Gautamiputra Satakarni

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For his latest film Krish takes inspiration from historical figure Gautamiputra Satakarni; a king who ruled in the South of India a couple of thousand years ago. Since little seems to be known about his reign, Krish is free to take the few major events that have been recorded and develop these into a plausible story, which he does reasonably well. The film follows Satakarni (Balakrishna) through a number of battles as he consolidates his rule over Southern India, and then moves north to tackle the invading Greeks. As a historical epic, there is plenty to enjoy but the film doesn’t shed much light on the man behind the warrior king despite a few diversions into his relationship with his mother and wife.

Over the opening credits, the young Satakarni declares that the only way to stop the petty wars between neighbouring kingdoms is for one man to conquer them all and thus unify the country. Needless to say, even at such a young age, Satakarni knows that he is the right man for the job and as the film begins the adult Satakarni has already embarked on his campaign. He starts off small by conquering a few neighbouring kingdoms (Milind Gunaji is good as one of the kings here) and then turns his sights towards the north, sending emissaries to King Nahapana (Kabir Bedi). Unsurprisingly Nahapana doesn’t respond well to a demand that he peacefully submits to becoming a vassal of Satakarni, and the scene is set for war!

Satakarni alienates his wife Vashishthee (Shriya Saran) when he takes his young son along to battle which allows for the development of some tension between the two. At the same time, Satakarni is shown as having great respect for his mother Gautami Balashri (Hema Malini), whom he has left to govern while he is off fighting his battles. These two relationships allow for more emotional and character-driven scenes to balance the battles that form the rest of the film. These are epically grand and give Balakrishna plenty of opportunity to make declarations (they’re much more dramatic than mere speeches) while looking imposing in armour and carrying a large sword. He has the gravitas and spectacular moustache required to play the ruler of the Satavahanan empire, although his age does seem to slow him down in the action scenes.

I enjoyed watching Balakrishna as Satakarni and this was a good choice for his 100th film. The character allows him to behave as the usual style of Telugu hero (unstoppable one-man army) but this time he does have an army to back him up. He’s also impressive in the more emotional scenes and his delivery of the epic speeches is very well done. Shriya Saran is also excellent as Satakarni’s wife and makes an impact despite her limited amount of time onscreen. There is the excitement of her reuniting with the king after time apart, their happiness together and then the shock of her young son heading into battle. Although at times she does emote just a little too much, at least the historical nature of the drama allows her to do so. The historical aspect also makes the sight of an older and portlier Balakrishna chasing Vashti around the royal bedchamber a little more acceptable, although I was reminded of portraits of the English King Henry the Eighth and his procession of younger wives. I find Shriya Saran can be a bit hit and miss, but here she is a definite hit and the relationship between her and Balakrishna works much better than expected. Hema Malini too is very good as the dowager queen, dealing with the pesky problems that crop up while her son is away subduing the realm. She does this with grace and style, looking regal and definitely projecting an aura that she is not to be trifled with.

After subduing Nahapana, the next challenge for Satakarni is the army of invading Greeks led by Demetrius. While the scenes where Satakarni plots his campaign are well delivered, the battle scenes are a little more patchy. For the most part when the camera is showing close ups of the action the battles look superb, but there are a few glitches between the CGI and staged fight scenes. These are mainly errors of perspective where there is a CGI view of massed warriors which moves in to show a smaller group of men and horses surrounded by green fields. For the most part the effects are well integrated into the live action and the battles do look good, but the few errors do divert attention away from the overall spectacle. The other problem is that a couple of the battles go on just that little bit too long. Some of this is due to repetitions of the same scene, as for example during the storming of the walls of Nahapana’s citadel but some just seem overly drawn out while Balakrishna indulges in some heroics which would mean certain death on a real battlefield.

There is plenty to enjoy in Gautamiputra Satakarni, even with the slightly uneven mix of plentiful epic battles and intermittent emotional drama. Balakrishna exudes power and authority while the appropriately grandiose costumes and palace sets seem to paint the time period well. Not that I would know if they were wrong, but judging by the paintings in museums I’ve seen while in India, this all looked pretty good! The soundtrack by Chirantan Bhatt is also excellent and to his and Krish’s credit, the songs don’t feel out of place in the narrative. However at the end of the day there is no real insight into the characters and the all too brief glimpse of Satakarni’s achievements only leads to more questions. This isn’t an attempt to detail the life of a famous ruler or to tell the story of a kingdom, but instead is a series of vignettes of what might have occurred, without delving too deeply into the why. Too, Balakrishna plays Satakarni as a regular Telugu hero with all the unlikely ability to stop an army single handedly so the story never feels quite as realistic as it should. But once the drums start beating and the swords clash that seems unimportant – the spectacle and grandeur of ancient India sweep across the screen and Gautamiputra Satakarni charges to victory!

