Jersey (2019)

I managed to see Jersey in the cinema when it first released in April last year, but I’ve been waiting to watch it again and until recently I hadn’t been able to find it anywhere online. However, it’s now available on YT in a Hindi dub, which although not ideal is good enough to remind me of what I enjoyed the first time round, so finally, here are my thoughts on the film.

Jersey tells the story of a cricketer, Arjun (Nani) and his struggles to succeed at his chosen profession, but the film is more than the usual under-dog sports story. The film also explores relationships, the challenges associated with becoming an elite sportsperson later in life and more broadly looks at second chances. At the ripe old age of 36, Arjun has a wife, a young son and bills to pay, which is what initially sparks his return to competition cricket. Once he gets back into the game though, his passion for cricket takes over, but there are numerous obstacles to his success. Not the least of these is the question of whether Arjun has the physical stamina to be a professional cricketer at an age when most are contemplating retirement.

This isn’t a film where you have to know a lot about cricket or even enjoy watching the game to fully engage with the film. While the cricket sequences are beautifully, and realistically shot, the film is more about the passion Arjun has for the game and how this affects his relationships with everyone around him. To understand Arjun’s story there is a flash-back sequence to 1986, which shows him as a confident and successful cricketer at the top of his game. Life is going well, he’s in love with Sarah (Shraddha Srinath) and is on track to win a place in the India team. But when his place is taken by someone with better connections and a larger bribe, the disappointment shatters Arjun’s world and despite his coach Murthy (Sathyaraj) urging him to try again next year, Arjun vows to leave the sport for good.

Ten years later, Arjun is in financial strife due to an enforced absence from work from a union related issue. His wife is frustrated and angry with his disinterest and general apathy for life, while his son Nani (an excellent Ronit Kamra) is pestering him for an Indian cricket jersey for his upcoming birthday. Without cricket Arjun has lost his zeal for life and without a career and unable to provide for his family, his world has become very bleak indeed. Desperate to please his son, Arjun plays a charity match but still doesn’t manage to raise enough money for his son’s birthday present. But once he starts playing, despite his age and various set-backs, Arjun is determined to make his comeback as a successful cricketer.

This is a very human story, and writer/director Gowtham Tinnanuri fills Jersey with heart and emotion while still keeping events moving along. The two components, the cricketing journey and the various relationships, complement each other well and the film benefits from Nani’s superb performance as Arjun. Initially he’s impetuous and brash – a typical young man who has the world at his feet and knows it. Later, he completely captures the heartache and depression that comes with Arjun’s failures in life and contrasts this with the passion and excitement that comes with his second chance at success. What stands out is just how believable he is in the role and how quickly Nani pulls the audience into his world. There is a moment where the older Arjun learns he has made the Hyderabad team and his celebration as an older player is a perfect contrast with his exuberance as a younger player. It’s also a pointed comparison between the older Arjun being selected and the younger not making it into the India team. I also liked the way the relationship between Ramya (Sanusha) and up and coming cricketer Nandan Reddy (Viswant Duddumpudi) mirrors the earlier romance between Arjun and Sarah and provides another link between the events of 1996 and 1986.

Central to the story is Arjun’s relationship with his son. The jersey of the film title is the India shirt that Nani wants for his birthday, but which is much too expensive for Arjun to buy.  Ronit Kamra is excellent in the role of Arjun’s son and there is such good rapport between him and Nani. This feels like a true father/son relationship and there is plenty of warmth and emotion in every interaction. Nani’s hero worship of his father is the only positive part of Arjun’s world and it’s beautiful to watch Arjun develop as a father in response to his son’s expectations. The flip side is the father/son relationship between Arjun and his coach Murthy, who has always acted more like a father to him. Both relationships are well written and expertly performed by all involved and I enjoyed finding the similarities and the differences in both relationships.

