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!

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Vetagadu (1979)

Vetagadu

K. Raghavendra Rao’s 1979 film is a classic featuring N.T. Rama Rao and Sridevi in a mystery/romance full of stupendous seventies fashion and glorious home décor. Jandhyala’s story seems to have all the required elements but despite having 2 DVD copies of this film that say ‘with English subtitles’ neither my copies, nor the versions available on YT are subtitled, so I’m really just going with my interpretation of events. And there is a lot going on. As well as a jewellery theft, there is a murder, a feud between two rich families, some shenanigans in a tea plantation, a tribal village with a propensity for celebrating by dancing, a cosy villain’s lair and a convoluted plot to expose the criminals. N.T. Rama Rao looks a little old to be romping around the forest and fighting off the bad guys, but he does it with plenty of style while Sridevi is simply stunning as the heroine trying to find out what really happened to her mother. Apologies for the poor quality of the screencaps – in addition to no subtitles the DVD’s are of equally bad quality.

The film starts with Gayatri (Pushpalata) performing a musical interlude for her family, including her husband Ananda Bhupathi (Jaggayya) and young daughter Roja, at what seems to be a house-warming for their new palace. During her performance Gayatri wears a super-sparkly necklace which quickly attracts the attention of the palace’s steward, Sivananam (Rao Gopal Rao). Sivananam hatches a plot to steal the necklace that involves kidnapping Gayatri the next time she attends the temple. However, Gayatri manages to escape from her captors and runs into the forest where she meets Kalyana Gajapathi (Kanta Rao), a friend of the family who lives in the neighbouring palace. Kalyana Gajapathi attempts to fight the kidnappers but is killed in the struggle, while Gayatri manages to give her necklace to a local tribesman before the thugs catch up with her too.

The film moves to the present day where Ananda Bhupathi has moved back to the city after losing his wife, and the young Roja has grown up into Sridevi. Sivananam has taken over running the estate where he runs various shady businesses, including trafficking young women, with the help of his son Hari (Satyanarayana). As with all good villains, Sivananam has a lair, which judging by the fishy view, appears to be underwater and is furnished with the usual accoutrements including a handy trap door and convenient crocodile for disposing of recalcitrant girls. Hari wanders around the tea plantation, acting as a lord of the manner in his fancy suits with matching hat and flower, selecting the women he wants and disposing of them in his father’s business.

Sivananam has grand plans to marry Hari and Roja, which he puts into action when Roja visits for a hunting trip. However, he’s reckoned without Raja (N.T. Ramo Rao), the son of Kalyana Gajapathi and a hunter still living in his father’s old palace. Roja meets Raja on her way to the forest and immediately dislikes his rather sleazy approach to romance. After crashing into her car and harassing her on the train, Raja then follows the tried and true method of tormenting Roja and stalking her to make her fall in love with him, but to Roja’s credit this doesn’t seem to work. However, Raja’s heart is really in the right place and when he rescues Roja from a gang of thugs she changes her mind and the two can get down to some serious prancing.

One night Roja hears music coming from the old abandoned palace, and when Raja investigates he finds a masked man attacking a young woman in the building. Further investigation leads him to suspect something shady is going on, but it’s not until he rescues another young tribal woman and meets her father (Chalapathi Rao) that he starts to put everything together. Since he’s a man of good sense, he enlists Roja’s help with his investigations, and between them they discover the real story of what happened to Gayatri and her necklace.

Of course that’s not nearly enough drama, so added in is a feud between Ananda Bhupathi and Raja’s family as he believes Kalyana Gajapathi was behind the theft of the necklace and disappearance of his wife, resulting in his refusal to allow Roja to marry Raja. There’s also something about a little girl who was killed in a road accident, who I think was Raja’s sister, which may explain why his father was off hunting in the forest when Gayatri went missing. Or may not – I’m not clear exactly how her death fits into the rest of the story. Naturally there is a comedy track too and Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah ham it up between them in a feud over one of the women from the tea plantation. There is also a rather sad and toothless tiger who gets dragged into the mix and is supposedly part of the ‘comedy’, but for the most part Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah play well off each other even if their antics seem rather dated now.

What helps Vetagadu immensely is the mystery-based storyline and the enthusiasm and energy of the leads. Rao Gopal Rao is good as the villain of the piece with a generally benevolent air as he plots and plans his way through various schemes. Satyanarayana is also excellent as his son, with all his affectations which he drops easily once he’s involved in a fight scene. There’s a particularly good moment where he swaps shoes during an item song to pick up some diamonds and has to carry off the disruption to his perfectly matched outfit. I do like his style!

But the real stars are NTR and particularly Sridevi who manages to make her romance with the ageing superstar reasonably believable. NTR helps things along by some energetic fight sequences and a number of good dance numbers including this one in the tribal village where he imagines Roja and himself as the lead dancers.

Sridevi is simply stunning and has plenty of scope to demonstrate the full range of her acting skills Her initial comedy scenes with Raja are good, and I definitely think she gets the upper hand even though she does eventually succumb to Raja’s charms, or at least his ability to get them out of a sticky situation. Roja also gets a chance to turn detective as she partners up with Raja to find out what happened to her mother and the heirloom necklace, vamping it up and flirting with Hari as well as schmoozing up to Sivananam. She’s also gorgeous in the dance sequences and manages to carry off the various ruffles and seventies fashion (even a crocheted dress) with plenty of style. NTR does well to keep up with her, and he’s excellent in scenes where he is chasing down the answers to the puzzle of his father’s disappearance and the mystery of the missing necklace.

