Darbar (2020)

It’s always a major event when a new Rajinikanth film releases and even though I didn’t get to watch Darbar until the second day, the cinema was still packed for the evening show. But the initial excitement, whistles and cheers quickly faded as Darbar failed to engage the audience. I guess for every hit like Kaala, there has to be balance of a Lingaa and despite the star cast, Darbar ends up as a big miss. Individually each member of the cast is good, but the story just isn’t there, and when you add in some dodgy subtitles Darbar is simply very disappointing indeed.

The basic story is that widower and top police officer Aadhithya Arunachalam (Rajinikanth) is appointed as Commissioner of Police in Mumbai and sent to clean up the city. Why Mumbai? I couldn’t see any reason why this wasn’t set in Chennai, unless it was fear that people wouldn’t like the city being a hive of criminal activity. The opening scenes are of gangland style executions as Aadhithya personally rids the city of various gangsters but each of these seems overly simplistic. When we finally get to see Aadhithya it’s in a standard South-hero-introduction-scene™ where he is completely bullet proof, villains only attack either individually or in small groups, and where the sword proves mightier than the gun. It’s all just very meh, and not even the Rajni factor can elevate this into anything cheer-worthy.

The reason for the bloodbath is revealed and then there is a long flashback that follows Aadhithya’s arrival in the city showing the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the top criminal Ajay Malhotra (Prateik Babbar). Because of course it’s just one man who controls 90% of the drugs in Mumbai, and naturally no-one else steps in to help the hundreds of addicts seen pleading for help in a ridiculously tone-deaf montage. It’s over-simplified to the extreme with absolutely no depth to the story at all. I seem to say this frequently about A.R. Murugadoss films, but there are good ideas here, it’s just that the execution is very sloppy. Too often there seems to be an assumption that the audience will accept anything just to see their hero in action, but no matter how amazing Rajinikanth is (and he is!) there needs to be a story.  With all the slick production values put into the film, it doesn’t make sense that the narrative is badly under-developed with minimal research into some key plot points. Don’t get me started on the medical mis-information here!

Along with all the usual action sequences, there is a sort-of romance track with Nayanthara, which has some promise but never delivers. Aadhithya wants his daughter Valli (an excellent Nivetha Thomas) to get married, but she doesn’t want him to be left alone and even teases him because he can’t talk to women. So Valli points out this random woman – Lily (Nayanthara) and asks her father to tell her she is beautiful. As the start of a relationship it has to be one of the lamest I’ve seen, and from this unpromising start, the whole romance never gets any better. There is an interesting arc though where Lily reports the creepy man who is following her (Aadhithya), and then later Lily’s cousin (Sriman) has a frank conversation with Aadhithya about the age difference. This is actually well done, but sadly doesn’t evolve any further which I think is a real missed opportunity. For her part, Nayanthara glides through the film looking stunning but also a bit of a fish out of water as her character doesn’t fit well into the storyline at all. 

Nivetha Thomas has the better role as Aadhithya’s daughter, and she brings personality and warmth to the role. Her interactions with Aadhithya feel genuinely those of a father and daughter, and she ensures that Valli’s part in the story does make sense. I really like her here and the scenes between Nivetha and Rajinikanth develop their relationship and bring a human face to the otherwise formulaic action-hero-cop persona of Aadhithya. Rajni too is great in these scenes, and I would have liked more of these emotional moments which could have been used to develop the story, instead of adding the pointless romance.

Also problematic is the villain, Hari Chopra (Suniel Shetty). Suniel Shetty is usually a pretty good villain – he has the sneer down pat and I’ve seen him generate a convincing aura of evil even if he doesn’t have the sheer physicality of some of the other classic bad guys. But he is totally wasted here. His introduction scene is pathetic and seems to be out of a gangster film for kids. I have no idea why he was supposed to be such a big shot, apart from the repeated reference to burning a police station some 20 years previously. Again, there are some good ideas thrown in when Hari first gets back to India and starts his campaign against the police, but all of this is weakened by some nonsense byplay with a knife and then completely destroyed by the ridiculous finale. Nawab Shah is reasonably good as Vijay Malhotra, the father of Ajay who is willing to go to any lengths to save his son, but the rest of the villains are faceless and are mostly of the rent-a-thug variety. Interestingly, they all seem to prefer loudly patterned shiny synthetic shirts which I did appreciate as a distinctive style choice for crooks.

