Donga (1985)

It’s 1985, one of the better hairstyle eras for Chiranjeevi, and director A Kodandarami Reddy is at the wheel with Chakravarthy’s funky soundtrack blaring. Donga is energetic, pure mass, and spits on the grave of anyone who ever said “less is more”.

Phani (Chiranjeevi) is a Robin Hood kind of thief who steals from the rich and pays off the debts of the poor. Phani’s father Chandrasekhar died of a filmi heart attack as a result of Kodandaramayya’s (Rao Gopal Rao) chicanery. Kodandaramayya is still going strong with his thieving and extortion schemes and has a slimy sidekick in Anjaneyulu (Gollapudi Maruthi Rao) and a toadying servant Rama Subbaiah (Allu Ramalingaiah) plus a resident goon. As a good Telugu film hero, Phani is intent on avenging his family and getting his sister married well. He has a somewhat useful friend or sidekick in Ranga (Nutan Prasad) too. Phani falls for Kodandaramayya’s daughter Manjulatha (Radha) so you know the path to his revenge will be full of complications and spontaneous dance breaks. And that’s without the competition for apparently the only eligible man in town, Anjanayeulu’s son Rajesh (Raja).

Donga is full of action packed set pieces as Phani tricks and thieves his way across town. The fights are full of “Karate”, back flips, slo mo leaping, spin kicks and you name it. One of the things I love most about Chiru is that he just goes for it. It might be ridiculous, the outfits might be insane, but he does his best to stick that landing every time. Phani uses brains as well as brawn, phoning in a tip about undeclared cash to get an office raided by the tax department, and generally being smarter than the bad guys. I found this next bit a little confusing with no subtitles but I think Tax officer R Viswanath (Sridhar) wants to get his sister married well and needs money for her dowry. In the tangled finances in this small filmi world he ends up being cheated by Kodandaramayya who is robbed by Phani, compounding the problem of paying the debt. R Viswanath is found dead and once Phani realises what had happened with the money, that just adds to his drive for revenge.

Phani is of course irresistible to women. I don’t know anyone else who could rock the knitted singlet like he does, so he must have that je ne sais quoi. He steals Manjulatha’s little red car and then sets up a meeting to hand it back. For reasons that are not entirely clear but yet seem to make sense to Phani, he pranks her with this Thriller-iffic dance. Pump the volume up, warm up to avoid injury, move the furniture back a bit further than you think you need to (those lunge slides need some room) and have a go at this!

From the perspective of anywhere but 1985 Telugu film that is so bad it’s awesome. What were they thinking? “We’ve done a lot of Jackie Chan stuff so let’s mix it up a bit…Bond? No, done that to death. Death…Death. I know!” But it worked, she succumbed despite her father’s disapproval.

Radha and Chiru both look like they’re having fun with the daggy choreography. And Radha gets to do more than just sit and look pretty. The costume department really don’t do her many favours but she must have had a very high synthetic fabric tolerance. Manjulatha is often more articulate and decisive than I expected. She is harassed by a creep at the cinema so she belts him and tells him off. It was satisfying although clearly a punchline for a “women are bitches” joke. Despite the occasional toddler tantrum, she seems to make a lot of her own decisions and doesn’t seem to be a bad person despite her wealth and privilege.

Her dad spots her frolicking with Phani and maybe it is the enthusiastic prancing or that she starts wearing sarees, but he senses trouble and warns her off the mystery man. After the usual misunderstanding, tearful argument, unfortunate slapping incident, and some quality time with Phani’s mother, the deal is pretty well sealed. And Phani missed no opportunity to torment Kodandaramayya by showing off his relationship.

Phani goes to see Anajaneyulu but he has no luck in getting Viswanath’s debt reduced, so he says he will pay it all back himself. And goes to work in a quarry, maybe just because Chiru always wanted to try using a kanga. I would have thought stealing the money would be more practical given his skillset but whatever. Kodandaramayya sets up a cross country motorcycle race with significant prize money – and a great opportunity for his goons to erase Phani who is resplendent in canary yellow. Phani takes the dangerous job of laying explosives but the goon I call Coconut Machete tries to sabotage him. Somehow in all the biffo Phani realises that Kodandaramayya may have had more to do with Viswanath’s death than suspected. And in flashback Coconut Machete reveals it was not a suicide. BASTARDS! So of course Phani enters a dance competition and competes against Silk Smitha.

Look at him go! I love these bedazzled wrist guards and gaiters.

Phani is framed for murdering Silk, which is ridiculous. He’d already killed her on the dance floor. He goes on the run and it is on for young and old. I loved the car stunts and the fights, but right at the end the horse stunts, as usual, made me feel sick. What happens in the end? Does Phani triumph? You know the what, but the how is what matters!

Peak Chiru. Quality Radha.  Total mass. 4 stars!

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Gudachari No. 1 (1983)

Goodachari No 1-title

 

Special agent Kumar (who has a liking for statement lamps) is sent to investigate a Top Secret thing. He is killed, takes a very long time to die (from being beaten, shot, stabbed and overacting), and his wife is shocked into a coma after hiding the secret evidence.

