Shamitabh

Shamitabh

Shamitabh is the third film featuring Amitabh Bachchan from writer/director R. Balki and it’s definitely my pick of the three. I may however be somewhat biased, given that this film also stars my favourite Tamil actor Dhanush, who never fails to impress with his performance and delivers yet again in Shamitabh. I’ve found that while Balki’s previous two films Cheeni Kum and Paa have clever and overall engaging ideas, the execution doesn’t always live up to expectations. And to a lesser extent it’s the same with Shamitabh, although here there is more hit than miss and the film succeeds in humorously poking fun at a number of different aspects of the film industry. There are a few too many contrivances to make the plot really gel and the dodgy medical science is a drawback, but the central theme of two warring egos against the backdrop of the superficial and glamorous world of Bollywood is compelling enough to ensure an entertaining watch.

The film opens with a success event for début actor Shamitabh (Dhanush), and the impact on the room of invited guests is much the same as for the film audience when Dhanush opens his mouth and the voice of Amitabh Bachchan rolls out. The contrast could not be greater and it’s this combination of actor and voice that has made Shamitabh such a success in his first film. But before the phenomenon that is Shamitabh there was Daanish, a mute boy so obsessed with films that he dreamt of running away to Mumbai to be a hero. I don’t know who the young actor is who plays the young Daanish but he is absolutely brilliant, particularly when his exasperated teacher makes him act in front of the class. The anguish in his portrayal of despair at the supposed death of his mother is incredible and from that point it does seem possible that perhaps Daanish could be a hero despite his lack of a voice. However once he grows up and does make it to Mumbai, it’s evident that no matter how good an actor Daanish is, he will never be able to make it into the film industry without a voice.

Enter a young and ambitious AD Akshara (Akshara Haasan) who is impressed by the aspiring actor and decides to try and help him gain his dream. There is a wonderful irony in the rejection of an actor because he cannot speak in an industry that relies heavily on dubbing, which is of course the whole point. In one of those plot contrivances, Akshara’s father is a doctor whose laryngologist friend just happens to have heard about revolutionary new surgery in Finland. Somehow Akshara convinces her father to send Daanish for the surgery, which involves implanting a device in his throat which can store and then play back someone else’s speaking voice. As Bollywood medicine goes it isn’t the most ridiculous I’ve seen, but it’s certainly close and it’s probably best not to dwell on the lack of logic or the major holes with the technology and just go with it for the sake of the plot.

Naturally then, given the choice of absolutely anyone who could become his ‘voice’, Daanish decides to go with an older alcoholic who doesn’t look as if he will make it to the interval before succumbing to liver failure, let alone the entire career span of a young and upcoming actor. Amitabh Sinha (Amitabh Bachchan) came to Mumbai years before with a similar dream of being a hero, but was rejected because of his deep and powerful voice, ending up in the gutter where Daanish and Akshara find him. Despite his shabby and homeless appearance Amitabh lives in a graveyard, symbolism definitely intended, and doesn’t take too much persuading to sign up as the voice of Daanish. The idea is that he will in some way get his own back on the industry that denied him a chance at success, although he settles for a small proportion of Daanish’s earnings and the position of valet to hide his real occupation.

The composite of Daanish and Amitabh as ‘Shamitabh’ (a necessary change to deal with numerology issues) is instantly successful and Balki throws in plenty more digs at Bollywood clichés including product placement (the film is called Lifebuoy) and the inevitable romantic song. These, along with camero appearances by the likes of Rekha and Karan Johar keep the audience smiling despite the underlying tension and hostility between the ‘actor’ and his ‘voice’.

The relationship between Daanish and Amitabh is not a happy one, as Daanish struggles to deal with his unpredictable partner and Amitabh becomes ever more resentful of the fame and recognition heaped on Daanish. Daanish for his part is determined to prove that his charisma and acting skill is enough and the voice irrelevant, while Amitabh strives to prove that without his voice Daanish would be nothing. Akshara is forced to be the mediator in the middle, a role she neither wants nor fully accepts which leads to further tension and discord.

Amitabh has a tendency to ham it up as the gruff and grumpy alcoholic, particularly when he is the main focus of a scene, but he is excellent in his interactions with Dhanush and their mutual enmity boils off the screen when they face off against each other. Dhanush is as amazing as ever in a role where he never speaks but still conveys frustration at his predicament or excitement with his success with consummate ease.  The two actors work well together and their relationship is perfectly nuanced as they battle it out despite the occasionally forced and laboured storyline.

