Life is Beautiful (2012)

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I’m not sure whether Life is Beautiful needs to be an hour shorter or about 5 hours longer. Sekhar Kammula’s observational style might play out better as a mini-series than a film as while not a lot really happens, neither do we get much insight into some of the large ensemble of characters. And understanding more about them might have made all the difference when, for want of a better word, things go a bit stupid.

Sreenu, Chinni and Sathya move to a Hyderabad housing development to stay with relatives when their mother (Amala Akkineni) tells them she needs to take a work transfer for a year. It’s clear their aunt just tolerates them, and the rich aunty (Surekha Vani) next door doesn’t want to know the kids. But where Gold Phase has shiny cars and swimming pools, the B Phase colony is rich in characters and goodwill. Money causes all manner of tension, but mostly between those who value work and self-improvement over those take their privilege for granted. In a similar vein, the film contrasts the superficial gated enclosure of Gold Phase with the more organic sense of community in B Phase where sharing is second nature.

The B Phase kids expect to work to make their own way. Chinni is trying to get into a prestigious English school and Sathya (Rashmi Sastry) is preparing to study medicine. Nagaraj helps new neighbour Laxmi (Zara Shah) to find a job so she can continue her engineering studies, and his lack of education and prospects is a recurring theme. Sreenu (Abhijeet Duddala) soon meets Nagaraj (Sudhakar Komakula) the local cool dude and Abhi (Kaushik Darbha), a sweet-natured geek. Cousin Paddhu (Shagun Kaur) is pretty and confident, and keeps Sreenu on his toes. They’re all good hearted and fundamentally optimistic, and friendship comes easily. It’s not hard to like them and I enjoyed watching them grapple with coming of age and growing responsibility.

I really like that the girls are interested in finding the right life partner not just a hot hero, and that their parents are broadly supportive of their right to do so (if not of their choices). I’m not as happy with some of the films tricks to get the girls to realise who they love. There is an odd decision to make Paru (Shriya Saran) have a gimmicky epiphany, as though she was incapable of understanding her own feelings without a billboard sized clue. And I couldn’t really get on board with her ‘I must win Miss India to fulfil my mother’s dying wish’ thing.  I didn’t think Ajay (Vijay Sai) was really a bad guy, but he had a different view of sex and relationships so Laxmi found herself fleeing what she saw as overly determined advances. It seemed she was being punished for straying from Nagaraj and B Phase. Nagaraj has a reverse snobbery about educated people and blames Laxmi for the encounter. And once a boy has decided he likes a girl, that girl should only do what he says or face harsh criticism. Maybe it is just an illustration of how it is easy to be liberal when you’re comfortable, but how people under pressure can revert to type. Maya (Anjala Zaveri) was being harassed by a sleazy caller so the boys actually use their education to catch the culprit. But then their biggest problem seems to be that he is a Gold Phase guy and shouldn’t be allowed to ogle their local hottie while they may do so at their whim. When Maya comes to bail the lads out at the police station, they seem shocked that women can Do Thinking And Other Good Stuff Too. So it’s a mixed bag but the women are distinct and interesting characters and that was pleasing.

The youngsters various relationships absorb most of the film, but they all have families and other issues to deal with. Sreenu and his sisters find out the real reason for their mother’s absence – a reason that made me furious and considering whether to pull the plug on the movie – and have to think hard about what to do with their lives. On the other hand, Abhi and his mum have a really nice relationship. She knows he is a bit weird and nerdy but she loves him for his quirks, and he is super smart and appreciative of her support. Paddhu is caught between her snobby parents expectations and her own heart, plus a dithering Indian Filmi Boy, but she is not a pushover and nor are they villains. Friends help friends, and sometimes friends force friends to confront things they might try to avoid.

Language is both a conduit and barrier. Chinni is denied a place in school because she doesn’t speak English, although she is eloquent when speaking Telugu. Nagaraj tells new neighbour Laxmi that Telangana speakers aren’t formal, they speak from the heart. I couldn’t pick up on the nuances of language in the conversations about Andhra and Telangana speech, although I assume that would resonate with the local audience.

