Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020)

A new year, a new Bunny film, and this one is a lot of fun. Trivikram has come up with a different slant on a traditional storyline around babies swapped at birth, and then adds in an unusual father/son dynamic on top. Murali Sharma gets to act his heart out, the support cast are terrific and Bunny is on top form throughout. Yes, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is a little slow to start and there are a few mis-steps initially, but there is much to enjoy in this mix of family drama, action and romance.  

The movie opens with two babies being switched immediately after birth. The rich Ramachandra (Jayaram) and his wife Yasu (Tabu) end up with the son of Valmiki (Murali Sharma) and his wife (Rohini). There is some history between the two men as they used to work together until Ramachandra married the boss’s daughter and ended up running the business. Valmiki has ended up working for his old friend and is resentful and bitter about the situation as he feels it’s luck rather than talent which has given Ramachandra his success. The only people who know about the switched children are the nurse, who meets with a tragic accident and falls into a coma, and Valmiki. Sadly no significant jewellery, birthmarks or songs, but obviously film aficionados will instantly recognise the nurse’s coma as potentially important!

The film then moves to the present day where nature has trumped nurture and Raj (Sushanth) has grown up to be quiet, hesitant and totally unable to replicate his father’s business success. Meanwhile, despite Valmiki’s antagonism, Bantu (Allu Arjun) is smart, canny and very capable, although he does have one flaw – he always has to tell the truth. There is some very well-written conflict between father and son as Valmiki treats Bantu badly, while Bantu tries everything he can to get any sign of approval at all from his father. Meanwhile, Ramachandra is desperate to get Raj involved in the business, but it’s something for which he shows no aptitude, instead demonstrating positive disinterest. Thrown into this mix is Appala Naidu (Samuthirakani) and his son (Govind Padmasoorya) who are out to grab some of Ramachandra’s company for themselves. Appala Naidu is a thug who runs the docks, while his son is more sophisticated but obsessed with the idea of taking over Ramachandra’s business.

What lifts this movie above being simply yet another masala pot-boiler, is the relationship between Bantu and his father Valmiki. The sheer nastiness of Valmiki and his determined mistreatment of Bantu is cleverly done and well contrasted with Valmiki’s servile attentiveness when working with Ramachandra. Murali Sharma is simply brilliant here and his total lack of remorse for his actions, the fate of the nurse and his treatment of Bantu is perfectly portrayed along with his innately selfish nature. And while Murali Sharma is outstanding, Bunny too is superb in these interactions, displaying nuanced emotion and plenty of depth to his character. There is a beautiful moment after Banto finds out the truth that really is emotionally perfect, and Bunny plays it brilliantly. Naturally the estranged sons and their various families need to be reunited but it’s not quite that simple. While Bantu fights his way past Valmiki and gradually charms Ramachandra and his father-in-law Aditya Radhakrishnan (Sachin Khedekar), the family is dealing with a number of problems. There is conflict between Ramachandra and his wife, his brother-in-law is cheating and stealing money from the company, and Raj’s inability to deal with Kashiram is also causing problems.

As Bantu becomes involved with the family, Trivikram tones down the comedy and OTT action for some good solid family drama that’s written for maximum emotional effect. It works because the characters are well realised and each acts true to themselves, making the emotions more real and adding to the story.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the romance angle. Mainly this comes from the odd introduction of Amulya (Pooja Hegde) as Bantu’s boss in a new job. When he first meets Amulya, Bantu can only see her legs and is unable to lift his eyes above her skirt level for much of the first half of the movie. For a film that then goes on to talk about it is wrong to fight with women and then treats Yasu’s character so well, this is a significant step back to outdated ideas of ‘comedy’ and ‘romance’. With the odd start, despite good chemistry between Bunny and Pooja Hegde, the love story always feels just a little off, not helped by Pooja’s initially ‘strong business woman’ persona fading into the background as Bantu starts to work for Ramachandra and she is relegated to being simply ‘the love interest’. The film really didn’t need a love track for both Raj and Bantu, especially when Trivikram tries to muddy the waters here too and just succeeds in making both Pooja Hegde and Nivetha Pethuraj appear insipid. 

