Pushpa: The Rise

Although Sukumar’s recent films haven’t inspired me too much, he was responsible for my favourite Telugu movie Arya 2 which also stars my favourite Telugu actor Allu Arjun. So, the prospect of the two working together again in Pushpa was a real draw, even though the film has an almost 3 hour run time.  And although there are shades of KGF (mostly because the story follows the rise of a gangster), I really enjoyed the film. The fight scenes are stylish and despite the curly mophead look, Allu Arjun dominates the screen in every scene. It’s not going to topple Arya 2 as my favourite Bunny film, but it’s good enough that I’m eagerly awaiting the next chapter in Pushpa’s story.

The film is narrated by Kesava (Jagadeesh Prathap Bandari), a teaseller who decides to follow Pushpa (Allu Arjun) as he recognises early on that Pushpa is destined for greatness. Initially this doesn’t seem all that likely since Pushpa mainly stands out for his arrogance and belligerence. However, these are good traits for a wannabe gangster and having decided to pursue 1000 rupee work (illegal) rather than 100 rupee work (legal), Pushpa’s life of crime begins. A convoluted animated back story over the opening credits explains that red sandalwood only grows in the Seshachalam forest in Rayaleseema, making it highly desirable and a key target for smugglers. This is the work that Pushpa finds, labouring to cut and carry the trees down out of the forest. The Reddy brothers, Konda (Ajay Ghosh), Jaali (Dhananjaya) and Jakka (Shanmukh) run the smuggling operation, selling the wood on to the head of the smuggling syndicate, Mangalam Srinu (Sunil).

Pushpa quickly makes a name for himself by coming up with novel ways to hide the smuggled wood from the eyes of DSP Govindappa (Shatru). The success of the smugglers does require some suspension of disbelief, but the battle between Govindappa and Pushpa leads to some excellent fight and action sequences, mostly shown in slow motion, which allows for a true appreciation of the choreography. Lakshman Chella, Ram Chella and Peter Hein have come up with some amazing stunts and fight sequences that allow Bunny to showcase his fighting chops while the sheer physicality of the moves is impressive.

Pushpa takes it up a notch when he takes on Mangalam Srinu, his vengeful wife Draccha (Anasuya) and her violent brother Mogilesu (Raj Tirandasu) who is Mangalam’s head enforcer. Sunil does a good job here as the head of the smuggling syndicate, and there is excellent tension between Pushpa and Mangalam which spills out into the syndicate later in the film. It took me a minute or two to recognise Sunil as I’m so used to him playing the comedy track, but he is just as good playing a nasty and corrupt smuggler as with any of his previous comedy roles. The rest of the syndicate, with the exception of local MP Bhumireddy Siddappa Naidu (Rao Ramesh), are mainly faceless thugs who have little say in the proceedings and there is nothing new or different in the various struggles to win control. The Reddy brothers are fleshed out more, but essentially most of the villains are two-dimensional and mostly just a temporary roadblock on the path to Pushpa’s future prosperity.

While the story is familiar, the success of the film lies in the characterisation of Pushpa, and in this Allu Arjun is simply brilliant. The character is a departure from his previous stylish roles, and he uses a number of ticks and habits to illustrate a poor man who has not had an easy life. Bunny is always good in action roles, and with less romancing, and shockingly, also less dancing, he really impresses with his total commitment to each aspect of the character. As a child Pushpa was shamed for being the illegitimate son of a rich family in the village and develops a raised left shoulder, which is used to excellent effect in the song Srivalli. Only Allu Arjun could carry this off with such style!

Bunny keeps all these ticks and character traits throughout the film, making them all essential parts of the role, just as much as his long curly hair, overgrown beard and growling speech. It’s an excellent performance that really brings Pushpa to life and ensures investment and belief in his story. Hopefully in part 2 we will get to learn just why his half-brother Molleti Mohan (Cinemachaat favourite Ajay) is so determined to ostracise him from his father’s family, but whatever the reason, the lack of family support is effective in understanding why Pushpa pursues a criminal career.

There is a romance track, but although Rashmika Mandanna is as charming as always, she has very little to do and her character Srivalli is kept one-dimensional and out of most of the action in the film. Her introduction seems to suggest she will have the confidence and resolve to balance Pushpa’s dominant personality, but Srivalli quickly fades into the background and, like many Telugu heroines, becomes a reason for Pushpa to demonstrate his fighting prowess rather than being able to deal with the situation herself. Still, Rashmika makes the most of what she is given and is good at conveying her emotions even with the minimal time she has onscreen.

