Taxiwaala (2018)

Taxiwaala

Rahul Sankrityan’s Taxiwaala is a supernatural comedy based around a taxi driver’s relationship with his car – which turns out to have a few more extras than he bargained for. The film has plenty of laughs, mixed in with a smattering of uncanny moments and just enough to jump scares to keep it interesting, although it does start to falter a little in the second half. Thankfully Vijay Devarakonda, Madhunandan and Vishnu Oi make an excellent team, helping to keep the film on track as it attempts to veer off down a number of side alleys. Their top-notch performances and a well written story ensure Taxiwaala is entertaining, even if it does end with an overly sentimental finale.

The film starts with a few set-up scenes to introduce the concept of a haunted car and it doesn’t really take off until Shiva (Vijay Devarakonda) arrives at his uncle’s garage in Hyderabad, looking for work. His uncle Babai (Madhunandan) runs the garage along with his apprentice (Vishnu Oi) called Hollywood because of his interest in American films. Babai suggests a number of jobs for Shiva, but since all of these involve major effort for little reward, Shiva struggles to stay in any of them longer than a day. So when an advert for taxi drivers goes up on a billboard near the garage, it seems like the answer to Shiva’s problems. Except that he needs a car… and he doesn’t have any money…

Luckily for Shiva his brother (Ravi Prakash) and sister-in-law (Kalyani) come to his rescue and raise the money he needs. With his limited funds, Shiva doesn’t have much choice, but is overjoyed when a broker finds him a vintage Contessa car at the right price. Even though the owner Raghu Ram (Sijju Menon) seems dodgy, and we already know that the car has given its previous owner some issues, Shiva is ecstatic with his purchase and takes time to fully restore the vintage car before starting work as a taxi driver. Although Shiva does well as a taxi driver, it doesn’t take long for the true nature of his car to make itself known and Shiva has to decide if the risk is worth the reward. It’s not as simple as just giving up either, since Shiva is paying for his sister-in-law’s vital medical treatment now that he is in a position to pay his brother back.

What works really well here is the character of Shiva and his petrol-head fuelled love of his car. It’s easy to understand how he falls heads over heels for the vintage automobile at first sight and why it becomes such an integral part of his life so quickly. His girlfriend Anu even comments that she takes second place to the car, and that is very definitely true. Vijay Devakonda has plenty of charisma and he turns it on full for much of this film, endearing himself to his passengers and ultimately the audience too as he comes to grips with working as a taxi driver and dealing with customers. Vijay has great comedic timing and uses it to good effect throughout the film so that his actions come across as totally spontaneous, which is a hard thing to get right. Madheenandan and Vishnu Oi are also hilarious and writer Saikumar Reddy has done an excellent job with the dialogues which really are laugh-out-loud funny. Adding a more traditional comedy actor can completely change the tone of a film and move the comedy focus away from the action, however here Chammak Chandra enhances the story in his support role without taking anything away from the main leads. Also, a major plus is the fact that his comedy comes through dialogue rather than slapstick and his involvement is kept in context with the main action.

Newcomer Priyanka Jawalkar plays the role of Anu, a taxi passenger who ends up in a relationship with Shiva after he behaves chivalrously when she is very drunk one night. After the initial meeting, Priyanka has very little to do here, the entire romance is pretty much all contained in one song, and she doesn’t have much chemistry with Vijay so it’s hard to say too much about her capabilities. However she’s fine with what she has to work with and it will be interesting to see her in a more central role. Malavika Nair has a little more to do as Sisira Bharadwaj and there is an extended flashback in the second half that explains her story. She still doesn’t have enough screen time to make much of an impact but her performance is competent even if I didn’t quite buy into the reasoning behind her choices. The flashback involves Yamuna as Sisira’s mother, Shijju as her stepfather and Ravi Varma as a paranormal professor who explains the concept of astral projection, all of which means that the flashback is rather too long. While the length means it detracts somewhat from the main story, it does provide a neat explanation for everything that has happened so far and sets up the finale reasonably well.