The cast are largely novices and they generally do quite well. Of the young actors, Kaushik and Shagun Kaur were my favourites maybe because they played sunny characters and seemed genuine. I smiled when I saw them and could easily overlook a couple of wobbly acting moments. Amala Akkineni is the largely absent mother, and while I like her performance a lot I had strong reservations about the plot manipulation tied to her character. Shriya Saran is very natural as Paru, the It Girl of Gold Phase, pretty and a princess. And she shows a different side in her scenes with Abhi and the guys where she is at ease, genuine, and friendly.

I don’t like the songs. Especially the English lyrics in this one. It is Eurovision level bad.

My test for whether a song enhances a film is simple. I imagine the sequence, replacing the filmi song with Boston’s More Than A Feeling – a truly naff song which is all about itself. If it works just as well as the movie song I reckon the film could have done without. Obviously if there is excellent dancing, great costumes, or Chiru, I don’t question the validity of the musical interlude.

The song montages are well put together and do help amplify the mood and inner feelings. The locations and set dressing are lovely to look at and the details help flesh out the characters living in the various houses and streets. C Vijay Kumar has collaborated with Sekhar Kammula on several films and their styles mesh very well. He knows how to get the most out of fields, trees and rooftop terraces.

Kammula uses some cheap and cheesy effects which is at odds with his predilection for slice of life stories featuring the unexceptional middle class. Animated hearts when the scruffy boy dog fell for the ritzy lady dog was mildly funny but then there was the magic at the wedding, the magic at Miss India…the (bad and nonsensical) magic. While David Copperfield need not worry about losing his day job, it was nice to see Anish Kuruvilla acting. And Anish, if you don’t like being a character actor you could always, I dunno, direct another film. Just a thought.

I really like Sekhar Kammula’s films, even though I have a few issues with his horrible taste in music and addiction to animated effects, as he can tell simple stories well. While Life Is Beautiful is meandering and low on drama, I do like the characters and the glimpses into their lives. 3 stars!

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Mera Saaya (1966)

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Raj Khosla directs Sunil Dutt and Sadhana in a courtroom procedural with a bit of a twist. Despite the melodramatic conceit at the centre of the plot, this is a sensible and well plotted film that is very satisfying.

Geeta (Sadhana) is lying ill in a very ornate room. The doctor sends a cable for her husband Thakur Rakesh Singh (Sunil Dutt) to come home immediately as the prognosis is poor. The Thakur arrives home – he puts his head down and power walks past the other passengers, urgency in every step. He opens the car door before it even stops. But it is too late and Geeta expires in his arms.

Rakesh mourns, sunk in grief, listening to ‘their song’ – Mera Saaya (My Shadow). Nothing seems to reach him. Until the inspector shows him a photo of a suspected female bandit who is the very image of Geeta.

The woman claims to be Geeta, which of course the Thakur rejects. But she seems to know so much, and looks so much like his recently deceased wife. When she goes on trial, her only defense is that she is Geeta not Raina the bandit, so the judge gives her some leeway to prove her identity. Since her husband is a famous lawyer, she wants him to represent her. But as he is a witness for the prosecution, instead she decides to defend herself and has him called as a witness.

How could she know so much about him? And about Geeta for that matter? And she looks so much like Geeta that he cannot help but feel drawn to her. The words of their shadow song have extra meaning for Rakesh now he is seeing the image of his wife everywhere, in memories, dreams, and in the dock. But who is she? And is she really a killer?

The servant, Sargam (the minxy Kumud Bole), seems to be up to something. And an old lady got arrested so she could pass a note in jail to Raina (and then ate the evidence). There are stories within stories and the evidence seems to point first one way then the other. I often find filmi law a bit unconvincing but the arguments within Mera Saaya are fairly logical. The avuncular judge (Jagdish Sethi) is a genial man. He is interested in a fair hearing for all rather than pushing a predetermined agenda, so he encourages the questions and reminds witnesses of their obligations. The dialogues have the ring of truth and the questions and revelations fall out so that the plot complications are developed and resolved in a sequence that helps reinforce the central question as well as hinting at the solution. There are questions I might have asked in addition to the ones in the script, but not many that I wouldn’t have thought relevant. Plus, you just can’t argue with a Significant Mole.

