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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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.

Aruvi

Aruvi poster

Arun Prabhu Purushothaman’s debut film is a difficult film to categorise. It’s a drama, a satire, even at times a comedy, but mainly it’s a delicious slap at reality TV, patriarchal society and that god of us all, money. Although by the end the film becomes overly mawkish and drags out the remaining scenes, Aditi Balan puts in a tremendous performance as Aruvi that powers through the final sentimentalism. Her top-notch performance, along with an absolutely incredible Anjali Varathan ensure that Aruvi is a memorable watch and another excellent addition to the new wave of Tamil cinema.

The film starts with a police interview. Aruvi (Aditi Balan) is a suspected terrorist and as Special Investigator Shakeel (Mohammad Ali Baig) tries to understand just who Aruvi is, Arun Prabhu fills in the background for the audience with short vignettes that dip into Aruvi’s life story. We see Arvui as a young child, growing up in the countryside with her adoring father, who stops smoking just because she tells him it smells bad. If only everyone else would listen to this simple truth! As she grows up Aruvi gets a brother, Karuna (Arnold Mathew) and the family moves into the city.

Aruvi misses the countryside and tells her father that she doesn’t like the move, but she soon adapts and fits easily into school life. She’s not a particularly nice person – she teases other students and in one memorable scene refuses to give a fellow student a sanitary pad – but she is a typical teenager making it hard to understand how she ended up being interviewed by the police as a suspected terrorist.

These background scenes are interspersed with the aftermath of whatever event has led to Aruvi’s arrest. Her father is called to be interviewed, her friend Emily (Anjali Varathan) is also arrested, and we see snippets of how they have interacted with Aruvi in brief flashes, just as if each question has stimulated the memory of the character. It’s beautifully done and keeps the audience guessing before slipping into a more traditional flashback starting with Aruvi in college. Aruvi is studying psychology along with her best friend Jessy (Shwetha Shekar) and the two seem totally normal until the day Aruvi throws up in class. Anyone who has ever watched an Indian movie before knows exactly what this means, and as the story then moves on to Aruvi arguing with her parents and brother before finally being thrown out of the house, that assumption seems logical. Except that Arun Prabhu keeps the reason for Aruvi’s estrangement from her family ambiguous until later events reveal exactly why her family has turned against her.

Aruvi takes shelter first with Jessy, but then moves in with Emily, a transgender who helps take care of Aruvi and helps her find a job. Emily then helps Aruvi get accepted on to a reality TV show, where guests tell their stories and are invited to confront the people they feel have ‘done them wrong’. Here, Aruvi gets to confront three men whom she accuses of raping her, and this is where everything starts to go wrong, leading to the terrorist accusations.

The TV show is a brilliant idea, and allows Arun Prabhu to satirise such shows, as well as the media in general – the headline chasing tactics, talking head opinions shows (of which India seems to have hundreds!), but also shows the police having to act responsibly due to the media presence. The hypocrisy is stunning. Presenter Shoba Parathsarathy (Lakshmi Gopalaswamy) acts like a diva despite working for a small TV company as a reality talk show host – she’s no Oprah! Shoba turns on the charm as soon as the camera is rolling and moves easily from discussing Aruvi’s trauma one moment to a tacky advertisement line for the sponsors before cutting to a break the next, something Aruvi parodies brilliantly later on. The hierarchy of the studio is lampooned, with the little people including the security guard, a runner for the show and the junior producer also getting their share of the ridicule as Aruvi turns the tables on the entire production. This section is brilliantly done and Arun Prabhu uses the talk show as a way for Aruvi to highlight the helplessness of women in Indian society. But Aruvi also comments on the evils of more than just rapacious men, describing the middle class as spending machines who further enrich the wealthy of the world, while themselves gorging on the poor and trampling them further into the ground.

What’s disappointing is that Aruvi forgives the three men, one of whom is unconscionably violent, and the full horror of their crimes is never brought to bear. Although Aruvi initially goes onto the TV show to demand an apology from these men, they are instead made out to be the victims of her ‘attack’, when in reality all three deserve to be arrested rather than Aruvi. But then that is part of the point. The patriarchy of Aruvi’s society does not allow her to be the victim here, and she has no right to complain about her life even though she has had no control over what has happened to her.

Aditi Balan is incredibly powerful in the lead role, first as a typical teen, then student and finally a young woman trying to cope when her whole world has fallen in around her. Her final dialogues, which could have come across as overly cloying and maudlin are instead transformed simply because of her poignant and heartfelt performance. Perfect casting and an excellent performance are what make Aruvi such a compelling story.

While all the cast are excellent, Anjali Varathan shines as Emily and it’s a lovely change in Tamil cinema to have a transgender as a sympathetic character. She’s easily the most compassionate and decent person in the entire film with some of the best lines too. Anjali makes her character come alive in after only a few short scenes, making Emily the most memorable character after Aruvi. I love her introduction as she good-naturedly searches for a possible underwear thief in their building, and her care of Aruvi is beautifully shown. In a film that’s all about those on the margins of society, Emily is an outstanding standard bearer to prove that people are just people. No more, no less.

There are many small throwaway moments that also help lift the film above the ordinary. Jessy’s reaction to Aruvi when she goes to see her after the arrest is perfect middle-class guilt. The interactions between the crew members in the TV studio are well captured as are the reactions of the various homeowners and a funeral party as the police prepare to storm the TV studio. The décor too rings true, while Aruvi and Emily’s wardrobe choices are perfect for the characters they play. No glamour and OTT make-up here, except for Lakshini Gopalaswamy as she hits the nail on the head with her portrayal of TV persona Shoba.

AruviAruviAruviAruvi

There is a secondary theme that deals with another issue that society in India seems to brush under the carpet, but I don’t want to reveal too much since Aruvi does a much better job of explaining. Suffice to say that Arun Prabhu wants to draw our attention to how poorly society treats those who are perceived to be different, although he does rather draw out the final scenes as a result.

The music from Bindhu Malini and Vedanth Bharadwaj is beautiful and suits the film perfectly. The songs develop naturally from the events and are incorporated well into the narrative. Shelley Calist’s cinematography makes the countryside stunning particularly whenever Aruvi visits one of her namesake waterfalls. The comparison between the clear water and Aruvi’s own problems might be a trifle clichéd but it’s effective, as is Aruvi’s gradual isolation in ever smaller rooms as a symbol of her shrinking horizons. Aruvi is not a perfect film, but it is different. It’s rare to get a female-centred film that doesn’t include a major romance or have male characters eventually take centre stage. This is a film that talks about the difficulties women face day to day but not as a rampaging feminist agenda, but rather simply shows how time and time again women are made to feel at fault even when this is blatantly untrue. One to watch for the excellent performances, novel approach to a story and a real heroine for our times. 4 stars.

Aruvi