Raees

raees-movie-poster

Raees (Shah Rukh Khan in case you haven’t worked that out) grows up working for the local bootleggers, learning the business from the inside out. His mother (Sheeba Chaddha) tells him that no business is beneath them, and no religion is greater than business, as long as they don’t harm anyone. Raees hates being poor, and hates being treated unfairly. He wants respect, money, success. He’s the kind of guy who will exploit the tiniest gap to create something you could drive a fully laden truck through. The man trying to stop him is the eccentric and equally driven Superintendent Majmudar (the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui).

The film is directed like it was the 70s, the story is set in the 80s/90s, but only the technology dates things. Seeing Raees threatening someone over the phone was something else when that phone was a dinky red racing car one. The Fatehpura neighbourhood is a lively backdrop, teeming with people going about their day in the narrow streets. The songs suit the film and tend to advance the story more often than not (the Not being Zaalima). I wasn’t convinced by Sunny Leone as Laila but that sequence is quite gripping.

 

I think they did a good job of harnessing Shah Rukh’s uncle dancing tendencies and enigmatic walking powers, and I am rarely averse to colour and movement. Overall Rahul Dholakia directs with good pace and attention to the emotional arcs, but he throws everything into his story and that is to the eventual detriment of the film. There are too many subplots unravelling towards the end and the energy fizzles out.

Raees has strong ethics in business and personal life. You can argue the toss about selling illegal booze, but he only sells quality gear not the adulterated hooch that killed people when he was a kid. The experiences in his youth have a clear influence on shaping the adult and I felt Raees was believable even if his fight skills were more suited to a Bond. The audience applauded his shenanigans – the chai glass and the press entourage got the loudest cheers – and they seemed to appreciate Raees as the guy who was doing one wrong thing but was otherwise a hero. He is the Angry Young Man who wants to give his family a secure future and help the people who have helped him. His lifelong friendship with Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) adds another layer of humanity, exposing some of Raees less heroic moments. Shah Rukh’s performance is solid but occasionally is too much like vintage Raj or Rahul, although Raees shows more intent than would usually accompany the up-close décolletage inspection. He’s charismatic, nerdy, and impulsive, but also calculating. One question though – Does SRK have an eyedrops sponsorship? First Dear Zindagi, now Raees…

Raees is an anti-hero who knows when he has committed a serious crime and it doesn’t always sit easily with him. I watched an old interview with actor Michael Caine and he was asked about how he could bring himself to play an evil character and make him seem so human. He said the man wasn’t a monster to himself, so he could play him with characteristics of both a decent guy and a cold blooded villain. I think that is what works with Shah Rukh’s portrayal. He looks at ease in Raees skin whether he is praying at his mother’s grave, being carried through the streets in triumph, or going on a brutally efficient killing spree. He shows unusual self-awareness for a filmi hero and a degree of struggle with the consequences of his path. People may see him as a god but he knows he isn’t.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui is Majmudar, that most problematic of policeman – the one who wants to get his man.  His epic entrance at the best and tackiest party ever was a perfect set-up for what was to come. Majmudar has a fascination with Raees. He is determined to shut him down but he quite enjoys Raees spirit. I liked how Nawazuddin would smirk, showing a hint of exasperation and a gleam of genuine appreciation when Raees bested him. That and all the sarcastic one liners. Majmudar spent time tapping Raees’ calls, using the helpfully labelled Phone Tapping Centre from the Central Props Department, and seems almost wistful when he overhears a personal call. But then he is still cold and calculating in his pursuit. Raees was the opponent he needed in order to be that cop who never gives up even when the system is against him. Nawazuddin steals all the scenes as Majmudar permeates Raees’ life and he is a strong and unyielding presence that exasperates the pragmatic businessman. Raees and Majmudar treat each other with respect and as much honesty as is possible, and are the most morally articulate characters. They’re both smart, neither has to be a fool or do anything out of character just to move the plot along, and both actors are terrific in their scenes together.