Sunil Dutt is quietly compelling as Rakesh. He desperately wants a reason to believe his wife still lives, but is a rational man and knows he cremated her. There are flashbacks of Rakesh and Geeta together, their happiness juxtaposed with the dreary days of waking alone. Even in the most confrontational moments in court Rakesh acts with his integrity and tells the truth though it might undermine his own position that the woman is an impostor. Dutt and Sadhana are warm and physically demonstrative in the flashback scenes. Rakesh’s loss and anger at the sheer presumption of this woman taking his wife’s name are born out of an equally passionate grief, and Dutt delivered with restraint. It’s a lovely, intelligent performance.

Sadhana plays her double role with gusto. Geeta is the sweet and dutiful wife, but she has personality and a cheeky streak. Raina is suspected of being in league with the local bandit gang leader. Nothing about her story makes much sense, but when Raina is trying to persuade Rakesh that she is his Geeta her desperation seems genuine. Both characters have enough similarities that Rakesh cannot outright say that Raina is nothing like his wife. But there are a few things that don’t add up and Sadhana’s expressions convey that there might be something dubious going on. Like her co-star, she focusses on delivering a balanced and believable characterisation that helps sustain the mystery.

As befits the story, this is not a movie chock full of big item numbers but the soundtrack has plenty to offer. The songs range from romantic ballads to more boisterous fare.

It was quite handy that Raina had a dark past as a dancer (and a good use for Asha Bhosle’s flirty upbeat vocals). The songs are often used to amplify the characters emotions, like giving Rakesh a glimpse of his happy past before the present crashes back in.

The support cast is generally excellent. I really liked the scenes between the police inspector (Anwar Hussain), the family doctor (Shivraj) and the prosecutor (K.N Singh) as they would sit around in the evenings and talk about the case, what they thought would happen, and how Rakesh was bearing up. They were gossipy, opinionated and yet pragmatic. Bankeji (Dhumal) and Munshiji (Mukri) are the comedy sidekicks – less entertaining although I was mildly taken aback by the casual references to Bankeji’s opium use. Ratnamala is warm and caring but quite ineffectual as the aunt. And while I am trying to avoid spoilers, Prem Chopra has a small role so you can guess who one of the bad guys is.

Partly filmed on location at the Lake Palace, Udaipur, this is a beautiful looking film. Sunil Dutt and Sadhana bring their characters to life and give a solid emotional core to the story.  Plus there is a lovely lush soundtrack by Madan Mohan with the golden trio of Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Mohammad Rafi lending their vocals. 4 ½ stars!

1 Nenokkadine

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I love Sukumar’s Arya 2, I think Mahesh is a very good actor, the story had been talked up and the budget was huge with lots of big sets and fancy locations. Unfortunately 1 Nenokkadine is more like two films thrown together than a cohesive whole  – one a complex psychological thriller and one a mass shoot ‘em up blow ‘em up. I can’t avoid one big spoiler although I don’t want to discuss the plot in much detail. But ultimately Sukumar fails to fully capitalise on either the big idea or the big star.

Note: I didn’t get to see this in a cinema as the screen caught fire at the first show and that was that! (No one was hurt.) Since I tried to see this legally but was prevented by an act of god, I wasn’t conflicted about using more dubious means available until the DVD releases.

Anyway. What to believe when the hero is an unreliable narrator? This should have been an interesting conundrum but unfortunately 1 Nenokkadine is full of holes and the direction is clunky.

Gautam (Mahesh) is a rockstar. He is prone to nightmares and constantly on guard against the men who killed his parents and want to finish him off. When Gautam sees one of the men in the audience of his show, he takes off initially in fear but then in pursuit and kills the guy. Gautam turns himself in to the police, clearly disturbed but aware he has done something wrong. He was chased by Sameera, apparently some kind of production staff on the show who is also a journalist and squealy fangirl. She films the fatal encounter and reveals the truth about Gautam – he was hallucinating the whole thing. There was no other man, no fight and no stabbing.  Gautam’s backstory finally emerges when he ingeniously tracks down Nasser who says he was a cab driver 20 years ago…And that sends them off to London and the high adrenalin second half of the film. And yet once again, nothing is as it seems.

