Duvvada Jagannadham (2017)

In his latest release Harish Shankar sticks closely to the standard formula for Telugu hero-centric films, which makes Duvvada Jagannadham rather less exciting than it could have been. There is hardly any suspense and few surprises as the hero flexes his muscles, obliterates the bad guys and romances the heroine while recouping lost money for the victims of a property scam. What makes it watchable are the excellent performances from Allu Arjun, Rao Ramesh and Subbaraju who add life and energy to an otherwise pedestrian plot. The story might be plodding along, but the cast give it their all, and with many other veteran performers including Murali Sharma and Posani Krishna Murali, and some good songs, DJ ends up as a reasonable timepass.

The story opens with a young Duvvada Jagannadham Sastry picking up a gun and executing a gang of thugs who attack policeman Purushottham (Murali Sharma) in his local market. Not content with his body count so far, he then turns the gun on a suspected rapist in the police station and shoots him too. Bizarrely the police officer in question rapidly recovers from his previously incapacitating wound and then doesn’t bat an eyelid at the young multiple murderer, instead enlisting him as a vigilante in his never-ending war against crime. Because of course there is nothing abnormal about a young boy killing in cold blood (and also being a fantastic shot) – not in this film at any rate.

Moving quickly among to the present day and Duvvada Jagannadham (Allu Arjun), aka Sastry is a Brahmin priest who runs an all-vegetarian catering business in Vijayawada along with various members of his family. Sastry is devout, speaks in very precise Telugu and is passionate about his cooking, although he doesn’t take life too seriously as demonstrated by a recurring joke about using asafoetida in tamarind rice. Bunny is good here, particularly with the comedy scenes and dialogue, while the trio of Sastry, his father (Tanikella Bharani) and uncle (Chandramohan) make a good team as they feed the hungry hordes of wedding guests around Vijayawada.

However, when Sastry answers his phone he becomes a totally different person – his posture is different, his voice deeper and the language less classical. Going by the name of DJ, Sastry’s alter ego is still a vigilante killer working for Purushottham eliminating criminals permanently from the streets of Hyderabad. DJ is super stylish and ultra cool, which ensures that Bunny remains ‘the stylish star’ despite spending much of the film in more traditional attire. Naturally DJ is also an accomplished killer, although quite where he learnt his skills is as much of a mystery as his motivation to cleanse Hyderabad of all criminals. The action scenes here are all beautifully choreographed by Ram Lakshman and Bunny carries out the various impalings, defenestrations and executions as smoothly and effortlessly as he performs his dance routines, and with just as much style. Sadly, there isn’t much else to the character of DJ beyond the dapper surface and efficient bloodshed. There is no rationale behind why his character is driven to such violence, particularly since he has been raised as a priest and generally seems to be a kind-hearted and benevolent priest at that. There is a brief comment by his father at the start, questioning why his son has so much rage, but this is not explored at all, and of course Sastry never shows any sign of the explosive ferocity that is characteristic of DJ.

Naturally there is also a heroine, and as might be expected from the formulaic plot, Pooja Hegde’s presence is completely superfluous to the story with her only purpose seemingly to be to appear in as many skimpy costumes as possible and dance in a few songs. The brazen character of Pooja seems unlikely to appeal to the traditionally minded Sastry, and although her designer credentials might interest DJ, her nasty, childish behaviour when they first meet is unlikely to impress. The camera spends more time focused on Pooja’s navel than on her face and it’s a shame that the only real emotion she gets a chance to display is when she’s shopping in Abu Dhabi – her excitement here is the only genuine moment her character has throughout the entire film. Still, she does look stunning, and has good chemistry with Bunny in the songs, but it’s a shame that she has no opportunity to do anything more.

DJ becomes personally involved in the case of a property scam where the real criminal Royyala Naidu (Rao Ramesh) hides behind a proxy (played by Prabhakar). Royyala’s son Chintu (Subbaraju) also becomes involved when Royyala conspires with Pooja’s father Minister Kusuman (Posani Krishna Murali) to marry their respective children. Subbaraju is excellent as a crook with an unusual idiosyncrasy, particularly in the final showdown with DJ and Royyala.