Mahira Khan gives a good and largely understated performance as Aasiya, Raees’ wife. There is no sizzling chemistry but they show a comfortable joy in each other’s company that speaks to a longstanding relationship between neighbourhood sweethearts. In a scene when Raees came home covered in blood, Aasiya gives him a searching look. His reaction of self-disgust and culpability is what reassures her. She knows his line of business and she believes in her husband. Despite being in the domestic background, it is obvious that Aasiya is respected and liked in the community and she steps up in public when needed. True, she appears to have a baby without a pregnancy but frankly I’ve seen stranger things in Hindi films.

Sadiq (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) rounds out the important people in Raees life and his performance is endearing and realistic. Friends since childhood, Sadiq is the only one apart from Aasiya that can see Raees as just a bloke. They keep some of their cute childhood mannerisms, retell old stories, and they look out for each other no matter what. Even when Raees flies off the handle, Sadiq is there to try and talk him down or remind him of what’s important. It mustn’t be easy to carve out your own space when SRK is going the full Rahul, but this friendship works.

The cat and mouse between Raees and Majmudar dominates, but there are some excellent character actors in support. Atul Kulkarni is charming and vile as the calculating Jairaj Seth who won’t easily let his former employee best him. Narendra Jha is Musa Bhai, the enigmatic Mumbai based don who helps Raees set up on his own.

Raees is at best morally ambiguous, and the ending may not be what you expect, but I enjoyed the film. Rahul Dholakia directs with a vintage masala flavour, but unfortunately messes up the formula so it gets a bit diluted towards the end. It’s an uneven ride but worth it for the excellence of Nawazuddin and SRK and the retro cops and robbers style.

Mythri (2015)

Mythri

There have been a number of good films released recently where the main protagonists have been children or juveniles, and Mythri is another one to add to the list. B.M Giriraj’s bilingual film follows a young Siddarama (Aditya) as he ends up in juvenile detention and makes it onto the TV show ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’. There are shades of Slumdog Millionaire given that much of the film revolves around the TV show, but Mythri follows a rather different path. Here Siddarama is a big fan of Puneeth Rajkumar who hosts the show and it’s the plight of the young prisoners and their rehabilitation – or rather lack of rehabilitation that becomes the focus of the story.

Siddarama (Aditya) is a smart kid but he makes some poor decisions and ends up in jail after throwing stones at a passing police officer. His mother is out of her depth and to get her young son out of jail she approaches Gudi Pratap (Ravi Kale), a womanising thug and aspiring politician who runs drug and child trafficking rings on the side. Although he does deliver and gets Siddarama released, Gudi demands reparation for his services and it’s obvious that Siddarama’s mother is going to get the worse end of the bargain.

Once free, Siddarama is lucky enough to meet his idol, film star Puneeth Rajkumar (as himself) when he comes to their area to shoot a scene for his latest movie. Siddarama makes an impression on Puneeth with his scrapbook about the actor and his excellent general knowledge but fails to make the final cut of the scene when he rushes away before the end of the shoot. It isn’t until much later that the reason for Siddarama’s quick exit is revealed and the next time we see Siddarama he’s incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre.

Siddarama is one of the younger and more vulnerable boys, so it’s no surprise to find he is being victimised by a group of older youths who are unimpressed when he dobs them in to the warder Raviprakash (Atul Kulkarni). Despite his small stature and obvious dislike of violence, Siddarama fights back when the bullies gang up against him, and in doing so he earns the admiration of Jhonson (Jagadish), another young thief in the remand home. Jhonson is a serial offender, and the warders keep him chained up at all times to ensure he can’t steal anything further – unsurprisingly not a successful tactic! However, Raviprakash has firm views on how the young offenders should be treated and believes that strict discipline is the only way to teach the criminals how to behave. The harsh treatment of the boys and the poor condition of the detention centre are shocking and it’s understandable that most of the inmates either reoffend or become drug addicts after their release. Even the most basic of care is lacking and the warder meets violence with more brutality and an almost casual disregard for the boys’ welfare.