Although there is less dancing from Bunny, the ‘item number’ with Samantha is excellent and I really enjoyed her performance. The lyrics, sensuality of Samantha’s dance moves and the baying crowd of men all make a statement about the male gaze and I have to congratulate Sukumar for taking this step, even though I suspect the hypocrisy will have passed by the target audience. Impressively, Allu Arjun keeps his left shoulder elevated throughout the dance sequences, which ensures that even in the songs, Pushpa’s character is maintained. Overall the soundtrack by Devi Sri Prasad is really good and the songs are well placed throughout the film, but the choreography is a little disappointing. Perhaps I expect more because it’s a Bunny film, but apart from the quirky moves in Srivalli, I thought the rest was rather routine.

One of the most frustrating things about the film is the terrible subtitles, which right at the beginning describe a Japanese shamisen as a violin and it goes downhill from there. I know I shouldn’t complain, because watching Telugu films with subtitles is still a novelty, but when so much money has gone into the production, it is incredibly frustrating that the same care and attention to detail wasn’t given to subtitling. Below are just some examples, and please Sukumar and other Telugu film makers, I’d be happy to review the spelling and grammar just to avoid the frustration of being taken out of the story due to mistakes like these!

Pushpa succeeds as an action film, but also works as a character film even if it’s only the lead character who is fully developed on screen. The mix of action, dialogue and to some extent suspense ensures that the long run time isn’t an issue and it’s almost a shock when the film ends. The rise of Pushpa is well worth watching and hopefully the next installment is just as good. 4 stars.

Oh My Kadavule

What happens when you marry your best friend? Ashwath Marimuthu’s début film aims to answer that question in his fun romantic comedy Oh My Kadavule. While there are a few of the usual tropes associated with a love story, a road trip and a disapproving father among them, for the most part this is a fresh and interesting take on romance. Ashok Selvan and Ritika Singh are excellent as the two best friends who embark on marriage together and with the addition of a fantasy element and extended cameo roles for Vijya Sethupathi and Ramesh Thilak, Oh My Kadavule is a funny and entertaining watch.

The film starts with a celebration for Arjun (Ashok Selvan) who has finally managed to clear his college exams. This means drinks at a bar for Arjun and his two best friends, Anu (Ritika Singh) and Mani (Sha Ra). During the course of a number of tequila shots, Anu asks Arjun to marry her and since he cannot think of any reason why not, he agrees to the plan. Although Anu’s father (M.S. Bhaskar) initially had plans to marry Anu to a family friend, he’s not at all averse to the match since he knows Arjun and thinks he will look after his daughter well. It’s Arjun’s father (Gajaraj) who is more sceptical since he thinks Arjun lacks ambition and Anu could do much better for herself than Arjun as a life partner. I really like how it’s Anu and her father who call all the shots here, and Arjun just gets carried along. The opening scenes cleverly establish the personalities of the three friends and the discussion around Anu’s marriage cements their relationship while giving us a glimpse into how Arjun, Anu and Mani each see themselves. 

Since Arjun doesn’t have a job, he ends up working for Anu’s father (M.S. Bhaskar) as a quality tester in the family ceramic factory, a job that requires him to test out the strength of the toilets they produce. This is played for laughs, but there is a serious side to the business and Ashwath Marimuthu does a beautiful job in incorporating this into the story in the second half. 

While marrying your best friend might sound like a match made in heaven, it turns out to be anything but. Arjun has no romantic feelings for Anu at all and when he tries to kiss her, he bursts into giggles, while living together doesn’t turn out anything like either Arjun or Anu expected. The couple decide to let the relationship develop at its own pace, but it isn’t long before they are scrabbling and fighting, and when Anu sees Arjun behaving more kindly towards his high school crush Meera (Vani Bhojan), it’s the last straw in a relationship that was already teetering towards divorce. But at the family court, events take an unexpected turn, and Arjun ends up seeking the advice of the Love Court. This leads to a sliding doors moment when Arjun meets Kadavul (Vijay Sethupathi) and is given a golden ticket that allows him a second chance. This time round when Anu asks him to marry her, Arjun says no, and instead is able to start a relationship with Meera and follow his dreams of becoming an actor.

