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!

Advertisements

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!

 

Kalai Arasi (1963)

Kalai Arasi

Post Tik Tik Tik, I’d read a few articles that mentioned Kalai Arasi, which may have a better claim to the title of Tamil cinema’s first space film. Kalai Arasi was released in 1963 and features M.G.Ramachandran, P. Bhanumathi and Rajasree in an adventure that does indeed go to the stars and back (even if the stars look suspiciously like the inside of a film studio). There are some excellent ideas here and good special effects, especially considering the age of the film, but what make it worth watching is a well-told story that ties everything up into a satisfying conclusion by the end. It’s definitely a simpler time as no-one seems to worry about why the aliens all speak Tamil so well, or why they decide to target India either. However with the charming Bhanumathi and MGR in double roles, all you need to do is sit back and watch the space ships fly through the sky and death rays blow stuff up! Note: Kalai Arasi is available on YT, although a number of scenes appear to be missing (in both available versions although the one with the most annoying water mark has 3 more minutes), the quality is poor and of course there are no subtitles, but it’s still watchable and lots of fun.

The film starts with farmer Mohan (MGR) singing on a bullock cart with his sister as they wend their way back home. They come across Vaani (P. Bhanumathi) and her friends whose car has broken down, mainly because Vaani drove it into a pot-hole and ran out of petrol. Needless to say, Mohan is all over the rescue, and it turns out that the pair are already a couple, although all is not plain sailing since Mohan is a poor farmer and Vaani is the daughter of a rich man. Worse still, her father is trying to marry Vaani to her cousin Kannan (P.S. Veerappa) a nasty man with anger management issues, but at least Vaani seems able to cope. There’s a cute scene where she pretends to faint after he shouts at her, and then winks at her maid to let her know she is really OK. Vaani has plenty of personality, and also a great voice which turns out to be her downfall.

A wandering spaceship, on the lookout for musicians to kidnap and take back to their planet happens to see Vaani on their TV surveillance instrument. The leader of the expedition, Thinna (M.N.Nambiar) and pilot Malla decide she is exactly what their planet needs and head off to kidnap Vaani.  On the way they use their ray guns to explode a bear that attacks, emphasising they’re dangerous and aren’t likely to take no for an answer if Vaani resists. Plus ray guns – cool!

The spaceship is really rather wonderful too. It is a bit reminiscent of Flash Gordon but there are lots of panels and dials with flashing lights and mysterious screens.  The space ship’s travels through space are pretty good too, there is even a large asteroid they have to dodge, but who knew that there was so much steam in space! Once in the Earth’s atmosphere the flight becomes a bit shaky but I like how the spaceship is shown flying over temples and fields of workers to show that they actually have reached Tamil Nadu and not some random planet. Scenes shot inside the space ship are jerky with the camera moving erratically as Thinna and Malla walk around stiffly in their shiny and embellished spacesuits. This is explained later. Thinna is wearing a pair of shorts which I don’t think would provide much protection from space, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern, although they are both wearing helmets, goggles and masks.

After kidnapping Vaani, Thinna zooms off in the spaceship while Malla is left behind. Vaani’s disappearance is blamed on Mohan as he was the last person to see her, and Kannan arranges for him to be put in jail. As if this wasn’t enough, Kannan then throws Mohan’s mother and sister out of their house, leading his sister to end up dancing and singing in a brothel. Kannan is also convinced that he’s found Vaani, although he’s really found Valli (Bhanumathi again), a poor mentally ill girl whose father is unable to convince Kannan that she isn’t Vaani. This is Sixties Tamil cinema so Valli is played for laughs, but Bhanumathi is excellent as she portrays Valli’s instability, veering between innocence and violence and always not seeming quite aware exactly where she is or what she is doing. It’s a great performance and a good contrast to her portrayal of Vaani who is confident and poised, even during an alien abduction.

