Saaho

I didn’t read any reviews before I went to see Saaho, but I’d seen comments on social media that were mostly negative. So I wasn’t expecting great things from the film, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Sure there are plenty of flaws, including a confusing story, poorly developed villains and far too many songs, but I loved the action, all the special effects and especially the imposing presence of Prabhas. Think standard Telegu Mass on VFX steroids, and that’s pretty much what you get with Saaho. Logic has never been high on the agenda for these kinds of films, not when directors can just blow up, beat up or shoot up everything in the hero’s path and writer/director Sujeeth follows he standard formula here. Nonsensical yes, but entertaining – definitely!

Let’s talk about the negative aspects first. The film opens with a confusing array of characters, not helped by long, complicated sentences of subtitles which vanished off the screen too quickly for me to read them. Then, the introduction scene for Prabhas is surprisingly poorly executed. Who is the man he is trying to rescue from a bad situation with a gang of thugs? There is some by-play about a whistling pressure cooker to give Prabhas a set time to carry out the rescue, but then there are no whistles – why set this up and then fail to deliver? And when this character reappears, his part in the finale is so rushed and poorly subtitled that I have no idea what exactly he was supposed to be doing. So, we’re off to a bad start, which is compounded by key events being rushed through and important characters appearing and disappearing without any clear idea of who they are and what role they play in the plot. It’s not helped by the subtitles which sometimes took me some time to work out and even with my bad Telugu I could tell that they missed a lot of information. The list of bad guys grows longer and longer, on top of which their alliances change, there are numerous double crosses and their relationships to each other are poorly described, so after a while the best idea is to stop trying to figure it out and just enjoy all the mayhem!

And the mayhem is what works very well here. This is where all the money was spent, and the result is slick and fast paced action with excellent fight scenes and lots of explosions. There are fast cars, motorbikes, even chase scenes with heavily armoured trucks and excavators but perhaps the most ridiculous involve men wearing mechanical flying suits and Prabhas carrying out some do-si-doing with a helicopter. At one point, at the end of a song, for no apparent reason there is a tank that drives over a couple of cars. It’s like they had a few thousands of dollars left and decided that adding a tank would complete the line-up of transport options! Throughout it all Prabhas is a tower of strength and stays true to the Telugu hero ‘code of conduct’ by endeavouring to single handedly take down all his enemies, be impervious to bullets, indestructible regardless of whether there are crashes, explosions or he leaps off a cliff without a parachute (more on that later), and of course still find time to romance the girl, talk tough and always, always look ultra-cool!

After the initial confusion the film settles down with Prabhas as an undercover cop who has been seconded to an investigation team after a series of burglaries in Mumbai. Amritha (Shraddha Kapoor) is the nominal female detective who is continually shunted aside by her boss Shinde (Prakash Belavadi), while tech specialist David (Murali Sharma) and Goswami (Vennela Kishore) round out the team. The police think they spot the thief (Neil Nitin Mukesh) on CCT and the team then devise a super complicated plan to bring him in. This involves convincing him to steal a ‘black box’ which is vital to open a vault full of money and gold in the gangster city of Waaji.

Waaji is a super high-tech city run by the Roy corporation headed by Narantak Roy (Jackie Shroff). After his assassination, Devraj (Chunky Pandey) is poised to take over the cartel when Roy’s previously hidden son, Vishwank (Arun Vijay) appears and thwarts his plans. The various cartel members are each trying to take over the top spot, but key lieutenant Kalki (Mandira Bedi) supports Vishwank, although his position is far from secure and he needs the black box to be able to pay off the various cartel members. The action moves to Waaji in the second half after the black box is stolen and Saaho (Prabhas) becomes involved in the power plays by Devraj and Vishwank.

Most of the Southern Indian actors play their usual kind of roles well here. Tinnu Anand is good as Devraj’s disabled father and Arun Vijay does well as Vishwank despite the dodgy writing while Supreeth and the cast of support thugs are suitably OTT. Mahesh Manjrekar has a reasonable role as one of the cartel members, but Madira Bedi is probably the best realised of these characters and I love her smooth operator approach to playing a gang member. The rest of the Hindi actors are a bit hit and miss. This might be more due to the language problem as they were better when speaking in English. Jackie Shroff is probably the best of the lot, possibly because he has only has a small role to play and little dialogue. Neil Nitin Mukesh seems uncomfortable throughout and Chunky Pandey desperately overacts every time he appears. To be fair, Shraddha Kapoor is pretty good in a more action-based role and she does have reasonable chemistry with Prabhas in their romance scenes. The problem is the songs, which don’t fit well into the narrative and don’t add anything to the story. This is an all action film, and the songs act as speed breakers, taking the audience out of the story. Probably the best is the Jacqueline Fernandez item number, which is just ridiculous enough to fit the plot, with the previously mentioned tank, machine guns, and lots of scantily glad women in a swimming pool.