Overall the film looks good and the special effects are well done, especially those centered on the car. The jump scares are genuinely unexpected and mostly tied in with some comedy which works really well. Jakes Bejoy’s music also fits the mood, particularly the background score, and the songs themselves are reasonably catchy. Sujith Sarang provides excellent cinematography and the action is all well choreographed and suits the characterisation of Shiva. There are no big all out fight scenes, but instead plenty of small action scenes, the most impressive of which require Vijay to act against the car. It’s to his credit that he makes these believable with his reactions. Rekhs and her team (credited for a change!) do a magnificent job ensuring that the subtitles make sense in English, and they have also subtitled the written captions, which are so often forgotten in films. I love the yellow font too, which is so much more visible and easier to read than white.

The only real issues here are the long diversions in the second half to explain the supernatural element and a rather schmaltzy finale which all happens a little too easily for me. For the most part the story moves along well and although there are some obvious plot holes I think that is to be expected when talking about something so unrealistic. The best part of the film is undoubtedly the comedy but with great performances and a well written story, Taxiwaala is definitely another hit for Vijay Devarakonda. It’s clear he’s going places too – last night’s Melbourne show was the first Telugu film in a long time that played to a full cinema and the film had an appreciative reception. This is one definitely worth catching on the big screen to get the full impact of the special effects and really appreciate the comedy.

 

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Savyasachi

Savyasachi

I have a theory that Indian screenwriters search medical texts for the most bizarre sounding diseases which they then change out of almost all recognition, blend them together and then use this bizarre hybrid as the plot for a film. That might at least go some way to explaining why Vikram (Naga Chaitanya) is introduced as the surviving half of a ‘vanishing twin’ pregnancy, the inaccurate explanation of which is only one of the fantastical medical diagnoses described in the film. That may not have been a bad move if the idea of a separate parasitic twin living through his brother’s left hand was better explored, but Savyasachi doesn’t seem to know if it’s a romance, a thriller or a comedy about alien hand syndrome, and by the end I was no wiser either.

Naga Chaitanya does his best with a terrible script, Madhavan overacts like crazy and it’s not a good sign when the best characterisations come from Vennela Kishore, Bhumika Chawla (who is excellent as Vikram’s sister) and child actor Dishita Sehgal. The other major problem with Savyasachi is truly terrible subtitles which I would ascribe to using Google Translate except that there are many spelling errors. This makes it even more difficult to work out exactly what is going on, when even the actors don’t appear to have any idea. With so much wrong is there any reason to watch Savyasachi? Well, yes. The songs are good, the flash-back and family scenes in the first half are better realised, and even if Madhavan chews the scenery excessively his exploits as a villain are generally entertaining. So not terrible then and given the general incomprehensibility of the subtitles, probably a better watch if you understand more Telugu than I do.

Vikram is the surviving twin while his brother Aditya was ‘absorbed’ into Vikram during their mother’s ‘vanishing twin’ pregnancy. Aditya still lives on as a few neurones in Vikram’s brain and is able to express himself by independent movement of Vikram’s left hand. All this is described in detail by Vikram’s doctor (Rao Ramesh) and his mother Mahalakshmi (Kausalya) which is just as well as this mishmash of a number of different conditions does need a lot of explanation. However, apart from a habit of slapping buttocks and faces, Aditya doesn’t do much else until Vikram is threatened, when Vikram’s left hand suddenly develops uncanny spatial awareness and super-human reaction speed along with the ability to thrash innumerable villains. So, basically the usual hero ability to fight his way out of any given situation. Vikram even manages a bit of hero-style action himself, beating a group of students during a flashback scene at University, with his left hand tied behind his back. Just in case there was any suggestion that Vikram isn’t just as capable as his intangible twin.

The film starts with a bus crash that causes the death of everyone on board, apart from Vikram, and then promptly ignores this initial mystery for the entire rest of the first half. Instead, writer/director Chandoo Mondeti concentrates on developing a romance between Vikram and businesswoman Chitra (Nidhhi Agerwal), who has employed Vikram’s ad company Artihc to promote her company. Vikram is assisted in making his films by his best friend from school Kittu (Vennela Kishore) and Tenali (Satya) who are aware of Vikram’s ‘vanished’ twin and make allowances for the occasional bizarre behaviour of Vikram’s left hand.

