Jwala (1985)

jwala

Jwala hails from deepest darkest 1985, and is the first collaboration between Ravi Raja Pinisetty and Chiranjeevi. It’s a typical mass effort with the added delight of Chiru in dual roles. I watched this on a terrible quality print and with no subtitles so I was quite confused until I realised there were two Chirus!

The story opens with a Chiru being washed and dressed by his Ma. He is an adult, but buttoning up his shirt seems to not be in his skillset. As it turns out, that trait runs in the family.

Jwala-the kittens know

The Chakravarthis (Annapoorna and Satyanarayana Kaikala) fight about their sons under the watchful eyes of kitten art. There’s floppy haired Yuvaraj who cannot dress himself but is respectable, and Raju who favours an up-do and also cannot dress himself, but is possibly working as a mechanic and maybe has slightly rowdy-ish tendencies.

Bhanupriya has a troubled relationship with cars. She nearly runs Yuvaraj into a ditch, he runs her off the road, she retaliates against his parked bike and flees the scene leaving a cocky note and a blank cheque. Bhanupriya’s dad is less than happy when the cheque is presented with a generous amount filled in but hardly surprised.

She flounces off to a nightclub and sees Chiru , but he doesn’t seem to care or recognise her. She goes off in a huff, casting aspersions on his ability to shake what his mama gave him, which can Only Mean One Thing. A quick change later and Chiru hits the stage that has been used in so many films I cannot name off the top of my head.

I love that he is frozen in mid-air to give people ample time to applaud. Bhanupriya is furious that his outfit is better than hers and goes home in an even bigger huff. Her house has a photo mural and a cuckoo clock so she knows Style. Her dad lectures her about huffiness. I think maybe the money was either returned or used for a good cause, but he seems to be quite OK with motorbike dude. And that was about it for her – a couple of songs and a simper, never to be seen again.

Meanwhile Janaki (Radhika) is sold out to cover a debt. Raju (Chiru) sees this go down and rescues her from the sleazy baddies.  But Raju can’t save Janaki from all harm. People are calling her second hand and men see her as an easy mark. Raju realises he can’t bash everyone up – especially the really old ladies – so he marries Janaki. They do have a conversation about something before he ties the knot but I am not sure what it was about and whether she was actually consulted. However, neither of them looks unhappy, and when they go to his house to pay respects Raju reassures her while his dad goes nuts. At least his mum welcomes her daughter in law and there is time for a group hug. Radhika is a versatile actress and she manages to build a sense of Janaki and her feelings for Raju in small unspoken ways. Despite seeming to start purely through obligation, their relationship has many moments of warmth and sweetness.

 

In a room with another photo mural, the brains trust of the gang meets before adjourning to the tastefully appointed lair; skeletons, eclectic art collection, taxidermy, comfortable chairs… bedazzled gloves. The flamboyant Boss (Kannada Prabhakar) has a son who has been in the US so you know he is bound to be a creep. The Son begs to be allowed to run smuggling as he thinks it will be a thrill. There is so little common sense in this family it truly is a miracle they have managed to be so successful. The Son clashes with SP Chakravarthi on the beach when smuggled goods land. It’s too dark to see what’s going on but he is killed in a gunfight and now there is Revenge to be had.

The fight choreographer seems to be obsessed with Chiru’s thighs. The action requires he crush many an evildoer betwixt them as he hangs from a beam or does an impressive handstand to snare his opponent. Van Damme’s got NOTHING on Chiru! And all that rowdy lifting kept him in good form for duets.

My copy had this ad just after one of the fight scenes. Annoying, but appropriate product placement.

Raju is framed for murder and sentenced to jail. I don’t know what happened with the film but this section is mostly shown in stills. The Boss calls Chakravarthi and tells him why he has targeted his son. This causes 1) a tearful reconciliation and b) death.

Raju breaks out of jail. Yuvaraj flies home for the funeral and is met at the airport with news his big brother is now an escaped felon. While Yuvaraj rues that the rites won’t be completed by the eldest son, Raju turns up to light the pyre. After a justice versus vengeance bro-ment, the only thing that can happen next is an abrupt jump to the gang’s tastefully appointed courtyard for an item, complete with Silk Smitha humping all the props.

Jwala-that outfit

Yuvaraj wants Raju to turn himself in but Raju is on a mission, with firm views on appropriate forms of execution. Proving that apart from the shirt button thing, the brothers also share excellent groove genes, he undertakes a gladiator mini-skirt clad dance of death.

