Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi (2017)

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi is a film about friendship that starts off well but unfortunately falls apart in the second half. Anupama Parameswaran is excellent as the love interest for both Abhi (Ram Pothineni) and Vasu (Sree Vishnu), but as soon as she disappears the film loses its way and heads deep into cliché territory before finally backtracking and ruining the most interesting development from the first half. The story starts with a good idea, but there’s simply not enough depth for a full 2 ½ hours of screenplay and by the time the film ends, the story has been stretched so thin, there are holes all over the place. The actors are good, the songs and dance sequences enjoyable and the scenery spectacular, but without any real substance to the story, Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi sadly doesn’t make a lasting impression.

The bromance here is between Abhi (Ram Pothineni) and Vasu (Sree Vishnu), and for the most part their relationship is dealt with well, although the final conclusion does appear rather more artificial and forced. Abhi and Vasu are both likeable characters and their friendship has a solid basis, starting from their time together in school. A young Vasu is able to break through Abhi’s misery on the anniversary of his mother’s death and as a result the two friends become inseparable despite the difference in their social status. They remain friends throughout college although the group broadens to include Sathish (Priyadarshi Pulikonda), Kishore (Kireeti Damaraju) and Sai. But by the time Sathish, Kishore and Sai are getting together to discuss Kishore’s wedding, Abhi and Vasu are nowhere to be seen. Abhi has been missing for 4 years and the friends haven’t spoken to Vasu for 2 years, so naturally there is a flashback sequence to see where it all went wrong.

It turns out that Abhi and Vasu both fell in love with the same girl, aspiring doctor Maha (Anupama Parameshwaran). Initially they approach this problem with the same levelheadedness they have shown all along and come up with a plan to let Maha know how they both feel – and then leave it up to her to decide. This seems a radical departure for a Telugu film, where female characters rarely seem to be allowed a mind of their own, but Kishore Tirumala allows Maha to have an opinion and make a choice based on what she knows about the two men.

Abhi has stayed in Vizag after college and spends his time playing guitar with his band and chilling with friends. He’s relaxed and fairly carefree while waiting for the results of his final exams which is a total contrast to Maha. She’s driven to succeed by her parents expectations and is completing her medical degree because it is what they expect her to do. What she really wants to do is sing, and since Abhi plays in a band what could be simpler than the two getting together?  At the same time, Vasu has gone back to his family who are friends with Maha’s parents. When Vasu meets and falls in love with Maha, it seems to be the perfect match for the two families, and even Maha seems fairly happy with the prospect.

Up to this point the film is good, if perhaps a little slow. And I liked the idea that the girl would get to choose, without any undue influence from either the two guys, their families or even her friends. But it’s after Maha makes her choice and Abhi and Vasu part company that the story starts to fizzle.

The second half sees the introduction of Maggie (Lavanya Tripathi) a ditzy and completely inept wedding planner. It’s amazing that she’s managed to get the guests together and book a venue given her financial woes, tendency to get drunk and general unawareness of what is going on. I think Maggie was supposed to be ‘fun’ and ‘modern’ to make her a contrast to Maha, but she’s simply not either of these, and ends up as a clichéd filmi airhead. This characterisation is incredibly frustrating after Kishore Tirumala starts with better realised characters and a more mature approach with Abhi, Vasu and Maha. It’s literally teeth gritting stuff to watch Maggie lurch from manufactured disaster to contrived mistake while her employee helpfully points out where she’s going wrong. The stand-off between Abhi and Vasu also veers more into rather more immature territory, but that is more plausible, since many quarrels do appear ridiculous and childish from the outside.