Akshara Haasan is also good and holds her own beside two such good performances from Dhanush and Amitabh. She has her own obsession and I like the way her character holds true to this dream, refusing to be merely the bridge to success for Shamitabh or even worse just a passing love interest. Her character is more interesting than that and Akshara is impressively successful in bringing her ambitious assistant director to life.

Although the relationship between the two men is well captured some of the story veers into ridiculous a little too often. I don’t understand the Bollywood obsession with toilet humour, and here Balki adds so much bathroom based comedy that I can’t be sure if he’s being satirical or whether he does actually think this is funny. Some of it works, but like Amitabh’s continual references to whiskey and water as similes for himself and Daanish, it does wear thin after a while.

Although the first half is excellent, the film falters towards the end, with the climax in particular being drawn out and almost clumsy in execution. By the end, neither Amitabh nor Daanish are particularly likeable as the success of their composite Shamitabh brings out their worst qualities, so it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for their plight, although the relationship itself is fascinating as it self destructs. However the rest of the film more than makes up for the clunky end, and the excellent performances from the three main leads ensure that the good idea of the story isn’t lost somewhere behind the dodgy medicine. Worth watching for a satirical look at the Bollywood film industry and an unusual relationship that is cleverly drawn and intelligently developed despite the manipulations required to start it in the first place. 3 ½ stars.

Frozen (2007)

Frozen-title

Shivajee Chandrabushan’s Frozen is a lyrical and often dreamlike film. Shot on location in Ladakh and released in black and white, it’s a story told as much through the stunning visuals as through the slightly clunky screenplay. I’ll state upfront I don’t have much of a view on the political background, and I am sure a homegrown audience would have a deeper understanding that would colour their viewing. I found the film satisfying on face value as a story about family, the effects of change, and the challenge to maintain integrity.

Karma (Danny Denzongpa) is an apricot jam maker, a widower living with his family in their ancestral home near Leh. He knows he has to try and keep up with the times, but that is easier said than done. He bought a machine to speed up his jam production but it doesn’t run reliably. He has mounting debts as his business deteriorates, loans cannot be repaid on time, and the interest is crippling. His daughter Lasya (Gauri) is wilful and an attention seeker, while Chomo (Aungchuk) is her little shadow. The siblings spend their days playing with their dog Singhe, running around in the woods, or going to visit their mother’s memorial, high on a neighbouring hillside. Lasya is growing up and Karma knows he should settle her marriage before all his debts are called in, but he resists taking any action, hoping he can keep providing for her. One day the army arrives on his doorstep to set up a camp. Their peaceful valley is suddenly full of trucks and electric lights, threats of violence by ‘the enemy’, and his land is no longer worth anything.

The pace, and price, of change is evident. The crowd at a festival is dotted with camera wielding tourists in Gore-Tex, hideous denim replaces the traditional woollen clothing, and motorbikes replace ponies. The army officers talk about the enemy and how the valley is no longer safe, but Karma only sees the place he grew up. His land is now covered in barbed wire, the silence broken by constant truck traffic. The officers also complain about how all the food in the market is being bought by ‘them’ to cause shortages, a sad situation for the jam maker who cannot sell his wares.

Danny Denzongpa is just wonderful. He doesn’t have much dialogue and manages to convey so much through Karma’s expressions, his pauses before responding, and his stillness. Karma’s Buddhist philosophy is the foundation of his character. He uses every challenge as a means of practising what he believes in, and his integrity is as substantial and present as the mountains.  When Karma realises loan shark Dawa is proposing to trade Lasya in return for more money, there is a long beat before he meekly nods. Danny shows his revulsion, anger and resignation all in a flicker of expression, with no sign of any 70s masala filminess or his more recent villainous styling.  I’m always happy to see Danny rock up in any film, and I particularly enjoyed this very gently shaded characterisation.

Gauri is pretty and lively, and gives Lasya a case of chronic resting bitch face which suits the character perfectly. She is starting to want more than her life in the remote homestead but it is clear she loves her father and her little brother. The local Romeo, who is actually called Romeo, (Shakeel Khan) takes a fancy to her. While she likes his attention she seems to like the opportunities to explore the world that come along with a boyfriend with a motorbike more than she likes the boy. Lasya is a typical teenager in a not so typical setting. Her energy sometimes manifests as anger, even when she doesn’t really know why. Karma does his best to teach her to guard her mind, to understand how to address her fears.

Little Chomo is the typical baby brother. He follows his big sister and lets her both bully and make a pet of him. Aungchuk doesn’t have to say a lot but he has an expressive face and droll comic timing. He is a loner, only ever hanging out with his sister or silently tagging along after his dad. I wondered about why he seemed to be on the periphery all the time and how he felt about his isolation, and liked the way his story unfolded.

