Simhadri

A story told in two parts, Simhadri is uneven. The things I love, I love. And the things I don’t, I really don’t. Rajamouli is always worth watching however, and it is kind of fun to look back at his earlier efforts even when the execution is a little laboured. Tarak is likeable enough, although his acting has improved greatly since 2003.

Simhadri (Tarak) is an orphan living in the household of Ram Bhupal Varma (Nasser) and his wife (Sangeetha). Simhadri is intensely loyal and has anger management issues, and his violence in service of the family is seen as endearing and almost a joke. Anyway, as they keep saying, it’s OK to kill or be killed if it is for the good of people. Tarak and Nasser have some nice badinage and their relationship does seem rock solid and a reasonable motivation for much of what follows. Simhadri is irresistible to women, especially Kasthuri (Ankitha), the daughter of the house. But he spends a lot of time and money with childlike Indu (Bhumika Chawla), and that becomes an issue when Kasthuri finds out. Apparently Simhadri’s style of beating people is medically identifiable and frequently lethal…Or at least that is what a visiting doctor from Kerala says happens when Singamalai beats someone up. But is Singamalai the same person as Simhadri? Why do truckloads of people with many and varied motivations turn up looking for him? Is he leading a double life?

Tarak gets one of the best hero entrance scenes ever, and a quite impractical yet very impressive weapon of choice. The action scenes are crunching and generally humourless, with varying degrees of gore. And he really is delightful in the songs where he is the bumblebee of dance – it seems he shouldn’t be able to move like that but look at him go!

M.M Keeravani’s soundtrack has a dreary orphan song, some cheesy duets, and offers Tarak a range of opportunities to bust a move. It even includes that romantic Indian classic – Cotton Eye Joe!

But Simhadri has to participate in comedy disease shenanigans, and wear some very unpleasant headbands not suited to the hamster-cheeked gent. The obligatory scenes paying homage to the senior NTR are a little overdone, as well as suffering from early 2000s technical limitations. Seeing the younger actors try to leverage their family name while appeasing the inherited fan base and also create their own image is quite interesting to me.

The relationship between Simhadri and Indu is troubling given her childlike mentality. The portrayal is a little flirtatious or at least uses filmi romance visuals which is creepy. Even Simhadri’s family immediately assume she is a prostitute, despite her little girl braids and outfits. And I was appalled by her horrible neighbours. Orphanism isn’t contagious! But despite all this rich material, that renowned wet dishrag of an actress Bhumika uses at most two three facial expressions. The relationship between Simhadri and Kasturi is equally perplexing, although for different reasons. Apparently the way to spark romance is to either scare a man or be scared in front of him. So dropping an ant down your bra and all the following shrieking and jiggling makes perfect sense then. I was kind of glad Ankitha is terrible in this as it would have been sad seeing a good actress enduring the stupidity of the script.

Despite his dubious interpretation of the female psyche, Rajamouli did win a few “you go girl!” points for casting Ramya Krishnan as an item girl.

I found it highly amusing that the song is pretty much along the theme of “do you want fries with that”. But seriously, I am so impressed she has managed such a long and varied career and has made some super films along the way.

The support cast is rich with talent and recognisable faces. Nasser is all reasonable and understanding until someone disagrees with him, then it is “my way or the highway”. He is a great foil for Tarak. Mukesh Rishi is vile and compelling as Bhai Sahib, the big bad gangster. Rahul Dev is slimy Nair, who sparks about an hour of graphic violence including rape and torturing children. Sharat Saxena is the ultimate useless policeman who abdicates all responsibility to the vigilantism of Simhadri. Bhanu Chander has a small but pivotal role that relies on him never making a sensible decision. All of these actors are good, but all their characters need at least one tight slap or maybe a whack with the fancy significant weapon. You know I am close to despair when I can say truthfully that Brahmi and his character is one of the highlights. I also liked Rallapalli and Ragini as Indu’s carers, and Hema as the cheeky maid and confidante to Kasturi.

While the pace is a bit draggy, Rajamouli shines in the action sequences where he uses creative visuals to heighten the drama. Simhadri leaps over the threshold and is then seen landing on the road on a motorcycle. When Simhadri takes on Nair’s gang the fight is intercut with a religious festival, reinforcing that he is doing godly work and getting the adrenaline flowing. The final fight scene has Tarak moving at normal speed but the rowdies in slomo, which was an effective treatment compared with just speeding it all up.

There are some issues with the story, but this is not one to overthink the plot. I mean I can think of several other and better ways to solve the old “bomb in the suitcase” problem…but who wants the sensible masala version?

See this for all the mass tricks, a hero on his way to becoming a genuine star, and a director who backs himself to be playful with the big ticket elements. 3 ½ stars!

Simhadri-last word

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Baazigar

Abbas-Mustan’s 1993 thriller is an out and out classic. It is a freemake of “A Kiss Before Dying”, but loaded up with all the requisite masala ingredients. Starring Shahrukh Khan in an award winning turn, along with Kajol and Shilpa Shetty, it is also high on filmi glamour.

