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!

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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!

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!