Although the finale, where Raja attempts a disguise to fool Sivananam and Hari doesn’t work quite as well, the rest of the story is a good mix of romance and action, just the way a masala should be. I would love to see this properly restored with English subtitles but until then, this was an enjoyable watch, even without understanding the dialogue– worth it for Sridevi, N.T. Rama Rao and Chakravarthy’s catchy dance numbers. 3½ stars.

 

Tirugu Leni Manishi (1981)

Tirugu Leni Manishi poster

The early eighties gave us so much in India cinema – psychedelic titles, crazy costumes, extreme décor and disco to name but a few – and they all turn up in Thirugu Leni Manishi! Chiranjeevi shares the limelight here with none other than N.T. Rama Rao and as far as I can find out seems to be the only film where they appeared together. Providing excellent support are Rati Agnihoti, Jayalakshmi and Jaggayya, with the unexpected pleasure of Bob Christo who pops up towards the end of the film.

Some of those amazing titles.

And almost immediately afterwards Chiru is introduced as up and coming singing sensation Kishore Kumar.

Oh yes!

Naturally Padma (Jayalakshmi) is seduced by Kishore’s smooth skills with a guitar and his excellent prancing prowess. Padma is the daughter of multimillionaire Sasibhushan Rao (Jaggayya) so it’s pretty much guaranteed that the romance is going to be an uphill battle. Raja (N.T. Rama Rao) is Sasibhushan’s son and in a nice contrast to Chiru’s tight trousers, Raja has a collection of very wide flares teamed with natty multi-coloured shirts, as befitting a successful lawyer and young man about the town. I’m not sure why they decided to portray Raja as a newly qualified young lawyer as he does look more his real age for most of the film, although no more so than watching an ageing Clint Eastwood or Jack Nicholson playing a younger hero in Hollywood, but as he has plenty of energy and dashes around saving everyone in sight his youthful on-screen age doesn’t really matter.

Sasibhushan has no intention of allowing his daughter to be married to a penniless singer and instead arranges Padma’s marriage to the son of one of his rich friends. Padma follows standard filmi heroine behaviour and decides to commit suicide as that’s much easier than standing up to her father or even running away with Kishore. Well, it is the Eighties after all, and she does make sure to call her brother and explain in precise detail exactly what she is doing.

Raja turns up in the nick of time to save Padma and decides to get her married to Kishore despite his father’s orders. At the same time, Raja keeps running into a con man (Allu Ramalingaiah) and his niece Seeta (Rati Agnihoti).To begin with Rama tries to turn Seeta over to the police, but when he realises she’s a good person struggling to makes ends meet as she looks after her dead sister’s children, he has a change of heart and gives her a job instead.

Naturally the two get to dance together so that Raja can have his love story too.

Things turn darker once Raja discovers his father was involved with a criminal gang of smugglers and even worse when he finds out that Kishore has been corrupted by the same gang. In an attempt to live up to Sasibhushan’s standards for his daughter, Kishore became involved with the gang as a way to make a lot of money quickly but soon realises the error of his ways. As Sashibhushan is murdered and Kishore’s son kidnapped things quickly come to a head leading to Raja and Kishore teaming up to overcome the gang.

N.T.Rama Rao is the man who no-one can oppose of the title. He is successful in court, in love and in rehabilitating Ramudu and Seeta so naturally it falls to him to deal with the smuggling gang once he discovers their activities. While N.T Rama Rao is the out and out hero, Chiranjeevi has a more shaded and probably the more interesting role to play. His singer is initially carefree and very much the man in love, but as he struggles to win over Padma’s father, his pride and determination to give her the life she has been used to lead to his downfall. Chiru excels as a man under pressure especially when his child is kidnapped to force him to comply with the smuggler’s orders. Although most of the film is relatively light-hearted, the scenes where Kishore struggles with his conscience are much darker and a tribute to his acting skills to be able to pull such a character off without derailing the story.

The cast are all excellent and K. Raghavendra Rao ensures that each plays to their strengths. N.T Rama Rao is charming and debonair as Raja but does get the chance to beat up the bad guys and indulge in a few disguises too, while Chiranjeevi starts off very cool and groovy but changes into a conscientious husband and father – at least until his secret dealing catch up with him and he has to fight to win back his son. Jayalakshmi doesn’t have too much to do after she falls in love with Kishore, but Seeta gets a chance to dress up and fight against the smugglers, and does a good job of it too. Chiru and N.T.Rama Rao still get the most dazzling costumes though!

The film is amazingly colourful and cinematographer K.S. Prakash goes for some interesting angles and unusual framing to keep everything looking sharp too. The decor in Sasibhushan’s house is incredibly lavish, but much more to my taste is a totally awesome lamp on Raja’s desk, and I love the Village People poster on the wall of Kishore’s living room . Naturally the smuggling gang also have style, and their hideout features a number of gigantic masks on the wall, while their criminal mastermind (Satyanarayana) has two large china cat statues on either side of his chair. The giant birdcage where they stow Kishore’s son for safe keeping is perhaps just a tad over the top though!

Thirugu Leni Manishi has a more complex storyline than I was expecting and is a lot more fun too. Chiranjeevi is in his element as a flamboyant singer and his shift to family man and gang member is beautifully done, while N. T. Rama Rao is a solid and righteous hero who knows how to make things right. It’s fantastic to see the two together and the film is definitely well worth watching for that alone although the costumes, décor and screenplay are awesome added bonuses. Drama, action, comedy, Chiru and NTR all add up to an excellent film and one that shouldn’t be missed. 4 stars.