Even with the incredibly strong performance from Murali Sharma, this is Bunny’s film from start to finish and he really is superb throughout. The stylish star manages to pull off a mullet (just) and despite a distinct lack of hair continuity in the film, he does look very good indeed, especially in the songs. As always Bunny’s dancing is outstanding, but his acting matches up to his footwork skills, and he does an excellent job in the more emotional moments. His comedic timing is also very good, while a scene in the boardroom where he pays tribute to a number of Telugu films heroes is just brilliant! Bunny’s acting has definitely matured, even in comparison to his last hit with Trivikram, S/O  Satyamurthy, which I feel was his previous best performance to date. Here Bunny shows good emotional depth, well-executed action and a real sense of commitment to the character that pays off and makes Bantu appear a genuine and appealing person, rather than just a filmi character.

The dance sequences are excellent, and I loved the attention to detail in many of the songs, like the random background dancers in Butta Bomma who pop up hula-hooping from time to time. The music from S. Thaman is also great and suits the film too. The songs are really catchy even if the lyrics are occasionally a bit odd (maybe a subtitling issue?) and the background score helps lift the emotional moments in the film. There is a real who’s who of support cast as well. Naturally Brahmi pops up, just in a song this time, but we also get Navdeep and the sadly underused Rahul Ramakrishna as workmates of Bantu, Cinemachaat favourite Ajay as one of Appala Naidu’s thugs, Rajendra Prasad as a police officer and Brahmaji as a businessman trying to buy Amulya’s business. Tabu is beautiful and grace personified as Yasu, while Jayaram and Sachin Khedekar are both excellent. Unfortunately, Rohini doesn’t have very much to do as Bantu’s mother and his sister (Vaishnavi Chaitanya) also has a very limited role, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to see their family dynamic developed more. However, there is already a lot happening in this film, and perhaps it’s just as well that the drama is mostly limited to Ramachandra’s family.

Although the basic story is nothing new, the way Trivikram has developed the characters of Bantu and Valmiki is different, especially when mixed in with the family drama of Bantu’s real father. While all the necessary components are here – songs, drama, action sequences and even the luke-warm romance, it’s having a good story that really makes Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo such a worthwhile and entertaining watch. I really enjoyed this film and would recommend it as a fun film, perfect for the holiday season.

Parugu

Parugu

Parugu is Bhaskar’s 2008 follow-up to his hit film Bommarillu and despite a rather hit and miss screenplay the movie ended up being a hit, was remade in various other languages and scored a number of awards. While the story might be nothing new and labours under every single film cliché imaginable (love at first sight, stalking = love etc), both Prakash Raj and Allu Arjun are excellent and work well together to make Parugu more watchable than the synopsis suggests. Plus the film starts with Bunny on roller skates – how can you not appreciate that!

I particularly love this song since when I can tear my eyes away from Bunny dancing, I recognise many of the locations. Plus, as always Bunny’s energy and enthusiasm is incredibly infectious, making for a great start to the film.

Sadly, the film doesn’t manage to keep the energy for long as the story moves to a village where local big-wig Neelakanta (Prakash Raj) is presiding over the marriage of his daughter Subbalakshmi (Poonam Bajwa). However, not all goes to plan as Subbalakshmi elopes with local villager Erra Babu which sets her father and his army of goons off on a rampage to find her. As part of their investigations, they pick up all of Erra Babu’s friends from the village and soon widen their search to include Sharma (Saptagiri) from Kakinada, Seenu (Chitram Srinu) in Nellore and Krishna (Allu Arjun) in Hyderabad.

Neelakanta and his brother Chinnabbayi (Subbaraju) keep the men in a shed while they continue the search for Subbalakshmi and Erra Babu, although this seems likely to backfire when Krishna engineers an escape. However, just before making it to the train and freedom, Krishna is brought up short by a girl he sees in the morning mist. He falls instantly in love and resolves not to leave the area until he discovers her identity. Naturally, the girl Krishna has fallen for is the youngest daughter of Neelakanta and she’s already having a number of issues due to the fall-out from her sister’s elopement. Through a window in the shed she pleads with Krishna and the rest of the detainees to reveal her sister’s whereabouts but instead she gets caught in a blackmail trap and agrees to help Krishna find the girl of his dreams. While the audience know that Meena (Sheela Kaur) is the girl he has fallen in love with, neither Krishna nor Meena realise until well into the film that she is the one Krishna is trying to find.

There is some comedy in the first half as Krishna hatches up various schemes to search for the girl in the woods, while Sunil and Srinavasa Reddy add some slapstick to further lighten the mood. Prakash Raj does his usual ranting as an enraged father but Bhaskar aims to show him as a more sympathetic figure and changes tack with the character in the second half.

