Maara (2021)

Dhilip Kumar’s interpretation of the 2015 Malayalam film Charlie takes the main characters and gives them both more maturity and more of a backstory. While this makes the film more grounded than Charlie, it does remove a lot of the fantasy feel and while on one hand that makes for a more complete drama, I still missed the magic. Maara has a sharper story, with more believable characters and a neater ending. But without the fairy tale element, the story is more pedestrian, the focus has shifted more towards the searches for certain characters and much of the charm is lost.  However, Maara looks just as stunning as Charlie, with excellent cinematography from Dinesh Krishnan and Karthik Muthukumar, while Ghibran’s music is beautiful and suits the film perfectly. With a more mature plot and some excellent performances from the support cast, Maara is more than a remake and definitely worth watching, even if you have already seen the original.

The film begins with a young Paaru hearing a story from a kindly fellow traveller while on a bus. Fast forward a few years and Paaru (Shraddha Srinath) is attending a family engagement where pressure is brought on her to finalise her own wedding plans. Refusing to be drawn into a relationship where her heart is not engaged, Paaru escapes to Kerala and finds a place to stay in a small coastal town.

The apartment has previously been the living space for the elusive Maara (Madhavan) who has left his mark on the town by painting large murals on every available space. The paintings echo the story Paaru heard as a child and she is at once intrigued as no-one else has ever shown any knowledge of the story at all.

Maara tends to flit in and out of the town, helping those in need including a prostitute Selvi (Abhirami) and her daughter Rani (Nakshathra Prashant). Paaru finds a comic book which details Maara’s night out with a thief and is impelled to find out what happened after the story stops at a dramatic point in the tale. As she becomes more obsessed with finding Maara she also finds more mysteries which she uses as a means of avoiding her own problems with her family. Where Maara differs from the original is that we are shown more of his side of the story. The film shows Maara as a child and how he befriends Vellaiya (Moulee) and starts to turn his own nomadic existence into a search for Vella’s lost love Meenakshi. As she searches for Maara, Paaru meets the people who have impacted his life, the thief (Alexander Babu), the fisherman Chokku (Guru Somasundaram) and Doctor Kani (Sshivada), finally finding Vellaiya and the story of his lost love.

The story of Maara is more of a search for Meenakshi rather than a voyage of self-discovery for Paaru. While all the same elements from the original film appear, they are tied more neatly into the background story, and Paaru’s own issues fade into the background as a result. Shraddha’s Paaru is also more sensible and grounded than Parvathy’s Tessa which ultimately makes her a less interesting character, despite Shraddha’s impressive acting chops. Madhavan’s Maara is also less interesting than Charlie for much the same reasons. Despite having plenty of charm, there isn’t the same unpredictability or zaniness that characterised Dulquer Salman’s Charlie. It makes the film seem smaller, less worldly and more a standard drama than an epic love story.

I do think that Maara suffers when compared to Charlie. When considered as a stand-alone film, it’s good and engaging. There are interesting characters, great performances from Shraddha, Madhavan, Moulee and the supporting cast and the story is well told. The murals are gorgeous and add colour and life to proceedings, while the scenery is captured in amazing detail throughout. The social commentary is still there and is probably more carefully developed in Maara, making more of an impact in the end. However, there is little chemistry between Paaru and the elusive Maara and at times the film seems in danger of drifting rather too much. Paaru is simply a way to follow the steps to find Maara and therefore Vellaiya, and we don’t get much insight into why she is so fiercely independent. Like some of the scenes, she too seems to be drifting rather than firmly taking control of her life. I wanted to see more of her thoughts rather than seeing her character simply through her search for Maara.

For me, Madhavan seems a tad too hearty and solid to be an itinerant painter. Maara is less whimsical than his Malayalam counterpart and I found that this gave the character a completely different vibe that didn’t quite gel with parts of the story. Maara is more responsible. He’s less outraged and more resigned. Knowing more of his background story makes him a less elusive and mystical character and the story doesn’t soar but instead, like the bus and train that Paaru and Maara use to travel at the start, merely journeys along to the final destination. It’s still a good story and an engaging film but I did miss the fairy tale element here. I did enjoy the music and the sumptuous colour palate used throughout the film. Great subtitles from rekhs make it easy to follow the story and the animation at the start is some of the best I’ve seen. There is certainly much to enjoy here and despite my quibbles above, I did still love the film.

Overall, Maara is a more complete and polished tale than Charlie, but be aware that it does lack some of the magic. If you haven’t seen Charlie then this is definitely well worth a watch and is an excellent story that is well told. Even for fans of the Malayalam original, I think this different approach gives a whole new understanding of that film too. 4 stars.

