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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Arrambam (2013)

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Arrambam is yet another Southern Indian film to use Mumbai as its backdrop, but really this action thriller could be set anywhere and still have the same impact.  Although there are a few Mumbai landmarks seen, the story is less about the location and more about the motivations behind the lead character’s quest for revenge, so despite Om Prakash’s excellent cinematography the background just isn’t important.  The action takes off immediately from the opening frames and there’s no time to take a breather until well into the second half. It’s fast, furious and best of all lots of fun as Ajith and Arya take on corruption in politics, the police force and basically just about everywhere!  There’s an excellent extended guest appearance from Rana Daggubati and even Nayanthara gets a chance to get in on the action and show off her ruthless side.  On the minus side, the songs aren’t too inspiring and there are a few gaping plot holes, but there is enough going on to make Arrambam an entertaining mass masala flick despite the lack of logic.

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The film opens with a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai, and Police Inspector Prakash (Kishore) is charged with tracking down this Mumbai, and Police Inspector Prakash (Kishore) is charged with tracking down this latest terrorist.  The man they are looking for is Ashok Kumar (Ajith), who has an unusual recruitment scheme to enlist the help of computer expert Arjun (Arya).  Also involved in Ashok’s master plan are his sidekicks Maya (Nayanthara) and Mango (Krishna) who assist Ashok with kidnapping Arjun and forcing him to hack into a number of computer networks.

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Despite this rather inauspicious beginning, Arya’s character actually adds some light relief to the film, starting with a flashback sequence to explain why Ashok targeted him in the first place.  This features Arya heavily made up and wearing a fat suit as a stereotypical computer nerd at college.  Even with his daunting appearance and apparent flatulence, Arjun is still pretty popular due to his ability to hack into the college computer system and change grades as required for the other students. However when he encounters Anita (Taapsee Pannu) and decides that she is his soul mate, he’s inspired to exercise and loose the flab.

During a rather disconcerting song where a now trim and fit Arjun sprouts blue wings for no apparent reason, he manages to woo the girl and ends up heading to Mumbai for a job interview.  One which doesn’t turn out anything like the way he expected.  Arya still keeps the nerd mentality even though he’s updated his fitness levels and appears suitably geeky throughout while also managing to keep up with the action.  It’s helped by his choice of T-shirts, but he gets the attitude right and his lack of awareness of the world around him is absolutely classic. Taapsee is ditzy and rather shrill as his reporter girlfriend but thankfully she’s not on screen often enough to be too annoying.

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While Ashok keeps telling his various victims to ‘keep it simple’, he himself makes things incredibly complicated by kidnapping Arjun and using threats against Anita to force Arjun’s compliance.  The first half keeps the thrills coming as Arjun attempts to escape and inform Inspector Prakash about Ashok and his criminal activities while trying not to endanger his girlfriend.

But of course that’s only part of the story and the second half involves a long flashback where Ashok’s motives are explained and suddenly the tables are turned.  The fast pace of the first half isn’t maintained and the film slows down considerably in the second, but there are still some good action sequences including a shoot-out sequence with Ashok’s old partner Sanjay (Rana Daggubati) and a high speed boat chase in Dubai.

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Ajith is in his element here and writer/director Vishnu Vardhan has kept Ashok’s character deliberately ambivalent while making sure he has plenty of charisma and charm.  Ashok punctuates the end of his sentences by putting on his sunnies (which at least lets you know the conversation is over), and he is always über cool and classy despite his terrorist activities.  The relationship between Ajith and Arya also works well although the sequences with Rana and Ajith stand out as some of the best in the film.  The camaraderie between the two actors feels very genuine and it’s easy to believe that they are long term friends and partners with their teasing banter and rapport during police operations.

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While Taapsee really is the drama queen the corrupt Home Minister Rane (Mahesh Manjrekar) describes, many of the other female roles have a strong presence.  Nayanthara gets to threaten, bluster and fight in many of her scenes and does an excellent job, keeping her fight sequences realistic and looking suitably athletic to carry it all off, while Suman Ranganathan is also very good in her small role.  I’m always happy to see Atul Kulkarni pop up although his role as the chief of police doesn’t really give him much scope here, and the rest of the supporting cast are equally kept mainly in the background.  Although I like Yuvan Shankar Raja’s soundtrack, the songs don’t work well in the film mainly because they disrupt the flow of the story. The item song featuring Akshara Gowda is particularly painful and seems completely pointless since it really doesn’t suit her character of the home minister’s daughter at all.  I don’t think that such a fast paced action thriller needs any songs other than the background score but at least the Holi song had more energy and made a little more sense in the context of the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Arrambam.  It’s fast paced, slick and stylish with plenty of action and I loved that one of the female characters was involved in the mayhem too. You go girl! The excitement and tension of the first half isn’t sustained through the second, but with Rana added in to the mix the action is still full on. Worth watching for Ajith and Arya as long as you can ignore the lack of logic and just sit back and enjoy the ride!

