Ranuva Veeran (1981)

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S.P Muthuraman’s 1981 epic is standard mass fare in terms of the story and style, but it did bring early-ish career Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi together as hero and villain respectively. I saw this on a dodgy unsubtitled print, and no one seems to have bothered with detailed cast lists and the like so I will mostly have to refer to characters by the actor’s name. And my usual “Adventures Without Subtitles” caveat applies – I probably made it all up!

Raghu (Rajinikanth) returns home after military service. He defeats thugs on a train, acquires a gun-obsessed child, and returns home only to find that his village has been preyed upon by bandits lead by a mysterious man with one eye (Chiranjeevi). Raghu uses a rousing training montage to equip the villagers to fight back, and tensions escalate. He also meets the lovely Bhumi (Sri Devi) and decides to make her life miserable with his approach to courtship. When Raghu finally slaps the creepy contact lens and fake beard right off Chiranjeevi’s head he realises the gang leader is in fact his old college friend. After faking an accident the gentlemen retire to a grove of trees and strike poses as they declaim their views on good and evil or plaid or something. They certainly are not the same boys who were bosom buddies. And even worse, Chiranjeevi is married to (or living in sin with) Raghu’s sister Ganga who is the mother of the gun toting tot. Raghu eventually manages to overact his way through the dramatic landscapes and to freedom. Chiru is unrepentant about his criminal life, barely blinks at his son being rehomed, and seems more motivated now his secret is out in the open. Bad guys being bad guys, he is still intent on one more heist and that leads to the knock down drag out finale.

Chiranjeevi and Rajinikanth have a similar ability to inject a feeling of quality in even the silliest or most sketchy of roles. Every hero needs a strong adversary and their scenes together have dramatic impact even when things are beyond ridiculous. Both actors spend time frolicking under waterfalls, with varying results. There is a real sense of personal animosity and betrayal in their confrontations. And karate!

Sri Devi gets the rough end of the pineapple with almost no nuance to her role and the burden of steering Rajini around in the dances. Plus perching on a giant Vat 69 bottle as it revolved looked quite scary.

Rajinikanth is the typically righteous and capable hero and seems to relish the mass dramatics. He is laconic but charismatic, and his chemistry with Chiranjeevi is great. His rapport with Sri Devi is less natural but they do have some scenes where neither of them is shouting or threatening the other, and those do work quite nicely.

My favourite action sequence has Rajini kind of mummified and stolen from hospital by Chiru who thinks it is his badly burned goon. But Chiru is not fooled and pours petrol over Rajini…Anyway, the suit morphs from mummy to Ninja to fireproof welding hood and the stunt body in the suit also morphs a bit. It’s a fun and fiery sequence! And did I mention the dancing and the karate?

Chiru makes a big entrance as he tries to evade an entire state’s worth of police. He has a glassy blue eye, and a striking purple suit that I would not have chosen if I was trying to look inconspicuous. But where was he hiding the grenade? Chiru tries to extort money from the mill owner, but Raghu hires security, who work for Chiru and it’s all so much more complicated than it needs to be.

I am not sure but suspect that the gimp masks on the hired goons might not be enough of a disguise in a small community. Look, I really don’t know where Chiru is hiding his grenades but if it’s where I think it is, he is brave and not counting on having any more children.

Raghu interrupts a cockfight run by Bhumi (Sri Devi), getting a cock drunk so it wins. How dare women think they can win at a manly man’s sport like letting a chicken kill another chicken. Bhumi may be silly and loud but Raghu is so mean to her, apparently because she is strong, independent, and her spirit must be crushed so she can settle for him. In another scene Rajini throws sarees at the men who hid from a gang, which is again quite unfair on women who tolerate enough pain to keep popping out babies and putting up with their husbands. It’s not a forward thinking feminist film by any means. Sri Devi wears clothes that are far too small and minus  a chunni in that universal filmi sign of “simple to the point of checking for head injuries”, and screeches a lot.