Mahesh is very good and his dramatic scenes really do have urgency, conveying  Gautam’s pain and frustration. The scenes where Gautam is hanging on by a thread, fighting his inner demons, are so well acted but often undermined by the direction. Mahesh can do a lot with silence and minimal histrionics but Sukumar lays on tricky visuals where he could have just let the performance breathe. There is zero chemistry with Kriti Sanon, and their romance was of the desultory insta-love variety, an obligatory element. A hero with integration disorder opens up a lot of possibilities for turning mass film tropes inside out. But there is little logic, and so much bad filmi medicine, that the mental illness almost becomes irrelevant. Gautam is a man who cannot trust anyone and is out for personal revenge. Now he learns he cannot trust himself. How had he functioned for the last 20 odd years if he was prone to such vivid and realistic delusions? Why had no one around him noticed anything odd given he had ‘killed’ before? There was no reason for him to be a rockstar other than as a change of image for Mahesh, so why not have more fun with the new career? And it takes everyone far too long to unravel the screamingly obvious Significant Clue.

Kriti Sanon’s Sameera takes about half the film to find her feet, partly because she is a fairly ordinary actress and partly due to the patchy writing. Sameera lies, confuses Gautam, and finally says she is doing it all to cure him because she loves him. Yeah, whatever.  And the idea that if you love someone you have to believe them takes no account of mental illness which by definition means a person may struggle to have awareness or control of their thoughts and resulting actions. I would normally complain about drugging the heroine but I was as ready as Gautam to have a break from her.  Luckily one day Sameera recalls she is a journalist and so should be capable of thinking and research. Maybe she found her brain when she swapped handbags. She starts to put together the attacks on her, the men following Gautam, things, and links it back to the underworld don (Kelly Dorjee).

Comedy rears its ugly head as Gulab Singh (Posani Krishna Murali as a London based Sikh taxi driver) is tasked with facilitating Gautam’s revenge logistics. Pradeep Rawat, Kelly Dorjee and Nasser are the main supporting actors and deliver their usual reliable standard of performances.

The songs are an interruption and do nothing for the plot. Kriti Sanon prances about in micro shorts all the time so Aww Tuzo Mogh Kortha wasn’t an excuse for a skinshow, although she did also get some guitar fondling into her repertoire. The English lyrics are horribly cheesy, especially for You’re My Love, and nobody seems to be having fun. But don’t take my word for it.

Mahesh has very similar choreo for every song so that was a bit lacklustre too.

Peter Hein puts all the right elements into the action scenes but repetition and sluggish editing sap the energy. How could a chase involving jet skis, boats, a parasail and hydro jet packs be tedious? There are also some things that are glossed over (e.g escaping from an underwater car) where they either lacked budget or an idea of how to extricate the hero from his impending doom. Sukumar is trying for a psychological edge but replaying a shot of Kelly Dorjee throwing a can into a bin multiple times to show Gautam thinking of using the rubbish as physical evidence is just painful.

The locations are used well, and the film looks beautiful. There are some really nice touches that add style and even humour. Mahesh’s son Gautham appears as young Gautam (those ears! Instantly recognisable).The threat of Indian fans forming a mob is enough to get the police to rethink keeping Gautam in jail, but then everything else functions as though the Belfast police are identical to the Andhra police so what is the point of that cultural in-joke? It’s all very disjointed and seems to have been written by committee. Oh but Nasser’s flashback wig is a doozy. I think it is the poorer cousin of The Wig from Shakti. And for the hardcore  Mahesh fans, yes he does a shower scene so you will see naked upper back. The glimpses of princely elbow are now old hat so no need to mention there are approximately 437 of those throughout the film. I think our friend The Mahesh Fan would approve of the brainy specs. Oh you want proof?

In a good psychological thriller once the twist is revealed the story should be enriched, and the viewer should be able to re-interpret scenes with their new knowledge. I think films like The Prestige and even Sixth Sense did that extremely well. Sukumar couldn’t make his own mind up about the film he was making so ended up with an overly long muddle that wouldn’t completely satisfy either full-on Mahesh fans or the psycho-drama audience.

A schizophrenic film about schizophrenia. 3 stars (mostly for Mahesh).