AK vs AK (2020)

The premise of Vikramaditya Motwane’s latest film AK vs AK is immediately intriguing; a film director (Anurag Kashyap) kidnaps the daughter of a film star (Anil Kapoor) and then records the ensuing frantic search against the clock as a thrilling hostage drama. While I had a concern that the film would try too hard to be ‘clever’ and ‘edgy’, and not being a huge fan of Anurag Kashyap, I didn’t jump onto to Netflix straight away. But the story and the trailer were enough to pique my interest.  What I wasn’t expecting was just how funny the film turned out to be, or that it would be quite so entertaining – although it does occasionally almost fall into the trap of trying to be just a little too self-aware. The two AK’s play extreme caricatures of themselves (or at least of their public personas), and the film is peppered with references to their real (and reel) lives in a modern take on a meta film that retains a distinctive Bollywood flavour.

The film starts by introducing Yogita (Yogita Bihani) as a film school student who is recording Anurag for a school project. She follows him with a camera when he is interviewed, along with Anil Kapoor, by Sucharita Tyagi in front of a live audience. Anil is talking about his glory days in numerous hit films while Anurag adds digs about Anil’s recent lack of success. The sniping continues until an audience member asks which is more important, the actor or the director and in the ensuing argument, Anurag throws a glass of water over Anil. It’s brilliantly funny and the various references by each to their respective careers sets the rivalry between the two up beautifully.

As the media splash pictures of the contretemps across the front pages, Anurag is beset by problems, with actors withdrawing from his upcoming film (Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a voice cameo) and backers pulling out. But just when the situation seems dire, Yogita comes up with a plan. Next, Anurag goes onto the set of Anil’s latest film where the actor is finishing early to go home and celebrate his birthday. After forcing his way in to speak to Anil, Anurag manages to convince the star that he has kidnaped his daughter Sonam Kapoor, and that Anil has until sunrise to find her. There are just 3 rules: no police, no outsiders and the camera has to remain on. The hunt is on, and as Anil becomes ever more frantic in his attempts to find his daughter, Yogita keeps the camera keeps rolling while Anurag keeps fanning the flames.

It definitely helps to have some idea about the two AK’s and to know something about their respective careers, families and the stories about each. At times the insults cut very close to the bone, but the film plays on this, aiming for the biggest shocks and the nastiest rumours. There are some brilliant moments; such as a scene in a police station where Anurag convinces everyone that Anil is just acting and an extended chase sequence where Yogita is struggling to keep up and the bouncing camera adds to the improvised feel of the film. But at the same time there are some scenes that drag on a little too long and Anurag’s overacting starts to become a tad annoying.

What I really loved in the film was Anil Kapoor and his ability to act, overact and be completely convincing as he changed from frantic father to consummate performer at the drop of a hat. The perils of stardom are shown everywhere as Anil is pressed into posing for selfies by almost every person he meets. Throughout it all there is no question at all that Anil Kapoor is a star. Even when he’s running through the streets, dashing along platforms and accosting taxi drivers, he is never put out by the attention he receives or the demands for selfies. He just smiles, poses and then resumes his search. That struck me as perhaps being the most true-to-life part of the entire film – this endless affirmation of stardom that becomes so all pervasive that it’s not even noticeable any more.

As part of the chase, Anil ends up at a Christmas party where the revellers won’t help him until he performs for them in a brilliant ad hoc dance performance. What makes it even better is Anurag clapping and cheering at the very edge of the crowd. Despite all his digs about Anil’s slide into obscurity, he seems happy to be watching the crowd’s reaction to their hero, or, is he just enjoying the delay to Anil’s hunt for his daughter? The manic look on Anurag’s face tends to suggest it’s much more likely to be the latter. There is ambiguity everywhere, a few unexpected twists and plenty of self-aware backslapping which somehow all works better than it should.

I enjoyed this film much more than I expected. The opening scenes are fantastic and create expectation for a perhaps more nuanced film, but once Sonam is kidnapped and the chase is on, we’re back into more familiar action territory. There is a lull in the middle before the film picks up again, but overall this is in turns funny, shocking, surprising but mostly just entertaining. Be warned though – there is a lot of swearing in this film. It was fun to see Anurag’s DVD library which I remember him talking about at a Q and A session here in Melbourne, and great to see such big Bollywood names such as Boney Kapoor taking part in the action. Other things to look out for are the preponderance of shots featuring images of the actors in mirrors and the glimpses of Jogita and her camera that can be seen reflected in windows, Anurag’s tablet and the car windows. All very meta.

So if you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, that’s still very much entrenched in the world of Bollywood, find AK vs AK online, sit back and enjoy the mayhem. 3 ½ stars.

Rama Rama Re (2016)

D. Satya Prakash’s début film is a classic road movie about an escaped prisoner and the various characters he meets along this journey Perhaps the most outstanding feature of the film is the superb cinematography as each scene appears beautifully constructed with a keen eye for detail, despite most of the action occurring on a jeep travelling through a rather desolate countryside. Add a fascinating story with engaging characters in often surreal situations and Rama Rama Re becomes a road trip to remember.

