Nannaku Prematho

Nannaku Prematho treads the line between mass action shtick and a more restrained thriller. Sukumar is attentive to foreshadowing and resolving the things he sets up so it is all very satisfying. Note: I think I’ve avoided giving away most of the surprises, but this is not completely spoiler free.

Abhiram (Tarak) is the youngest son of Subramanyam (Rajendra Prasad), a successful enough NRI businessman. But all families have secrets and when Subramanyam is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he tells his three sons about his past. He was once even the even wealthier Ramesh Chandra Prasad, but was cheated by an associate who has gone on to become filthy rich and influential on a global scale. He wants those wrongs righted, and the lost wealth back, before he dies. The two older sons humour him but have no intention of paying anything more than lip service. Abhi is more action oriented and he decides to ruin Krishnamurthy (Jagapathi Babu) so his father can die in peace. He decides to throw everything he has at this, including emptying out the family bank accounts. And his method? Making Krishnamurthy’s daughter Divya (Rakul Preet Singh) fall for him so he can worm his way in to Krishnamurthy’s good books and then steal all the things. His brothers are not supportive after losing the family fortune twice, Divya is unimpressed when she rumbles him, but Abhi is undaunted.

Despite the premise that Abhi will use Divya the relationship that develops between them, as much as any relationships in this film are developed, is quite respectful and they seem to like each other. Sukumar falls back on the hero saving heroine from a completely unnecessary and gratuitous rape scenario but this is a big budget Telugu film and it’s not like they have the inclination to actually think about having the hero talk to a woman with a brain. When Abhi tries to get over losing Divya he doesn’t want her insulted or cheapened in any way, so he focusses his anger on her father. I like that he didn’t think less of her because of either how their relationship started or who she was related to. But I am not sure he really knew her all that well either. He knew what he wanted to know of her. A lot of the tension is really about misunderstanding. And when people do understand the situation or the motivation, they deal with it and it makes sense. Mostly. The character with minimal respect for Divya is her father.

Tarak is low key and solid in his 25th film, and manages to make the shift into heroic daring and action a seamless extension of Abhi’s character. It was well judged, and helped by some thoughtful plotting. Sure there was still some near certain death, and suspension of logic and laws of physics, but overall his challenges required brain as well as brawn. Abhi tries not to let extreme emotions sway his behaviour, but he isn’t dull. He has a sense of humour to go with his overweening confidence, treats his sidekicks like valued helpers most of the time, and Tarak has a nice rapport with his co-stars. I was really interested in how Abhi was going to solve the various challenges thrown in his way and very invested in seeing him win over the slimy Krishnamurthy. The action scenes seem like a breeze for Tarak, and he gets to strut his stuff in a few songs too.

Rakul Preet Singh has some fairly thin material as Divyanka, but manages to pull a decent performance out of it. She doesn’t simper, she looks Abhi straight in the eye and demands answers. It is nice to have an unapologetic and self-assured woman as the heroine. Divya was also given a little bit of space to be angry, be sad, be scared, get drunk, hang out with friends, and be a person in her own right. It’s not a ground breaking role, but I liked the performance and the hints of being more than just an accessory for the hero. Rakul Preet just turns up in the songs, does great face, and leaves most of the work to Tarak which suited me fine. She dressed appropriately for the part, wore stylish and sensible flat shoes which made me ridiculously happy, and only suffered a few dodgy outfits. I also liked that her conflict over her father heading for a collision with Abhi was somewhat resolved, albeit in a thrifty way.

Set in the UK and Spain the film’s style is urban and the characters well to do. It all looks crisp, well composed, and orderly. Tarak’s image as Abhi was a mildly dandified hipster about town, affluent and understated. But I laughed at the matching outfits all three sons wore in one critical scene. Otherwise the wardrobe team did well. I’ve been thinking about eyebrows a lot since I rewatched this.

Also interesting – I’ve never seen a plot hinge on a car full of guinea pigs before. The poor little buggers were thrown around a bit, which I find distressing. But the stupid science thing that had me rolling my eyes turned out to be a ruse so I’m glad that was not supposed to be a thing. The songs by Devi Sri Prasad are OK and are integrated well into the action.

The supporting cast is strong, even if they don’t always seem essential. Jagapathi Babu is in his element as the urbane, narcissistic, Krishnamurthy. How cool that he gave Abhi a swipe card to get into his office anytime without breaking in, he was so confident he would win. The way the story was fleshed out around the characters made sense in this world, and there were few false notes. Hooray for quietly competent Kate (Liza van der Smissen) in amongst the sidekicks. I was honestly puzzled by why Srinivas Avasarala was even in the film because I can’t recall his character doing anything necessary. Rajeev Kanakala does high emotion well, but his character was hampered by the lack of connection between some scenes. Rajendra Prasad isn’t in the film for long but his presence permeates everything.

I have a small gripe. The opening titles are over a badly animated approximation of a Rube Goldberg machine….Why not just build one instead of faking it? But the film is fairly well constructed, has decent internal logic, throws in a few elaborate surprises, and like a Goldberg machine everything lands where it should.

