Sardaar Gabbar Singh (2016)

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I didn’t expect great things from Sardaar Gabbar Singh, so wasn’t surprised when it turned out to be a formulaic action flick that’s overly reliant on Pawan Kalyan’s star power.  What the makers of Sardaar Gabbar Singh seem to have missed is that Dabangg and its Telugu remake Gabbar Singh were successful because they poked fun at the traditional herocentric films of the seventies and eighties. Here was a hero who wasn’t pure and honourable but instead was a bit crooked himself and out to look after No 1 above all else. If other people happened to benefit from that self-interest, well and good, but that wasn’t the main motivation behind Officer Chulbul Pandey’s vendetta against Chedi Singh. And therein lies the problem with Sardaar Gabbar Singh. While the first half gets off to a good start, by the time the story is starting to take shape Gabbar Singh (Pawan Kalyan) turns out to be just too, well, good. He’s not selfish enough, not corrupt enough and not greedy enough to win our hearts the way Chulbul Pandey did in Dabangg. For all it’s faults though the film does have an entertaining first half and the big budget ensures top-notch fight scenes and well constructed sets. It’s just a pity the rest is so pedestrian and clichéd.

The story is threadbare thin and follows a by-the-numbers good cop vs. evil landlord format with a beautiful and hapless princess thrown in to add a little glamour. After a cute opening scene to prove that Gabbar Singh has always stood up for himself (even as a child when sleeping under a Sholay film poster on the streets), he next appears as a rough and tough cop determined to bring his own form of justice to bad guys everywhere. Luckily for Gabbar Singh the crooks haven’t learnt that they need to attack en masse rather than one at a time if they want to have any chance of winning, so right from the first fight, he has little difficulty in overcoming an entire gang all by himself. At least the fight is well choreographed and Pawan Kalyan is funny as well as competent while taking down the latest collection of inept gangsters. His success means that Gabbar Singh is shipped off to a town in dire need of some law and order, with his best mate since childhood Samba (Ali) dragged along too.

The villain of the story is cartoonishly over-the-top evil and sadistic, while his crimes are varied and myriad. Bhairao Singh (Sharad Kelkar) has destroyed the local farmland by mining after viciously disposing of the villagers who happened to be living there. He’s also taken over the roads for his own use, intimidated the locals by killing anyone who opposes his rule and maintained a triad of lieutenants who commit various other crimes in his name. In Bhairao Singh’s sights is the land owned by Princess Arshi Devi (Kajal Aggarwal), as another potential site for a mine – although the concept of prospecting to discover if there is anything worth mining never seems to cross his mind. In the meantime, Gabbar Singh has the princess herself in his sights while simultaneously attempting to win control of the town back from Bhairao Singh. Adding to the impressive cast line-up but not necessarily to the plot, Mukesh Rishi plays the role of General Hari Narayana, guardian to the princess who is trying to secure a deal with hotelier Ramesh Talwar (Rao Ramesh) to save Arshi’s palace and secure her future.

Gabbar Singh is a one-man army capable of overcoming a seemingly never-ending parade of thugs while dodging bullets, speeding trucks, horses and everything else that comes his way. He wins back the local school for the children, fights against oppression and is prepared to give up the girl of his dreams because of her higher station in life. In short he’s a paragon of everything that is right and good, and that really just makes him rather dull and uninteresting. Thankfully Pawan Kalyan has the charisma and screen presence to make something more of his character, but even he can’t save the overlong and drearily predictable second half. Even the fight scenes start to become dull as Pawan Kalyan shows off his martial arts skills (impressive) and the thugs repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Another problem is the character of Bhairao Singh who is basically a caricature of an ‘evil overlord’ and is only required to curl his lip autocratically and look down his nose at everyone else to play his part. Although Sharad Kelkar has an impressive sneer and can flare his nostrils when required, it’s not a demanding role and he’s too cartoonish to be a properly intimidating villain. The usual suspects who appear as his multitude of henchmen and assistants are not on screen for long enough to make an impression, while Brahmaji appears as police officer who seems to suddenly back Bhairao Singh for no apparent reason. Surprisingly, although Ali and Brahmi provide much of the comedy they are both fairly subdued and practically disappear in the second half leaving Pawan Kalyan to supply the humour as well as the action. For me the most interesting character is Gayathri, Bhairao’s wife. It’s a small role but Sanjjanaa makes the most of her time on screen and conveys a lot of meaning though her body language and eyes, making more of an impact than many of the other seasoned actors around her.

