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!
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Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi (2017)

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi is a film about friendship that starts off well but unfortunately falls apart in the second half. Anupama Parameswaran is excellent as the love interest for both Abhi (Ram Pothineni) and Vasu (Sree Vishnu), but as soon as she disappears the film loses its way and heads deep into cliché territory before finally backtracking and ruining the most interesting development from the first half. The story starts with a good idea, but there’s simply not enough depth for a full 2 ½ hours of screenplay and by the time the film ends, the story has been stretched so thin, there are holes all over the place. The actors are good, the songs and dance sequences enjoyable and the scenery spectacular, but without any real substance to the story, Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi sadly doesn’t make a lasting impression.

The bromance here is between Abhi (Ram Pothineni) and Vasu (Sree Vishnu), and for the most part their relationship is dealt with well, although the final conclusion does appear rather more artificial and forced. Abhi and Vasu are both likeable characters and their friendship has a solid basis, starting from their time together in school. A young Vasu is able to break through Abhi’s misery on the anniversary of his mother’s death and as a result the two friends become inseparable despite the difference in their social status. They remain friends throughout college although the group broadens to include Sathish (Priyadarshi Pulikonda), Kishore (Kireeti Damaraju) and Sai. But by the time Sathish, Kishore and Sai are getting together to discuss Kishore’s wedding, Abhi and Vasu are nowhere to be seen. Abhi has been missing for 4 years and the friends haven’t spoken to Vasu for 2 years, so naturally there is a flashback sequence to see where it all went wrong.

It turns out that Abhi and Vasu both fell in love with the same girl, aspiring doctor Maha (Anupama Parameshwaran). Initially they approach this problem with the same levelheadedness they have shown all along and come up with a plan to let Maha know how they both feel – and then leave it up to her to decide. This seems a radical departure for a Telugu film, where female characters rarely seem to be allowed a mind of their own, but Kishore Tirumala allows Maha to have an opinion and make a choice based on what she knows about the two men.

Abhi has stayed in Vizag after college and spends his time playing guitar with his band and chilling with friends. He’s relaxed and fairly carefree while waiting for the results of his final exams which is a total contrast to Maha. She’s driven to succeed by her parents expectations and is completing her medical degree because it is what they expect her to do. What she really wants to do is sing, and since Abhi plays in a band what could be simpler than the two getting together?  At the same time, Vasu has gone back to his family who are friends with Maha’s parents. When Vasu meets and falls in love with Maha, it seems to be the perfect match for the two families, and even Maha seems fairly happy with the prospect.

Up to this point the film is good, if perhaps a little slow. And I liked the idea that the girl would get to choose, without any undue influence from either the two guys, their families or even her friends. But it’s after Maha makes her choice and Abhi and Vasu part company that the story starts to fizzle.

The second half sees the introduction of Maggie (Lavanya Tripathi) a ditzy and completely inept wedding planner. It’s amazing that she’s managed to get the guests together and book a venue given her financial woes, tendency to get drunk and general unawareness of what is going on. I think Maggie was supposed to be ‘fun’ and ‘modern’ to make her a contrast to Maha, but she’s simply not either of these, and ends up as a clichéd filmi airhead. This characterisation is incredibly frustrating after Kishore Tirumala starts with better realised characters and a more mature approach with Abhi, Vasu and Maha. It’s literally teeth gritting stuff to watch Maggie lurch from manufactured disaster to contrived mistake while her employee helpfully points out where she’s going wrong. The stand-off between Abhi and Vasu also veers more into rather more immature territory, but that is more plausible, since many quarrels do appear ridiculous and childish from the outside.

Ram is good as Abhi, although not even he can really make a man-band look appealing! Ram looks considerably younger in the second half when he sheds his heavy beard, but otherwise the somewhat subdued rock-star look suits him well. I like Abhi’s casual approach to life and his relaxed attitude combined with a genuinely caring persona, which makes for an interesting romance between Abhi and Maha. Ram and Anupama have good chemistry together too, and the romance, although slow to develop does feel genuine. Sree Vishnu is also good as the more serious of the two friends, although sensible Vasu really only appears once the friends have finished college. His character does work better earlier in the film when Vasu is less reserved and but overall the friendship is a believable relationship, and there is a genuine warmth between Abhi and Vasu. Sree does fade more into the background in the second half, but in compensation the other friends get more screen time which provides some desperately needed relief from the irritating Maggie! Lavanya Tripathi doesn’t get much chance to be anything other than annoying, but Anupama Parameswaran is lovely as Maha and does a good job at portraying the two quite different relationships.

The music from Devi Dri Prasad works well in the film, and the songs are well pictured with some excellent choreography, but the real stand-out is the excellent cinematography. Sameer Reddy beautifully captures the seascapes of Vizag and the lush scenery of Ooty which provide the main backdrops for the action.

