Mahanati

Mahanati

Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati is a spellbinding biopic that celebrates the life of Savitri in sumptuous colour with haunting re-enactments of her most famous scenes. Keerthy Suresh invokes the magic of Savitri’s screen presence while Samantha ties it all together as a journalist researching the legendary actor’s life for a newspaper article. At just under three hours, the film still only scratches the surface of Savitri’s story, but with an impressive cast and convincing dialogue, Mahanati is a mesmerising look at one of the most successful film actors from the South.

The film opens with Savitri falling into a coma and being taken to a hospital whose bemused staff have no idea who they have just admitted. One year later, on the anniversary of her illness, journalist Madhura Vani (Samantha Akkineni) is given the task of writing about the film star for a short article in the newspaper. Vani is shy and frumpy, struggling to make her mark in the male-dominated profession of journalism and she is dismayed at what she thinks is a throw-away assignment. But once she starts speaking to the people who knew Savitri, Vani becomes intrigued by the star and her generous and compassionate personality. As she learns more, Vani draws inspiration from Savitri and becomes empowered to make changes in her own life and stand up for herself. This interweaving of Vani’s story into the life of Savitri is ingenious and allows Nag Ashwin to focus on the more positive aspects of Savitri’s legacy, although he doesn’t avoid the drama either.

The film shows Savitri’s early life after her father dies and her mother goes to live with relatives. Even as a child, Savitri was a force to be reckoned with. Her determination and will to succeed is demonstrated as she learns to dance despite the dance instructor telling her she lacks discipline and will not be able to master the skill. I loved these early scenes and the young actor playing the child Savitri who is a real find. She is full of life and totally charming with plenty of attitude – perfect for the role!

Savitri is shown taking part in theatrical shows under the supervision of her Uncle, K.V. Chowdary (Rajendra Prasad), and her abortive first trip to Chennai to become an actress is also depicted. This is beautifully done, with Savitri in full fan mode as she tries to get glimpses of her favourite actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao (Naga Chaitanya), and being almost totally oblivious to the man who takes her photo, Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan).

Nag Ashwin doesn’t dwell too much on Savitri’s rich film history but focuses instead on the real-life drama of her marriage to Gemini Ganesan and subsequent estrangement from her uncle. Her iconic roles are shown in a montage and Keerthy Suresh does a fantastic job in re-creating these accurately, including a poignant song from Devadasu and the wonderful scene in Mayabazar where Savitri is playing Ghatotkacha impersonating Sasirekha.

I’ve been waiting for a film that showcases Keerthy’s talents as an actor, and finally she gets her moment to shine. She really is amazing here and completely nails a wide range of emotions. From the early bubbly and happily carefree girl all the way through to the devastated wife who turns to alcohol, Keerthy makes us live every moment and completely believe in her portrayal of a legendary actor. A standout is the moment when she learns Gemini Ganesan is already married and her dreams of romance turn to ashes. This, and her subsequent difficult decision to marry the man she loves despite everything are simply perfect, with none of the actors overplaying the emotion, but still managing to make the audience feel every heartache and each moment of elation.

Dulquer Salmaan is also a perfect choice for the ultimate romantic actor of the time; Gemini Ganesan. He has plenty of charm and when he sets out to woo Savitri, she doesn’t stand a chance! Their romance sparkles on screen and Dulquer is just as convincing when he portrays Gemini Ganesan’s jealousy at his wife’s success and subsequent alcoholism. The story is told from Savitri’s viewpoint, so Dulquer has less screen time after Savitri finds out about his affairs, but throughout it’s an excellent performance that makes the drama and emotion behind their relationship very real.

