Stuartpuram Police Station

Life sometimes throws disappointments my way; shoes that I love on sale but not in my size, clothes with fake pockets, and now Stuartpuram Police Station.

Despite having a top notch cast that includes pretty much everyone you’d expect to see in a 1991 mass film and a good story, which he wrote, Yandamoori Veerendranath makes a muddled mess of a movie.

Rana Pratap (Chiranjeevi) is an honest cop who believes in justice. He returns to his home town of Stuartpuram to find that crooks run the show, and the police are their stooges. This will not do. No. Well, eventually. When Rana Pratap takes time to focus on The Law and not so much on The Ladies. His affections are divided between Alaknanda (Vijayashanti), a sweet and religious girl who is prone to fainting and bursts of focussed violence, and Nirosha, local thief and girl about town.

Chiranjeevi’s introduction was cleverly done through a close up of a very high tech cassette Walkman and headphones. It could only be CHIRU!!!! listening to Sunny by Boney M. So appropriate and yet that levity is not carried through. Rana Pratap is quite dour, and fluctuates between obsessing about how to get his hands on the baddies and obsessing about how to get his hands on Alaknanda. He does all the things that in a non-hero would be called villainous. He bribes a priest to give Alaknanda false advice. He uses Nirosha to set up various criminals and to populate his dance sequences. But really it’s all about loving your family. Rana Pratap’s father was a falsely convicted thief, framed by the same crooked politicians and the like who are still running the show. And Rana had to watch his dad be hanged. So he has a lot of emotional baggage and a reason to want to bring justice to his home.

This is clearly in dire need of Mega Justice. Chiru has good hero skills. He can shoot a knife being thrown at him out of the air, catch it and throw it back at his assailant. The action sequences have their moments but often make even less sense than you’d expect from what is a fairly sane storyline. Rana is lured out to a deserted factory complex where Alaknanda is being molested by a gang of rowdies. Soon Chiru is also tied up but for some reason, perhaps union rules, the rowdies stop rowdying to go get drunk and presumably more rowdy. He coaches Alaknanda to lure them over with some wiggling and grimacing so he can…blatantly chew through the ropes on his wrists and then go the biffo. Perhaps he could have just done that himself without placing her in even more peril. However I liked the way she head-butted one guy who tried to kiss her so the scene is not without compensations. A bit of a drawn out but still fun fight scene ensues and then he…shoots Alaknanda free because who wants to walk a whole 3 metres to safely untie her bonds. A fight with the Big Baddie takes place in an abandoned warehouse full of gas cylinders. What could possibly go wrong! The gas is more of a dry ice fog and the villain decides fighting half naked and wearing a hockey mask is the go. WHY?!?! And Chiru keeps most of his kit on, WHY!?!?!

On the downside Rana Pratap also has the slap happy intolerance for criticism that comes with being a Mass hero and even belts Alaknanda. Not cool. Rana Pratap is a role Chiru can play in his sleep. Perhaps he did. It took 2 hours before Chiru let rip with the one decent “you bastard!” of the film. And it took some major carnage for Rana Pratap to realise that perhaps this story was bigger than just him.

Other than the actual plot Rana Pratap is fixated on that old chestnut. Does he want an angel in the streets or a devil in the sheets? Both? Neither? A little from column A and a little from column B? He certainly makes no secret of his interest in Alaknanda but he doesn’t exactly chase Nirosha away. And he seems even less decisive when they try to swap characteristics. They just don’t understand how this works – he doesn’t want one woman who is everything, he wants all the women who add up to nothing.

Alaknanda is a frustrating character. On the one hand she is religious to the point of it becoming superstition. On the other hand, her credulity allows her to believe Rana Pratap’s rev up speech and go beating up a load of sleazy men at the market.

I feel Vijayashanti really put her all into belting a bloke with a whole bunch of bananas. Being such a delicate young lady, Chiru had to tell Alaknanda where the guy’s nuts were of course. But she quickly learned to stand up for herself, kick arse and take names. She was essential to defeating the baddies in fact. However Rana basically conned Alaknanda into sneaking into his bed, so he is bad news for some forms of agency.

Nirosha is a good match for Chiranjeevi in many ways. She wears fancy high heeled boots even when climbing trees. She likes denim and he loves denim. She steals his uniform and dresses up as Rana Pratap. The lower Rana Pratap unbuttons his shirt the more effective he seems to be at fighting crime and the lower Nirosha unbuttons hers the more compelling her arguments become. They both have higher Brahmi tolerance than I do. And she is game with the choreography, even though their first duet looks more like assorted penguin courtship rituals than The Art of Dance.