Sujeeth however is equal opportunity in objectifying his stars, and Prabhas gets to jump off a cliff wearing nothing but ripped jeans, but only after he throws his parachute off the edge first. It’s that kind of film. Shraddha Kapoor actually comes off pretty well in the costume stakes, wearing generally sensible clothes, apart from in the songs. Prabhas looks uber-cool wearing cropped pants and trendy loafers once he gives up the denim and leather look of the first half.

Saaho is a fairly typical Telugu action hero film. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense and the cast of thousands list of characters is confusing, but there are some good ideas in there that would have worked better if they’d been kept simpler. Having lots of special effects doesn’t hide the limitations of the story, but it does make it fun to watch. I saw the Telugu version at a fairly full theatre in Melbourne, and most of the audience seemed to be enjoying the film as much as I was. We did all laugh at scenes that I think were supposed to be dramatic and tense, but there was plenty of applauding and cheering whenever Prabhas got to obliterate (literally!) the bad guys. All up, Saaho is simply entertaining and a fun piece of visual theatre. One for fans of Prabhas, mayhem and OTT mass action.

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Happy New Year (2014)

Happy New Year

I’m a massive SRK fan, and I loved both Main Hoon Na and Om Shanti Om, but given Farah Khan’s last film, I was hopeful but not too excited by the prospect of Happy New Year. Even after watching the film in a packed cinema,  I still have a feeling of ambivalence since overall Happy New Year is a bit of a muddle. The film starts very slowly with painstaking introductions of the characters that are a mixture of brilliantly funny and just plain crass. Then there is the set up for the actual heist – again a mixture of ridiculously mind-numbing cliché and clever, snappy comedy, but at least finally the film seems to be going somewhere.  Finally there is the actual heist which is fine, and a feel-good ending, suitably horrendously overacted but very masala, and the best bit of all – the end credits. No, not because it’s the end of an overly long film, but because Farah includes everyone involved (as she always does) and it’s very well done. A mixture and certainly not all bad, but unlike Om Shanti Om, not a film I’m going to rush back to the cinema to watch again although I will definitely get the DVD.

Shah Rukh plays Charlie, son of Manohar Sharma (who else but Anupam Kher?) a disgraced safe maker and security expert. Charlie knows that Charan Grover (Jackie Shroff – thankfully fully dressed for the entire film) set his father up and was responsible for the diamond robbery that put his father into prison. It just so happens that Charan Grover will have crores worth of diamonds locked away in his safe in Dubai over Christmas, just when the World Dance Championships are being held in the same hotel. Obviously then, Charlie will just enter the dance competition and make off with the diamonds leaving Charan Grover and his son Vicky (Abhishek Bachchan)  to take the blame.

If it sounds completely illogical and nonsensical then that’s because it is, but although that’s not a problem for a Bollywood film, here the lack of logic is the whole point and it’s not as funny as it should have been. Farah Khan seems to want to be sure that everyone gets the joke too, because the details of the set up are repeated over and over again. Charlie gets together a team of misfits to help him steal the diamonds including his father’s right hand man Tammy (Boman Irani), explosives expert Jag (Sonu Sood), Grover’s son lookalike Nandu Bhide (Abhishek Bachchan again) and all round loser but expert hacker Rohan Singh (Vivaan Shah). Each has their own quirks and foibles, although my favourite is Tammy’s apparently bottomless bag which really does contain everything. On the other hand Nandu’s frequent projectile vomiting is fairly abhorrent while Jag’s loss of cool when his mother is insulted and Rohan’s general nerdy ineptness fall somewhere in the middle.

Needless to say, none of the five can dance which might have been thought to be a pre-requisite to enter a dance competition. Although they have plans to rig the results they still need to get through a judges round and in desperation they turn to a bar dancer Mohini (Deepika Padukone) for help.

