Mahira (2019)

Mahesh Gowda’s debut film is an interesting take on the crime/thriller genre with a story about an undercover agent on the run. The twist here is that the agent is female and she’s on the run with her daughter who knows nothing of her mother’s previous life. Although the pacing is uneven and the story does occasionally falter, overall this is an entertaining watch and if not quite ‘edge of your seat’ it does keep your attention right to the end.

One of the downsides to the film is that the initial introduction to the characters fails to create enough interest. Adya (Chaithra Achar) is a perpetually angry schoolgirl, but there is no explanation as to why she picks a fight with one of her classmates, or why she has such an obstreperous attitude. One scene in particular where she insults a customer at her mother’s restaurant shows Adya as simply rude and obnoxious, which I don’t think was the writer’s intention. Certainly later, she seems to be characterised as more independent and capable, but at least at the start of the film she’s just a spoilt and irritating brat. Maya (Virginia Rodrigues) is better drawn and in just a few scenes we get that she runs a beach-side café, is generally happy and that her daughter is the centre of her world.

It’s quite a shock then when a group of armed men turn up to take her prisoner, just when the Indian Intelligence Department also has their sights set on capturing Maya. Her sudden metamorphosis into a kick-arse agent is reasonably believable and well portrayed on camera, although the reason for her unmasking is a little too trite.

Once Maya is off and running, the film gets much better, particularly as Adya is less feisty and more believably in awe of her mother’s kick-boxing talents. There is a good mix of drama and action as the reasons for Maya hiding away from her former colleagues are gradually revealed. Throughout it all, Virginia Rodrigues does well in the action sequences. After all, if we can believe that a hero can beat up endless gangs of hoodlums, then it’s not much of a stretch to think that a well-trained woman could fight her way out of the various situations Maya finds herself needing to escape. Chaithra Achar is also given greater depth here and truly becomes the emotional support that Maya needs to keep going.

I last saw Raj B. Shetty in Ondu Motteya Kathe where he was excellent as a man desperately in search of a wife. Here, he plays Intelligence Agent Pratap, the man charged with finding and bringing in Maya. Shetty uses his appearance for a few laughs since he doesn’t quite look the part of an agent, but there is little comedy in his dialogue and for the most part he plays Pratap fairly straight. Somehow though he never really fits well into the character despite some good interactions with his boss (Balaji Manohar) and fellow agent Apoorva Soma Saakre. Gopalkrishna Deshpande is excellent as Kashi, a previous colleague Maya turns to for help. He gets the geeky data specialist role spot on and provides just enough information to start the revelations about who Maya really is.

The background score is occasionally too intrusive, but the songs from Nilima Rao and Rakesh U.P. are lovely and fit well into the storyline. The first is beautifully set against the background of Maya and Adya at home by the beach and is a lovely introduction to their relationship, although it takes some time before Adya’s character mellows into the happy daughter seen in the song. What I enjoyed most about the film though was Chethan Dsouza’s excellent action sequences. The fights are well done and kept simple with basic moves that suit the characters. The only miss is a boat chase that doesn’t actually go anywhere and could easily have been skipped.

I love that Virginia Rodrigues isn’t a young, superfit model, but instead looks like she really could be an ex-agent with a teenage daughter. She is excellent in the role, mainly because she can be chillingly ruthless when she has to be, but that is nicely balanced by her maternal side as she takes care of her daughter. I presume that Adya’s belligerence in the opening scenes is meant to be a tribute to her mother’s ‘take no shit’ attitude, but while it doesn’t work for Chaithra Achar’s character, Virgina Rodrigues is able to pull it off easily with just a fleeting glance at whoever has raised her ire. She is just as good in the more emotional scenes too, and it’s her performance that pulls the audience into the otherwise fairly routine story.

Although the story follows a fairly standard path, there are just enough twists to keep things interesting and the eclectic mix of characters also produces a few surprises. There are a few plot holes – mainly around the 4 year timeframe when Maya disappeared which doesn’t seem long enough for Adya to have grown up quite so much – but this could possibly have been a translation error? (I suspect not though, since the subtitles were mostly very clear and easy to read, but sadly the credits didn’t mention who was responsible for subtitling). Overall Mahira is worth watching for excellent performances from the entire cast and Mahesh Gowda’s rather more unusual take on the thriller genre.

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The Gentleman (1994)

Bhatt’s remake of the Tamil film Gentleman had the opportunity to be excellent. Unfortunately despite having all the necessary ingredients – a solid central idea, an AR Rahman soundtrack ready for Anu Malik to put his name to, and of course Chiru! – it never quite hits the mark.

A note on the print quality. And by “note” I mean rant. It doesn’t seem to matter which VCD or DVD I tried, the quality is so awful so you may as well watch a dodgy YouTube copy. I never found subtitles for this so that wasn’t a factor. Nobody who owns the movie seems to care if it’s watchable. I ended up taking screencaps from Youtube because my disc had a strange pixellation along the edges of the picture.

