Janatha Garage

I want to grab Koratala Siva and shake him till his teeth rattle, then kick him into the middle of next week. He has managed to get a top notch cast and the beginning of a good idea and turn it into something far less than the sum of its parts.

Sathyam (The Complete Actor Mohanlal) is the head of Janatha Garage, a leader, and is genuine in his desire to give the little people a fair go. Mohanlal has great conviction and gravitas when he speaks of what is right and fair, and he gives the impression of a man who seeks to take a balanced view but who will never take the easy way out. He gathers a small crew of like-minded men who also represent in shorthand the diversity of Hyderabad. Janatha Garage repairs engines and problems.

Anand (Young Tiger NTR) has an unusual hero entrance where he arrives to … plant a tree. Or actually, tell someone he’s busy and so can they please plant the tree. Anand’s environmentalism is very simple. Trees good, humans bad. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with wanton destruction as long as it is him dishing out the destruction. He is given an overblown fight intro where he beats some thugs up while claiming to be giving them a taste of Mother Nature’s temper. He tells people what to do and believes they will do it because he has told them so. Sathyam sees him as a good fit for Janatha Garage, and welcomes him into the fold.

Some of the movie’s highlights are the scenes between NTR Jr and Mohanlal. Their characters have a connection that is unknown to either of them for quite some time, so that added a bit of interest for the audience. They both bring more to the table than that flimsy screenplay required. The actors portray a nice dynamic – warm, mutual respect, and a recognition of the gradual changing of the guard and what that means. But there are too many gaps and things that Anand in particular just accepts too easily. This is not a lack in Tarak’s acting – I felt he added as much complexity as he could. Both Anand and Sathyam are so sure they are right, and that their right is more right than anyone else’s idea of right. Anand in particular brooks no discussion and has no compassion for anyone who opposes him. It robs his character of any inner life, and makes them both rather joyless.

And that lack of heart is the real problem with this film. For a story that should be so intimately tied to people and their daily struggles, once the story moves to Hyderabad Janatha Garage seems to take place in a lifeless bubble. The sound design makes it seem like they are on a stage with echoing dubbing and swelling string music every time Janatha Garage is invoked. In contrast, an early scene of Anand running through a slum area in Mumbai had a real sense of place and the vibrant, persistent signs of life in high density cities. Even in the impressively choreographed action scenes, Anand takes on all comers alone. He finally allows the other Garage guys in on the final fight but they are barely on camera. And he never even gets a mark on his linen shirts, let alone get his hair messed up. I wonder if his construction strength hair product was environmentally friendly? His apparent invulnerability also saps the drama of tension because you know how every fight will end before it starts.

The support cast are pushed so far into the periphery that I was actually a bit sad to recognise so many capable actors. The Janatha Garage family includes Rahman as Sathyam’s murdered brother, Sithara as Anand’s aunty, Suresh as his uncle, and Devayani as Sathyam’s wife. Perennial favourite Ajay is likeable and sympathetic, Brahmaji doesn’t look angry for maybe 40 seconds of his total screentime, Saikumar is suave as police chief Chandrasekhar, and I liked Vennela Kishore’s fleeting appearance as an inappropriate office manager flirting with Samantha. I have just spent as much time on developing their characters as Koratala Siva did.

The baddies were played by Sachin Khedekar and Ashish Vidyarthi who both exuded an urbane egotism in their pursuit of wealth. They both want to keep a distance from what is being done, but have no illusions about the outcome. Unni Mukundan plays Sathyam’s son Raghava who goes over to the dark side. Raghava is slimy and bit of a sook and I cared not one jot for his well-being. But I did wonder just how he turned out that way when everyone else even tenuously associated with Janatha Garage was lining up for sainthood.

Samantha and Nithya Menon are capable, and both project warmth and liveliness which was sorely lacking in the rest of the film. But their relationships with each other and with Anand were never developed, and their storylines just fizzled out. Even Anand, apart from one tearful scene, seemed largely to forget that he had a girlfriend and a spare.