It’s one of the real strengths of the film, that the second half takes brief scenes from the first half and twists them slightly to reveal a whole new meaning. It sounds simple, but probably very difficult to do without being heavy handed and very obvious. But everything here is handled with a light touch and even the familiar development of a romance is given new life with a few different shades added to the relationships. What also works well is the relationship between the three friends. Arjun calls Anu noodle head and there is real affection and happiness in their friendship, which makes it understandable why they would go ahead and get married. The change in Arjun’s perception of their relationship is also neatly done in the second half, while the development of his romance with Meena is also nicely done.

Ashok Selvan continues to improve as an actor and he has more expression and empathy here than I’ve seen in his previous roles in Thegidi and Soodhu Kavvum. He does really well at showing the camaraderie and fondness in his relationships with Anu and Mani, although the romance with Meena is rather more conventional. Vani Bhojan is fine, although there isn’t a lot of scope in her role as Meena. However, Ashwath Marimuthu gives her character some attitude and she does a good job with this while still displaying moments of vulnerability in her scenes with Arjun. The best performance though comes from Ritika Singh who is excellent as Anu. I loved her in Aandavan Kattalai, and here she combines feistiness and compassion perfectly to paint a realistic picture of someone who is doing her best with a difficult situation. It’s a compelling performance and I totally believed in her characterisation of Anu at every stage. One of my favourite moments in the film is when Mani comes in to the divorce court to speak to Arjun, but then moves to sit with Anu, giving the explanation that she is his friend too. It’s this balance of emotions that works so well to make the film more than just another romantic comedy. I also loved Vijay Sethupathi and Ramesh Thilak as the God and his minister who turn Arjun’s life upside down. It’s a role just made for the uber-cool Mr Sethupathi and as always he does an excellent job.

I really enjoyed Oh My Kadavule and really appreciated the care that went into aligning the second half with the first. The mix of characters is great, and for once the comedy friend is used for more than just cheap laughs. The supernatural element adds a rather different twist, and I loved Anu’s character and the way she dealt with Arjun. The only issue with the version I watched was some very dodgy subtitles and a total lack of subs for the songs, which was a shame. I’m not sure if that was an issue with the streaming platform, but at least the subs were yellow and easily visible. Overall, this is a fun film, better than I expected and with the added draw of Vijay Sethupathi it’s definitely well worth watching online if you missed it at the cinema. 4 stars!

Sethupathi (2016)


After the excellent Pannaiyarum Padminiyum, S.U. Arun Kumar and Vijay Sethupathi are back together with a masala cop film, Sethupathi. But this isn’t your typical story with a hero police officer busting heads right, left and centre on the tail of some desperate villain. Although the police officer in question is as rough and tough as they come when he’s out on the streets, once he makes it back home it’s a different story. The film spends almost as much time looking at the home life of police inspector Sethupathi as it does following his investigation into the murder of fellow officer Subburaj. The glimpses of Sethupathi with his wife and children make him a more human hero, giving an insight into his thought processes and ensuring the otherwise routine story has plenty of depth and interest. He may be a violent and argumentative man at work, but at home he is in love with his wife and a good father to his young kids. Sethupathi has the usual chase sequences, fight scenes and general rowdyism expected of a police thriller, but it also has heart and that what makes it such a watchable film.

The film opening sequences give an indication that the police are the good guys. Here are the men you hope to meet when you have a problem – compassionate, caring and protective and doing the best they can in an often difficult job. The victim, SI Subburaj, is one such police officer. After stopping when he witnessed an argument between a husband and wife, he’s set upon by a gang of thugs and burnt to death on a bridge. Although the police officer belonged to another police station, the job of investigating his death falls to Inspector Sethupathi (Vijay Sethupathi), a man whose colleagues describe as a psycho but also 100% honest and incorruptible.

