Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019)

Surender Reddy’s history inspired epic is indeed epic. The sets are impressive, the set pieces are huge, the cast includes almost everyone working in Telugu films plus some ring-ins. And to top it off, Chiranjeevi. Very few things will compel me to see a movie at 7am. Chiru is one of those things.

It’s hard when you want to cram a lot of exposition into a ripping yarn, and Reddy fumbles the pace. Pawan Kalyan narrates,  Anushka Shetty makes a welcome yet probably unnecessary cameo as Rani Lakshmibai, using the story of Narasimha Reddy (Chiranjeevi) to inspire her outnumbered troops. And eventually we get to the main event – Narasimha Reddy, all grown up and ready to rumble. From there the remainder of the first half is about the local battle against Jackson, a sadistic white supremacist. The second half has to regain momentum for the final conflict with the even more revolting Cochrane, wearer of bad hats and owner of a mysterious black panther just to ram home his villainous leanings. Along the way Narasimha Reddy is mentored by his guru, supported and challenged by his peers, and adored by all women. But he is always hated by the Brits and he returns their enmity in spades. The film jumps around visually and looks amazing, the geography is frequently mystifying, but the narrative is dead linear and predictable. With lots of repetition for the people who decide to make important phone calls or switch seats several times during the movie.

Reddy does some things to perfection, and he gives Chiranjeevi some impressive hero entrances. He balanced the spiritual and the legendary heroic aspects along with the Megastar obligation to provide something familiar yet extraordinary with each return. But there are also some poor directorial choices and I really do have to get this off my chest now. I know this is a ye olden days film, I know they made some gestures towards historical accuracy….but no dancing?!? Chiranjeevi NOT DANCING AT ALL?!! Seriously. Walking around and pointing during a song is not enough. Could he not get his folky festival appropriate groove on with his people just once? Some of the fire twirling guys looked understandably nervous so maybe they could have used some Megastar spark instead.

 

Surender Reddy uses tight closeups on Chiranjeevi’s face as Narasimha Reddy absorbs news or prepares to roar inspiration or threats. Chiru goes all in, whether he is comforting a child or dismembering an enemy. It’s all about that commitment and the Mega charisma that makes you believe that people would follow him into a war, believing he is a chosen one. The action scenes allow him to kill in varied ways and with great gusto, busting out the athleticism and grace we don’t get to see in a dance (yes, I’m bitter about it). I especially enjoyed Jackson’s comeuppance as it drew upon earlier skills demonstrated so there was a pleasing blend of “oh, of course!” and WTFery. Despite being at a 7am show there was vocal appreciation of the gore and creative ways of killing. The special effects around the actors and stunt performers in the war and fight scenes worked pretty well, but some other effects were a bit amateurish and made what should have been impactful look silly. That was a blessing in parts, as if the CGI was better a couple of scenes would have been seriously traumatising.

The wig department is there for Chiru every step of the way. He has his fluffy Romance Hair, and two variants of Action Hair (one with man bun, one without). His outfits are detailed but not overwhelming or fussy, and avoid the period costume trap of looking like he’s been upholstered rather than tailored. He sported a nicely woven war sandal so I was pleased to see some appropriately statement footwear too.

Nayanthara had the clumpy eyelashes of a perpetual crier while Tamannaah had perfect eyelashes for flirting or murderous rages. And there’s about all the character development you get. Both actresses deliver what they can, but all the women in this story are required to do is support and/or sacrifice. Tamannaah plays a dancer but mostly sings, exhorting people to join the rebellion. She has a lovely, very sad, scene that made me sad because there was no room in the film for her acting ability. Nayanthara plays Sidhamma as shy and hopelessly worshipping her man. Again, she added some delicate touches to her characterisation but that may have been professional pride because I suspect the direction was “Stand there. Then go stand there. And cry.”