The best part of the film is undoubtedly Rajinikanth, and he strides across the (many) plot-holes with panache, charisma and charm. He’s wonderfully engaging to watch and his supreme confidence is always fun, but there is too much reliance on his hand gestures, sunglasses and winning smile. Yes, he’s excellent, but without good dialogue and a convincing narrative, the film is simply a series of set pieces that could be slotted into any other Rajinikanth film. Still, the action sequences are beautifully shot by Santosh Sivan, Rajinikanth looks awesome throughout and the music is good, although Anirudh’s background score is more memorable than most of the songs. I did enjoy the choreography for these but the subtitles for the songs were dreadful! Some are totally incomprehensible (I suspect too literal translations) and I’m looking forward to the film streaming to screencap a few for Paagal Subtitle. It’s baffling to me how such a big production can fail to deal with essential basics like subtitles for an OS release.

I didn’t have great expectations from Darbar, but the film turned out to be more disappointing than expected. I’m glad I watched it in the cinema with a room full of like-minded fans, but I am frustrated by the apparently careless approach to the story. Come on Tamil cinema, Rajinikanth fans expect better!

Avane Srimannarayana

Welcome to the wild, wild West! Sachin Ravi’s Avane Srimannarayana is basically an old-fashioned Western featuring bad guys fighting the good guys over the spoils of a robbery that took place 15 years ago. Although over-long and a little slow in places, this is still a rollicking good adventure that has plenty of action and comedy with just a touch of romance. Written by a team of people including Rakshit Shetty who also stars in the film, Avane Srimannarayana references a slew of other films from Sholay to spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and almost every gangster movie ever written. Think Quentin Tarantino meets Indiana Jones and Gabbar Singh in a small town in Karnataka, and that’s the general flavour of Avane Srimannarayana.

The film starts with a gangster clan led by Rama Rama (Madhusudhan Rao) confronting a theatre troupe who have stolen a treasure the Abhiras want for themselves. Unluckily, Rama Rama kills everyone apart from the Bandmaster (Gopalkrishna Deshapande) before discovering that the treasure is missing. With the Bandmaster traumatised and unaware of what has happened to the gold, the only clue is a garbled message from one of the actors just before he died. But before Rama Rama can fulfil his vow of killing all the actors’ family members and recovering the treasure, he too dies, leaving behind his legitimate son Jayarama (Balaji Manohar) and illegitimate son Tukaram (Pramod Shetty) to fight over the succession. It’s a forgone conclusion though and the brutal and vicious Jayarama takes over the Abhiras and the search for the treasure, while his exiled brother Tukaram starts a political party with a view to one day ousting his brother and regaining his rightful place. 

15 years later the search for the treasure is still unsuccessful, and Tukaram is still trying to outwit Jayarama. But now Inspector Narayana (Rakshit Shetty) and his capable Constable Achyuthanna (Achyuth Kumar) are drawn into the search for the lost treasure while trying to keep the peace between the townsfolk, Tukaram and the Abhiras under the leadership of Jayarama. Narayana also has to battle his own personal nemesis, reporter Lakshmi (Shanvi Srivastava) who always seems to be in the right place to catch Narayana failing in his duty. But is Narayana searching for the treasure to stop Jayarama’s plans to dispose of him? Or is it to appease Tukaram who is also out for Narayana’s blood? Or does he want the treasure to give to the townsfolk, or even the theatre troupe who are stuck in Amaravati, hiding from the Abhiras? Or, as seems more likely, is Narayana simply hunting for the treasure to keep for himself, provided he can outwit everyone else? 

