Jebu Donga (1987)

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While Jebu Donga may not be the most deep and meaningful film of 1987 (or indeed any other year), it does have a slightly different approach to the Mass Hero as well as sufficient quantity and variety of dances and explosions to keep me amused.

Chiranjeevi is Chitti the pickpocket, happily fleecing the rich, helping some of the deserving poor and indulging his love of disguises. Bhanupriya is his rival in petty thieving, and has an equally strong commitment to the dress-ups and convoluted schemes. Satyanarayana Kaikala and Maruthirao Gollapudi are the not as bumbling as they seem CBI officers who need to get a spy into Raghuvaran’s gang. And Radha is a woman of mystery. The police decide to use the unwitting Chiru as a distraction, feeding the crooks a fake top secret file that names him as Special Agent Chakrapani. While he goes about his daily crimes, the crooks are after him and the cops are watching the shenanigans. But eventually things come to a proper masala conclusion, albeit one with a couple of surprises.

While Telugu mass films are all about the hero, one of the things I enjoy most about Jebu Donga is that Chiru’s character is not as much in control as he thinks he is. He reacts to the confusing succession of attacks and rescues but has no idea why some things are happening. He tries to beat Bhanupriya’s character to a heist but ends up losing his trousers – don’t panic, it is all quite family friendly. Radha appears as a woman from Chakrapani’s past and Chitti is unable to say no to her. And the police manipulate him so easily. He does have to do his bit to save everyone at the end of the film, but he is not the usual know-it-all lone hero.

Chiranjeevi makes the most of his role, adding a dash of levity to the fight scenes as well as flirting up a storm. I looked over my notes from watching the film and at one point I have just written “Jeep! Whips! Leaping!”  Chitti is a good person apart from being a thief, and he helps out where he can. One of his robberies even helped a reluctant bride escape an unwanted marriage. He has what might be a sister and younger brother (Shanmukha Srinivas) as well as his mother to provide for, and pretends to them that he is a labourer doing honest work. The songs are a real highlight, and not always just for the outfits. I love Rajaloo Rajalakshmi where Chiru steals Bhanupriya’s clothes while she is bathing.

His dancing is uninhibited and cheeky (even including a bit of snake style), and once she finds something to wear she dishes it up in equal measure.

I’m not so sure about his wardrobe choices. The double denim and highpants are a symptom of the late 80s but I really do not get the sleeveless skivvy.

Bhanupriya’s character is a bit ditzy although she exhibits competence in her chosen field of cons and theft.  While Chiru is relatively plainly dressed, she wears some outrageous outfits and more than holds her own in the dances. I’m not sure how she is related to Chitti but when she falls for him it feels more as though they have been meant for each other for a while but are only now admitting there is an attraction. And where many a filmi heroine has to be rescued, she does her share of saving him too. She knows she is smart and sees no reason to let the slightly dim but charming Chitti overrule her.

Radha’s character is the real secret agent. I think she tells Chitti that he is a perfect lookalike for the deceased Chakrapani and he cannot resist her helpless female act. He should have been alerted when her dream sequence song turned up looking like this! She is smart, runs her own operation although her dad is one of the CBI officers using Chiru, and she has firm views on what needs to be done. Like Bhanupriya, she will accept help but she doesn’t always wait around for it to materialise.

All good heroes need a bad villain. Raghuavaran is the sleazy Peter, the main man who runs operations  for the completely insane Kannada Prabhakar. I always like a bit of megalomaniacal set design and sadly that is where Jebu Donga fails me. Peter lives in a respectably glossy mansion decorated with portraits of himself and masses of horrible modern sculptures while the bad guy HQ is a simple rustic camp. Not quite up to the Mogambo gold standard despite the impressive commitment to training shown by the minions. Most of the thugs wear that pale blue or mauve, but there are special colour coded sets as well as some plain clothes goons. Satyanarayana and Gollapudi are actually lots of fun as the police masterminds. They amble around, two portly middle aged gents who giggle like school girls as they watch the drama ebb and flow around their hapless helper. They also have some odd little flashbacks to what I think are Gollapudi’s terrible ideas for going undercover.