I almost said no one saw the flaming spear coming, but…

Yuvaraj tries to arrest Allu Ramalingaiah but protection from on high thwarts his plan. Raju seems to know his brother is only going to get into trouble trying to do things legally so he stays on task. He even impersonates Yuvaraj to get close to his next victim.

Jwala-surprise

The uniform was a good disguise, but once the hat comes off and the up-do is unleashed all is clear. I think the unbuttoned shirt was also a good indicator.

While Janaki sings to her fugitive Raju over the phone (oh, sorry I must have some dust in my eye), The Boss attacks her. She puts up a hell of a resistance until finally she runs out of room to fight. Raju finds her in a pool of blood. She asks him to kiss her, either for the first or last time, and she dies in his embrace. Raju is a killer and not to be lauded, but his life seems to be tidied away so neatly and with so little left that it’s a bit sad. He loses his parents, his wife, and his kid brother is on a different path.

The final showdown is brutal and silly and epic and even a little bit moving. I wasn’t really expecting one Chiru to take on the other Chiru, but then who else could stand up to a Megastar?

This is probably one for the Chiranjeevi  completists, but it’s not completely without merit for the non-fan. Bhanupriya is wasted in her small role, but Radhika stands her ground and carves out space for Janaki in a man’s story. The plot gallops along, the action is energetic, and there is just enough light relief through the songs. Bonus points for no extra comedy track. 3 stars!

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Polladhavan (2007)

Polladhavan

Frustratingly the only copy I have ever been able to find of Vetrimaaran’s debut film is a relatively poor quality VCD  that doesn’t have English subtitles. It’s particularly annoying knowing how well written the dialogues were in Aadukalam (even via subtitles) and I’m sure there is much I have missed in Polladhavan as a result of not understanding the language. However the story is still clear and easy to follow, with plenty of scenes that suggest a similar attention to developing the flawed characters and their relationships as in Vetrimaaran’s subsequent film.  Although there is much that initially seems familiar about the story, as the film progresses it breaks away from the typical gangster film mould and becomes as much about family as the struggle between Prabhu (Dhanush) and the gangsters who have stolen his beloved motorbike. There is plenty of tension and suspense, and the path to the final bloody showdown is rather more convoluted than expected. It’s a good story, entertainingly told and really deserves to be more readily available to a wider audience.

Dhanush appears in his by now very familiar role as Prabhu, an unemployed layabout, content to spend his days playing carom and hanging out with his friends Kumar (Karunas) and Sathish (Santhanan) or annoying the local bike dealers by repeatedly viewing a Pulsar motorbike. He has no hope of ever being able to afford the object of his desire but continually attempts to get a cheaper price along with a long instalment plan for payment and seems convinced that he will one day be the proud owner of the latest model. Nothing wrong with having a dream!

Prabhu is at odds with his father (Murali) who wants him to get a job, but is supported by his mother (Bhanupriya) who slips him money behind her husband’s back. There are the usual family arguments about money and Prabhu’s failure to contribute to the household, but things change after Prabhu confronts his father following a drunken night out. Prabhu accuses his father of not supporting his attempts to find work compared to his friends whose fathers who have paid bribes or bought them a start in their chosen career. Although this seems a very strange argument to me, it strikes a nerve with Prabhu’s father and he cashes in the money set aside for his daughter’s wedding and gives it to Prabhu instead.

Naturally Prabhu immediately goes and buys the bike.

What is interesting is the way this argument and Prabhu’s subsequent purchase of the motorbike change the family dynamic.  While Prabhu’s mother accuses him of wasting the money, Prabhu’s father supports his son’s right to do whatever he chose, even if he doesn’t agree with that choice. The family arguments feel realistic and plausible and Prabhu’s conviction that his bike will help him get a job seems typical of any young man in similar circumstances. Body language is key and Vetrimaaran uses different angles and distance shots to convey the changing relationships. It helps give the film an authentic sense of a typical family which makes the subsequent scenes of violence a complete and striking contrast.

Amazingly Prabhu’s purchase has the desired result and he manages to get a job, further aiding his reconciliation with his father. The development of their relationship is shown in small moments such as when his father chases away the neighbourhood children playing on the bike, or by his father’s smile when he sees job adverts circled in the newspaper.  It’s effective and develops relationships while avoiding a big family make up scene that would only have interrupted the flow.

