Life is Beautiful (2012)

Life-Is-Beautiful-Poster

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!

Life-is-Beautiful-the moral

Gopala Gopala (2015)

film poster

Gopala Gopala, so good I watched it twice! Well, actually I would do that more often for more films if Melbourne had an extra show, which is what happened this week with Gopala Gopala. But it is a fun film and I enjoyed watching Venkatesh and Pawan Kaylan in their first movie together. I haven’t seen either the Hindi version of this movie, or the original Australian film that inspired both and that could be one of the reasons why I enjoyed Gopala Gopala as much as I did. I’ve read that this Telugu remake follows the original faithfully and as a result it may only be worth a watch if you haven’t seen OMG, or like me feel that Pawan Kalyan as God seems a more plausible choice than Akshay Kumar.

The Gopala of the title is a shopkeeper who decides to sue God when his insurance claim is rejected following an earthquake that has destroyed his livelihood. The insurance company representative points out that Gopala has signed the contract that lists (in small print) the exclusions for his insurance, including an ‘Act of God’ and since no-one else but God could have caused the earthquake, Gopala is out of luck and out of compensation. It’s a nice idea, even if the term act of god is a legal construct rather than anything remotely religious, but the film works on the premise that either God does not exist and therefore the insurance company has to pay, or God was responsible and the onus of care rests with his agents on Earth. Along the way the film questions the morality of the various religious orders and their representatives, but is clear throughout that despite Gopala’s own personal disbelief there is actually no question about the validity of God in any of his incarnations. It’s the charlatans and irrational customs that come up for criticism and the writers throw in some good questions about morality in general for later contemplation.

Venkatesh pitches his character perfectly as a non-believer who makes his living selling Hindu statues and religious artifacts even though he finds the rituals and superstitious involved in worship ridiculous. Just as much of a con in fact as his ordinary tap water masquerading as authentic water from the Ganges. His shady dealings aside, at heart Gopala is a compassionate man who is shown to indulge in random acts of kindness and generally feels some compassion for people less fortunate than himself. The problem here though is that his good deeds come across as rather contrived given the way they are somewhat haphazardly inserted into the narrative. However Venkatesh mixes his skepticism with obvious tolerance for his wife’s idiosyncrasies and his salesman has plenty of charm mixed in with his complaints, making Gopala a generally likeable character.

His wife however is Gopala’s polar opposite in all things religious. Meenakshi (Shriya Saran) prays to any and every possible God and shrine while falling for every piece of chicanery she sees during her devotions. I’ve mentioned before that Shriya seems to be better in roles that require her to have long hair, and she stays true to that judgement here, giving a good performance as a devoted wife and mother in every sense of the word. Although Shriya doesn’t have a lot of scope in her role, her presence does add grace and a human face to the otherwise random devotees who face Gopala’s scorn. Somewhere in the middle is Otthu (Krishnudu), Gopala’s assistant in his shop who prays to the gods and follows the rituals but is the one who suggests a religious trip to Varanasi will be the perfect time to stock up on cheap artifacts to sell at inflated prices back in Hyderabad. Krishnudu has good comedy timing but apart from funny early scenes he is also relegated to the sidelines once God appears to help Gopala in his quest for justice.

Ah, yes, God.

Gopala GopalaPawan Kalyan makes his grand entrance as Krishna just before the interval, and his presence immediately enriches the story and lifts the energy of the film. The reaction in Melbourne was loud and enthusiastic both times I saw Gopala Gopala, which somehow seems rather appropriate for the appearance of a deity, even if he doesn’t arrive with the classic blue skin and associated regalia I expected. The role suits Pawan Kalyan’s restrained delivery style when not in full action mode, and his Krishna is a little distant but very charismatic. As may be expected from a divine being he offers guidance rather than direct intervention and is often cryptic in his dialogue, although his explanation of why bad things happen to good people sounds like classical political spin. Gopala never asks any of the big questions (such as why just his shop was destroyed – would have been my first question. That and where do all the lost socks go?) but that makes the relationship between the two feel more genuine and does stay true to Gopala’s persistent disbelief in an all-powerful deity.