Ram is good as Abhi, although not even he can really make a man-band look appealing! Ram looks considerably younger in the second half when he sheds his heavy beard, but otherwise the somewhat subdued rock-star look suits him well. I like Abhi’s casual approach to life and his relaxed attitude combined with a genuinely caring persona, which makes for an interesting romance between Abhi and Maha. Ram and Anupama have good chemistry together too, and the romance, although slow to develop does feel genuine. Sree Vishnu is also good as the more serious of the two friends, although sensible Vasu really only appears once the friends have finished college. His character does work better earlier in the film when Vasu is less reserved and but overall the friendship is a believable relationship, and there is a genuine warmth between Abhi and Vasu. Sree does fade more into the background in the second half, but in compensation the other friends get more screen time which provides some desperately needed relief from the irritating Maggie! Lavanya Tripathi doesn’t get much chance to be anything other than annoying, but Anupama Parameswaran is lovely as Maha and does a good job at portraying the two quite different relationships.

The music from Devi Dri Prasad works well in the film, and the songs are well pictured with some excellent choreography, but the real stand-out is the excellent cinematography. Sameer Reddy beautifully captures the seascapes of Vizag and the lush scenery of Ooty which provide the main backdrops for the action.

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi is the story of a reasonable and pleasant friendship between two reasonable and pleasant men that hits a few snags but is ultimately resolved in a reasonable and pleasant way. Despite the theme of conflict between best buddies, there is no real angst here which may be part of the problem, particularly as the film ends up drifting along to the inevitable conclusion. Good characters and an interesting idea are one thing, but Kishore Tirumala needed a sharper screenplay and a better way for his characters to solve their problems than a ditzy wedding planner. The friendship portrayed by Ram and Sree makes this one worth watching but be prepared for the irritating second half.

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SPYder

SPYder wants to be a clever cyber spy thriller but is more a vigilante story with some bells and whistles. Mahesh is a compelling presence, and Rakul Preet Singh is a good match for him. But AR Murugadoss seems to have lost his own plot in the second half

Warning: Some mild-ish spoilers follow.

Shiva (Mahesh) is wildly overqualified to be an intelligence officer, tapping phones illegally albeit with a government mandate to break that law in order to proactively stop people who may break other laws. Hmmm. He is also a genius software developer. One of his inventions analyses calls for signs of fear and pleas for help. When Shiva gets the bat signal he may go rescue people himself, or call on supporters who know of his sideline. On one call he “meets” Charlie (Rakul Preet Singh), a medical student interested in finding a friend with benefits. Through another call he unwittingly sends a friend to her death. Sickened by the consequences of his outsourcing, he finds proof the murderer is a serial killer. Shiva sets out to find him and obtain closure for himself and for all the victims. What starts out driven by data and psychological profiling soon turns into a series of tactical encounters.

Shiva is judge, jury, and executioner as he knew once people went into the legal system it was pointless. Mahesh plays Shiva as focussed, and kind of grim. And Shiva does so much talking – dialogues, voiceover, exposition… Despite the high stakes cat and mouse game, there are times a lighter touch would have been welcome. The scene where he chased Charlie’s auto, jumped in and asked her two questions, then jumped out and ran away had a nice flavour of deadpan absurdity. But when he ran towards the evil Bairavudu, the fierce emotion and torment he was feeling was palpable. Mahesh is a seriously good actor and I was a little disappointed the material let him down.

For those tracking Mahesh’s reluctant acquiescence to the shameless skinshow, he did wear tshirts, and flashed a glimpse of ankle in some manpris. I feel that the costume designer has been watching a bit of Kpop lately, with asymmetrical tailoring supersized to fit Mahesh’s lanky frame. I am grateful he went the mesh shirt (over a tee) and let the dancers don the mesh pants. He hasn’t varied his dance style from rhythmic hopping and emphatic pointing.

Mahesh, maaaate, it’s not the 90s anymore. The songs make a visual statement but musically they do little to lift the movie. And the English lyrics in Achcham Telugandham are woeful…hopefully deliberately!