See this if you like a good mass film but often wish they made more sense, and for people mostly acting like grown-ups. 4 stars! (deductions for gratuitous rapeyness and imperilled guinea pigs).

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Bharat Ane Nenu

Koratala Siva and Mahesh Babu team up for this smart political thriller. It’s a good looking film with a fairly solid story, but you’ll need to turn your logic-meter off, or even inside out, at times. And not just for the gravity defying action scenes.

Bharat (Mahesh) is a perennial student in a London populated by white people with bizarre accents. He is on his 5th university degree, and has no immediate plans to stop studying. He is smart and curious, but might lack a bit of focus or motivation. Called home after the sudden death of his politician father (R Sarathkumar), Bharat is inveigled into taking up the apparently hereditary role of CM by his dad’s friend and colleague Varadarajulu (Prakash Raj). But while Bharat may be clueless about local Andhra Pradesh issues, he’s very rules driven and task focussed and likes to act decisively. He will bring back the FEAR, RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY (caps courtesy of the subtitles team) that he thinks society needs. And that sets him on a collision course with pretty much everyone in politics.

There are some odd inconsistencies in Bharat’s logic at times and it felt like there was an often unacknowledged conflict or contradiction in the film between what he stood for and what he did. Bharat left home to go live with friends in the UK when he was just a kid. He stayed away for years, but he still remembers his mother telling him stories about duty and doing the right thing (underscored by her death when he broke a promise so….). He seemed happy to follow his own whims while abroad and had no firm plans. However Hyderabad traffic sets him ablaze with indignation. He’s a true believer, fighting to see his vision brought to life, and at odds with the career politicians who feather their own nests. A benevolent dictator is still a dictator so I found it interesting that apparently I was supposed to see this as democratic representation of the will of the people. He was never elected, just chosen first by calculating party men and then by public acclaim. And the film shows that acclaim can turn very quickly to scorn. I really did like that in what could have been a clichéd scene of people coming to the Hero to rid their village of a problem, he turned the tables and asked why they didn’t save themselves. It’s a tired trope that needs to be retired or examined, and having Bharat say he would support people but they had to get off their butts and do something to help themselves was excellent. He sees a girl at a bus stop every morning and has no qualms about using state resources to get her number, but he does ask for her consent at key junctures so there is that. He asks why the roads have to be closed for his ministerial convoy but again, no issue with taking over an entire restaurant so he can have a coffee date with Vasumathi. There’s a bit of “don’t do as I do, do as I say” in Bharat.

Mahesh is convincing as the driven reformer who wants to remind people of the rule of law, and he can carry off the grand speeches. Bharat starts out using his intelligence and will, but at a point his awesome fighting skillz surface. It’s fitting that at the moment he went from protagonist to Hero, he was surrounded by swirling movie tickets just like the paper thrown by a cinema audience to greet a hero’s entrance. The action scenes are highly stylised, relying on Mahesh’s ability to stare down the camera while sauntering past wearing a baddie as a backpack. I laughed loudly and alone at that visual! Koratala Siva knows exactly what he is doing with the mass tropes and with his actor. I don’t think there is anything in the role that challenged Mahesh’s abilities but he gives a committed and smartly layered performance. For those who rely on me for other insights about layering, yes he wears t-shirts and even flashes his knees. I suspect in one scene that he might have had two white t-shirts stitched together to avoid any hint of transparency. But it’s modern, minimal layer Mahesh in terms of wardrobe.

Kiara Advani is Vassu, the object of the CM’s affections. While Vasumathi is interchangeable with just about every other newbie Telugu film heroine, she is vaguely intelligent and has a life. She obviously likes Bharat, but is nervous because of his position and just because she’s a middle class girl. Her giving him a stick on moustache was a stroke of genius. Seeing Bharat happily at one with the crowds on their low key dates because of his dodgy mo was very funny. Unfortunately after a promising start, Vassu loses all agency as soon as men start on about their own honour. I’m neither here nor there as far as Kiara Advani is concerned. She is fine but there’s so little to the character that I couldn’t say she brought anything unique to the role either. Her outfits were boho student in daily life but the songs are where the costume department run amok.

The Devi Sri Prasad soundtrack is full of tracks that sound like other tracks, and the lyrics are loaded with dubious English rhyming nonsense. Perhaps I am being harsh and Vasumathi likes to be called “my lovely harmonica”! Mahesh’s prime dancing days are a thing of the past, I think, so the choreography was largely of the walking and pointing variety. The big set number Vachadayyo Saami is a standout mostly for the colour and spectacle (which includes the aforementioned knees).

The supporting ensemble is full of competent actors, well cast, and most with a bit of depth or development to their characters. Prakash Raj is excellent as the avuncular Varadarajulu, completely believable as the long time friend and frenemy. Anish Kuruvilla, house favourite occasional director/That Guy, plays a slightly slimy but not unlikeable Chief Secretary caught between the party and the CM. He gets to give his appalled expression a good workout, along with a bit of side eye. Brahmaji is the CMs assistant and like most people dragged along in Bharat’s wake he alternates between flustered and tickled pink at the goings on. Another favourite That Guy, Ajay, has a small but sensible role too. And I was very pleased to see good old Mukhtar (Mukhtar Khan) was not forgotten after one pivotal and quite brutal scene. Bharat might be swept away by the public but the continuity and attention to detail and people was there, as befits his character and this film.