Sita (Anuradha Baral) helps Karma run his house and feed his kids. She is obviously very fond of them and does her best to keep things running. Salim (Sanjay Swaraj) is in the same boat as Karma, with maxed out loans and little prospect of getting back on his feet. Colonel Shyam (Aamir Bashir) and the Rinpoche (Sonam Stobgias Gorky) are different kinds of influences in Karma’s life. The bad side of modernisation is represented by the parasitical loan sharks; sleazy Dawa (Rajendranath Zutshi) and sweary Sharma (Yashpal Sharma).

Karma and Lasya interact with lots of people but I wouldn’t say they were very close with anyone other than Sita. On a rare day out, Lasya explores a fair and it is great fun to see what she sees, and check out the crowds and entertainment, even a glimpse of the cham dancers from Thiksey Gompa. One day I’ll get there myself!

The film sometimes feels a little disjointed as it is more a series of vignettes and images, ranging from realism to more fanciful compositions. That adds to the dreamy nature as scenes shift and the focus moves from character to character. I read somewhere that Shivajee Chandrabhushan is a climber, and he certainly captured the things I love about the mountains. The landscape is both exhilarating and confining, and the vast skies and stark light often have an otherworldly effect. The environmental upheaval mirrors the turmoil in Karma’s life, and the changing seasons are a reminder of how little time he may have to protect his family. The epilogue was a bit tricksy after such a sincere story, and I would have been just as happy for the film to end without the final scene. Having said that, I liked that I was left with questions and possibilities and not just a plot tied up with a bow.

This is a film for a contemplative evening, when you can just immerse yourself in the flow of images and see where it takes you. And a rewarding film for the Danny Denzongpa fans. 4 stars!

Rana Vikrama

Rana-Vikrama-poster

Time for another adventure without subtitles; this time the Puneeth Rajkumar starrer Rana Vikrama that released earlier this year in India and showed this weekend in Melbourne. Written and directed by Pavan Wadeyar, it’s an action movie that follows a fairly predictable path but is kept moving along by the Power Star’s charismatic presence and some good action sequences. Throw in some better than average songs, a dash of comedy, and Rana Vikrama is a more entertaining watch than the opening scenes would suggest.

The story starts with a rather over the top British Officer in the last days of the British Raj. As expected, the Viceroy (Vikram Singh) is obnoxious, controlling, vindictive and just plain evil, although since Vikram Singh overacts and has been inexplicably dubbed by someone with an East European accent he ends up more comical than villainous. Unfortunately he’s not the only victim of the poor dubbing as a number of later scenes supposedly set in London feature reporters and lackeys also badly dubbed into grammatically incorrect and oddly accented English. Skipping over these technical issues, Vikram Singh chews the scenery for a while and eventually attempts to kill upstart villager Vikrama (Puneeth Rajkumar). Naturally he is no match for the tough local who wins the day despite being beaten, weighed down by chains and shot. Twice. Take note Hollywood – that’s how hard it is to kill a real hero!

The film then flashes forward to the present day where Vikram (Puneeth Singh again) is an aspiring police officer. Despite his obvious physical fitness, he is rejected by the enrolment officer time and time again however Vikram is determined to succeed, somewhat against the wishes of his fiancée Paaru (Adah Sharma) who would prefer him to stay with her. Vikram is thrown a lifeline by the Home Minister (Girish Karnad) who appoints him as a police trainee and sends him off to investigate a missing reporter somewhere in the border between Karnataka and Maharashtra. After a few hiccups Vikram finds the spot where workers in chains are toiling away in what appears to be an open cast mine, and makes short shrift of the numerous thugs and villains overseeing the project in classic filmi hero ishstyle.

The village has been keep secret for many years due to the nefarious dealings of none other than the British Viceroy’s descendant and the richest man in Britain, Jonathan (Vikram Singh again). He’s just as prone to overacting as his grandfather but with less reason, since he’s supposed to be a successful if rather unscrupulous businessman. However once Jonathan discovers that his secret has been discovered he jets in to India and prepares to get rid of Vikram once and for all.

Before we can get to the ultimate showdown however, there is a flashback sequence which explains the opening scene and also exactly why Jonathan’s family wants the land. Vikrama is married to Gowri (Anjali) for this sequence and the couple share good chemistry making this a better pairing than Puneeth Rajkumar and Adah Sharma in the present day. Anjali also gets to swing a sword and her feisty nature fits well into the storyline making her a more memorable and likeable character. I love this song featuring Gowri and Vikrama, which has the added benefit of a gigantic drum as a stage for Vikram’s dance moves. There is always something very special about oversized musical instruments in a dance number!

