Lady Snowblood

Lady_Snowblood_(film)

Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime) is a classic revenge tale, enlivened by an awesome heroine and a gleeful embrace of blood, gore and groovy music. If, like me, you enjoy South Indian revenge masala films or you liked Kill Bill, this is a perfect fit.

Yuki (Kaji Meiko) is born to avenge her parents and brother. Her mother was jailed when she killed one of the men who raped her.  Driven and adamant, Yuki seeks out those who destroyed her family and takes her bloody revenge.

The film is based on a manga and retains the strong visual style and chapter format complete with title cards. Much of the exposition is through narrative voiceover or a character’s inner monologue, again mimicking the graphic novel. The film is set in 1882 but while the costumes and sets are notionally historical in tone, the music and editing is firmly of the 1970s. The excellent soundtrack (by Masaaki Hirao) ranges from lounge to soulful pop with a dash of funk and I felt it worked well in to underscore the action, as well as maybe showing Yuki was out of step with her time. The elements often reflect and amplify the dramatic tone, with crashing waves or howling wind mirroring Yuki’s turmoil and snow is a constant reference. The action is stylised enough that the gory scenes are still exciting but also feel a little at a remove so are less confronting. The fight scenes are heavy on red paint and sound effects that range from the metallic ring of blade through bone to the gluggy suck and slurp of soft tissue torn asunder and the sound of blood escaping from a high pressure hose. Buckets of blood and frenetic fights are contrasted with a lyrical beauty and often meditative pace.

The crime that Yuki is avenging took place before her conception, but she can recall everything from the moment that her eyes first opened. The extent of her mother Sayo’s rage and determination was shown in a darkly humorous montage of her shagging any man with a pulse in any corner of the prison, desperate to conceive the child that would avenge her family. That strong bond with her deceased mother Sayo (Akaza Miyoko) makes this vengeful tale come alive. This isn’t a second hand obsession that Yuki could walk away from. She was raised as a ‘child of the netherworld’ – someone beyond even the compassion of Buddha. Repeatedly told she had no other destiny, she saw no reason to doubt that.

From a distance Yuki is a demure kimono clad figure carrying her trademark parasol, but Kaji Meiko is fierce. Her gaze is direct and challenging as Yuki has no fear or reason to want to outlive her targets, and her voice can be harsh and edgy. Yuki’s emotions are channelled into her mission of revenge and her nihilistic world view doesn’t allow for indulgence or frivolity. But she isn’t immune to softer feelings, and sometimes that doesn’t work out so well. She acts out of some kindness towards the daughter of one of her victims and that comes back with a sting.

The action scenes are reasonably demanding especially, one imagines, in a dress and she does wear some fabulous outfits. I also loved the way her eyes would light up in some fights, whether that was sheer amusement at the paint splattered shenanigans or as a sign of Yuki not being completely frozen.

The writer Ashio Ryurie (Kurosawa Toshio) may have sad puppy eyes and tousled 70s hair, but he is more than just a bit of eyecandy. He sees the enigmatic woman and is instantly intrigued. He romanticises Yuki in some ways, but she forces him to confront the truth. She kills because she wants to, feels she has to, and she is good at it. He draws a manga of the mysterious Lady Snowblood and uses it to try and pressure the remaining two targets into revealing themselves. Even under torture he refuses to betray her. Initially she rejects his interest and affection but she does start to think about life after the mission is complete. They have some chemistry but romance is not a priority when there are so many people that require killing. And what self-respecting revenge drama could pass up the opportunity for a birth secret and a dodgy disguise?

Yuki is a loner, but she doesn’t work alone. She was kept on task by one of her mother’s friends from jail and the enigmatic priest Dokai (Ko Nishimura) who trained her to kill. She also recruited Matsuemon (Hitoshi Takagi), a kind of beggar king who uses his network to investigate the whereabouts of Yuki’s intended victims. The cast is quite small but the world within the film is rich.

See this if you like action films with a kickarse lady protagonist, enjoy the skewed manga sensibility with a strong visual punch or just want to know how much of a debt Quentin Tarantino owes to Shurayukihime. 4 ½ stars!

Pistolwali (1972)

pistolwali

I often wonder how gangs of ne’er-do-wells get along before they reach the critical mass that attracts a hero to sort them out, and what it is that they do all day. Pistolwali doesn’t answer the first of those questions, but it does provide plenty to look at as you ponder whether what they do all day is make their own outfits and fight over the dress-up box.

