Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India (2018)

Naa Peru Surya

After writing a couple of hits for Telugu cinema, Vakkantham Vamsi has moved into directing his own screenplay with the release of Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India. However, despite an excellent opening scene, the film quickly loses momentum and is let down by poor story development and lack-lustre dialogue, most notably between the hero and his estranged father. The bones of the story are there, but Vamsi tries to mix in too much masala in the form of a dodgy crime boss and a rather limp romance, that dilute down what could have been an excellent coming of age movie. It’s still entertaining though, mainly due to an outstanding performance from Allu Arjun, while there are some excellent action and dance sequences that almost make up for the jumbled storyline.

Bunny is Surya, an army officer with more than a few anger management issues. This leads him into trouble, although to be fair the two incidences where he loses his temper in the opening scene are reasonably justified. It’s more that the magnitude of his response is well above what would be considered ‘normal’ and that’s what ends up being his downfall. After an incident with a terrorist leads to his dismissal from the army, his only shot at redemption is to get a letter signed by eminent psychologist Dr Rama Krishna Raju (Arjun Sarja) certifying that Surya has conquered his anger issues. The problem is that Dr Rama is actually Surya’s father, although the two haven’t spoken since Surya walked out when he was 16 years of age. Surya has been raised and supported by his ‘uncle’ Rao Ramesh, who has sponsored his recruitment into the army and manages to persuade his commander, Colonel Sanjay Shrivastav (Boman Irani) to give Surya one last chance.

There is great potential here, but the basic story of Surya’s road to redemption is almost lost behind the subplot of conflict with gangster Challa (R Sarathkumar) his son (Thakur Anoop Singh) and henchmen, Pradeep Rawat and Harish Uthaman. While these scenes are well filmed with great action sequences, Surya’s anger management plans languish in poorly constructed scenes with his father. Where there should have been crackling tension between Surya and Dr Rama there is instead uncomfortable chat that doesn’t come close to developing any kind of relationship between the two men. Granted the premise is that Dr Rama has completely shut Surya out of his life, and Surya will do absolutely anything to get back into his beloved army, but their interactions are so cold and clumsy that they become meaningless. What I wanted was tension and some level of self-realisation from Dr Rama and Surya, but instead there is just Surya’s anger, represented by discordant background music, and a manufactured conflict between Surya and Challa’s son that he needs to ignore if Surya is to go 21 days without fighting.

Oh yes – that’s the other odd plot point. If Surya can demonstrate no angry outbursts in 21 days he will apparently have conquered his problem. This sounds like a google-based plan of anger management and not the evidence-based behavioural therapy expected from a University based psychology professor, but by this point it’s not one of the most far-fetched ideas in the film.

Also problematical is Surya’s romance with Varsha (Anu Emmanuel). Anyone faced with the kind of anger towards them displayed by Surya would start running and not look back, so Varsha’s continued interest in Surya is hard to fathom, especially when she has zero chemistry with Bunny (and how is this even possible?). The romance makes little sense and doesn’t fit into Surya’s self-inflicted isolation shown in earlier scenes when he single-mindedly pursues his goal to be stationed at the border. Anu Emmanuel has little to do other than look glamorous and ‘stand by her man’ at the appropriate point in proceedings. All of which she does competently but it’s another disappointingly pointless heroine role that adds little to the main story. Another wasted character is Surya’s mother, who doesn’t fit at all well into the narrative and fluctuates between apparently not recognising her son and extreme anger at his absence for all these years.

Despite the shortcomings with the screenplay, what does work here is the character of Surya and his struggles to conform. Surya does manage to control his anger but it’s at the expense of his own self-worth and Bunny gets that inner conflict across perfectly. He shows the enthusiasm and fire that drives Surya to be the best soldier he can be, along with Surya’s passion for his country and makes it seem completely natural. Even better are the later scenes where Surya has to come to terms with the compromises he has made to try and meet his 21 days target. What the dialogue doesn’t manage to get across is plain to see on Surya’s face and in his body language. It really is one of the best performances I’ve seen from Allu Arjun and he completely gets under the skin of his character, dour and driven, with only the songs showing his normal cheeky grin. The support cast are all competent and do as much as they can with their limited roles. Thakur Anoop Singh makes the most impact and is impressive in the action scenes, while Vennela Kishore does manage to sneak in some comedy. It’s great to see Arjun Sarja back onscreen but disappointing that he has so little to do here.