The secondary story of Madhura Vani and her struggle to be accepted as a serious journalist is well integrated into the main plot. Nag Ashwin uses Vani to introduce key witnesses to events in Savitri’s life that allow the film to move back into flashback. But is also emphasises the importance of Savitri as a role model and inspiration, while Samantha’s success over the other, male reporters is an important step for Telugu cinema. Here is a film that has a female lead who isn’t defined by her romance with a male character and who is allowed to have a personality and story of her own. Although there is a romance (with Vijay Devarakonda in a very bad wig), it’s very much part of Vani’s own story and important mainly as a way for her to assert her independence from her father’s plans.

There is a plethora of other actors who appear in cameo roles as various screen legends of the time. Just a few are Mohan Babu as S.V. Ranga Rao, Prakash Raj as director/producer Aluri Chakrapani and Krish appearing as K.V. Reddy. It’s a real who’s who of Telugu/Tamil cinema of the time and I was inspired to read up on some of these directors and producers whose names I recognised when I left the cinema. Mickey J. Meyer’s music fits the film perfectly too and Dani Sanchez-Lopez does an excellent job with the cinematography. The effects team have managed to recreate Chennai in the fifties and the costume department deserve special mention for the wonderful outfits worn by Keerthy and Dulquer. The end credits juxtapose shots of Savitri with those of Keerthy in the same film role and the resemblance really is astonishing.

Overall there is fantastic attention to detail for both the scenes in the early eighties and Chennai in the fifties that ensure the film feels authentic, although I did sympathise with Samantha and her selection of ruffled shirts and long skirts. Everything about the film seems to have been well researched and the sets dressed to add plenty of authentic flavour. Including the film segments in black and white also adds to the whole period feel of the film and emphasises just how much impact Savitri had at the time. I also have to comment on the excellent subtitles by Rekhs that ensured the drama of each scene was well conveyed. After the last few Telugu films I’ve watched where literal translations have made a mockery of important scenes it is such a relief to have proper idiomatic English that makes sense and doesn’t detract from the dialogue. Until I can learn Telugu (a vain hope given my lack of success with Tamil) Rekhs subtitles are the next best thing to understanding the dialogue myself and I always cheer when I see ‘Subtitles by Rekhs’ appear on screen.

Mahanati is an excellent dramatisation of the life of one of South India’s best known and well-loved actors. I don’t know enough about the details of Savitri’s history to comment on its accuracy but from all I have read, Nag Ashwin has captured the essence of Savitri’s story while Keerthy Suresh has brought her memory to vivid life. It’s ultimately a sad story but also a lovely tribute to Savitri and a reminder of what a wonderful actor she was. Mahanati is a real treat for fans of both classic and contemporary Telugu cinema – don’t miss it!

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Kammatipaadam

Kammatipaadam

Rajeev Ravi’s 2016 film Kammatipaadam is a dark thriller that tells the story of an ex-gang member’s search for his estranged best friend, who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. It’s also a stark social commentary, as the film documents the urbanisation of a rural area and shows how poor farmers were forced out to make way for high rises and shopping malls for the rich. P. Balachandran’s screenplay explores the violent world of the gangs and the harsh realities of life for the marginalised poor while adding mystery and suspense with the search for the missing Ganga. Although Dulquer Salmaan is excellent in the lead role, the film really belongs to Vinayakan and Manikandan Achari who are both outstanding as the missing Ganga and his gangster brother Balan. While the film is overlong at almost 3 hours, this is an excellent slice of gangster life, Kerala style, and impresses with a realistic, brutal storyline and gritty memorable characters.

The film starts with an injured middle-aged Krishnan (Dulquer Salmaan) flagging down a bus somewhere in Kerala. In a series of flashbacks, intercut with current events, he remembers his childhood and his life as a young man in the fields of Kammatipaadam before they vanished under the high-rises of Kochi. Krishnan and Ganga’s friendship is gradually revealed in an intricate and detailed story, painting a vivid picture of life for the poorest and most marginalised members of society, but also describing a rich and deep friendship that is enough to draw Krishnan from his settled life in Mumbai back to the dangers of his youth.