Song wise I think Nirosha might in front because she gets to be in the craptacular Bank of Beauty song, which is Chiru’s blingiest and most fun number for this film. She and Alaknanda were both instrumental in the big finale, and it was nice to see the nominal bad girl might have a bright future.

There are really no surprises in the story. Some scenes appear to be hamfisted attempts to recreate something that took Yandamoori’s eye in another movie and that are not really necessary. The flashbacks are long and misjudged. The fight scenes and some of the violence is quite graphic as people are stabbed, shot, set on fire or hacked at with axes and yet it lacks impact in a dramatic sense. Also the framing is often odd, with all the people crammed in to one corner of the screen or missing the top of their heads, with occasional weird jerky transitions and they stealthily try and get everyone back in the shot. Despite all the mayhem, it’s not compelling unless Chiru is on the screen. And even then it’s a struggle to go the distance with this film.

The cast is solid, the idea was good. What a shame. 2 ½ stars!

Bonus pic – this might have been a reasonable cake. But a baddie had to spoil everything by cutting it with a knife coated in blood. Sigh. Another waste of effort.

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Kolamavu Kokila

Kolamavu Kokila

Nelson’s début film is a dark comedy that unusually for Tamil cinema, has a female lead and a strongly female-centric storyline.  Nayanthara is the titular Kokila who gets caught up in the drug trade when she needs to raise some money fast, but the success of the film is really down to the strong performances from Saranya Ponvannan and Yogi Babu, along with the family dynamics which help to keep the story grounded. I did struggle a little with some of the comedy as my DVD is not subtitled and the only subs I could find online were patchy and rarely made sense, but for the most part the story is self-explanatory and relatively easy to follow.

The film starts with gangster Bhai (Hareesh Peradi) flexing his muscles and getting rid of a police officer who has been interfering with his cocaine operation. Having convinced us that the drug dealers are a vicious bunch best avoided, the film then introduces Kokila (Nayanthara) who is looking for an increase in her sales assistant salary. She’s the main breadwinner in her family as her father’s job as an ATM security job doesn’t pay well and with her sister at college, every penny counts. However, her sleazy boss suggests that the only way she will get a raise is if she meets him after work and makes it worth his while, so Kokila promptly leaves her job to look for something more rewarding. She ends up working as the manager of a massage company which pays much better and seems to have less risk of sexual harassment. But things take a turn for the worse after Kokila’s mother (Saranya Ponvannan) is diagnosed with lung cancer and the family needs to raise 15 lakhs for her treatment.

These introductory scenes work well to introduce the different characters and give a quick sense of who they are. Although Kokila’s father (R.S. Shivaji) has little part to play in proceedings, his passive acceptance of his lot in life illustrates just why the family is in the situation of needing more funds. The interactions between Kokila’s more aggressive mother (Saranya Ponvannan), her sister Shobi (Jacqueline Fernandez) and her father are excellent vignettes of domestic life. Kokila is protective of her father against the rest of the family’s dismissive comments perhaps because Kokila understands the difficulties of working in a dead-end job every day. This introduction also shows Kokila as a strong personality who stands up for herself against her boss’s sordid suggestions, but unfortunately, she loses this confidence later in the film and seems terrified of her own shadow.

Nelson doesn’t let his leading lady jump straight into the drug trade as an easy fix for her problem. Kokila tries a number of different ways to raise the money first. She speaks to relatives, asks for an advance for work and even approaches an NGO, but during a visit to a broker to see if she can sell some land, she inadvertently helps the police apprehend a drug pusher in the building. His boss, Bobby, insists that Kokila make good her mistake and sends her in to retrieve the hidden drugs. So, when all else fails, Kokila decides to approach Bobby and work as a drug mule to raise the cash for her mother’s treatment.

Bobby introduces Kokila to Mohan (Charles Vinoth), one of Bhai’s gang members, who decides that she looks innocent and unlikely to be suspected of carrying drugs, and he immediately employs her to take cocaine to his partner Alphonse (Rajendran). However a number of close shaves with the police lead Kokila to decide she wants out of the operation, but of course it’s much harder to leave than it is to join the business. Finally, after an altercation with Mohan, Bobby comes up with a final delivery of 300kg of cocaine that Kokila must deliver before she can leave.

