Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019)

Surender Reddy’s history inspired epic is indeed epic. The sets are impressive, the set pieces are huge, the cast includes almost everyone working in Telugu films plus some ring-ins. And to top it off, Chiranjeevi. Very few things will compel me to see a movie at 7am. Chiru is one of those things.

It’s hard when you want to cram a lot of exposition into a ripping yarn, and Reddy fumbles the pace. Pawan Kalyan narrates,  Anushka Shetty makes a welcome yet probably unnecessary cameo as Rani Lakshmibai, using the story of Narasimha Reddy (Chiranjeevi) to inspire her outnumbered troops. And eventually we get to the main event – Narasimha Reddy, all grown up and ready to rumble. From there the remainder of the first half is about the local battle against Jackson, a sadistic white supremacist. The second half has to regain momentum for the final conflict with the even more revolting Cochrane, wearer of bad hats and owner of a mysterious black panther just to ram home his villainous leanings. Along the way Narasimha Reddy is mentored by his guru, supported and challenged by his peers, and adored by all women. But he is always hated by the Brits and he returns their enmity in spades. The film jumps around visually and looks amazing, the geography is frequently mystifying, but the narrative is dead linear and predictable. With lots of repetition for the people who decide to make important phone calls or switch seats several times during the movie.

Reddy does some things to perfection, and he gives Chiranjeevi some impressive hero entrances. He balanced the spiritual and the legendary heroic aspects along with the Megastar obligation to provide something familiar yet extraordinary with each return. But there are also some poor directorial choices and I really do have to get this off my chest now. I know this is a ye olden days film, I know they made some gestures towards historical accuracy….but no dancing?!? Chiranjeevi NOT DANCING AT ALL?!! Seriously. Walking around and pointing during a song is not enough. Could he not get his folky festival appropriate groove on with his people just once? Some of the fire twirling guys looked understandably nervous so maybe they could have used some Megastar spark instead.

 

Surender Reddy uses tight closeups on Chiranjeevi’s face as Narasimha Reddy absorbs news or prepares to roar inspiration or threats. Chiru goes all in, whether he is comforting a child or dismembering an enemy. It’s all about that commitment and the Mega charisma that makes you believe that people would follow him into a war, believing he is a chosen one. The action scenes allow him to kill in varied ways and with great gusto, busting out the athleticism and grace we don’t get to see in a dance (yes, I’m bitter about it). I especially enjoyed Jackson’s comeuppance as it drew upon earlier skills demonstrated so there was a pleasing blend of “oh, of course!” and WTFery. Despite being at a 7am show there was vocal appreciation of the gore and creative ways of killing. The special effects around the actors and stunt performers in the war and fight scenes worked pretty well, but some other effects were a bit amateurish and made what should have been impactful look silly. That was a blessing in parts, as if the CGI was better a couple of scenes would have been seriously traumatising.

The wig department is there for Chiru every step of the way. He has his fluffy Romance Hair, and two variants of Action Hair (one with man bun, one without). His outfits are detailed but not overwhelming or fussy, and avoid the period costume trap of looking like he’s been upholstered rather than tailored. He sported a nicely woven war sandal so I was pleased to see some appropriately statement footwear too.

Nayanthara had the clumpy eyelashes of a perpetual crier while Tamannaah had perfect eyelashes for flirting or murderous rages. And there’s about all the character development you get. Both actresses deliver what they can, but all the women in this story are required to do is support and/or sacrifice. Tamannaah plays a dancer but mostly sings, exhorting people to join the rebellion. She has a lovely, very sad, scene that made me sad because there was no room in the film for her acting ability. Nayanthara plays Sidhamma as shy and hopelessly worshipping her man. Again, she added some delicate touches to her characterisation but that may have been professional pride because I suspect the direction was “Stand there. Then go stand there. And cry.”

The gang of chieftains are largely undifferentiated, but a few make more substantial contributions. Mukesh Rishi got no love from the wig department so the hat team went all out for him. Brahmaji does his usual furious faces. Ravi Kishan got an economy wig and no moral compass to speak of. Jagapathi Babu is quietly compelling as Veera Reddy, a believer grappling with the consequences of betrayal. My favourite was Sudeep’s Avuku Raju. He dripped disdain, his silent reactions were anywhere from menacing to hilarious, and his frenemy dynamic with Narasimha Reddy was absolutely beautiful. The biggest supporting cast cheer was for Vijay Sethupathi as Tamil leader, Raja Paandi. Amitabh Bachchan as the lugubrious Guru Gosayi Venkanna got no response at all. I actually disliked his character. Mentoring is one thing but being a manipulative puppet master is something else.

