Donga (1985)

It’s 1985, one of the better hairstyle eras for Chiranjeevi, and director A Kodandarami Reddy is at the wheel with Chakravarthy’s funky soundtrack blaring. Donga is energetic, pure mass, and spits on the grave of anyone who ever said “less is more”.

Phani (Chiranjeevi) is a Robin Hood kind of thief who steals from the rich and pays off the debts of the poor. Phani’s father Chandrasekhar died of a filmi heart attack as a result of Kodandaramayya’s (Rao Gopal Rao) chicanery. Kodandaramayya is still going strong with his thieving and extortion schemes and has a slimy sidekick in Anjaneyulu (Gollapudi Maruthi Rao) and a toadying servant Rama Subbaiah (Allu Ramalingaiah) plus a resident goon. As a good Telugu film hero, Phani is intent on avenging his family and getting his sister married well. He has a somewhat useful friend or sidekick in Ranga (Nutan Prasad) too. Phani falls for Kodandaramayya’s daughter Manjulatha (Radha) so you know the path to his revenge will be full of complications and spontaneous dance breaks. And that’s without the competition for apparently the only eligible man in town, Anjanayeulu’s son Rajesh (Raja).

Donga is full of action packed set pieces as Phani tricks and thieves his way across town. The fights are full of “Karate”, back flips, slo mo leaping, spin kicks and you name it. One of the things I love most about Chiru is that he just goes for it. It might be ridiculous, the outfits might be insane, but he does his best to stick that landing every time. Phani uses brains as well as brawn, phoning in a tip about undeclared cash to get an office raided by the tax department, and generally being smarter than the bad guys. I found this next bit a little confusing with no subtitles but I think Tax officer R Viswanath (Sridhar) wants to get his sister married well and needs money for her dowry. In the tangled finances in this small filmi world he ends up being cheated by Kodandaramayya who is robbed by Phani, compounding the problem of paying the debt. R Viswanath is found dead and once Phani realises what had happened with the money, that just adds to his drive for revenge.

Phani is of course irresistible to women. I don’t know anyone else who could rock the knitted singlet like he does, so he must have that je ne sais quoi. He steals Manjulatha’s little red car and then sets up a meeting to hand it back. For reasons that are not entirely clear but yet seem to make sense to Phani, he pranks her with this Thriller-iffic dance. Pump the volume up, warm up to avoid injury, move the furniture back a bit further than you think you need to (those lunge slides need some room) and have a go at this!

From the perspective of anywhere but 1985 Telugu film that is so bad it’s awesome. What were they thinking? “We’ve done a lot of Jackie Chan stuff so let’s mix it up a bit…Bond? No, done that to death. Death…Death. I know!” But it worked, she succumbed despite her father’s disapproval.

Radha and Chiru both look like they’re having fun with the daggy choreography. And Radha gets to do more than just sit and look pretty. The costume department really don’t do her many favours but she must have had a very high synthetic fabric tolerance. Manjulatha is often more articulate and decisive than I expected. She is harassed by a creep at the cinema so she belts him and tells him off. It was satisfying although clearly a punchline for a “women are bitches” joke. Despite the occasional toddler tantrum, she seems to make a lot of her own decisions and doesn’t seem to be a bad person despite her wealth and privilege.

Her dad spots her frolicking with Phani and maybe it is the enthusiastic prancing or that she starts wearing sarees, but he senses trouble and warns her off the mystery man. After the usual misunderstanding, tearful argument, unfortunate slapping incident, and some quality time with Phani’s mother, the deal is pretty well sealed. And Phani missed no opportunity to torment Kodandaramayya by showing off his relationship.

Phani goes to see Anajaneyulu but he has no luck in getting Viswanath’s debt reduced, so he says he will pay it all back himself. And goes to work in a quarry, maybe just because Chiru always wanted to try using a kanga. I would have thought stealing the money would be more practical given his skillset but whatever. Kodandaramayya sets up a cross country motorcycle race with significant prize money – and a great opportunity for his goons to erase Phani who is resplendent in canary yellow. Phani takes the dangerous job of laying explosives but the goon I call Coconut Machete tries to sabotage him. Somehow in all the biffo Phani realises that Kodandaramayya may have had more to do with Viswanath’s death than suspected. And in flashback Coconut Machete reveals it was not a suicide. BASTARDS! So of course Phani enters a dance competition and competes against Silk Smitha.

Look at him go! I love these bedazzled wrist guards and gaiters.

Phani is framed for murdering Silk, which is ridiculous. He’d already killed her on the dance floor. He goes on the run and it is on for young and old. I loved the car stunts and the fights, but right at the end the horse stunts, as usual, made me feel sick. What happens in the end? Does Phani triumph? You know the what, but the how is what matters!

