Raja Rani (2013)

Raja Rani

I didn’t manage to see this in the cinema in Melbourne, but did manage to get a DVD copy with English subtitles.  Rather strangely it was also the only film they had on the bus in Tamil Nadu this year and I ended up watching the opening scenes over 10 times on the way to various villages in TN.  This added exposure gave me enough time to appreciate just how outlandish Nayanthara’s make-up looks, and just how uncomfortable Arya appears in his suit at the opening wedding which is a good precursor to how their relationship develops. In fact, the lead couple are rather uninspiring throughout this film – at least when paired with each other – but thankfully co-stars Jai, Santhanam and Nazriya Nazim are more appealing and their presence does make Raja Rani worth a one-time watch.

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The story starts with the arranged marriage of Regina (Nayanthara) and John (Arya) who are going through the matrimonial motions for the sake of their respective families.  Or so we are told.  Except as the film progresses this wedding seems to make less and less sense.  The couple obviously dislike each other and I cannot see why Regina’s relatively wealthy and cosmopolitan father would agree to marry her to someone like John.  He seems to have neither the requisite high flying job nor appropriate family background for such a match.  However, as completely random as it seems, and despite the lack of any reasonable explanation the wedding goes ahead despite the bride forgetting her prospective partner’s name and both parties complete lack of enthusiasm throughout the ceremony.

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It’s a match that seems doomed to end in divorce.  John spends his days at work and his nights drinking with his friends before returning home, usually to a locked door.  Regina hogs the bathroom, sobs into her pillow at night and generally ignores her husband as much as she can.  It all feels very unrealistic and overly dramatic – after all there is a large couch in the other room where Regina could sleep if she wanted, and surely John could organise a key to their apartment rather than sleep on the doorstep?  All the OTT drama makes it difficult to care about either John or Regina since they are equally obnoxious to each other, and I really had little interest in their relationship.  That’s not to say that Arya and Nayanthara are particularly terrible, but all Arya has to do in the first half hour is pretend to be drunk while Nayanthara doesn’t stop crying or complaining long enough to do anything remotely interesting either.

Thankfully there is relief in sight, but until we get there Santhanam lightens the atmosphere and is mildly amusing as John’s best friend Sarathy.

Finally there is an incident which prompts John to find out a little more about his wife.  There is some very dodgy medicine on display as Regina has an epileptic fit while her husband seems totally incapable of any sensible reaction, although he does eventually manage to call an ambulance.  Needless to say, despite all the thrashing around and foaming at the mouth (sigh – when will Tamil cinema consult a doctor for some plausible medical problems?) Regina manages to come through the whole episode with her make-up and eyelashes intact. That’s a relief!

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However, after being berated by her doctor for not knowing anything about his wife’s condition, John does discover the reason behind her condition.  Lost love – of course!

The film gets much better when we head to a flash-back to Regina’s first love, although to be fair this doesn’t have the best of beginnings either.  Jai is excellent as love interest Surya, an incompetent call centre employee, and finally there are some real emotions and reasons to empathise with one of the characters.  Regina is as obnoxious as before, but the role of spoilt rich brat suits her better when she’s a student and she does seem to be more tongue in cheek with her tantrums.  Sathyan makes an appearance as Surya’s friend Iyappan and his comedy shtick complements Jai’s weedy persona well enough to make a reasonably funny duo. Although the romance is typically filmy there is some chemistry between the two actors and while we can see the unhappy ending coming, Regina never does and is devastated by losing her first love.

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It turns out that John has his own sob story, and although it’s another predictable run of the mill tale, again it’s a more believable romance with good chemistry between the actors.  In particular Nazriya Nazim is scintillating as Keerthana and she is the best thing about the whole film.  She has an excellent introduction and her cheeky impishness lights up the screen whenever she appears.  She has much more personality and is much livelier than in Naiyaandi, which just goes to show the difference between a well written character and one that basically isn’t!

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Arya is also transformed into a younger, fitter John who is more personable and likeable, and again there is some reasonable chemistry between him and Keerthana.  It’s not all good though – Santhanam suffers under the burden of some terribly bad hair which seems to make him more pathetic and less amusing than in the first half, but it works out for the best as Nazriya has the comedy covered too.

The main problem I have with Raja Rani is that the relationship between John and Regina never generates any appeal or gives an opportunity to feel sympathetic towards the characters.  There are some interesting issues brought up  here but they are dealt with in a shallow and filmi way which results in a lack of connection between the characters and the audience.  There is no apparent reason for the couple’s actions towards each other, considering that they don’t appear to have met before the wedding, and it seems strange that they would behave so badly to each other right from the start.  The concept of an arranged marriage between two people who have both lost their first love has potential but Atlee wastes it by playing the relationship for laughs and never giving his characters a chance to behave like rational adults.  I found it incredibly frustrating to watch  Arya and Nayanthara appear so wooden and lifeless for most of their on-screen time together, when the difference was so obvious when Arya was partnered with Nazriya and Nayanthara with Jai.  A little more time spent on developing the relationship between Regina and John at the beginning along with a more adult treatment of their problems would have made this a more entertaining watch.  However I did enjoy seeing a better performance from Nazriya and I liked the idea behind the film, even if the execution didn’t quite live up to expectations.  3 ½ stars.Raja Rani

