Sarileru Neekevvaru

Anil Ravipudi’s latest film Sarileru Neekevvaru is an odd mix of action and comedy that individually are fine but which don’t gel together particularly well. On the plus side, Mahesh Babu is excellent, Vijayashanti is an absolute standout and Prakash Raj is back to doing what he does best as a nasty and vindictive villain. It’s an entertaining film but for me could have been better if Anil Ravipudi had stuck to just one idea and made 2 movies instead. 

The film opens with Bharati (Vijayashanti) establishing her no-nonsense persona by slapping a drunk and obnoxious student in her class before moving northwards to introduce Major Ajay Krishna (Mahesh Babu), a bomb disposal expert in the army. After setting a rather somber tone with Ajay in front of the Indian flag, the film takes an abrupt turn into comedy as Ajay is called to defuse a bomb but insists on his side-kick Shiv Prasad (Rajendra Prasad) brewing him a cup of coffee first. Then just as quickly things turn serious again as Ajay shoots the bomber dead after a short chase through the streets. It’s this jerky transition between comedy and action that makes it difficult to connect with the film as the emotional changes are too sudden to be anything other than jarring, even though each works well for that particular scene.

Bharati’s son Ajay is also a soldier in Major Ajay’s team, but when he is seriously injured in action, Major Ajay goes to visit Bharati to try and break the news sometime during her daughter’s wedding. This is another scene that doesn’t sit well, as it seems quite unlikely that this would actually happen in real life, given that there was no need to keep the incident secret. It also seemed an unlikely use of resources to send a bomb expert away to a wedding when his talents were so clearly needed by the army. It’s obvious at this stage where the film is going to go since Major Ajay is an orphan, but the whole set-up is too filmi and contrived to fit naturally into the story.

On the train the film switches back into comedy as Ajay meets Samskruthi (Rashmika Mandanna) and her crazy family. Samskruthi is desperate not to marry her father’s choice of a groom and enlists her two sisters and her mother (Sangeetha Krish) in every more ridiculous schemes to find an alternate husband. Most of this is laugh-out-loud funny, but some portions are simply inappropriate and not at all amusing – there is nothing funny about rape or domestic violence for instance. However I enjoyed watching the heroine stalk the hero for a change, even if it is clumsily set up. Rashmika is good in these comedy sequences, but I kept wishing that I just wish that Samskruthi had been less of a loosu ponnu caricature and had more to do than just chase after Ajay. I’ve seen Rashmika in a few films now and she is an excellent actress so it’s a real shame that she doesn’t have more to do here, especially in the second half. The best comedy actually comes from Sangeetha as Samskruthi’s mother. She has some of the funniest facial expressions and excellent comedic timing throughout, even making her oft-repeated line about being married off at 14 years of age much funnier that it really should be.

It is odd that Samskruthi is such a poorly realised character since Anil Ravipudi proves he can write a good female role with Bharati. Vijayashanti is superb here and her defiance of MLA Nagendra Reddy (Prakash Raj) is very well written. I really like how she is a strong and confident woman who has managed to raise her family, maintain a farm and teach medicine as a single parent. Her confrontations with Nagendra Reddy work well, and her gradual adoption of Ajay seems plausible given her overall character. It’s good to see someone other than the hero get the chance to fight back, and even though she then relies on Ajay to ‘rescue’ her, Bharati still gets stuck in when she needs to. 

There are a number of brief appearances from CinemaChaat favourites including Ajay as one of Nagendra Reddy’s thugs, and Subbaraju as Crime Branch Koti; an investigator who becomes involved when a number of murders are discovered relating to Nagendra Reddy. Rao Ramesh appears as Samskruthi’s long suffering father and Jayaprakash Reddy is excellent as Nagendra Reddy’s father who has very clear ideas about how to get rid of any opposition. The mix of comedy and action works better in the scenes with Prakash Raj and his various thugs, although there is still the odd serious note that appears to break the flow of the film. Part of this harks back to Ajay being in the army, and he repeatedly brings up the fact that soldiers are at the border defending the country against attack, while politicians feather their nests and don’t look after the people they are meant to represent. It’s a fair point, but I don’t think comparing the army to the politicians works as well as Anil Ravipudi may have wished. I can see what he’s getting at, but I don’t think that bringing the army into the discussion is necessary to point out why Nagendra Reddy and his counterparts are bad men.

