Shankar Guru (1978)

A family torn apart by murder, children separated at birth, villainous villains, a triple role for Dr Rajkumar and 3 wonderful heroines – Shankar Guru has every single masala trope and then some. With a stellar cast and convoluted storyline, M.D. Sunder’s screenplay has something for absolutely everyone. Thanks to blog reader TL for the recommendation and I agree this is a fabulous film! Oh, and if anyone thinks the brief synopsis above sounds familiar, Shankar Guru was the inspiration for Hindi film Mahaan.

The film starts with Rajashekhar (Rajkumar) disagreeing with his business partners including Madanlal (Thoogudeepa Srinivas), a man who takes dressing to match his surroundings very seriously indeed.

The partners want to start selling idols taken from temples overseas and Rajashekhar disagrees so vehemently that he dissolves their partnership straight away. However, in the ensuing struggle one of the potential investors is accidently killed by Rajashekhar. He immediately races home and runs for the train station with his heavily pregnant wife. But as the train pulls out of the station, only Sumati (Kanchana) is on the train with Rajashehkar left behind.

Years later, Sumati is making a living by selling paintings in Mysore while trying to persuade her son Shankar (Rajkumar) to find a job. Shankar meets Nalini (Jayamala) when he saves her from some thugs who were harassing her, and she arranges for him to go and work for her guardian Jayaraj who lives on an estate in Srinigar. At the same time, Malati (Padmapriya) is arguing with her grandfather Gurumurthy (Sampath) and refusing to get married. As a way to appease him, she decides to pretend to be married to local entertainer Guru (Rajkumar) who in reality is the son of lawyer Lakshman Rao (Balakrishna) and is in Kashmir specifically to woo Malati. Guru was sent Malati’s picture by her grandfather’s doctor, Dr Prema (Uma Shivakumar) who is his father’s sister.

Just before Shankar heads off to Kashmir, he visits a local temple where a group of thieves use a tiger to frighten off the worshippers before stealing a valuable necklace. Photographer Prem Kumar (Vajramuni) is a friend of Nalini and her guardian, but is also in league with the thieves and he hides the necklace in some paintings by Sumati that Nalini has bought for Jayaraj. The gang is based in Srinigar, and they plot to get the necklace back from Shankar when he arrives by substituting Madanlal’s son Divakar (Chandrashekhar) as the new estate manager.

With me so far? The plot gets even more convoluted when it is revealed that Dr Prema was at the hospital when Sumati gave birth, and she actually had twins! Lakshman Rao’s son was stillborn, so Dr Prema separated the children, giving one to Sumati and one to her brother. Fans of the significant item that ultimately reunites separated lovers/brothers/other miscellaneous family members will be happy to hear that one such item does play a role in the film, and that ultimately everyone’s relationships to everyone else are explained. Although not before there is plenty more confusion!

There is a lot going on here, but I found Shankar Guru less confusing than Mahaan, and the different threads are all quite easy to follow. Partly this is due to Dr Rajakumar who makes each of this three characters sufficiently different from each other that they are easy to tell apart. Rajashekhar aka Jayaraj has been devastated by the loss of his wife and despite falling on his feet he still pines for her every day. Shankar is the ‘good son’ who loves his mother and is also hot on the trail of the jewel thieves, while Guru is a typical rich man’s son whose carefree ways contrast with the more serious Shankar. The three heroines are all excellent too. Kanchana may have been abandoned by her husband, but she has made a good life for herself and her son, and is quite able to take care of herself, thank you very much! Jayamala as Nalini is charming and every inch the rich heiress with a heart of gold, while Padmapriya seems to be thoroughly enjoying her role as spoilt and demanding Malati. Note her unique hairstyle in this song and also Dr Rajkumar’s commitment to the choreography!

There really is a lot to enjoy in this film. From the funky psychedelic opening credits to the stunning fashion choices this film is a riot of colour and seventies style. There is OTT drama at every turn as Shankar battles the jewel thieves and Guru tries to win Malini’s love, while the most important question is whether Rajashekhar and Sumati will ever be reunited again. Other smaller issues such as why Sumati is painting terrifying pictures of babies or why there are stuffed animal heads on either side of the door at the top of Jayaraj’s stairs and what exactly a lightening call is are sadly never answered, but what is life without some mystery?

There are three main threads to the storyline and a number of smaller sideplots, but all the chaos is pulled together nicely by director V Somashekhar without losing any of the suspense. Despite this being a typical seventies masala film, the women fare rather better than expected. Although Nalini and Malati are primarily the love interests for Shankar and Guru respectively, they both have distinct personalities and make important contributions to the storyline. Sumati has the largest role of any of the three heroines and I love how her character fights back when she is taken prisoner. Sumati is definitely much more enterprising and capable than her husband who doesn’t seem to have looked very hard for his missing wife.