Happy New Year

Strangely for a film about a dance competition the choreography is dull and uninspiring, particularly in Mohini’s introduction number in the bar. Deepika looks stunning, but the song doesn’t showcase her talent well at all, and Farah Khan seems as focused on objectifying the character of Mohini as she is with Shah Rukh Khan’s six pack. Which, by the way, does get plenty of objectification in the opening scenes. And a bit later. As does Sonu Sood’s admirable physique. So much so that unbelievable as it seems it was too much – enough Farah – enough!!

The songs by Vishal Shekhar are fine and reasonably catchy but not in the same league as Om Shanti Om. Best of the lot is Manwa Laage which has the best dancing from Deepika, good comedy and (almost) shirtless SRK – perfect!

I can understand why the costumes and choreography generally have to be so terrible and OTT for Charlie and Mohini’s group, after all this is a dance troupe that includes Boman Irani, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason why the other dance teams are almost as bad. Particularly once we reach the WDC and the dancers from various nations around the world have tacky costumes and lacklustre routines, making Team India look like a real contender. Think the standard of the dance competition in Disco Dancer but with headdresses and little kids added. There is a ridiculous side plot involving the Korean team but otherwise the film follows Farah’s theme of using older films as a template and adding in as many references to these as possible. Some work, but quite a few fall flat and the many references to previous SRK films are a good example of the later.

On the other hand, SRK, Sonu Sood and co. all do a good job with their respective characters and actually manage to make some sense out of the ridiculous dialogue. I love Sonu Sood here is he was funny without being too obvious, while Boman Irani does seem to force the humour a little too much. Vivaan Shah is a little overwhelmed by everyone else but seems fine in a small role, while Jackie Shroff actually adds some class to the proceedings – really! Abhishek Bachchan is good in a comedy role while Deepika absolutely shines and is one of the two lynchpins holding it all together. The other of course is SRK and without him Happy New Year really wouldn’t have had the same impact. Shah Rukh can stand there in the middle of a mud wrestling competition and have buckets of water thrown at him and still look cool. When he switches to over-emotional drama in scenes about his father he can make you believe in his thirst for revenge and when he dances on stage his enthusiasm is captivating. The romance between SRK and Deepika is less convincing but then the real love story is between SRK and his audience so the lack of chemistry doesn’t seem to matter.

Happy New Year is a mixture of almost equal parts good and bad. Cutting some of the repetitive scenes discussing the heist and shortening the introductions would certainly have helped, but Farah Khan needs to concentrate more on story development and less on comedy for the sake of comedy, more on structure and less on self-indulgent repackaging of classic Bollywood as crass farce. The problem is partly that when Farah Khan is good, she is very, very good, but when she’s bad she is repetitive and stereotypical in the worst possible way. Happy New Year combines the two and while overall it is entertaining, it should have been so much better. But if what you want is a mindless, colourful and extravagant 3 hours of entertainment, then it fits the bill perfectly.

Khal Nayak

Khal Nayak poster

Subhash Ghai’s Khalnayak is a fairly predictable cops and robbers story twined with references to the Ramayana which adds depth and resonance.  There are some excellent performances, stylish visuals and excellent music. But at a shade over 3 hours, the pace is stately to the point of plodding and there is too much emphasis on the meaning, and not quite enough on the drama.

Ram (Jackie Shroff) is assigned a case to bring down a terrorist organisation. Ballu (Sanjay Dutt) is the poster boy for Roshida’s (Pramod Muthu) gang. When Ballu escapes from jail, Ram is accused of neglecting his duty to go spend time with his girlfriend Ganga (Madhuri Dixit). When what looks like every policeman in India is put on Ballus’ trail with no success, Ganga finds a way to infiltrate the gang. She sees that Ballu is not quite as bad as he seems, although he is far from being misunderstood. Eventually the police close in, and Ganga is caught between Ram, duty, and her empathy with Ballu.

Madhuri looks stunning and delivers a strong and engaging characterisation. There is nothing simpering or weak about prison officer Ganga. When she sees an opportunity to help Ram restore his reputation, she asks for his support. Then she does it anyway. When she sees Ballu needs medical help, she just goes and gets a doctor because it is the right thing to do. Madhuri does some wonderful deliberately bad acting when Ganga, having captivated Ballu, joins the gang and goes on the run.

Then in Aaja Sajan Aaja she is simply incandescent as she dances for her Ram. Madhuri was also lucky as Ganga dresses in Indian attire, not the hideous synthetic 80s gear that Ballu wears when he tries to impress.