Chiranjeevi is Vijay, a small business owner and gentleman thief. He steals from the rich to build a school for the poor, all explained in a tragic backstory flashback. Chiru is excellent and quite restrained, unless he is in a comedy disguise when all bets are off. How much do I love the bit where he rips off a grey moustache only to reveal his own moustache underneath? Gold.

I really liked his characterisation and his dramatic range got a workout as Vijay experiences both the highs and the lowest of lows. The action scenes are on a grand scale and Chiru gets to throw himself around. He even has to do a bit of home surgery on himself. The dubbing artist for Chiru (I think it was Shakti Singh) is pretty good but I always seem to struggle with hearing another voice come out of a familiar face. Since there were no subtitles, and I understand more Hindi than Telugu (still not much) it should have been easier but it just sounds Wrong. Chiranjeevi did his own dubbing for fights and crying scenes so it was both familiar and a bit jarring to hear. And there was a very good opportunity for a rousing “Bastards!” that never happened, and you know how much I look forward to that. Especially when Paresh Rawal is playing one of the bastards in question. The cat and mouse with the police never quite hits high suspense. Vijay’s elaborate schemes and disguises always fail but for some reason the police always fail to capitalise on his mistakes. Even when they know about the Significant Ring.

The styling for the songs is largely standard filmi 90s hideousness but I did like seeing Chiru work his way through all the dressy-uppy options. From European prince to ye olden warrior to biker aerobics gear to a cross between a pharaonic headdress and a doo-rag, he made it his own.

Of course all the ladies love Vijay and while none of the female characters contribute much, the threat of romance does make it easier to fit the songs into the movie. And allows for an extra number featuring Roja. Most of the songs were lifted from the original soundtrack so while they look terribly dated they still sound quite good. The one song Anu Malik actually contributed (by nicking it from Haddaway), “What is Love?” is terrible and yet it is hard to stop watching no matter what your ears are telling you.

The female characters get the rough end of the pineapple. From honka-honka comedy horns when Roshni (Juhi Chawla) and Babli (Heera Rajagopal) hugged (because boobs), to writing that aspires to be tissue thin, and a costume department out for some kind of vengeance on Heera, it is a mess. Juhi spends approximately 83% of the film grimacing in the background as Roshni makes eyes at Vijay and hates anyone who appears to get in her way. There is no chemistry between her and Chiranjeevi, so the few scenes of Roshni’s jealous rage seemed silly rather than anything else.

I am pretty sure Juhi only signed on to be in Roop Suhana Lagta Hain because that is her moment to shine.

Heera Rajagopal plays a character who is dangerously stupid, a bit of a kleptomaniac, and extremely shrill. Only Babli could find herself in an attempted rape scenario by being lured into a ball pit. Yes. I know. And she was wearing heels when she went in. It is really hard not to victim blame when a character has absolutely no ability to learn from experience and apply those learnings to future situations. She still didn’t deserve the whole “be a decent girl like Roshni who is always covered up and in the kitchen” speech. But she moved on straight into a song fantasy so I assume no lasting harm was done to her self-esteem.

Paresh Rawal and Deepak Tijori play the two police most likely to catch the elusive Vijay. There are no surprises in either performance, but they largely avoided going over the top on the comedy. I like Paresh Rawal more as a villain than as an angry but honest cop, I have to say. It felt like a waste of his abilities but I appreciated the intensity he brought to the confrontation.

The tone wanders from slapstick to deep tragedy and grief, and while the actors seem to have a handle on what they are doing I can’t say the same for the direction. Rather than give Vijay’s backstory as things unfolded, the film ground to a halt while we found out what had happened to his mother and brother and why he became a thief. Then back to a long and talky court scene as Vijay attempted to show that society and greedy rich people were to blame for his crimes before a jump to 6 years later.

Of course this is one for the Chiranjeevi fans, but it is not a bad film. Just an uneven one. 3 ½ stars! (Points off for badly written female characters, points on for the songs, points off again for trying to pass the songs off as Anu Malik’s)

Dear Comrade

The opening scenes of Dear Comrade hark back to Vijay Deverakonda’s previous film, Arjun Reddy, but as events unfold it turns out that this is a completely different kind of film. Dear Comrade is a romantic drama that starts off with a love story, but ends up tackling sexual harassment, aiming to shed some light on why women may decide against reporting the crime. While this may make the film sound like heavy going, it’s actually quite the opposite as writer/director Bharath Kamma adds plenty of light-hearted moments along with the sad, while Justin Prabhakaran provides an excellent soundtrack that even means we get to see Vijay Deverakonda dance. There is a lot going on in this film and it’s inevitable that it doesn’t all work, but there is still plenty here to both entertain and hopefully to spark some discussion, even if the message is sometimes obscured behind rather more standard Telugu action fare.