Bhumi absolutely scandalises Raghu’s family who are quite stitched up, but Raghu is more egalitarian so I did like his complete lack of judging her on her caste or status. Sri Devi’s scenes were an uneven mix of slap happy confrontations and slapstick comedy, but she is charming in a shrill and chicken obsessed way. And someone had to know what to do in the big musical numbers.

Raghu’s family show a dedication to overacting that thankfully failed to manifest in him. The boy Iqbal is shrill and annoying, and reactions to him highlight the differences between the father (Poornam Vishwanathan) and Raghu especially where religion and social welfare are concerned. Raghu’s mother (Nalini) gets her teeth into the scenery too, and I could see why the military might offer Raghu some peace and quiet. Sister Ganga is clearly sad to be separated from her family but will not give up Chiru. She has to make some hard decisions and while she is the film’s fallen woman she is not unsympathetic or unlikeable.

The finale is epic as Chiru and gang spend what seems like DAYS riding their motorbikes towards a big festival that also requires a Rajini and Sri Devi dance number. The climax involves a lot of karate and finally Iqbal’s penchant for guns is utilised. I’m not sure what becomes of that child but I hope all of his near and dear were aware of his vengeful streak and accurate aim.

See this for the excellent pairing of Rajinikanth and Chiranjeevi, for some striking visuals including Rajni prancing through giant bottle props, and because you’d never get the budget to put this cast together again today. 3 ½ stars! Would have been 4 but all that screeching…my ears are still recovering.

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Raees

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Raees (Shah Rukh Khan in case you haven’t worked that out) grows up working for the local bootleggers, learning the business from the inside out. His mother (Sheeba Chaddha) tells him that no business is beneath them, and no religion is greater than business, as long as they don’t harm anyone. Raees hates being poor, and hates being treated unfairly. He wants respect, money, success. He’s the kind of guy who will exploit the tiniest gap to create something you could drive a fully laden truck through. The man trying to stop him is the eccentric and equally driven Superintendent Majmudar (the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

The film is directed like it was the 70s, the story is set in the 80s/90s, but only the technology dates things. Seeing Raees threatening someone over the phone was something else when that phone was a dinky red racing car one. The Fatehpura neighbourhood is a lively backdrop, teeming with people going about their day in the narrow streets. The songs suit the film and tend to advance the story more often than not (the Not being Zaalima). I wasn’t convinced by Sunny Leone as Laila but that sequence is quite gripping.

 

I think they did a good job of harnessing Shah Rukh’s uncle dancing tendencies and enigmatic walking powers, and I am rarely averse to colour and movement. Overall Rahul Dholakia directs with good pace and attention to the emotional arcs, but he throws everything into his story and that is to the eventual detriment of the film. There are too many subplots unravelling towards the end and the energy fizzles out.

Raees has strong ethics in business and personal life. You can argue the toss about selling illegal booze, but he only sells quality gear not the adulterated hooch that killed people when he was a kid. The experiences in his youth have a clear influence on shaping the adult and I felt Raees was believable even if his fight skills were more suited to a Bond. The audience applauded his shenanigans – the chai glass and the press entourage got the loudest cheers – and they seemed to appreciate Raees as the guy who was doing one wrong thing but was otherwise a hero. He is the Angry Young Man who wants to give his family a secure future and help the people who have helped him. His lifelong friendship with Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) adds another layer of humanity, exposing some of Raees less heroic moments. Shah Rukh’s performance is solid but occasionally is too much like vintage Raj or Rahul, although Raees shows more intent than would usually accompany the up-close décolletage inspection. He’s charismatic, nerdy, and impulsive, but also calculating. One question though – Does SRK have an eyedrops sponsorship? First Dear Zindagi, now Raees…