As Krishna discovers that the girl he loves is Neelakanta’s daughter, Neelakanta finds out that it is Krishna who has helped Subbalakshmi vanish and he tortures him to find out where his daughter is hiding. This results in everyone – Neelakanta, Chinabbayi, all the various thugs, Krishna and Erra Babu’s other friends and Meena, haring off to Hyderabad on the trail of the missing couple. Krishna takes advantage of every opportunity to speak to Meera and starts to manipulate her feelings for her father to his advantage.

Meena doesn’t instantly fall for Krishna, but rather tries to keep her distance and is generally upset and confused by his attentions. Sheela plays Meena as nervous and afraid, although also somewhat gullible and impressionable. Bhaskar has given Meena and her father the same nervous mannerisms which does help link the two as a family, but Neelakanta’s decision to bring Meena with him still stands out as odd. There is some attempt to have meaningful conversations between the two, but these don’t work as well as they could, and the relationship between Meena and her father seems cold and impersonal as a result.

Meena genuinely seems scared and anxious for most of the film – afraid of her father and his goons, afraid of the men in the shed, particularly Krishna and afraid of falling in love. There is a rather bizarre song where Krishna is dressed as a mad priest and chases Meena though the canyons of Petra before she wakes up to realise it’s a dream. Bhaskar isn’t as clear here as he could have been that stalking is not the best way to a girl’s heart and for all his cheer and mostly sunny personality at times Krishna’s behaviour is quite predatory, making Meena’s fear seem quite rational. There really isn’t any good reason for Krishna to continue his pursuit of such a reluctant object of his affections, and very little basis for Meena to change her opinion. So Meena’s gradual acceptance of Krishna doesn’t seem realistic and even when she does start to warm to him, the romance generally has little sparkage. It’s left to Arjun and Prakash Raj to provide the chemistry that keeps the film going, and they both do that magnificently!

As Neelakanta gets more and more desperate, Krishna starts to realise that it’s his love for Subbalakshmi and his concern for her welfare that is driving her father to such desperate lengths. Although the change from concern about reputation and prestige to concern about his daughter is uneven and not always convincing, the change in Neelakanta does make the point that families suffer in a myriad of ways after a runaway marriage and provides the families point of view rather than the usual romantic picture of an elopement. Strangely, neither Krishna nor Meena use this opportunity to approach Neelakanta about their own love affair, which draws out the already overly long screenplay even further without adding any more substance to the plot. However it’s the interactions between Krishna and Neelakanta that make the film interesting, and both actors work well together to make their conversations and gradual acceptance of each other the best part of the film.

This is a Bunny movie and so there are plenty of opportunities for him to shake a leg and demonstrate his dancing skills. This is one of the best although the location and costumes could have been better.

Prakash Raj is in his element here. He has plenty of material to work with – all the rage and fury when his daughter runs away, slow burning anger at the men who are hiding her whereabouts and plenty of angst and remorse as he starts to fear that he as lost her forever. However, Bunny matches him step for step and together the two bring credibility to their roles that the romance and hunt for Subbalakshmi fail to deliver. It may be predictable with a total lack of empathy for any of the female roles (for which I’ve deducted a star), but Parugu does have strong performances from Bunny and Prakash Raj and the idea that elopement isn’t the solution to every problem is at least a little different from the norm. Parugu is worth watching for Bunny (of course!), Prakash Raj and the excellent dance sequences, but best to consider as an action/drama rather than as a romance to avoid disappointment. 3 ½ stars.

Duvvada Jagannadham (2017)

In his latest release Harish Shankar sticks closely to the standard formula for Telugu hero-centric films, which makes Duvvada Jagannadham rather less exciting than it could have been. There is hardly any suspense and few surprises as the hero flexes his muscles, obliterates the bad guys and romances the heroine while recouping lost money for the victims of a property scam. What makes it watchable are the excellent performances from Allu Arjun, Rao Ramesh and Subbaraju who add life and energy to an otherwise pedestrian plot. The story might be plodding along, but the cast give it their all, and with many other veteran performers including Murali Sharma and Posani Krishna Murali, and some good songs, DJ ends up as a reasonable timepass.