A scrap of cloth at the scene of the double murder had traces of blood from 8 more people. And then a character said “and three of them were men”. Yeah it’s not like 7 women had also been killed. Someone think of the men! Also the stalking trope is given a twist but it is still stalking. Charlie confronts Shiva early on but as his mate Varun (under-utilised but highly likeable Priyadarshi) says, she noticed what he was wearing so of course she must have fallen for him. The “but she secretly wants it” explanation left a bad taste as did her cheerful acceptance that it wasn’t a big deal if it was Shiva tapping her phone.

Despite all the macho BS, the ladies fare quite well. Charlie wants sex without silly romantic shenanigans and decides Shiva is just right. She says to his mum “I’m 21. My parents have been married 20 years. I take after my mother!” and wins maternal endorsement to try her luck. Rakul Preet Singh has pep without being a manic pixie. Charlie was assertive and still a bit girly, and it was a pity after the boulder incident when it seems everyone forgot she was in the movie and ran off to the next scene without her. Charlie just gets to stand around in the background a lot despite all the likely issues with professional ethics, police procedure, and common sense. It was a waste of a competent actress.

In one of the best sequences of the film, a bunch of neighbourhood mums and aunties are persuaded to help Shiva in a dangerous rescue. He is in a van driving through traffic as he gives each of them a task, and they get shit done in magnificent style and to great music. The aunties not only saved the day but probably booked in coffee catch-ups and shopping trips as they climbed up poles and leapt across balconies. The audience, including me, cheered.

There’s some glossing over and leaps of faith required to buy in. Technology that can record, analyse, prioritise calls in real time from all across Hyderabad whether on analogue or digital networks and presumably in any language sounds great. But I can’t even get a Google doc to load on my work laptop! Shiva just happened to have a green screen handy when he needed to interrupt an evening soap. And he always knew exactly which of all the variables to choose, just on his gut instinct.

Bhairavudu (SJ Surya) is a nihilist and a sadist. He has no objective other than killing for the sake of it, and feel entitles to inflict pain. He is a creature of death and hatred, born in a graveyard. Surya is effectively menacing when he is passing through crowds or observing his intended victims, a cold hunger emanating from him. But when he starts with the capering and shrieking, it’s just acting crazy and it doesn’t ring true. What was with the hessian gimp mask? He could have done with more restraint, and Mahesh could have boiled over a little more and I think the second half would have been more compelling.

Jayaprakash is Shiva’s sensible dad and I think Dheepa Ramanujam plays Shiva’s sensible mum. RJ Balaji and Priyadarshi Pulikonda play Shiva’s down to earth work mates, both low key with the occasional laugh arising from their reactions to their heroic friend. I think the villains were instructed to overact because Bharath tries to get his teethmarks into the scenery.

You’d expect anything Santosh Sivan does to look amazing, and SPYder is very stylish. There are some good, and some dodgy, CGI effects, and the action sequences are full throttle. AR Murugadoss had a good idea but didn’t work through the detail to ensure the finale was as satisfying as the start of this larger than life conflict. Nevertheless there is plenty to enjoy, especially for the Mahesh fans.

Jai Lava Kusa

Jai Lava Kusa poster

NTR’s latest film takes the main masala ingredient of separated siblings as its theme, and weaves a standard tale of betrayal, revenge and political aspirations with plenty of fight scenes, the odd romantic moment and an exposé of bad parenting. Tarak plays three separate roles in the film, and to his credit he does differentiate all three characters well, particularly given their completely identical appearance by the end. However, with the exception of the child actor (?actors?) three versions of NTR means that no-one else gets a look in and the story suffers as a result. But if all you want is 2 ½ hours of mindless entertainment with big music numbers, even bigger fight scenes and plenty of Tarak, then Jai Lava Kusa ticks all the boxes.