The film itself is well put together with fantastic action sequences while Mahesh looks fighting fit and appropriately athletic throughout. The comedy sequences too are well put together, and it’s mainly the melding of these components that seems to have been skipped. Sarileru Neekevvaru works as a better than average Mahesh movie thanks to the strong supporting cast and a reasonable storyline, but it could have been just that little bit better if either the comedy had been toned down or the action made less heavy-handed. It’s still a worthwhile watch and worth it for Mahesh, Vijayashanti and Prakash Raj.

Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020)

A new year, a new Bunny film, and this one is a lot of fun. Trivikram has come up with a different slant on a traditional storyline around babies swapped at birth, and then adds in an unusual father/son dynamic on top. Murali Sharma gets to act his heart out, the support cast are terrific and Bunny is on top form throughout. Yes, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is a little slow to start and there are a few mis-steps initially, but there is much to enjoy in this mix of family drama, action and romance.  

The movie opens with two babies being switched immediately after birth. The rich Ramachandra (Jayaram) and his wife Yasu (Tabu) end up with the son of Valmiki (Murali Sharma) and his wife (Rohini). There is some history between the two men as they used to work together until Ramachandra married the boss’s daughter and ended up running the business. Valmiki has ended up working for his old friend and is resentful and bitter about the situation as he feels it’s luck rather than talent which has given Ramachandra his success. The only people who know about the switched children are the nurse, who meets with a tragic accident and falls into a coma, and Valmiki. Sadly no significant jewellery, birthmarks or songs, but obviously film aficionados will instantly recognise the nurse’s coma as potentially important!

The film then moves to the present day where nature has trumped nurture and Raj (Sushanth) has grown up to be quiet, hesitant and totally unable to replicate his father’s business success. Meanwhile, despite Valmiki’s antagonism, Bantu (Allu Arjun) is smart, canny and very capable, although he does have one flaw – he always has to tell the truth. There is some very well-written conflict between father and son as Valmiki treats Bantu badly, while Bantu tries everything he can to get any sign of approval at all from his father. Meanwhile, Ramachandra is desperate to get Raj involved in the business, but it’s something for which he shows no aptitude, instead demonstrating positive disinterest. Thrown into this mix is Appala Naidu (Samuthirakani) and his son (Govind Padmasoorya) who are out to grab some of Ramachandra’s company for themselves. Appala Naidu is a thug who runs the docks, while his son is more sophisticated but obsessed with the idea of taking over Ramachandra’s business.

What lifts this movie above being simply yet another masala pot-boiler, is the relationship between Bantu and his father Valmiki. The sheer nastiness of Valmiki and his determined mistreatment of Bantu is cleverly done and well contrasted with Valmiki’s servile attentiveness when working with Ramachandra. Murali Sharma is simply brilliant here and his total lack of remorse for his actions, the fate of the nurse and his treatment of Bantu is perfectly portrayed along with his innately selfish nature. And while Murali Sharma is outstanding, Bunny too is superb in these interactions, displaying nuanced emotion and plenty of depth to his character. There is a beautiful moment after Banto finds out the truth that really is emotionally perfect, and Bunny plays it brilliantly. Naturally the estranged sons and their various families need to be reunited but it’s not quite that simple. While Bantu fights his way past Valmiki and gradually charms Ramachandra and his father-in-law Aditya Radhakrishnan (Sachin Khedekar), the family is dealing with a number of problems. There is conflict between Ramachandra and his wife, his brother-in-law is cheating and stealing money from the company, and Raj’s inability to deal with Kashiram is also causing problems.