Thalaivaa (2013)

Thalaivaa

Thalaivaa is the latest release for Vijay, and although it’s not as instantly entertaining as his last film Thuppakki, it’s still a mostly enjoyable watch.  Vijay is excellent (although he doesn’t tread any new ground), and impressive performances by Santhanam and Amala Paul add to the overall impact, but it’s really Sathyaraj who steals the show as the reluctant saviour of the people.  Thalaivaa is also the latest film to release here in Melbourne with English subtitles, and I can only hope that this trend will continue.  Thanks to the Powers That Be in Chennai who have finally started to distribute subtitled films to locations outside of the US and UK – please can you start on the smaller releases now too?

A.L. Vijay’s Thalaivaa is really a story of two halves.  It starts off with some political shenanigans in Mumbai which sets up the story for the rest of the film.  Ratnam (Nasser) is a political leader who is targeted by his opponents during a riot.  However he is saved, along with his young son by Ramadurai (Sathyaraj), who pays for his brief foray into politics when he himself is later ambushed and his wife killed.  Ramadurai hands his son over to Ratnam in the hope that he will have a better and safer life overseas, while Ramadurai stays and fights for the rights of the underprivileged Tamil people in Mumbai.  After such a serious and well-constructed beginning, the film suddenly changes direction completely as we move to Sydney where Viswa (Vijay) and his ‘brother’ Logu (Santhanam) are running a water bottling company.

ThalaivaaVijay and Santhanam

Although Viswa seems to be doing incredibly well with his small company given his expensive apartment with views of the bridge and waterfront, he also has ambitions to make the big time as a dancer.  The first half is light-hearted and there is plenty of humour as Viswa and Logu compete for the affections of Meera (Amala Paul), the daughter of one of their bottled water customers (Ponvannan).  Sydney provides a picturesque backdrop for the songs, although the entire dance competition storyline is very contrived and unrealistic, not that there is anything unusual in that. However the really dumb entrance by Meera chasing a CGI butterfly is offset by her feisty and assured character who even gets to show off her dancing skills and proves to be just as good as the guys.  Amala Paul is excellent as Meera and manages to create a believable personality with just a few scenes.  Sadly she has much less screen-time in the second half and her character becomes even more clichéd, but she does a good job with her limited material, and she looks stunning too.

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Inevitably Meera and Viswa fall in love, but Meera’s father insists on meeting Ramadurai before the wedding can go ahead.  However Ramadurai is now Anna, an underworld figure who rules the slum areas of Mumbai and ensures his own brand of justice for his people.  As such, he’s wanted by the police, and Viswa’s arrival into Mumbai is a major headache for his father and his loyal followers.

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There is an unexpected plot twist after Viswa lands in Mumbai and the film changes tack again into a more typical mass-style thriller with the expected chase sequences through back alleyways and eventual, rather predictable final showdown fight scene.  Viswa ends up taking over his father role and his transition from carefree dancer and small businessman to serious leader of the people isn’t well developed and seems rather too abrupt.   Abhimanyu Singh plays Viswa’s main rival Bhima and his character is also majorly underdeveloped despite a good starting premise.  I’d like to see Abhimanyu Singh do more than just flex and grimace at the camera as he seems to have done in his last few films, since he has played more nuanced characters in the past, and played them well too.  However, we don’t get any real depth from his character here and it makes absolutely no sense that the political power brokers decide to back such a demented thug with his wholesale plans of indiscriminate violence.  But back him they do, and despite a few unexpected twists, the story winds its way through the standard formula of good guy looking out for the welfare of the people vs. uncaring thug, only interested in power.

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The second half drags in places as we tick off each point on the ‘standard Tamil thriller storyboard’, although there are some excellent scenes amid all the clichés which liven up proceeding again.  But its uneven and even the best efforts of Vijay, Santhanam and Sathyaraj can’t stop the feeling that we’ve seen all this before.

Thalaivaa

Still, the film is well shot by experienced cinematographer Nirav Shah with good use of the cityscape in Sydney, and equally good cinematography in the dock and slum areas of Mumbai.  The choreography is well suited to Vijay and Amala who share good chemistry together.  The songs by G. V. Prakash Kumar are generally catchy, apart from a more political song in the second half which could have been shorter.  Ragini Nandwani also puts in a good performance as a second love interest, and the rest of the cast provide able support to the main leads.ThalaivaaThalaivaa

Overall Thalaivaa is rather less than the sum of its parts, but there are enough individually good scenes along with polished and assured performances to make it mostly entertaining.  The story really needs to be sharper to offset the stereotypical characterisations but I still came away feeling that Thalaivaa is worth seeing on the big screen.  Watch for Sathyaraj, Vijay and those dance scenes around Darling Harbour and Circular Quay which really are excellent.