The scenes describing Krishnan’s early life are detailed and set the scene to explain why later, despite everything that has happened between them, Krishnan still responds to Ganga’s call for help. When Krishnan’s father (P. Balachandran) moves the family to Kammatipaadam, young Krishnan and Ganga become inseparable friends despite their different backgrounds – Ganga comes from a Dalit family, while Krishnan’s family are middle class and generally appear better off. However, caste is no barrier to the two boys and although Krishna’s older sister (Muthumani) seems appalled by the friendship, Krishnan’s father doesn’t seem to have any real issues with his son’s relationship with the local Dalit community. Ultimately though, it’s Ganga whose influence takes Krishnan away from his family and leads him into a life of crime.

As children, the boys witness a brutal killing when Ganga’s elder brother Balan (Manikandan R Achari) attempts to murder a local thug. This seems to set them on the path of rowdyism and as they grow older, they become part of Balan’s gang, doing odd jobs and fighting as required. What makes this part of the film so watchable is the persona of Balan. He’s charismatic and outspoken with a larger than life personality and an almost theatrical approach to defending his place in the local underworld. There is an awesome fight scene outside a movie theatre where Balan fights everyone before leaping up on a car to sell movie tickets – making his entire performance a brash advertising stunt as well as driving away his rivals in the business!

Balan runs an illegal alcohol business with local entrepreneur Ashan aka Surendran (Anil Nedumangad) Both Ganga and Krishnan eagerly join in with Krishnan acting as a driver for the smugglers. However not everyone is a fan of Balan’s style and Johnny (Shine Tom Chacko), a rival for the smuggling trade, sets out to bring Balan and his gang down.

While all this is going on there is another rivalry developing closer to home. Almost since their first meeting, Krishnan and Anitha (Shaun Romy) have fallen in love, but Ganga expects to marry his cousin and resents her attachment to Krishnan. Ganga’s path seems easier after Krishnan is sent to jail for attacking a police officer, but this is only a temporary hiccup and the two reconnect on Krishnan’s release. Dulquher and Shaun Romy have good chemistry at the start, but it’s the change to their relationship when they meet again years later that really impresses. Anitha reveals her resentment at the way Krishnan and Ganga treated her as a commodity while Krishnan has to deal with his memories and regrets. Unfortunately, Rajeev Ravi doesn’t go back to this part of Krishnan’s story, so we’re left to wonder what will become of Anitha who seems to be the loser in every respect.

Balan and his gang act as enforcers, and one of their jobs is to evict farmers from areas where the developers want to build. They don’t even seem to notice when their own land starts to be fenced off, but when Balan’s grandfather objects to his family being involved in pushing other Dalits off the land, Balan sees the error of his ways and decides to ‘retire’ from his life of crime. Balan has also become married to Rosamma (Amalda Liz)) but before he can settle down, Balan is killed and Ganga blames his childhood friend for his brother’s death. This is the final straw for Ganga and it leads to the estrangement between the two men.

However, when he is in trouble, Ganga calls his old friend, sparking Krishnan’s return to Kammatipaadam to find out what has happened.  As Krishnan searches for Ganga he is forced to face his past and come to terms with the bleakness of his friend’s life after Balan’s death. While members of the gang like Majeed (Vijay Kumar) have prospered, Ganga is still living in the past and involved in the seedy underbelly of Ernakulam. The mystery deepens when Krishnan himself is attacked and it seems as if no-one else wants to know what has happened to Ganga.