As Bantu becomes involved with the family, Trivikram tones down the comedy and OTT action for some good solid family drama that’s written for maximum emotional effect. It works because the characters are well realised and each acts true to themselves, making the emotions more real and adding to the story.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the romance angle. Mainly this comes from the odd introduction of Amulya (Pooja Hegde) as Bantu’s boss in a new job. When he first meets Amulya, Bantu can only see her legs and is unable to lift his eyes above her skirt level for much of the first half of the movie. For a film that then goes on to talk about it is wrong to fight with women and then treats Yasu’s character so well, this is a significant step back to outdated ideas of ‘comedy’ and ‘romance’. With the odd start, despite good chemistry between Bunny and Pooja Hegde, the love story always feels just a little off, not helped by Pooja’s initially ‘strong business woman’ persona fading into the background as Bantu starts to work for Ramachandra and she is relegated to being simply ‘the love interest’. The film really didn’t need a love track for both Raj and Bantu, especially when Trivikram tries to muddy the waters here too and just succeeds in making both Pooja Hegde and Nivetha Pethuraj appear insipid. 

Even with the incredibly strong performance from Murali Sharma, this is Bunny’s film from start to finish and he really is superb throughout. The stylish star manages to pull off a mullet (just) and despite a distinct lack of hair continuity in the film, he does look very good indeed, especially in the songs. As always Bunny’s dancing is outstanding, but his acting matches up to his footwork skills, and he does an excellent job in the more emotional moments. His comedic timing is also very good, while a scene in the boardroom where he pays tribute to a number of Telugu films heroes is just brilliant! Bunny’s acting has definitely matured, even in comparison to his last hit with Trivikram, S/O  Satyamurthy, which I feel was his previous best performance to date. Here Bunny shows good emotional depth, well-executed action and a real sense of commitment to the character that pays off and makes Bantu appear a genuine and appealing person, rather than just a filmi character.

The dance sequences are excellent, and I loved the attention to detail in many of the songs, like the random background dancers in Butta Bomma who pop up hula-hooping from time to time. The music from S. Thaman is also great and suits the film too. The songs are really catchy even if the lyrics are occasionally a bit odd (maybe a subtitling issue?) and the background score helps lift the emotional moments in the film. There is a real who’s who of support cast as well. Naturally Brahmi pops up, just in a song this time, but we also get Navdeep and the sadly underused Rahul Ramakrishna as workmates of Bantu, Cinemachaat favourite Ajay as one of Appala Naidu’s thugs, Rajendra Prasad as a police officer and Brahmaji as a businessman trying to buy Amulya’s business. Tabu is beautiful and grace personified as Yasu, while Jayaram and Sachin Khedekar are both excellent. Unfortunately, Rohini doesn’t have very much to do as Bantu’s mother and his sister (Vaishnavi Chaitanya) also has a very limited role, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to see their family dynamic developed more. However, there is already a lot happening in this film, and perhaps it’s just as well that the drama is mostly limited to Ramachandra’s family.

Although the basic story is nothing new, the way Trivikram has developed the characters of Bantu and Valmiki is different, especially when mixed in with the family drama of Bantu’s real father. While all the necessary components are here – songs, drama, action sequences and even the luke-warm romance, it’s having a good story that really makes Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo such a worthwhile and entertaining watch. I really enjoyed this film and would recommend it as a fun film, perfect for the holiday season.

Nene Raju Nene Mantri

 

Radha Jogendra (Rana Daggubati) narrates his story to a film crew as he awaits execution. He was once a simple money lender with a shrewd mind and a moral compass provided by his wife Radha (Kajal). After a couple of years of marriage Radha finally fell pregnant and the happy couple were over the moon. Sadly Radha lost the baby and her ability to conceive again after being attacked for accidentally infringing on the imaginary rights of the village leader’s wife. Yes, I know. Jogendra decides if he was the village head nobody would insult Radha again. So he schemes his way into the role. Then he eyes off the MLA position. Then a ministry. Then the CM gig. He always justifies his ambition as his means of giving Radha the best in life, but he is playing the game for the sake of power too. Can he keep outwitting his opponents? Where will he draw the line? And what does Radha make of it all?

Teja’s “Nene Raju Nene Mantri” is set in the murky world of politics but has all the flair and improbability of a cowboy film. It is great fun if you can ignore the death toll, and I always like a decent comeuppance.

Jogendra (Rana) adores his wife, but everyone else is expendable or interchangeable. He is deceptively simple looking, but his mind is subtle and calculating. Rana dominates his scenes and not just because he is twice the size of anyone else in the film. He is fully at home as the morally dubious but highly effective Jogendra and delivers his one-liners and proverbs with great relish. The action scenes are often brutal but then he switches to a convincing warmth and playfulness in his scenes with Kajal. There’s more complexity to Jogendra than I was expecting, and a lot more of the mass hero hijinks than I expected too. I laughed a lot at Jogendra’s amazing aptitude for killing, and his ability to stay on task.