The film does slow down a little in the second half when Gopala takes the assorted bunch of priests and swami’s to court but Mithun Chakraborthy, Posani Krishna Murali and Diksha Panth are all good in their respective roles as unethical leaders of their temples and organisations and the comedy helps to keep things moving along. Mithun as Leeladhara Swamy in particular has an impressive collection of idiosyncrasies although all three are so obviously corrupt and self-aggrandising that it seems hard to believe they would lower themselves to appear in court. Gopala is an equal opportunity plaintive and also summons representatives from the Muslim and Christian churches, while receiving help from lawyer Akbar Bhai (Murali Sharma) and determined opposition from Shankar Narayana (Ashish Vidyarthi) who has the unenviable task of representing the religious leaders. Interspersed with all the courtroom drama there are a number of songs by Anoop Rubens which are mainly fairly upbeat and fit into the narrative well. My favourite is a beautiful flute piece, but this runs a close second, particularly since it includes both Venkatesh and Pawan Kalyan dancing.

While Gopala Gopala is often rather simplistic with characters painted a little too black or white, Kishore Kumar Pardasany has made an entertaining movie that includes a discussion of superstition in religion without getting bogged down in dogma and matters of faith.   Pawan Kalyan and Venkatesh Daggubati have great chemistry and work well together while the rest of the cast provide excellent support and good comedy. This really was much better than I expected and is definitely well worth a watch – or two!

1 Nenokkadine

nenokkadine-poster

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)

Chanakya-Sapatham-title

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!

Chanakya-Sapatham-Karate

Jalsa

Jalsa-posterTrivikram’s Jalsa wanders all over the place with an uneven blend of romance and action packed drama. I had to check that it really was made in 2008 as the plot, and treatment of female characters, is very retro and not in a charming vintage way. Pawan Kalyan gives a good performance but unfortunately he can’t save the script and some glaring plotholes. Like the hero, Ileana D’Cruz rides out some stupid plot turns and inconsistencies in her character to hit the right notes in the more thought out scenes.

Jalsa-Prakash Raj

Sanjay Sahu (Pawan Kalyan) goes to ask his girlfriend’s (Kamalinee Mukerjee – don’t blink or you might miss her) father (Prakash Raj) for permission to marry Indu. He refuses and she is married off (to Kamal Kamaraju). Sanju goes back to his longest standing relationship, the one with the bottle. But then he meets Bhagi (Ileana) who falls for him on sight and eventually he returns her feelings. The story jumps forward and Bhagi finds out that Sanju had previously wanted to marry her sister. Naturally she is disturbed by the news, and flashes back to a history of getting her sisters hand-me-downs. Her dad assigns Pranav (Brahmi) to keep Bhagi safe from Sanju so you know this is serious. Unfortunately Pranav’s presence spurs Sanju on to some childish behaviour and the movie gets bogged down in comedy uncle shenanigans.

The first half sets up the romantic angle and then everything takes a sharp left turn as Sanju’s secret past as a naxalite is revealed. He is presented as the ‘good’ kind of terrorist who doesn’t want innocents to die. But still, he embraces violence so…. I think I find the rebel Sanju more interesting than the drunkard but I can’t say I wholeheartedly like either aspect of his character. The flashback also reveals his prior connection to Prakash Raj’s character as well as the villain Damodhar Reddy (Mukesh Rishi).