The gang of chieftains are largely undifferentiated, but a few make more substantial contributions. Mukesh Rishi got no love from the wig department so the hat team went all out for him. Brahmaji does his usual furious faces. Ravi Kishan got an economy wig and no moral compass to speak of. Jagapathi Babu is quietly compelling as Veera Reddy, a believer grappling with the consequences of betrayal. My favourite was Sudeep’s Avuku Raju. He dripped disdain, his silent reactions were anywhere from menacing to hilarious, and his frenemy dynamic with Narasimha Reddy was absolutely beautiful. The biggest supporting cast cheer was for Vijay Sethupathi as Tamil leader, Raja Paandi. Amitabh Bachchan as the lugubrious Guru Gosayi Venkanna got no response at all. I actually disliked his character. Mentoring is one thing but being a manipulative puppet master is something else.

The European actors range from adequate to terrible. It doesn’t require great subtlety to be a despicable cartoonish villain, so the patchy acting and clunky dialogues didn’t bother me too much. I did like that the film doesn’t pussy-foot around the British attitude that dark skinned people were inferior, and that nobody pretended the conflict was about anything but money and resources. The patriotic aspects of Narasimha Reddy’s fight got a great response from the audience and we all enjoyed seeing the white guys get what was coming to them.

The subtitles are largely OK but there are some strange errors. The subs express asking for forgiveness or offering an apology as asking for an apology regardless of context, which was confusing. Some things were overly literal and not meaningful. I particularly liked the subtitles that explained an accomplishment as “He is a great man. He has mastered the art of holding his breath in water”. Greatness may await us all, friends! And whoever was on spell checking left us with gems like “Your’s Sincerly”. Such a big budget film, and so little respect for the dialogues. Sigh.

Yes, there’s a story. Yes, there’s some History. Yes, there is a huge cast. Yes, it’s a film on a massive scale. And yet it all rests on Chiranjeevi. He delivers so much of the success of the film but can’t quite overcome the flaws. One to see on the big screen if you can, just to appreciate the grandeur, the guyliner, and the wigs.

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Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava

Trivikram’s Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava is a bit of a throwback to the factionist rowdy fests of yore, albeit with a bit of a difference. How much of a real difference though?

Veera Raghava Reddy (NTR Jr) returns to his village after studying abroad. His father Narappa Reddy (Naga Babu) is delighted to see his boy back at home although he is worried by a recent escalation in a decades old feud with Basi Reddy (Jagapathi Babu). Predictably enough they are ambushed on the drive home. What does a good son do when he is the heir to conflict? Is killing and mayhem the only way? Or can a Telugu mass film hero broker a lasting peace based on doing what is right for the people?

There was some character development for Raghava, if not for anyone else. It was good to see him learn from both experience and from wise counsel, and then apply those learnings. Raghava struggles with the community’s expectation that he will be a carbon copy of his father. NTR Jr is excellent and can show restraint and slow burning rage as well as going for the big emotional notes. We get to see Raghava in shock after a very traumatic incident, and his ensuing grief. He’s not superhuman although of course he has the usual kit of gravity bending tricks up his sleeve. This is a film where the hero is often seen simply sitting and thinking. He can dial a conflict down to a terse conversation as well as firing up at the villainous Basi Reddy. He has goals and makes his decisions in light of the objective. At key times people tell him that the man that prevents a war is a great man. Raghava also believes the man that wants peace has to have the strength to win a war. The hero must win, but maybe not in exactly the way usually predicted in this style of film.

Aravindha might be a bit princessy but as she says to Raghava, nobody is only what they appear to be. She tells him straight up what she expects from a partner. She also tells him women think hard about which man they will be best suited to while men see a pretty face, hound her ‘til she gives in, then leave her at home and bugger off to do whatever. When he considers the example of his own parents it makes him realise that he needs to change if he wants to be with Avi. He still decides to go win his war but promises once that is over, he will concentrate on her from that moment onwards. Which is a bit of an each way bet but as this film is kind of about compromise and negotiation it is fitting. Pooja Hegde is stunning, and while Avi is perfectly happy to get by on looks when it suits her, she has a sharp mind and a healthy dose of self-awareness. They have a nice rapport and I liked that the film took the time to show them talking, helping each other with little things, and feeling their feelings.