Throughout the film Bunny excels with his comedic dialogue as Sastry and does a good job of keeping the two sides of his character quite separate and different. As always his dancing is superb on every level and I did appreciate his collection of sparkly sneakers in various colours too. Devi Sri Prasad’s songs are good, although the song sequences aren’t connected to the plot of the film and seem to be simply added in as part of the standard formula – “fight scene/ family scene/ romantic moment/ song”, and repeat. However, the dance sequences add in energy and give Pooja and Sastry/DJ a chance to develop their romance that otherwise appears rather lacklustre.

Duvvada Jagannadham is disappointing, but the action sequences are impressive, the songs are excellent and Bunny is always watchable. There are some good dialogues that were well appreciated by the audience here in Melbourne, and the comedy with Bunny, Vennela Kishore as his cousin Vighneswara Sastry and the rest of the family is generally pretty funny. The major issue here is the formulaic plot and uninspiring screenplay that feels dull despite the good performances from the cast. However it’s not all bad and there are some scenes that work very well, it’s just that it doesn’t all gel together as it should. Worth watching for Bunny, the songs and the action, just don’t expect too much from the plot.

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Stalin (2006)

Stalin-Stalin Title

When people complain that Telugu film directors lack creativity and too many movies are remakes, I’d like them to consider Stalin. It takes a certain amount of vision to translate a film like Pay It Forward into mass Telugu style, and to cast Chiranjeevi in a role originally played by Haley Joel Osment. Nice one AR Murugadoss!

Stalin-Stalin arrives

Stalin (named by his Communist dad) is an ex-Army major, living with his Ma (Sharada) and passing time by doing good deeds and protecting the defenceless. It’s a typical altruistic hero role, with Stalin using his strength to look after the people. After a string of events that undermine his faith in humanity, he devises a scheme.

 

Instead of accepting thanks he will ask anyone he helps to help another three people and tell them to pay it forward. In this way, the whole country will be incited to activism. It doesn’t seem to take off and Stalin is bitterly disappointed that people simply don’t do anything but make excuses. However, in the background the movement slowly gains momentum.

That is all the good message-y stuff but I said this was mass. Stalin also battles a corrupt politician (Pradeep Rawat) and his crazy father-in-law (Prakash Raj) and their assorted lackeys. He is pursued by Chitra (Trisha) and nagged about marriage by his mother while trying to patch up the relationship between his Ma and estranged sister Jhansi (Khushboo) who married a Punjabi dude against said mother’s wishes. Add in assassinations, explosions, amputations and ‘only in films’ medicine. Phew!

Stalin-Helping at collegeStalin-at college

The message is heavy handed yet I can’t argue with most of the sentiments. The catalyst for Stalin’s formal implementation of good deeds is the suicide of a young girl who had lost both arms in an accident. Due to a series of mishaps she had no one to write an exam for her, something Stalin would have done but he was helping a blind student at a chemistry prac. She asked so many people for help and none would, so in despair she jumped off the roof. It was a bit out of character for a girl who fought so hard to get her education, but it made a point. People are often not deliberately bad, just lazy and thoughtless. Initially despondent, Stalin is inspired by a group of disabled kids who stop a race to allow a boy to get back up and then all finish together.

Stalin-School raceStalin-who is disadvantaged

Stalin ponders why people who have so much give so little. I don’t subscribe to the idea of the ‘inspirationally disadvantaged’ as I think people are people and having a physical disability doesn’t necessarily make for a particular personality type or behaviour, nor is it guaranteed to turn everyone around that person into saints. But I couldn’t help responding to the big delighted smiles of the little boys and the performances by the two college girls. I think English language mainstream films tend to either glamourize or overlook people who are different and I liked seeing real people, not actresses pretending to be blind and so on.

One thing that irritates me is the filmi convention that insists ordinary people need a hero to lead them on all points. Stalin is offered a chance to go back into the Army only to have Gopi (Sunil) insist that ‘the people’ need him to inspire them to do good deeds. Why demand someone else be your role model when you already know what you should do? That laziness in films that sees entire rural communities under the thumb of a handful of drunk and not very bright rowdies, and entire neighbourhoods stand by and watch someone be maltreated is so frustrating, especially when its only purpose is to make the hero a HERO. And even more so in a film about people power.

Stalin-fight 2Stalin-Chiranjeevi

It’s an uncomfortable blend at times but Chiranjeevi’s apparent sincerity in the cheesy scenes and unswerving self-belief in the big chest-beating moments holds it all together. The fight scenes rely mostly on editing and effects as Stalin allows his enemies to come to him for a beating so suit the slightly more mature Megastar.