Heather says:

I enjoyed this film despite a few fairly obvious plot holes and a relative lack of logic at times. Most exciting for me were the scenes shot in Northern Ireland since this is where I grew up and, Game of Thrones aside, it’s rare that I get to see my home country on screen. There was something slightly surreal about watching Mahesh Babu run across Carrick-a-rede bridge, past Scrabo tower and wander through the streets of Whitehead, particularly when you know just how far apart those places are in reality! That aside, there is much to enjoy in Nenokkadine. Mahesh is in ultra-brooding mode with his fierce intensity somehow out of place for a supposed rock star. That’s probably my main question – why make him a rock star? Where are his security people and minions to run and pander to his every whim – if he’s as famous as implied here then he does seem to travel very light. His performance however is excellent and as the story unfolds it becomes ever more believable that he has a mental illness with his intense and chilly stare.

Apart from the scenes in Northern Ireland (which I have now forced my entire family to watch) I love when a frog hops away from the fight and the action sequence in the bathroom is fantastic.  Peter Hein comes through again! Thankfully there is no annoying separate comedy track to detract from the thriller nature of the story and although the romance wasn’t particularly well realised at least it did give a respite from all the brooding. Nenokkadine is a good attempt at a rather more psychological thriller and while parts of the story are familiar at times, overall I do like the way Sukumar thinks. I love his tendency to make his heroes somewhat damaged and their flaws make them more interesting (Arya 2 is still my all time favourite Telugu film) but at least for this film I would have liked him to branch out a little more from Telugu formula and ditch the songs. I know that’s odd coming from me, since I usually want more songs, but dance numbers just don’t work particularly well in a thriller, and here the tension falters every time the action is disrupted by a song. However, I still did enjoy Nenokkadine and I’d recommend it as a rather more sophisticated thriller from Sukumar and for the excellent performance from Mahesh. 4 stars.

Chanakya Sapatham (1986)

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One of a half dozen films K Raghavendra Rao churned out in 1986 (including the awesome Kondaveeti Donga), Chanakya Sapatham again pairs Chiranjeevi with Vijayashanti in a ripping yarn of smugglers, flight attendants and the Indian Customs department. I wouldn’t go so far as to call Chanakya Sapatham a neglected masala masterpiece but I do think it deserves some love.

Shashi or Sasirekha (Vijayashanti) is a flight attendant, unwittingly caught up in a smuggling operation by BOB CHRISTO! Bob, with his trademark poor judgement, hides a pouch of diamonds in her blouse (no, I don’t know how she didn’t notice) and when he  tries to get it back, Shashi puts up a decent fight and Chanakya (Chiranjeevi) leaps to the rescue. It’s like the finale of Doodh Ka Karz only with flying Chiru instead of snakes.

Naturally Shashi is swept off her feet by the dashing customs officer in his very snug uniform. They fall in love through a Kodak moment and product placement. Oh the visual metaphors.

Rana (Rao Gopal Rao) is the main villain. Bless the Paruchuri brothers for going to the trouble of trying to think of vaguely sane reasons for him to do some things, and then make him explain himself. It was unnecessary but greatly appreciated.  Rana’s chief henchman Ranga is a flamboyantly unpleasant creature and Rana’s son is a nasty piece of work. The son (Sudhakar) works for the airline, or at least owns a uniform, and was in on the smuggling but hasn’t quite got the wattage to do much off his own bat. They have little depth of character, so I was pleased to see they have that nice tricolour chandelier in their house, and I think I also recognise the stuffed tiger and the mysterious beep boop machine from previous outings.

Rana runs a Natural Health Remedy Centre. I liked the apparent lift and shift substitution of ‘karate school’ for ‘yoga school’ as a background for some of the fight scenes.

Chanakya is hot on Rana’s trail, but frustrated at every turn by the sleazy businessman’s connections and ability to weasel out of any trap. But how do they not see Chiru in surveillance mode? His pants are so blindingly white.

Both Shashi and Chanakya are close to their families.

Shashi’s sister Savitri was married but due to dowry issues (Shashi was robbed on the way home from the bank), the in-laws turned her out. Financial pressures are causing strife at home, and Shashi is the only one who seems to have a chance of fixing things. The baddies have their eye on her as a way to get to Chanakya, and offer her a smuggling job that would pay for Savitri’s dowry and put the family back on an even keel. She traps the smugglers and gets a reward which she intends to use to pay the outstanding dowry and get her sister settled.

Chanakya’s family are close and affectionate, and I liked their domestic scenes. There are so few times when an older married couple get to show an affectionate or playful  side, and I really liked those moments between Kaikala Satyanarayana and Annapurna. Chanakya is the only child and, of course, the centre of his parents universe. When Rana sets Nagarjuna up to be arrested as a smuggler Chanakya is bent on revenge and justice, which may actually be more or less the same thing in this instance.

