Sammohanam (2018)

 

Sammohanam is kind of like Notting Hill (acknowledged by writer/director Mohan Krishna Indraganti), only with a few Telugu film staples and bonus rowdies. I liked it enormously, almost against my better judgement especially when it goes a bit awry in the second half.

Warning! partial spoilers ahead.

 

Film buff Sarvesh (Naresh) and wife Anasuya (Pavithra Lokesh) keep a beautiful and welcoming home, and she keeps the entire neighbourhood in snacks and sweets. Daughter Divya (Harini) is studying, and son Vijay (Sudheer Babu) is determined to be a picture book author. When Sarva is approached to let a film crew use his house, he agrees immediately on just one condition. They have to give him a role. Vijay is disgusted at the idea. He is an intellectual snob who believes while books can transform a mind movies are cheap and do damage. Divya is all for it because the It Girl of the day, Sameera Rathod (Aditi Rao Hydari), is the heroine. Sarva will brook no arguments, and the shoot commences. Sameera overhears Vijay and family mocking her bad Telugu and asks him to coach her. He reluctantly accepts and they develop a friendship that could be something more. After an uncomfortable start, everyone settles down and family and crew fall into a new routine. But they can’t all stay in this happy little bubble forever. What will happen when Sameera leaves? Will Vijay stop pouting? And will Sarva get his big acting break?

The answer in short is that people have their hearts broken, and some are mended. Sarva gets all ready for the movie premier only to find he was left on the editing room floor. He is devastated but his love for film cannot be killed. When Vijay was depressed over Sameera, his mum told him that rejection wasn’t the end of the world and that just because someone doesn’t return your feelings, that doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of love or that nobody else will love you. Don’t take it out on them, try and be there for them as it’s a hard time for both of you. It was done with warmth and a little bit of humour that made her advice relatable.

Aditi Rao Hydari delivered a good performance, although sometimes she was left with nothing to do but make doe eyes. Sameera’s character was well developed with respect to her work as an actress. She made it clear that while some producers (and co-stars) expected her to be little more than a prostitute, she was proud of her skills and training and wouldn’t sell herself out. There were many small moments and reactions where you could see Sameera subtly navigating the constant intrusion by Kishore the star kid. I liked when the family and loser mates started treating her more like a person, not a star, even when she was wearing one of her micro-skirts. She blossomed in their house, with people around who seemed genuinely to care for her, not for her status. But when her Dark Secret threw a spanner in the works, Mohan Krishan Indraganti reverted to film cliches. Sameera was being abused and gaslighted by an old friend and refused to tell anyone except her friend and assistant Ramya (Hari Teja). This led to lots of scenes with Aditi just staring at Vijay as he worked himself into a welter of negative emotions. She is made responsible for her own misery because apparently all she had to do was tell Vijay – easier said than done. Also why does a man have to physically threaten another man before a woman can consider herself safe? It felt a bit cobbled together to please the intended audience, and to allow the hero to take over.

Sudheer Babu is competent but bland. In part that is due to the writing as Vijay is introverted, but subtle emoting doesn’t seem to be in Sudheer’s wheelhouse. I felt that the scenes that worked best between Sameera and Vijay were because of Aditi’s energy which he could reciprocate or bounce off and they flowed nicely. But when the characters were at odds she seemed effortlessly in the moment and he was Acting. Of course he is the hero so getting the girl of his choice is a foregone conclusion, but there was a little emotional growth on the way that was a good sign. Vijay’s scenes with his dad are also nicely done and that brings me to the real star of the film.

Naresh. His performance as Sarva is beautiful. He is everything that comedy uncles try, and fail, to be. Whether he was crying at an old film, flirting with his wife (how shocking!) or throwing a tantrum over being denied his chance at stardom, I loved every moment. Even in the incredibly daft scene where he helps Vijay and the boys deal with Sameera’s problematic associate, he was hilarious. Naresh plays Sarva as a heart on sleeve kind of guy, and some of his scenes were unexpectedly touching. His rapport with Anasuya (Pavithra Lokesh) is really nice, and I enjoyed her performance too. They have a couple of scenes talking about the kids where you can believe they respect each other and rely on each other’s judgement. Unless it’s about films.

