Govinda Govinda

Sri Devi is the main reason to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s film. She is wonderful as the plucky and caring Naveena, drawn into a mysterious plot involving religious nutters, dark rituals, and a dodgy taxi driver with anger management issues.

I watched this without subtitles and didn’t have too much difficulty following the plot, but wish I had been able to understand more of the conversations. Maybe things would have seemed more cohesive if I got the “as you know, Naveena” exposition. Or perhaps not.

The film opens with a religious back story to explain the significance of Venkateswara and the Tirumala Venkateswara temple at Tirupathi. And then the RGV factor kicks in and you can safely forget doctrine and logic as you know it. In the present day, an evil tantric commissions Paresh (Paresh Rawal) to steal Venkateswara’s crown from the temple. The relic combined with some human sacrifice will give the tantric ultimate power or something. Naveena (Sridevi) is a Telugu woman living in Bangkok. She returns to India to fetch her grandmother and take her back to Bangkok so they can live together. Seenu (Nagarjuna) is the taxi driver that picks her up from the station and takes her downtown. Seenu’s father, the temple security guard, is implicated in the theft, and little Babu (Master Anilraj), who Seenu calls Boss, is the only witness who can identify the real criminals. When Seenu and Babu go to Bangkok trying to clear the dad’s name, the kid wanders off and ends up on TV as a missing child. Naveena sees him and comes to the rescue, and is reunited with Seenu. Their lives are entwined on a level neither realises. Eventually all the ducks get in a fairly clumsy row, and it is time for Seenu and Naveena to try and thwart the tantric and save the world. It’s lucky for them that Vishnu had been sneakily keeping an eye on them all along.

The film is most alive when Sridevi is on screen. Naveena does a little of the scream-and-run heroine shtick but is largely sensible, thinks first, and tries to do things for herself even if it pushes her out of her comfort zone. Her outfits are a little…odd. I’ve never been a fan of the pedal pusher, and am on the fence when it comes to onesies. It’s hardly the worst character wardrobe Sridevi had to contend with. Perhaps Naveena was just veeeeery fashion forward, or maybe she was soft hearted and didn’t want Seenu to cop all the bad denim. There are some parallels with Kshana Kshanam although the story isn’t as strong. Naveena still has enough range as a character that Sridevi has something to work with. Whether she is being a clueless tourist or running for her life, she makes that moment feel real and with a sense of consequence.

Her cheeky expressions are an excellent distraction from the spectacle of Nag “dancing”, and the comedy is a good fit for her. Rewatching the movie to screencap for this review was so sad. Sridevi was well cast, had a decent and age appropriate costar, and a director who knew she was pure gold. Watching this did cheer me up a bit after reading so many Hindi-centric reviews of her career and best films. I firmly believe she did most of her best work in the South and if people have only seen her Hindi films, they’re missing out.

Nagarjuna is fine as Seenu. He’s probably the 90s hero I have seen the least of, so I don’t have a lot to compare this performance to. [Note: I hate the much vaunted Geethanjali with the fire of a thousand suns. Do not recommend it. Do. Not.] He is likeable as Seenu, lairising around with his highrise mullet, dressed in loud shirts and acid wash. He’s a good hearted guy even if he might be slightly dodgy when it comes to making a buck. Seenu is very close to his family, and seems proud of his father while not wanting to follow in his footsteps. The story is all over the pace and Seenu’s character is pretty flimsy and Nagarjuna does well to make him so engaging. His confusion and determination were equally believable, even when the situations were not. Some of his scenes with Sridevi are lovely as Seenu starts to realise his feelings, and he seemed to have a warm rapport with Master Anilraj who played Babu. His dancing style mostly consists of energetic walking with occasional bursts of pointing at things or people. But he kicks arse in the action sequences.

Paresh Rawal and Kota Srinivasa Rao are the main thieves, augmenting their gang with some dodgy foreigners. The extravagantly bewigged and made-up Dhir is the evil tantric, with a hint of depressed poodle in his styling. They’re all as horrible as you would expect, and overact like there will be no scenery to chew tomorrow. Kallu Chidambaram is an evil looking red herring. Annapurna plays Seenu’s mother and as you would expect, they’re quite sweet and natural with each other. Child actor Anilraj has no dialogue and that may be why I liked him so much.

As I have come to expect from RGV, the background score is loud and percussion driven. It works well to build a sense of urgency in some scenes but in others it is like someone rattling a tin full of buttons. And the Raj-Koti songs are forgettable, apart from the ungainly choreo and peak 90s Fashion and the obligatory item by Silk Smitha. I did like the way the film signals it belongs in a place and time. Characters listen to songs from movies of the day, there are signals that the audience would be immediately familiar with. So while there are exotic foreign locations, other than the sleazy girly bar we don’t do the rounds of tourist attractions. It’s quite grounded and a little bit grubby.

I’ve tried not to spoil the plot too much as there are some nifty set pieces, a few minor surprises along the way, and quite a ripping yarn if you just go with it. When RGV is good, he’s good. And when Sridevi is good she’s brilliant. 4 slightly teary eyed and sentimental stars!

