Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi (2018)

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s follow up to the exceptional Pelli Choopulu suffers a little from second album syndrome. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was left underwhelmed. Tharun Bhascker was so keen to draw us into his nostalgic world that I felt bombarded with descriptions and dialogues, but didn’t really get to know the characters for myself. I would have liked less of the how and what, more who and why.

Karthik (Sushanth Reddy) works as a club manager, hired to keep his own common people away from the VIPs. Vivek (Vishwak Naidu) is a mean drunk, a filmmaker who doesn’t make films, uncompromising and unlikeable. Uppu (Venkatesh Kakumanu) works as a wedding videographer and Kaushik (Abhinav Gomatam) is doing voiceovers for low budget TV comedy shows. All the guys have dreams, or a shared dream, that has pretty much been mothballed since 2007. In the present day, Karthik gets the nod to get engaged to his boss’s daughter. He’ll land a wife, a business, a fancy heirloom engagement ring to hand over, and a ticket to the USA, all as part of the deal. He gets the guys together for a celebratory drink and…hijinks ensue. The guys end up drunk, in Goa, minus the expensive ring, but plus a child relative Kaushik is supposed to be minding. Of course the only way to buy a replacement ring is to enter a film festival and win first prize. But that opens up old wounds and stirs old ambitions. Can the gang go back in order to move on?

I think the risk of a “slice of life” is that the viewer has to find some interest in the lives being examined. And some of the characters are not that compelling on their own merits, some are “types” rather than fully realised people in their own right. Vivek sits at one end of the scale, the intensely idealistic artist afraid to expose his work to judgement, and Karthik is his opposite, completely packing his ambitions away in favour of financial security. Uppu and Kaushik occupy the pragmatic middle, and are not the losers they seemed at first glance. They are still doing what they loved but not quite in the way they had hoped. But despite the flashbacks and memories, I felt I was experiencing it all second hand, not actually getting drawn into the story.

The film relies on a high degree of happy coincidence, and people seem to make decisions based on what the plot needs. A drunken truth or dare was framed as a bar promotion, thus introducing Shirley (Anisha Ambrose) as a promo girl who also turned up in Goa and by amazing chance happened to also be a musician who could be their composer. She also had the magical power of making people who wouldn’t have a meaningful conversation with each other agree to spill their guts on film for video content, all for a free drink. Shirley’s Russian friend Dasha just happened to have a great house with room for the guys to crash and she was prepared to act in their short film. The sapphire ring just happened to be sold by only one jeweller, based in Goa. Yes, life does often wave vaguely towards a solution after smashing you with a problem, but it felt contrived.

Sushanth is the nominal hero I guess, one who has packed up his dreams in order to be a good son. Karthik is a pleaser and usually goes out of his way to be inoffensive, which meant Sushanth is also nice but forgettable. I never felt the weight of Karthik’s decisions, or what it cost him. The resolution of his story was neither unexpected nor very interesting.

I am so over the myth of male artists being tortured souls who get a special exemption from behaving decently because of their art. Vishwaksen Naidu gives Vivek a dour intensity but I could take or leave him. Vivek blames his ex-girlfriend for his creative block, and uses aggression to cover his fear of judgement and rejection, literally diving in to a bottle to avoid facing reality. The breakup scene with his first girlfriend (Simran Chowdary) was horribly stilted and packed with clichés of the “it’s not you it’s me” line, all delivered in an expressionless staccato with Vivek grimacing and flexing. I also disliked that his redemption seemed to depend on Shirley, even if she seemed to have a reasonable handle on things.

I found myself barracking for Kaushik and Uppu, the guys who just get on with it. They know they’ll have to compromise to make a living, but they are kind of working on their craft and believe one day they’ll get their break. And they have professional standards, they’re just not obnoxious or precious about them. Venkatesh Kakumanu plays Uppu as pretty chill but with a keen sense of self-preservation and a dash of sarcasm. Abhinav Gomatam gives Kaushik a blend of empathy and shameless self-importance that made me cringe at times, and made him one of the more memorable characters. They are the underdogs in life and in the gang.

I don’t think every story has to have a 50/50 gender balance, but I was disappointed that the few women with any screen time had so little substance. The women – Anisha Ambrose, Simran Chowdhary and the actress who played Dasha – had so little to do apart from enable the men. Even the kid served little purpose other than one cheap potshot at his mother at the end. Karthik’s intended fiancée may as well have been played by a potato.

While the film is easy on the eye, my attention wandered a bit. (To be fair, that could be because of the uncle who spent the ENTIRE movie on a phone call and I think was describing a succession of surgical procedures.)  It’s a pleasant enough timepass, but I wanted more than OK. But. I do keep hoping the Telugu industry makes room for diverse stories that aren’t just mass Hero fodder, and this is certainly in that “something else” category. So please consider seeing this (or Sammohanam if it’s still around) and prove there is a market for story telling, not just spectacle.