Chanakya and Sasirekha are united by their mutual attraction and also the mission to shut Rana down. I liked that they were both smart, both tried to take care of things themselves, but could accept or even ask for help when they had to. Chanakya understood her reservations and made an effort to address her concerns quite plainly to avoid further tension.

The relationship development  was all quite sensible (for a film) as well as providing fuel for some excellent  concepts for Chakravarthy’s songs.  Apart from the usual hillside prancing, the songs take place around a giant camera, a plane made of flowers with dancers dressed as airplanes, and in and out of a tray of photo developing chemicals, or even just surrounded by neon tube lights.

Yes, this is a movie that embraces the technology of 1986. And Shashi generally looks fine (for 80s filmi fashion), even in the more imaginative sequences. Vijayashanti demonstrates she has nailed the saree run with hair toss. My biggest disappointment was Chiru’s footwear which was less than spectacular and relied heavily on the monotone ankle boot. But I rarely enjoy product placement as much as I did in this film – well done Luma Lamps people, well done.

Vijayashanti is always a pleasure to watch, and I like her rapport with Chiru. They’re well matched in the choreography, and neither of them lacks energy or commitment to the role. Shashi is smart and while she wants to sort things out herself, she appreciates Chanakya’s sincerity in wanting to help her and considers his offer rationally. I liked that he had to put his cards on the table before she would accept his gift and they didn’t play silly games. Also, this is a remarkably non-rapey film for 80s mass. The villains stay on task and when they threaten Shashi it is because they need her to do something for them, not run around screaming.

 

I liked the very specific design and fit-out for some action scenes. I would never have thought to create a factory full of…exploding ice…but it came up a treat. I always enjoy a good fight in a factory full of stuff that is only there for the hell of it. More exploding ice! A statue! Things in barrels! A luge run! And a later fight on the beach uses swings. So fun! There is more than a nod to Jackie Chan and the Hong Kong school in some of the fight choreography and Chiru has the right attitude to carry it all off – he milks those bendy iron bars and flying kicks for all they’re worth, and then some.

The earlier action scenes are funny but still a bit exciting. The finale starts out with an unfortunate tendency to Comedy before the drama and action ramps up again.

I could have done without most of the last 30 minutes, well maybe except for the bit where Chanakya rocked up not only in disguise but in a lotus submarine. But then the movie redeemed itself with what may be the best use of a wheely board and improvised ski poles since Shashi Kapoor in Duniya Meri Jeb Mein.

Vijayashanti and Chiranjeevi are a delightful on screen pair, and while Chanakya Sapatham doesn’t break new ground it does what it does so very well. 4 stars!

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Baghdad Thirudan (1960)

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The opening credits play over an orchestral overture, jaunty and melodic, setting the scene for an adventure in the magical land of exotic fairytale cliche. Baghdad Thirudan is in the style of a Hollywood swashbuckler, and T.P Sundaram directs this rollicking yarn written by A.S. Muthu.

The film is on Youtube in pretty poor quality and without subtitles. There is no shortage of plot, but once you identify the Goodies and the Baddies (not hard) the story is easy enough to follow and bounds from incident to episode with great spirit. There is the kingdom that must be restored to rights, justice for the oppressed masses (maybe), a love triangle of sorts, DIY special effects and stunts, abundant songs and lots of excellent outfits.

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The action opens with HELEN! Or someone who looks a lot like HELEN! She dances and a gaudily dressed man (T.S. Balaiah) can barely keep his hands off her. He and his wife scheme to depose the king and queen and take over the kingdom. He really has no impulse control.

Baghdad-Thirudan-S N Lakshmi

The king and queen are captured and the maid taking their baby son to safety has to get past…a leopard! She actually fights and kills a leopard barehanded. Without mussing up her outfit. But that’s not all. She duels with soldiers with the baby still tucked under her arm – finally being stabbed in the back and dropping the baby from a tower into the waiting arms of a fellow retainer who completed the rescue and drew the pursuit away. Awesome stuff. I read that actress S.N. Lakshmi was afraid of the leopard (and of cats in general) but still had to get in there without the luxury of a stunt double.  The baby (who never stops screaming, making stealth next to impossible) is eventually discovered and adopted by a group of people who are either forest dwelling thieves or a socialist dairy farming collective.