Harini is lively and natural, and I enjoyed her expressions as she swanned through the chaos of the shoot. She’s a capable and competent girl who seems able to sort the wheat from the chaff. When Vijay starts barking orders at Divya, Divya shouts back for him to stop moral policing her, she’s not an idiot. Their parents respect both kids’ positions and negotiate with each of them accordingly. There is no sense that Divya’s opinion is less valid than Vijay’s.

Of course Vijay has to have some friends with no purpose in life but to follow him around and be shorter and less atttractive. Murthy (Rahul Ramakrishna) is sleazy and dumb, and Seenu (Abhay Bethiganti) seems a little nicer and a bit more dim. Hari Teja has little to do as Ramya until one loooong piece of exposition. The always reliable Tanikella Bharani plays a small but significant role, and there are some cameos to spot.

The look and feel of the film is very appealing. But the story wasn’t as strong in the second half when it switched from character driven to plot driven action. The subtitles by rekhs and crew were a delight. They were idiomatic and clear, and the jokes translated well. When Sarva watches a character actor shouting his lines, he observes “He speaks Tegulu not Telugu”. I snorted as I suspect I may be picking up Tegulu from movies too. And there is a series of digs at heroes who get their break because of family connections. The soundtrack is almost completely forgettable, but emo balladeering is my least favourite genre so I probably just blotted it out.

The second half doesn’t live up to the very engaging start. But it’s still a refreshing and well considered film in many aspects, with a couple of great performances. Come for the romance, stay for the parents!

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Nannaku Prematho

Nannaku Prematho treads the line between mass action shtick and a more restrained thriller. Sukumar is attentive to foreshadowing and resolving the things he sets up so it is all very satisfying. Note: I think I’ve avoided giving away most of the surprises, but this is not completely spoiler free.

Abhiram (Tarak) is the youngest son of Subramanyam (Rajendra Prasad), a successful enough NRI businessman. But all families have secrets and when Subramanyam is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he tells his three sons about his past. He was once even the even wealthier Ramesh Chandra Prasad, but was cheated by an associate who has gone on to become filthy rich and influential on a global scale. He wants those wrongs righted, and the lost wealth back, before he dies. The two older sons humour him but have no intention of paying anything more than lip service. Abhi is more action oriented and he decides to ruin Krishnamurthy (Jagapathi Babu) so his father can die in peace. He decides to throw everything he has at this, including emptying out the family bank accounts. And his method? Making Krishnamurthy’s daughter Divya (Rakul Preet Singh) fall for him so he can worm his way in to Krishnamurthy’s good books and then steal all the things. His brothers are not supportive after losing the family fortune twice, Divya is unimpressed when she rumbles him, but Abhi is undaunted.

Despite the premise that Abhi will use Divya the relationship that develops between them, as much as any relationships in this film are developed, is quite respectful and they seem to like each other. Sukumar falls back on the hero saving heroine from a completely unnecessary and gratuitous rape scenario but this is a big budget Telugu film and it’s not like they have the inclination to actually think about having the hero talk to a woman with a brain. When Abhi tries to get over losing Divya he doesn’t want her insulted or cheapened in any way, so he focusses his anger on her father. I like that he didn’t think less of her because of either how their relationship started or who she was related to. But I am not sure he really knew her all that well either. He knew what he wanted to know of her. A lot of the tension is really about misunderstanding. And when people do understand the situation or the motivation, they deal with it and it makes sense. Mostly. The character with minimal respect for Divya is her father.

Tarak is low key and solid in his 25th film, and manages to make the shift into heroic daring and action a seamless extension of Abhi’s character. It was well judged, and helped by some thoughtful plotting. Sure there was still some near certain death, and suspension of logic and laws of physics, but overall his challenges required brain as well as brawn. Abhi tries not to let extreme emotions sway his behaviour, but he isn’t dull. He has a sense of humour to go with his overweening confidence, treats his sidekicks like valued helpers most of the time, and Tarak has a nice rapport with his co-stars. I was really interested in how Abhi was going to solve the various challenges thrown in his way and very invested in seeing him win over the slimy Krishnamurthy. The action scenes seem like a breeze for Tarak, and he gets to strut his stuff in a few songs too.