The action sequences are excellent and choreographed to make Surya’s one-man army seem plausible, particularly when intercut with scenes of his army training. Naturally no-one can stop Surya when he’s angry, but the action is well put together and Bunny makes it all look effortless. The songs are generally good too, although the first two have little dancing – which surely is a crime in an Allu Arjun film. However just as I thought that, Lover also, Fighter also started with some great moves and awesome tricks with a cap. Bunny interchanges between ultra-classy and gangsta-wannabe in this song, but when it’s right, no-one does stylish like Allu Arjun!

Vakkantham Vamsi tries to include ideas about the evolution of home-grown terrorists but this is overly simplified and has little impact. I was expecting plenty of patriotism and Naa Peru Surya has a surfeit of flag waving and speeches about a United India that feel contrived, but inevitable in any film that mentions the army. If Vamsi had stuck to a straight-forward story about one man’s redemption this would have been an excellent film. However as it stands, with the additions of a gangster storyline, romance and failed family relationships, Naa Peru Surya has too many threads vying for attention and doesn’t do justice to any of them. Worth watching for Bunny, Arjun Sarja, who does a good job with his limited dialogue, and the dance sequences – just don’t expect too much from the story.

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Parugu

Parugu

Parugu is Bhaskar’s 2008 follow-up to his hit film Bommarillu and despite a rather hit and miss screenplay the movie ended up being a hit, was remade in various other languages and scored a number of awards. While the story might be nothing new and labours under every single film cliché imaginable (love at first sight, stalking = love etc), both Prakash Raj and Allu Arjun are excellent and work well together to make Parugu more watchable than the synopsis suggests. Plus the film starts with Bunny on roller skates – how can you not appreciate that!

I particularly love this song since when I can tear my eyes away from Bunny dancing, I recognise many of the locations. Plus, as always Bunny’s energy and enthusiasm is incredibly infectious, making for a great start to the film.

Sadly, the film doesn’t manage to keep the energy for long as the story moves to a village where local big-wig Neelakanta (Prakash Raj) is presiding over the marriage of his daughter Subbalakshmi (Poonam Bajwa). However, not all goes to plan as Subbalakshmi elopes with local villager Erra Babu which sets her father and his army of goons off on a rampage to find her. As part of their investigations, they pick up all of Erra Babu’s friends from the village and soon widen their search to include Sharma (Saptagiri) from Kakinada, Seenu (Chitram Srinu) in Nellore and Krishna (Allu Arjun) in Hyderabad.

Neelakanta and his brother Chinnabbayi (Subbaraju) keep the men in a shed while they continue the search for Subbalakshmi and Erra Babu, although this seems likely to backfire when Krishna engineers an escape. However, just before making it to the train and freedom, Krishna is brought up short by a girl he sees in the morning mist. He falls instantly in love and resolves not to leave the area until he discovers her identity. Naturally, the girl Krishna has fallen for is the youngest daughter of Neelakanta and she’s already having a number of issues due to the fall-out from her sister’s elopement. Through a window in the shed she pleads with Krishna and the rest of the detainees to reveal her sister’s whereabouts but instead she gets caught in a blackmail trap and agrees to help Krishna find the girl of his dreams. While the audience know that Meena (Sheela Kaur) is the girl he has fallen in love with, neither Krishna nor Meena realise until well into the film that she is the one Krishna is trying to find.

There is some comedy in the first half as Krishna hatches up various schemes to search for the girl in the woods, while Sunil and Srinavasa Reddy add some slapstick to further lighten the mood. Prakash Raj does his usual ranting as an enraged father but Bhaskar aims to show him as a more sympathetic figure and changes tack with the character in the second half.

As Krishna discovers that the girl he loves is Neelakanta’s daughter, Neelakanta finds out that it is Krishna who has helped Subbalakshmi vanish and he tortures him to find out where his daughter is hiding. This results in everyone – Neelakanta, Chinabbayi, all the various thugs, Krishna and Erra Babu’s other friends and Meena, haring off to Hyderabad on the trail of the missing couple. Krishna takes advantage of every opportunity to speak to Meera and starts to manipulate her feelings for her father to his advantage.