Luckily there are beautiful visuals from cinematographer S. Thirunavukkarasu, especially when the story heads out of town and Anand gets his groove on while frolicking in the mountains. Tarak can express such joy when he dances and it was a relief to see Anand lighten up. Rock On Bro is exactly what you’d expect if you briefed a 70s metal cover band to write a theme for a tourism ad with a hippy vibe. Having said that, the Apple Beauty song has possibly the worst lyrics I’ve heard since Eurovision. I pitied the subtitle team for having to work with such gems as “when you devour me I am like the Apple logo on an iPhone”. But don’t take my word for it. Here is a sample:

And who on earth thought Kajal could deliver a skanky item? She’s very attractive, she gives it her all, but she has none of the sensuality or basic coordination required to dance her way in and out of trouble. And casting a Mumbai girl to perform a Telugu item called Pakka Local…Luckily Tarak decides he can’t see the excellent sets go to waste so he jumps in.

I’m putting the flaws in Janatha Garage firmly on Koratala Siva’s account. He had a super cast, a decent budget, and a good idea and he threw most of it away with shoddy writing and empty clichés. One for the Tarak or Mohanlal fans who will enjoy the star performances.

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Gopala Gopala (2015)

film poster

Gopala Gopala, so good I watched it twice! Well, actually I would do that more often for more films if Melbourne had an extra show, which is what happened this week with Gopala Gopala. But it is a fun film and I enjoyed watching Venkatesh and Pawan Kaylan in their first movie together. I haven’t seen either the Hindi version of this movie, or the original Australian film that inspired both and that could be one of the reasons why I enjoyed Gopala Gopala as much as I did. I’ve read that this Telugu remake follows the original faithfully and as a result it may only be worth a watch if you haven’t seen OMG, or like me feel that Pawan Kalyan as God seems a more plausible choice than Akshay Kumar.

The Gopala of the title is a shopkeeper who decides to sue God when his insurance claim is rejected following an earthquake that has destroyed his livelihood. The insurance company representative points out that Gopala has signed the contract that lists (in small print) the exclusions for his insurance, including an ‘Act of God’ and since no-one else but God could have caused the earthquake, Gopala is out of luck and out of compensation. It’s a nice idea, even if the term act of god is a legal construct rather than anything remotely religious, but the film works on the premise that either God does not exist and therefore the insurance company has to pay, or God was responsible and the onus of care rests with his agents on Earth. Along the way the film questions the morality of the various religious orders and their representatives, but is clear throughout that despite Gopala’s own personal disbelief there is actually no question about the validity of God in any of his incarnations. It’s the charlatans and irrational customs that come up for criticism and the writers throw in some good questions about morality in general for later contemplation.

Venkatesh pitches his character perfectly as a non-believer who makes his living selling Hindu statues and religious artifacts even though he finds the rituals and superstitious involved in worship ridiculous. Just as much of a con in fact as his ordinary tap water masquerading as authentic water from the Ganges. His shady dealings aside, at heart Gopala is a compassionate man who is shown to indulge in random acts of kindness and generally feels some compassion for people less fortunate than himself. The problem here though is that his good deeds come across as rather contrived given the way they are somewhat haphazardly inserted into the narrative. However Venkatesh mixes his skepticism with obvious tolerance for his wife’s idiosyncrasies and his salesman has plenty of charm mixed in with his complaints, making Gopala a generally likeable character.

His wife however is Gopala’s polar opposite in all things religious. Meenakshi (Shriya Saran) prays to any and every possible God and shrine while falling for every piece of chicanery she sees during her devotions. I’ve mentioned before that Shriya seems to be better in roles that require her to have long hair, and she stays true to that judgement here, giving a good performance as a devoted wife and mother in every sense of the word. Although Shriya doesn’t have a lot of scope in her role, her presence does add grace and a human face to the otherwise random devotees who face Gopala’s scorn. Somewhere in the middle is Otthu (Krishnudu), Gopala’s assistant in his shop who prays to the gods and follows the rituals but is the one who suggests a religious trip to Varanasi will be the perfect time to stock up on cheap artifacts to sell at inflated prices back in Hyderabad. Krishnudu has good comedy timing but apart from funny early scenes he is also relegated to the sidelines once God appears to help Gopala in his quest for justice.