What makes the film work so well are the peripheral characters. The story starts off well, but a combination of unlikely scenarios and a few too many coincidences mar the second half. Also, Kokila seems way to meek and nervous to ever go against the gangsters so it doesn’t make sense that she would take such tremendous risks and try to beat them at their own game. Nayahthara always has the same expression, downcast eyes and a stammering voice when dealing with Mohan and Bhai, and this continual overly meek appearance that ensures that there is very little tension or suspense as the story unfolds. There is never any glimpse into what Kokila is really thinking, and although she deceives the gangsters it seems to be almost by accident, since she always seems so scared of everyone. I wish there had been some acknowledgment of her plans and visible reactions from her when she did outsmart the gangsters which would have put an entirely different spin on the whole shenanigans. Instead it’s Saranya Ponvannan who steps up and really makes her presence felt as a determined and very capable ally in Kokila’s fight against the gangs. She’s scared but feisty and steps out of her usual mother role to play a very competent scam artist! She is the strong character here, and I love how she deals with potential rapists while the rest of the family appear shell shocked by her capacity for violence. It’s a brilliant portrayal that literally saves the second half of the film.

Yogu Babu is also excellent here and he provides most of the comedy in the first half, first appearing as grocery store owner Sekar who is in love with Kokila and is determined to marry her. Although much is made of his appearance and the unlikely match-up between him and Kokila, the real jokes start when Sekar gets mixed up in the family’s attempts to deliver the 300kg of drugs. Also dragged in is Shobi’s suitor Lakshman Kumar (Anbu Thasan) who mostly seems mentally deranged to me but that could be partly due to the lack of subtitles.

The character of Shekar fits well into the narrative and  Yogi Babu has perfect comedy timing, particularly when he realises exactly what is happening and the danger he has mistakenly stumbled into. I also love this song where he declares his love for Kokila. A brilliant tune from Anirudh and simply perfect choreography!

The film looks incredibly stylish and cinematographer Sivakumar Vijayan sets up each frame beautifully. He contrasts colour and shape to produce some stunning images while still capturing Kokila’s reluctance to smuggle drugs and her family’s desperation. The images are also an excellent contrast to the sleazy world of drugs and the grubby men involved in the trade. Nelson uses these contrasts to good effect, and if only the character of Kokila had had the same light and shade this would have been a much better film. Instead, while there are many excellent individual scenes in the film, overall it starts to drag towards the end when the interactions between Kokila and the various gang members become repetitive and less convincing. On the plus side though, Nayathara is excellent in scenes with her family and in the first half her characterisation works well with the story. Also good is Anirudh Ravichander’s soundtrack and I really love the songs here. There is a good mix of haunting melody and more upbeat music, including the excellent Kabishabaa Coco (aka the gibberish song!)

Although Kolamavu Kokila isn’t perfect, there is enough here to make it a worthwhile watch. Using a heroine instead of a hero is inspired and the black comedy around the central figure of Kokila works well. There is a good story here and it just needed a little more variation in Kokila’s character to give it some extra tension and suspense which would make it a great story. Despite the one note in her characterisation, Nayanthara holds the film together well and does make an empathetic central character. As a début film it’s definitely better than average and well worth catching for Nayanthara, Yogi Babu, Saranya Ponvannan and the awesome soundtrack. 3 ½ stars.

Kolamavu Kokila

Rani Kasula Rangamma (1981)

I’m conflicted about this film. This was an Adventure Without Subtitles so I know there are some crucial dialogues I have missed but the action kind of speaks for itself. I’m going to go for a spoiler right off the bat as that sets the context for my thinking, and there are more spoilers to follow. And it’s a long read because I’m feeling ranty.

Sridevi gives an excellent performance and I really liked her character, the titular Rani Kasula Rangamma. Chiranjeevi excels in his negative role as he has the dramatic skill and isn’t reluctant to go there. Which brings me to my problem with the film.

What a horrible premise! The appropriate redress for rape is for the woman to marry her rapist. I know that the double standard of sexual propriety means that by surviving an assault she is ruined in the eyes of patriarchal society, and this was made in 1981. But it’s just revolting. And yet this is a really good film in so many ways, much more entertaining than it sounds when you know the plot, and with some decent surprises throughout. Director T.L.V Prasad keeps things moving along, with a tone midway between melodrama and thriller.

Rangamma (Sridevi) is a cheeky and quick witted village girl, confident she can look after herself, and well liked around the area. Seetanna (Nutan Prasad) has a crush on her and often daydreams about her reciprocating his feelings but that just leads to some terrible dancing.  Sukumar (Chiranjevi) and his camp friend, maybe meant to be a hijra, Kannayya (Rallapalli) turn up in the village. Kannayya goes and inspects farm workers and chooses a woman for Sukumar to rape. The deed is represented by a montage of a dove trying to escape from what looked like a stuffed hawk, but there is no ambiguity. He just goes home and has a conversation about marriage with his father (Kongara Jaggayya). Sukumar wants to enjoy life (and presumably, being a serial rapist) and says marriage has no meaning at all. His dad gives him A Look but says nothing.