Peak Chiru. Quality Radha.  Total mass. 4 stars!

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Trinetrudu (1988)

A 1988 remake of a Hindi “remake” of Beverly Hills Cop, A Kodandarami Reddy’s Trinetrudu is pure mass with the minimum of logic and the maximum recommended allowance of biffo and heroics. Happy Megabirthday 2018!

The story opens with a CBI officer (Nagendra Babu) finding a secret lair in an ashram. DD (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) runs the ashram, and is using it as a cover for exporting “Brown Sugar” hidden inside corpses and, I think, harvesting organs for sale on the black market. A man in a spectacular jumpsuit – my heart leapt for an instant as I wondered if it was Chiru, the outfit is THAT good/bad – kills the officer and business goes on as usual. But the CBI is not done, and despite a frosty relationship with the local police they send another man, possibly their best or maybe not; Abhimanyu (Chiranjeevi). Abhimanyu seems not very good at following police processes, and technically he kidnaps his boss, so I do question his ongoing employment as a law enforcement officer. But he’s Chiru so they let him do what he wants. Evildoers and anyone with flimsy furniture beware!

It’s interesting to see the portrayal of drug culture. Abhimanyu heads to Goa and is met by a local police officer (Satynarayana Kaikala). On the drive home, they are surrounded by scraggly white backpacker types who chatter and shake the car, like super-sized monkeys, demanding money. But the addicts in the drama are children, including Abhimanyu’s little brother who overdosed and died, and his love interest Pratyusha’s little brother. Pratyusha (Bhanupriya) is a doctor or at least someone who wears a white coat and wanders around a hospital. And the hospital proves to be a critical piece of the puzzle as Abhimanyu closes in on DD and the body count starts to rise.

DD is a modern villain with lots of gadgets to help automate his lair and people management responsibilities. He sends disappointing gang minions down the slippery dip of doom, into a cage where their certain death awaits. It’s quite impressive. That jumpsuit guy must be sore and cranky if he’s usually suspended on a bungee in the cage, waiting to do his murderous thing. And what lair would be complete without snakes, and a remote controlled electrified bird cage to contain your adversaries.

Bhanupriya is in good form as Pratyusha. She gets to show a little more than just be a love interest although ultimately she is shuffled to the sidelines so Chiru can get on with being Chiru. But Pratyusha has a profession and family and ideas about her own life. I liked that Pratyusha had no truck with Abhimanyu’s pathetic attempts to engineer a meeting with her. She was quite happy to call him out or to call the local comedy police out to get rid of him. But once they compared notes on the various overdoses and murders, she realised he wasn’t just a weirdo and started having elaborate dance fantasies. And that unleashed the creativity of the wardrobe department.

Abhimanyu has a theme song that calls him Superman and Supreme Hero. There are fights and chases and dances and more fights and gadgets and snippets of ideas from Bond films and explosions and fights galore. All the signs point to Awesome. Chiru gets to do all the hero things in this role from suave ladies man to bumbling Clouseau-esque policeman to dashing stunts, daring escapes, and martial arts-ish fights.

While there is very little of realism in this film, I liked the touch of verisimilitude as Abhimanyu on stakeout looks bored and grumpy and stress eats bananas. And of course if someone bills themselves as a local Michael Jackson, look out – you’ve invited trouble!

There are some other excellent outfits, including this hat.

Sadly for Abhimanyu, the hat completely failed as a disguise and he ended up drugged and tied to the railway tracks. Adding insult to injury, he was rescued by Tony (Brahmi, with comedy teeth). But generally Abhimanyu gets himself into and out of hot water with no assistance required. The fight scenes are high on “Karate” and low on gravity. Perfect.

Abhimanyu swears a bit, and Chiru delivers every epithet with delightfully plummy tones, enunciating each syllable lovingly and loudly. “BASTARD!” is on high rotation and he really does roar. But you know how it goes. One minute you’re prancing around swearing with vim and vigour, next you’re hurtling down the doom tube to the thunder dome to fight to the death to save your patient Ma (Annapurna).

At just under 2 ½ hours Trinetrudu is a little over long. But what to cut? I couldn’t bear to see the balloon escape go….or the bungee fight….or the hospital anaesthetic scuffle…

There’s no doubt as to how Trinetrudu is going to end, but it’s quite the ride to get there! 3 ½ stars!

 

Veta (1986)

 

Veta DVD

Let me summarise the plot. It’s The Chiru of Monte Cristo.

A Kodandarami Reddy and the Paruchuri brothers transpose the Dumas classic to a pre-Independence India that still seems somewhat out of time. Maybe it’s all the ruffled shirts. Or lack of credible historical detail.