K.S.R Doss’ Pilla? Piduga? was either dubbed or partially reshot in Hindi as Pistolwali. Both (unsubtitled) films are on YouTube so choose your poison. I have chosen to use the Hindi version as some actors and both Helen and Jayshree T appeared to be speaking Hindi and this film is all about the authenticity…Plus I understood more of the dialogue even if I couldn’t read the significant clue written in blood.

Like so many other Telugu cowboy themed revenge films, this one is set in a time and place that exists only in Telugu cowboy themed revenge films.The movie opens with Raaka (Satyanarayana Kaikala) and his gang attempting a train heist. A brightly clad cowboy (Ramakrishna as Amar) puts them out of business from his perch in a convenient tree. It’s cowboys vs cowboys and hat colour is not a reliable indicator of anything.

Maybe if we saw the floral sunhats being stolen from helpless old aunties it might be suitably Bad, but instead it just looked like a job lot guaranteed to brighten up every occasion. And there was that one guy who just painted his scalp silver. Reeka (Prabhakar Reddy) seems to have fewer marbles and fewer outfits than Raaka. He throws childish tantrums that quickly escalate into homicidal rampages. And that is the nicest thing I could say about him.

“South Bombshell” (according to the poster) Jyothilaxmi is Neelu. She is first seen cavorting in a daring swimsuit but later changes into equally fashion forward pantsuits. The villains go too far when they steal from the temple, and Neelu sets off in pursuit. She swaggers, shoots and curses like a hero rather than a heroine relying on womanly wiles, and generally she rescues herself. Jyotilaxmi wears some abbreviated costumes and gets a big dance number, but Neelu isn’t a girly girl. Neelu gets roughed up by her adversaries but how to say this… they don’t get rapey and creepy with her despite the allure of her midriff. She is a foe and they deal with her as a threat, not as a plaything. She is tough cookie and I suspect it would take a bit to outrage her modesty in any case. When Helen gives it her all in Hoga Sa Hoga, Neelu fills the time honoured role of hero looking like they’d rather be elsewhere. Although that may also be professional item girl rivalry.  Neelu has her own ideas and just goes and does her thing. Even if that includes falling through a trapdoor and wrestling a (sight impaired) tiger.  And she has a straightforward approach to relationships.

Pistolwali-Graceful

I am not sure it was desire for authenticity or just directorial cruelty that had her struggling to get on and off horses, but it looked like Jyotilaxmi did a lot of her own action scenes.

The viewer learns that Raaka is Neelu’s biological father long before she does.  Raaka raped Lakshmi and left her for dead before also maiming his friend and rival for Lakshmi’s love. She fell pregnant as a result and she and the baby were taken in by her now one-legged true love who seemed to think it was the right thing to do. He may have been grooming Neelu for vengeance as well, but he seemed like an affectionate and over indulgent filmi Daddy. Neelu was none the wiser about her parentage until quite late in the film. That might all sound a bit progressive so let me assure you that the way it was revealed to her made me deduct a lot of the good parenting brownie points.

Ramakrishna is technically the hero but Neelu overshadows Amar in all respects. He does an OK job and he doesn’t get in her way, but apart from some excellent outfits he achieves little of note. Although I did giggle at his inept dealings with the ladies. On the subject of costumes, it looks as though each main character was issued with one distinctive pair of boots and they pretty much wear them throughout. Raaka’s boots were particularly special and Satyanarayana Kaikala was suitably over the top to match. And the outfits did help a little with identifying characters in the many and varied fights and action scenes. K.S.Madhavan threw everything and the kitchen sink into the stunts. However I have to say that the plot is quite cohesive and to an extent, I would almost say logical.

The background music is a brilliant mish-mash of fuzzy surf rock and funky Hammond organ with classic cowboy guitar strumming and the odd slide whistle. The song set pieces are unashamedly random and the film has an embarrassment of item girls that all get a guernsey in featured numbers.

Jayshree T is always so perky, I love watching her dance. She always seems to wear more hair than clothes but I never see her as really skanky.

 

Helen and her creepy blue contact lenses appeared in a nightclub song and Jyotilaxmi got a dance in a fabulous Fauxgyptian inspired village set with what may be happy go lucky tribal cannibals. The camera is often at crotch level which is a bit confronting. But to be fair, the camera wasn’t just upskirting the ladies. Once seen, never unseen.