Kammatipaadam is a study of characters and each is so realistic and well-drawn that it’s easy to become involved in their lives and care about what happens to them. The film spans roughly thirty years and I was amazed at how successfully Dulquer shows his character’s aging in his mannerisms, gait and stance. As a young man, he is arrogant and cocky, with a confidence that shows in his walk and his dialogues. But when he returns to Kammatipaadam, he’s older, moves more slowly and stiffly and to some degree, thinks before he speaks. He really gets into the heart of Krishnan and his friendship with Ganga comes alive onscreen, while the small glances and covert looks are enough to convey the entirety of his romance with Anitha. However as good as Dulquer is, he is equalled by Vinayakan who puts his heart and soul into his portrayal of Ganga. Here there is loyalty and devotion. Here too, a poor man who makes his living exploiting other poor men and pisses away the profit with his drinking problem. Manikandan R Achari is also superb as Balan with his loud brash exterior hiding a man capable of greater understanding but without the wherewithal to allow his dreams free rein. These are the petty gangsters who so often make up the fodder in the big herocentric films, but this time the story is about them and their short and violent lives. The actors who portray the young Krishnan and Ganga are also excellent with Shalu Rahim in particular setting up Krishna very well for Dulquer Salmaan to smoothly take over as the character matures. But even the young kids at the start are fantastic, and again have all the same characteristics as their older selves.

The minor characters all have their own brief story arc that adds layers of complexity to the film. Krishnan’s father has his own issues, illustrated perfectly when he goes to pick up his son from prison but leaves empty-handed. Even Rosamma, Balan’s wife and surely an inconsequential character in most other gangster films, has a greater role to play than expected and turns out to be a better gangster than her husband or her brother-in-law. The story of Ganga’s disappearance and Krishnan’s search is simply the top layer that sits over the excellent character studies and underlying thread of the exploitation and eviction of the Dalits. The film also looks amazing, with excellent cinematography from Madhu Neelakantan although I would expect nothing less from Rajeev Ravi given his own work as a cinematographer in Hindi cinema. The songs too are interesting, with references to the plight of the Dalits and their lack of a permanent and safe place to live while Krishna Kumar’s background score is unobtrusive but effective in adding to the overall richness of the film.

However all of this depth of characterisation and attention to detail comes with a price. The film is overlong and does drag in places, particularly in the second half. A fight scene in the prison and one in a bus station are overly drawn out and the build up to the final scene is rather indulgent. Still, the film succeeds at drawing a picture of the violent and desperate side of life as a small time gangster, and the brilliant performances and characterisations ensure that Kammatipaadam is a film that stays with you long after the end credits roll. Fascinating, thought-provoking and a lesson in the birth of Kochi all in one – 4 stars.

Kali (2016)

Kali

I’ve been looking forward to the combination of Dulquer Salmaan and Sai Pallavi onscreen in Sameer Thahir’s Kali, and thankfully they don’t disappoint. It’s an interesting film too, with a simple but effective screenplay from Rajesh Gopinadhan, following the story of a young man who cannot control his temper and the unexpected consequences of one of his episodes of rage. The first half sets the scene for a compelling thriller in the second half and with excellent performances from all the actors, Kali is definitely well worth a watch.

The film starts with a violent fight at a roadside restaurant. It’s beautifully choreographed and includes the displeasure of the restaurant’s resident cat whose meal is disrupted by the conflict. The snarling cat adds a touch of wildness and lawlessness to the fight that’s echoed later on in the film when the action returns to the restaurant. The short but vicious opening also sets the scene for another fight, although this one is less physical but equally damaging in its own way.

Siddharth (Dulquer Salmaan) is a man with a very short fuse and the simplest of things makes him lose his temper. After the fight at the restaurant, the next round is between Siddharth and his wife Anjali (Sai Pallavi). Anjali is seen leaving their house in tears and carrying a suitcase, while inside Siddharth is angrily throwing objects at the wall. It’s a scene of domestic life that rings true, particularly since Anjali isn’t staying around to accept any abuse and sensibly heads for the door. However it’s late at night and Siddharth at least doesn’t leave his wife walking down the road by herself, managing to pick her up in their car even though he’s still clearly very angry indeed.