Rakshit Shetty plays it ultra-cool as Narayana, always just one step away from being too clever and having all his various schemes fall apart at the last minute. He is ably assisted by Achyuth Kumar and the two provide some excellent physical comedy that is a mix of situational and slapstick, but works much better than sounds. The action sequences too are often just edging towards farce, but still edgy and exciting with some well thought-out stunts and special effects. However, at times the action team seem to get carried away by their own cleverness and there is just a little too much going on in some sequences which dulls the overall effect. The character of Narayana is also kept rather too ambiguous, particularly towards the end where it would have helped the story if he had been either a bit more heroic or a bit less self-absorbed. As the villains, Balaji Manohar and Pramod Shetty have more clearly defined characters, one being a typical violent gangster and the other a conniving politician, which, although more predictable, works in their favour during the long and rambling story. As Achyuthanna, Achyuth Kumar also has a more linear character arc and he does full justice to his role with an excellent performance that acts as a perfect balance to Rakshit Shetty’s more volatile Narayana.

More surprisingly, Shanvi Srivastava has a novel role and doesn’t follow the usual path of first hating and then falling in love with the hero of the story. Instead she has a major part to play in the search for the treasure and her machinations turn out to have serious consequences for Narayana’s own chances of success. While it’s disappointing that Lakshmi is the only main female character, it is good to see that she’s not simply a love interest but rather a fully fleshed out additional player in the search for the treasure. Although there is just a whiff of romance at the end, it feels more of a natural development and is so brief that it hardly counts as romance at all.

There are only a few songs and for the most part they are rather underwhelming. I feel that there wasn’t enough musical arrangement – given the lavishness of the sets and the intricacies of the plot, the songs feel rather bare-bones and almost an afterthought. B. Ajaneesh Loknath’s background score is more effective, although again I would have preferred more orchestration to match the grandeur of the visuals. I do like the dance moves though in Hands Up and the overall commitment to the Western Genre throughout.

The film could have done with more editing and there are a number of scenes that don’t add much to the overall story. Some of the action sequences too are overlong, resulting in a rather more bloated screenplay than seems necessary. At just under 3 hours  for the international print (just over for the Indian release) the film is a long watch and it does drag at a few points in the second half. However, it is incredibly well made, with excellent attention to detail and the fictional world of Amaravati is richly portrayed. The entire cast turn in perfect performances and the story is engaging with some good and unexpected twists. There is so much that is good here and despite a few flaws Avane Srimannarayana is well worth watching as part of the new and exciting genre of films coming from Kannada cinema. One to watch in the cinema to fully appreciate the sets and visual spectacle of the film, but make sure you have a comfy seat and the large bucket of popcorn.

Oh Baby (2019)

Oh Baby is a remake of Korean film Miss Granny, and although I haven’t seen the original, it appears that director Nandini Reddy has stuck fairly closely to the original story. The film is a fantasy rom-com where an acerbic older lady is changed to her 24-year old self and given a second chance to make her dreams come true. Both Samantha as the younger Baby and Lakshmi as the elder version are excellent and thanks to their performances and the rest of the lead cast this is an entertaining and light-hearted watch.

Baby (Lakshmi) is basically a typical grandmother. She organises everyone in the family, spoiling her grandson Rocky (Teja Sajja), mothering her son Nani (Rao Ramesh) and terrorising her daughter-in-law Madhavi (Pragathi). Not content with ruling the roost at home, she also runs a café in the same college where her son teaches physiotherapy and routinely trades words with her long-time friends Chanti (Rajendra Prasad) and Sulochana (Urvashi). While she adores her son, Baby has a soft spot for Rocky since he is an aspiring musician and Baby once wanted to be a singer too, but had to put her career on hold when she was widowed shortly after giving birth to her son. When Madhavi is hospitalised with stress after dealing with her mother-in-law one time too many, Baby is berated by her granddaughter Divya (Aneesha Dama) who telle her that she is the reason behind Madhavi’s collapse resulting in Baby deciding to leave the family home. But first she has to have her picture taken just in case it’s needed for her obituary and check in on Rocky’s first real gig, during which experience she is magically restored to her youth as the now 24-year old Swathi (Samantha).

