Mrugaraju

Gunasekhar’s film is a remake of the Ghost and the Darkness – but with Mega Heroics instead of Val Kilmer grimacing. Having seen both (not very good) films, this is actually my pick of the bunch. It makes no sense, the sound team may have been drunk, and everyone forgets about the lion far more than they should. But Simran and Chiranjeevi are good, the songs are fun, and it just never lets anything (particularly geography) get in the way.

Aishwarya (Simran) volunteers to take over a bridge building project that has come to a standstill following a number of lion attacks. Raju (Chiranjeevi) is the legendary forest guide and sharpshooter hired to keep the workers safe. Eventually we find out that Raju and Aishwarya had been married and that sparks a long lion-free flashback to explain their back story. Aishwarya thinks he deserted her knowing she was knocked up and he can’t believe he has a kid (in a happy way). So he sings a sad little song that has the effect of luring his daughter out into the night and towards almost certain death. Will they get back together? Will the lion kill again? Will anyone ever finish that bridge?

I liked that Aishwarya started out as a practical professional woman. Her character is on the receiving end of a lot of unfortunate comedy uncle buffoonery and sexist remarks from Raju. Simran plays Aishwarya as pleasant but firm, and she wasn’t afraid of confrontation. She realised her fiancé Vicky was an arse and at her own engagement ceremony, strode down the aisle and asked Raju to marry her. Good move! But because you can’t have The Heroine on an equal footing with The Hero, many of her skills failed to manifest at crucial times. And her lion catching plan is in MS Paint. I don’t think anyone on the crew consulted an engineer about what good construction looked like (surely half the crew WERE engineers?). I’m not sure about Aishwarya wearing beaded chiffon sarees around camp either, but each to their own. She has nice chemistry with Chiranjeevi and does her best with the stupid screenplay.

Raju is a fairly straightforward good guy character but Chiru’s acting chops drew out the emotional tension in some of his scenes with Simran. Of course he could beat up packs of drug dealers with one hand behind his back, poachers better beware, and he always knows best. But for a renowned hunter he was frankly hopeless. They come up with a plan to have Rajanna up on a platform, with a baboon tied to a tree nearby as bait. Aishwarya startled an eagle which knocked Raju to the ground, just as the lion shows up. I really wish they’d watched a proper wildlife doco or two. He was too chatty and smoked incessantly so ensured the lions knew exactly where he was, he dropped his gun ALL THE TIME (a strap? Did anyone think of a strap?), seemed constantly surprised by animal behaviour, and his clever plans resulted in several unnecessary deaths. He apparently had a no-kill policy which is laudable, but then he wore so many animal teeth I had to wonder. The action scenes range from standard fights to more complex stunts and Chiru throws himself into it all with vim and vigour (and a bit of overacting).

Chiru really shines in the songs, which is hardly a surprise, and they are highlights of this inconsistent adaptation. It was odd but not unpleasant hearing Udit Narayan sing for him in Aley Ley Aley Ley as I tend to associate his voice with SRK. And yes, Chiru provided the vocals for Chai Chai in a spirited Sprechgesang.

Nagendra Babu is a tribal man supervising the villagers work. He and Raju have a lion claw type gesture in place of a bro fist. At one moment that was supposed to be emotional I was shouting “He’s gonna do the hands” and he did and I laughed and then I felt bad but hey…It’s like lots of things in this film, under thought and over used. But I always like seeing Naga Babu as a good guy sidekick. I just wish he didn’t have to die so often.

Prakash Raj and Kovai Sarala are Raju’s befeathered parents. They love their boy and have faith in their tribe’s way of life. And they ham it up at every opportunity. Anyone who can overact when their character is dead really needs to take look at themselves. But they’re not alone. Brahmi is a Hindi speaking doofus who adds nothing. MS Narayana dressed up as a bear to scare Aishwarya, only to have a real (man in a suit) bear drag him away with, er, romantic intent…Jeez. I understand the traditional requirement of a comedy track but it doesn’t sit well against what could have been a suspenseful action oriented story.