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Bharat Ane Nenu

Koratala Siva and Mahesh Babu team up for this smart political thriller. It’s a good looking film with a fairly solid story, but you’ll need to turn your logic-meter off, or even inside out, at times. And not just for the gravity defying action scenes.

Bharat (Mahesh) is a perennial student in a London populated by white people with bizarre accents. He is on his 5th university degree, and has no immediate plans to stop studying. He is smart and curious, but might lack a bit of focus or motivation. Called home after the sudden death of his politician father (R Sarathkumar), Bharat is inveigled into taking up the apparently hereditary role of CM by his dad’s friend and colleague Varadarajulu (Prakash Raj). But while Bharat may be clueless about local Andhra Pradesh issues, he’s very rules driven and task focussed and likes to act decisively. He will bring back the FEAR, RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY (caps courtesy of the subtitles team) that he thinks society needs. And that sets him on a collision course with pretty much everyone in politics.

There are some odd inconsistencies in Bharat’s logic at times and it felt like there was an often unacknowledged conflict or contradiction in the film between what he stood for and what he did. Bharat left home to go live with friends in the UK when he was just a kid. He stayed away for years, but he still remembers his mother telling him stories about duty and doing the right thing (underscored by her death when he broke a promise so….). He seemed happy to follow his own whims while abroad and had no firm plans. However Hyderabad traffic sets him ablaze with indignation. He’s a true believer, fighting to see his vision brought to life, and at odds with the career politicians who feather their own nests. A benevolent dictator is still a dictator so I found it interesting that apparently I was supposed to see this as democratic representation of the will of the people. He was never elected, just chosen first by calculating party men and then by public acclaim. And the film shows that acclaim can turn very quickly to scorn. I really did like that in what could have been a clichéd scene of people coming to the Hero to rid their village of a problem, he turned the tables and asked why they didn’t save themselves. It’s a tired trope that needs to be retired or examined, and having Bharat say he would support people but they had to get off their butts and do something to help themselves was excellent. He sees a girl at a bus stop every morning and has no qualms about using state resources to get her number, but he does ask for her consent at key junctures so there is that. He asks why the roads have to be closed for his ministerial convoy but again, no issue with taking over an entire restaurant so he can have a coffee date with Vasumathi. There’s a bit of “don’t do as I do, do as I say” in Bharat.

Mahesh is convincing as the driven reformer who wants to remind people of the rule of law, and he can carry off the grand speeches. Bharat starts out using his intelligence and will, but at a point his awesome fighting skillz surface. It’s fitting that at the moment he went from protagonist to Hero, he was surrounded by swirling movie tickets just like the paper thrown by a cinema audience to greet a hero’s entrance. The action scenes are highly stylised, relying on Mahesh’s ability to stare down the camera while sauntering past wearing a baddie as a backpack. I laughed loudly and alone at that visual! Koratala Siva knows exactly what he is doing with the mass tropes and with his actor. I don’t think there is anything in the role that challenged Mahesh’s abilities but he gives a committed and smartly layered performance. For those who rely on me for other insights about layering, yes he wears t-shirts and even flashes his knees. I suspect in one scene that he might have had two white t-shirts stitched together to avoid any hint of transparency. But it’s modern, minimal layer Mahesh in terms of wardrobe.

Kiara Advani is Vassu, the object of the CM’s affections. While Vasumathi is interchangeable with just about every other newbie Telugu film heroine, she is vaguely intelligent and has a life. She obviously likes Bharat, but is nervous because of his position and just because she’s a middle class girl. Her giving him a stick on moustache was a stroke of genius. Seeing Bharat happily at one with the crowds on their low key dates because of his dodgy mo was very funny. Unfortunately after a promising start, Vassu loses all agency as soon as men start on about their own honour. I’m neither here nor there as far as Kiara Advani is concerned. She is fine but there’s so little to the character that I couldn’t say she brought anything unique to the role either. Her outfits were boho student in daily life but the songs are where the costume department run amok.

The Devi Sri Prasad soundtrack is full of tracks that sound like other tracks, and the lyrics are loaded with dubious English rhyming nonsense. Perhaps I am being harsh and Vasumathi likes to be called “my lovely harmonica”! Mahesh’s prime dancing days are a thing of the past, I think, so the choreography was largely of the walking and pointing variety. The big set number Vachadayyo Saami is a standout mostly for the colour and spectacle (which includes the aforementioned knees).

The supporting ensemble is full of competent actors, well cast, and most with a bit of depth or development to their characters. Prakash Raj is excellent as the avuncular Varadarajulu, completely believable as the long time friend and frenemy. Anish Kuruvilla, house favourite occasional director/That Guy, plays a slightly slimy but not unlikeable Chief Secretary caught between the party and the CM. He gets to give his appalled expression a good workout, along with a bit of side eye. Brahmaji is the CMs assistant and like most people dragged along in Bharat’s wake he alternates between flustered and tickled pink at the goings on. Another favourite That Guy, Ajay, has a small but sensible role too. And I was very pleased to see good old Mukhtar (Mukhtar Khan) was not forgotten after one pivotal and quite brutal scene. Bharat might be swept away by the public but the continuity and attention to detail and people was there, as befits his character and this film.