Jagapathi Babu is quite the villain de jour in Telugu films. I loathed Basi Reddy but kind of loved the boots and all commitment to making him despicable. There’s no subtlety in the character but the performance has some beautifully modulated beats and peaks that add an edge. Sunil was effective as the decent guy who helped Raghava out, mercifully not bogging the plot down in Comedy Uncle mode. Naresh and Srinivasa Reddy were tedious and time consuming. Rao Ramesh and Subhalekha Sudhakar added another element as the crafty career politicians who have drifted away from representing the people and were caught up in winning for the sake of winning. And many That Guys flew across the screen, bleeding, screaming, crying, and suffering for their art.

Eesha Rebba also had a tiny role with not much to say for herself, but her expressions were perfect for an irritated younger sister. Supriya Pathak and Sithara both deliver some strong dialogue on the folly of men indulging in constant bloodshed and who pays the price. Easwari Rao and Devayani play silent wives of warring men, but both can pack a punch without saying a word. Which is just as well since Trivikram silences them just at the moment when they should have been heard. It is telling that when the hero is delivering a big speech about what he learned from the women in his life that none of the women, who are all present, gets to speak for herself. So everyone ignored what the women said until the biggest baddest strongest man repeated their words, then everyone listened to him. Again, nice idea but didn’t quite land the execution.

I’m not saying this is a totally sensible version of a mass film. Who sets up a high security meeting complete with metal detector at the entrance and then leaves a nail gun lying around! The percussion of the BGM matched Tarak ferociously beating his opponents with sticks. And Trivikram gets Raghava’s shirt off in perfect mass style in the midst of raging carnage. The device by which Trivikram got Veera Raghava Reddy into Aravindha’s home as driver/bodyguard Raghava could only aspire to be called flimsy. And there are the usual 50 to 1 fighting odds when our hero takes on truckloads of armed rowdies and emerges with nary a blemish despite the unbridled enthusiasm of the Fake Blood Department.

The upbeat songs were most successful in their picturisations. Peniviti was made unintentionally funny with all the stringed instrumentalists getting soggy in the rain. Tarak is amazingly talented and looks like he is having a ball when the music kicks in and he can go for it. Pooja Hegde doesn’t really try and keep up with him but she puts a lot of energy into Reddy Ikkada Soodu and does some excellent face.

There are some minor similarities with the recent Rangasthalam, like the setting and a hero who takes on a sociopathic Jagapathi Babu character. Unfortunately one also seems to be the dodgy subtitles.  Is gizzard curry really a sign of love? What are cooling glasses and when should one wear them? Does administering Celine really cure a fever? How much chaos is required before your shirt buttons pop off? Ladies, would you be carried away by a man who says he looks like a sword with a moustache? It’s sad to see scrimping on something like the subs which shouldn’t be an afterthought, and would help capitalise on the success of other Telugu films with new markets.

Trivikram has tested the water for a new kind of hero but ultimately falls back on the old standards. Tarak is really coming into his own as an actor and makes the most of the range he’s given here, and the female ensemble cast was exceptional. See it if you like epic revengey films and have a high tolerance for gore.

Goodachari (2018)

Goodachari is great when it’s good. Sashi Kiran Tikka keeps things flying along, and the film and cast looks amazing. Unfortunately the writing is not as compelling although there are some decent twists along the way.

Satya (Prakash Raj) and Vijay (Ravi Prakash) are on a secret mission that goes horribly wrong. Satya survives, and returns home only to have to tell his colleague’s son that his father will not be returning. Knowing that the kid has no family, Satya takes Gopi in. But then he starts training the boy to forget his previous life and name.

After 174 unsuccessful applications to join Indian intelligence services, grown up Gopi who is now called Arjun (Adivi Sesh) hits the jackpot on number 175. He is summoned to a secret office below a shop, and told he has been shortlisted as a potential agent of the elite Trinetra agency. He is mentored by Damodar (Anish Kuruvilla), mildly threatened by Nadiya (Supriya Yarlagadda), and immediately singled out as the other potential alpha male by Mohammad (Rakesh Varre) and Leena (Madhu Shalini) although she seems more receptive to his presence. Shaam (Vennela Kishore) is kind of the Q of this ensemble, fussing over people messing up his stuff and keeping a beady eye on everyone. Sameera (Sobhita Dhulipala) is Arjun’s neighbour and eventual girlfriend. But something goes horribly wrong and Arjun has to run from his own team and from the real enemy. How will he prove his innocence, and how is he going to live long enough to do that? As they say in all the classic Wikipedia plot summaries, “this forms rest of the story”.

