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!
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Vetagadu (1979)

Vetagadu

K. Raghavendra Rao’s 1979 film is a classic featuring N.T. Rama Rao and Sridevi in a mystery/romance full of stupendous seventies fashion and glorious home décor. Jandhyala’s story seems to have all the required elements but despite having 2 DVD copies of this film that say ‘with English subtitles’ neither my copies, nor the versions available on YT are subtitled, so I’m really just going with my interpretation of events. And there is a lot going on. As well as a jewellery theft, there is a murder, a feud between two rich families, some shenanigans in a tea plantation, a tribal village with a propensity for celebrating by dancing, a cosy villain’s lair and a convoluted plot to expose the criminals. N.T. Rama Rao looks a little old to be romping around the forest and fighting off the bad guys, but he does it with plenty of style while Sridevi is simply stunning as the heroine trying to find out what really happened to her mother. Apologies for the poor quality of the screencaps – in addition to no subtitles the DVD’s are of equally bad quality.

The film starts with Gayatri (Pushpalata) performing a musical interlude for her family, including her husband Ananda Bhupathi (Jaggayya) and young daughter Roja, at what seems to be a house-warming for their new palace. During her performance Gayatri wears a super-sparkly necklace which quickly attracts the attention of the palace’s steward, Sivananam (Rao Gopal Rao). Sivananam hatches a plot to steal the necklace that involves kidnapping Gayatri the next time she attends the temple. However, Gayatri manages to escape from her captors and runs into the forest where she meets Kalyana Gajapathi (Kanta Rao), a friend of the family who lives in the neighbouring palace. Kalyana Gajapathi attempts to fight the kidnappers but is killed in the struggle, while Gayatri manages to give her necklace to a local tribesman before the thugs catch up with her too.

The film moves to the present day where Ananda Bhupathi has moved back to the city after losing his wife, and the young Roja has grown up into Sridevi. Sivananam has taken over running the estate where he runs various shady businesses, including trafficking young women, with the help of his son Hari (Satyanarayana). As with all good villains, Sivananam has a lair, which judging by the fishy view, appears to be underwater and is furnished with the usual accoutrements including a handy trap door and convenient crocodile for disposing of recalcitrant girls. Hari wanders around the tea plantation, acting as a lord of the manner in his fancy suits with matching hat and flower, selecting the women he wants and disposing of them in his father’s business.

Sivananam has grand plans to marry Hari and Roja, which he puts into action when Roja visits for a hunting trip. However, he’s reckoned without Raja (N.T. Ramo Rao), the son of Kalyana Gajapathi and a hunter still living in his father’s old palace. Roja meets Raja on her way to the forest and immediately dislikes his rather sleazy approach to romance. After crashing into her car and harassing her on the train, Raja then follows the tried and true method of tormenting Roja and stalking her to make her fall in love with him, but to Roja’s credit this doesn’t seem to work. However, Raja’s heart is really in the right place and when he rescues Roja from a gang of thugs she changes her mind and the two can get down to some serious prancing.

One night Roja hears music coming from the old abandoned palace, and when Raja investigates he finds a masked man attacking a young woman in the building. Further investigation leads him to suspect something shady is going on, but it’s not until he rescues another young tribal woman and meets her father (Chalapathi Rao) that he starts to put everything together. Since he’s a man of good sense, he enlists Roja’s help with his investigations, and between them they discover the real story of what happened to Gayatri and her necklace.

Of course that’s not nearly enough drama, so added in is a feud between Ananda Bhupathi and Raja’s family as he believes Kalyana Gajapathi was behind the theft of the necklace and disappearance of his wife, resulting in his refusal to allow Roja to marry Raja. There’s also something about a little girl who was killed in a road accident, who I think was Raja’s sister, which may explain why his father was off hunting in the forest when Gayatri went missing. Or may not – I’m not clear exactly how her death fits into the rest of the story. Naturally there is a comedy track too and Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah ham it up between them in a feud over one of the women from the tea plantation. There is also a rather sad and toothless tiger who gets dragged into the mix and is supposedly part of the ‘comedy’, but for the most part Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah play well off each other even if their antics seem rather dated now.

What helps Vetagadu immensely is the mystery-based storyline and the enthusiasm and energy of the leads. Rao Gopal Rao is good as the villain of the piece with a generally benevolent air as he plots and plans his way through various schemes. Satyanarayana is also excellent as his son, with all his affectations which he drops easily once he’s involved in a fight scene. There’s a particularly good moment where he swaps shoes during an item song to pick up some diamonds and has to carry off the disruption to his perfectly matched outfit. I do like his style!

But the real stars are NTR and particularly Sridevi who manages to make her romance with the ageing superstar reasonably believable. NTR helps things along by some energetic fight sequences and a number of good dance numbers including this one in the tribal village where he imagines Roja and himself as the lead dancers.