The European actors range from adequate to terrible. It doesn’t require great subtlety to be a despicable cartoonish villain, so the patchy acting and clunky dialogues didn’t bother me too much. I did like that the film doesn’t pussy-foot around the British attitude that dark skinned people were inferior, and that nobody pretended the conflict was about anything but money and resources. The patriotic aspects of Narasimha Reddy’s fight got a great response from the audience and we all enjoyed seeing the white guys get what was coming to them.

The subtitles are largely OK but there are some strange errors. The subs express asking for forgiveness or offering an apology as asking for an apology regardless of context, which was confusing. Some things were overly literal and not meaningful. I particularly liked the subtitles that explained an accomplishment as “He is a great man. He has mastered the art of holding his breath in water”. Greatness may await us all, friends! And whoever was on spell checking left us with gems like “Your’s Sincerly”. Such a big budget film, and so little respect for the dialogues. Sigh.

Yes, there’s a story. Yes, there’s some History. Yes, there is a huge cast. Yes, it’s a film on a massive scale. And yet it all rests on Chiranjeevi. He delivers so much of the success of the film but can’t quite overcome the flaws. One to see on the big screen if you can, just to appreciate the grandeur, the guyliner, and the wigs.

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Majboor (1974)

I watched this after reading Anu’s review, and am so glad I did. Majboor is a low key thriller, and apart from a couple of minor missteps, is both suspenseful and makes sense.

Ravi Khanna (Amitabh Bachchan) is a smart young man, working as a travel agent. One rainy night he deals with his last client Mr Surendra Sinha (Rehman), and accepts a lift from the man as there are no taxis around. Some time later the police (Iftekhar and Jagdish Rai) come to interview him as Mr Sinha was abducted that night, and found dead in a gutter. Ravi is innocent, but nervous as the police are taking a keen interest in him as the last known person to see Sinha. The stress seems to be triggering severe headaches, and he goes to the doctor. The diagnosis is far more serious than tension. Ravi has a brain tumour that must be removed. But the doctor scares him with a range of possible outcomes from paralysis to blindness or maybe being right as rain so he leaves without making a decision. Ravi has a widowed mother (Sulochana), a sister in a wheelchair (Farida Jalal), and little brother Billoo (Master Alankar). He is the sole provider and can’t contemplate a life where he becomes a dependant. Believing he is probably going to die either from the tumour or the surgery, he hatches a scheme to frame himself as the killer and collect the reward money for his family. But once in prison, he faints again and is taken to the hospital and operated on. He has a perfect recovery and then has to deal with the other death sentence. Ravi regrets his choice now he can live, and he escapes to go in search of the real killer.

Amitabh is perfectly cast. Ravi is educated, has a decent job, takes good care of his Ma and siblings, likes a lairy outfit or two, and has a pretty and very modern girlfriend in Neela (Parveen Babi). When Ravi is first questioned about the dead man he seems collected, but later goes to see his friend who is a lawyer. He knows how things can turn out when the police start paying attention to a person. When the headaches kick in, Amitabh does some excellent faces (see a small selection here).

Generally he plays Ravi as a down to earth guy with no superhero stuff. At least, not until the final scenes where Ravi is out for justice. When he realises he has escaped one death sentence but still has another looming he acts decisively and within the realms of what he can reasonably achieve. I liked his problem solving approach which was to ask questions and think about the answers, using force when needed but not at all if he could just look tall and threatening. Amitabh adds some little reactions and expressions that show Ravi can be spiteful or calculating too, and he really made the character feel solid and believable. Except for his bright red suede “on the run” outfit. What was Ravi thinking?

Parveen Babi got very little to do, and lots of spare hair to carry around while she did it. The 70s presented a few fashion challenges and I can’t say I like the micro-ruffled vesty thing she had to wear, nor the ear-blocking flowers. Neela was supportive of Ravi and he involved her in his plans in the same way luggage can be considered part of a trip. The film would be no worse off if her role hadn’t been written which is sad. And in the final scenes I had to wonder why Ravi left Neela to hold the fort when it would have made so much more sense for him to stay and her to go. Or you know, both of them tie the bad guy up. Anyway. As you can see, I haven’t much to say about Neela.