Chakravarthy’s soundtrack  borrows from Mr India, Michael Jackson and who knows what else. It’s all great fun, largely due to the enthusiasm of Chiranjeevi and Bhanupriya. And for once, the ladies get the sequins and lycra while Chiru dresses relatively conservatively.

I always have reasonable expectations of a Chiranjeevi/A Kodandarami Reddy film. There will be heroics, fights, dances, romance, eyeball melting colour and movement and almost no traces of logic. Jebu Donga delivers and shows Chiru in a more comedic, blundering hero role. Chitti may be a bit thick but Chiru knows exactly what he is doing and how to wring maximum entertainment from his material. The movie is available on YouTube. If you’re wondering, I deliberately chose the upload with the most offensive watermarks. Dear Reader, if you know anyone at that poxy company, please gently slap some sense, or at least some shame at defacing a film, into them.  Well worth seeing for the excellent cast and the frothy material. 3 ½ stars!

I will leave you with a Megabirthday Masala Multiple Choice Quiz. Please examine the following image.

Jebu-Donga-Quiz

Which of the following happens next?

  1. Evil Overlord makes crippled dance-obsessed Shanmukha Srinivas dance (a bit like Basanti in Sholay)
  2. Chiru, tied up and dangling in mid-air, escapes by breaking the trees from which he is dangling
  3. A Ma is terrorised by being given an unwanted haircut
  4. Radha kicks the bejesus out of about 47 bad guys
  5. Someone is so determined to detonate a bomb that he sets himself on fire and rolls across a clearing to ignite the fuse
  6. What do you mean which of the following? That’s a rookie question. All of the above, of course!

Anjaan (2014)

Anjaan

Lingusamy has delivered some good action thrillers in the past, so teaming up with Suriya for this latest venture certainly sounded like a good move.  However Anjaan trundles along a fairly predictable path interspersed with a few too many fight sequences (as excellently choreographed as they are) and oddly placed flashbacks that disrupt the narrative flow.  The film is saved to some extent by good performances from the main leads – Suriya is effortlessly charismatic and instils life into his often routine character, while Samantha is cute and bubbly despite having to dance like a maniac.  Sound acting cannot completely compensate for a plot which, while frequently formulaic, fails to present a believable chain of events in a convincing way.   I also can’t see why it was necessary to set the film in Mumbai as it didn’t seem to have any relevance to the story, and the resultant dubbing of the Hindi actors is noticeably out of sync. Anjaan isn’t terrible but in comparison with other recent commercial films, it doesn’t come anywhere near the same standard of storytelling, and really should have been much better.

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The film starts with Krishna (Suriya) heading to Mumbai from Chennai to try and find his missing brother, Raju (also Suriya).  He’s armed with an elbow crutch and a laptop, but doesn’t seem to have much to go on apart from a handful of names and addresses which take him, along with comedy stalwart Soori as his reluctant taxi driver, to some very dodgy places.  It doesn’t take too long for Krishna to discover that his brother was a notorious gangster who revelled in the name Raju Bhai and after a few false steps he finally tracks down one of the gang members to find out more about his brother.  Baashka (Joe Malloori) is able to fill in the blanks and the film moves to flash-back mode to tell the story of Raju and his best buddy Chandru (Vidyut Jamwal).

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There is never any explanation of how Raju Bhai and Chandru Bhai have gained their fearsome reputation or even any detail about their criminal activities, which is part of the problem with the rest of the story.  The big revenge plot which follows doesn’t have much credibility when there isn’t any solid foundation for the story and the other characters are too one-dimensional to impact.  Vidyut Jamwal was impressive in his previous roles as a villain but he’s just not on screen enough here to make much of a mark.  His Chandru appears to be borderline ASD with many obsessive behaviours and signs that he doesn’t communicate well with others – hard for Vidyut to make much impact when most of his role involved moody silences and brooding looks.  However he is excellent at these, and I just wish there had been more for him to get his teeth into here.  Luckily for Chandru he has Raju to deal with the rest of the world for him, and although Vidyut Jamwal and Suriya make a good ‘bhai’ pairing and appear to be on the cusp of some good chemistry, it never quite manages to get going before the camera whisks away to yet another fight scene.