Ah, yes, God.

Gopala GopalaPawan Kalyan makes his grand entrance as Krishna just before the interval, and his presence immediately enriches the story and lifts the energy of the film. The reaction in Melbourne was loud and enthusiastic both times I saw Gopala Gopala, which somehow seems rather appropriate for the appearance of a deity, even if he doesn’t arrive with the classic blue skin and associated regalia I expected. The role suits Pawan Kalyan’s restrained delivery style when not in full action mode, and his Krishna is a little distant but very charismatic. As may be expected from a divine being he offers guidance rather than direct intervention and is often cryptic in his dialogue, although his explanation of why bad things happen to good people sounds like classical political spin. Gopala never asks any of the big questions (such as why just his shop was destroyed – would have been my first question. That and where do all the lost socks go?) but that makes the relationship between the two feel more genuine and does stay true to Gopala’s persistent disbelief in an all-powerful deity.

The film does slow down a little in the second half when Gopala takes the assorted bunch of priests and swami’s to court but Mithun Chakraborthy, Posani Krishna Murali and Diksha Panth are all good in their respective roles as unethical leaders of their temples and organisations and the comedy helps to keep things moving along. Mithun as Leeladhara Swamy in particular has an impressive collection of idiosyncrasies although all three are so obviously corrupt and self-aggrandising that it seems hard to believe they would lower themselves to appear in court. Gopala is an equal opportunity plaintive and also summons representatives from the Muslim and Christian churches, while receiving help from lawyer Akbar Bhai (Murali Sharma) and determined opposition from Shankar Narayana (Ashish Vidyarthi) who has the unenviable task of representing the religious leaders. Interspersed with all the courtroom drama there are a number of songs by Anoop Rubens which are mainly fairly upbeat and fit into the narrative well. My favourite is a beautiful flute piece, but this runs a close second, particularly since it includes both Venkatesh and Pawan Kalyan dancing.

While Gopala Gopala is often rather simplistic with characters painted a little too black or white, Kishore Kumar Pardasany has made an entertaining movie that includes a discussion of superstition in religion without getting bogged down in dogma and matters of faith.   Pawan Kalyan and Venkatesh Daggubati have great chemistry and work well together while the rest of the cast provide excellent support and good comedy. This really was much better than I expected and is definitely well worth a watch – or two!

Bachchan (2013)

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Bachchan was recommended to me by numerous people when I went to watch Ugramm a few weeks ago, and since I read that the film had won a number of awards in India plus it starred the usually pretty awesome Sudeep Kiccha I thought it would be worth tracking down on DVD.  But when I started to watch it I was very disappointed.  After about 20 minutes I just couldn’t watch any more relentless and seemingly pointless violence or blatant sexism and had to give up.   It took another two attempts before I managed to get more than 30 minutes into the film, and I spent most of that time wondering why this film had been recommended to me! But then I got further in, finally reached the excellent second half, and realised exactly why this film had appealed to so many people – even me eventually.  It does get immeasurably better in the second half, and looking back the opening scenes make more sense in retrospect, although I still feel a less chauvinistic approach would have made them easier viewing. However, if you can make it past the first thirty minutes, there really is a lot to like about Bachchan.

The film opens with a slugfest between Bharat (Sudeep Kiccha) and various members of the police force in a small police station. No-one is able to stop him as he smashes his way through the police station and ultimately kills Inspector Mahesh Deshpande (Ashish Vidyarthi) before escaping on a police bike.  Bharat then easily outwits the chasing police cars and heads to a hospital where he proceeds to defenestrate one of the doctors, Dr. Srinivasa Iyengar (Nasser) and escapes yet again.  This time though, we know he is going to get caught just as soon as a lorry full of water bottles appears in the middle of the shot.