The wardrobe team came up with a good look for Rana. Well, once I got over my confusion at seeing him in a shirt. There’s lots of monochromatic linens, a slightly modernised traditional look, and a fairly subtle way to emphasise his physique without it looking like his clothes were painted on. What else…Oh yes, there is a hulk-out shirt ripping moment, just to prove the gym sessions haven’t ended.

Radha (Kajal) is on the surface too saintly. But I really liked her chemistry with Rana, and some of her less sweet moments saved Radha for me. I loved when she fired up and told Jogendra she’d forgive so many of his mistakes (like shagging Devika Rani) but not the thing he just said. Or when he chided her for acting childish and she said it was because they didn’t have a child, and they both looked stricken. I didn’t like that everyone except Jogendra saw Radha’s value relative to her having a baby. She had no purpose or context in the script other than “wife”, so I was impressed with Kajal for bringing a bit more to the table. She showed Radha’s growing discomfort with her husband’s actions and her inner conflict because she knew he did it all for her. The wardrobe team dressed her in beautiful sarees that increased in opulence but always suited Radha, and Kajal looked comfortable in her skin. However. Radha was the perfect wife who would sacrifice anything for husband but that final sacrifice was just DUMB. The method struck me as quite improbable. Having said that, I still felt intensely sad when the cortege visited surrounding villages.

Devika Rani (Catherine Tresa) is a badly dressed avatar of media whoredom. Her painfully high silver wedge sandals and the almost there skirts were hideous. I guess the wardrobe team can’t love all their cast members equally. While it is good that Devika Rani was shown to be a confident woman I was concerned that none of her social media strategies were sound. Never hire anyone who says their plan is to send everything viral. And her character made little sense. But it does speak to the thinking around campaigning and media manipulation, with clicktivism and slacktivism getting a passing nod even if I am not sure that is what Teja was aiming at. Her major achievement in the film might have been that she had zero chemistry with Rana. What was probably supposed to be a titillating scene was just awkward and cold, with Rana looking like he was resigned to an invasive medical procedure. Catherine has some convincing moments in solo scenes, but as soon as Rana or Kajal shows up her lack of acting skill is all too evident.

The villains are unfortunately quite familiar types from everyday life. The cop who takes bribes (Ajay), the gangster turned politician (Padeep Rawat), career politicians with no objective beyond lining their pockets (Tanikella Bharani, Ashutosh Rana, Posani Krishna Murali). All of these performances were solid, and there was some genuine menace and just nastiness in their interactions with Jogendra. Rana looked like he was having the time of his life threatening Ajay. Ashutosh Rana’s character didn’t know if he was coming or going sometimes, with a wry use of proverbs to explain how proverb-spouting Jogendra could beat him. I quite liked the one that went “if the cat is blind a mouse can hit it with a stick”. A convenient morality permeates the film. If Jogendra kills someone (or a hundred someones), don’t take it to heart. They were all bad so he was doing a good thing. Well, except for one. Navdeep wasn’t given much to do as Shiva but he managed to make an impression as one of the only people who held Jogendra morally accountable.

Anoop Ruben’s soundtrack tends towards the anthemic, which suits the purposeful journey Jogendra is on. They didn’t make Kajal and Rana dance which is also a blessing. There was a bit of convulsive twitching in one song but then lots of walking (him) and a bit of frolicking (her). Good decision dance team! I loved the special appearance by dance master Shiva Shankar. There is some dodgy VFX but realistic effects could have been overwhelming in the gory bits. And there is a sound effect for everything. There’s nothing new or outstanding in the direction but I feel the pace was pretty well managed until the finale which was a little drawn out. The dialogues contain proverbs and local sayings and I think the subtitlers did a good job of conveying some of the flavour.

It’s an engaging story with Rana and Kajal coming up with the goods and a decent support cast. I should be more concerned about the body count, the gender roles, the apathy surrounding politics, the problem solving preferences of a sociopathic charmer. But I was highly entertained and amused by the machinations and mayhem. Because he is Jogendra.