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Suriya totally rocks his casual gangster style and cool spiky hair.  He’s just as comfortable as a violent gangster as he is in the more cerebral role of Krishna.  He also has some good chemistry with Samantha at the beginning of their romance although this vanishes later in the film when Samantha is relegated to the usual Tamil heroine status, only appearing in the songs or as a damsel in distress.  Her opening scenes are good and I did have hope that she would have a chance to be more than just eye candy but in the end that seems to be the only reason for her inclusion.  Sadly she’s also short-changed in the wardrobe department for many of the songs and much of her choreography seem to be of the ‘dance like no-one is watching’ variety.  As if that wasn’t bad enough there is a particularly sleazy item song in the second half and a very unnecessary and totally unfunny appearance by Brahmi.  All very seem to be added in to fulfil the standard checklist for a commercial mass masala film, and all are completely superfluous to requirements.

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The fight scenes, although excellently choreographed and filmed are also repetitive and strangely soul-less given that the supposed motive is revenge.  Manoj Bajpai is a bit of a nonentity as the smarmy villain of the piece Imran Bhai, while Murali Sharma and Chetan Hansraj are more effective in their negative roles.  Santosh Sivan’s cinematography at least makes the film look great but there are a few too many close-ups of Samantha’s coloured contact lenses for my liking – I really don’t need to see the printed iris pattern that clearly outside of my optometry practice!

Although Linguswamy seems to have checked his Big Masala Cook Book and added all the right ingredients he seems to have forgotten the seasoning and ends up with a bland dish that veers into tasteless all too often.  Suriya makes Anjaan worth a one time watch if you’re a fan, but by the end even he seems to be resigned to the monotonous gangs he has to beat his way through every 5 minutes.  For all Anjaan’s big budget effects and slickly packaged action scenes at the end of the day nothing can cover up the lack of a story or the absence of engaging dialogue, and that really says it all.

Anjaan

Bachchan (2013)

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Bachchan was recommended to me by numerous people when I went to watch Ugramm a few weeks ago, and since I read that the film had won a number of awards in India plus it starred the usually pretty awesome Sudeep Kiccha I thought it would be worth tracking down on DVD.  But when I started to watch it I was very disappointed.  After about 20 minutes I just couldn’t watch any more relentless and seemingly pointless violence or blatant sexism and had to give up.   It took another two attempts before I managed to get more than 30 minutes into the film, and I spent most of that time wondering why this film had been recommended to me! But then I got further in, finally reached the excellent second half, and realised exactly why this film had appealed to so many people – even me eventually.  It does get immeasurably better in the second half, and looking back the opening scenes make more sense in retrospect, although I still feel a less chauvinistic approach would have made them easier viewing. However, if you can make it past the first thirty minutes, there really is a lot to like about Bachchan.

The film opens with a slugfest between Bharat (Sudeep Kiccha) and various members of the police force in a small police station. No-one is able to stop him as he smashes his way through the police station and ultimately kills Inspector Mahesh Deshpande (Ashish Vidyarthi) before escaping on a police bike.  Bharat then easily outwits the chasing police cars and heads to a hospital where he proceeds to defenestrate one of the doctors, Dr. Srinivasa Iyengar (Nasser) and escapes yet again.  This time though, we know he is going to get caught just as soon as a lorry full of water bottles appears in the middle of the shot.

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So once in custody for committing two murders (no mention of the destruction to property and general menace to society he represents) Bharat proceeds to tell his story to the investigating officer Vijay Kumar (Jagapathi Babu).  Seen in flashback, previously Bharat was a nice, happy (although rather patronising) real estate agent who was trying to be a force for good in the world, when he found himself hounded by a superstitious police officer and an obsessive doctor.  Inspector Deshpande fuelled jealousy in Bharat’s fiancée Anjali (Parul Yadav) by pointing out Bharat’s interest in a client’s daughter at every opportunity.  To be fair, Monica (Tulip Joshi) does seem to turn up everywhere and does show an unhealthy interest in a man whose attentions are otherwise engaged, but Bharat claims that this harassment was his motivation behind killing Despande.  Meanwhile Dr Iyengar sealed his fate when he refused medical assistance to Anjali and Bharat decided that he too had to die.