Pratap (Chiranjeevi) is an honest merchant seaman/maître d’, framed and sent to jail merely to protect the self-interest of others. His pre-incarceration outfits tend towards the Purple Rain era Prince influenced. Purple, ruffles, fancy boots, metallic mesh puffy sleeves. OK maybe that last one was purely the wardrobe team.

Saroja (Jayaprada) is related to, but not interested in relations with, Jairam (Mohan Sharma) an officer of the British Government. She loves Pratap and they do a lot of frolicking on the beach. Jairam leans on Bannerjee (Ranganath) to send Pratap to jail for the term of his natural life. Pratap tries to escape but is hunted down like a blindingly white trousered prancing thing. They truss him on the truck like a hood ornament or hunting trophy, and off he goes. Eventually Pratap hears sounds from the next cell. My note here reads “OMG he uses a broken cup to cut through solid rock. Of course.”

Mahendra Bhoopati (Kongara Jaggaiah) is the king next door, also in jail thanks to sleazy Jairam. He explains to still innocent Pratap who all had conspired to get him locked up. That lights a fire under Pratap and he vows revenge. He also promises to seek out the king’s daughter Jyotirmayi and restore her fortune and title. The map to the treasure is written in blood. Of course.

Pratap escapes and is rescued by quasi pirates who take him to the secret island location to find the treasure. There are so many plastic skulls…One pirate is eaten by cannibal tribesmen. But they bite off more than they can chew when they attack Pratap. Yes, I went there! Do note that if you are attacked by cannibals, it pays to have a cobra handy.

Many questions occurred to me throughout this episode, and I do not recall the same level of WTFery in the original text. How the hell did Mahendra Bhoopati get that huge trunk into this cave surrounded by all those perils? Did he have the cannibals installed later? How do Pratap’s clothes stay so white?

Pratap returns to civilisation as the mysterious Rana Pratap Kumar Varma. In a vague nod to realism, people do seem to recognise his face even if they talk themselves out of it. Saroja knows exactly who he is, even without the Significant Ring, but doesn’t tell her husband, the unlovely Jairam. Pratap is enraged at her faithlessness despite knowing she thought he was dead, and his anger makes him really bad at maths. Saroja has a young son and Pratap doesn’t even consider the kid could be his. Saroja tells him but he is too far into his rage to believe her. Jyotirmayi (Sumalatha) has feelings for Pratap but she can see he is not emotionally available. That doesn’t stop her from imagining him shaking his moneymaker in a tribal extravaganza.

My note here reads “OMG Pratap stabs Banerjee with his BARE HAND. His Red Right Hand!”

Veta-Pratap and Jyotirmayi

Eventually Pratap goes Rambo and takes his revenge. He is ably supported by the knife throwing Jyotirmayi and hampered by the clueless and obedient Saroja. The guns look super fake, Pratap survives being trampled by horses, it is all insane and exactly as expected. Even Jayaprada’s saree seems to have super protective properties as she did survive a rocket launcher attack unscathed. Once.

Chiranjeevi is more than up to the requirements of wearing outrageous outfits, chasing horses, prancing mightily, and emoting fiercely. He sounds so sincere in every big speech, and despite the silly trappings he does portray the darker side of Pratap’s character once he is set on revenge.

Jayaprada makes a stronger impression in the latter part of the film, when Pratap returns from the dead. She is no longer the demure young girl with horrible fashion sense. She has lived through loss and she knows what her priorities are. Her scenes with Chiranjeevi crackle with emotion and pain. I am often impressed by how good the good bits of a potboiler can be.

Sumalatha is world weary and a bit over it all as Jyotirmayi, and despite minimal dialogue and screen time she makes something of her character. And Jyotirmayi had excellent song costume imagination.

The song picturisations range from the usual cavorting on hillsides to more epic fantasies. Often the song picturisations are a heroine’s fantasy but in Veta Chiru dresses himself in his songs and his happy memories seem to consist of flinging himself around in ruffled shirts or the mindboggling Fauxgyptian oasis. In the Oh Rani song Jayaprada has to frolic in a wet white saree so Chiru frolics in snug white pants. Equality in action.

I really didn’t know what to expect from this film other than I’d watch it because of Chiranjeevi. It’s not exactly good but it is highly enjoyable and visually pleasing. I like both Jayaprada and Sumalatha and their characters do more than just wait and simper, and the Megastar is suitably over the top heroic. I was sitting there thinking to myself that the stunts were unusually human centric with nary an injured horse in sight and then in the last 7 minutes or so the horses started toppling. It’s just so wrenching to watch.

See this to round out your education in film adaptations of classic literature, to see a robust sample of ruffled shirts to inform your wardrobe choices, or just because you aren’t sure if I am exaggerating the WTFery or being unusually understated. 3 stars!

P.S The film is on Youtube with subtitles.