Devi Dri Prasad’s songs work well in the first half, especially the title track and Tauba Tauba which has the best picturisation and is fun to watch.

However the romantic songs in the second half are poorly placed and slow the pace considerably. They’re also very unimaginatively shot in the snow-covered peaks of Switzerland which for me is just a cliché too far.  Otherwise the film looks beautiful with Arshi Devi’s palace looking stunning and Kajal dressed in amazingly beautiful costumes and jewelry. The village does look as if it’s somewhere in the Wild West instead of India, but there are plenty of doors, boxes, miscellaneous carts and glass windows for the thugs to be thrown against, so it serves its purpose well.

Sadly Sardaar Gabbar Singh fails as a follow-up to Gabbar Singh, with the only link being the lead character’s name and occupation. The industry self-referential comedy that made Dabangg such a success is missing and there is little to recommend it other than Pawan Kalyan and a couple of good songs. While the first half is entertaining, the film badly loses its way after the interval and becomes yet another overlong and repetitive action film. It’s not terrible but given the team behind the film it’s disappointing that this is the result. One only for fans.

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Gouravam

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Radha Mohan’s Gouravam is a thoughtful film. Revolving around the mysterious disappearance of the hero’s friend, it is unfortunately undermined by some clumsy plotting and suspension of logic by key characters at pivotal times. But it is visually lovely and a different kind of heroic journey than I expect from mainstream Telugu cinema so I found the time passed pleasantly enough.

Rich city boy Arjun is sent to rural SM Palli by his dad, ostensibly to inspect a factory or something. His college friend Shankar lives in that region, but Arjun finds out that Shankar eloped with the landlord’s daughter some 6 months ago and hasn’t been seen since. Arjun soon realises that the rural idyll isn’t that idyllic once you scratch the surface. He goes back to SM Palli to find Shankar. No one will tell him what happened, but with help of his friend Venky (Sricharan) and lovely young lawyer with a social conscience Yamini (Yami Gautam) Arjun keeps digging. Rather than being a conventional lone vigilante hero, Arjun draws on social media and his friendship networks by the busload as he mobilises The Youth. Prakash Raj is Pasupathy, the landlord whose daughter allegedly eloped with Shankar. His brothers (played by Harish and Brahmaji) are a looming menace, trying to send the young outsider back to Hyderabad. The Establishment vs The Youth plays out as you might expect but there are some twists. How Arjun deals with this is surprising for a Telugu film as he does not dismember anyone. He uses the courts, the media, public attention and even the usually useless police.

There are red herrings and characters who turn up to highlight significant moments. A young boy, possibly autistic, is a constant presence as he draws everything he sees. The plot is partly a mystery and unfortunately there are some miscalculations. It was blindingly obvious that there was a witness and there were other early indicators of who could shed some light. The pace was a bit slow with respect to the dramatic development, but the leisurely tempo did work well with the rural setting. I’ll skip over most of the plot to avoid spoilers but overall the incidents mostly made sense, just the way things unfurled was a bit iffy.

It is a very pretty film to look at. Arjun and The Youth stay in a very colourful and neat tent city in the countryside, the village is picturesque, houses are beautiful and seem lived in. Things are keenly observed by the camera if not the characters, so I found I was often more engaged in just looking at details.

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As the latest Mega Boy to take to the screen, Sirish has chosen an unconventional story. However his hero intro is pure formula. Arjun runs, swims, prays, pouts, kicks the bejesus out of his trainer and – ladies take note – he cooks. What a paragon. The comparisons with his older brother Bunny are unavoidable but naming the character Arjun and filming in what excitable people on Twitter tell me is his brother’s weekender house probably indicates Sirish couldn’t care less. In terms of his acting, he is much more effective in the dialogue driven scenes than when he is required to emote silently. He also looks a little awkward and posed when he has to do nothing in a scene.