Also pivotal to the story is Arjun’s wife Sarah and Shraddha Srinath is excellent in the role. Her portrayal is realistic, particularly when faced with a husband who seems unable to do even the smallest of tasks around the home. She perfectly captures the exasperation and hurt of dealing with someone she loves who appears to be self-destructing before her eyes without ever seeing that she is struggling to cope as well. It’s such a true to life scenario and Shraddha gets all those complicated emotions across in her performance. The romance is also sweet and nicely developed although there is a fight sequence between Arjun and his fellow teammates about Sarah which does seem rather pointless and unnecessary. 

While the story of Arjun’s comeback works well and the various emotional rollercoaster moments follow a reasonably predictable beat, the end has a twist that just doesn’t seem to fit well into the rest of the story. I found this to be a jarring note in an otherwise well-written story that really wasn’t necessary. Like any sports film, the overcoming of adversity is enough in its own right, and when added to the well developed relationships here, nothing else was really required, and in fact the twist detracts rather than adds to the story. But that’s a small grumble in an otherwise very enjoyable movie. I really like this film and wish it was more readily available as I’d happily watch it again. Although I might skip the very end. 4 ½ stars.

Sarileru Neekevvaru

Anil Ravipudi’s latest film Sarileru Neekevvaru is an odd mix of action and comedy that individually are fine but which don’t gel together particularly well. On the plus side, Mahesh Babu is excellent, Vijayashanti is an absolute standout and Prakash Raj is back to doing what he does best as a nasty and vindictive villain. It’s an entertaining film but for me could have been better if Anil Ravipudi had stuck to just one idea and made 2 movies instead. 

The film opens with Bharati (Vijayashanti) establishing her no-nonsense persona by slapping a drunk and obnoxious student in her class before moving northwards to introduce Major Ajay Krishna (Mahesh Babu), a bomb disposal expert in the army. After setting a rather somber tone with Ajay in front of the Indian flag, the film takes an abrupt turn into comedy as Ajay is called to defuse a bomb but insists on his side-kick Shiv Prasad (Rajendra Prasad) brewing him a cup of coffee first. Then just as quickly things turn serious again as Ajay shoots the bomber dead after a short chase through the streets. It’s this jerky transition between comedy and action that makes it difficult to connect with the film as the emotional changes are too sudden to be anything other than jarring, even though each works well for that particular scene.

Bharati’s son Ajay is also a soldier in Major Ajay’s team, but when he is seriously injured in action, Major Ajay goes to visit Bharati to try and break the news sometime during her daughter’s wedding. This is another scene that doesn’t sit well, as it seems quite unlikely that this would actually happen in real life, given that there was no need to keep the incident secret. It also seemed an unlikely use of resources to send a bomb expert away to a wedding when his talents were so clearly needed by the army. It’s obvious at this stage where the film is going to go since Major Ajay is an orphan, but the whole set-up is too filmi and contrived to fit naturally into the story.

On the train the film switches back into comedy as Ajay meets Samskruthi (Rashmika Mandanna) and her crazy family. Samskruthi is desperate not to marry her father’s choice of a groom and enlists her two sisters and her mother (Sangeetha Krish) in every more ridiculous schemes to find an alternate husband. Most of this is laugh-out-loud funny, but some portions are simply inappropriate and not at all amusing – there is nothing funny about rape or domestic violence for instance. However I enjoyed watching the heroine stalk the hero for a change, even if it is clumsily set up. Rashmika is good in these comedy sequences, but I kept wishing that I just wish that Samskruthi had been less of a loosu ponnu caricature and had more to do than just chase after Ajay. I’ve seen Rashmika in a few films now and she is an excellent actress so it’s a real shame that she doesn’t have more to do here, especially in the second half. The best comedy actually comes from Sangeetha as Samskruthi’s mother. She has some of the funniest facial expressions and excellent comedic timing throughout, even making her oft-repeated line about being married off at 14 years of age much funnier that it really should be.

It is odd that Samskruthi is such a poorly realised character since Anil Ravipudi proves he can write a good female role with Bharati. Vijayashanti is superb here and her defiance of MLA Nagendra Reddy (Prakash Raj) is very well written. I really like how she is a strong and confident woman who has managed to raise her family, maintain a farm and teach medicine as a single parent. Her confrontations with Nagendra Reddy work well, and her gradual adoption of Ajay seems plausible given her overall character. It’s good to see someone other than the hero get the chance to fight back, and even though she then relies on Ajay to ‘rescue’ her, Bharati still gets stuck in when she needs to. 