Atul Kulkarni is excellent here in the role of the strict and uncompromising warden. His interactions with the boys are frighteningly realistic and his reaction to a visit from the movie star is a perfect blend of admiration followed by condescension when Puneeth questions his regime. The rationale for his stance is one that seems logical – he came from a similar poverty-stricken background and didn’t turn to crime, so the youngsters in his care have no real excuse. This is one of the strengths of the film that such social clichés are shown to be inaccurate and too simplistic a view of more complex issues. Additionally the point is clearly made that education rather than punishment is the solution most likely to turn the young offenders’ lives around.

The film moves on to the TV show Karunada Kotyadipathi when Jhonson discovers Siddarama can answer the test questions for a children’s version of the show. With a lot of sneaking around behind the warden’s back, Jhonson manages to enter Siddarama as a potential candidate but it all hangs in the balance when the producers request a guardian for Siddarama. Raviprakash decides to let Siddarama go ahead – perhaps to demonstrate to Puneeth that his methods do work but also because he is impressed by Siddarama’s knowledge and is even a little proud that one of ‘his boys’ is clever enough to compete on the show. Again the decisions seem plausible despite the theatricality of Puneeth’s involvement, helped by Adithya’s portrayal of a young boy almost overwhelmed by the whole experience.

There is an odd twist to the tale when Mahadev Godke (Mohanlal) appears and tries to stop Siddarama from competing. This part of the film is inconsistent with the realism of the earlier scenes and the persona of Mahadev Godke is a little too contrived to fit easily into the narrative. However Mohanlal is good, his story helps to fill in the gaps and it also allows B.M. Giriraj to use a rather literal interpretation of the lifelines used by the show.

Mythri succeeds due to the excellent performances from the main leads and a well-developed storyline. Aditya is great as the young Siddarama, appropriately whiney and sorry for himself as expected for a kid his age, but also suitably resigned to his fate and more adaptable than even he realises. It’s a very good performance from the young actor and he holds his own well against the likes of Atul Kulkarni, Mohanlal and Puneeth Rajkumar.  Jagadish too is good as the recalcitrant thief and the other kids in the remand home all play their parts well. Puneeth Rajkumar has a relatively easy time of it since he just has to be himself, and perhaps it’s inevitable that he comes across as basically a nice guy – considerate and thoughtful. However at no point does he seem self-indulgent despite being shown as altruistic while his philanthropy and basic decency seem genuine. The only part which does seem somewhat forced is the movie within a movie where Puneeth is shown filming an over the top action sequence that ends with a rather cheesy message. It’s rather B-grade compared to the rest of the film, but maybe that’s the point.

Ilaiyaraaja provides the music and although there are only a few songs they are used effectively and suit the overall feel of the film. My favourite is Chandranenu Chenda, but the energy and exuberance in the title song is infectious and always makes me smile.

Overall Mythri is an intelligent and entertaining film with a social message that comes across clearly without becoming depressing or preachy. Despite the rather dire situation the kids in the remand home are facing, they still enjoy themselves and completely get behind Siddarama and his attempt to win the competition on TV. It’s a more upbeat film than the opening sequences would suggest and the combination of a well written story with polished performances makes Mythri well worth a watch. 4 stars.

Ugramm (2014)

Ugramm

A new discovery this weekend – Kannada films are being shown in Melbourne!  I found out about the weekend screening of Ugramm thanks to a message from my Hindi group and Roopesh at Kannada Movies Melbourne.  What’s even better is the news that there are more Kannada releases planned for later on in the year, and if the crop of recent films from Bangalore are anything to go by, they will definitely be worth catching on the big screen.

Ugramm is an action thriller that released in India back in February and has since become a major hit for director Prashanth Neel and its stars Srimurali and Haripriya.  Interestingly for me, the film starts with the story of the reincarnation of Vishnu as the half-man, half-lion Narasimha and provides an explanation of the title, which the film website tells me means ‘momentous anger induced by a great period of tolerance’.  I appreciate that Kannada has one word that says all of that so simply and it does sum up the storyline quite handily too.