Vikram and Chitra have a history together from their time in college which is shown in a series of flashback scenes. While at college, the two gradually begin a relationship, first as friends, but just as it seems to be developing into something more and Vikram was about to declare his love for Chitra, something happened and he vanished from college, never to be heard from again. Until rocking up to make an ad many years later. Despite this long separation, his sudden reappearance doesn’t generate too much reaction from Chitra, and after accepting Vikram’s rather lame excuses for dropping out of touch, the two rekindle their old romance. There isn’t much chemistry between Vikram and Chitra, but to be fair they don’t have many scenes with just the two of them together, and there is a fraction more sparkage in the college flashbacks. In fact, most of the actual romance happens during M.M. Keeravani’s catchy songs.

The first half also deals with Vikram’s relationship with his sister Siri (Bhumika Chawla) her husband (Bharath Reddy) and daughter Maha (Dishita Sehgal). This part of the film is better, and the family dynamic is well developed as Siri becomes annoyed and objects to Vikram spoiling Maha, allowing her to do whatever she wants, while at the same time appreciating the reasons behind her brother’s affection for her daughter. Bhumika Chawla is excellent as Siri, particularly in later scenes as her character has to deal with a considerable amount of complex emotion.

After all the family background and romance in the first half, the second half of the film totally shifts gear when Vikram returns from a trip to America to find his family has been targeted and his sister in hospital. Suddenly the pace picks up as Vikram struggles to find out who is attacking him, and what has happened to his family. Madhavan is rapidly identified as the villain here, but he plays Arun Raj with such cheerful bonhomie that it’s difficult to take him seriously. Arun also has an oddly weak reason for his behaviour that further undermines his villainous stature, so in the end I felt little investment in the outcome of their struggle. However, Arun does have uncanny ability to be able to find and follow Vikram which is explained by various cloning, cloaking and other electronic wizardry, which at least is slightly more probable than Vikram’s pop-up twin brother’s abilities.

Although the story struggles to keep everything moving forward together, the action sequences work well and there is plenty of energy in the confrontations between Vikram and Arun. While Vikram’s rogue left hand does take over for most of these scenes there is enough variety and challenge to keep them interesting, at least until Arun runs out of disposable henchmen to throw at Vikram. Chaitanya does well to keep his character even vaguely on track, but the uneven mix of comedy, action and paranormal doesn’t blend well, making Vikram appear like a fish out of water for much of the second half. Madhavan’s Arun is too one-dimensional to be anything other than a caricature and his scenery chewing plays into the cartoonish nature of the character. However, Arun is entertaining even if he doesn’t appear particularly villainous and the interactions with his servant (Thagubothu Ramesh) are amusing. On the other hand, Nidhhi Agerwal has little to do and really is just ‘the love interest’ while Vidyullekha Raman and Vennela Kisore play their usual type of characters proficiently and effectively.

I really liked Chandoo Mondeti’s previous film Karthikeya which had a much better mix of action and supernatural, but Savyasachi just doesn’t have a strong enough story and the various side-plots detract too much from the central action. This could have been a better film if the story had stuck to the idea of alien hand syndrome with a better realised villain or a more involved romance rather than trying to add both. This is one probably better watched on DVD or Netflix when you can forward past the slow and confusing set-up and get straight to the action.

NOTA (2018)

NOTA

NOTA is a bilingual political /coming of age drama that ends up a step above routine thanks to Vijay Deverakonda’s engaging performance as a reluctant CM. It also helps that director Anand Shankar adds a number of real-life events to Shan Karuppusamy’s story which gives the film more impact. I watched the Telugu version as there were limited shows in Tamil here in Melbourne, and the switch from Tamil Nadu to Telangana didn’t make much difference despite most of the incidents deriving from known political issues in Chennai. The main let-down is the villain of the piece who is poorly realised and under-utilised, however there is enough here to make NOTA worth at least a one-time watch.