Raees is an anti-hero who knows when he has committed a serious crime and it doesn’t always sit easily with him. I watched an old interview with actor Michael Caine and he was asked about how he could bring himself to play an evil character and make him seem so human. He said the man wasn’t a monster to himself, so he could play him with characteristics of both a decent guy and a cold blooded villain. I think that is what works with Shah Rukh’s portrayal. He looks at ease in Raees skin whether he is praying at his mother’s grave, being carried through the streets in triumph, or going on a brutally efficient killing spree. He shows unusual self-awareness for a filmi hero and a degree of struggle with the consequences of his path. People may see him as a god but he knows he isn’t.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is Majmudar, that most problematic of policeman – the one who wants to get his man.  His epic entrance at the best and tackiest party ever was a perfect set-up for what was to come. Majmudar has a fascination with Raees. He is determined to shut him down but he quite enjoys Raees spirit. I liked how Nawazuddin would smirk, showing a hint of exasperation and a gleam of genuine appreciation when Raees bested him. That and all the sarcastic one liners. Majmudar spent time tapping Raees’ calls, using the helpfully labelled Phone Tapping Centre from the Central Props Department, and seems almost wistful when he overhears a personal call. But then he is still cold and calculating in his pursuit. Raees was the opponent he needed in order to be that cop who never gives up even when the system is against him. Nawazuddin steals all the scenes as Majmudar permeates Raees’ life and he is a strong and unyielding presence that exasperates the pragmatic businessman. Raees and Majmudar treat each other with respect and as much honesty as is possible, and are the most morally articulate characters. They’re both smart, neither has to be a fool or do anything out of character just to move the plot along, and both actors are terrific in their scenes together.

Mahira Khan gives a good and largely understated performance as Aasiya, Raees’ wife. There is no sizzling chemistry but they show a comfortable joy in each other’s company that speaks to a longstanding relationship between neighbourhood sweethearts. In a scene when Raees came home covered in blood, Aasiya gives him a searching look. His reaction of self-disgust and culpability is what reassures her. She knows his line of business and she believes in her husband. Despite being in the domestic background, it is obvious that Aasiya is respected and liked in the community and she steps up in public when needed. True, she appears to have a baby without a pregnancy but frankly I’ve seen stranger things in Hindi films.

Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) rounds out the important people in Raees life and his performance is endearing and realistic. Friends since childhood, Sadiq is the only one apart from Aasiya that can see Raees as just a bloke. They keep some of their cute childhood mannerisms, retell old stories, and they look out for each other no matter what. Even when Raees flies off the handle, Sadiq is there to try and talk him down or remind him of what’s important. It mustn’t be easy to carve out your own space when SRK is going the full Rahul, but this friendship works.

The cat and mouse between Raees and Majmudar dominates, but there are some excellent character actors in support. Atul Kulkarni is charming and vile as the calculating Jairaj Seth who won’t easily let his former employee best him. Narendra Jha is Musa Bhai, the enigmatic Mumbai based don who helps Raees set up on his own.

Raees is at best morally ambiguous, and the ending may not be what you expect, but I enjoyed the film. Rahul Dholakia directs with a vintage masala flavour, but unfortunately messes up the formula so it gets a bit diluted towards the end. It’s an uneven ride but worth it for the excellence of Nawazuddin and SRK and the retro cops and robbers style.

Lion (2016)

lion-movie-posterIn an “only in the movies” story, little Saroo is separated from his big brother at a railway station near Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh. He accidentally takes a train that lands him in Kolkata, hundreds of kilometres from home. Living on the streets he evades some very unpleasant people and situations before being taken in to an orphanage. He is adopted through an organisation called ISSA and placed with a middle class Anglo family in Hobart, Tasmania. When Saroo moves to Melbourne for uni he starts to admit to himself that he really wants to know who he is. He can’t forget his family, especially his mum and older brother Guddu, and knows they must have been looking for him all these years. His friends suggest using Google Earth to try and find landmarks he remembered. It’s a struggle as Saroo deals with his feelings of betraying his adoptive parents, his complex relationship with adopted brother Mantosh, his whiny girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), and the sheer time and energy to do the work. But he never completely gives up, and he does find his way.