Khaidi No 150

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I thought the original film (Kaththi) was mediocre so I had low expectations. And I was honestly happy at seeing Big Chiru on screen, my first ever Megastar FDFS, and the bonus of subtitles. The audience went nuts when Chiru’s foot first appeared. Apparently I am not the only one who takes a keen interest in Mega Footwear. And the screaming and paper throwing erupted at the start of every song and every fight. It felt so good to be among my people.

The story goes like this. Escaped convict Seenu (Chiranjeevi) witnesses an attempted hit on a stranger, Sankar (Chiranjeevi). He takes Sankar to hospital but swaps over their ID so he can remain free, assuming that the police will let the other man go once they realise the error. Seenu then impersonates Sankar, and acquires a nursing home full of old men from the village of Neeru. As he understand their story, and gets to watch a handy documentary on Sankar’s crusade against the evil corporates, Seenu takes up the fight as his own.

In many ways this is a perfect comeback vehicle for Chiranjeevi. The dual role and the breadth of the action means no matter what his fans want from him, they’re likely to get it. He delivers action, big speeches, garish outfits, and some of his trademark dance moves (the veena step!), all with minor modification to suit a gentleman of a certain age. And most of that is done in the initial prologue section. The dual role means he can play both mass and class aspects of the standard hero, and even asks Lakshmi (Kajal) which she prefers before telling her his name. Sankar wears brainy glasses (HOT. Just saying) where Seenu has a more flamboyant style. There are references both in the script and the background music to his previous films, some of them drawing roars of appreciation from a very vocal crowd. He has a sidekick (Ali), an enemy (Tarun Arora), a frenemy (Brahmanandam as Doberman), and many comedy uncles and familiar actors as supports, dependants, and thugs. He also has an irrelevant love interest. See? Everything!

I was wondering how they would deal with the age gap between Chiru and Kajal and the answer is that Seenu thinks Lakshmi is a childhood sweetheart, but then realises they just look alike. So I decided that young at heart Seenu always thinks of himself as that twenty-something dude about town rather than thinking we’d believe they were actually the same age. I really should be on the payroll to find far-fetched solutions to ill-conceived plot devices…And the fight scenes are grand and full of energy, even though Chiru has long since left his limber acrobatic years behind. The songs also work to cover over the years because they are more a platform for people to worship the Megastar not a display of romance. The lyrics are mostly about how great he is, the choreo is very peacock-esque as he and the backing dudes strut their stuff, and the ladies just wiggle when in shot.

“Ammadu lets do Kummudu” is probably the worst song I will hear this year but as soon as it was over I would have hit replay if I could have. It has all the visuals I could ask for – prancing, colourful outfits, bedazzled Mega-shoes, and a guest appearance by Charan. Father and son look so chuffed to be dancing together. The backing dancer costumes are a wonder throughout. From drapey chiffon to see through plastic jackets, you name it, they had to wear it.

Kajal’s character is irrelevant, and she can hardly dance, so I really paid little attention to her. However. In every song picturisation she wears extremely sensible walking shoes regardless of her dress. So I was mildly diverted and wondered if it was due to her height compared to Chiru, perhaps she had an injury and couldn’t wear the usual ugly strappy sandals, was it some kind of statement. I don’t know. I doubt that this is what she wants to be remembered for but it really is the most interesting thing about Lakshmi.

Farmer suicide is a real issue given pretty superficial treatment by V.V Vinayak, although I appreciate he tried to show the effects of the ever shortening media cycle on long running issues. But the main components of the story felt off kilter. Farming life was overly romanticised, described as a necessary fate, and condemned as too harsh, often in the same grand speech. The speech that got a really big response was one about people being forced out of their villages and having to take crappy jobs in the big cities to earn some money. But the film seemed adamant that people should stay on the land, which I think is a bit simplistic as country kids may want or need to pursue other careers and they should have those opportunities. Sankar was supposed to be a man of principle but didn’t hesitate for a nanosecond when offered a deal to let some thugs kill Seenu if they got him out of jail. It was OK to throw in a tasteless joke that Doberman (Brahmi) had raped 100 women. And Ali in drag is never necessary to any movie ever. And the Megastar presence really dominates so that the reliable and accomplished guys like Nasser had little opportunity to make much of their roles. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to anyone but Chiru!

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There are also some genuinely funny moments. I think my favourite was  when Posani Krishna Murali’s men all pretended to pick up phone calls as he was blustering and wandered off looking busy rather than face Seenu. Or maybe when Brahmi lost his religion during a huge fight scene. I also liked the thinking behind one fight scene that progressed through corporate thugs, oiled up baldy muscle men who looked like an angry pack of Maltesers, and finally the bad hair gang.

Lest you think I am completely superficial and only looked at the shoes, there was an interesting moment regarding justice in this film world. The judge (played by Naga Babu) says that if a single person kills that is murder, but if society kills it’s a revolution. It’s a problematic statement once you get thinking about the mob and riots but it did mean someone notionally good avoided jail time, and the person they killed was bad news anyway. No biggie.

