Sardaar Gabbar Singh (2016)


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.

Puli (2015)


Chimbu Deven’s latest film may be set in a fantasy world of strange creatures and magical beings, but the story itself is mundane without any of the epic sweep required for such a tale. It’s also slow going, with most of the first half a dreary romance between Marudheeran (Vijay) and Pavazhamani (Shruti Haasan), although it does improve post interval once Sridevi and Sudeep appear onscreen. Despite the numerous fight scenes and explicit violence, the simplistic plot seems to be aimed more at children, with every obstacle easily overcome and the obvious outcome never in any doubt. That may also explain the relatively bloodless scenes of dismemberment and general carnage that would more usually be awash with gallons of fake blood, but instead the fight scenes here are frequently lacklustre, dull and repetitive. However there are a few reasons to watch, mainly down to Sridevi in her extravagantly evil queen avatar, good special effects and the always reliable Sudeep and Vijay.

Puli tells the story of a land which has been invaded and settled by a race of demons, who have enslaved the native humans. These Vedalam are easily recognisable by their blue eyes, tendency to sprout fangs when annoyed and ability to fly though the air, although their spiky armour and general arrogant grumpiness are a more distant and therefore safer method of identification. The young Marudheeran arrives in one of the subjugated villages as a baby, floating in a basket on the river, along with a mysterious egg that hatches into a talking bird. The talking bird is pretty well done as far as special effects go, and I was expecting it to be important to the plot in some way, but it really isn’t. Even though there is a sort of reason for the bird’s inclusion at the end, basically it’s a very under-utilized special effect that didn’t need to be able to talk and doesn’t get much chance to do so anyway. Overall this illustrates the problem with most of the special effects in the film. Although they are well done, the effects dazzle for a moment but are then relegated to background noise and ultimately have little to add to the plot. It’s a shame as the film looks fantastical but the uninspired story keeps it earthbound.

Marudheeran is adopted by one of the villagers and is trained by his stepfather in fighting and disguise as part of a general communal wish to overthrow the demons. However once Pavalamalli (Shruti Haasan) returns to the village, Marudheeran spends his time chasing after his childhood friend, much to the displeasure of her parents. Just as Marudheeran and Pavalamalli get married in secret, she is stolen by the demons and Marudheeran sets out with his trusty friends Thambi Ramaiah and Sathyan to rescue her from the impregnable city of Vedalakottai. They plan to disguise themselves as demons to get into the city and then hope they can find Pavalamalli and get out again, but that’s it in terms of preparation. There is no attempt to deal with the epic scale of such an endeavour and make the journey and planning part of the adventure. This means there isn’t any sense of danger or excitement, just a pedestrian slog to find the city and rescue the girl. Nothing new, and could just as easily have been set in the present time anywhere in India with much the same plot and ending.

Still, there are plenty of good ideas in Puli, it’s just that they get such short shrift and don’t have as much impact as they should. For example, Marudheeran and colleagues meet a race of miniature people where there is a brief ‘we can show you the way’ moment and then the little people are used mainly for comedy. However the effects and the cinematography are once again very good, with clever use of seeds and leaves as clothing, and wonderful peanut shell blouses that are simply inspired!

Unusually, Vijay doesn’t fit as the hero of the film as well as he should, at least initially. His introduction and the subsequent fight scenes establish his character as more of a trickster and comedian while his pursuit of Pavalamalli is pedestrian and lacking animation. It’s not until the second half of the film where he comes up against his nemesis General Jalatharangam (Sudeep) that Marudheeran starts to properly fill the role of the warrior hero and Vijay gets a chance to throw his energy fully into the part. Just about at this time though there is a flashback sequence where Vijay plays his father – a man born to be in a shampoo commercial and doomed by his reliance on slow-mo fighting and accompanying wind-machine. I did appreciate Vijay’s mastery of the hair toss though and once he gets into full warrior mode, there is no stopping him.

Sudeep is good in a role that lets him convey volumes with just a look and a sneer, although he really needed more time onscreen being evil to make his character thoroughly despicable. Jalatharangam is a fairly standard villain but Sudeep imbues him with an arrogant coldness that works well and there’s just enough sliminess added for good measure. Sridevi too makes the most of her role as an evil queen and shows what a fantastic actor she is even with her limited time onscreen. She totally owns each scene when she appears and her sweeping presence lifts the energy of the film. She has the best costumes and stunning make-up but these go almost unnoticed beside her commanding presence and expressive eyes. And she plays a harp – perfect! I hope this, and her recent appearance in English Vinglish mean that we will get to see more Sridevi films in the future – she is the best thing about Puli for sure.

Hansika Motwani plays Queen Yamanadevi’s daughter and at least Chimbu Deven doesn’t make the mistake of trying to get her to actually dance in any of her songs. Hansika looks good and has an amazing peacock outfit at the end but doesn’t do much else of note in the film, although she does manage better chemistry in a few brief moments with Vijay than Shruti does in an entire romantic song. Overall Devi Sri Prasad’s songs are fairly uninspiring and the choreography rather repetitive, but Vijay is energetic and the backing dancers are enthusiastic in a range of diverse costumes.

Except for Sridevi, Puli mostly disappoints with a weak story and fairly nondescript songs. Sudeep and Vijay are fine but both characters need better definition and depth rather than simply relying on the ability and star power of the actors. Both do what they can, but the film could have been so much better with just a little more complexity. Good cinematography from Natarajan Subramaniam and great visual effects make Puli worth watching on the big screen but probably only for fans. Otherwise probably best to wait for the DVD where the fast forward button will make Puli a more enjoyable watch.