 

Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, The Long Road Home. I was fortunate enough to attend a preview introduced by Saroo and his mum Sue. They had input into the screenplay adaptation, and both said they were pleased with the results. Garth Davis uses landscape beautifully to reflect Saroo’s journey and to ground his memories. The scenery in Tasmania is pristine and lovingly shot, with a sense of order and calm. In contrast, Kolkata swirls with movement and energy as little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) darts through crowds and runs his heart out in search of home. The film is as manipulative as can be, but it’s the kind of emotional push and pull that made me want to buy into it. He’s a good kid, and you want him to be happy.

Sunny Pawar is that rarest of creatures – an Indian child actor I don’t want to slap. Apart from being ridiculously cute he conveys emotions with clarity and a sense of genuine feeling. Saroo couldn’t speak to anyone much about what had happened as he was a little kid, only spoke Hindi, was illiterate, and had no idea how to find his home. He was selected by Mrs Sood (Deepti Naval) as a good candidate for overseas adoption and before long, he had a new home.

Twenty years later, Dev Patel is Saroo. He has great hair, and a good Aussie accent. I’ve not been completely convinced by some of his past work but I felt he really inhabited Saroo and was just brimming with energy and life. He had a typically Australian slightly inarticulate, good natured, blokey feel about his character but could also show great depth of emotions. Patel’s scenes with Divian Ladwa who plays grown up Mantosh were full of love and disappointment and rivalry, being mean in ways you know will hit hardest, always internally comparing this brother to long lost Guddu. He had a strong connection with Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as his parents, and a relaxed playful rapport with the ensemble of his friends. The latter section of the film drags a bit as Saroo wallows in his angst, but it does make the payoff all the more sweet.

Sue’s dedication to having an adopted family made me slightly uncomfortable in the film, but not when I heard her speak in person. Possibly it was the tight close-ups of Nicole Kidman and her fierce emoting that made it seem too much. You know when you inadvertently see a display of intense emotion that was not meant for you, you just want to look away and give that person back their privacy. David Wenham has long been a favourite actor of mine. I would probably watch him watching paint dry, and find it fascinating. He plays John as a typical dad with a big heart and a few bad jokes, trying to keep his family of diverse and strong personalities together and happy through their ups and downs.

The casting really is excellent and I think it shows their commitment to getting things right. The Indian cast features some excellent character actors including Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tannishtha Chatterjee, and Deepti Naval in small but impactful roles, with Priyanka Bose as Saroo’s birth mum Kamla. Melbourne girl Pallavi Sharda and local soapie actor Sachin Joab play a couple of Saroo’s uni mates. Abhishek Bharate delivers a good performance as Guddu, with a cocky swagger and a warm smile that made him so unforgettable for his little brother. Rooney Mara is stitched up with a fairly insipid role as Saroo’s girlfriend. Her character Lucy just doesn’t have the same complexity and depth as the others and she comes across as more of a plot device than a person.

I think Lion is going to be interpreted quite differently depending on your perspective. Many Australian viewers would have no idea who Deepti Naval or Nawazzudin Siddiqui is, so there’s that. I may have been the only person in the theatre to whoop when Prabhu Deva appeared on the telly in the background of a scene! And I doubt the 1980s approach to intercultural adoption, which was heavy on assimilation, will sit well with everyone. I was adopted as were several of my friends, and we all had diverse experiences and have made our choices about finding birth parents, so this resonates strongly with me. Sue is clear that she wants Saroo to tell her all about himself and what happened before the adoption, so it isn’t a case of ignoring his personal history. It’s more that there seemed to be no acknowledgement of his existing language or culture, only his misfortune of being a lost boy. Because the film jumps from the start to the end of Saroo’s personal journey, there is a whole other story in the middle that we don’t see. Saroo mentioned he might be working on a prequel so perhaps there will be a companion piece to come. Whatever your views, Saroo seems to have turned out to be a very generous and grounded young man who both his families are proud of.

See Lion for a beautiful story of identity and home and family, for the unashamed tugging at your heartstrings, for the excellent performances. Take some tissues because at least one of the Saroos will probably make you cry!

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