Meena doesn’t instantly fall for Krishna, but rather tries to keep her distance and is generally upset and confused by his attentions. Sheela plays Meena as nervous and afraid, although also somewhat gullible and impressionable. Bhaskar has given Meena and her father the same nervous mannerisms which does help link the two as a family, but Neelakanta’s decision to bring Meena with him still stands out as odd. There is some attempt to have meaningful conversations between the two, but these don’t work as well as they could, and the relationship between Meena and her father seems cold and impersonal as a result.

Meena genuinely seems scared and anxious for most of the film – afraid of her father and his goons, afraid of the men in the shed, particularly Krishna and afraid of falling in love. There is a rather bizarre song where Krishna is dressed as a mad priest and chases Meena though the canyons of Petra before she wakes up to realise it’s a dream. Bhaskar isn’t as clear here as he could have been that stalking is not the best way to a girl’s heart and for all his cheer and mostly sunny personality at times Krishna’s behaviour is quite predatory, making Meena’s fear seem quite rational. There really isn’t any good reason for Krishna to continue his pursuit of such a reluctant object of his affections, and very little basis for Meena to change her opinion. So Meena’s gradual acceptance of Krishna doesn’t seem realistic and even when she does start to warm to him, the romance generally has little sparkage. It’s left to Arjun and Prakash Raj to provide the chemistry that keeps the film going, and they both do that magnificently!

As Neelakanta gets more and more desperate, Krishna starts to realise that it’s his love for Subbalakshmi and his concern for her welfare that is driving her father to such desperate lengths. Although the change from concern about reputation and prestige to concern about his daughter is uneven and not always convincing, the change in Neelakanta does make the point that families suffer in a myriad of ways after a runaway marriage and provides the families point of view rather than the usual romantic picture of an elopement. Strangely, neither Krishna nor Meena use this opportunity to approach Neelakanta about their own love affair, which draws out the already overly long screenplay even further without adding any more substance to the plot. However it’s the interactions between Krishna and Neelakanta that make the film interesting, and both actors work well together to make their conversations and gradual acceptance of each other the best part of the film.

This is a Bunny movie and so there are plenty of opportunities for him to shake a leg and demonstrate his dancing skills. This is one of the best although the location and costumes could have been better.

Prakash Raj is in his element here. He has plenty of material to work with – all the rage and fury when his daughter runs away, slow burning anger at the men who are hiding her whereabouts and plenty of angst and remorse as he starts to fear that he as lost her forever. However, Bunny matches him step for step and together the two bring credibility to their roles that the romance and hunt for Subbalakshmi fail to deliver. It may be predictable with a total lack of empathy for any of the female roles (for which I’ve deducted a star), but Parugu does have strong performances from Bunny and Prakash Raj and the idea that elopement isn’t the solution to every problem is at least a little different from the norm. Parugu is worth watching for Bunny (of course!), Prakash Raj and the excellent dance sequences, but best to consider as an action/drama rather than as a romance to avoid disappointment. 3 ½ stars.

Duvvada Jagannadham (2017)

In his latest release Harish Shankar sticks closely to the standard formula for Telugu hero-centric films, which makes Duvvada Jagannadham rather less exciting than it could have been. There is hardly any suspense and few surprises as the hero flexes his muscles, obliterates the bad guys and romances the heroine while recouping lost money for the victims of a property scam. What makes it watchable are the excellent performances from Allu Arjun, Rao Ramesh and Subbaraju who add life and energy to an otherwise pedestrian plot. The story might be plodding along, but the cast give it their all, and with many other veteran performers including Murali Sharma and Posani Krishna Murali, and some good songs, DJ ends up as a reasonable timepass.

The story opens with a young Duvvada Jagannadham Sastry picking up a gun and executing a gang of thugs who attack policeman Purushottham (Murali Sharma) in his local market. Not content with his body count so far, he then turns the gun on a suspected rapist in the police station and shoots him too. Bizarrely the police officer in question rapidly recovers from his previously incapacitating wound and then doesn’t bat an eyelid at the young multiple murderer, instead enlisting him as a vigilante in his never-ending war against crime. Because of course there is nothing abnormal about a young boy killing in cold blood (and also being a fantastic shot) – not in this film at any rate.