This is one of my favourite heroine-centric B movies from 1972 and Jyothilaxmi is perfect as the righteous gunslinger. See it if you have ever harboured thoughts of wearing a fur trimmed vest with fringed pants but weren’t sure how to accessorise, or if you want a primer on tiger wrestling for the modern lady. 3 stars!

Malliswari (1951)

Malliswari-MalliswariB.N Reddi’s Malliswari is a film that almost every Telugu film fan praises as a masterpiece and a must see. It is so disappointing to see (and hear) the appalling state of the available copies, and also vexing that it is nigh impossible to buy on DVD. I would have loved subtitles. From the little I could pick out with my miniscule vocabulary, the dialogues seemed sensible and not overly filmi and the songs all seemed to fit in beautifully as an extension of the narrative.

Malliswari and Nagaraju grow up together in their peaceful rustic village. She calls him a monkey and he calls her a cat, but all the casual insults don’t mask their deep affection for each other. As Malliswari matures, her materialistic mother decides to nip the relationship with poorer Nagaraju in the bud. A chance encounter brings Malli to the Maharaja’s notice. In return for considerable payment, her mother hands Malliswari over to the palace as a Rani Vasam.Rani Vasam are forbidden to see or speak to men, and there was a lot of rigmarole for Malli even to see her mother and uncle. Nagaraju loses the plot, Malli mopes, but true love will not be torn asunder. When the king discovers Nagaraju and Malli have broken his rules, the penalty is death.

The female cast is superb and they all play off each other so well. Apart from Bhanumathi in the lead role, there is Kumari as the Maharani, Surabhi Kamalabai as Nagaraju’s mother, Rushyendramani as Malli’s mother and T.G Kamala Devi as Malliswari’s attendant Jalaja.

Based on the (rather thin) plot summary I found, I was expecting the men in the film to drive more of the action. I’m happy to be wrong about that. I wouldn’t describe this as feminist or ahead of its time, but the women are interesting and pursue their own goals and dreams. Malli is recruited into the palace against her will, but she is there because of her art as well as her beauty and is shown respect. Malli’s mother isn’t an evil shrew – just a materialistic woman who may even be motivated by wanting her girl to have an easier life. Jalaja isn’t a brainless servant, and while she and Malli become close she still cautions her against following her heart. And the enigmatic Maharani with a passion for art seems to be the real power inside the palace.

This is Bhanumathi’s film from the moment she steps into view. She gives Malliswari warmth and vivacity and is equally convincing when Malli feels sad and isolated. Her rapport with NTR is evident and I liked that Malli and Nagaraju seemed like friends as well as childhood sweethearts. In addition to her fine acting Bhanumathi also sang for herself (as did T.G Kamala Devi).

Her voice is beautifully expressive, and having the same voice for both dialogue and songs was wonderful as the songs are an integral part of the story and needed that same strong characterisation. When Malli is separated from her loved ones she yearns for happier times and for her bava, and her grief is as immediate and heartfelt as her joy had been. What I really liked was that even when Malliswari felt at her lowest ebb, she never completely gave up. There was always a spark of the vibrant and feisty girl we first met.

While NTR’s Nagaraju is important to Malli, he is often peripheral to the action so doesn’t dominate the screen as he has in other more hero-centric fare. His scenes with Bhanumathi are quite lovely and NTR’s doe-eyed charm is dialled up to the max. During a storm they take shelter in an old building, enjoying the adventure and singing to while away the time. It’s not a doom and gloom first love. When Nagaraju leaves home to make his fortune only to return and find Malli gone, he falls in a heap. Nagaraju ends up in a cave, sculpting Malliswari’s likeness and letting his hair get out of control as his clothes degrade to shreds. I found NTR’s portrayal of grief more theatrical than Bhanumathi’s and while I felt her pain I wanted to give him a bit of a slap and tell him to do something sensible instead of wallowing. I did a bit of eye-rolling in the final scenes where Nagaraju declared to the king that Malliswari was his life and he couldn’t give her up – I reckon the result had already been decided by the queen, and was based on her regard for Malli, not all the manly posturing. But this is a romance and since the chemistry and relationship building is so good, everything else diminishes.