If you enjoy masala and convoluted plots then Shankar Guru is one not to miss! Rajkumar is fantastic in his triple role and the three heroines are all terrific. The only downside is the rather poor quality of the prints available online and occasionally dodgy subtitles. Still a great watch and well worth tracking down. 4 ½ stars!

Hero (2021)

Hero was written and directed by M.Bharath Raj and filmed during the pandemic lockdown in India with a total cast and crew of reportedly only 24 people. It’s pretty amazing that they managed to pull everything together with such a small crew and despite a rather scrappy and overly violent screenplay, Hero is a quirky comedy that mostly works well. The standout performance comes from Ganavi Laxman in her first film role, but Rishab Shetty is also very watchable and Anirudh Mahesh is excellent in his comedic role.

None of the characters in the film have any names but instead are referred to simply as the hero (Rishab Shetty), heroine (Ganavi Laxman) and villain (Pramod Shetty). They are all broad caricatures who mostly behave as expected although there is the odd twist or two which tend to provide much of the comedy. The hero is a barber who was devastated when his girlfriend (the heroine) dumped him. In response he turned to alcohol and with his continual state of intoxication and depression affecting his work, the hero decides he has to kill the heroine to be free of her once and for all. Luckily for the hero, his boss is heading out of town, and as a result despatches his drunken employee to the local villain’s house to give him a haircut. It just so happens that the villain is married to the heroine, and ther hero takes this as his chance to get his revenge. But when he arrives at the house, the situation is not as he thinks, and he quickly gets tangled up in the heroine’s problems.

The villain is introduced as a larger than life vindictive and viciously evil man. He delights in torture and laughs as his henchmen beat a couple of thugs they have intercepted trying to gain access to his mansion. One of the thugs is killed, while a key group of henchmen head off into the countryside with the final thug to find his boss, thought to be the son of key arch-rival of the villain, Tiger Ponnappa. Meanwhile a doctor (Anirudh Mahesh) arrives at the mansion and is shocked to discover that his patient is not quite as expected. When the hero arrives at the mansion, he finds the doctor desperately trying to fulfill the demands of the villain, his henchmen roaming around and generally menacing the doctor and the hero, and his ex-girlfriend desperately trying to conceal her actions from earlier in the day. Throughout all of this, the villa’s cook (Kiran Kinna) keeps making biryani for the various thugs and rowdies and generally manages to avoid the mayhem.

What make the film work is the eccentricities of each of the characters and the way that they stay true to themselves throughout the rambling story. The villain is evil through and through and his mean and petty nature is taken up by the various thugs in his employ. Each of the henchmen too have some kind of quirk that makes them distinctive and most of these are played for laughs as they try and chase down the hero and the heroine towards the end. Anirudh Mahesh as the doctor is probably the best at maintaining his character as a terrified but strangely determined man who manages to conquer his fear when offered some food, but each of the characters has a specific role to play in the story and a reason to be there.

Some of the comedy works very well, such as the thugs throwing bombs randomly into the jungle as they hunt the escaping hero and heroine. The heroine’s unfailing competence in the face of the hero’s bumbling and general incompetence is also really well done and Ganavi Laxman is simply excellent at making even the simplest facial expression very funny indeed. She has some of the best lines and truly is the real ‘hero’ of the story. Meanwhile, Rishab Shetty is also very funny but the excessive amounts of violence in the story tend to make some parts of his performance rather darker than perhaps were intended, and in the end his final scenes with alcohol are pitiful rather than in any way amusing. However, he still is excellent in the role and works well with Ganavi Laxman to deliver some very funny comedy, especially in the first half. Pramod Shetty is so over the top villainous and such a caricature that even his excessive violence towards a butterfly seems in character – thankfully there is a disclaimer at the start that no animals were harmed! 

Hero is basically a love story where the hero and heroine try to escape from an isolated villa while being chased by a band of bloodthirsty thugs. The first half has plenty of laughs but the film does start to drag in the second half when the chase sequences are overly long and the jokes start to become repetitive. Still, for a film written, filmed, and completed in the middle of a pandemic it’s not bad and I do think it’s hilarious that the crocodile roars. 3 stars.

Rama Rama Re (2016)

D. Satya Prakash’s début film is a classic road movie about an escaped prisoner and the various characters he meets along this journey Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the film is the superb cinematography as each scene appears beautifully constructed with a keen eye for detail, despite most of the action occurring on a jeep travelling through a rather desolate countryside. Add a fascinating story with engaging characters in often surreal situations and Rama Rama Re becomes a road trip to remember.