Rakul Preet Singh has some fairly thin material as Divyanka, but manages to pull a decent performance out of it. She doesn’t simper, she looks Abhi straight in the eye and demands answers. It is nice to have an unapologetic and self-assured woman as the heroine. Divya was also given a little bit of space to be angry, be sad, be scared, get drunk, hang out with friends, and be a person in her own right. It’s not a ground breaking role, but I liked the performance and the hints of being more than just an accessory for the hero. Rakul Preet just turns up in the songs, does great face, and leaves most of the work to Tarak which suited me fine. She dressed appropriately for the part, wore stylish and sensible flat shoes which made me ridiculously happy, and only suffered a few dodgy outfits. I also liked that her conflict over her father heading for a collision with Abhi was somewhat resolved, albeit in a thrifty way.

Set in the UK and Spain the film’s style is urban and the characters well to do. It all looks crisp, well composed, and orderly. Tarak’s image as Abhi was a mildly dandified hipster about town, affluent and understated. But I laughed at the matching outfits all three sons wore in one critical scene. Otherwise the wardrobe team did well. I’ve been thinking about eyebrows a lot since I rewatched this.

Also interesting – I’ve never seen a plot hinge on a car full of guinea pigs before. The poor little buggers were thrown around a bit, which I find distressing. But the stupid science thing that had me rolling my eyes turned out to be a ruse so I’m glad that was not supposed to be a thing. The songs by Devi Sri Prasad are OK and are integrated well into the action.

The supporting cast is strong, even if they don’t always seem essential. Jagapathi Babu is in his element as the urbane, narcissistic, Krishnamurthy. How cool that he gave Abhi a swipe card to get into his office anytime without breaking in, he was so confident he would win. The way the story was fleshed out around the characters made sense in this world, and there were few false notes. Hooray for quietly competent Kate (Liza van der Smissen) in amongst the sidekicks. I was honestly puzzled by why Srinivas Avasarala was even in the film because I can’t recall his character doing anything necessary. Rajeev Kanakala does high emotion well, but his character was hampered by the lack of connection between some scenes. Rajendra Prasad isn’t in the film for long but his presence permeates everything.

I have a small gripe. The opening titles are over a badly animated approximation of a Rube Goldberg machine….Why not just build one instead of faking it? But the film is fairly well constructed, has decent internal logic, throws in a few elaborate surprises, and like a Goldberg machine everything lands where it should.

See this if you like a good mass film but often wish they made more sense, and for people mostly acting like grown-ups. 4 stars! (deductions for gratuitous rapeyness and imperilled guinea pigs).

Kaala (2018)

Kaala

As with his previous film Madras, Pa. Ranjith is out to deliver a message and the fact that he has Superstar Rajinikanth on board is almost irrelevant. The film is all about the politics of land clearance in the slums of Mumbai and the population of Dharavi who rise in revolt against unscrupulous developers. Where Pa Ranjith does make use of Rajinikanth’s star power is to emphasise Kaala’s role as ‘King of Dharavi’ (presumably only the Tamil-speaking part) and he adds just enough slow-motion walking and villain tossing to keep fans happy. But for the most part this is a story about people power and that makes it rather more interesting than the usual Superstar-centric flick. Best of all Rajinikanth plays an age-appropriate character who has a touching romance with his age-appropriate wife, Selvi (Eswari Rao) while reminding us just how good Rajinikanth is as an actor.

Karikaalan (Rajinikanth) aka Kaala is the ageing leader of the slums who is pushed to defend his area from developers out to make Mumbai ‘Pure’ and beautiful. Once a gangster, he’s now a family man, and his introduction shows him playing cricket with his grandchildren and enjoying life at home. There are many domestic touches; Kaala’s relationship with his wife, the pet dog that follows him everywhere, and the rather more problematic relationship be has with his youngest son, but when it counts, Kaala still has the power to stop the bulldozers in their tracks when they show up to develop the dhobi ghat. He’s ably assisted by his eldest son Selvam (Dileepan) who dives straight into action and never lets dialogue get in the way of a good scrap, and his many loyal followers who believe that Kaala is still the ultimate authority in the area. On the other hand, his son Lenin (Manikandan) is an activist who prefers demonstration and petitions to direct action along with his girlfriend Charumathi (Anjali Patil). Manikandan is excellent and his portrayal of the frustrations with trying to fight a legal but slow and difficult battle against the background of his father and brother’s illegal but successful campaigns is brilliantly done. Anjali Patil stands out too as a force to be reckoned with, and her scrappy Charumathi is passionate and vibrant in her defence of the local community.