Darling

Darling

My motivation for watching Darling was less in the expectation of experiencing an enthralling story (although I always live in hope) and much more based on being a Prabhas fan – which in hindsight was the right attitude to take.  Although the underlying themes of friendship and father-son relationships are reasonably well dealt with, the romance between the two leads follows a fairly dull and predictable path despite the attempt at a twist at the interval.  However Prabhas and Kajal are both entertaining to watch in spite of the inevitability of the storyline and for a romantic comedy, what it lacks in passion it more than makes up for in the humour.  Especially since for a change, the comedy is part and parcel of the story rather than a separate unfunny and irrelevant track.  Best of all, there is not even a sniff of Ali or Brahmi anywhere in the proceedings. There is plenty of Prabhas instead and really, that’s enough right there to make this a film worth watching!

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Prabhas is Prabha (why not just stick with Prabhas I wonder?), who is the devoted son of a loving father Hanumanthu (Prabhu).  The film opens with the last day of Hanumanthu’s time at college and the pledge of all the friends to meet up every 5 or 10 years to renew their friendship.  This opening section is all shot in black and white and the lack of colour ensures this section features some of the most conservative and tasteful outfits the men wear for the entire film, despite the fact that it’s set in the eighties.

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These reunions give the various families a chance to get to know each other too, and a young Prabha is smitten by Vishwanath’s daughter, Nandini.  However before love gets a chance to bloom, Nandini and her family move to Switzerland while Prabha grows up to celebrate his own last day at college with a similarly dedicated group of friends.  Although rather than vowing to meet up every few years, Prabha’s friends seem to be permanently welded to his side since they all come along for Hanumanthu’s latest big college reunion.  They all also play in a band together and seem to share Prabha’s (lack of) fashion sense (the manband!), although perhaps there is a rule that states if you are performing in a band scarves are obligatory.  The first half involves a side trip to Switzerland where amazingly everyone seems to speak Telugu, although given Dharmavarapu Subramanyam’s pronouncements that may not be quite so surprising.

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Prabha is hopeful that a meeting with Nandini will be enough to restart their love story, but there is a minor complication in the form of Nisha (Shradha Das in a very brief cameo) who is in love with Prabha.  Her father (Mukesh Rishi) is a local don and he is determined to ensure that his daughter gets whatever she wants even if that means forcing Prabha at gunpoint to marry his daughter.  Despite his threatening persona, Mukesh Rishi mainly plays his character for laughs and it’s fun to see him in this type of role blending mayhem with merriment and revealing a surprisingly sensitive soul.

While the main feature of the film is the romance between Prabha and Nandini, the relationships between the various older men are actually more interesting and appear more genuine.  Sure they’re cheesy, over-simplified and even a little too dramatic at times, but these moments give the film some much needed warmth.

DarlingDarling Stalwarts including Aahuthi Prasad, Chandra Mohan, Dharmavarapu Subrahmanyam and M. S. Narayana all work together naturally, so that they really do all seem to be old friends catching up over a few glasses of whiskey and a cricket match.  The relationship between Prabha and his father is also nicely portrayed and both Prabhas and Prabhu bring a realistic camaraderie to their interactions.  In fact throughout Prabhas is effortlessly charming despite the succession of ridiculously baggy and shapeless t-shirts he wears.  Nothing seems to fit and he’s much too tall to look anything but scruffy in wide-necked and voluminous shirts – plus the dual layered hats, inexplicable scarves and worn-off-one-shoulder bespangled jacket.

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Prabhas seems to have been lumbered with a stylist that hates him, and in a complete reversal of normal, Kajal is the one who gets to wear much more reasonable outfits.  There are a few misses, after all this is Tollywood where apparently giving someone fairy wings means they are wearing a ‘holy dress’, but overall Kajal looks fantastic.  She also puts in a convincing performance although it would perhaps have made the story a little more interesting if there had been a difference in character between the dream Nadini of the first half, and the real Nandini in the second half.   Kajal throws herself into the dancing, and apart from one bizarre attempt at what I think was supposed to be Bharatanatyam (what were they thinking!!) the choreographer has stuck to her strengths and put her enthusiasm to good use.  There is plenty of hip shaking and arm waving but less actual dancing, so she looks more co-ordinated than usual.  The choreography is a little less successful for Prabhas, but then again I may just have been distracted by those hideous outfits.  This is a beautifully shot song that features the scenery of Switzerland morphing into Hyderabad and also some beautiful CGI scenes of snow, along with some of the better outfits worn by Prabhas.

Added in to the mix is an attempted suicide by Nisha which infuriated me (completely unnecessary), a side story involving Hanumanthu’s adopted father and brother and a rival for Nandini’s affections in the form of Appala Naidu’s son Rishi (Santosh).  There are a limited number of fight scenes but with Peter Hein choreographing, they all look good and generally fit into the flow of the film.  The music by G. V. Prakash is unremarkable but Andrew’s cinematography makes the most of the settings in Switzerland – if only the costumes had matched.

Overall Darling is a film that’s not too taxing to watch and is certainly less gory and more family friendly than the recent Rebel.  Director A. Karunakaran ensures good performances from all but a sharper story would have made for a better film.  Worth it for Prabhas, Kajal and the gang of older actors who looked to be having a great time. 3 stars.