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The problem I have with these opening scenes isn’t that the story is trite and clichéd, but that it’s all so completely overdone.  Both Despande and Iyengar are terrible caricatures while Anjali appears as a woman with absolutely no self-worth.  Bharat bribes her with chocolate when she accuses him of being rude to her at work (which he was), and when she accuses him of spending time with Monica, he has only to click his fingers and she immediately forgives him all.  There is a reason behind all of this but since it’s not explained until much later in the film, it does make for uncomfortable viewing first time round.

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The first half isn’t all bad though.  There is a novel threat to a collection of flower pots, which is a welcome touch of humour and Sudeep is eminently watchable even when he’s being a complete pillock.  P. Ravi Shankar is also mildly amusing as the thug attempting to muscle in on Bharat’s business, and there is also plenty of excellent dorky uncle dancing in this song.

The film starts to improve when it’s gradually revealed that the story Bharat has told the police is a complete fabrication – hence the terrible characterisations in the first half.  The real Anjali proves to be a perfectly sensible and normal woman, while the other characters are nicely ambiguous until the real truth emerges.  There are plenty of twists and turns before we get there though and the second half turns out to be the out and out action thriller I was expecting from the start.  Throughout it all, Sudeep outclasses everyone else with chameleon-like changes of his character, and his performance is just enough to make up for the dodgy dialogue in the first half.  He does bring to life the film’s ‘Bachchan’ in Big B angry young man persona, although there is more to his character than just a generalised grudge against the world.  I’m presuming that director Shashank wanted to make a kind of homage to Amitabh Bachchan as there are many mentions of Big B and his films throughout, but he’s probably most referenced in this song with the bewilderingly badly dressed Tulip Joshi.  Poor Tulip – she really doesn’t come out of any of this well at all.

Bhavana makes a brief appearance as Anjali’s sister Ashwini, but probably the best performance from the three romance interests is from Parul Yadav.  Her character is more developed and despite the terrible beginning she does make a better showing in the second half.  Most of the rest of the support cast are fine but they are mainly there either to provide fodder for Bharat’s rage or to add layers of confusion to the plot, and are never any more than two-dimensional at best.  However the fight scenes are well choreographed even if they lean heavily towards standard Southern Indian tropes and the climax is satisfyingly OTT.

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The concept of Bachchan is good, but it is let down by the script in the first half (or perhaps just very bad subtitles) and a tendency to rely on standard filmi clichés.  Although the second half of the film is entertaining and very watchable, sitting through the first half to get there requires patience and perseverance.  Still, if you can make it through the first half hour, the rest up to the interval is ridiculous enough to be amusing and it is worth hanging in there to reach the excellent second half if you can.  I’d give the first half of Bachchan 2 stars and the second half 4 stars which gives an average of 3 – that seems about right overall.  Worth watching for Sudeep but I’d recommend leaving your brain behind for the first hour.

Jigarthanda

Jigarthanda

It was only the hope that Karthik Subbaraj would manage to at least equal his excellent début film Pizza that got me out of the house on a cold, wet and windy Melbourne night.  But in the end it was totally worth the trek across town to catch Jigarthanda and watch Bobby Simhaa completely steal the show as the slightly unhinged gangster Sethu.  Siddharth, Lakshmi Menon and Karunakaran round out the lead cast with excellent support from a multitude of actors, including a special appearance from Vijay Sethupathi.  It’s quite a long film and I felt that perhaps the final scene wasn’t absolutely necessary, but for the rest of the 2 hours and 50 minutes I was completely mesmerised by a rather different take on the blood and guts gangster film.

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Siddharth is Karthik, an aspiring young film maker who has been given the chance of a lifetime to have his first movie financed by a leading producer (Naren), just as long as it’s an Indian version of the Godfather.  This isn’t quite what Karthik had planned as his début feature, but after his reporter uncle tells him about a particularly psychotic goondha in Madurai, he decides that he has found his perfect muse and heads off to the city that never sleeps to develop his script.