Arjun is driven by emotion and poor impulse control rather than the cool lack of inhibition that makes someone like Bond such an efficient killer. I guess the sentimentality of the character was supposed to make him sympathetic and relatable. But I was left thinking he was just going to get all the good agents killed. The way to get Arjun to focus on a task is to hurt his feelings and make him want to prove you wrong. Adivi Sesh spends an inordinate amount of time welling up in tears as Arjun feels sorry for himself that he isn’t living up to his idealised dad. He rarely questions why and how he could make his own contribution, his sole motivation was to be like a man he barely knew. I kept wondering why someone who was so obviously not completely stable kept getting through the screening. And for an elite intelligence operative, he was as sharp as a bag of hair. A critical incident hinges on interpreting a 4 digit code and this film would have you think it takes a master linguist to do that. I reckon anyone who’s tried to use Outlook might have been up to scratch. I feel that with a bit more thought for the writing and more variation layered into the performance, perhaps a little more moral ambiguity and less self indulgent wallowing, Arjun could have been a great character.

It is always refreshing to see a Telugu film include women who act like adults, had day jobs that you actually saw them do, and who had their own agendas, and generally got things done. Sobhita Dhulipala is stunning to look at as Sameera but her character is more subtle than just a throwaway love interest. Her relationship with Arjun seems a bit convenient initially, but they have some good conversations and grow closer through that mutual understanding.  Supriya Yarlagadda’s Nadiya is a gun as a training officer and makes some hard calls in the field, acting coolly with authority and decision. Madhu Shalini was more of a token girl agent, but she kicks arse in some crucial scenes despite being ditzier than she should be.

Prakash Raj is in Prakash Dad mode here, playing Satya as a fiercely loving parent while still utterly cynical about people and their motivations. And rightly so. Satya’s ability to hide in plain sight while still being connected to his networks was extremely useful. Arjun could learn a thing or ten from Satya about thinking before he leaps. Damodar is Arjun’s workplace mentor and I quite enjoyed the range of exasperated expressions and side eye Anish Kuruvilla brought to the role.

I know the Indian context and history is different and some things will take on a different tone with a local audience. But in Australia it feels like every day there are more and more hateful commentators and media pundits taking potshots at Muslim Australians among other groups. I am weary of it, and struggle to imagine how it feels to be on the receiving end of such unrelenting negativity. So when the head terrorist Rana (Jagapathi Babu) is revealed, I was glad to see a good actor giving a well thought out performance and not just a eyeliner wearing caricature. Rana articulates the question about what made people call him a terrorist when he and Satya were using the same tactics. He also asks Arjun to consider whether he might see things differently if he had not been brainwashed by Satya. They are brief moments and only a couple of lines, but I appreciated seeing a little more inner life to the bad guy as well as the question of perspective.

The direction, editing and visual styling are top notch and the action feels really dynamic. The fights are fast and full of aggression and Adivi Sesh is well up to the action choreo. There is a little too much shooting with total accuracy while looking the other way. It’s a boys own adventure idea of what cool looks like. There are some good spy gadgets and tech that bring a bit of quality and flair to Trinetra. The story is well constructed and there aren’t too many loose ends left. That might be a little bit of a drawback. I feel like this is being positioned as the start of a series and maybe some characters should have been allowed to survive into a potential sequel.

I guessed most of the plot twists and devices well in advance of the big reveal but perhaps I am just gifted like that. I didn’t spot one surprise at all and was thrilled to bits by how that played out. I was hooked the whole way through, and only found my mind wandering when anyone started on about their daddy issues. If you like high adrenalin action with a righteous (but slightly dim) hero, this is the film for you.