Ajay (Shahrukh) is a nice boy who lives with his widowed Ma (Raakhee). She is suffering from some kind of post traumatic disorder, and Ajay pretends his deceased father and little sister are still alive and well, trying to preserve his mother’s happy memories. He is also secretly dating Seema (Shilpa Shetty), daughter of the filthy rich Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil). It’s all very sweet until Ajay also turns up as playboy race driver Vicky and starts dating Seema’s younger sister Priya (Kajol). When Seema apparently commits suicide, Priya cannot believe it and keeps pushing to find her killer. There is a long flashback explaining Ajay’s hatred of Madan Chopra. Vengeance and overacting begets more vengeance and overacting, and Ajay/Vicky sets an increasingly convoluted plot in motion.

Ajay is initially presented as sympathetic. He has helped his mother through some traumatic times. His powers of manipulation and maybe self-delusion are also visible from the start. Good Boy Ajay is altogether too bouncy and hyper. I do like a bit of moderately evil Shahrukh, and SRK is much more believable as Vicky/evil Ajay than he ever is as puppyish Ajay. I like the intensity and calculation that he brings to his villainous side, and the flashes of stifled rage under the plausible charm. It’s an interesting character because first we see him as likeable and even heroic by filmi son standards and he maintains that pure motivation even as his actions become more and more reprehensible. Shahrukh really builds the layers of deceit while retaining enough sincerity that his relationships seem real. So much conflict. Also, the transformative power of a contact lens is really something. In some scenes it may be used to show the duality of his nature, in others just a costly error.

It pains me to say this but SRK cannot hold a candle to Chiru in the horseback or cape swishing stakes. I think the hat was to stop his hood blowing back. And he has no dynamic swish control of his cape. But compared to Manic Pixie Bride Kajol he does seem to get the better deal.

Shilpa Shetty is not given a huge acting challenge with Seema, but she is pretty and lively, and has a warm rapport with Ajay. She is a victim of 90s camera work and if you don’t recognise her butt instantly it might take a while before you realise it is indeed Shilpa arriving on the scene. Serious Fashion Question. Were zippers really such a novelty or was that moment in Kitabein Bahut Si just another chance to focus on Shilpa’s shapely derriere? I recall odd zippercentric choreo from some other films around this time so who knows. I suspect the answer is obviously the latter.

Kajol makes a bad girl entrance, strutting around, shouting, and snapping a belt like a whip, and cannot communicate in anything less than a shriek. She even expects big sister Seema to ditch her exams just to go be rich and idle at the races. But as Priya experiences more real emotions – loss, grief, anger and romantic love – Kajol takes it down a notch. Priya becomes more subdued but also harder, and she starts to notice, and question, some of the little details that don’t add up. She thinks she has a lead when Seema’s friend Ravi says there are photos from a party that show Seema and her mysterious boyfriend. But the killer hears of this and follows Ravi, staging another suicide. Priya takes matters into her own hands when her father, her fiancé, and even her old friend Karan (a policeman with a sad crush on Priya), all tell her to drop any investigation. It’s quietly impressive for a heroine to disregard the men in her life so thoroughly.

Raakhee is impressive as Mrs Sharma. She had minimal dialogue but her suffering was evident, as was her painful realisation about her beloved son. It’s all about loving your family…I felt bad for Priya that even if she stuck by Vicky to the end, she still got shut out by a filmi Ma.

Dalip Tahil plays Madan Chopra with spite and a dash of sleaze. He is very urbane and successful, and his daughters (who really were old enough to form memories but seemed not to have any clue) had no recall of how he became so wealthy. The veneer cracks as soon as his good name is threatened by scandal or by the complicated revenge plot, and Madan becomes a snarling dog in an expensively hideous microfibre suit. Siddharth Ray is chunky and despondent as Inspector Karan. And if ever there was a story that did not need Johnny Lever, this is it.

The Anu Malik soundtrack is so familiar, and so cheesy. Ah, the porno sax background version of Yeh Kaali Kaali Aankhein. But the picturisation on SRK and Kajol is iconic, taking place in one of those not for profit nightclubs that sacrifices paying patron seating for a dance floor the size of an ice rink. Even Batman seems to be a fan.

Ajay’s own crimes are shown with more realistic detail, and somehow the struggle adds to the disturbing attraction repulsion thing Shahrukh has going on. He is given to exposition and declaiming and I quite liked his line :“You are like the invalid who needs crutches to walk but has no hands to hold them” Food for thought. Overall though the film takes an energetic but not very realistic approach to the action and violence. Bullets cannot kill a man but drop a fishtank on someone and they’re a goner. The finale is full throttle and the props department lashed out for a really big tin of red paint.  It’s almost 20 minutes from the first gunshot to the very end.

If you’ve already seen Baazigar, maybe it’s time to dust it off for a rewatch. Some things in the film haven’t aged so well as its stars. The story wouldn’t work in our digital/social media world as Facebook would have tagged Ajay before he knew it. And people today answer their own phones which they carry everywhere. But if you are one of the 973 people on earth who haven’t seen it yet, maybe it is time to experience this classic. 4 stars! (Johnny Lever, you cost the movie a star. You and your comedy sidekicks. Repent!)