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The story would have been more balanced if Arjun was more integrated into an ensemble. Yamini and Venky were pushed aside to accommodate the herocentric approach.  It would have been nice to see more of them, even the little romantic thread with Venky trying to woo Yamini, to give them more substance. Venky dropped everything to go with Arjun, Yamini devoted time and effort to helping and not just because she fancied Arjun. I was pleased to see Yami Gautam playing a quietly assertive young woman with none of the airheaded silliness so common to the Indian filmi heroine.

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The supporting cast outside of the The Youth are more successful in blending their performances and they do create some really intense scenes. Prakash Raj has little screen time but huge impact. Pavitra Lokesh who played his wife and Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli as his daughter in law were good but that household was all about the menfolk. Harish and Brahmaji were villainous and menacing, and over powered Sirish in most of their scenes together. LB Sriram was effective as Shankar’s bewildered and frail father and Nasser did his usual thing.

True to the more realistic style, there were only a couple of songs (by SS Thaman). I enjoyed the picturisation for Chetinundhi Mannu Thesi most as it used the countryside beautifully and I liked the pleasantly random looking backing dancers. Especially the three dudes who popped up out of the lake for a chorus. No one really dances much in Gouravam and Sirish looks like he is concentrating but not struggling so that might be a good sign. I hope he has the Mega Dance Gene.

I opted to see the Telugu version of Gouravam for a couple of reasons. Of all the languages I don’t speak, Telugu is a little easier for me to pick out the random words I know so an unsubtitled film is a challenge but not unappealing. Prakash Raj took the very commercial and audience friendly step of making the film available online on a pay per view basis where there was no distribution agreement in place. Hurrah! The Tamil version was on in cinemas here but the hit and miss distribution by the local Telugu film guys means I’m never really sure of seeing any new Telugu films unless they star a top hero. And frankly, since ticket prices for Telugu films are now up over $AUD23 I want to be reasonably assured of getting my money’s worth! So shelling out a fiver and watching Gouravam from the comfort of my living room was a good deal, and I think it’s a great way to expand the audience for less mass oriented films.

Varudu (2010)

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It seems to be an appropriate time to celebrate all things Allu Arjun – recent wedding anniversary, 10 years in the movie business and his upcoming birthday – so I thought I’d take a look back at Varudu. Not one of his more successful films in terms of the box office, but still one of my favourites since it not only stars Bunny, but Arya (another favourite) turns up in one of the most ridiculously over dramatic roles that I’ve seen outside of eighties Bollywood. And yet, this is a good thing! The film is overly romantic and slow to get going with a ridiculous story and dreadfully pretentious dialogue, but despite all these obvious flaws there is still a lot to enjoy in Varudu.

The opening scenes have nothing much to do with the rest of the film with Nisha (Sneha Ullal) attempting a dreadful Dhoom2-style Aishwarya Rai impression while Bunny demonstrates his skills on a motorbike and then on the basketball court. At least the rain makes Bunny’s hair look great, but otherwise it’s a clichéd hero introduction that leads into a rather disappointing song.  This is after all a Bunny film, so my expectations for excellent choreography and great dance moves are high but the first song doesn’t make it in terms of either the music or the dancing.  Thankfully though, both pick up considerably later.

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VaruduVaruduThe first half of the film describes how Sandeep (Allu Arjun) wants a traditional arranged marriage even though the initial scenes show him happily helping out an elopement by his friends and complimenting his parents on their successful love marriage.  The dialogue wants us to believe that he has just never found the right woman, although women are flinging themselves at him all the time, but these first scenes make him appear as if he’s just having too good a time to settle down and commit to one person.  However moving overseas to start work is apparently the best time to decide to get married, so Sandy happily acquiesces to his family’s suggestion that he tie the knot before he goes.

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Not content with foisting the whole decision making process onto his parents, he then insists that he wants a full traditional 5 day wedding just like his grandparents, and has no desire to even see the girl is he is to marry. In fact he reminds me more of a sixteen year old girl with his declarations about love and excitement about a five day wedding rather than a mature and sensible man about to head off to start work in the US.  However this is the least ridiculous part of the story (really!) and the build up to the wedding is actually rather sweet.  Sandeep has a good relationship with his mother (Suhasini) and father (Ashish Vidyarthi) and their scenes together, and those with the rest of the family feel comfortable and generally realistic.  There is a brief appearance by Brahmi as Dilip Raja, a marriage broker, but otherwise Varudu is fairly comedy uncle free with only a brief appearance by Ali later during the wedding song.