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Zanjeer (2013)

ZanjeerThere is always a risk in remaking an older film, especially if that film is a classic and starred the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Jaya Bhaduri, Pran, Om Prakash and Ajit Khan, to name but a few.  So bearing that in mind, there were a couple of approaches I thought the makers of Zanjeer might take.  However rather than keeping the same storyline and characters but updating the film to the present day, or using the original film as ‘inspiration’, Suresh Nair and Apoorva Lakhia seem to have gone instead for a middle of the road approach, keeping a few key scenes and characters but otherwise changing plot points rather randomly.  The confusion in the story is not helped by reducing both the heroine Mala (Priyanka Chopra) and the villain Teja (Prakash Raj) to comic relief, while as the hero, Charan ends up as much less of an angry young man, and more of a petulant and plain  bad-tempered one.  Even worse, director Apoorva Lakhia doesn’t let Charan dance – except for a few basic steps with Sanjay Dutt – until the song over the end credits. Even then the choreography is particularly uninspiring.  However, despite the dog’s breakfast of a story and enough plot holes to swallow the entire cast of thousands, there are a few reasons to watch this film, although I’d recommend waiting for the DVD and the FF button.

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The film starts with a particularly sleazy and unattractive opening song where a scantily clad but heavily begrimed female dancer twists and turns her way through numerous hanging chains in a very S & M inspired look.  Thankfully that’s probably the absolute low point of the film, and there’s really no other option than for it to improve from here – it couldn’t possibly get any worse.  The visuals then switch to a shirtless Charan twisting in bed in the throes of a nightmare, followed by some blatant muscle flexing and posturing, and it’s immediately apparent that subtlety is not a word in Apoorva Lakhia’s vocabulary.  Not that I’m complaining about some blatant over-exposure, but it’s a bit too obvious and cheap for someone who is already an established star with a couple of hit films under their belt.  As if that wasn’t enough, Charan’s opening action scene as ACP Vijay Khanna takes place under the protective gaze of his father Chiranjeevi, and his uncle Pawan Kaylan, as they beam down from posters in the background.  As I said, subtlety is definitely not on the agenda for Zanjeer.

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After his latest contretemps, ACP Vijay Khanna (Charan) is transferred for the umpteenth time for his enthusiasm in subduing the local riff-raff, but this time is moved all the way from Hyderabad to Mumbai, presumably in his superior’s hope that he won’t be able to find his way back.  Meanwhile, Mala, a ditzy and dumb NRI is visiting her FB friend to attend her wedding, this clumsy piece of scriptwriting thus ensuring that Mala knows nothing about India, or Mumbai and in addition knows no-one in the area once her friend heads off on her honeymoon.  By careful and contrived manipulation of events, Mala witnesses a murder, and does at least report it, but from there her character is increasingly less convincing as a modern woman, as she tries to avoid any further involvement with the police or the case.  Sadly, rather than the feisty knife-wielding Mala of the original, this Mala is an overly chirpy drama queen who seems quite oblivious to the cultural differences between Mumbai and New York.  Priyanka is giggly and immature but still looks older than her co-star even though there isn’t much difference in their respective ages.  This may be down to Charan’s youthful good looks, but is more likely due to some heavy make-up for Priyanka.

ZanjeerZanjeer ZanjeerZanjeer 2There is also zero chemistry between the two, and their romance doesn’t so much develop as suddenly materialise in the space of a few glances and a song.  The storyline seems to have called for a romance between the two which had to start by a certain point in the film, and so it did.  No build-up, no justification, just  ‘let there be a relationship between Mala and Vijay’, and boom there it was!

The murder witnessed by Mala leads to exposure of the illegal petrol trade, helped by the revelations of one of the new characters, journalist Jaydev (Atul Kulkarni).  Atul Kulkarni puts in a good performance as the investigative journalist, and revels in a more sensibly drawn character with a defined storyline – something of a rarity here.

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Sanjay Dutt as Sher Khan keeps to the original character as played by Pran, and his world-weary look actually suits the part.  However his every appearance is heralded by incredibly loud and intrusive background music which completely overshadows his performance.  Keeping the character of Sher Khan similar to the original also backfires since the simple ‘crook with a heart of gold’ just doesn’t fit with the other modernised characters, although the scenes between Sher Khan and ACP Vijay are still some of the best in the film.  Or would have been if they’d just stopped with all the loud background music!

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Prakash Raj’s Teja is a bumbling buffoon in an ever more outrageous array of colourful suits and patterned cravats.  In fact one of the high points of the film is waiting to see just how garish and inappropriate his next outfit will be. But turning the unscrupulous and immoral Teja into comic relief just doesn’t work, and Mona Darling’s (Mahie Gill) best efforts with Viagra and other seductive devices fall flat too.  Prakash Raj is, at least initially, suitably oily and effusive, but the dialogue (going by the subtitles) is clichéd and too ridiculous to hold any menace or threat.

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However it’s not all completely terrible.  What does work well in the film are the action sequences, and there are plenty of them.  Charan is effortlessly effective in the fight scenes and his energy lifts the film, particularly since he tends to keep a glum and glowering expression in most of the scenes with dialogue.  There are plenty of the required explosions, chase sequences (through Ganesh Chaturthi imersion celebrations of course) and mass fight scenes.  Charan also did well with the angry glare and volcanic temper of Vijay, but the reasons for his rage are never very well explained despite that being the whole point of the original film.  Worth a DVD watch for Charan and Atul Kulkarni, and to play your own version of ‘spot the worst Prakash Raj outfit’!