Where this bridge is located is debatable. While all the people speak Telugu, the government departments seem to be Indian, and the place names are Indian there is a sizeable population of giraffes, along with a few rhinos and those pesky lions. The “tribal” people don’t help with narrowing down the continent either. The cultural appropriation extended to Australia as Raju also wielded a very sharp edged boomerang. There is so much geographic inconsistency – are they in a jungle or grassy plains, where did those mountains come from and why are they so easy for a toddler to climb up and back down again…

The lions were very diverting. Due to shonky CGI and changing perspectives they sometimes appeared to be hippo sized, then sometimes like a small terrier. Seeing what looked like a tiny lion speeding by with galloping pony sound effects – hilarious. I also liked the lion strolling along a log made to look like it was climbing a tree. Very 1960’s Batman. There were some stuffed lions too. I think I paid more attention to the lions than most people in the film. Aishwarya spends a lot of time wandering around the long grass looking picturesque and edible, and Raju spends more time singing motivational songs than actually being on task.

I was also reunited with an old friend – the jungle bunny. Aishwarya nearly shoots a fluffy white rabbit thinking it is a lion, but it fakes death until revived by Chiru breathing on it. And then in what may be an act of rabbit revenge, local glamour girl Sivangi (Sanghavi) chases a fluffy white bunny that leads her into the lions’ den; a cave filled with skulls and bones. I reckon either the rabbits are in cahoots with the lions or they are the real evil masterminds.

Mruga Raju is not a very good film, Gunasehar lacked focus and the execution is clumsy. But Chiru is very appealing (once Raju eases off the sexist BS), and Simran is a good partner. It plays a lot better with judicious use of the FF button, but the songs are worth a watch. 3 stars!

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Rudhramadevi (2015)

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If Rudhramadevi had been made in 1956 I’d have loved it, no question. But Gunasekhar struggles to realise his grand vision and the ripping story drags at times. The main cast give their all, but they can’t compensate for some poor directorial decisions and sloppy execution.

The first thing that hit me was the VFX. I thought it was maybe a deliberate stylistic choice as there are animated montages that look like a childs picture book. But it is just shonky quality, used too liberally, and with poor judgement. At least it distracted me from wondering what Marco Polo’s stuck on beard was made of. And why Marco Polo was in the film.

The story is so interesting this should have almost written itself. A girl is raised as a boy and keeps up the pretence to protect her kingdom for as long as she can. But Gunasekhar spends far too much time with the various enemies and uses loads of clunky “As you know Bob” exposition. I felt that there were some holes in the film and Gunasekhar was trying to paper over those gaps with other techniques including a Mega voiceover and a peasant who announced every new character with bio as well as voicing the people’s dissatisfaction with their rulers.

Anushka owns every frame she is in. She adjusts her posture and facial muscles so there is a clear distinction between Rudradeva and Rudhramadevi and is convincingly commanding. She has some weird darkening makeup on as a boy, but it does allow her to look stunningly radiant when she girls up.

Her closest female friends are Nithya Menen as her wife Muktamba and Catherine Tresa as The Other One Who doesn’t Wear Much, and there is a lightness and ease in the way Anushka moves as she drops the pretence and heavy armour undershirt to dance in the “Yay! I’m a girl” numbers. She did her damnedest in the tandav but while her expressions told a powerful story, her dancing was not as compelling. Rudhramadevi used Veerabhadra’s feelings for her to get him back on task, but she evinced far more concern about Muktamba’s reaction and wellbeing. That ruthlessness and emotional intelligence wasn’t really explored and I felt the film needed to reveal how she ruled, not just show a sequence of events.

 

I put that clip in just for some shirtless Rana. He looks so chuffed when he is prancing almost in time.

Rudramadevi-Rana Anushka

I knew a “Zorro” moment was nigh when Rudradeva wore a blue tunic done up with pink princess ribbons, and the gender reveal is a bit ho-hum. Veerabhadra took the whole “Dude, you’re not a dude” revelation quite well, all things considered. There is little sexual chemistry between Rudhramadevi and Veerabhadra, but the actors have a nice rapport, like childhood friends. I enjoyed moments like when Rana playfully tweaked Anushka’s nose as he said goodbye. While the writing skimmed the surface of characters emotional lives, the actors added their own flavour.

Gona Ganna Reddy (Bunny) and his horse seem to have ridden in from a different film; something more gothic perhaps or even a KPop music video (Jaejoong’s stylist may be moonlighting as a Telugu horse costume designer).  Bunny plays his character as unrelentingly dour and with one facial expression, but his one liners got the audience cheering. And he rarely blinks. It’s intense and unsettling after a while.