If you like the idea of a well-acted, well directed, and more violent story somewhat along the lines of Mr Smith Goes to Washington but with dodgy subtitles do see Bharat Ane Nenu!

Rangasthalam

Sukumar’s Rangasthalam is a sprawling rural epic set in the 80s and chock full of plot. There’s probably enough for two films, but despite being 80s influenced in running time too, I found it highly engaging.

Chittibabu (Charan) hires out a water pump to service the village crops. He’s a bit dim and lazy, very proud and impulsive, but essentially a decent bloke. And he has a hearing impairment that he is ashamed of. His inability to hear unless shouted at is used for comedy but also is important in keeping him a little isolated and clueless. When golden boy big brother Kumar (Aadhi Pinisetty) comes back from Dubai, he is appalled by the corrupt lending and eviction scam run by the local association. He gets the support of MLA Dakshina Murthy (Prakash Raj) and decides to run for President, setting up a colliion course with the incumbent (an evil eyed Jagapathi Babu). And meanwhile Chittibabu has fallen for the lovely Ramalakshmi (Samantha Akkineni). But does he have the time or the capacity for love when he has heroic duties to attend to and a brother to protect? And if it isn’t the President pulling all the strings, then who else might be involved? What is a simple man to do?
Charan was instantly recognisable even in the long aerial shot that opens the film. His hair is magnificent and deserves an acting credit. But apart from the mane of glory, he delivers a solid performance. Chittibabu is quite childish and demanding, but has a generous heart. He is only able to devote himself to one task or thought at a time though, which meant that the relationship with Ramalakshmi kind of disappeared for a while as he was busy with other matters. Charan and Samantha had a nice rapport and I quite liked seeing the man be disconcerted and flustered by being on the receiving end of some determined attention. And he did some truly excellent lovestruck prancing. But he is an 80s style mass hero and will not be winning any awards for feminism. The fight scenes are intense and brutal, with only a few fancy effects to diminish the reality. Predictably Charan excels in the action and dances, but that solid physicality also translated well to his character.
Charan and Aadhi were really nice as brothers. It would have been very easy for Sukumar to make Kumar the saintly one and Chitti the dumb one but they each had some elements of the other one’s personality and their little fights and jokes seemed natural and lively. Chittibabu had to grow up a bit through the film and Charan handled that quite well. I thought the hearing aid Kumar got for him was used nicely as an indicator when he decided to put personal vanity aside. Aadhi played Kumar with less bravado and more empathy than the younger sibling. His reactions when things turned violent seemed genuinely fearful, and true to the character. He found a groove to work in as the second fiddle in the film but the star of the family who absorbed all their attention.
Samantha made Ramalakshmi funny and warm, the kind of girl that would always be in the thick of the chatter when there was a break from work. She wasn’t impressed by Chittibabu despite his obvious attraction to her, and somehow was the only person in the village who didn’t know he was hearing impaired. The comedy of errors stuff went on a bit too long, but I enjoyed her uninhibited enthusiasm, especially in Rangamma Mangamma where Ramalakshmi took on some of the typical hero pursuit song shtick. Samantha’s face is so expressive that even the terrible subtitles didn’t interfere too much with her scenes. The moment when she weighed up her father’s emotional blackmail against Chittibabu’s open door on their future was darkly funny and so good to see. It was sad that she along with almost every one else was then sidelined for a substantial chunk of the story. Because Hero stuff.
Jagapathi Babu is the villain this film needed. He infuses every scene with a menacing sociopathic coolness, and has no need of pointless histrionics. He has ample followers to carry out his wishes and can keep the dirty business at arm’s length. He’s like a shark. Something sends a chill down your spine on first sight, even if he doesn’t seem to be an immediate threat. Prakash Raj has a small but pivotal role, and is his usual reliable self. Brahmaji is his usual angry self as a government official. It’s good that some things never change. Mahesh Achanta, Rohini, and Anasuya Bharadwaj are notable in the large ensemble.
Sukumar did some interesting things within what does feel like a solid 80s mass drama. The women were often in the background but when it came to crunch time there was no fuss as they took a more active role or their expressions gave the men permission to act. Rathnavelu’s cinematography created a beautifully rural idyll with long sweeping views of the landscape but moved away from fixed camera positions in the action scenes, giving it a more modern and dynamic feel. The soundtrack is exactly what you’d expect, which is not a bad thing. I liked Charan’s dancing and thought he did well in the folk influenced choreo, maintaining his Mega cred while staying in character.
I learned some new phrases thanks to the (possibly drunk) subtitle team. I hadn’t heard of the Dazzle King or even the Mangoose, but now I feel they sound like something I should have known. And I will be wary of doctors offering the “eternal injection”. I know subtitles are a luxury, but surely someone read them before they were published. No?
I thoroughly enjoyed Rangasthalam. It’s a big meaty story that takes its time. The casting is good, the visuals are great, and in mass style the film has a bit of everything. Recommended!