His bestie Vijay (Chiranjeevi), AKA Number 1, is sent to investigate and arrives in a cloud of ladies. A gang of rowdies with evil laughs and nice manners try to abduct him en route to town. Chiru is a nattily dressed beige blur as he kicks the bejesus out of them. Then they politely submit to questioning, only to be mown down by gunfire. “Oh My Goodness” says Vijay. “WTF?” said I.

The things he eventually looks in to include, but are not limited to: a deadly pickle factory, Silk Smitha, poison tipped gloves, a fake priest, golden Cybermen in fancy Ye Olden Robot outfits, and a super villain with gold teeth. “WTF?” said I.

Of course Vijay needs to have his wits and his fists of fury ever at the ready. But he also needs love. He meets Latha (Radhika) at the airport as she is in mid tantrum. She seems unimpressed so he tells her he is a professional killer and to keep her mouth shut, oh and to keep the flower he gave her. Then sits next to her on the flight and tells her he is actually an international hijacker. But it becomes evident that Vijay is a lonely character who may not know how to interact with people who are not dead, trying to kill him, or trying to shag him. He doesn’t even have a comedy sidekick of his own. He eventually declares his affection, although Latha demurs. So he says if I can throw this grape into your mouth it proves you love me. Subtitles could probably only make that scene worse. “No really, WTF?” said I.

Chiranjeevi is the obvious casting choice for a film that needs swag and a gleefully uninhibited enthusiasm for the arts of Dance and Mayhem. Vijay is formidable in everything but his romantic relationships, and Kodi Ramakrishna just kept throwing more and more crazy stuff into the mix. There is an abundance of pompous speeches, gadgetry, freecycled Bond scenes, silly disguises, and more, and Chiru takes it all in stride. Every time I thought surely they will run out of stuff, there was more stuff. And more Chiru.

That is not just a voyeuristic moment for viewers to perve at Chiranjeevi in booty shorts. No. That was A Clue that he may have yogic abilities that could come in handy if he were to be, oh let’s say, buried alive. It’s important to always be checking him out watching attentively.

Latha (Radhika) is an interesting character in some respects but Radhika could, and maybe did, play this kind of role in her sleep. Latha is largely sidelined in favour of robots and explosions, and the good old values of 1983 that insist a girl should apologise for causing a man to sexually harass her. A bit further down the track she actually enjoys the opportunity to get her mitts on Disguised Vijay even as she complains about the beastly foreigner who has taken up residence. But she is smart, she has the comedy sidekick (another punishment?) so she is ahead of the hero on that score, and she was investigating the self-proclaimed international criminal herself. She is also the villain’s niece (maybe) but she doesn’t seem to let that get in the way, and indeed uses that relationship to help smuggle Vijay in to the Pickle Plant of Pestilence.

Vijay is sent to stay in hideously disturbing room 111 at Hotel 7, and (Laila) Silk Smitha “introduces” herself. I did like his booby trapped suitcase and was kind of hoping it contained a snake. To summarise the scene, they get busy. But before she can, er, finish him off Vijay’s contact (Gollapudi Maruthi Rao) interrupts and Laila runs off to get ready for her next attempt.

But alas, Laila has but a brief moment in the limelight. Maybe it was payback for the completely unnecessary animal testing.

Govind Rao (Rao Gopal Rao) is the baddy, running his top secret chemical warfare facility in the guise of his pickle empire. The façade on the factory looks about as real as any of the trappings of his business.  But he does have serious pickle sales graphs and other business related stuff. Also – he is the father of the comedy sidekick/halfwit so the man had his very own, very real, problems.

One of his problems is a cranky boss. Supreme comes and goes standing up in a little boat, across a misty subterranean lake, rather like the Phantom of the Opera’s bookmaker. Where Govind Rao is organised and a bit unimaginative, Supreme really embraces the overly elaborate scheme, the signature look, and psychedelic lighting. And he certainly ignored key points on the Evil Overlord checklist.

The comedy is often sexist or racist, and quite distasteful but seems to occur only in short bursts. There is the way Vijay torments the woman he loves and thinks it is hilarious, the racial stereotypes, and a really bad bird related comedy interlude with a guy whose headdress contains traumatised and maybe dead budgies. It’s a relief to get back to the serious business of “which Bond film was that lifted from?” with a bit of “WTF?”

Goodachari No 1-Bambi and Thumper

Answer – It’s Bambi and Thumper! From Diamonds are Forever! And there is a coffin stunt from You Only Live Twice.

The gadgetry is quite something, and ranges from a simple dart in a wire loop made from an old coat-hanger, to full body robot costumes, and lots of coloured smoke bombs. They tried. They really really tried.

Chakravarthy’s songs are nothing outstanding but they do provide a less violent form of hijinks, and Chiranjeevi just goes for it.

You know you’re onto a winner when the DVD menu has Chiru in disguises. Goodachari No. 1 is uneven, and I’d fast forward through the alleged comedy on a rewatch, but what it lacks in sense it make up for with energy. See it for early peak Chiru and for the gleeful “that’ll do” approach to a DIY spy caper. 3 stars!