The film moves into flashback to show how Siddharth has always been quick to lose his temper, even as a child, and how the years haven’t mellowed his reactions at all. Throughout his time as a student and even during job interviews, Siddharth shows no patience and absolutely no control over his angry reactions. He’s a man who reacts first and rarely thinks about the consequences of his behaviour. It seems strange that Anjali does stick with him and it’s hard to believe that Siddhartha hasn’t had any previous problems as a result of his behaviour. No-one ever seems to react badly to his outbursts for example. What’s good about the flashback though is that there is little about the love story between Siddharth and Anjali. Their romance is simply a fact, and the film instead shows Anjali’s struggle to cope with Siddharth’s temper outbursts and her attempts to keep him on an even keel. Many of the situations are drawn from routine day-to-day hassles and while Siddharth’s irritation is understandable it’s his inability to control his reactions that make him such a difficult person to deal with.

There is a kinder side to Siddharth too though, and he’s not all rage and temper. He does make some attempt to keep his temper and tries to control his frustration with his bank customers using a stress ball Anjali gives him, with at least some partial success. However he has an incredibly irritating colleague in Prakashan (Soubin Shahir) who is deliberately provocative and obnoxious, although Siddharth does his best to ignore him as much as possible. Dulquer Salmaan and Sai Pallavi have excellent chemistry in their scenes together which makes their relationship believable. It’s easy to see why Anjali stays with Siddharth despite his anger management issues – the two are clearly in love and outside of his temper tantrums Siddharth is a caring and attentive husband. I love the end of this song where Anjali dances with Siddharth in their living room. It seems very natural and spontaneous, plus Sai Pallavi is simply gorgeous in that red sari!

The film steps up the pace in the second half when Siddharth and Anjali find themselves in a frightening situation as a result of Siddharth losing his temper with truck driver Chakkara (Chemban Vinod Jose) on the road. The couple end up at the restaurant seen in the opening scene of the film where Siddharth’s anger puts him and Anjali in real danger and Siddharth has to curb his natural aggression to try to ensure their safety. The tension rises steadily as the situation escalates further out of control and both Gireesh Gangadharan’s cinematography and Gopi Sundar’s music work well to add further pressure.

Dulquer Salmaan does a fantastic job of conveying his rage without going too far and over dramatising his outbursts of temper. Despite his ever-present anger he manages to make Siddhartha at least a partially appealing character  and I even found myself in sympathy with him as I was just annoyed by Prakashan and the bratty child that visited Siddharth’s house! Dulquer also is excellent in the latter half of the film and allows his inner struggle to show clearly on his face as he deals with the staff and clientele at the restaurant. It’s another brilliant performance and despite the negative tones I thoroughly enjoyed his characterisation here.

After her critically acclaimed début in Premam, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Sai Pallavai but she puts in another fantastic performance in Kali.  Her frustration and disappointment with her husband come across beautifully and she gets the level of embarrassment and distress just right when Siddharth loses his temper in public.  On top of all that she still manages to have great chemistry with her co-star and makes their relationship believable too. She’s just as good in the second half and her terror and helplessness are a major factor in maintaining the tension in the latter part of the film.

The support cast are also uniformly good with Vinayakan and Chemban Vinod Jose perfectly cast as the main villains of the story. They effortlessly exude menace and both have great evil grins and good use of their expressions to help increase the tension every time they appear onscreen. Soubin Shahir is incredibly annoying as fellow bank employee Prakashan and as such manages to win Siddharth some sympathy for having to deal with such an idiot on a day-to-day basis! However thankfully Prakashan is never too over the top and Soubin Shahir doesn’t just play his character for laughs but actually makes him a more plausible character than expected.

Kali is a film of two halves. The first sets up the situation for the rest of the movie, and concentrates on the personality of Siddharth and his relationship with Anjali. It’s a well constructed observation of human interactions and the painful cost of unreasoning rage and unsociable behaviour. The second half on the other hand is an out-and-out thriller where the characters are more broadly drawn and the action tense and frightening. And yet, despite the different pace in the first and second halves the film works well as a whole story and makes for an enthralling two hours of cinema. Highly recommended.