Rangasthalam

Sukumar’s Rangasthalam is a sprawling rural epic set in the 80s and chock full of plot. There’s probably enough for two films, but despite being 80s influenced in running time too, I found it highly engaging.

Chittibabu (Charan) hires out a water pump to service the village crops. He’s a bit dim and lazy, very proud and impulsive, but essentially a decent bloke. And he has a hearing impairment that he is ashamed of. His inability to hear unless shouted at is used for comedy but also is important in keeping him a little isolated and clueless. When golden boy big brother Kumar (Aadhi Pinisetty) comes back from Dubai, he is appalled by the corrupt lending and eviction scam run by the local association. He gets the support of MLA Dakshina Murthy (Prakash Raj) and decides to run for President, setting up a colliion course with the incumbent (an evil eyed Jagapathi Babu). And meanwhile Chittibabu has fallen for the lovely Ramalakshmi (Samantha Akkineni). But does he have the time or the capacity for love when he has heroic duties to attend to and a brother to protect? And if it isn’t the President pulling all the strings, then who else might be involved? What is a simple man to do?
Charan was instantly recognisable even in the long aerial shot that opens the film. His hair is magnificent and deserves an acting credit. But apart from the mane of glory, he delivers a solid performance. Chittibabu is quite childish and demanding, but has a generous heart. He is only able to devote himself to one task or thought at a time though, which meant that the relationship with Ramalakshmi kind of disappeared for a while as he was busy with other matters. Charan and Samantha had a nice rapport and I quite liked seeing the man be disconcerted and flustered by being on the receiving end of some determined attention. And he did some truly excellent lovestruck prancing. But he is an 80s style mass hero and will not be winning any awards for feminism. The fight scenes are intense and brutal, with only a few fancy effects to diminish the reality. Predictably Charan excels in the action and dances, but that solid physicality also translated well to his character.
Charan and Aadhi were really nice as brothers. It would have been very easy for Sukumar to make Kumar the saintly one and Chitti the dumb one but they each had some elements of the other one’s personality and their little fights and jokes seemed natural and lively. Chittibabu had to grow up a bit through the film and Charan handled that quite well. I thought the hearing aid Kumar got for him was used nicely as an indicator when he decided to put personal vanity aside. Aadhi played Kumar with less bravado and more empathy than the younger sibling. His reactions when things turned violent seemed genuinely fearful, and true to the character. He found a groove to work in as the second fiddle in the film but the star of the family who absorbed all their attention.
Samantha made Ramalakshmi funny and warm, the kind of girl that would always be in the thick of the chatter when there was a break from work. She wasn’t impressed by Chittibabu despite his obvious attraction to her, and somehow was the only person in the village who didn’t know he was hearing impaired. The comedy of errors stuff went on a bit too long, but I enjoyed her uninhibited enthusiasm, especially in Rangamma Mangamma where Ramalakshmi took on some of the typical hero pursuit song shtick. Samantha’s face is so expressive that even the terrible subtitles didn’t interfere too much with her scenes. The moment when she weighed up her father’s emotional blackmail against Chittibabu’s open door on their future was darkly funny and so good to see. It was sad that she along with almost every one else was then sidelined for a substantial chunk of the story. Because Hero stuff.
Jagapathi Babu is the villain this film needed. He infuses every scene with a menacing sociopathic coolness, and has no need of pointless histrionics. He has ample followers to carry out his wishes and can keep the dirty business at arm’s length. He’s like a shark. Something sends a chill down your spine on first sight, even if he doesn’t seem to be an immediate threat. Prakash Raj has a small but pivotal role, and is his usual reliable self. Brahmaji is his usual angry self as a government official. It’s good that some things never change. Mahesh Achanta, Rohini, and Anasuya Bharadwaj are notable in the large ensemble.
Sukumar did some interesting things within what does feel like a solid 80s mass drama. The women were often in the background but when it came to crunch time there was no fuss as they took a more active role or their expressions gave the men permission to act. Rathnavelu’s cinematography created a beautifully rural idyll with long sweeping views of the landscape but moved away from fixed camera positions in the action scenes, giving it a more modern and dynamic feel. The soundtrack is exactly what you’d expect, which is not a bad thing. I liked Charan’s dancing and thought he did well in the folk influenced choreo, maintaining his Mega cred while staying in character.
I learned some new phrases thanks to the (possibly drunk) subtitle team. I hadn’t heard of the Dazzle King or even the Mangoose, but now I feel they sound like something I should have known. And I will be wary of doctors offering the “eternal injection”. I know subtitles are a luxury, but surely someone read them before they were published. No?
I thoroughly enjoyed Rangasthalam. It’s a big meaty story that takes its time. The casting is good, the visuals are great, and in mass style the film has a bit of everything. Recommended!
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Bairavaa (2017)

bairavaa

Step into the cinema at any point during Bairavaa and you could be forgiven for mistaking it for almost any of Vijay’s previous films. The only thing that seems to vary in these masala outings is his attire, while everything else (love interest, villain, ‘comedy’ friend, evil henchmen etc) is identical. In his latest mass film Bairavaa, even the trusty masala formula fails to deliver as expected mainly due to poorly realised villains and dull, repetitive fight scenes. Not even the songs are inspiring and it’s only Vijay’s presence and on-screen charisma that makes it possible to sit through the full 169 minute run-time. There are some laughs, one or two fight scenes that work a little better than the rest and a couple of good songs but overall Bharathan’s latest release fails to impress.