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Luckily Karthik’s friend Oorni (Karunakaran) has space in his house while his pregnant wife is away, and Karthik loses no time in moving in and plotting a way to reach ‘Assault Sethu’.  Given that the opening scenes include a brutal and fairly horrific murder by the gang, this doesn’t really seem to be a very safe plan, but over Oorni’s quite sensible objections Karthik starts to stalk various members of the gang in an attempt to get close to Sethu.  The first half of the film mixes equal parts of comedy and action as Karthik and Oorni bumble around ineffectually trying to discover more about Sethu’s early life, while Sethu and his gang very efficiently do what any self-respecting psychotic Madurai bad guys do to earn a daily crust.  Amid all the mayhem, Karthik runs into Kayal (Lakshmi Menon), who has an interesting side-line which puts her on the shady side of the law, although she mainly helps her mother providing food for the gang.  This potentially gives Karthik a way into Sethu’s world although it doesn’t quite work out the way he plans.

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Siddarth is much better than I was expecting as the rather nerdy and intellectual film maker who is initially childishly thrilled by his exposure to the darker side of life and the excitement of gangsters in the flesh.  The inevitable change to horror as the reality of Sethu’s brutality and unpredictable viciousness becomes only too apparent is also well depicted, while his portrayal of Karthik’s despondency and resigned acceptance in the second half is pretty much perfect.  There is some excellent writing here as Karthik’s character is perfectly represented by the script, and Siddharth adds charm and general likeability along with technical prowess.  Alongside Siddharth, Karunakaran is impressive in a role that seems made for him, and his bumbling friend persona drives much of the comedy with very funny one-liners.  The various gang members also get plenty of one-liners and there is some excellent situational comedy, particularly in the second half, which is frequently unexpected but beautifully written into the main storyline.  The gang seems composed of the usual suspects in such films, but they seem even better than normal here.  Perhaps it’s because they get a chance to be three-dimensional and they have definitive and separate personalities here which helps drive the story and has the added bonus of providing more background to the character of Sethu.

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Lakshmi Menon doesn’t have a very big role in the proceedings but her presence proves to be pivotal in a number of instances and her character is generally realistically depicted.  She makes an impact even with her limited amount of screen-time and definitely holds her own against the rest of the mostly louder and brasher cast.  She’s certainly not just a love interest and I do like the way Karthik Subbaraj includes his female characters as having a definite personality and not just defining them by their relationship with the hero, even if he still doesn’t manage to give them much of a role in the story.

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The real star of the film though is Bobby Simhaa, who growls and menaces convincingly as a cold-hearted killer and somehow manages to genuinely appear unstable.  Some of his best moments are undoubtedly as he narrates his past murders to the camera when he is frighteningly chilling, but Simhaa also delights in scenes where he is attempting to act, or deal with the attempts on his life from other gangsters in Madurai.  He switches effortlessly between drama, action and comedy and so much more besides. It’s an absolutely inspired performance in a cleverly written role which really does encompass almost every possible reaction as the story unfolds.

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The film also benefits from excellent camera work from Gavemic Ary along with clever use of the different sets to help develop the various characters.  Santhosh Narayanan’s soundtrack sounds modern and edgy, yet fits perfectly into the film, while the background score enhances the visuals without becoming overpowering.  Generally the songs are used as background for story development with only one full choreographed number in the film – but it is well worth waiting for.  After all, it’s not often you get to experience an Indian brass band playing along with dance performances from a rowdy and cut-throat group of gangsters! Pandi Naatu Kodi makes a brief appearance in this trailer and it is just superb!

Ultimately, Jigarthanda succeeds because of Karthik Subbaraj’s intelligent and well plotted storyline which features plenty of unexpected twists, novel situations and a very funny script.  Although there are distinct differences between the two halves of the film, there is plenty of black humour throughout and the mixture of comedy and action overall works well in delivering an entertaining film.  I still think it could have been 10 minutes shorter and delivered just as effective an ending, but Jigarthanda is definitely one of my top movies of the year so far and I’m already putting the DVD on my wishlist.  I highly recommend watching in the cinema if you can – it’s really that good!

Lady Snowblood

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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!