Meanwhile, Vaani has reached the alien planet and is teaching the world to sing, or at least teaching the princess Rajini (Rajasree) dancing and singing. This goes down well with the locals and Thinna heads back to pick up Malla, who doesn’t seem to have done anything useful, so I’m not sure why he was left behind. By this stage Mohan has been released from jail and has also rescued his sister, although his mother appears to have vanished. Thinking that Vaani has married Kannan, Mohan is wandering through the wilderness when he sees Malla and for no apparent reason (there isn’t even any dialogue) he attacks and kills him. I’m presuming that there is a missing scene here, which explains why Mohan attacks and why he assumes Malla had something to do with Vaani’s disappearance. That would explain why he then sneaks aboard the spaceship too, but maybe he just thought it was a good idea.

Once on the alien planet, Mohan has to deal with different gravity which is brilliantly shown in a sequence where he appears to be almost weightless. This is cleverly done and still looks fantastic, mainly due to MGR’s facial expressions and physical contortions. Even though the background isn’t particularly alien or outlandish, MGR makes it look as if he’s completely out of his depth and struggling – great acting and beautifully filmed too. Luckily for Mohan he meets a minstrel/joker character (also played by MGR) who helps him, and whose place in the palace Mohan is able to take when the joker is unfortunately killed. Once in the palace Mohan finds Vaani, but before they can escape he has to deal with the Princess Rajini’s amorous advances towards him, and Thinna’s murderous tendencies, as well as work out how to pilot the space ship and get Vaani back home.

Kalai Arasi works well because it’s a good story that’s simply been transported into space. The various devices added, such as Mohan’s weightlessness and the aliens’ difficulty with Earth gravity, are cleverly done and show that you don’t need CGI and splashy special effects if you have good actors and clear vision. Some of the things I really liked are that the flunkies on the alien planet rise up onto their toes rather than saluting their superiors, while Rajini has a very impressive suite of furniture that pops out of the wall whenever she presses a button. Director A. Kasilingam keeps everything moving along, as there is a lot to fit in, while writer Raveendar adds some novel ideas that refresh a relatively standard story. There is plenty of good detail, even in the secondary plot lines, which still all reach a satisfactory conclusion by the end. The costume department obviously had a great time dressing the aliens with capes, half capes, shorts, flouncy trousers and lots of embellishments and hair ornaments. I wish this had been filmed in colour to see exactly how OTT everything really was, particularly since Mohan’s borrowed shoes look wonderfully glitzy when paired with the joker’s outfits.

There are couple of really good songs from K.V. Mahadevan, including one featuring Valli and a beautiful duet between Bhanumathi  and Mohan. My favourite though is the very first song with Bhanumathi performing on stage. It’s not all about the singing and dancing either as there is an excellent sword fight and also some standard fisticuffs for those who prefer their fight scenes more traditional.

Although Mohan is the hero of the story, Vaani gets to keep her composure when she’s abducted too. She’s no damsel in distress as she first of all sizes up the situation and then does the best she can. She seems assertive and confident, even on the alien planet and in the end it’s Vaani who successfully pilots the spaceship back to Earth. In fact, none of the women in the story come out of it too badly compared to modern day heroines. Even Mohan’s sister takes action when faced with a life of prostitution, and Princess Rajini may be useless in a sword fight and a drama queen, but she’s sensible enough to lock Mohan in chains when Thinna suggests he might be a flight risk.

It’s not just the women who fare well either. MGR is wonderfully heroic, switching between his simple farmer persona, to confident trickster once on the alien world. His fight scenes are good, and his character is sensibly capable of dealing with every situation as it arises. This is a film where he really does get a chance to show off his acting skills and he nails it every time. I thoroughly enjoyed Kalai Arasi, it’s a real find and I wish someone would consider restoring and re-releasing it with subtitles. Even without the missing scenes it’s a film that does have something for everyone and the space theme is much better than expected. One that’s well worth tracking down if you’re a fan of old B&W movies and want something a little different. 4 stars.