The film starts with a song and a drunken pool party for Varun’s (Vijay Devarakonda) birthday. Varun is a video-game designer based in London, but is home to celebrate his birthday and to visit an orphanage he supports. However, on the way back from the party his car is pulled over by the police and rather than being booked for a drink driving offence, instead Varun is rushed home. Varun’s father Vasudev Subramanyam (Nassar) (Vinothan Subramani in the Tamil version) is the Chief Minister for Telangana, but he is stepping down after being prosecuted in a corruption case. Now as an Australian I’m very used to the top political position changing hands frequently, but here the party makes the choice of the new leader. The situation is different in India where the CM gets to choose his successor and Vasudev picks his own son who is intended to be simply a place-holder until the court case is finished. Varun has no interest at all in politics and just wants to be able to head back to London and his life there, but his general fear of his father ensures that he stays in India and does as he’s told.

Mainly this means Varun stays at home, out of the public eye, and signs whatever documents various faceless party men place in front of him. This he does, without even sparing a glance at the documents he’s signing, until everything suddenly comes crashing down after Vasudev is found guilty of corruption. Suddenly it’s no longer a game and real lives are at stake, pushing Varun out of his complacency and bringing him into direct conflict with the party, and his father. This is where a number of those real-life events are brought into the film, such as the Chennai flood, scandals over the fixing of labels to donated meal packets and politicians treated to a stay at a resort. But there are clichés too. Varun gets pulled into the murky world of politics after a riot where a young girl is killed in a bus fire and her mother’s sooty hands leave symbolic marks over his clean white shirt. His response is an impassioned speech which is overly theatrical and to some extent banishes the authentic feel that Anand Shankar manages to create for some of the earlier scenes between Varun and his political mentor, journalist Mahendran (Sathyaraj). For most of the film however, the dialogues and scenarios are appropriate and create a believable character in Varun.

Vasudev Subramanyam was an actor before moving into politics (of course!) and Nasser does an excellent job with his character. Initially it appears that Vasudev is the ‘bad guy’ as he keeps his family under rigid control, but later events paint him in a more ambivalent light which adds interests to the story. Also good is Sanchana Natarajan as Kayal Varadarajan, Varun’s political rival. Her father is the leader of the opposition party and Kayal is determined to bring down the man she dubs the ‘rowdy CM’ by any means possible, regardless of their previous friendship in college. Thankfully Anand Shankar doesn’t burden the film with an unnecessary romance between the two, but instead gives Sanchana free rein to make her character charismatic and a real challenge to Varun, as might be expected in real life.

Sathyaraj is excellent, as is M.S. Bhaskar as Vasudev Subramanyam’s right hand man, only ever referred to as Bhai. What works well here is Bhai’s adherence to the party line and his uncritical support of Vasudev even though he disagrees with his choices. Also telling are the numerous ‘yes-men’ who all abase themselves in front of Vasudev and act much the same way with his son. However a side-plot involving a financial swindle doesn’t fit well into the plot and the entire thread involving the ‘God-man’ who is manipulating Vasudev behind the scenes is clunky and poorly written into the main action. Inevitably these side excursions start to drag down the rest of the film, and despite some good dialogue between Varun, Mahendran and Vasudev, the second half feels stodgy and is hard to digest. Which is a shame as there is much to like in the underlying political story. Varun’s coming of age within the political system is handled well, and his rivalry with Kayal works well to initiate Varun into the dirty side of politics.

There are only 2 songs in the film and both are modern dance numbers, one for Varun’s party and the second at a nightclub where Varun has been drugged.  C.S. Sam’s music is fine but doesn’t particularly stand out and the generic background dancers add even less to the choreography. I’ve added the Telugu version as this is the one I saw in the cinema, but the link to the Tamil version is here.

If the film has stuck more closely to the political issues then this could have been a very good story indeed. Instead the various sub-plots dilute the impact of the political scenes and it’s only the strong performance from Vijay Deverakonda that prevents his character from becoming just another mass movie hero out to save the world. Thankfully there is more backstory and just enough intrigue to make NOTA worth a look, while the real-life political situations do add another level of realism to the plot. The excellent support cast are also well worth catching as they all do justice to their roles. Overall, not a bad début for Vijay Deverakonda in Tamil cinema and another interesting choice for an actor who only seems to be getting better with each film.