The film starts with ‘Sandal’ Raja (Nataraj) escaping from prison. In a preview of how the film will unfold, the escape itself isn’t shown and instead the film shows us the prison guards arguing with some labourers about their pay for the day. When the alarm is raised, the prison commander is torn between watching his favourite soap opera on TV and rushing to start the hunt for the prisoner. The corruption of the jail is quickly replaced by hysterical news reports showing interviews with the prisoners and guards that reveal Raja was afraid of dying and escaped before he could be hanged. As the hunt continues, Raja’s picture is everywhere and a large reward of 10 lakh’s is offered for his capture. Meanwhile Raja is shown running, and running, and yet more running, while his beard and hair grow longer as he moves further and further away from civilisation.

Meanwhile army veteran Ramanna (K. Jayaram) is preparing his ancient jeep for a trip. He buys new jasmine to hang on the rear-view mirror which just happens to be wrapped in a newspaper with Raja’s mugshot (a recurring image that is central to the storyline). As Ramanna sets off he meets with a truck driver (Bhaskar Dev) who has broken down on the road. After rather reluctantly towing him to the nearest garage, Ramanna is persuaded to give the driver’s passenger a lift to the nearest town – a passenger who just happens to be Raja.

Shortly afterwards Ramanna picks up an eloping couple Dharma (Dharmanna Kadur) and Subbi (Bimbashri Ninasam) who hide in his jeep. The couple are being chased by various members of their respective families, who disprove of the inter-caste relationship. Dharma also recognises Raja and wants to claim the reward, but the pursuing families, a soldier (Sridhar) on leave on his way to be with his pregnant wife and a group of travelling musicians all conspire to make Raja’s recapture seem unlikely.

Throughout the journey the story briefly delves into issues such as caste, corruption and the limited healthcare available in rural locations. These are never allowed to implicitly interfere with the characters’ journey but are often the reason behind some of their choices and as such do have an impact. The relentless pursuit of Raja and the treatment of prisoners is also briefly touched on but the sensationalism of the media and need for reform are only part of the backdrop to the story.  The focus is on the journey and how each of the characters react to the various revelations and experiences along the way. All of them are flawed and none are particularly likeable which ensures that it is the journey and experience that is important rather than any particular character.

I particularly liked how Raja seems to have devolved as a result of his imprisonment and subsequent escape. He is like a trapped animal, only concerned with flight and doesn’t seem to have any real plan or final destination in mind. This is an excellent portrayal of a man so desperate to escape that everything else has become irrelevant. Nataraj doesn’t have much dialogue, and so it’s his facial expression and body language that are crucial to illustrate his thought processes and focus on escape above all else. I thought he was excellent in the role and that his portrayal of desperation was pretty much spot on.

The character of Dharma is initially incredibly irritating, although he embodies so many common traits that it’s hard not to smile at his various antics. His obsession with combing his hair is just one of these, and he does bring some light-heartedness into the film just when it starts to drag in the first half. The relationships between Dharma and Subbi is also interesting as he promises her the world but fails to deliver. However, Subbi seems to be completely aware of Dharma’s shortcomings and in some lovely pieces of writing does turn the tables rather nicely on him to make sure she gets what she wants. The contrast between the couple and their reluctant traveling companions is also used to good effect to accentuate each of their flaws as the journey progresses.

What I really love about this film is the perfection and attention to detail in each frame. There is so much to enjoy even in the shots of the landscape as the jeep travels through. The TV in the prison at the very start is surrounded by papers and files while the shelves are just as shambolic with files strewn everywhere. With just a few images cinematographer Lavith captures the disorganisation and carelessness of the prison officers perfectly.  I also love the precision of the bicycle with the water jug sitting in front just outside Ramanna’s house, and how this contrasts to the limited and out of focus shots of the interior. The countryside looks amazing, despite being devoid of life and during the journey it almost becomes a character itself, and certainly just as important. Just as precisely, the pictures of Raja in the newspapers are carefully repeated and contrasted to images of his current appearance although his travelling companions only seem to register the mugshot and the reward. It’s all perfectly put together as a visual feast that compliments the action beautifully. The soundtrack from Nobin Paul is excellent and the songs from Vasuki Vaibhav work well to keep the narrative moving.

Rama Rama Re does follow a classic journey template but the journey itself is unique. The story is allowed to develop at its own pace and the characters are quirky but plausible within the framework of the plot. Although the film does drag a little in the middle, the gorgeous images and wonderful characterisations overcome this slight lag, while the end is just as unusual and unexpected as the rest of the journey. This is a clever film, beautifully filmed with interesting characters and very well worth watching. 4 stars.