Generally the songs from V. Harikrishna are catchy and the choreography and picturisations are effective with some excellent costumes and imaginative settings. The songs also fit well into the narrative, something which is often more hit and miss in an action film, but they do work well here. If only such attention to detail had carried over into the dubbing and present day Anjali’s make-up to turn her into Vikram’s grandmother. This basically doesn’t work, and casting an older actress instead would have been a better option given that Gowri has little to do in these sequences other than look old and frail (which she doesn’t) and point dramatically at significant moments in the story. There is also a heavy reliance on clips of TV news reports which dulls the impact of some of the more dramatic scenes, although overall S. Vaidhy’s cinematography is impressive.

Although the film doesn’t cover any new ground and the heroic antics are far-fetched and fairly improbable, Rana Vikrama is still fun to watch. The action sequences from Ravi Verma are well thought out and the Power Star perfectly fits the role of a rough and tough police officer. It’s Puneeth Rajkumar’s film all the way and he does an excellent job of holding the story together despite the caricature of a villain and the rather OTT final sequence. I would have liked a little more care with some of the more technical aspects, but it’s still an entertaining film and one definitely worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Pandaga Chesko (2015)

Pandaga Chesko

This is the first film from ‘Energetic Star’ Ram that I’ve seen in the cinema, a fact that seemed surprising until I realised that Ram’s last film release was in 2013. I’m always wary with films billed as comedy, and Pandaga Chesko isn’t an exception to the rule that they should be approached with caution. However, surprisingly it isn’t Brahmi’s stale sleazy comedy that’s the biggest issue here, or the usual surfeit of comedy uncles with no real role in the story. Rather, the plot itself is tired, repetitive and well past it’s use by date. The story follows a young NRI’s return to India to attempt to reunite two families – sound familiar? Attarintiki Daredi, Govindudu Andarivadele and a whole host of other films have told this story before, and told it better. However Ram is personable and definitely energetic, although his performance and the best efforts of the support cast aren’t quite enough to save the film from being anything more than a one time watch for me.

Ram is Karthik, an NRI living in Portugal and a successful businessman running his own business. His success is enough to make him a candidate for marriage with Anushka (Sonal Chauhan) who is also a successful businesswoman although from her behaviour it seems barely conceivable that she could organise a two-ticket raffle let alone a business empire. But as her ability to play rugby to win a sports club presumably shows, she is a woman of hidden talents and a rather surprisingly slutty wardrobe for a business tycoon.

After Karthik and Anushka meet and decide that a merger would give them both the best chance to succeed in their respective businesses, Karthik learns of a complaint against his factory in India and heads off to fix the problem a month before his wedding. He’s also found out about a feud in his mother’s family, and despite not having shown any family feelings up until now, decides that while he is back in India he might as well sort out that little problem too.

However it’s not going to be as easy as Karthik thinks. For a start, no sooner does Karthik see Green Army founder and activist Divya (Rakul Preet Singh) than he falls in love with her. And the family feud proves to be tricky too, particularly when Karthik confuses the issue by including various other people pretending to be someone else. And muddying the waters further is Weekend Venkat Rao (Brahmi) sent to bring Karthik home for his wedding with Anushka but who spends his time indulging in cheap and nasty comedy instead.

Most of the comedy is in the dialogue so I didn’t find the film as funny as the rest of the audience, and since the physical humour mainly comes courtesy of Brahmi it’s generally crass and not particularly amusing. M S Narayana does have a small role but is generally not well used, while Abhimanyu Singh is reasonably funny in his role as a bumbling goonda in love with Divya. Divya and Karthik get some of the better comedy scenes too, although I don’t think all of it was actually supposed to be funny! They do make a likeable couple though and their scenes together are the most enjoyable part of the film.

The best performances come from the veterans in the cast including Jayaprakash, Sai Kumar, Raghu Babu and Pavitra Lokesh to name just a few of the large support crew. The feud between Karthik’s uncle and his erstwhile best friend is fairly standard fare but the actors give it their all and this part of the film works well. Rakul Preet Singh is good and has plenty of chemistry with Ram that serves their romance well, but Sonal Chauhan is a disaster in a role that doesn’t suit her and is badly written to boot. Ram doesn’t get much chance to show off his acting skills here either but he does well with what he is given – and if nothing else he does have good wardrobe choices and an energetic dance style. However even the choreography isn’t novel and although the songs from S Thaman are fine and generally well placed they don’t stand out as anything special.