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So once in custody for committing two murders (no mention of the destruction to property and general menace to society he represents) Bharat proceeds to tell his story to the investigating officer Vijay Kumar (Jagapathi Babu).  Seen in flashback, previously Bharat was a nice, happy (although rather patronising) real estate agent who was trying to be a force for good in the world, when he found himself hounded by a superstitious police officer and an obsessive doctor.  Inspector Deshpande fuelled jealousy in Bharat’s fiancée Anjali (Parul Yadav) by pointing out Bharat’s interest in a client’s daughter at every opportunity.  To be fair, Monica (Tulip Joshi) does seem to turn up everywhere and does show an unhealthy interest in a man whose attentions are otherwise engaged, but Bharat claims that this harassment was his motivation behind killing Despande.  Meanwhile Dr Iyengar sealed his fate when he refused medical assistance to Anjali and Bharat decided that he too had to die.

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The problem I have with these opening scenes isn’t that the story is trite and clichéd, but that it’s all so completely overdone.  Both Despande and Iyengar are terrible caricatures while Anjali appears as a woman with absolutely no self-worth.  Bharat bribes her with chocolate when she accuses him of being rude to her at work (which he was), and when she accuses him of spending time with Monica, he has only to click his fingers and she immediately forgives him all.  There is a reason behind all of this but since it’s not explained until much later in the film, it does make for uncomfortable viewing first time round.

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The first half isn’t all bad though.  There is a novel threat to a collection of flower pots, which is a welcome touch of humour and Sudeep is eminently watchable even when he’s being a complete pillock.  P. Ravi Shankar is also mildly amusing as the thug attempting to muscle in on Bharat’s business, and there is also plenty of excellent dorky uncle dancing in this song.

The film starts to improve when it’s gradually revealed that the story Bharat has told the police is a complete fabrication – hence the terrible characterisations in the first half.  The real Anjali proves to be a perfectly sensible and normal woman, while the other characters are nicely ambiguous until the real truth emerges.  There are plenty of twists and turns before we get there though and the second half turns out to be the out and out action thriller I was expecting from the start.  Throughout it all, Sudeep outclasses everyone else with chameleon-like changes of his character, and his performance is just enough to make up for the dodgy dialogue in the first half.  He does bring to life the film’s ‘Bachchan’ in Big B angry young man persona, although there is more to his character than just a generalised grudge against the world.  I’m presuming that director Shashank wanted to make a kind of homage to Amitabh Bachchan as there are many mentions of Big B and his films throughout, but he’s probably most referenced in this song with the bewilderingly badly dressed Tulip Joshi.  Poor Tulip – she really doesn’t come out of any of this well at all.

Bhavana makes a brief appearance as Anjali’s sister Ashwini, but probably the best performance from the three romance interests is from Parul Yadav.  Her character is more developed and despite the terrible beginning she does make a better showing in the second half.  Most of the rest of the support cast are fine but they are mainly there either to provide fodder for Bharat’s rage or to add layers of confusion to the plot, and are never any more than two-dimensional at best.  However the fight scenes are well choreographed even if they lean heavily towards standard Southern Indian tropes and the climax is satisfyingly OTT.

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The concept of Bachchan is good, but it is let down by the script in the first half (or perhaps just very bad subtitles) and a tendency to rely on standard filmi clichés.  Although the second half of the film is entertaining and very watchable, sitting through the first half to get there requires patience and perseverance.  Still, if you can make it through the first half hour, the rest up to the interval is ridiculous enough to be amusing and it is worth hanging in there to reach the excellent second half if you can.  I’d give the first half of Bachchan 2 stars and the second half 4 stars which gives an average of 3 – that seems about right overall.  Worth watching for Sudeep but I’d recommend leaving your brain behind for the first hour.