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For a do-gooder he uses threats liberally. But he did once singlehandedly overcome an enemy army emplacement so it would pay to listen.

I was initially a bit uncomfortable with Chiru and Trisha as a couple. Stalin’s backstory makes it clear he is a fair bit older than her. The songs are mostly Chitra’s fantasy point of view so it worked better than expected as the cavorting was not his idea. Anyway, it’s Chiru! Mani Sharma’s songs are fun and so are the picturisations, especially the traditional hero arrival number which also incorporates a call to donate organs, blood and eyes for the betterment of society.

And apart from anything else the songs give the costume department an outlet for their experimental urges.

Stalin-Chitra and StalinStalin-Chitra and Jhansi

Trisha is adequate but Chitra could have been played by almost anyone. Perhaps it would have been better to cast someone who could swim as Chitra was allegedly a swimming champion. I think she won a trophy for most ridiculous dive off the blocks and 10 metre dogpaddle with gratuitous appearance in a swimsuit. She is silly and self-centred, another of those mysterious film heroines who only have children as friends and don’t seem to do anything other than be the heroine. Chitra is friends with Stalin’s sister. Jhansi is a pleasant and capable woman who has a good career and a loving family. Once Supreet and his rowdies start targeting people close to Stalin, personal strength goes out the window as all the ladies need him to set things to rights.

Stalin-SharadaStalin-wedding planning

Sharada is great as the widowed mother who seems to have raised the kids alone. She is fiercely proud of Stalin and equally strong in her rejection of Jhansi who married an outsider. Some of her scenes are broad comedy, as she schemes with the dodgy priest (Brahmi) to marry Stalin off to a beautiful girl, any beautiful girl. I’d often wondered about the thinking behind ‘I Wanna Spiderman’ and it turns out a comedy uncle is to blame. This is Brahmi’s fantasy which perhaps explains the costumes. Or not.

Stalin-Prakash Raj

Prakash Raj is excellent as Muddu Krishnayya, a self-described Jekyll and Hyde. Even when Muddu Krishnayya starts to really lose his marbles he stays on task, although he does over-explain his plans which diminishes the likelihood of success.

Stalin-SupreetStalin-totally understandable

The support cast is familiar in faces and functions. Subbaraju makes a fleeting appearance as a creepy rapey guy, literally flying across screen following a heroic punch never to be seen again. Supreet does the villainous heavy lifting, earning an excellent comeuppance at Stalin’s hands. Mukesh Rishi and Brahmaji are Stalin’s Army comrades who come to help save the day when Stalin is under siege. Harsha Vardhan and Sunil are Stalin’s main comedy sidekicks. Everyone does their thing and does it pretty well.

This is not exactly a family friendly film due to the violence, but it is not as empty as many mass films are since all the biffo and mayhem is for the good of Society. The story ends on a high note but getting there took some doing. It’s worth a watch for late career Chiru still in full possession of his famed charisma, and for the curiosity value of the loose remake. 3 stars!

Stalin-words

Anukokunda Oka Roju

Sahasra  is a B.Comm student, but her passion is singing. She is a smart, confident girl who is an unwanted addition to her step-mother’s household and she tries to keep her head down.  Her friends are an unexceptional bunch of students and singers, and she is an ordinary girl. So why are people trying to kill her?

Anukokunda Oka Roju translates as Suddenly One Day and the answer lies in a missing day in Sahasra’s life. The action took some time to get going, but I always felt there was some underlying sense I just hadn’t uncovered yet. The direction by Chandrasekhar Yeleti is pacy but allows time for the story to unfold in a way that felt realistic enough and the city setting gives a slightly chaotic edge to the action. It didn’t feel like a join the dots story and there were things that seemed irrelevant initially but took on more significance later. The strength of the characterisations helped keep the suspense set to high despite some overly contrived incidents. Once the motivation behind the attacks on Sahasra was revealed I struggled to completely believe in it, but I was so interested in the characters that I eventually found the ending quite satisfying.

Charmme delivers a great performance as a girl in trouble and out of her depth. Sahasra is a talented singer in a studio chorus with ambitions of singing solos for the great film composers. Charmme shows the spark of confidence and joy that Sahasra feels when she is involved in her music, and how that evaporates when she returns home to a less hospitable environment. Her speech and expressions become younger, almost childlike as she seeks to placate her step-mother, but then regains her robust cheekiness when on the phone to her mother. It makes Sahasra’s fear and also her resilience seem real as we see her strength in everyday situations, not just in the struggle to survive.

