Or just watch for the #megabirthday2015 hashtag on Twitter and have a chat about all things Chiru. Like this. Ah, look at him go….and look at those ruffles.

 

 

 

Ustad Hotel

Ustad Hotel poster

After watching the excellent Bangalore Days I was on the lookout for more from writer/director Anjali Menon and director Anwar Rasheed, and luckily found their previous co-venture Ustad Hotel lurking in my pile of ‘to-be-watched’ DVD’s.  The other drawcard pushing this up the list was the appearance of Dulquer Salmaan, who has impressed so far in every performance I’ve seen and seems to have the knack of picking a good script. And once again, the combination does not disappoint. Ustad Hotel is a gem of a film and fully deserves the many accolades and awards received, including its three National Film Awards in 2012. The story is simple but beautifully executed with stunning cinematography and excellent performances from the whole cast. It’s a real feast for the senses given that most of the film revolves around food and cooking, so probably best not to watch on an empty stomach!

The film tells the story of Faizal (Dulquer Salmaan), commonly called Faizi, and the path he takes to find his true place in life. Along the way we see details of his different relationships – with his four sisters, his father and most importantly with his grandfather, the owner of the Ustad Hotel.

Faizi’s story starts before he is born when his father Abdul Razaq (Siddique) and mother Fareeda (Praveena) are expecting their first child. Abdul’s confidence that the baby will be a boy and his disappointment when this child, and the next three are all girls, sets our expectations for a typically traditional family and in the main this is what we get. By the time Faizi is finally born, his ambitious father has already planned out his son’s life, which leaves little room for what Faizi himself actually wants. Luckily Faizi has his four sisters who bring him up after their mother dies and seem to have his best interests at heart. His sisters know that he is training to be a chef in Switzerland while his father thinks he is studying for an MBA, but they aren’t impressed by his European girlfriend or by his plans to work in London. As a result they conspire to bring him back to India, but still keep his father in the dark about Faizi’s true plans.

At the same time Abdul has arranged a bride visit for Faizi as soon as he steps off the plane, but things don’t go well when Faizi tells his intended bride Shahana (Nithya Menon) of his intention to work as a chef. Faizi’s furious father confiscates his passport and in desperation Faizi turns to his grandfather Kareem (Thilakan) who runs a small beachside restaurant in Kozhikode.

Kareem acts as a mentor to Faizi and teaches him not only how to cook his famous biriyani, but also how to care for a business, including his workers, and the general community around him. The obvious respect which Kareem receives from everyone from his staff and customers, to the chef in the five-star hotel nearby, makes Faizi realise that there is more to his grandfather than he previously realised. Everyone sees him as Kareem’s grandson and that defines his place in a way that has never been so clear before.  The story is well crafted and the relationship between the two is beautifully developed as Kareem starts by making Faizi a general helper and gradually allows him to develop his cooking skills while ensuring he gains a more mature outlook on life.

Thilakan is perfect as Kareem and he is the glue that holds the story together. There is a twinkle in his eye as he describes running off with the bride from a wedding where he was employed to cook, and the wistful delight with which he describes watching rain in the desert is pitched just right. He has a number of maxims he lives by, including that every meal should feed the mind as well as the stomach and every glass of sulaimani should contain a little bit of love. With these simple words and by ensuring his workers all have extra funds should they need it, Kareem teaches Faizi how to be a good person, not just a good cook. He is a man who lives his life with no regrets and has compassion for all, which makes him the ideal mentor for Faizi.

Dulquer is also excellent, and while the role of a trendy young NRI returning to India may be straightforward, his Faizi does appear to be genuinely at a crossroads.  He imbues his character with plenty of charm but also gives Faizi an element of confusion and bewilderment that fits his indecision perfectly. Dulquer and Thilakan share wonderful chemistry and their relationship comes across as very genuine – the respected elder and the young apprentice both in the film and presumably also in real life given that this is only Dulquer’s second film. Mamukkoya also deserves special mention in his role as Ummar, Kareem’s manager and almost another member of the family. He is very natural in the role and his conversations with Kareem about Faizi are exactly what you would expect from an old and trusted employee asked to give his opinion on the wayward young member of the family.

Nithya Menon appears as the love interest for Faizi and her Shahana is an interesting character. At one moment she is wearing a burka and conforming to the demands of her rather strict family, but in the next she steals out and is singing in a rock band and wearing Western clothes. Nithya Menon is as wonderful as ever and even in her limited time onscreen she makes an impression, but I really would have liked to see a little more of her in the second half.