Swathi finds lodgings with her old friend Chanti and his prickly daughter Anasuya (Sunayan) who has never liked Baby. Through various coincidences Swathi hooks up with her grandson Rocky’s band and is given the opportunity to finally fulfil her dreams of becoming a singer when the group are given a wild-card entry into a music competition. In the meantime, Nani mourns the loss of his mother, while Chanti, initially distressed at losing his friend, works out what has happened and is keen to support Swathi (much to the horror of Sulchana and Anasuya). There is also a romance of sorts as Vikram (Naga Shourya), the producer of the music show, is also entranced by Swathi and her rather unusual approach to life. But unfortunately Swathi’s new-found youth is not permanent and the situation with her family requires resolution, so it seems as if Baby will have to sacrifice her dreams for the sake of her family once more.

The comedy hinges on the rejuvenated Baby acting as if she is still a cranky old lady, and this is where the movie really excels. Lakshmi is superb at setting up the character of Baby in the opening scenes. She is deliciously insulting and knows just what to say to most get under her victim’s skin, while at the same time appearing to be solicitous and concerned. It’s a masterful performance, brilliantly funny and a side-splittingly accurate portrayal of everybody’s worst nightmare of an ageing relative. When she becomes the youthful Swathi, Samantha takes over and delivers a simply superb performance, perfectly encompassing an old woman stuck in a young woman’s body. Her movements, her walk, and her absolute delight in having normal bowel movements again are spot-on, best encompassed in the title song where Baby re-invents herself as Swathi.

Also integral to the comedy is Chanti as Baby’s long-time suitor, first desperately leading the search for her and then clandestinely trying to support Swathi in her quest for stardom. Rajendra Prasad is terrific here and shows off his impeccable comedy timing while providing the necessary support for Samantha and Lakshmi. Although his romantic overtures are frequently OTT, they are integral to his character and Rajendra ensures that he is always funny despite being rather over-enthusiastic.

Where the film is less successful is in the emotional aspects. Although Ramesh Rao is believable in his role as Baby’s son, the rest of the family are broadly drawn and Madhavi’s illness in particular is quickly brushed over.  Rocky’s blind self-ambition tends to strike a slightly sour note too since he continually compares Swathi to his grandmother, but doesn’t seem too upset that Baby has apparently vanished. Nani teached geriatric physioteherapy which is also used to point out that old people deserve a better deal in society, but again this goes nowhere and has little impact. As too the background story of Sulchana which could have been better used in the screenplay.

The romantic angle also doesn’t fit well, mainly because it’s not clear if this is supposed to be serious or played more for the comedy aspect. As a result, the romance feels disconnected to the rest of the story and ends up as a mild distraction that splutters into nothing at the finale. Another issue is the music which is surprisingly disappointing for a film all about a wannabe singer. Apart from the title song, most of Mickey J. Meyer’s songs, although pleasing enough, are just not up to the challenge of delivering the kind of memorable hits needed for this kind of movie.

However, the film works best when Samantha or Laksmi are front and centre, and thankfully this is the case for almost every scene. It’s fantastic that in to-day’s mostly male-centric Telugu cinema, this is a film that is focused almost entirely on its female leads and works entirely because of that focus. Samantha is simply luminous, she looks gorgeous as Swathi and yet still remains hilariously funny, delivering her one-liners naturally with faultless timing. I always like Samantha and she was the main reason for watching the film, but I was surprised at just how good she was, almost entirely carrying the film with only Lakshmi occasionally outdoing her performance.

Although not everything in the film works, Oh Baby is definitely worth watching to catch Samantha acting as an old lady, and to see Lakshmi light up the screen once more. It’s funny when either of the two are onscreen and with Rajendra Prasad and Rao Ramesh providing able support, the film is better than average. For me this was a great film for the holiday season and a good all-round family entertainer. 3 ½ stars.