The support cast is hard to identify due to the paucity of detail available but I did manage to put some names to faces. Surabhi Kamalabai is given a small but challenging role as Nagaraju’s mother. She is a servant to Malliswari’s family and so is often a silent observer of goings on and has little dialogue to express her feelings. When she fears Nagaraju is dead or lost to her she cracks up (so that seemed to be a family trait) and goes a bit over the top, but is set to rights when her boy comes home and they can have a good cry. I recognised T.G Kamala Devi from Patala Bhairavi. I looked up her filmography and was amazed and quite delighted to see she was a billiards player, and won the Indian Womens title twice – when she was in her 60s! Doraiswamy (another familiar face, this from Devadasu) is the inarticulate father who regrets sending Malliswari away but doesn’t stand up to his wife. Kumari looks the part as Maharani Tirumala Devi, exuding confidence and a subdued energy in her scenes. Plus she gets to wear some stunning bling. I should mention Baby Mallika and Master Venkata Ramana who played the young Malliswari and Nagaraju. Both were lively and playful, and matched the adult stars well in terms of looks and mannerisms. I also liked the gossipy village ladies who always seemed to be at the well, passing comment on everyone else.

The set design is very pretty but is quite generic. I felt the actors were the real focus and the sets provided an appropriate backdrop. I really liked the episode at the fair as it was attractively shot and showed more of Malli and Nagaraju’s personalities, especially in a scene with a fortune teller. There was even a man in a bear suit. The music is outstanding, as it should be in a film about a singer. There are over a dozen songs in the film and composer Saluri Rajeswara Rao employs a range of styles to fit the scene and emotional tone. The songs are placed well and are a logical extension of the drama so they reinforce the actors characterisations. Music is always present, whether as a childhood favourite, a soulful plea to the heavens, a performance given for royalty or a simple work song to speed the day along.

There are several uploads of the full movie on YouTube and other sites. The official running time is 194 minutes but I haven’t managed to find the full version – most are missing around 20 minutes but not always the same 20 minutes. The sound and picture quality on every copy I have found is subpar. But if you can persevere with the technical issues, this is a beautiful film and a firm favourite of mine. Bhanumathi is superb, NTR is a perfect foil for her, and B.N Reddi blends everything into a very charming story with love and music at its heart. 5 stars!

Megabirthday 2014

 

Megabirthday2014

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

Pop over to the Facebook page *points at link on righthand side of page* and vote for one of the topics I’ll be writing about, or leave your ideas in the comments. Current suggestions (courtesy of Liz and Katherine) are:

  • Chiranjeevi’s cowboy years
  • The many hues of Chiru – a study in colour (but how to pick just one colour?)
  • Chiranjeevi the Serious Actor

Join in by posting on your own blog, let me know, and I’ll collate and publish the links. Or just watch for the #megabirthday2014 hashtag on Twitter and have a chat about all things Chiru. Like this.

If your eyes still work after the 2m 44s mark, check out those boots! And those moves.

Khal Nayak

Khal Nayak poster

Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak is a fairly predictable cops and robbers story twined with references to the Ramayana which adds depth and resonance.  There are some excellent performances, stylish visuals and excellent music. But at a shade over 3 hours, the pace is stately to the point of plodding and there is too much emphasis on the meaning, and not quite enough on the drama.

Ram (Jackie Shroff) is assigned a case to bring down a terrorist organisation. Ballu (Sanjay Dutt) is the poster boy for Roshida’s (Pramod Muthu) gang. When Ballu escapes from jail, Ram is accused of neglecting his duty to go spend time with his girlfriend Ganga (Madhuri Dixit). When what looks like every policeman in India is put on Ballus’ trail with no success, Ganga finds a way to infiltrate the gang. She sees that Ballu is not quite as bad as he seems, although he is far from being misunderstood. Eventually the police close in, and Ganga is caught between Ram, duty, and her empathy with Ballu.

Madhuri looks stunning and delivers a strong and engaging characterisation. There is nothing simpering or weak about prison officer Ganga. When she sees an opportunity to help Ram restore his reputation, she asks for his support. Then she does it anyway. When she sees Ballu needs medical help, she just goes and gets a doctor because it is the right thing to do. Madhuri does some wonderful deliberately bad acting when Ganga, having captivated Ballu, joins the gang and goes on the run.

Then in Aaja Sajan Aaja she is simply incandescent as she dances for her Ram. Madhuri was also lucky as Ganga dresses in Indian attire, not the hideous synthetic 80s gear that Ballu wears when he tries to impress.