While Faizi deals with the repercussions of defying his father, he gets a job at the five-star hotel next door and has a chance to use his training to cook more Western style dishes, or ‘oag cosin’ as my subtitles call it! There is a plot to drive Kareem out of the hotel and close down the Ustad Hotel and finally Faizi makes a trip to Madurai to see just how cooking with love should be carried out. It all ties together perhaps a little too neatly at the end but it’s hard to complain when it’s all done so well with S Lokanathan’s stunning cinematography ensuring each scene looks perfect.

Ustad Hotel is a film that flows beautifully, blending adept characterisations, a heart-warming story and traditional Keralan cuisine into a very tasty dish indeed. There are a few quibbles; Faizi’s Western girlfriend is horribly stereotyped and the second half could have been a little shorter without losing too much of the story. The romance between Faizi and Shahana seems to go from awkwardness after her initial rejection to a friendly relationship well, but the jump to romance seems to happen off camera as the two are suddenly an item without any further development of their relationship. However these are small points in an otherwise excellent film. Well worth watching for Dulquer, Thilakan and Nithya along with all the glorious shots of food. 4 ½ stars.

ABCD 2

ABCD 2

For me to enjoy a dance movie it just needs to have a lot of dancing. Sure a story is good, some character development would be nice but as long as there is plenty of dancing then I’ll be happy. And that’s just as well, since ABCD 2 has no coherent storyline and little character development, but does have excellent dancers, inspiring choreography and plenty of hip hop. It does at times feel a little like watching an extended episode of SYTYCD, except that there is probably more drama and definitely fewer inane dialogues in the TV show. But in fairness ABCD 2 does deliver just as much dancing. Not a film for everyone, but if you don’t mind a wafer-thin plot and are happy to watch the entire cast start dancing at every possible opportunity then ABCD 2 is the film for you.

The film starts with dance group the Mumbai Stunners being disqualified from a dance competition for plagiarising their entire routine from a Filipino group. This is particularly heart-breaking for Suresh (Varun Dhawan) whose mother was a celebrated Kathak dancer who died with her ghungroos on (naturally!) and who would no doubt have been appalled at her son’s behavior if she’d been around to see it. The group is subsequently ostracised for cheating, which even includes being ridiculed and abused at their respective workplaces however unlikely that may seem. Despite these setbacks, Suresh is determined to dance and starts up a new group with an alcoholic choreographer he meets in the bar where he works. The plan is to take the new group to Las Vegas, compete in the hip-hop world championships and thereby regain their honour.

That would be fine except that the group really did plagiarise someone else’s choreography. And they never actually admit to it, or apologise for doing so. Not even when they meet the group they copied later on in the film do they ever acknowledge that they were at fault. It seems an odd omission for a film that is otherwise concerned with redemption – how can the group deserve a second chance when they never admit they made a mistake?

Suresh’s childhood friend Vinnie (Shraddha Kapoor) and fellow dancer Sushant Pujari help Suresh recruit new dancers who include Dharmesh Yelande and Punit Pathak (from ABCD), and they start their quest to compete in Las Vegas. Their chosen choreographer Vishnu (Prabhu Deva), who may or may not be the same Vishnu from the first film, sobers up exceptionally quickly and helps the group gain their second chance to show they really can dance.

Varun Dhawan is an excellent dancer and impressively keeps up with the professional dancers most of the time. Shraddha Kapoor is also much better than I expected, although she does get a break (not quite literally) when the group get to Las Vegas and she injures her ankle. That allows Olive (Lauren Gottlieb) to be a last-minute substitute, which means the group can really go for it and pull out some serious dance moves. There’s a sub-plot that involves Vishnu behaving somewhat shadily in the USA but of course it all gets resolved in time for the big dance finale.

The film does follow a similar ‘underdogs fighting for success’ path as ABCD and even includes a reworking of Bezubaan, presumably because it worked so well in the first film. However Bezubaan Phir Se is very similar to the original, reprising both the music and the dancing in water choreography but lacks the spark that made the original such a standout track despite some very impressive dancing.

Sadly ABCD 2 doesn’t develop any of the characters apart from a brief glimpse of Suresh’s mother and a short interlude with Vishnu, making it difficult to develop any empathy for the dancers or get behind their search for success. Even the few who are more than just faceless performers have little impact on the story and the film probably didn’t need an actor of Varun Dhawan’s calibre given how little he gets to ‘act’. Still, there is amazing dancing at every possible opportunity and that’s where ABCD 2 wins me over. There may not be much in the way of a storyline, but the dancers are superb, the choreography different from most Bollywood films and it’s packaged with plenty of glitz and dazzle. One more for dance fans, but that includes me and I’m already eagerly awaiting ABCD 3.