Rudrama Devi Posters

The support cast is huge. Hari Hara Devudu (Suman) and Murari Devudu (Aditya) are the Statler and Waldorf of villains. They sit back and critique everyone else but rarely do anything themselves, unless you count letting their allies die horrible deaths. Their brother Naga Devudu (Baba Sehgal) shows commendable willingness to really go for the snake theme. Nithya Menen is underutilized as Muktamba. I enjoyed her scenes with Anushka and thought her decision to respect the sacrifice and say nothing was interesting. This contrasted with the shouty peasants who just flat out refused to accept a woman, despite a rousing Prakash Raj girl power speech. Prakash Raj is in good form as Shiva Devaiah, the mastermind of the scheme that sees Rudhramadevi raised as the boy Rudradeva. Villain Mahadeva (Vikramjeet Virk) spends most of the film prancing atop a phallic tower made of polystyrene. Amusing, but you know a great hero or heroine deserves a genuinely scary bad guy and he is not the real deal no matter how many people he kills out of spite. Hamsa Nandini is slinky and duplicitous, the Bond girl of courtly spies.

Gunasekhar’s massed set pieces lack richness. If you arrange a formation of extras with one or two carefully out of position people for randomness, but then use that same formation scores of times over it ends up looking ridiculous with the pattern repetition of those supposedly random bodies. A critical battle scene started with a cool idea – one army emerging in a serpent formation as their opponents attacked in an eagle formation. But it went on forever and looked far too fake. I was reminded of the similar but excellent lotus and arrow scene in Magadheera.

One of the few actors I could imagine would happily rappel down a structure (possibly without even checking there was a rope), Bunny was plagued with dodgy wire work. Anushka was also caught so that her feet didn’t quite hit the ground or was frozen in awkward and unconvincing poses in midair. Maybe it was supposed to look good in 3D but I can’t imagine it would. And too many fight scenes and chases were sped up to slapstick comedy pace.

There is abundant weird CGI, possibly a workaround for the 3D version, although I should have remembered the effects in Okkadu. For example, when a drawbridge is being lowered they faked the cogs and ropes too which you’d think would be doable and cheaper for real. The climax scene as Rudhramadevi and elephant bring doom upon her enemies should be thrilling but it is just opportunity to crank up the bad CGI. The use of CGI elephants seemed unnecessarily frequent especially when in many scenes there was no obvious risk of physical harm to an animal – why not use a real one? And there seemed to be a bit of tusk whitening done in post production that was distractingly odd.

A big shoutout to the helmet and armour department. No design was too silly or impractical for them to try. I really wish I could find a picture of Bunny’s Glomesh helmet from the final battle, but you will just have to make do with Rana’s special dressing up armour.

Despite the negatives I really appreciate seeing Anushka as the lead with so much screen time in an awesome story. Bunny and Rana bring more interest to their characters than the screenplay demands. I would have liked to see more relationship development generally, and especially between the ladies given the story is of a woman pretending to be a man. I really wish the film had been better executed as I can see what it might have been, and the gap between what was delivered and that potential is frustrating.

 

Okkadu

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Gunasekhar’s 2003 film Okkadu is a beautifully balanced masala film, full of action and drama with a splash of romance and a dash of humour. Set mostly in Hyderabad’s old city, there is a strong sense of place and community and some lovely visuals. Despite being almost 3 hours long, the pace is just right and the story canters along with barely a pause. The first 20 minutes or so is almost perfection, introducing the hero and establishing his character before the real story even starts and with minimal dialogue.

Ajay (Mahesh Babu) is an academic underachiever but excels at kabbadi. He hangs out with his friends and team mates, and has a strong sense of justice if not a strong regard for rules and laws. Seeing a damsel in distress (Bhumika Chawla as Swapna), Ajay must help. And so he draws the ire of crazy baddie Obul Reddy (Prakash Raj) who intends to marry Swapna. Fleeing back to Hyderabad, Ajay tries to help Swapna leave India and also win his tournament.

