Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi (2018)

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s follow up to the exceptional Pelli Choopulu suffers a little from second album syndrome. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was left underwhelmed. Tharun Bhascker was so keen to draw us into his nostalgic world that I felt bombarded with descriptions and dialogues, but didn’t really get to know the characters for myself. I would have liked less of the how and what, more who and why.

Karthik (Sushanth Reddy) works as a club manager, hired to keep his own common people away from the VIPs. Vivek (Vishwak Naidu) is a mean drunk, a filmmaker who doesn’t make films, uncompromising and unlikeable. Uppu (Venkatesh Kakumanu) works as a wedding videographer and Kaushik (Abhinav Gomatam) is doing voiceovers for low budget TV comedy shows. All the guys have dreams, or a shared dream, that has pretty much been mothballed since 2007. In the present day, Karthik gets the nod to get engaged to his boss’s daughter. He’ll land a wife, a business, a fancy heirloom engagement ring to hand over, and a ticket to the USA, all as part of the deal. He gets the guys together for a celebratory drink and…hijinks ensue. The guys end up drunk, in Goa, minus the expensive ring, but plus a child relative Kaushik is supposed to be minding. Of course the only way to buy a replacement ring is to enter a film festival and win first prize. But that opens up old wounds and stirs old ambitions. Can the gang go back in order to move on?

I think the risk of a “slice of life” is that the viewer has to find some interest in the lives being examined. And some of the characters are not that compelling on their own merits, some are “types” rather than fully realised people in their own right. Vivek sits at one end of the scale, the intensely idealistic artist afraid to expose his work to judgement, and Karthik is his opposite, completely packing his ambitions away in favour of financial security. Uppu and Kaushik occupy the pragmatic middle, and are not the losers they seemed at first glance. They are still doing what they loved but not quite in the way they had hoped. But despite the flashbacks and memories, I felt I was experiencing it all second hand, not actually getting drawn into the story.

The film relies on a high degree of happy coincidence, and people seem to make decisions based on what the plot needs. A drunken truth or dare was framed as a bar promotion, thus introducing Shirley (Anisha Ambrose) as a promo girl who also turned up in Goa and by amazing chance happened to also be a musician who could be their composer. She also had the magical power of making people who wouldn’t have a meaningful conversation with each other agree to spill their guts on film for video content, all for a free drink. Shirley’s Russian friend Dasha just happened to have a great house with room for the guys to crash and she was prepared to act in their short film. The sapphire ring just happened to be sold by only one jeweller, based in Goa. Yes, life does often wave vaguely towards a solution after smashing you with a problem, but it felt contrived.

Sushanth is the nominal hero I guess, one who has packed up his dreams in order to be a good son. Karthik is a pleaser and usually goes out of his way to be inoffensive, which meant Sushanth is also nice but forgettable. I never felt the weight of Karthik’s decisions, or what it cost him. The resolution of his story was neither unexpected nor very interesting.

I am so over the myth of male artists being tortured souls who get a special exemption from behaving decently because of their art. Vishwaksen Naidu gives Vivek a dour intensity but I could take or leave him. Vivek blames his ex-girlfriend for his creative block, and uses aggression to cover his fear of judgement and rejection, literally diving in to a bottle to avoid facing reality. The breakup scene with his first girlfriend (Simran Chowdary) was horribly stilted and packed with clichés of the “it’s not you it’s me” line, all delivered in an expressionless staccato with Vivek grimacing and flexing. I also disliked that his redemption seemed to depend on Shirley, even if she seemed to have a reasonable handle on things.

I found myself barracking for Kaushik and Uppu, the guys who just get on with it. They know they’ll have to compromise to make a living, but they are kind of working on their craft and believe one day they’ll get their break. And they have professional standards, they’re just not obnoxious or precious about them. Venkatesh Kakumanu plays Uppu as pretty chill but with a keen sense of self-preservation and a dash of sarcasm. Abhinav Gomatam gives Kaushik a blend of empathy and shameless self-importance that made me cringe at times, and made him one of the more memorable characters. They are the underdogs in life and in the gang.

I don’t think every story has to have a 50/50 gender balance, but I was disappointed that the few women with any screen time had so little substance. The women – Anisha Ambrose, Simran Chowdhary and the actress who played Dasha – had so little to do apart from enable the men. Even the kid served little purpose other than one cheap potshot at his mother at the end. Karthik’s intended fiancée may as well have been played by a potato.

While the film is easy on the eye, my attention wandered a bit. (To be fair, that could be because of the uncle who spent the ENTIRE movie on a phone call and I think was describing a succession of surgical procedures.)  It’s a pleasant enough timepass, but I wanted more than OK. But. I do keep hoping the Telugu industry makes room for diverse stories that aren’t just mass Hero fodder, and this is certainly in that “something else” category. So please consider seeing this (or Sammohanam if it’s still around) and prove there is a market for story telling, not just spectacle.

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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!

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).