Mahanati

Mahanati

Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati is a spellbinding biopic that celebrates the life of Savitri in sumptuous colour with haunting re-enactments of her most famous scenes. Keerthy Suresh invokes the magic of Savitri’s screen presence while Samantha ties it all together as a journalist researching the legendary actor’s life for a newspaper article. At just under three hours, the film still only scratches the surface of Savitri’s story, but with an impressive cast and convincing dialogue, Mahanati is a mesmerising look at one of the most successful film actors from the South.

The film opens with Savitri falling into a coma and being taken to a hospital whose bemused staff have no idea who they have just admitted. One year later, on the anniversary of her illness, journalist Madhura Vani (Samantha Akkineni) is given the task of writing about the film star for a short article in the newspaper. Vani is shy and frumpy, struggling to make her mark in the male-dominated profession of journalism and she is dismayed at what she thinks is a throw-away assignment. But once she starts speaking to the people who knew Savitri, Vani becomes intrigued by the star and her generous and compassionate personality. As she learns more, Vani draws inspiration from Savitri and becomes empowered to make changes in her own life and stand up for herself. This interweaving of Vani’s story into the life of Savitri is ingenious and allows Nag Ashwin to focus on the more positive aspects of Savitri’s legacy, although he doesn’t avoid the drama either.

The film shows Savitri’s early life after her father dies and her mother goes to live with relatives. Even as a child, Savitri was a force to be reckoned with. Her determination and will to succeed is demonstrated as she learns to dance despite the dance instructor telling her she lacks discipline and will not be able to master the skill. I loved these early scenes and the young actor playing the child Savitri who is a real find. She is full of life and totally charming with plenty of attitude – perfect for the role!

Savitri is shown taking part in theatrical shows under the supervision of her Uncle, K.V. Chowdary (Rajendra Prasad), and her abortive first trip to Chennai to become an actress is also depicted. This is beautifully done, with Savitri in full fan mode as she tries to get glimpses of her favourite actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao (Naga Chaitanya), and being almost totally oblivious to the man who takes her photo, Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan).

Nag Ashwin doesn’t dwell too much on Savitri’s rich film history but focuses instead on the real-life drama of her marriage to Gemini Ganesan and subsequent estrangement from her uncle. Her iconic roles are shown in a montage and Keerthy Suresh does a fantastic job in re-creating these accurately, including a poignant song from Devadasu and the wonderful scene in Mayabazar where Savitri is playing Ghatotkacha impersonating Sasirekha.

I’ve been waiting for a film that showcases Keerthy’s talents as an actor, and finally she gets her moment to shine. She really is amazing here and completely nails a wide range of emotions. From the early bubbly and happily carefree girl all the way through to the devastated wife who turns to alcohol, Keerthy makes us live every moment and completely believe in her portrayal of a legendary actor. A standout is the moment when she learns Gemini Ganesan is already married and her dreams of romance turn to ashes. This, and her subsequent difficult decision to marry the man she loves despite everything are simply perfect, with none of the actors overplaying the emotion, but still managing to make the audience feel every heartache and each moment of elation.

Dulquer Salmaan is also a perfect choice for the ultimate romantic actor of the time; Gemini Ganesan. He has plenty of charm and when he sets out to woo Savitri, she doesn’t stand a chance! Their romance sparkles on screen and Dulquer is just as convincing when he portrays Gemini Ganesan’s jealousy at his wife’s success and subsequent alcoholism. The story is told from Savitri’s viewpoint, so Dulquer has less screen time after Savitri finds out about his affairs, but throughout it’s an excellent performance that makes the drama and emotion behind their relationship very real.

The secondary story of Madhura Vani and her struggle to be accepted as a serious journalist is well integrated into the main plot. Nag Ashwin uses Vani to introduce key witnesses to events in Savitri’s life that allow the film to move back into flashback. But is also emphasises the importance of Savitri as a role model and inspiration, while Samantha’s success over the other, male reporters is an important step for Telugu cinema. Here is a film that has a female lead who isn’t defined by her romance with a male character and who is allowed to have a personality and story of her own. Although there is a romance (with Vijay Devarakonda in a very bad wig), it’s very much part of Vani’s own story and important mainly as a way for her to assert her independence from her father’s plans.