Visaranai

 

“Give me the pink one. It’s my lucky lathi. Now let’s get them to confess”.

Vetrimaaran’s film takes a journey through the lawless side of law enforcement, where results matter and truth is often unwelcome. Adapted from M. Chandrakumar’s novel which was inspired by his own experiences, there is a relentless sense of doom pervading this story. Don’t get too attached to anyone!

Four Tamil men have come to Andhra Pradesh to work, sleeping rough in a park to save money. One night they are all picked up by the police. They are brutalised over and over but not told what they are suspected of doing and what they must admit to. It’s all a game to the cops but no one told Pandi, Murugan, Kumar or Afsal what that game is.

Afsal (Silambarasan Rathnasamy) is the youngest and weakest. Frightened of being hurt, and generally shy and inarticulate, Afsal triggered the arrests with a confession under duress and wavers most when under pressure. The four boys stick together and try to find a way out, trusting that their innocence will be recognised. Pandi (Dinesh Ravi) and Murugan (Aadukalam Murugadoss) are the stronger ones, with Pandi the more cynical and Murugan the more placid. Kumar (Pradheesh Raj) is injured badly early on and is a quiet, tense presence for most of his scenes.

The boys go on hunger strike and it seems to work. They are released, given money and told to come back to the station to sign a statement. They stop for a meal, eventually laughing at their strange fortunes. But when they go back, the sadistic Superintendent (Ajay Ghosh) says he couldn’t hit a starving man so he tricked them into filling their bellies. The beatings resume, more vicious than before.

I was struck by all the energy that goes into forcing confessions when maybe with the same expenditure of effort they could track down the real criminals. There is a discussion about finding someone else to take the fall but the boss is worried after all the injuries that the men will complain so he decides they must be found guilty. Eventually all the pressure works, especially the emotional blackmail from Pandi’s boss who knows it’s a set-up but encourages Pandi to take the easy way out for everyone’s sake. Including the police. These poor guys are expendable.

Pandi refuses to make a false plea once he is in front of a magistrate although his Telugu is not up to the finer points of his defence. Luckily for him there are Tamil Nadu police in another court so one is called upon to translate, and even more fortunately he recognises Pandi.  Inspector Muthuvel (Samuthirakani) explains the boys have jobs, never admitted fault, there is no evidence, and they’ve been beaten up for days on end. The magistrate knows Superintendent Rao has form for closing cases with false evidence and the boys go free.

Unluckily for Pandi and friends, the Tamil cops need their help in return. Sure enough, they help kidnap a high profile money launder KK (Kishore) from the courts. Back in Tamil Nadu, Kumar gets dropped off along the road but the others are taken to the station along with KK. KK tells Muthuvel that the last move in this game will be to tie up all the loose ends, like Muthuvel himself. And KK is a very smart man. About to leave, the guys are asked to clean the station building before they go. The ominous music says that was a bad idea, and I think Pandi knew it too.

Vetrimaaran mostly sticks with realism, creating a sense of the world just out of sight of the mainstream. The dark side is literally dark, with much of the film shot in night time and dimly lit interiors. The scenes are beautifully composed and I felt immersed in Pandi’s world, and the feeling of being entangled and lost. The spike of fear when the cops start torturing people is visceral, the relief when it stops and the terror of those waiting their turn also feel real. There is a foray into black and white for a couple of climactic scenes that struck me as annoyingly filmi. I wasn’t sure if it was censored because of all the gore or just cleverness, but regardless it was too tricksy. Other more successful visual metaphors were derived from the core of the drama – the movement between light and dark, between high and low places, people up to their necks in muck wading through sewers. The pace drags a little when the boys are hanging around doing the cleaning, and there is a little too much helpful exposition to get everyone on the same page, but these are minor issues.

Dinesh Ravi carries most of the film as Pandi was the enquiring mind, the calculating observer, and the loyal at heart.  His reactions and interactions with Samuthirakani give the story a centre and conflict that held the other strands together. Samuthirakani has gravitas and a wry humour that sparks up when Muthuvel is at ease. He is the cop who knows what is right, wants to be clean, but is coerced by his higher ups. Kishore is also impressive as the sly money man who can’t believe he will run out of friends or dollars. The dialogue is often sparse and meaning is layered through action and reaction. This is a man’s world. There is a budding romance (Anandhi as Shanthi), and a female cop (Misha Ghoshal) who deliberately forgets her phone so Pandi can call for help and that is it. All the supporting performances are good, but there are so many fleeting character appearances that the police dissolve into one huge despicable khaki organism.

I am not really surprised that the film failed to make the Oscars. A dog eat dog world with no hope of justice, and with the police at the heart of the darkness, seemed like a hard sell.

This is an accomplished film with some exceptional performances. It’s not an easy watch due to the casual brutality. It made me question why such a topic is still so current. And there is no moral or redemption to send you whistling on your way. Just death, lies, greed, and a promise of more of the same. 4 stars.