If you like the idea of a well-acted, well directed, and more violent story somewhat along the lines of Mr Smith Goes to Washington but with dodgy subtitles do see Bharat Ane Nenu!

Rangasthalam

Sukumar’s Rangasthalam is a sprawling rural epic set in the 80s and chock full of plot. There’s probably enough for two films, but despite being 80s influenced in running time too, I found it highly engaging.

Chittibabu (Charan) hires out a water pump to service the village crops. He’s a bit dim and lazy, very proud and impulsive, but essentially a decent bloke. And he has a hearing impairment that he is ashamed of. His inability to hear unless shouted at is used for comedy but also is important in keeping him a little isolated and clueless. When golden boy big brother Kumar (Aadhi Pinisetty) comes back from Dubai, he is appalled by the corrupt lending and eviction scam run by the local association. He gets the support of MLA Dakshina Murthy (Prakash Raj) and decides to run for President, setting up a colliion course with the incumbent (an evil eyed Jagapathi Babu). And meanwhile Chittibabu has fallen for the lovely Ramalakshmi (Samantha Akkineni). But does he have the time or the capacity for love when he has heroic duties to attend to and a brother to protect? And if it isn’t the President pulling all the strings, then who else might be involved? What is a simple man to do?
Charan was instantly recognisable even in the long aerial shot that opens the film. His hair is magnificent and deserves an acting credit. But apart from the mane of glory, he delivers a solid performance. Chittibabu is quite childish and demanding, but has a generous heart. He is only able to devote himself to one task or thought at a time though, which meant that the relationship with Ramalakshmi kind of disappeared for a while as he was busy with other matters. Charan and Samantha had a nice rapport and I quite liked seeing the man be disconcerted and flustered by being on the receiving end of some determined attention. And he did some truly excellent lovestruck prancing. But he is an 80s style mass hero and will not be winning any awards for feminism. The fight scenes are intense and brutal, with only a few fancy effects to diminish the reality. Predictably Charan excels in the action and dances, but that solid physicality also translated well to his character.
Charan and Aadhi were really nice as brothers. It would have been very easy for Sukumar to make Kumar the saintly one and Chitti the dumb one but they each had some elements of the other one’s personality and their little fights and jokes seemed natural and lively. Chittibabu had to grow up a bit through the film and Charan handled that quite well. I thought the hearing aid Kumar got for him was used nicely as an indicator when he decided to put personal vanity aside. Aadhi played Kumar with less bravado and more empathy than the younger sibling. His reactions when things turned violent seemed genuinely fearful, and true to the character. He found a groove to work in as the second fiddle in the film but the star of the family who absorbed all their attention.
Samantha made Ramalakshmi funny and warm, the kind of girl that would always be in the thick of the chatter when there was a break from work. She wasn’t impressed by Chittibabu despite his obvious attraction to her, and somehow was the only person in the village who didn’t know he was hearing impaired. The comedy of errors stuff went on a bit too long, but I enjoyed her uninhibited enthusiasm, especially in Rangamma Mangamma where Ramalakshmi took on some of the typical hero pursuit song shtick. Samantha’s face is so expressive that even the terrible subtitles didn’t interfere too much with her scenes. The moment when she weighed up her father’s emotional blackmail against Chittibabu’s open door on their future was darkly funny and so good to see. It was sad that she along with almost every one else was then sidelined for a substantial chunk of the story. Because Hero stuff.
Jagapathi Babu is the villain this film needed. He infuses every scene with a menacing sociopathic coolness, and has no need of pointless histrionics. He has ample followers to carry out his wishes and can keep the dirty business at arm’s length. He’s like a shark. Something sends a chill down your spine on first sight, even if he doesn’t seem to be an immediate threat. Prakash Raj has a small but pivotal role, and is his usual reliable self. Brahmaji is his usual angry self as a government official. It’s good that some things never change. Mahesh Achanta, Rohini, and Anasuya Bharadwaj are notable in the large ensemble.
Sukumar did some interesting things within what does feel like a solid 80s mass drama. The women were often in the background but when it came to crunch time there was no fuss as they took a more active role or their expressions gave the men permission to act. Rathnavelu’s cinematography created a beautifully rural idyll with long sweeping views of the landscape but moved away from fixed camera positions in the action scenes, giving it a more modern and dynamic feel. The soundtrack is exactly what you’d expect, which is not a bad thing. I liked Charan’s dancing and thought he did well in the folk influenced choreo, maintaining his Mega cred while staying in character.
I learned some new phrases thanks to the (possibly drunk) subtitle team. I hadn’t heard of the Dazzle King or even the Mangoose, but now I feel they sound like something I should have known. And I will be wary of doctors offering the “eternal injection”. I know subtitles are a luxury, but surely someone read them before they were published. No?
I thoroughly enjoyed Rangasthalam. It’s a big meaty story that takes its time. The casting is good, the visuals are great, and in mass style the film has a bit of everything. Recommended!