Sridevi is simply stunning and has plenty of scope to demonstrate the full range of her acting skills Her initial comedy scenes with Raja are good, and I definitely think she gets the upper hand even though she does eventually succumb to Raja’s charms, or at least his ability to get them out of a sticky situation. Roja also gets a chance to turn detective as she partners up with Raja to find out what happened to her mother and the heirloom necklace, vamping it up and flirting with Hari as well as schmoozing up to Sivananam. She’s also gorgeous in the dance sequences and manages to carry off the various ruffles and seventies fashion (even a crocheted dress) with plenty of style. NTR does well to keep up with her, and he’s excellent in scenes where he is chasing down the answers to the puzzle of his father’s disappearance and the mystery of the missing necklace.

Although the finale, where Raja attempts a disguise to fool Sivananam and Hari doesn’t work quite as well, the rest of the story is a good mix of romance and action, just the way a masala should be. I would love to see this properly restored with English subtitles but until then, this was an enjoyable watch, even without understanding the dialogue– worth it for Sridevi, N.T. Rama Rao and Chakravarthy’s catchy dance numbers. 3½ stars.

 

Awe

Awe takes a crack at some familiar material, trying to deliver something new. And it is something new in the context of mainstream Telugu film, far from the usual mass hero driven shenanigans. But it reminded me of a couple of  Hollywood films, and Prasanth Varma is a bit heavy handed and clearly doesn’t want anyone to miss out on his cleverness. This was a film I wanted to love but I was left mildly underwhelmed.

SPOILER ALERT! I want to mention a couple of ideas the film plays with so I will have a few spoilers. But I will leave a few surprises.

Radha (Eesha Rebba) waits at a restaurant with her parents. They’re going to meet her partner, Krish, for the first time. Krish sounds like exactly what her parents wanted for Radha; a doctor, same caste, only child. But Krish is a woman (Nityha Menen). We jump into the story of Nala (Priyardarshi Pullikonda) a down on his luck man trying out for a job as a cook. He is clueless but luckily a wise talking fish (voiced by Nani) is there to help and a talking tree (voiced by Ravi Teja) is there because there weren’t enough comedy uncles in the cast. The episodes spool by. A precocious little girl Moksha (Kaitlyn) has a battle of magic and wits with a rude, overbearing magician (Murli Sharma). A doorman (Srinivas Avasarala) is building a time machine so he can go find his parents. But then the mysterious Parvathi (Devadarshini) arrives from the future to stop him. Mira (Regina Cassandra) is plotting a heist with her boyfriend, and the stress and the drugs she takes trigger interesting hallucinations or maybe something more sinister. In between the scene shifts to Kali (Kajal Aggarwal), a woman in obvious distress who is waiting for a sign.

The stories and their locations seem unrelated initially so the jumping around was a bit irritating as episodes terminate in a cliffhanger. As the film loops back to pick up the various stories the location and times merge into one quirky looking food court, and the characters start to be seen in each other’s worlds. The set design is kind of shoddy and obviously fake which also puzzled me at first. The morse code device looked like a prop from a low budget school play. But like Pizza, a lot of things make much more sense after a point. It’s a bit risky leaving things looking half baked until that clicks for the audience. If you miss all the hints it is spelled out by the end. The one dimensional characters also make more sense once you realise how they relate back to one particular person and how they colour the way the others are depicted.

Because the story is told in quite a gimmicky way I didn’t feel the actors were all able to rise above the material. Murli Sharma is trapped in a tedious story and not even his wild overacting could get him out of it. Priyadarshi didn’t really hit his stride until the latter part of his story. And no matter how I consider it, I can’t see how the fish and the tree fit into the overarching conceit of the film other than to get some more star names on the poster. Rohini was fun and still heartfelt as Radha’s mum, struggling not to let her disapproval break a vow of silence.. Regina Cassandra has presence and Mira is a challenging role in some respects, being an unlikeable and untrustworthy person. She seems like a misfit in the largely family friendly ensemble of characters but may be the most real.

Prasanth Varma was ambitious in his treatment of a film without a Hero. A bit of research on female psychology and gender would have helped enormously with the execution. Kajal was unusually sombre as Kali and did her best to show the confusion and pain of long term mental illness and emotional damage. Her character made one particular choice that didn’t ring true and a cursory Google would have told the writer to choose something else. But having a happy and openly lesbian couple is such a positive change in representation in Indian films, I can’t whinge too much. And good on Nithya Menen for giving Krish a go. She was cheeky, a bit irreverent, loved the ladies and all in all embraced her namesake as a role model. But Krish’s explanation of why Radha identified as gay was more driven by the plot than any nuanced analysis, overly simplistic but I think well intentioned. There is some truth in saying some women could reduce psychological issues if they spoke up about being assaulted and got help, but there was almost no consideration that the better solution is for men to stop raping women. Everything comes back to women having to save themselves.

It’s a good film but I wanted great. I saw the big reveal coming from a mile away, so I wanted more from the characterisation and the detail of living this life. See it and see what you think.