 

Sanjay Dutt is so very good in some scenes that it makes me angry at how bad he is for much of the film. He adopted a range of bizarre grimaces and physical tics that I think were meant to emphasise the animal side of Ballu, but just made him look ridiculous and clumsy. When he dropped the exaggerated mannerisms and just channelled the emotions, he was compelling and raw. While asserting his ownership of Ganga, Ballu accidentally defends democracy and becomes a Nayak for those people. His awakening to being respected and enjoying that feeling was nicely done, even though there was a lot of literal flag waving to make sure the point didn’t escape unnoticed.

Jackie Shroff is perfectly competent as Ram, and only tries to tear his clothes off once so that was good. For my money Ram is the least interesting character. He knows he is right, everyone knows he is right and he is not averse to using extreme force against Ballu to prove how right he is. While there is an interesting dynamic between hero and villain, there is minimal character development for Ram. A relationship between Ganga and Ballu would be a Very Bad Idea but I thought marrying Ram could be a bit suffocating.

The Ramayana elements were more obvious to me on a recent re-watch than when I first saw it, particularly the twists on that narrative. I couldn’t help but compare this with Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan (which I greatly prefer to the Hindi Raavan). In Raavanan, Ram revealed his darker side and could become as Ravana but Khal Nayak seems to say rather that Ravana has the potential to be Rama. I liked that the question of what makes a hero or a villain was articulated and that this was more than a glorification of Rama. Ganga didn’t sway from her beliefs when she was frightened, and kept her faith in Ram. Ram wanted to believe Ganga but society and the law demanded she was still put to trial. I was annoyed that she had to have her virtue validated by a thief and murderer, a man so despicable in the eyes of the law that he had besmirched her just by his proximity but whose word was still worth more than hers. I know she is Sita and he is Ravana, but still. The film plays with some of the conventions especially around the notion of hero and villain. Ram is also helped by Ballu’s testimony, his reputation restored by the hand of a sinner.

Ghai doesn’t quite go the whole hog but he does use a range of staple masala ingredients and has a lush visual style. Ram and Ballu have bloody fights that crash through walls and take to the treetops. There are long lost childhood friends and dreary paeans to motherhood. There are coincidences, speechifying and tearful reconciliations galore. The evil mastermind Roshida has a nasty disposition and lots of cats who do a fabulous job of reacting to stuff.

Rakhee gets a lot of screen time as Arti, not all of it crying. Neena Gupta makes an impression as the striking Champa. Ramya Krishnan is charismatic as Ballu’s girlfriend Sophia, and also gets both versions of the title song. What a waste to have her in such a small role, but how great to have so many powerful actresses in one film. The female characters are strong and quite distinct, but Subhash Ghai stays firmly within the conventions of 90s masala so none of them break the mould of Ma, the friend, bad girl etc.  Oh, and Anupam Kher does his customary shtick as Pandey the prison warden.

There are interesting observations about the conventions of parenting and filial behaviour. Ganga tries to evoke Ballu’s sentimental side by talking wistfully of how much he must love his Ma and how hard it must be for him to live on the run. He calls Ganga out on trying to manipulate him through sentiment, but he rejects that as unimportant to him. Question – If a villain shouts ‘Ma!’ in his sleep and there is no one to hear it, does he have feelings?

Mind you, when Ballu is beating Ram up because why not, Arti hits Ballu for assaulting Ram, Ballu shoves her so Ram belts him for hitting a Ma, then Ballu fights back and Arti comes back at him to stop him using violence.  A move straight out of the Nirupa Roy Filmi Ma Manual.

The songs are extensions or amplifications of the narrative as well as being beautiful and usually pleasingly melodic.

I am not so fond of that title track, although it does epitomise early 90s style and Ramya Krishnan works that beaded gear for all it’s worth.

Khal Nayak-Fruitbat

I had to pity choreographer Saroj Khan. Between Dutt’s own ‘dance’ style and the outfit given to Ballu in the final song, he looked more like a demented fruitbat. Seeing Ballu and the boys try their seductive dance moves on Ganga was highly amusing. But she choreographed some beautiful dances for Madhuri. I went to see the Temptations Reloaded show up in Sydney last year, and the roof nearly came off when the opening bars of Choli Ke Peeche played.

The first hour of the film could be condensed to around 20 minutes with no great loss, but things get much more interesting once events are set in motion. While it is a visually strong and often darkly dramatic film, the pace suffers from Ghai’s concentration on symbols and stylised elements rather than closely following the emotional arcs of the characters. Very much worth watching, but some patience is required. 3 ½ stars!