There are a number of brief appearances from CinemaChaat favourites including Ajay as one of Nagendra Reddy’s thugs, and Subbaraju as Crime Branch Koti; an investigator who becomes involved when a number of murders are discovered relating to Nagendra Reddy. Rao Ramesh appears as Samskruthi’s long suffering father and Jayaprakash Reddy is excellent as Nagendra Reddy’s father who has very clear ideas about how to get rid of any opposition. The mix of comedy and action works better in the scenes with Prakash Raj and his various thugs, although there is still the odd serious note that appears to break the flow of the film. Part of this harks back to Ajay being in the army, and he repeatedly brings up the fact that soldiers are at the border defending the country against attack, while politicians feather their nests and don’t look after the people they are meant to represent. It’s a fair point, but I don’t think comparing the army to the politicians works as well as Anil Ravipudi may have wished. I can see what he’s getting at, but I don’t think that bringing the army into the discussion is necessary to point out why Nagendra Reddy and his counterparts are bad men.

The film itself is well put together with fantastic action sequences while Mahesh looks fighting fit and appropriately athletic throughout. The comedy sequences too are well put together, and it’s mainly the melding of these components that seems to have been skipped. Sarileru Neekevvaru works as a better than average Mahesh movie thanks to the strong supporting cast and a reasonable storyline, but it could have been just that little bit better if either the comedy had been toned down or the action made less heavy-handed. It’s still a worthwhile watch and worth it for Mahesh, Vijayashanti and Prakash Raj.

Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020)

A new year, a new Bunny film, and this one is a lot of fun. Trivikram has come up with a different slant on a traditional storyline around babies swapped at birth, and then adds in an unusual father/son dynamic on top. Murali Sharma gets to act his heart out, the support cast are terrific and Bunny is on top form throughout. Yes, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is a little slow to start and there are a few mis-steps initially, but there is much to enjoy in this mix of family drama, action and romance.  

The movie opens with two babies being switched immediately after birth. The rich Ramachandra (Jayaram) and his wife Yasu (Tabu) end up with the son of Valmiki (Murali Sharma) and his wife (Rohini). There is some history between the two men as they used to work together until Ramachandra married the boss’s daughter and ended up running the business. Valmiki has ended up working for his old friend and is resentful and bitter about the situation as he feels it’s luck rather than talent which has given Ramachandra his success. The only people who know about the switched children are the nurse, who meets with a tragic accident and falls into a coma, and Valmiki. Sadly no significant jewellery, birthmarks or songs, but obviously film aficionados will instantly recognise the nurse’s coma as potentially important!

The film then moves to the present day where nature has trumped nurture and Raj (Sushanth) has grown up to be quiet, hesitant and totally unable to replicate his father’s business success. Meanwhile, despite Valmiki’s antagonism, Bantu (Allu Arjun) is smart, canny and very capable, although he does have one flaw – he always has to tell the truth. There is some very well-written conflict between father and son as Valmiki treats Bantu badly, while Bantu tries everything he can to get any sign of approval at all from his father. Meanwhile, Ramachandra is desperate to get Raj involved in the business, but it’s something for which he shows no aptitude, instead demonstrating positive disinterest. Thrown into this mix is Appala Naidu (Samuthirakani) and his son (Govind Padmasoorya) who are out to grab some of Ramachandra’s company for themselves. Appala Naidu is a thug who runs the docks, while his son is more sophisticated but obsessed with the idea of taking over Ramachandra’s business.