As well as dreaming about owning a motorbike, Prabhu has spent the last 2 years infatuated with a girl he sees at the local bus stop. The bike and his job give Prabhu the confidence to finally approach Hema (Divya Spandana) and after a shaky start the two begin a relationship. However, after a good beginning with plenty of humour and promising signs of a personality for Hema, once the action ramps up the romance is relegated to the background with Prabhu’s first love (his motorbike) taking precedence in the story.

As things are going well for Prabhu, in a semi-parallel storyline local gangster Selvam (Kishore) has problems with his younger brother Ravi (Daniel Balaji). Selvam deals in drugs and is involved in various other illegal activities as he runs his area with help from his best friend Out (Pawan). Ravi wants a bigger role in his brother’s endeavours despite his quick temper and apparent general unsuitability for any responsibility. Prabhu crosses paths with Ravi a few times in chance encounters, but most notably on a night when the gang is involved in a murder and Prabhu’s bike is stolen. The two events may, or may not be connected but Prabhu really doesn’t care – he just wants his bike back!

Some of the best scenes occur when Prabhu’s search takes him to different crime operations with a fascinating look at how bikes can be hidden and smuggled around the country. These brushes with the shady side of Chennai bring Prabhu into closer contact with Selvam and his brother Ravi, and the situation escalates as Prabhu discovers exactly what has happened to his bike.

Dhanush gets everything just right here in his portrayal of a young man gradually developing maturity and responsibility but easily distracted by events around him. His spiral into violence is clearly shown as a reaction to circumstance with the infatuation with his bike a convincing reason for the decisions he makes. I had friends who were just as obsessed with their bikes (and I have to confess to a certain amount of obsession with my own!) so it totally makes sense to me that Prabhu would go to such extremes to get his bike back. Ravi is a more typical Tamil film gangster, but his brother Selvam is an interesting character who seems to be a ‘gangster with a conscience’. The interplay between Ravi, Selvam and Out is well done, and once Prabhu is added in to the mix, the story evolves quickly with plenty of suspense thrown in for good measure.

 The final scenes revert to more typical gangster film fare with the inevitable final showdown, but Vetrimaaran keeps it interesting by giving his bad guys realistic personalities and reasons to act in the way they do. The fights are short, bloody and more convincing than usual which also avoids sensationalising the gangster element of the story. Although there are a few fights where Prabhu defeats 3 or 4 henchmen, at least it is only 4 rather than 20, and Ravi isn’t a big burly guy either so his fight sequences with Prabhu seem slightly more credible. Apart from the rather Salman Khanesque way Prabhu loses his shirt in the final fight, which is a little OTT but is also a lot of fun too!

While the fight scenes work well, the songs are less successful. Although the music by G.V. Prakash Kumar is catchy enough, the picturisation and choreography are generally mediocre and mostly the songs don’t fit well into the narrative. However the rest of the film looks good, at least from what I could see from my poor quality copy, and the strong cast all deliver good performances. Vetrimaaran’s strengths lie in developing characters with depth and attention to detail in building relationships, and both are used to maximum effect here.  The story may not always flow as well as it could but when it comes to the characterisations and the overall plot, everything works perfectly. The screenplay rarely lags and there are enough twists and surprises to keep the film engaging right to the very last frame. While Polladhavan may not be perfect it is a great first film for Vetrimaaran and well worth watching for a gangster film with a difference. 4 stars.

Jebu Donga (1987)

Jebu-Donga-Title

While Jebu Donga may not be the most deep and meaningful film of 1987 (or indeed any other year), it does have a slightly different approach to the Mass Hero as well as sufficient quantity and variety of dances and explosions to keep me amused.

Chiranjeevi is Chitti the pickpocket, happily fleecing the rich, helping some of the deserving poor and indulging his love of disguises. Bhanupriya is his rival in petty thieving, and has an equally strong commitment to the dress-ups and convoluted schemes. Satyanarayana Kaikala and Maruthirao Gollapudi are the not as bumbling as they seem CBI officers who need to get a spy into Raghuvaran’s gang. And Radha is a woman of mystery. The police decide to use the unwitting Chiru as a distraction, feeding the crooks a fake top secret file that names him as Special Agent Chakrapani. While he goes about his daily crimes, the crooks are after him and the cops are watching the shenanigans. But eventually things come to a proper masala conclusion, albeit one with a couple of surprises.

While Telugu mass films are all about the hero, one of the things I enjoy most about Jebu Donga is that Chiru’s character is not as much in control as he thinks he is. He reacts to the confusing succession of attacks and rescues but has no idea why some things are happening. He tries to beat Bhanupriya’s character to a heist but ends up losing his trousers – don’t panic, it is all quite family friendly. Radha appears as a woman from Chakrapani’s past and Chitti is unable to say no to her. And the police manipulate him so easily. He does have to do his bit to save everyone at the end of the film, but he is not the usual know-it-all lone hero.