Rangamma is frequently the object of unwanted male attention and has no qualms about fighting assailants and telling off a sleazy village elder (Allu Ramalingaiah) for planting wrong notions in Seetanna’s head. Sukumar and Kannayya spot her going to fetch water, and who wouldn’t find the sight of Sridevi frolicking in a river delightful. Sukumar makes numerous attempts to try and trap her. Eventually he takes a direct approach and corners her while she is alone in her own house. She puts up a hell of a fight but is bundled into the jeep and driven away, presumably so he could take his time. No hawk and dove montage here, the struggle looked far too real with both actors channelling strong emotions. Meanwhile Seetanna goes to her house to propose (I think) and sees the assault in progress. He catches up to the car but he gets knocked out, and Sukumar cheerfully gets on with his plan. Rangamma’s necklace seems to give her a sense of protection or a blessing, and she loses all fight when it is torn off. Afterwards Rangamma staggers out and picks up the thread Seetanna had brought for her. She demands Sukumar marry her now she has been ruined. He laughs at her naiveté, pushes her into a well, and leaves her for dead. Presumably he’ll be home in time for dinner with Daddy.

Sukumar’s dad hires a familiar looking young lady in a stylish western dress and hair do. When she takes a letter for Sukumar he freaks out at the sight of her but she calmly insists she is Roja, not this Rangamma person. He can’t leave her alone, and starts with his cat and mouse games trying to prove Roja is Rangamma. He’s not always on task though. He did sleaze on to Jayamalini x 2 after an item number. Eventually he takes a large sum of money to her apartment and seems to be either trying to buy her or make her leave. It doesn’t work as next thing you know, his dad is about to marry her.

Sukumar has a fit at the sight of her necklace and confronts her in front of everyone. Is she or is she not Rani Kasula Rangamma? Yes she bloody well is. He tries to tell his dad why she is unsuitable without incriminating himself but eventually he stumbles and she sees an opening. Rangamma tells him forcefully she will not let him weasel out of being responsible. And then his dad spills the beans – he knows all about what happened and has been plotting with Rangamma to reform Sukumar or at least make him marry her. And he does. Blergh! And she looks vaguely happy about it all. I get that she gains some social protection but…he’s an unrepentant serial rapist.

Sridevi is fantastic. She conveys a huge range of emotions from cheerful innocence through to vengeful anger and is always convincing and compelling. Rangamma is outspoken and articulate, never passive. Roja is a total contrast, her mild character and fashionable style designed to appeal to her rapist and throw him off guard. Their body language is usually very different but in scenes where Roja has had just about enough of all the useless men in the office cracking on to her, you suddenly see Rangamma in the set of her jaw or the way she positions her hands. I loved the casually wide eyed way she would play with Sukumar’s paranoia about her identity. There’s a scene where she gets to save Sukumar from a well, and her disdain and focus on the task plays beautifully off his panic and confused flailing.

Of course she gets to dance. I preferred the happy, carefree, folky numbers because the Indian clothing was much more flattering for her. But the 80s side by side prancing in a park was entertaining too, especially as you can see that back in those days Chiranjeevi had to work at keeping up with her.

Does that logo on his trackie jacket look a bit phallic? Life would be so much easier if all the potential rapists wore a badge. Chiranjeevi plays Sukumar as a devil in his own right but with a façade of filial respect when at home. He will still smoke and drink (and rape) but never in front of Daddy. It would have been very easy for this to be a caricature but Sukumar really starts to lose his marbles once he sees Roja. He doesn’t ever show any remorse for his crimes, but fear of being exposed drives him to try and prove Roja must be Rangamma. He doesn’t seem to have any friends but Kannayya, maybe because they are both outsiders in terms of what gets them off versus societal norms. He is vile but plausible and sometimes charming. And when he decides he might quite fancy Roja anyway, it is both understandable because she is lovely, and completely disgusting because has already raped and murdered her. Technically Chiru is in a supporting role but he dominates his scenes, unless Sridevi is there. Then it’s a nicely judged blend of dramatic tension and sheer charisma that also helped give these two characters depth.

This is probably a film for Sridevi or Chiranjeevi completists. I might have been slightly happier if the final shot was of him in jail, not getting married. The themes and some values are so very far from what I find acceptable, but it’s well made and well written and with great actors. 3 ½ stars!