The film starts with three identical triplets who are brought up by their uncle after their mother dies. I couldn’t work out if the same child actor plays all three or if K.S. Ravindra just happened to get three really similar kids (which seems more likely). Whichever it is, he (they) are excellent, particularly in the portrayal of the young Jai. The young actors here set up the interactions between the triplets which will go on to shape their adult characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed their frank portrayal of emotion and demonstration of just how nasty kids can be. At the same time, Posani Krishna Murali as their uncle and guardian shows exactly how not to deal with a child who has a speech impediment and generally fails at being a parental figure. The triplets perform on stage in mythological dramas but while Lava and Kusa are big stars, Jai is denied the same success by his stammer. Not content with ridiculing and humiliating Jai, his uncle also beats him which starts to take its toll, leading to Jai’s suitably theatrical response that leaves all three brothers separated and thinking the others are dead.

Moving forward a few years and Kusa (NTR Jr) has become a thief with a terrible haircut and a hopeless sidekick who soon fades into the background. A car accident reunites Kusa with his long-lost brother Lava, but here there is no need here for amulets, significant songs or other filmi contrivances since the two know each other immediately given that they are identical. Lava (also NTR Jr) is a mild-mannered bank manager with a crush on his marriage broker and after a haircut (thank goodness!) Kusa and Lava embark on a scheme of impersonation to let Kusa sort out problems in the bank while Lava attempts to woo Priya (Raashi Khanna). A scene about the impact of monetisation is excellent here, but for the most part there are some terrible clichés in this part of the film. Hamsa Nandini has a truly awful role as a vamp in the bank while the story itself is pedestrian and treads very familiar ground. What does work is the difference Tarak manages to create between the two brothers, despite looking identical. He keeps the personalities and the voice tone different, while the effects used to let the two brothers appear together work well

The second half is much better as Lava and Kusa find out what happened to the final brother, Jai (NTR Jr). While he still stammers, Jai has become the leader of a gang of thugs and goes by the name of Ravana, with all the symbolism that implies. Jai is totally different from the other two brothers and Tarak plays him with a brooding intensity that overpowers Lava and Kusa whenever they are together. It’s a fantastic performance and works to lift the second part of the film as Jai, in his guise of Ravana, terrorises a village with his gang. With his nifty retrievable axe on a chain Ravana deals out death on a daily basis, but needs a total image revamp when he decides to pursue a political career and win over the heart of Simran (Nivetha Thomas). There is also a plot thread that introduces a rival for Ravana in the form of Sarkar (Ronit Roy) to ensure that there are enough fight scenes and general mayhem for the film finale, while having three versions of Jai running around allows for some comedy to stop the film drowning in too much gore. The film doesn’t ever aspire to any kind of realism so the over the top fight scenes fit right in, and the lack of any appropriate authoritarian response to the excessive bloodshed seems perfectly logical. But it’s the more negative character of Jai that dominates and with plenty of melodrama and a deep voice, Tarak ensures that this is the character you remember at the end of the film.

This being an NTR Jr film there are big song and dance numbers which generally have little to do with the actual story, but which look fantastic on the big screen. Tamannah turns up in an item song, which was better than expected, and for the most part the songs are inoffensive and the dancing is first class. However they tend to appear out of nowhere and do act as distractions for the main storyline.

With all the focus being on the three brothers, there is little room for anything else. Ronit Roy’s character is a standard Telugu villain without any differentiating characteristics, while Harish Uthaman and Brahmaji pop up in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. The other support characters only appear briefly to explain what happened to the brothers as they were growing up and both Raashi Khanna and Nivetha Thomas are under-utilised in roles that have minimal character development. This really is all about NTR Jr and his ability to successfully pull off a triple role with three very different characters. From that perspective the film is a huge success – Tarak is very impressive as Jai and makes me wish he appeared in more negative character roles, given how well he does here. It’s NTR Jr’s film all the way and he carries it easily with impressive performances in all three roles. It’s just a pity that the story doesn’t come together as strongly or leave such an impression. Worth watching for Tarak and for the whole visual spectacle, just don’t expect too much from the plot.