The various wedding ceremonies, including the wonderfully colourful parade of the groom to the bride’s family, are pictured during a song.  It’s rather long, but definitely well worth a watch for an insight into the wedding preparations and rituals. Besides which there is possibly the best form of wedding transport and some great costumes in the crowd as everything gears up for the big day.

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The costumes and jewellery for the wedding scene are superb even though the scenery relies heavily on CGI.  We get to see the bride at the same time as Sandeep and although Deepthi (Bhanu Sri Mehra) doesn’t get very much screen-time (and even less dialogue), she does get some amazingly beautiful costumes. Although she is perhaps still just a little upstaged by Bunny in this song.

After all the romance and slow development of the first hour culminating in the the dream wedding, there is a sudden change of pace in the second half.   There is a disaster at the ceremony just before Sandeep ties the sacred thread and in the ensuing confusion the bride goes missing.  Within the space of 3 minutes there is classic hero-style running, a bike chase (kudos to the wardrobe department as Bunny never loses his wedding turban) and an exploding petrol truck.  It only gets more insane from here.

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Sandeep goes in search of Deepthi aided by the police force, but even with the top brass Comissioner Ahmed Khan (Nasser), Inspector Umesh Gupta (Brahmaji) and the Home Minister (Sayaji Shinde) involved they don’t appear to be making any headway.  Sandeep has more luck chasing random black cars and dodging truck drivers who seem to be on a mission to drive him off the hunt.  Finally his persistence pays off and there is a brief flashback to explain who has Deepthi and why.  Not that it makes any sense, particularly when this is the villain’s introduction.

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Arya is Diwaker, one half of the ‘Kings from Hell’ brothers, and completely immersed in his life of drama as he lives out his psychotic fantasies cheerily calling out his catchphrase ‘Evil Power’ at random moments to emphasize his craziness.  From his introduction the film careers even more off the rails as Arya hams it up for all he is worth as Diwaker and Sandeep declares his undying love for a girl he has barely met in some incredibly corny dialogue.  There are a few good moments though.  Sandeep proclaims (he doesn’t do anything as mundane as just speak by this stage) that Deepthi is his wife no matter what has happened to her during her ordeal.  It’s a more modern touch that makes Sandeep’s character more appealing, although the shocked reactions of the family are rather less attractive.  There are also some great chase sequences including some wonderful filmi medical magic and a ‘prisoner exchange’ on a bridge which allows director Gunasekhar to throw in lots of split screen moments.  The final showdown is completely over the top and utterly nonsensical, but since it involves a shirtless Bunny and Arya fighting on top of giant cooling towers I’m not complaining!

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New heroine Bhanu Sri Mehra doesn’t really get much of a chance to make an impact.  Her role is largely non-speaking and even when she does have something to say it tends to be a repetition of something Sandeep has earlier declaimed.  I do like that she made an attempt to fight back when abducted, but quite frankly I’m disappointed that in all her time locked in a room she hadn’t made any attempt to barricade the door or fashion a better weapon.  But at least she doesn’t just sit and whine and the make-up team did a good job making her look haggard after her experiences. The rest of the cast are all capable and do well in their roles, but ultimately the film is all about Bunny, and to a lesser extent Arya, so no-one else really gets much of a look in.

The music by Mani Sharma does improve after the first song and overall I like the soundtrack.  This song is my favourite, partly due to good choreography but also, who can resist random bouncing?  Plus I admire Bunny’s dedication in dancing even when he is injured, seen here with his hand in a rather excellently bedazzled cast.

Varadu is self-indulgent, unashamedly melodramatic and has massive plot holes big enough to swallow a small planetoid.  But despite that it’s heaps of fun and let’s be honest, I’m shallow enough to admit that Bunny and Arya are the major reasons why I enjoy this film.  I’d love to watch some out-takes as I’m quite sure they struggled to keep their faces straight for most of their scenes together.  I give Varudu 2 stars for the story but a full 5 stars for ensuring both Bunny and Arya spent as much time as possible without their shirts!