The film starts with ‘Sandal’ Raja (Nataraj) escaping from prison. In a preview of how the film will unfold, the escape itself isn’t shown and instead the film shows us the prison guards arguing with some labourers about their pay for the day. When the alarm is raised, the prison commander is torn between watching his favourite soap opera on TV and rushing to start the hunt for the prisoner. The corruption of the jail is quickly replaced by hysterical news reports showing interviews with the prisoners and guards that reveal Raja was afraid of dying and escaped before he could be hanged. As the hunt continues, Raja’s picture is everywhere and a large reward of 10 lakh’s is offered for his capture. Meanwhile Raja is shown running, and running, and yet more running, while his beard and hair grow longer as he moves further and further away from civilisation.

Meanwhile army veteran Ramanna (K. Jayaram) is preparing his ancient jeep for a trip. He buys new jasmine to hang on the rear-view mirror which just happens to be wrapped in a newspaper with Raja’s mugshot (a recurring image that is central to the storyline). As Ramanna sets off he meets with a truck driver (Bhaskar Dev) who has broken down on the road. After rather reluctantly towing him to the nearest garage, Ramanna is persuaded to give the driver’s passenger a lift to the nearest town – a passenger who just happens to be Raja.

Shortly afterwards Ramanna picks up an eloping couple Dharma (Dharmanna Kadur) and Subbi (Bimbashri Ninasam) who hide in his jeep. The couple are being chased by various members of their respective families, who disprove of the inter-caste relationship. Dharma also recognises Raja and wants to claim the reward, but the pursuing families, a soldier (Sridhar) on leave on his way to be with his pregnant wife and a group of travelling musicians all conspire to make Raja’s recapture seem unlikely.

Throughout the journey the story briefly delves into issues such as caste, corruption and the limited healthcare available in rural locations. These are never allowed to implicitly interfere with the characters’ journey but are often the reason behind some of their choices and as such do have an impact. The relentless pursuit of Raja and the treatment of prisoners is also briefly touched on but the sensationalism of the media and need for reform are only part of the backdrop to the story.  The focus is on the journey and how each of the characters react to the various revelations and experiences along the way. All of them are flawed and none are particularly likeable which ensures that it is the journey and experience that is important rather than any particular character.

I particularly liked how Raja seems to have devolved as a result of his imprisonment and subsequent escape. He is like a trapped animal, only concerned with flight and doesn’t seem to have any real plan or final destination in mind. This is an excellent portrayal of a man so desperate to escape that everything else has become irrelevant. Nataraj doesn’t have much dialogue, and so it’s his facial expression and body language that are crucial to illustrate his thought processes and focus on escape above all else. I thought he was excellent in the role and that his portrayal of desperation was pretty much spot on.

The character of Dharma is initially incredibly irritating, although he embodies so many common traits that it’s hard not to smile at his various antics. His obsession with combing his hair is just one of these, and he does bring some light-heartedness into the film just when it starts to drag in the first half. The relationships between Dharma and Subbi is also interesting as he promises her the world but fails to deliver. However, Subbi seems to be completely aware of Dharma’s shortcomings and in some lovely pieces of writing does turn the tables rather nicely on him to make sure she gets what she wants. The contrast between the couple and their reluctant traveling companions is also used to good effect to accentuate each of their flaws as the journey progresses.

What I really love about this film is the perfection and attention to detail in each frame. There is so much to enjoy even in the shots of the landscape as the jeep travels through. The TV in the prison at the very start is surrounded by papers and files while the shelves are just as shambolic with files strewn everywhere. With just a few images cinematographer Lavith captures the disorganisation and carelessness of the prison officers perfectly.  I also love the precision of the bicycle with the water jug sitting in front just outside Ramanna’s house, and how this contrasts to the limited and out of focus shots of the interior. The countryside looks amazing, despite being devoid of life and during the journey it almost becomes a character itself, and certainly just as important. Just as precisely, the pictures of Raja in the newspapers are carefully repeated and contrasted to images of his current appearance although his travelling companions only seem to register the mugshot and the reward. It’s all perfectly put together as a visual feast that compliments the action beautifully. The soundtrack from Nobin Paul is excellent and the songs from Vasuki Vaibhav work well to keep the narrative moving.

Rama Rama Re does follow a classic journey template but the journey itself is unique. The story is allowed to develop at its own pace and the characters are quirky but plausible within the framework of the plot. Although the film does drag a little in the middle, the gorgeous images and wonderful characterisations overcome this slight lag, while the end is just as unusual and unexpected as the rest of the journey. This is a clever film, beautifully filmed with interesting characters and very well worth watching. 4 stars.