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They thoughtfully provide a clear view of his significant birthmark. Meanwhile baddies, assisted by their mole in the palace (S.A. Asokan) obtain an imposter baby to raise as the prince and legitimise their takeover as regents who will never retire.

The baby grows up to become Ali (MGR), a Robin Hood figure of laconic charm. He crosses paths with Zarina who is also a thief. Hijinks ensue as he tries to steal back his takings and Zarina matches him move for move in a game of wits. While trying to evade Ali’s pursuit she is mistaken for a dancing girl by the Pretend Prince, leading to a flimsy excuse for Zarina to dance for her life.  Which is absolutely excellent since she is played by Vyjayanthimala.  Not a purist classical number by any stretch of the imagination – but Vyjayanthimala dances with her customary precision and strength. MGR confines himself to comedic fumbling, posing as her backing musician along with his sidekick (T.R Ramachandran).

Ali sets up an accident so he can rescue the Pretend Princess (M.N Rajan). She is quite full of herself and the wrong kind of sparks fly.  But when he duels his way to freedom she is so impressed by his swordsmanship that the other kinds of sparks are evident, at least on her side.

Zarina seems to be living with a thief master type who demands she hand over money each day or else. He sells her at auction and Ali (in a bad disguise) buys her.  She doesn’t see through the face putty and tries to escape but is foiled – luckily his moustache falls off during a song and she realises she is not unhappy at all. However there are other baddies at large and one day, she is taken prisoner and used as a target for axe throwing practice. Zarina often gets herself out of trouble, but when she can’t she is fortunate to have the ever vigilant Ali.

But Ali is still wooing Pretend Princess, a woman of nasty temperament and a love of hats (even her maid is suitably bedizened). She shows him a secret treasure box hidden behind a door of spears and concealed in a fireplace. With all that security it must be something good! He ties her up – maybe just for fun – but then seems to tell her who he really is and gags her as she screams for guards and he escapes. Theirs is a crazy mixed up kind of relationship thing. The box contained the antidote for poison that had been spread into the water supply. So rather than being a duplicitous flirt it seems Ali was taking one for the team. He saves the people! And marries Zarina! So much to be happy about, and yet so much time left for things to go wrong.

I liked Ali and Zarina. They had a nice dynamic in their relationship, and while Ali was clearly The Hero who would save the day, Zarina wasn’t dumbed down. She wasn’t very skilled with a sword, but she would still have a go at hacking her way through guards and other obstacles. It was nice to see the couple so playful and happy to be together, and the actors’ rapport came through in their less fraught scenes. I think the secret of their happiness might just have been that MGR refrains from much dancing and wisely lets Vyjayanthimala do the choreographic  heavy lifting. MGR has a nonchalance that makes Ali likeable and not too overbearing. He does leap onto the soapbox and speechify a bit, which suits Ali’s character as the man of the people, but he isn’t too pompous. Vyjayanthimala gives Zarina feisty energy with a resilient core, a good match for MGR.

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In the latter part of the film he changes his look and gives up the fez and harem pants in favour of jolly little Elizabethan style breeches so that was amusing.

The Pretend Princess allows herself to be kidnapped with an eye to getting her claws on Zarina. Zarina ends up in the dungeon but Ali gets wind of her situation. There is much plotting, and a wonderful Batman-esque wall ‘climb’ to rescue Zarina that has MGR using all his overacting skills.

Not to be out-emoted,  Zarina paints his portrait in blood as she sings a dirge. And the baddies celebrate I’m not sure what exactly with a big tribal production number featuring Gopi Krishna.

The final action sequence takes place in almost every room of the palace.

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There is an excellent pointless clockwork contraption that can have no function other than being a Masala Death Trap.

Baghdad-Thirudan-Princess and Zarina

The Pretend Princess is delighted to find out that Ali is the real prince, and fancies she is in with a chance at keeping her tiara and getting her man. Will he forget Zarina? As if!

See this for the vintage charm, the ripping story that requires little analysis, and the pleasure of seeing MGR and Vyjayanthimala take on all comers and emerge victorious. 3 1/2 stars!

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