The story opens with a young Duvvada Jagannadham Sastry picking up a gun and executing a gang of thugs who attack policeman Purushottham (Murali Sharma) in his local market. Not content with his body count so far, he then turns the gun on a suspected rapist in the police station and shoots him too. Bizarrely the police officer in question rapidly recovers from his previously incapacitating wound and then doesn’t bat an eyelid at the young multiple murderer, instead enlisting him as a vigilante in his never-ending war against crime. Because of course there is nothing abnormal about a young boy killing in cold blood (and also being a fantastic shot) – not in this film at any rate.

Moving quickly among to the present day and Duvvada Jagannadham (Allu Arjun), aka Sastry is a Brahmin priest who runs an all-vegetarian catering business in Vijayawada along with various members of his family. Sastry is devout, speaks in very precise Telugu and is passionate about his cooking, although he doesn’t take life too seriously as demonstrated by a recurring joke about using asafoetida in tamarind rice. Bunny is good here, particularly with the comedy scenes and dialogue, while the trio of Sastry, his father (Tanikella Bharani) and uncle (Chandramohan) make a good team as they feed the hungry hordes of wedding guests around Vijayawada.

However, when Sastry answers his phone he becomes a totally different person – his posture is different, his voice deeper and the language less classical. Going by the name of DJ, Sastry’s alter ego is still a vigilante killer working for Purushottham eliminating criminals permanently from the streets of Hyderabad. DJ is super stylish and ultra cool, which ensures that Bunny remains ‘the stylish star’ despite spending much of the film in more traditional attire. Naturally DJ is also an accomplished killer, although quite where he learnt his skills is as much of a mystery as his motivation to cleanse Hyderabad of all criminals. The action scenes here are all beautifully choreographed by Ram Lakshman and Bunny carries out the various impalings, defenestrations and executions as smoothly and effortlessly as he performs his dance routines, and with just as much style. Sadly, there isn’t much else to the character of DJ beyond the dapper surface and efficient bloodshed. There is no rationale behind why his character is driven to such violence, particularly since he has been raised as a priest and generally seems to be a kind-hearted and benevolent priest at that. There is a brief comment by his father at the start, questioning why his son has so much rage, but this is not explored at all, and of course Sastry never shows any sign of the explosive ferocity that is characteristic of DJ.

Naturally there is also a heroine, and as might be expected from the formulaic plot, Pooja Hegde’s presence is completely superfluous to the story with her only purpose seemingly to be to appear in as many skimpy costumes as possible and dance in a few songs. The brazen character of Pooja seems unlikely to appeal to the traditionally minded Sastry, and although her designer credentials might interest DJ, her nasty, childish behaviour when they first meet is unlikely to impress. The camera spends more time focused on Pooja’s navel than on her face and it’s a shame that the only real emotion she gets a chance to display is when she’s shopping in Abu Dhabi – her excitement here is the only genuine moment her character has throughout the entire film. Still, she does look stunning, and has good chemistry with Bunny in the songs, but it’s a shame that she has no opportunity to do anything more.

DJ becomes personally involved in the case of a property scam where the real criminal Royyala Naidu (Rao Ramesh) hides behind a proxy (played by Prabhakar). Royyala’s son Chintu (Subbaraju) also becomes involved when Royyala conspires with Pooja’s father Minister Kusuman (Posani Krishna Murali) to marry their respective children. Subbaraju is excellent as a crook with an unusual idiosyncrasy, particularly in the final showdown with DJ and Royyala.

Throughout the film Bunny excels with his comedic dialogue as Sastry and does a good job of keeping the two sides of his character quite separate and different. As always his dancing is superb on every level and I did appreciate his collection of sparkly sneakers in various colours too. Devi Sri Prasad’s songs are good, although the song sequences aren’t connected to the plot of the film and seem to be simply added in as part of the standard formula – “fight scene/ family scene/ romantic moment/ song”, and repeat. However, the dance sequences add in energy and give Pooja and Sastry/DJ a chance to develop their romance that otherwise appears rather lacklustre.

Duvvada Jagannadham is disappointing, but the action sequences are impressive, the songs are excellent and Bunny is always watchable. There are some good dialogues that were well appreciated by the audience here in Melbourne, and the comedy with Bunny, Vennela Kishore as his cousin Vighneswara Sastry and the rest of the family is generally pretty funny. The major issue here is the formulaic plot and uninspiring screenplay that feels dull despite the good performances from the cast. However it’s not all bad and there are some scenes that work very well, it’s just that it doesn’t all gel together as it should. Worth watching for Bunny, the songs and the action, just don’t expect too much from the plot.