 

Sanjay Dutt is so very good in some scenes that it makes me angry at how bad he is for much of the film. He adopted a range of bizarre grimaces and physical tics that I think were meant to emphasise the animal side of Ballu, but just made him look ridiculous and clumsy. When he dropped the exaggerated mannerisms and just channelled the emotions, he was compelling and raw. While asserting his ownership of Ganga, Ballu accidentally defends democracy and becomes a Nayak for those people. His awakening to being respected and enjoying that feeling was nicely done, even though there was a lot of literal flag waving to make sure the point didn’t escape unnoticed.

Jackie Shroff is perfectly competent as Ram, and only tries to tear his clothes off once so that was good. For my money Ram is the least interesting character. He knows he is right, everyone knows he is right and he is not averse to using extreme force against Ballu to prove how right he is. While there is an interesting dynamic between hero and villain, there is minimal character development for Ram. A relationship between Ganga and Ballu would be a Very Bad Idea but I thought marrying Ram could be a bit suffocating.

The Ramayana elements were more obvious to me on a recent re-watch than when I first saw it, particularly the twists on that narrative. I couldn’t help but compare this with Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan (which I greatly prefer to the Hindi Raavan). In Raavanan, Ram revealed his darker side and could become as Ravana but Khal Nayak seems to say rather that Ravana has the potential to be Rama. I liked that the question of what makes a hero or a villain was articulated and that this was more than a glorification of Rama. Ganga didn’t sway from her beliefs when she was frightened, and kept her faith in Ram. Ram wanted to believe Ganga but society and the law demanded she was still put to trial. I was annoyed that she had to have her virtue validated by a thief and murderer, a man so despicable in the eyes of the law that he had besmirched her just by his proximity but whose word was still worth more than hers. I know she is Sita and he is Ravana, but still. The film plays with some of the conventions especially around the notion of hero and villain. Ram is also helped by Ballu’s testimony, his reputation restored by the hand of a sinner.

Ghai doesn’t quite go the whole hog but he does use a range of staple masala ingredients and has a lush visual style. Ram and Ballu have bloody fights that crash through walls and take to the treetops. There are long lost childhood friends and dreary paeans to motherhood. There are coincidences, speechifying and tearful reconciliations galore. The evil mastermind Roshida has a nasty disposition and lots of cats who do a fabulous job of reacting to stuff.

Rakhee gets a lot of screen time as Arti, not all of it crying. Neena Gupta makes an impression as the striking Champa. Ramya Krishnan is charismatic as Ballu’s girlfriend Sophia, and also gets both versions of the title song. What a waste to have her in such a small role, but how great to have so many powerful actresses in one film. The female characters are strong and quite distinct, but Subhash Ghai stays firmly within the conventions of 90s masala so none of them break the mould of Ma, the friend, bad girl etc.  Oh, and Anupam Kher does his customary shtick as Pandey the prison warden.

There are interesting observations about the conventions of parenting and filial behaviour. Ganga tries to evoke Ballu’s sentimental side by talking wistfully of how much he must love his Ma and how hard it must be for him to live on the run. He calls Ganga out on trying to manipulate him through sentiment, but he rejects that as unimportant to him. Question – If a villain shouts ‘Ma!’ in his sleep and there is no one to hear it, does he have feelings?

Mind you, when Ballu is beating Ram up because why not, Arti hits Ballu for assaulting Ram, Ballu shoves her so Ram belts him for hitting a Ma, then Ballu fights back and Arti comes back at him to stop him using violence.  A move straight out of the Nirupa Roy Filmi Ma Manual.

The songs are extensions or amplifications of the narrative as well as being beautiful and usually pleasingly melodic.

I am not so fond of that title track, although it does epitomise early 90s style and Ramya Krishnan works that beaded gear for all it’s worth.

Khal Nayak-Fruitbat

I had to pity choreographer Saroj Khan. Between Dutt’s own ‘dance’ style and the outfit given to Ballu in the final song, he looked more like a demented fruitbat. Seeing Ballu and the boys try their seductive dance moves on Ganga was highly amusing. But she choreographed some beautiful dances for Madhuri. I went to see the Temptations Reloaded show up in Sydney last year, and the roof nearly came off when the opening bars of Choli Ke Peeche played.

The first hour of the film could be condensed to around 20 minutes with no great loss, but things get much more interesting once events are set in motion. While it is a visually strong and often darkly dramatic film, the pace suffers from Ghai’s concentration on symbols and stylised elements rather than closely following the emotional arcs of the characters. Very much worth watching, but some patience is required. 3 ½ stars!