This is my favourite of Charmme’s performances, and if you want to see a modern heroine carry a film other than a rom-com, this is a great place to start. And she sings a song sort of dedicated to Chiranjeevi so clearly she has excellent taste in film heroes!

Rajesh (Shashank) is a student who runs an unofficial taxi service on the side. He spots Sahasra and chases her demanding money for a taxi fare she doesn’t remember. She denies everything but they keep crossing paths. He rescues Sahasra from a gang of big burly men and in turn becomes a target of sorts. Shashank does an OK job, but as in Sye he doesn’t do any more than just OK. He is suited to this role, and the fight scenes are realistically scuffly and non-heroic, but despite being in a couple of highly dramatic sequences he made little impression.

SI Suresh Reddy (Jagapathi Babu) is an odd character. A corrupt and eccentric juice-swilling policeman, he is in the vicinity when Sahasra is attacked. His investigation is motivated by both judicial and personal concerns – unbeknownst to Sahasra, her father was in talks to marry the pair. He is socially awkward and falls for her like a ton of bricks.

Jagapathi Babu is brilliant at showing glimpses of the awkward guy with a crush as well as the confident bully. His eccentricities seem to stem more from boredom in his career and his life, and when he means business, he is convincing. He takes on the investigation and at first is totally unwelcome in Sahasra’s life and her friends resist him. But he gets results and as he unravels the events, he realises that other mysterious deaths may be related and Sahasra is in more trouble than she knows. His character builds over the course of the film, and I found myself first dismissing him as a corrupt nutter, but then anxiously looking for his face in the crowd as things looked grim for Sahasra.

Sahasra’s friend Shwetha (Pooja Bharti) took her to a party and Sahasra’s drink was spiked. This is the reason for the lost time, and lost memories. The drugs were let go by Suresh Reddy when he took a bribe from the dealer so his involvement takes on another dimension. The dialogue (by Ganga Raju Gunnam) was excellent, often amusing and very illuminating in terms of character insights. The girls are such different characters and I liked that they were shown as disapproving but not bitchy. There are a couple of dialogue exchanges where the girls discuss sex and it is refreshing to see friends who can tell each other they think the other is an idiot but without rancour.

The safe sex message is loud and clear and despite being linked to an unwanted pregnancy, I didn’t feel that the girl was being demonised, and she certainly wasn’t made to suffer or repent. In fact, the good girl was the one to walk out of the hospital and nearly be killed. It was an interesting detour and suited the low key modern urban setting and the cast of 20-somethings. Sahasra is a typically good girl heroine, but her friends are diverse (although very much in the background) and that makes her more relatable and real.

It was this level of detail in the characterisations that made the film so engaging for me. These people had lives I could identify with to an extent, and their motivations were believable. Sahasra’s home life was complicated by her father’s remarriage, but her step mother wasn’t a crazy evil stereotype, just a bit of a bitch. Shwetha was partially responsible for her friend’s predicament because she didn’t speak up at first, but she was still a good friend when Sahasra needed support. Rajesh had debts and aspirations, but didn’t let his own plans blind him to a person in need. Suresh could have used his authority to pressure Sahasra but he backed off and when she came to him, he helped and did it in as sensitive a manner as he could. There is a scene at the end where Suresh just says what he needs to say to the guy who he thinks might get his girl and it’s touching but realistic.

There is a comedy sideplot, but mercifully it is carried mostly by the very likeable Harsha Vardhan as a hapless school teacher and neighbour, and to an extent by Rajesh in his taxi. The comedic incidents do all in some way feed back into the main story, and involve relevant characters. Harsha Vardhan wins my special gold star for most excellent insults delivered in delightfully plummy English.

And there was a fight in a music shop which I enjoyed a lot as it was funny and still menacing – and Charmme acquitted herself pretty well before her rescuer turned up.

The M.M.Keeravani soundtrack is effective and all the songs have their place either illustrating characters or incidents, so there were no breaks in the dramatic tension just because people burst into song. The cinematography adds to the mood, using changing angles and distances to show the pursuit, but balancing that with character focussed shots that reveal people’s inner thoughts and hopes.

It’s a really enjoyable thriller and I highly recommend it. I have to make a minor deduction for an over the top although rarely seen bad guy, and his motivation. But the conclusion for the three main characters is satisfying and a little less predictable than it might have been. 4 stars!