Karvva (2016)

Karvva poster

Karvva released earlier this year in India, and we finally got a chance to see the film here in Melbourne last weekend. I’m not usually a fan of horror films but the blurb about Karvva suggested that it was a combination thriller/ghost story, so I ventured out to the cinema in the hope that it may be another RangiTaranga. However Karvva turned out to be a fairly formulaic and not particularly frightening (or even thrilling) film, but despite the inevitability of the storyline there are a few good features that make it worth a one-time watch.

The film is a mix of two separate but related stories, one based on a documentary film crew out to debunk a rumour about a haunted house and the other recounting the kidnap of a rich businessman’s daughter. The connection between the two is the house; is a classic ‘renovator’s delight/fixer-upper’ mansion located somewhere in the Karnataka countryside.

When an NRI attempts to sell his ancestral property he finds that it has a nasty reputation as a haunted house, and in an attempt to improve his chances of a sale he enlists the help of a documentary filmmaker specialising in investigations of supernatural events. The TV crew has some kind of spiritual advisor and a boffin with a machine that measures ghost activity so obviously they’re the right people for the job. However despite all their gadgets and scepticism, the TV crew find more than they bargained for in the abandoned house which lives up to its reputation. Naturally they have to wait for an auspicious time to go back and try to exorcise the spirit which leaves the scene set for the next reckless visitors to the mansion.

The second part of the story focuses on Thilak, a spoilt, rich kid who lives the high life but who is brought down to earth when he loses a lot of money at a casino. He tries to get some money out of his father (Devaraj) by pretending he needs cash for a business deal, but his father decides that enough is enough and refuses to bail Thilak out. Anisha Ambrose is Thilak’s sister, who tries to persuade her dad to cough up some money for her brother, but before she can achieve very much she is kidnapped and a ransom note sent to Devaraj. The kidnappers choose Thilak to deliver the ransom money and the directions he follows take him to an abandoned mansion somewhere in the Karnataka countryside. Yes – this is the same Raja bungalow that we’ve already seen is haunted by a vengeful ghost, but Thilak is only concerned about finding his sister and isn’t too concerned by his surroundings. He also approaches the house from the back which looks much less creepy and isn’t quite as festooned with cobwebs as the front of the house either.

Events conspire to leave Thilak, his sister and three friends stuck in the house overnight. As the ectoplasm starts to swirl and the friends find out the history behind Raja bungalow it’s clear that they’re not going to have a peaceful night and indeed may not even last until morning.

The basic plot is a fairly standard ghost story but there are a few twists, particularly in the second half which make the film more interesting. Unfortunately, although the visual effects are good, each even remotely spooky moment is accompanied by loud screechy music and distorted screams that quickly remove any suspense from the scene. There are numerous points where one of the characters is shown from behind with the suggestion that someone (i.e. the ghost) is creeping up behind them. It would have been so much more effective to cut out all the noise altogether, or even go for some slightly more clichéd breathing rather than the loud cacophony that occurs every time someone turns their back on the camera. More effective are the shots where a vague figure appears when the lights go out, and where there are half seen flickers in the periphery, but as the film goes on the effects get more and more obvious and subsequently less and less frightening. The inclusion of a comedy track of sorts with Vijay Chendur reduces any suspense that might have built up with the initial ghostly effects while the loud soundtrack and OTT make-up towards the end mean that the final scenes are funnier than I think they were meant to be.

The actors are occasionally overshadowed by the effects, but Thilak is fine as the sceptical and stalwart hero of the hour. Mostly he just has to ignore all the odd happenings and boldly go forward to investigate the latest black-out, noise or other unusual occurrence, but he does so with a reasonable amount of attitude and is good at the end when everything is explained. However RJ Rohith as one of Thilak’s friends is rather wooden and inexpressive although some of this may be due to his rather dour character, which doesn’t give him scope to do much else. Anisha Ambrose and Anu Poovamma are both good and escape the usual fate of female characters in a horror movie by being braver than seems plausible, while Vijay Chendur is funnier than expected and makes an impact despite only having a short time on-screen.

Navaneeth wrote and directed the film and there are some good ideas in there, even if the ghost story and horror element is somewhat formulaic. The NRI desperate to sell his house works well and there are some satisfyingly scary moments with the TV crew as they search for clues. The initial kidnap scenes are also well thought out and the events when the friends first find themselves stuck in the house are effectively written. However as the horror part of the story kicks in the film starts to lose its novelty and the final explanation can even be partly anticipated given the events of the night in Raja bungalow. Still, the cinematography by Mohan is excellent, there are a few good spooky scenes and I like that the female characters are braver than some of the men! Worth watching for the set-up in the first half, the twists in the second and a good performance from Thilak Shekar.