Moving quickly among to the present day and Duvvada Jagannadham (Allu Arjun), aka Sastry is a Brahmin priest who runs an all-vegetarian catering business in Vijayawada along with various members of his family. Sastry is devout, speaks in very precise Telugu and is passionate about his cooking, although he doesn’t take life too seriously as demonstrated by a recurring joke about using asafoetida in tamarind rice. Bunny is good here, particularly with the comedy scenes and dialogue, while the trio of Sastry, his father (Tanikella Bharani) and uncle (Chandramohan) make a good team as they feed the hungry hordes of wedding guests around Vijayawada.

However, when Sastry answers his phone he becomes a totally different person – his posture is different, his voice deeper and the language less classical. Going by the name of DJ, Sastry’s alter ego is still a vigilante killer working for Purushottham eliminating criminals permanently from the streets of Hyderabad. DJ is super stylish and ultra cool, which ensures that Bunny remains ‘the stylish star’ despite spending much of the film in more traditional attire. Naturally DJ is also an accomplished killer, although quite where he learnt his skills is as much of a mystery as his motivation to cleanse Hyderabad of all criminals. The action scenes here are all beautifully choreographed by Ram Lakshman and Bunny carries out the various impalings, defenestrations and executions as smoothly and effortlessly as he performs his dance routines, and with just as much style. Sadly, there isn’t much else to the character of DJ beyond the dapper surface and efficient bloodshed. There is no rationale behind why his character is driven to such violence, particularly since he has been raised as a priest and generally seems to be a kind-hearted and benevolent priest at that. There is a brief comment by his father at the start, questioning why his son has so much rage, but this is not explored at all, and of course Sastry never shows any sign of the explosive ferocity that is characteristic of DJ.

Naturally there is also a heroine, and as might be expected from the formulaic plot, Pooja Hegde’s presence is completely superfluous to the story with her only purpose seemingly to be to appear in as many skimpy costumes as possible and dance in a few songs. The brazen character of Pooja seems unlikely to appeal to the traditionally minded Sastry, and although her designer credentials might interest DJ, her nasty, childish behaviour when they first meet is unlikely to impress. The camera spends more time focused on Pooja’s navel than on her face and it’s a shame that the only real emotion she gets a chance to display is when she’s shopping in Abu Dhabi – her excitement here is the only genuine moment her character has throughout the entire film. Still, she does look stunning, and has good chemistry with Bunny in the songs, but it’s a shame that she has no opportunity to do anything more.

DJ becomes personally involved in the case of a property scam where the real criminal Royyala Naidu (Rao Ramesh) hides behind a proxy (played by Prabhakar). Royyala’s son Chintu (Subbaraju) also becomes involved when Royyala conspires with Pooja’s father Minister Kusuman (Posani Krishna Murali) to marry their respective children. Subbaraju is excellent as a crook with an unusual idiosyncrasy, particularly in the final showdown with DJ and Royyala.

Throughout the film Bunny excels with his comedic dialogue as Sastry and does a good job of keeping the two sides of his character quite separate and different. As always his dancing is superb on every level and I did appreciate his collection of sparkly sneakers in various colours too. Devi Sri Prasad’s songs are good, although the song sequences aren’t connected to the plot of the film and seem to be simply added in as part of the standard formula – “fight scene/ family scene/ romantic moment/ song”, and repeat. However, the dance sequences add in energy and give Pooja and Sastry/DJ a chance to develop their romance that otherwise appears rather lacklustre.

Duvvada Jagannadham is disappointing, but the action sequences are impressive, the songs are excellent and Bunny is always watchable. There are some good dialogues that were well appreciated by the audience here in Melbourne, and the comedy with Bunny, Vennela Kishore as his cousin Vighneswara Sastry and the rest of the family is generally pretty funny. The major issue here is the formulaic plot and uninspiring screenplay that feels dull despite the good performances from the cast. However it’s not all bad and there are some scenes that work very well, it’s just that it doesn’t all gel together as it should. Worth watching for Bunny, the songs and the action, just don’t expect too much from the plot.