Sethupathi rules his police station with a heavy hand, but although many of his officers seem terrified of him, he has the respect and loyalty of his right-hand man Murthy (Linga). Despite all his bluster, Sethupathi has very clear ideas about what is expected from a police officer and is determined that everyone should follow his line. He tells his men that they should not upset the public unnecessarily although he isn’t slow to react when he thinks a crowd is being disrespectful outside the hospital. He’s infuriated that someone has dared to kill a police officer and expects that everyone will be as enthusiastic about tracking down the killer as he is himself, and when that isn’t the case he’s quick to anger and lets everyone have the sharp edge of his tongue. But for all his barely contained violence, even at work Sethupathi is more caring than first appears. When a man comes in looking for his missing wife, Sethupathi sends the couple’s young daughter away so that she does not have to hear her father speaking ill of her mother. It’s clear that he’s thinking of the bigger picture and hoping for a good outcome for the family.

Sethupathi quickly discovers that SI Subburaj has been killed by mistake and the real target was another police officer, SI Kanagavel. Kanagavel is married to the daughter of local king-pin Vaathiyar (Vela Ramamoorthy) and by all accounts it isn’t a happy marriage. Rather than letting his daughter divorce Kanagavel, Vaathiyar decides to murder him instead – effective but perhaps not the best solution to the problem. While investigating, Sethupathi arrests Vaathiyar who immediately swears vengeance for the insult. At the same time, something goes wrong during an interrogation of two schoolboys, resulting in Sethupathi’s suspension and an investigation into his actions. While Sethupathi desperately tries to work out what happened and prove his innocence, Vaathiyar is out for blood and determined that Sethupathi will pay for his embarrassment – one way or another.

Vijay Sethupathi does masala cop brilliantly here, twirling his moustache and barking orders while displaying all the tenacious enthusiasm of a bulldog on the scent as he chases down criminals. He’s determined, ferocious and heroic – exactly as required for a mass action film. The brilliance lies in the other side of Sethupathi. The man who goes home to romance his wife and play with his children, call home when he’s away on business and send selfies to his wife to let her know how much he misses her. I always appreciate some good white board pondering – used here as Sethupathi tries to figure out why a gun fired when it shouldn’t have, and the many little touches that A.R. Arun Kumar adds in to illustrate the family dynamic. Vijay Sethupathi changes body language, demeanour and his language once he gets home and I love how realistic he appears as he deals with the doubts and problems that he faces every day. Plus of course he’s great in the fight sequences and completely nails the tough cop persona in every way.

Remya Nambeesan is also fantastic as Sethupathi’s wife as are the two child actors who play his children. There is lovely chemistry between the two actors, and their relationship feels comfortable and enduring – exactly as you’d expect for a couple who had been together for a while. This is a much better thread to the story than the more usual ‘romantic interest’ and the relationship provides a structure and a focus to Sethupathi’s actions that makes them appear logical and inevitable. There are hints that there are some troubles in the marriage and issues with Sethupathi’s in-laws that are never fully revealed. I can’t decide if the film would be better with a little more detail or if the hints should have been removed but regardless the relationship itself is so well done that in the end it doesn’t really matter.

Vela Ramamoorthy is a rather pedestrian villain, but then again he’s not really the focus of the film. His attempts to remove Sethupathi are inconveniences rather than obstacles in Sethupathi’s path and the Inspector makes it clear that if Vaathiyar would leave him alone, Sethupathi has no further interest in him. Amusingly the various thugs are rather less eager to jump into battle than usual and with Sethupathi’s reputation their reluctance makes sense, but once they do attack the choreography is well executed.

The film looks good too with some clever framing shots from cinematographer Dinesh Krishnan who uses mirrors and reflections beautifully throughout the film. The music from Nivas K Prasanna works well in the film and is mainly used to further develop the relationship between Sethupathi and his wife or as background music for the action scenes. There are no big song and dance numbers and the film doesn’t need anything so commercial to detract from the actors’ performances. It’s also short, at only 2 hours the screenplay is kept tight and the pace generally fast. I thought there might be some long drawn out revenge at the end, but instead it’s kept short and sweet, totally fitting the character and his approach to his job.

Sethupathi is an excellent mix of action and drama. The crime element of the story works well and Vijay Sethupathi is charismatic and engaging as the lead character. Adding in the domestic scenes is a clever idea that pays off superbly, giving more interest to the central character and a human touch to the whole story. I love that the romance is between a husband and wife rather than a token heroine who only turns up for the songs, and too that the relationship is so comfortable and warm. Definitely a cut above the usual police thriller and highly recommended. 4 stars.