As Ravi investigates a significant ring that could lead back to the killer, he has some lucky breaks and benefits from his own logical procedural thinking. One very lucky break for him, and for the audience, is the arrival of Michael (Pran!). Michael is a thief, fencing his wares through Prakash (Mac Mohan). He is also the only witness to who killed Sinha. Pran rocks up committing a robbery then bouncing straight into the excellent Daru Ki Botal Mein. What a talented multi-instrumentalist Michael is.

Pran is flamboyant, theatrical and loads of fun. Michael is who he is, and is so comfortable in his own skin. Pran gets some excellent dialogue and makes the most of every moment without being obnoxiously OTT. And Michael is pivotal to the story. He wants to do well for himself but he made Ravi a promise. Will he sell Ravi out to the killer?

Ravi’s family mean the world to him. Ma (Sulochana) is quietly spoken and shy, but mustered up her courage to go and ask Narendra Sinha (Satyendra Kapoor) not to demand the death penalty. Renu (Farida Jalal) is in a wheelchair and the reason is never explained, there is no great drama about operations for her, she is just Renu who tries to make the best of things. Farida plays her with a veneer of manic happiness that can easily turn to tears but Renu is also quick witted. I liked that neither woman was required to have a tragic flash back or do anything other than be themselves. It was just a nice middle class family with sensible aspirations. Master Alankar is quite good as little Billoo, although when he started singing the dreary Dekh Sakhta Hoon in place of Ravi I began to hope for another kidnapping.

The supporting cast is chock full of quality actors. There’s Iftekhar and Jagdish Rai as the competent and sensible police officers, Satyendra Kapoor as the brother hell-bent on seeing Ravi hang, D.K Sapru as Neela’s understanding and non-judgemental dad, Mac Mohan as a squeaky voiced dealer in objets of dubious provenance, and the list goes on. All of their characters seems to be a good fit for their milieu, acting in ways that are consistent with their positions. It is nice to see a thriller stay grounded through the minor characters and how they go about things.

Ravi Tandon keeps the tension up and Salim-Jhaved’s screenplay weaves all the characters into a convincing world for this story. There are a couple of things I question in the final confrontation but I suppose if you pay for a leading lady like Parveen you may as well drag her along for the ride. The soundtrack (Laxmikant Pyarelal) is more effective in the background than in the songs, but the songs are well integrated and part of the action.

Amitabh is at his peak, and this is a ripping story told in a more realistic style than many of his hits. See it for the super cast, and enjoy the suspenseful story. 4 stars!

Khoon Pasina (1977)

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Sometimes when the world has gone mad, you just need the reassuring presence of The Big B dishing out dishoom and justice.

Shiva and Aslam grow up besties in one of those happily diverse communities. Their dads are also friends, teasing each other about being rubbish at being a Muslim or a Hindu because they can’t even remember their own religious celebrations. Both dads make a powerful enemy when they stop a flamboyantly bewigged and fringed Kader Khan killing a bloke. He decides to foment communal strife in order to kill them without the police suspecting him, and somehow this is linked via a montage to Partition. The family is torn apart by a house fire that kills Ram and Rahim, leaves Aslam lost, and places young Shiva with Aslam’s ma (Nirupa Roy) as his only family.

The kids are indifferent actors, probably chosen for their evolutionary potential to end up looking like neighbourhood thug Shiva, aka Tiger (Amitabh Bachchan), and principled dacoit Shera (Vinod Khanna). Tiger hasn’t forgotten his past despite being raised by Nirupa Roy while Shera is trying to find death, but even death is worried by his body count.

Amitabh gets the best and worst of the film. Shiva/Tiger is an impulsive thug who is motivated by the right reasons but doesn’t stop to think about collateral damage or even just stop to think, a dictator in his own manner. He also gets stuck with a wardrobe that I wish I could say was part of the comedy track. It annoys me so much that he is called Tiger yet wears leopard print. Really! But Amitabh has such charm that the glib one-liners work a treat and he can switch effortlessly to show Shiva’s darker side. And some of the comedy track is funny despite itself. I particularly enjoyed the wedding party being entertained and fed by the crooks who had come to steal the bride. I suppose in a different film, Tiger could always have picked up work as an event planner.

Tiger sees the curvaceous and feisty Chanda (Rekha) at the market and is smitten. She challenges him to back up his bragging by wrestling a tiger for her. So he does. But Chanda has been engaged to gangster Raghu (Ranjeet) since childhood, and he is not inclined to give up his claim. Raghu tries to get Shera to kill Tiger but Shera says it would be better if Raghu died. Raghu has other ideas and starts messing with Zaleem Singh who is still alive and scheming.