Overall Pandaga Chesko does raise a few laughs but is let down by the disappointingly derivative and formulaic story. It’s frustrating since the film is well made with a great cast and generally good performances which do at least go some way towards making up for the tired plot. It’s not a terrible film, and it mainly works as a comedy, but it just needs a newer angle on a familiar tale and perhaps a few less comedy uncles. Worth watching for Ram and his energetic dance sequences, the romance scenes between Karthik and Divya and Arthur Wilson’s excellent cinematography.

Massu Engira Masilamani (Masss)

Masss

Venkat Prabhu is a man of many ideas – usually very good ideas – which have resulted in a number of successful films. However for his latest release Masss, he tries to cram as many ideas as possible into the first 20 minutes, and then continues to throw in yet more new ideas throughout the rest of the film. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but not all of his ideas work and it’s even difficult to decide if they work or not because the film has already moved on to the next idea! As a result the confusion of the opening scenes feels like trying to cram a year’s work into 10 minutes before the start of an exam. Situations and characters flash by without a chance to work out who is who, what they are doing and how they fit into the story, and if I did have to answer questions on what was going on, I would fail miserably! However it does get better. Suriya is amazing, and his presence holds the film together even through the odd and even more oddly placed songs. The story starts to make sense and the pace slows down to manageable levels with enough comedy and action mixed in to make Masss well worth a watch and much better than the opening sequences would suggest.

Suriya plays Masilamani aka Mass, a con-man and thief who works with his best buddy Jet (Premgi) on a number of overly complicated heists that involve as much theatricality as they do actual thievery. But they make a mistake when they decide to rob a local don who takes exception to their activities. Mass and Jet only just manage to escape, but in doing so they have a serious car crash which has more implications than they first realise.

I had no idea about the story behind Masss and I think it works better when the events that occur are completely unexpected, so I will leave the details of the story there. Up to this point Suriya works his lovable rogue persona well and Premgi is relatively low-key as his best friend. After the first twist (one of many), Premgi takes more of a back seat in the proceedings which is an advantage to the storyline since he doesn’t quite have the acting chops required for such a major role, although his comedy does work well. Suriya takes centre stage and drives the story forwards with an excellent performance and plenty of charisma. There is a double role too, which is perhaps a little clichéd but still works within the format of the story. Plus double Suriya is always a benefit in my opinion (as long as they are not conjoined twins!).

Nayantara pops up as Malini, a love interest for Masss, but she has very little to do and doesn’t even manage a duet with the hero, so her role could have been skipped without too much trouble. She does look beautiful though, if perhaps a little unconvincing as a nurse, but has surprisingly little chemistry with Suriya. However I’m going to mark that down as not having any real opportunity to develop any sparkage due to the briefness of their time spent together rather than any real problem with Nayantara. Vidyullekha Raman makes an appearance as Malini’s friend and actually makes more of an impact than Nayantara, although sadly she too quickly drops out of the story. However they both fare better than Pranitha who appears totally mis-cast, or at least inappropriately dressed with terrible make-up, for her role as flash-back Suriya’s wife.

The film has a huge cast list and there are a large number of good actors who appear as assorted villains or who are part of a group who help Mass later in the film. Brahmi has a brief role as a corrupt doctor in Malini’s hospital, while Samuthirakani has probably the best realised villain role, although even he only appears occasionally. Parthiban manages a little more screen-time as a police officer on the trail of Mass and has some good one-liners while Karunas, Riyaz Khan and many others provide excellent back-up for Suriya. It seems a long time since I’ve seen Rajendran and it’s great to see him here in a small role as a member of the gang helping Mass even if again he only appears briefly.

The second half follows a more linear storyline, even with the flashback portion and the film settles down to an easier pace. What surprises me is that the film received a U certificate given that there is some fairly extreme violence and at times the film is quite frightening for a young audience, although the kids in Melbourne seem to be made of fairly tough stuff and seemed to take it all in their stride.

Masss is a little overlong and the at times it seems that Venkat Prabhu got a little too carried away with his special effect team. There are times when less really is better and there are a few moments here where more restraint would have had a greater effect. In addition, the songs don’t really fit, apart from one during the flash-back sequence and there are perhaps a few too many nods to other films in the screenplay giving the film a more derivative feel than I think it really deserves. However Suriya is excellent and the background score from Yuvan Shankar Raja makes up for any lack in the dance numbers. This is a film to watch for Suriya, the excellent support cast and for Venkat Prabhu’s occasional flashes of brilliance which occur just often enough to give Masss sufficient unexpected twists to entertain.