The film starts with a drunk and seemingly demented Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda) desperately trying to get in touch with his ex, Lilly (Rashmika Mandanna). It’s a role Vijay has played many times in the past, but before he becomes too much of a caricature, the film moves into flashback to explain Bobby’s history. Moving back to his student days, Bobby is seen as an impulsive and reactive student union leader who firmly believes that you have to fight to get what you want in life. He’s impetuous and hot-headed with a tendency to argue with his fists just as much as with rhetoric, a stance that makes him unpopular with his college principal and the police but a good friend to have on your side. These revolutionary tendencies are apparently due to his grandfather (Charuhasan) who teaches Bobby what it means to be a comrade. Sure, Bobby fights for what he believes is right, but also mainly because it seems to be something he enjoys doing.

Bobby meets Lilly when her family visit the house next door for her cousin Jaya’s (Shruti Ramachandran) wedding. A nice touch comes from Bobby previously having a crush on Jaya when the two were children, which gives a camaraderie between the two that continues through and has an impact in the second half. This time though it’s Lilly that Bobby starts to develop feelings for, and I love how the tables are turned and it’s Bobby who stares wistfully out of a window while Lilly is (almost) completely oblivious to his presence. The romance is slow to develop, but once it does, there is magic in every moment the two spend together, helped by Justin Prabhakaran’s evocative music. It’s not all smooth sailing though as Lilly has reasons for being wary of someone who gets into as many fights as Bobby, while Bobby can’t figure out if Lilly really likes him or just has her own agenda.

There are some very satisfying moments in this first half, such as the way Bobby finds out that Lilly is a State level cricket player and how his group of friends change their attitude from patronising to respectful once they discover she really can play. It’s nicely done to point out the prejudice without ever feeling spiteful or overly feminist. Lilly’s attitude to Bobby is refreshingly honest and the two have wonderful chemistry together that ensures their romance feels plausibly real. When the breakdown occurs between the two characters it develops organically as Lilly finds she cannot cope with someone so angry and violent, while Bobby can’t understand why she won’t stand up and believe in him as much as he believes in her. Vijay Deverakonda and Rashmika Mandanna were excellent in Geetha Govindam, and they work just as well together here, although in the second half the attention moves more to Rashmika as her character has to face some major challenges in her career.

Everything changes after the interval when Bobby heads off to find himself and hopefully lose his memories of Lilly while doing so. As in all Indian films, a journey of discovery means a motorbike and a trip to Ladakh, but that does mean awesome scenery so I’m not going to complain. But while Bobby has been off recording nature and trying to control his impulsive side, Lilly has had major problems in her life. Unfortunately, the film only shows these briefly once Bobby comes back into her life and Bobby’s actions as he literally kidnaps Lilly from the hospital where she has been recovering don’t seem plausible at all. But just when it seems that Bobby may be the cure Lilly needed to recover, the film takes another turn and we learn the reason behind Lilly’s departure from her promising cricket career.

What does work well here is the portrayal of Lilly’s reluctance to pursue any action against the cricket selector Ramesh Rao (Raj Arjun) who sexually, physically and mentally harassed her. The pressures of family, embarrassment and shame are all clearly portrayed as is the inevitable media reaction and appalling treatment received by Lilly and her family as they try to avoid the storm Bobby creates when he learns the truth. Bharath Kamma completely changes the direction of the film and suddenly the focus is on Lilly and her reluctance to bring any of the harassment out into the open. Bobby’s lack of understanding about why Lilly won’t fight and his frustration and anger is perfectly shown here and this is what makes Dear Comrade such an interesting film. There are few Telugu films that show the consequences of reporting harassment so clearly, and even if Lilly’s experience isn’t quite as bad as what can actually happen in real life, it does at least give some idea of the sort of courage that is needed to go ahead with any accusation of this nature.

For me this is Rashmika Mandanna’s film through and through and she is excellent in a role that requires her to be non-confrontational and frightened. Her reactions are mostly what would be expected of anyone from a similar background put into the same situation, and although I really wanted her to fight back, I could totally understand why she wouldn’t even try. She really gets into the heart and soul of the character and I love how she doesn’t see bobby as her salvation, but instead as the person who just makes her miserable with his demands. In a film industry where the hero isn’t allowed to ever be anything other than the perfect partner, it’s so refreshing to see Vijay Deverakonda take backstage and be exactly what Lilly doesn’t need instead.

On one hand this is a film that deals with relationships and the consequences when one partner thrives on violent confrontations while the other tries as hard as possible to avoid conflicts of any kind. On the other hand, Dear Comrade deals with sexual harassment and the routine abuse that women have to deal with day in and day out. It is a rather male slanted view, but perhaps that’s what is needed to reach the people who need to understand the fear and powerlessness that comes with this type of abuse. At least with the presence of Vijay Deverakonda, well-staged fight scenes and a sizzling romance, there is a good chance that more people will be watching. This was so much better than I expected and despite a few mis-steps and missed opportunities, this is one of my favourite Telugu films this year. Highly recommended.