Shera still mourns his lost family, and believes himself alone in the world. Like Shiva, he has a strong commitment to justice as he sees it, and like Shiva he doesn’t pay attention to the law. Vinod Khanna was saddled with some dodgy hair and a lot of pleather, but Shera is certainly the cooler of the grown up boys. Probably because he doesn’t have his mummy choosing his outfits. But he is also afflicted with the faux leopard trim. Vinod delivers his cheesy lines with a detached and weary cynicism threaded with sentimentality about families and honour. It’s the kind of role that I usually expect to see Danny Denzongpa in and I think he might have added a little more spark to the pathos. The long lost friends spend almost all the film apart and their few scenes together are good. I wish they had interacted a bit more to ramp up the tension a bit.

Chanda faces Raghu down with the full support of her father who says she cannot be married off against her will. Hurrah for that dad! Naturally Raghu decides to eliminate Tiger, but being a weasel he takes many indirect routes rather than simple confrontation. Rekha’s body language is quite masculine and often aggressive in Chanda’s pre-marriage scenes. She owns her space and doesn’t let unwanted contact go past without payback. She falls for Tiger but then he plays hard to get. They have a push and pull in their dynamic that is amusing but not emotionally healthy. And when it comes to Tiger choosing between his wife or his ma, you’d better believe he is a mummy’s boy who will slap his wife into the middle of next week if she disagrees with Ma. Rekha and Amitabh have that chemistry of course, but I enjoyed Chanda’s scenes where she was going about her daily routine alone and her interactions with other people in the village. Rekha can be funny as well as dramatic, and despite a few airhead moments Chanda is quick-witted and interesting.

Shanno or Shantidevi (Aruna Irani) is another defiant woman. She loves her husband Mohan (a very restrained Asrani) who is a gentle, law abiding man and they talk about their conflicting beliefs and all seems really respectful and solid. Except when Mohan is threatening Shanno to prevent her from telling her brothers or when Shanno is telling Mohan to pop on some bangles and let her be the man of the family. Shanno also happens to be Zaleem Singh’s daughter and bears her Monobrow of Fury with elan. Her immediate reaction to any insult is to grab a gun and try and kill the offender, saying her brothers will clean up the legal issues. When Raghu burns down their farm and pretends he is Tiger, it sets up yet another conflict. After a tense family visit, and a huge random edit, Mohan decides to go kill Tiger so Shanti also runs off after him with a gun.

Shiva relocates to the jungle and ends up working on a plantation owned by Zaleem Singh. He gets a nice Kalyanji-Anandji number that looks like a rehearsal for Mr Natwarlal, and Helen makes an appearance to dance for the landlords. He builds new relationships and becomes the voice of workers’ rights and social justice. There’s even an “I’m Spartacus” scene. Chanda is gradually sidelined but she remains a strong force in the film and in Shiva’s life. Nirupa continues to give him pointless and conflicting instructions. The lack of emotional blackmail opportunities drives her to almost commit a crime so she can stop herself and “Nahiiiiin!” about it.

There are so many bad guys! Ranjeet gets his shirt off for no reason, Kader Khan is slimy and arrogant as Zaleem Singh, Mac Mohan is natty in pleather as Singh’s flunkey, Vinod Khanna is a cut above this material, and there are so many beefy shirtless dudes running around beating people up that I suspect that was the main industry for the village. There are also abundant good guys, many of whom speak with sense, logic, and empathy. It’s quite pleasing to have some good life advice doled out to the hero.

And all the while Shera is on Tiger’s trail, paid to hand Tiger over to Zaleem Singh but not really believing that he is a miscreant.

What happens next? Please, you already know. And yet there is always that bit extra that makes you go “Huh?” The action scenes are woeful as I don’t think Rakesh Kumar had the faintest idea of how to shoot or stage a fight so there is minimal choreography of the stunts and lots of bizarre angles and edits to skip over the lack of detail. There is a very long and quite unnecessary horse chase, although it did prove Moti knew what was what. It’s the kind of film where wallowing in quicksand is not enough, you have to simultaneously wrestle a snake. It’s the kind of film where if you want to kill someone you have to first build an enormous wooden edifice and tie them to a stake at the top. It’s the kind of film where Moti the horse should have been making key decisions.

Despite being quite slapdash, the story contains some interesting little bits and pieces. See it for Amitabh and Vinod emoting fiercely with Rekha and Aruna Irani being fierce. 3 ½ stars!

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