Will Khaidi No 150 make a fan of anyone who isn’t? Probably not. Does any of that matter if you are a fan? No way!

Pssst  – Make sure you stay for the end credits for some glimpses of the famous visitors on set, and Lawrence closely monitoring a dance and giving someone the stinkeye.

Dhruva (2016)

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Dhruva is a reasonably faithful remake of 2015 Tamil film Thani Oruvan that benefits from Arvind Swamy reprising his role as the villain of the story. Dhruva is definitely slicker and glossier than the original, but the story is essentially the same although the emphasis is even more on the two main characters than in Thani Oruvan. Thankfully both Ram Charan and Arvind Swamy are excellent and the cat and mouse game between the two makes Dhruva an entertaining and worthwhile watch.

The film is a thriller that follows the attempts of a young and righteous police officer, to track down and catch one of three über criminals. Dhruva (Ram Charan) believes that if he locks up the kingpin of any criminal organisation this will immediately impact on 100 petty criminals and be more effective than tackling each street thug individually. It doesn’t take long before he discovers that his three possible targets each themselves are controlled by an even bigger villain – Siddharth Abhimanyu (Arvind Swamy). Siddharth is a respected scientist, recipient of a Padma Shri award and all round respected businessman so Dhruva has to somehow find convincing enough evidence to send Siddharth to jail for his crimes.

In the original film Dhruva was helped by his close friends who all formed a posse to fight crime together while they were in training college. However their role in the story here has been reduced and although the friends are still there, they have less to do in the hunt for Siddharth.  Goutham (Navdeep) is the only one who has been kept fairly true to the original, but without the detail of their friendship as background, his character is less effective. This also has an impact on the characterisation of Dhruva who appears more isolated and less of a leader as a result, making his assumption of control of a crime task force immediately after his graduation rather less credible.

Another casualty of the re-write is Ishika (Rakul Preet Singh) whose character has even less to do than Nayantara in the Tamil version. Ishika is a victim of love at first sight when she sees Dhruva, and she pursues him relentlessly, knowing that in a Telugu film eventually her persistence will be paid off by Dhruva finally accepting her love – rather than arrest for stalking, which would be the most probable outcome in real life. Although she is a forensic specialist, this is barely mentioned in the film, and Ishika has little involvement in the search for evidence against Siddharth. Where Nayantara’s Mahima had useful ideas and forced her way into the investigation, Ishika is limited to appearing only as the romantic interest. However Rakul Preet Singh does a good enough job in this role and has reasonable chemistry with Ram Charan, which at least makes the scene where Dhruva finally does admit his feelings one of the better moments in the film.

The film is all about Dhruva and his developing relationship with Siddharth and Ram Charan is excellent as the obsessed police officer, determined to track down Siddharth no matter what it takes. He certainly looks the part, easily demonstrated since Surender Reddy is an equal opportunity director who ensures that for every shot where Rakul Preet Singh appears in a bikini there is a shot of Charan without his shirt. No complaints here!  While Ram Charan expertly channels his inner Salman Khan, he also does a good job of portraying the more cerebral side to his character and his monologues where he describes his theories about the local criminals are well delivered. He’s even better when Siddharth’s tactics begin to hit home and Dhruva begins to doubt himself as he loses Goutham and his every move is known by Siddharth even before he makes it. This gradual erosion of his self-confidence is well depicted and Charan gets the emotions across effectively while still maintaining his tough cop persona.

However, as in Thani Oruvan the real star of the film is Aravind Swamy, who is perfectly evil as the amoral and unscrupulous Siddharth. His callously dismissive way of ordering the execution of anyone from mere bystanders to major players in his plots is wonderfully chilling and his appreciation of a worthwhile enemy in Dhruva just adds more menace to his character. I think he is even better here than in Thani Oruvan, or perhaps it’s because there is less focus on the other criminals and his added screen time lets him play nasty more effectively. Posani Krishna Murali does well as Siddharth’s bumbling politician father and the contrast between the clever but absolutely evil son and his unaware and totally inept father is simply brilliant and works just as well here as in the original.

The story stands up well to the remake in Telugu, even if shifting the focus even more onto the two lead characters does make for a less believable plot. Ram Charan is suitably heroic and the only disappointment is that there is little opportunity for him to show off his dancing skills. The music from Hiphop Tamizha is fine but not as memorable as his Tamil soundtrack, and the songs occasionally seem rather oddly placed, particularly in the second half. Still, the picturisations are good, and the scenery for Choosa Choosa stunning. Neethoney has the best dance moves though.

Dhruva is a good remake of an excellent film and definitely well worth a watch. Ram Charan takes on the role of a dedicated police officer, but one with more flaws than a usual Telugu hero and performs his part admirably. Arvind Swamy is perfect as his nemesis while the psychological cat and mouse game between the two is beautifully played out. Mohan Raja is credited with the original storyline and Surender Reddy has aptly modified the plot to give a slick and entertaining thriller. One to catch in the cinema if you can.