Chiranjeevi makes the most of his role, adding a dash of levity to the fight scenes as well as flirting up a storm. I looked over my notes from watching the film and at one point I have just written “Jeep! Whips! Leaping!”  Chitti is a good person apart from being a thief, and he helps out where he can. One of his robberies even helped a reluctant bride escape an unwanted marriage. He has what might be a sister and younger brother (Shanmukha Srinivas) as well as his mother to provide for, and pretends to them that he is a labourer doing honest work. The songs are a real highlight, and not always just for the outfits. I love Rajaloo Rajalakshmi where Chiru steals Bhanupriya’s clothes while she is bathing.

His dancing is uninhibited and cheeky (even including a bit of snake style), and once she finds something to wear she dishes it up in equal measure.

I’m not so sure about his wardrobe choices. The double denim and highpants are a symptom of the late 80s but I really do not get the sleeveless skivvy.

Bhanupriya’s character is a bit ditzy although she exhibits competence in her chosen field of cons and theft.  While Chiru is relatively plainly dressed, she wears some outrageous outfits and more than holds her own in the dances. I’m not sure how she is related to Chitti but when she falls for him it feels more as though they have been meant for each other for a while but are only now admitting there is an attraction. And where many a filmi heroine has to be rescued, she does her share of saving him too. She knows she is smart and sees no reason to let the slightly dim but charming Chitti overrule her.

Radha’s character is the real secret agent. I think she tells Chitti that he is a perfect lookalike for the deceased Chakrapani and he cannot resist her helpless female act. He should have been alerted when her dream sequence song turned up looking like this! She is smart, runs her own operation although her dad is one of the CBI officers using Chiru, and she has firm views on what needs to be done. Like Bhanupriya, she will accept help but she doesn’t always wait around for it to materialise.

All good heroes need a bad villain. Raghuavaran is the sleazy Peter, the main man who runs operations  for the completely insane Kannada Prabhakar. I always like a bit of megalomaniacal set design and sadly that is where Jebu Donga fails me. Peter lives in a respectably glossy mansion decorated with portraits of himself and masses of horrible modern sculptures while the bad guy HQ is a simple rustic camp. Not quite up to the Mogambo gold standard despite the impressive commitment to training shown by the minions. Most of the thugs wear that pale blue or mauve, but there are special colour coded sets as well as some plain clothes goons. Satyanarayana and Gollapudi are actually lots of fun as the police masterminds. They amble around, two portly middle aged gents who giggle like school girls as they watch the drama ebb and flow around their hapless helper. They also have some odd little flashbacks to what I think are Gollapudi’s terrible ideas for going undercover.

Chakravarthy’s soundtrack  borrows from Mr India, Michael Jackson and who knows what else. It’s all great fun, largely due to the enthusiasm of Chiranjeevi and Bhanupriya. And for once, the ladies get the sequins and lycra while Chiru dresses relatively conservatively.

I always have reasonable expectations of a Chiranjeevi/A Kodandarami Reddy film. There will be heroics, fights, dances, romance, eyeball melting colour and movement and almost no traces of logic. Jebu Donga delivers and shows Chiru in a more comedic, blundering hero role. Chitti may be a bit thick but Chiru knows exactly what he is doing and how to wring maximum entertainment from his material. The movie is available on YouTube. If you’re wondering, I deliberately chose the upload with the most offensive watermarks. Dear Reader, if you know anyone at that poxy company, please gently slap some sense, or at least some shame at defacing a film, into them.  Well worth seeing for the excellent cast and the frothy material. 3 ½ stars!

I will leave you with a Megabirthday Masala Multiple Choice Quiz. Please examine the following image.

Jebu-Donga-Quiz

Which of the following happens next?

  1. Evil Overlord makes crippled dance-obsessed Shanmukha Srinivas dance (a bit like Basanti in Sholay)
  2. Chiru, tied up and dangling in mid-air, escapes by breaking the trees from which he is dangling
  3. A Ma is terrorised by being given an unwanted haircut
  4. Radha kicks the bejesus out of about 47 bad guys
  5. Someone is so determined to detonate a bomb that he sets himself on fire and rolls across a clearing to ignite the fuse
  6. What do you mean which of the following? That’s a rookie question. All of the above, of course!