Bhagi is introduced as she plays an energetic game of squash at the gym, then races her friend Jo (Parvati Melton) to the car. They are confronted by a creep chases the terrified girls into the path of a very drunk saviour, none other than Sanju. I’m not convinced that moments after avoiding a threatened gang rape their thoughts would have turned to romance and bickering over who gets the guy. Bhagi starts out characterised as innocent and a bit dumb, but Ileana bounces daft lines back and forth with her friend Seenu (Sunil) as Bhagi tries to deal with her one-sided attraction to Sanju. Later as Bhagi becomes more assertive and playful Ileana has more fun as she plays off Pawan Kalyan, and also shows more range and depth. I quite liked Bhagi but I got the feeling the role was written piecemeal to suit particular scenes rather than conceived as a character in her own right.

Sanju is the guy who beats up all the guys who tease girls at college. It is nice that the hero defends people against bullies but I am tired of seeing women only allowed to be safe if the biggest bully lets them. He also goes on a rant about how aggravating it is that he can’t slap his future wife to control her for fear of the law and women’s groups. It was done for dramatic and ‘comedic’ purposes and it just doesn’t mesh with the thoughtful side of Sanju. He was a smart guy who chose to become a naxalite through tragic family circumstances but then seems to just forget all about it once he got into college. It really made no sense. And why does he always wander around with his belt undone? Despite my issues with the writing and the rape jokes, Pawan Kalyan is very funny in some of Sanju’s drunk monologues, with a deft balance of verbal and non-verbal comedy beats. The fight scenes are choreographed to his strengths, whether a precision martial arts style or a scrappy street brawl, and he gives them an elegance and energy that is totally missing from the lacklustre songs. I did like it when he punched a car and all the doors flew off. His choreo seems to be limited to ‘shuffle-shuffle-jiggle-wave your hands around’ but I suppose it helps him avoid direct comparisons with You Know Who.

There is a drawn out ‘comedy’ sequence where Sanju tells Brahmi’s character that he plans to drug and rape Bhagi. Then says he is only joking because it is no fun to rape an unconscious woman when you could have one running around and screaming. This kind of ‘joke’ is rife in 80 and 90s films, but at least I can pass that off as The Bad Old Days. Sanju’s plan to win Bhagi back seems to be to ruin any other chance for her until she caves in. And her sister insists Bhagi accept all this as it is Sanju’s way of expressing his love, and if a boy does that it is OK and you have to let him because he is a boy. Jalsa was made in 2008 by a smart director with a hero who is by all accounts quite intelligent so I cannot find it in me to make the same excuses for how this plays out.

One of the things I do really like is Mahesh’s laconic narration. His slightly lazy drawl hits the right notes of comedy, empathy, and sarcasm as he reveals more about Sanju than is evident in the drama.

Prakash Raj gets some nice bromantic moments with Pawan Kalyan but his character makes so many poor decisions that I lost all patience with him. Mukesh Rishi plays his usual imposing villain. He thinks nothing of killing an out of town Don on the way back to jail from his rejected bail hearing. Tanikella Bharani is creepy sidekick Bulli Reddy, his fixer. There is a tedious running gag between Sunil’s Bunk Seenu and Dharmavarapu Subramanyam’s greedy psychiatrist that I would have solved with a diagnosis of One Tight Slap, three times a day until the course is finished. Brahmi does his shtick, but is never more than mildly amusing. If you are looking for miracles to attribute to the Powerstar, he does seem to detoxify Ali who gives a fairly restrained character based performance. I generally enjoy Ali’s appearances in Pawan Kalyan’s films but typically loathe him in everything else so this is a mysterious but good thing.

Telugu Movie Science has long been on the cutting edge of creativity and the laws of physics are tested in Jalsa’s action scenes. As usual the showdowns involve an orderly lineup of hairy rowdies patiently taking turns to be beaten up. But no one can deny that disputes settled the old fashioned way – a swordfight – tend to have a definite outcome.

I can see why Powerstar fans, the most passionate movie fans EVER, often enthusiastically recommend this film. Pawan Kalyan is given ample scope to show his acting depth as well as his comedic and action chops and he really does shine in some scenes. It is just a pity that the story doesn’t really hold up and the direction seems more focussed on set pieces and not enough on bringing a balance to all the disparate elements. 3 stars.