Inji Iddupazhagi

Inji Iddupazhagi-title

Ever since she was a little girl Sweety has been collecting fortune cards from a machine, all of them telling her that happy is beautiful, and goodness and a genuine smile will win the day.

Grown up Sweety (Anushka Shetty) still collects these fortunes, and believes that her value is more than the size of her thighs. Her mother Rajeshwari (Urvashi) wants to see her married off, and blames Sweety’s size for her single status. While Sweety remains resilient under family pressure, and rejects many an unwanted match, she does tire of all the BS. Sweety meets fitness freak Abhi (Arya) and while the pair turn down the proposed match, a friendship develops. Sweety realises she actually has feelings for him, but clueless Abhi chooses skinny model looking do-gooder Simran (Sonal Chauhan) as his girlfriend. Sweety knows she missed her chance, and starts to believe that if she slims down, cute boys will like her. When her friend Jyothi (Pavani Gangireddy) becomes seriously ill from treatment at the dodgy Size Zero clinic, Sweety takes on Satyanand (Prakash Raj), the clinic owner and nominal villain.

Sweety is a fantastic character and I am so happy Anushka took the risk and did this film. I also love that she didn’t go the fat suit route, and probably had to eat like a non-celebrity for months and months to get Sweety’s physique.

All too often the fat chick in films is socially inept, asexual, and a charity case – but Sweety is sexy, funny and confident.  She isn’t desperate to get married and will not pretend to be someone she isn’t just to please some bloke and his mother. She has some good friends, enjoys her work, loves food, and has an eye for a hot guy. She also has a rich fantasy life, a temper, she makes mistakes, and makes amends. I loved that family pressure all about looking better for boys did little to budge Sweety, but when she found her own motivation she was sensible and healthy in the changes in her lifestyle. And she never became a stick insect. I also love that this is a South Indian film that revolves around a woman and there is no revenge or rapeyness in the plot. It’s a really simple, engaging, character driven story and Prakash Kovelamudi and Kanika Dhillon give their great cast the material to bring it to life.

Arya is a bit of a weak link. He is very personable and looks good but I never got any emotional development from Abhi, and Anushka’s more nuanced performance overshadowed him. And also – Abhi is a bit of an idiot. Sonal Chauhan is a good pair for him as she is also adequate without being interesting as Simran.

Abhi did engineer the right of reply for Sweety to give her version of a foxy item, the direct retort to Size Zero Clinic’s skanky advertisement. I wish Anushka was a better dancer, but again I am so happy they just went for it. It isn’t all that long ago that Jayamalini and Jyothilaxmi were shaking it for all it was worth, but the trend towards downsizing female bodies makes Sweety’s sassy dance seem quite startling.

Prakash Raj is more of a sleazy used car salesman than true villain. He makes the most of his big speeches and I did like his dedication to himself as the brand and the brand as himself. Adivi Sesh is suitably puppy-eyed as smitten Shekhar, the nice rich man who falls for Sweety as she is. There are comedy uncles, but they actually more or less serve a purpose. And Master Bharath plays a decidedly not size zero young lad. Rao Ramesh makes a short appearance as Sweety’s dad who died while she was still a child. Impish Mouli Thatha (Gollapudi Maruti Rao) loves his granddaughter and is more likely to feed her a jalebi than make her run a lap of the park. Urvashi is note perfect as Sweety’s grumpy but loving and ultimately supportive mother. You can really see where Sweety gets her backbone from, and understand why they clash.

The film is quite fanciful but stays within my tolerance for whimsy – more like Chungking Express (which gets a name check) than Amelie levels of whimsy. It’s beautifully filmed and has a fairytale air in some scenes. The camera freezes some moments, and then explores the scene layer by layer. There’s a device of cheesy but sincere fortune cookie messages that Sweety writes, a nice extension of her fondness for the positive messages she collected for herself. And there was a nice pay it forward demonstrated with said fortune cookie. If I am being picky I have an issue with the choice of wafer as a stand-in for the fortune cookies as they are what one friend calls “povo wafers” – the cheap ones you get in rubbishy gift hampers. I am not as strongly opposed to the cylindrical wafer as she is, while I agree they’re a bit sad. But I digress.

In lieu of any of the traditional action elements, the film loads up on star cameos and a massive spin class with special effects. The film community gets their lycra on to support Sweety’s campaign against Size Zero. Rana is hilariously Hulk like, flexing as as his avatar goes all Bhallaladeva on his animated foes. Tamannah has her game face on and looks like she is set for days. Other familiar faces included Jiiva, Nagarjuna, Revathy and Kajal Aggarwal. All of this is juxtaposed with dodgy animation and effects and some excellent Prakash Raj scenery chewing. So that replaced the usual car explosions and dismemberings quite nicely.

I missed out on seeing Size Zero on its two (yes two!) shows in Melbourne, but luckily the Tamil version, Inji Iddupazhagi, is easily available online and with English subs. (Thanks SakhiSpeaks for the HeroTalkies tip! And you can read her review here.) I love this movie and hope it reaches a wide and appreciative audience. 4 1/2  stars!