There is a plethora of other actors who appear in cameo roles as various screen legends of the time. Just a few are Mohan Babu as S.V. Ranga Rao, Prakash Raj as director/producer Aluri Chakrapani and Krish appearing as K.V. Reddy. It’s a real who’s who of Telugu/Tamil cinema of the time and I was inspired to read up on some of these directors and producers whose names I recognised when I left the cinema. Mickey J. Meyer’s music fits the film perfectly too and Dani Sanchez-Lopez does an excellent job with the cinematography. The effects team have managed to recreate Chennai in the fifties and the costume department deserve special mention for the wonderful outfits worn by Keerthy and Dulquer. The end credits juxtapose shots of Savitri with those of Keerthy in the same film role and the resemblance really is astonishing.

Overall there is fantastic attention to detail for both the scenes in the early eighties and Chennai in the fifties that ensure the film feels authentic, although I did sympathise with Samantha and her selection of ruffled shirts and long skirts. Everything about the film seems to have been well researched and the sets dressed to add plenty of authentic flavour. Including the film segments in black and white also adds to the whole period feel of the film and emphasises just how much impact Savitri had at the time. I also have to comment on the excellent subtitles by Rekhs that ensured the drama of each scene was well conveyed. After the last few Telugu films I’ve watched where literal translations have made a mockery of important scenes it is such a relief to have proper idiomatic English that makes sense and doesn’t detract from the dialogue. Until I can learn Telugu (a vain hope given my lack of success with Tamil) Rekhs subtitles are the next best thing to understanding the dialogue myself and I always cheer when I see ‘Subtitles by Rekhs’ appear on screen.

Mahanati is an excellent dramatisation of the life of one of South India’s best known and well-loved actors. I don’t know enough about the details of Savitri’s history to comment on its accuracy but from all I have read, Nag Ashwin has captured the essence of Savitri’s story while Keerthy Suresh has brought her memory to vivid life. It’s ultimately a sad story but also a lovely tribute to Savitri and a reminder of what a wonderful actor she was. Mahanati is a real treat for fans of both classic and contemporary Telugu cinema – don’t miss it!

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Govinda Govinda

Sri Devi is the main reason to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s film. She is wonderful as the plucky and caring Naveena, drawn into a mysterious plot involving religious nutters, dark rituals, and a dodgy taxi driver with anger management issues.

I watched this without subtitles and didn’t have too much difficulty following the plot, but wish I had been able to understand more of the conversations. Maybe things would have seemed more cohesive if I got the “as you know, Naveena” exposition. Or perhaps not.

The film opens with a religious back story to explain the significance of Venkateswara and the Tirumala Venkateswara temple at Tirupathi. And then the RGV factor kicks in and you can safely forget doctrine and logic as you know it. In the present day, an evil tantric commissions Paresh (Paresh Rawal) to steal Venkateswara’s crown from the temple. The relic combined with some human sacrifice will give the tantric ultimate power or something. Naveena (Sridevi) is a Telugu woman living in Bangkok. She returns to India to fetch her grandmother and take her back to Bangkok so they can live together. Seenu (Nagarjuna) is the taxi driver that picks her up from the station and takes her downtown. Seenu’s father, the temple security guard, is implicated in the theft, and little Babu (Master Anilraj), who Seenu calls Boss, is the only witness who can identify the real criminals. When Seenu and Babu go to Bangkok trying to clear the dad’s name, the kid wanders off and ends up on TV as a missing child. Naveena sees him and comes to the rescue, and is reunited with Seenu. Their lives are entwined on a level neither realises. Eventually all the ducks get in a fairly clumsy row, and it is time for Seenu and Naveena to try and thwart the tantric and save the world. It’s lucky for them that Vishnu had been sneakily keeping an eye on them all along.

The film is most alive when Sridevi is on screen. Naveena does a little of the scream-and-run heroine shtick but is largely sensible, thinks first, and tries to do things for herself even if it pushes her out of her comfort zone. Her outfits are a little…odd. I’ve never been a fan of the pedal pusher, and am on the fence when it comes to onesies. It’s hardly the worst character wardrobe Sridevi had to contend with. Perhaps Naveena was just veeeeery fashion forward, or maybe she was soft hearted and didn’t want Seenu to cop all the bad denim. There are some parallels with Kshana Kshanam although the story isn’t as strong. Naveena still has enough range as a character that Sridevi has something to work with. Whether she is being a clueless tourist or running for her life, she makes that moment feel real and with a sense of consequence.