This is another of those songs that could have been shot by the Hyderabad Tourism Commission – it makes the city look so enticing and diverse. I always enjoy watching Mahesh attempt classical influenced choreography. There is an air of determination and faint panic, possibly the result of a dance teacher yelling ‘Shoulders down, elbows up, stop flopping those elbows around, now double time double time double time! Is it paining? Good, then you’re doing it right’. That clip also contains a bit of Maheshian freestyling. No matter how cool a film hero may look, he’s only ever a breath away from uncle dancing.

Okkadu-city viewOkkadu-uncle dancing

Ajay is a great role for Mahesh. He is heroic in that he does what he sees as right, but he doesn’t have the usual array of super skills. He is just a guy who happens to be handy in a fight. He is a well rounded character, and his family and friends were very much part of Ajay’s life. Announced as a Krishna like figure in his first song, Mahesh delivers a lighthearted and fun performance but switches on the intensity when Ajay is on the warpath. While Ajay has Swapna hidden (in his room at home), he does remember to feed her and give her access to a bathroom and he remembers her birthday. So he is thoughtful but he does throw his weight around as all filmi boys do, and there is a slap that sparked a bit of debate between me and The Mahesh Fan. She was not a fan of the slap. I say that anyone who had to put up with Swapna and her poor decision making for so long would not be human if they didn’t want to slap her.

Okkadu-birthday suitOkkadu-not even close

No. But for for those who pay attention to such things, there is a lot of elbow on display in Okkadu.

Prakash Raj makes Obul Reddy one of my favourite filmi villains. He is so creepy and wrong, but believes he can charm Swapna despite having killed her two brothers.

Okkadu-Flirting 1Okkadu-Flirting 2

His obsession with Swapna extends to Ajay, the man standing between him and his love. Prakash Raj plays the romantic lovey-dovey dialogue with a demented flirtatiousness and like Mahesh, can bring the dark side when needed. While his antics were laughable, there was a determination that kept him from seeming a laughing stock. His fighting style was needlessly flamboyant yet got results, much like the character.

Okkadu-the planOkkadu-Telangana Sakuntala

There are even moments of pity for the bad guy as his mother (the awesomely over the top Telangana Shakuntala) clearly doesn’t think he is always manly or bad enough.

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Almost everything Swapna (Bhumika Chawla) does is stupid. She finally seems to develop a bit of a brain towards the end of the film, her coolness unsettling Obul Reddy (and his rapey plans). But that confidence seemed more to be borrowed from Ajay than due to any of her own qualities. I find Bhumika an indifferent actress and both of her facial expressions irritate me. This isn’t a challenging role but I would have liked to see someone who could add a bit more nuance to their snivelling.

Swapna did get a very pretty introductory song, and I could ignore Bhumika and concentrate on the tiny birds fastened to the set (and her) and the lovely scenery.

Mani Sharma’s soundtrack and songs work so well in Okkadu. The songs are mostly nicely picturised and generally help the story or character development to emerge. And there is a lot of dancing so that is a plus in my book. Gunasekhar makes good use of the background score and ambient noise from the scenes, with the tempo of street sounds heightening the intensity of the action. Even Obul Reddy gets a theme that is memorable and perfectly daft. The fight scenes are energetic but not too gory and I find them very entertaining. There are some nice visual set pieces that mirror other events or highlight the difference in characters too.

The old chestnut of justice vs. what is legal was given a slightly different treatment here. The ever authoritarian Mukesh Rishi plays Ajay’s dad, a senior policeman. He is out to capture a kidnapper, while his son is out to save Swapna. The priorities and conflict are clearly shown but not in too heavy handed a manner. Political corruption and the lack of independence of the police force are also shown up but it almost happens in passing, with little tub thumping about causes or society.

Okkadu-the good sonOkkadu-Overacting

The ensemble scenes are particularly good. Ajay’s mum and sister (Geetha and Baby Niharika) are less than reverent towards the son of the household and I liked their teasing banter. Ajay had a large group of friends and team mates and at critical times they stepped in to help him and give him information he needed to carry out his plans. I even laughed at some of the comedy dialogues, more because of the excellent delivery than the lines, but it is unusual for me not to look for the remote when I spy a comedy uncle.

Okkadu has it all without having too much of anything. Gunasekhar directs another excellent performance from Mahesh and the balance of serious and silly is bang on. Full on entertainment that won’t leave you feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck. 4 ½ stars! (deduction for Bhumika and her woeful expressions of woefulness and some dodgy CGI).