What lifts this movie above being simply yet another masala pot-boiler, is the relationship between Bantu and his father Valmiki. The sheer nastiness of Valmiki and his determined mistreatment of Bantu is cleverly done and well contrasted with Valmiki’s servile attentiveness when working with Ramachandra. Murali Sharma is simply brilliant here and his total lack of remorse for his actions, the fate of the nurse and his treatment of Bantu is perfectly portrayed along with his innately selfish nature. And while Murali Sharma is outstanding, Bunny too is superb in these interactions, displaying nuanced emotion and plenty of depth to his character. There is a beautiful moment after Banto finds out the truth that really is emotionally perfect, and Bunny plays it brilliantly. Naturally the estranged sons and their various families need to be reunited but it’s not quite that simple. While Bantu fights his way past Valmiki and gradually charms Ramachandra and his father-in-law Aditya Radhakrishnan (Sachin Khedekar), the family is dealing with a number of problems. There is conflict between Ramachandra and his wife, his brother-in-law is cheating and stealing money from the company, and Raj’s inability to deal with Kashiram is also causing problems.

As Bantu becomes involved with the family, Trivikram tones down the comedy and OTT action for some good solid family drama that’s written for maximum emotional effect. It works because the characters are well realised and each acts true to themselves, making the emotions more real and adding to the story.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the romance angle. Mainly this comes from the odd introduction of Amulya (Pooja Hegde) as Bantu’s boss in a new job. When he first meets Amulya, Bantu can only see her legs and is unable to lift his eyes above her skirt level for much of the first half of the movie. For a film that then goes on to talk about it is wrong to fight with women and then treats Yasu’s character so well, this is a significant step back to outdated ideas of ‘comedy’ and ‘romance’. With the odd start, despite good chemistry between Bunny and Pooja Hegde, the love story always feels just a little off, not helped by Pooja’s initially ‘strong business woman’ persona fading into the background as Bantu starts to work for Ramachandra and she is relegated to being simply ‘the love interest’. The film really didn’t need a love track for both Raj and Bantu, especially when Trivikram tries to muddy the waters here too and just succeeds in making both Pooja Hegde and Nivetha Pethuraj appear insipid. 

Even with the incredibly strong performance from Murali Sharma, this is Bunny’s film from start to finish and he really is superb throughout. The stylish star manages to pull off a mullet (just) and despite a distinct lack of hair continuity in the film, he does look very good indeed, especially in the songs. As always Bunny’s dancing is outstanding, but his acting matches up to his footwork skills, and he does an excellent job in the more emotional moments. His comedic timing is also very good, while a scene in the boardroom where he pays tribute to a number of Telugu films heroes is just brilliant! Bunny’s acting has definitely matured, even in comparison to his last hit with Trivikram, S/O  Satyamurthy, which I feel was his previous best performance to date. Here Bunny shows good emotional depth, well-executed action and a real sense of commitment to the character that pays off and makes Bantu appear a genuine and appealing person, rather than just a filmi character.

The dance sequences are excellent, and I loved the attention to detail in many of the songs, like the random background dancers in Butta Bomma who pop up hula-hooping from time to time. The music from S. Thaman is also great and suits the film too. The songs are really catchy even if the lyrics are occasionally a bit odd (maybe a subtitling issue?) and the background score helps lift the emotional moments in the film. There is a real who’s who of support cast as well. Naturally Brahmi pops up, just in a song this time, but we also get Navdeep and the sadly underused Rahul Ramakrishna as workmates of Bantu, Cinemachaat favourite Ajay as one of Appala Naidu’s thugs, Rajendra Prasad as a police officer and Brahmaji as a businessman trying to buy Amulya’s business. Tabu is beautiful and grace personified as Yasu, while Jayaram and Sachin Khedekar are both excellent. Unfortunately, Rohini doesn’t have very much to do as Bantu’s mother and his sister (Vaishnavi Chaitanya) also has a very limited role, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to see their family dynamic developed more. However, there is already a lot happening in this film, and perhaps it’s just as well that the drama is mostly limited to Ramachandra’s family.

Although the basic story is nothing new, the way Trivikram has developed the characters of Bantu and Valmiki is different, especially when mixed in with the family drama of Bantu’s real father. While all the necessary components are here – songs, drama, action sequences and even the luke-warm romance, it’s having a good story that really makes Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo such a worthwhile and entertaining watch. I really enjoyed this film and would recommend it as a fun film, perfect for the holiday season.