Ugramm

After the initial animated explanation there is more background as a young Agastya witnesses his father’s death at the hands of a gangster, and begins his friendship with another young boy, Bala.  At the same time Jai Jagadish (as the heroine’s father) is forced to leave India after exposing the smuggling and criminal activities of gang-leader turned politician Shivarudra Lingaiya (Avinash).  So having set the scene, it’s time for action!  And there is plenty of that.  The modern-day story starts when Nitya ((Haripriya) leaves her father in Sydney to visit her mother’s grave in India.  No sooner does she get off the plane, than gangsters intent on settling the old score with her father kidnap her.  Luckily for Nitya, Agastya (Srimurali) arrives just in the nick of time to rescue her, and ends up taking her home to stay with his mother – what else could he possibly do?

Ugramm

Naturally our hero Agastya is a one-man fighting machine, who knows how to hit his victims so that they go down hard and stay down.  The fight scenes against a succession of different gangsters are completely over the top, but they are well choreographed and Srimurali is suitably grim as the reluctant hero.  That’s the whole ‘momentous anger induced by a great period of tolerance’ bit. The body count is high as many faceless gangsters are repeatedly smashed to the ground to the accompaniment of loud and intrusive background music.  However, like similar scenes in most Telugu movies, the violence is a little too cartoonish to take seriously.  Best of all are the moments where the last few villains standing turn tail and run rather than face Agasta and his momentous anger.

Ugramm

Meanwhile, in between the fight scenes, Nitya has to learn how to cook while dealing with a way of life completely different to how she grew up.  Romance blossoms as Nitya gets instruction in the names of different vegetables from Agastya, and even persuades him to help her cook.  Although Haripriya’s role is relatively small, her character is better developed than most heroines, and she does get the chance to be more than just a pretty face.  Since her character was a girl raised in Sydney I was expecting some totally inappropriate wardrobe choices, but for a change the costume department got it just right.  Haripriya is also a lovely dancer, and I was particularly impressed by her ability to dance convincingly in flip-flops.  There are a few brief glimpse in this song.

There is a brief comedy track based on two other guys living in the house, but I didn’t quite understand exactly what their relationship was to Agastya and his mother, and no subtitles meant that most of it passed me by.  It must have been funny though, as the rest of the audience were laughing at their antics.

The second half moves away from the developing romance between Agastya and Nitya to explain Agastya’s past and how he ended up working as a mechanic and resisting fighting unless there is no other choice.  The fights here are more menacing and there are some genuinely disturbing scenes as gangsters wreak havoc on the locals in the town of Mughor.  There are a plethora of different gangs and they are all equably interchangeable, particularly since a pre-requisite for gang membership seems to be a bad eighties style perm, and an inability to see that attacking Agastya is bound to turn out badly.  Agastya’s youthful friend is another gangster Bala (Tilak Shekar) and the second half focuses on their relationship and the reasons why Agastya finally moved away and got out of the gangster business.

Ugramm

While the tale of a gangster redeemed is not particularly novel, Ugramm delivers a few new twists and overall the story is well told with excellent characterisations and good performances from the main leads.  The added complication of Nitya and her back story helps keep the story from being overcome by the action sequences and actually helps keep everything moving long.  The support actors are also impressive with Atul Kulkarni appearing briefly as  Shivarudra Lingaiya’s son Dheeraj (although I couldn’t quite understand the importance of his character), while Padmaja Rao is good as Agastya’s mother.

Ugramm

Although the background music is at times overwhelming, mainly because it is just too loud, the songs by Ravi Basrur are good and well-placed in the narrative to provide a breathing space from the high energy action scenes.  The film also looks amazing, perhaps not surprising since cinematography is by the well-known Ravi Varman, although the addition of black screens in between the action is distracting and does disrupt the flow at times.

Ugramm is a well made gangster film that does perhaps overdo the violence, but makes up for it with a good storyline, sharp editing and excellent performances.  Definitely well worth a watch for fans of the genre, although if you didn’t manage to catch it at the weekend here in Australia that will mean waiting for the DVD.  Unless of course the recently reported remakes in Telugu and Tamil release here first!