Her cheeky expressions are an excellent distraction from the spectacle of Nag “dancing”, and the comedy is a good fit for her. Rewatching the movie to screencap for this review was so sad. Sridevi was well cast, had a decent and age appropriate costar, and a director who knew she was pure gold. Watching this did cheer me up a bit after reading so many Hindi-centric reviews of her career and best films. I firmly believe she did most of her best work in the South and if people have only seen her Hindi films, they’re missing out.

Nagarjuna is fine as Seenu. He’s probably the 90s hero I have seen the least of, so I don’t have a lot to compare this performance to. [Note: I hate the much vaunted Geethanjali with the fire of a thousand suns. Do not recommend it. Do. Not.] He is likeable as Seenu, lairising around with his highrise mullet, dressed in loud shirts and acid wash. He’s a good hearted guy even if he might be slightly dodgy when it comes to making a buck. Seenu is very close to his family, and seems proud of his father while not wanting to follow in his footsteps. The story is all over the pace and Seenu’s character is pretty flimsy and Nagarjuna does well to make him so engaging. His confusion and determination were equally believable, even when the situations were not. Some of his scenes with Sridevi are lovely as Seenu starts to realise his feelings, and he seemed to have a warm rapport with Master Anilraj who played Babu. His dancing style mostly consists of energetic walking with occasional bursts of pointing at things or people. But he kicks arse in the action sequences.

Paresh Rawal and Kota Srinivasa Rao are the main thieves, augmenting their gang with some dodgy foreigners. The extravagantly bewigged and made-up Dhir is the evil tantric, with a hint of depressed poodle in his styling. They’re all as horrible as you would expect, and overact like there will be no scenery to chew tomorrow. Kallu Chidambaram is an evil looking red herring. Annapurna plays Seenu’s mother and as you would expect, they’re quite sweet and natural with each other. Child actor Anilraj has no dialogue and that may be why I liked him so much.

As I have come to expect from RGV, the background score is loud and percussion driven. It works well to build a sense of urgency in some scenes but in others it is like someone rattling a tin full of buttons. And the Raj-Koti songs are forgettable, apart from the ungainly choreo and peak 90s Fashion and the obligatory item by Silk Smitha. I did like the way the film signals it belongs in a place and time. Characters listen to songs from movies of the day, there are signals that the audience would be immediately familiar with. So while there are exotic foreign locations, other than the sleazy girly bar we don’t do the rounds of tourist attractions. It’s quite grounded and a little bit grubby.

I’ve tried not to spoil the plot too much as there are some nifty set pieces, a few minor surprises along the way, and quite a ripping yarn if you just go with it. When RGV is good, he’s good. And when Sridevi is good she’s brilliant. 4 slightly teary eyed and sentimental stars!

Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India (2018)

Naa Peru Surya

After writing a couple of hits for Telugu cinema, Vakkantham Vamsi has moved into directing his own screenplay with the release of Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India. However, despite an excellent opening scene, the film quickly loses momentum and is let down by poor story development and lack-lustre dialogue, most notably between the hero and his estranged father. The bones of the story are there, but Vamsi tries to mix in too much masala in the form of a dodgy crime boss and a rather limp romance, that dilute down what could have been an excellent coming of age movie. It’s still entertaining though, mainly due to an outstanding performance from Allu Arjun, while there are some excellent action and dance sequences that almost make up for the jumbled storyline.

Bunny is Surya, an army officer with more than a few anger management issues. This leads him into trouble, although to be fair the two incidences where he loses his temper in the opening scene are reasonably justified. It’s more that the magnitude of his response is well above what would be considered ‘normal’ and that’s what ends up being his downfall. After an incident with a terrorist leads to his dismissal from the army, his only shot at redemption is to get a letter signed by eminent psychologist Dr Rama Krishna Raju (Arjun Sarja) certifying that Surya has conquered his anger issues. The problem is that Dr Rama is actually Surya’s father, although the two haven’t spoken since Surya walked out when he was 16 years of age. Surya has been raised and supported by his ‘uncle’ Rao Ramesh, who has sponsored his recruitment into the army and manages to persuade his commander, Colonel Sanjay Shrivastav (Boman Irani) to give Surya one last chance.