Opposing Kaala at every turn is corrupt politician Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar) who is behind the developers plans to clear the land. He’s also a man with incredibly squeaky sandals. I’m not sure if India has the same superstition, but in Ireland squeaky shoes are a sign that they haven’t been paid for, with the implication that the wearer is someone who cannot be trusted. It fits Hari perfectly so I really hope this was intentional and not just a wardrobe glitch!

Dharavi sits on prime real estate and the developers want to rehouse only a small portion of the current residents, while saving the bulk of their redevelopment for the rich who will pay above the odds to live in such a convenient location. Hari and Kaala have a history, which makes their clashes personal, and Pa Ranjith ties their rivalry into the story of Rama and Raavana, but with a twist. Hari may always wear white and live in a house painted white with all white furnishings, but his Rama is a villain with no respect for the common man. Kaala wears black, lives in a house shrouded in shadows with a black settee, but this Raavana is the hero, fighting selflessly for the poor and oppressed who cannot stand up for themselves.

Rajinikanth steps easily into the role of the people’s defender, but what makes his Kaala so impressive is the relatability of the character. Despite his god-like status in the area he is a family man at heart and is simply trying to do his best for everyone. He is still in love with his wife and the scenes with Eswari Rao are brilliantly written to show the depth of their relationship while still allowing the couple to bicker continuously – typical of any long-term couple. The arrival of Kaala’s previous lover Zareena (Huma Qureshi) as a housing development specialist adds spice to the mix and the conflict of emotions from all involved is well worked into the narrative. However, Huma Qureshi’s character isn’t as well developed as that of Selvi and towards the end she’s side-lined just when I was expecting her to take a more prominent role. Zareena is a single mother and there is also an unfinished thread about her daughter which starts and then peters out into nothing, as if Pa Ranjith was so involved with everything else that he forgot to come back and tie off this part of the story.

Kaala also has support from his drunkard brother-in-law Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani) who has some excellent lines in the second half when Hari successfully enlists police chief Pankaj Patil (Pankaj Tripathi) to burn down part of the slums. Ramesh Thilak also pops up as a reporter who has a more important role to play than first appears, while Sayaji Shinde, Ravi Kale and Sampath Raj are all good in minor roles. One of the best scenes though belongs to Lenin when he visits Charumathi in her building. He’s been campaigning for this type of development to replace the chawls but is dismayed by the endless stairs to climb when the lift is out of order and the over-crowding and lack of personal space in each small flat. It’s an excellent way to show the issues associated with rehousing schemes and the problems caused by squeezing people together into such tiny spaces, although it takes more drastic events before Lenin returns to his father’s side of the argument.

There are some excellent fight scenes although these don’t all feature Rajinikanth. However, the best (and my favourite) involves Kaala with an umbrella in a flyover in the rain. The final showdown in Dharavi is also well shot with excellent use of colour and plenty of symbolism for those who like to spot such stuff. I enjoyed the songs too, although there are a group of rap artists who keep popping up and look rather out of place. Rajinikanth keeps his moves basic and simple in keeping with his character, but he does look well and the choreography generally fits into the ambiance of the movie.

Nana Patekar makes a fantastic villain and is a suitable mix of wily politician and nasty thug throughout. His first scene with Zareena is very well written to portray the misogynistic behaviour so typical of politicians, but this time Pa Ranjith makes a point of letting the audience see exactly how petty and small-minded Hari appears as a result. Unfortunately, Nana’s dubbing isn’t always well done and the timing is out in a few scenes which is distracting. Along the same lines, the subtitles seem to be rather strict translations, which doesn’t always make sense in English and a few scenes suffer as a result.

Kaala is the film I wanted to see from the pairing of Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth, and I enjoyed this much more than Kabali. There are strong female characters, a good support cast with well realised roles and an excellent performance from the superstar. There are a few glitches but for the most part the story is engaging with a simple message that translates well onto the big screen. Ranjith may prefer to use a wide brush for his political statements, but it’s the small details that work best here along with good use of the support characters. Highly recommended.