Srimanthudu (2015)


Mahesh Babu’s latest is a commercial masala movie that manages to fit in some better than expected moments while still remaining true to its mass roots. Writer/director Koratala Siva has penned a good story and although the film could have done with some snappier editing and less one-sided fight scenes, overall Srimanthudu is an entertaining watch. Along with Mahesh Babu and Shruti Haasan, the film features a cast of thousands with almost every Telugu actor appearing at least briefly on-screen, but for a wonder there is only Ali as the mandatory comedy uncle and even he has a very truncated role. That alone makes it a step above the usual fare, and with Mahesh at his charismatic best and some great songs, Srimanthudu is well worth a trip to the cinema.

Mahesh plays Harsha, son of a millionaire businessman and the heir to both the company and his father’s fortune. However that’s not what Harsha wants and he refuses to conform and take over the business despite his father’s continual gentle pressure. The scenes between Harsha and his father Ravikanth (Jagapathi Babu) are a little clunky, but the sentiment hits at the right level with Harsha treating his father with respect despite disagreeing with him on almost every topic. Although Ravikanth is very much a family man, he is cold and distant with no interest in anything outside his millions, while Harsha is diametrically opposite, more interested in his father’s employees and their ambitions. Harsha isn’t totally adverse to those millions though and they do come in handy whenever he needs some cash for his various schemes.

When driving his mother (Sukanya) and sister to the temple one morning, Harsha sees Charu (Shruti Haasan) outside her hostel and drives round the block a few times to get a better look. Luckily for Harsha, Charu also turns out to be cousin to his friend Apparao (Vennela Kishore) and she turns up at his birthday party. She’s beautiful and quirky but her biggest draw for Harsha is that she’s studying rural development at college – something that sounds just his cup of tea. Naturally Harsha enrolls in the same course and while Charu is initially rather disheartened to discover that Harsha is really there to study and not just stalking her, romance does blossom between the two.

As Harsha is falling in love and discovering his true calling, the film jumps to a small rural village where a school has collapsed and Narayana (Rajendra Prasad) is running around with a permanent expression of dismay as tragedy after tragedy occurs. Head villain Sasi (Sampath Raj) and his team of muscle men are slowly sucking the life from the village as their beer factory uses up all the water, and Narayana is doing his best to halt the decline as families leave the village and farmers commit suicide. Sasi is also in league with his brother, Minister Venkat Rathnam (Mukesh Rishi), whose son Radha (Harish Uthaman) is threatening Harsha’s father, so it’s inevitable that Harsha will get involved and use his new knowledge of rural development to save the day. Along with his excellent skills in dishoom of course!

Multi-layer Mahesh has shed his multi layers for Srimanthudu and he mainly appears in a single shirt or elbow baring T-shirt, although the biggest cheers went to his appearance in a knee-baring lungi. He is a one-man unstoppable army and the fight scenes are more comical than exciting as Harsha dispatches any and all comers with ease. There is one fight scene at a wedding function which is cleverly choreographed, but the rest are a montage of villains hitting the ground and bouncing wildly in all directions while Harsha has no difficulty lifting men twice his size over his head and flinging them into the dirt. No one manages to even lay a finger on him until it becomes necessary for the plot, and even then it’s during a shady ambush where Harsha still comes out on top. It’s mayhem, but it’s Mahesh mayhem and I loved every minute!

Shruti Haasan has a role with some substance and she’s generally good as Charu, even managing to hold her own against the star power of Mahesh. It’s good to have a heroine who doesn’t fade into obscurity as soon as the action ramps up, and Charu’s character does have enough depth to move beyond the romance track. The love story itself is well blended into the village make-over story line, while Mahesh and Shruti have good chemistry together adding a touch of plausibility. Shruti also has some lovely outfits, although she does fall foul of the costume designers in the Charuseela song. Seriously, no explanation is possible for the studded shoes, while the female choreography just adds insult to injury. The other songs are all much better with Poorna appearing in the first Rama Rama song, while Shruti gets to strut her stuff in the rest. The music by Sri Devi Prasad is catchy and the choreography generally very good – I loved a brief flash-mob style interlude in the bangle market during one of the songs while Dhimmathirigae bursts onto the screen in a riot of colour and is just as awesome as this teaser suggests.

The accomplished support cast is excellent although with so many good actors quite a few seem underused. I would have liked to see more of Subbaraju, who briefly appears as one of Harsha’s relatives with a spiritual disposition, while Rahul Ravindran has a potentially interesting role as a rival for Harsha that sadly isn’t expanded any further. However Jagapathi Babu and Rajendra Prasad have better developed characters that allow shades of grey while Mukesh Rishi and Sampath Raj are just as black and despicable as such villains need to be.

Srimanthudu may not be a perfect film, but it is a welcome return to form for Mahesh and infinitely better than last year’s Aagadu. The film is a tad overlong and somewhat slow to get going in the second half, but at least Koratala Siva avoids any suggestion of appearing preachy by keeping the attention focused on Mahesh rather than the development work he is doing in the village. Nothing to complain about there! Mahesh is excellent throughout and with a story different enough to maintain interest and great performances all round, Srimanthudu is one of the better films I’ve seen this year. Recommended for Mahesh, Shruti Haasan and those crazy fight scenes.