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi is the story of a reasonable and pleasant friendship between two reasonable and pleasant men that hits a few snags but is ultimately resolved in a reasonable and pleasant way. Despite the theme of conflict between best buddies, there is no real angst here which may be part of the problem, particularly as the film ends up drifting along to the inevitable conclusion. Good characters and an interesting idea are one thing, but Kishore Tirumala needed a sharper screenplay and a better way for his characters to solve their problems than a ditzy wedding planner. The friendship portrayed by Ram and Sree makes this one worth watching but be prepared for the irritating second half.

Jai Lava Kusa

Jai Lava Kusa poster

NTR’s latest film takes the main masala ingredient of separated siblings as its theme, and weaves a standard tale of betrayal, revenge and political aspirations with plenty of fight scenes, the odd romantic moment and an exposé of bad parenting. Tarak plays three separate roles in the film, and to his credit he does differentiate all three characters well, particularly given their completely identical appearance by the end. However, with the exception of the child actor (?actors?) three versions of NTR means that no-one else gets a look in and the story suffers as a result. But if all you want is 2 ½ hours of mindless entertainment with big music numbers, even bigger fight scenes and plenty of Tarak, then Jai Lava Kusa ticks all the boxes.

The film starts with three identical triplets who are brought up by their uncle after their mother dies. I couldn’t work out if the same child actor plays all three or if K.S. Ravindra just happened to get three really similar kids (which seems more likely). Whichever it is, he (they) are excellent, particularly in the portrayal of the young Jai. The young actors here set up the interactions between the triplets which will go on to shape their adult characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed their frank portrayal of emotion and demonstration of just how nasty kids can be. At the same time, Posani Krishna Murali as their uncle and guardian shows exactly how not to deal with a child who has a speech impediment and generally fails at being a parental figure. The triplets perform on stage in mythological dramas but while Lava and Kusa are big stars, Jai is denied the same success by his stammer. Not content with ridiculing and humiliating Jai, his uncle also beats him which starts to take its toll, leading to Jai’s suitably theatrical response that leaves all three brothers separated and thinking the others are dead.

Moving forward a few years and Kusa (NTR Jr) has become a thief with a terrible haircut and a hopeless sidekick who soon fades into the background. A car accident reunites Kusa with his long-lost brother Lava, but here there is no need here for amulets, significant songs or other filmi contrivances since the two know each other immediately given that they are identical. Lava (also NTR Jr) is a mild-mannered bank manager with a crush on his marriage broker and after a haircut (thank goodness!) Kusa and Lava embark on a scheme of impersonation to let Kusa sort out problems in the bank while Lava attempts to woo Priya (Raashi Khanna). A scene about the impact of monetisation is excellent here, but for the most part there are some terrible clichés in this part of the film. Hamsa Nandini has a truly awful role as a vamp in the bank while the story itself is pedestrian and treads very familiar ground. What does work is the difference Tarak manages to create between the two brothers, despite looking identical. He keeps the personalities and the voice tone different, while the effects used to let the two brothers appear together work well

The second half is much better as Lava and Kusa find out what happened to the final brother, Jai (NTR Jr). While he still stammers, Jai has become the leader of a gang of thugs and goes by the name of Ravana, with all the symbolism that implies. Jai is totally different from the other two brothers and Tarak plays him with a brooding intensity that overpowers Lava and Kusa whenever they are together. It’s a fantastic performance and works to lift the second part of the film as Jai, in his guise of Ravana, terrorises a village with his gang. With his nifty retrievable axe on a chain Ravana deals out death on a daily basis, but needs a total image revamp when he decides to pursue a political career and win over the heart of Simran (Nivetha Thomas). There is also a plot thread that introduces a rival for Ravana in the form of Sarkar (Ronit Roy) to ensure that there are enough fight scenes and general mayhem for the film finale, while having three versions of Jai running around allows for some comedy to stop the film drowning in too much gore. The film doesn’t ever aspire to any kind of realism so the over the top fight scenes fit right in, and the lack of any appropriate authoritarian response to the excessive bloodshed seems perfectly logical. But it’s the more negative character of Jai that dominates and with plenty of melodrama and a deep voice, Tarak ensures that this is the character you remember at the end of the film.

This being an NTR Jr film there are big song and dance numbers which generally have little to do with the actual story, but which look fantastic on the big screen. Tamannah turns up in an item song, which was better than expected, and for the most part the songs are inoffensive and the dancing is first class. However they tend to appear out of nowhere and do act as distractions for the main storyline.

With all the focus being on the three brothers, there is little room for anything else. Ronit Roy’s character is a standard Telugu villain without any differentiating characteristics, while Harish Uthaman and Brahmaji pop up in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. The other support characters only appear briefly to explain what happened to the brothers as they were growing up and both Raashi Khanna and Nivetha Thomas are under-utilised in roles that have minimal character development. This really is all about NTR Jr and his ability to successfully pull off a triple role with three very different characters. From that perspective the film is a huge success – Tarak is very impressive as Jai and makes me wish he appeared in more negative character roles, given how well he does here. It’s NTR Jr’s film all the way and he carries it easily with impressive performances in all three roles. It’s just a pity that the story doesn’t come together as strongly or leave such an impression. Worth watching for Tarak and for the whole visual spectacle, just don’t expect too much from the plot.