There is great potential here, but the basic story of Surya’s road to redemption is almost lost behind the subplot of conflict with gangster Challa (R Sarathkumar) his son (Thakur Anoop Singh) and henchmen, Pradeep Rawat and Harish Uthaman. While these scenes are well filmed with great action sequences, Surya’s anger management plans languish in poorly constructed scenes with his father. Where there should have been crackling tension between Surya and Dr Rama there is instead uncomfortable chat that doesn’t come close to developing any kind of relationship between the two men. Granted the premise is that Dr Rama has completely shut Surya out of his life, and Surya will do absolutely anything to get back into his beloved army, but their interactions are so cold and clumsy that they become meaningless. What I wanted was tension and some level of self-realisation from Dr Rama and Surya, but instead there is just Surya’s anger, represented by discordant background music, and a manufactured conflict between Surya and Challa’s son that he needs to ignore if Surya is to go 21 days without fighting.

Oh yes – that’s the other odd plot point. If Surya can demonstrate no angry outbursts in 21 days he will apparently have conquered his problem. This sounds like a google-based plan of anger management and not the evidence-based behavioural therapy expected from a University based psychology professor, but by this point it’s not one of the most far-fetched ideas in the film.

Also problematical is Surya’s romance with Varsha (Anu Emmanuel). Anyone faced with the kind of anger towards them displayed by Surya would start running and not look back, so Varsha’s continued interest in Surya is hard to fathom, especially when she has zero chemistry with Bunny (and how is this even possible?). The romance makes little sense and doesn’t fit into Surya’s self-inflicted isolation shown in earlier scenes when he single-mindedly pursues his goal to be stationed at the border. Anu Emmanuel has little to do other than look glamorous and ‘stand by her man’ at the appropriate point in proceedings. All of which she does competently but it’s another disappointingly pointless heroine role that adds little to the main story. Another wasted character is Surya’s mother, who doesn’t fit at all well into the narrative and fluctuates between apparently not recognising her son and extreme anger at his absence for all these years.

Despite the shortcomings with the screenplay, what does work here is the character of Surya and his struggles to conform. Surya does manage to control his anger but it’s at the expense of his own self-worth and Bunny gets that inner conflict across perfectly. He shows the enthusiasm and fire that drives Surya to be the best soldier he can be, along with Surya’s passion for his country and makes it seem completely natural. Even better are the later scenes where Surya has to come to terms with the compromises he has made to try and meet his 21 days target. What the dialogue doesn’t manage to get across is plain to see on Surya’s face and in his body language. It really is one of the best performances I’ve seen from Allu Arjun and he completely gets under the skin of his character, dour and driven, with only the songs showing his normal cheeky grin. The support cast are all competent and do as much as they can with their limited roles. Thakur Anoop Singh makes the most impact and is impressive in the action scenes, while Vennela Kishore does manage to sneak in some comedy. It’s great to see Arjun Sarja back onscreen but disappointing that he has so little to do here.

The action sequences are excellent and choreographed to make Surya’s one-man army seem plausible, particularly when intercut with scenes of his army training. Naturally no-one can stop Surya when he’s angry, but the action is well put together and Bunny makes it all look effortless. The songs are generally good too, although the first two have little dancing – which surely is a crime in an Allu Arjun film. However just as I thought that, Lover also, Fighter also started with some great moves and awesome tricks with a cap. Bunny interchanges between ultra-classy and gangsta-wannabe in this song, but when it’s right, no-one does stylish like Allu Arjun!

Vakkantham Vamsi tries to include ideas about the evolution of home-grown terrorists but this is overly simplified and has little impact. I was expecting plenty of patriotism and Naa Peru Surya has a surfeit of flag waving and speeches about a United India that feel contrived, but inevitable in any film that mentions the army. If Vamsi had stuck to a straight-forward story about one man’s redemption this would have been an excellent film. However as it stands, with the additions of a gangster storyline, romance and failed family relationships, Naa Peru Surya has too many threads vying for attention and doesn’t do justice to any of them. Worth watching for Bunny, Arjun Sarja, who does a good job with his limited dialogue, and the dance sequences – just don’t expect too much from the story.