Bairavaa (Vijay) is a recovery agent for a bank who don’t seem to mind that he uses rather direct methods to reclaim outstanding funds. This leads inevitably to the first fight scene as the bank manager sends Bairavaa out to collect money from a thug who likes to play cricket. The fight itself is quite cleverly choreographed with Vijay imitating cricket stars and using a cricket ball instead of his fists to flatten thugs, but despite the novelty it isn’t particularly exciting and there is absolutely no sense of suspense. It’s a given from the start that Bairavaa will be walking out of there with the money and that all of the rowdies will be writhing around on the floor. And that’s the problem with almost every other fight scene in the movie too. Even when the numbers of rent-a-thugs get upped and then upped again, there is no stopping the one-man army that is Bairavaa. The fights become an unending parade of rowdies being thrown up, down and around in slow-mo while Bairavaa barely breaks into a sweat. The exceptions mainly come in the second half when there is a little more at stake, but overall, even with a few stylish moves thrown in here and there, the fights are mostly monotonously predictable and uninspiring.

After meeting Malarvizhi (Keerthy Suresh) at a wedding and falling instantly in love, Bairavaa discovers she has a problem back home in Tirunelveli after she is attacked by a gang of thugs at Koyambedu bus station. This leads to a flashback that explains her predicament and why she is being targeted by businessman and self-styled champion of education PK (Jagapati Babu). PK is aided in his various criminal activities by Kottai Veeran (Daniel Balaji) and his merry gang of rowdies, while Malarvizhi is supported by her sister (Sija Rose), grandfather (Vittal Rao) and Uncle Narayanan (Thambi Ramaiah). Malarvizhi has taken PK to court to prove that he was responsible for the death of her friend Vaishali (Aparna Vinod) in his substandard medical college and that the college’s explanation for her death is completely untrue. PK has been warned by the judge that the upcoming final hearing should not interrupt Malarvizhi’s studies or endanger her health with the result that instead of killing Malarvizhi, PK tries every possible method of intimidation to make her break down and give up her fight. Naturally Bairavaa takes up Malarvizhi’s cause and immediately starts to oppose PK and his allies.

Sadly PK is a one-dimensional villain who does little other than sneer at the camera and order his seemingly self-replicating gangs of thugs to put an end to Bairavaa. His henchman Kottai Veeran has a little more to work with, but both men are purely obstacles to be overcome in Bairavaa’s pursuit of the girl. There is presumably some sort of message in the revelation that some private colleges are purely money making exercises and Malarvizhi does her best to promote the cause of independent women everywhere, but at the end of the day she is reliant on Bairavaa to defeat the thigs. Her methods of contacting solicitors, providing evidence and the like are casually destroyed by PK and Kottai Verran using methods that seem unlikely to work in real life. Malarvizhi is a fairly typical Tamil heroine in that she has some backbone and a promising career but still falls for the hero in less time that it takes her to find the bus home to Tirunelveli. I’ve yet to see Keerthy Suresh in a role that I think she can do justice too, and this doesn’t seem close. She looks uncomfortable in the songs and while there is some reasonable chemistry between her and Vijay it’s much like the rest of the film – pedestrian and predictable.

There are a number of other threads that seem to have been added to and appeal more to the modern market. Harish Uthaman appears as Malarvizhi’s abusive brother-in-law Prabha who has the world’s fastest rehabilitation after he gets beaten up by Bairavaa. Generally the police and judicial system are honest and the comedy is kept to a minimum with Bairavaa’s friend Shanmugam (Sathish) having only limited time onscreen. Thambi Ramaiah as Malarvizhi’s uncle Narayanan has even less time on screen, which in this instance is definitely for the best.

The songs too are disappointing and often oddly placed although Vijay’s dancing is still the highlight, but even here the energy seems subdued. At least until Papa Papa which is definitely the pick of the bunch. I can usually find something to enjoy in a Vijay film, despite the often wafer-thin plots, but I was hard pressed to find much in Bairavaa. It’s a strictly by the numbers mass film with little animation and even less ingenuity. At 169 minutes Bairavaa does feel like an endurance test and much could have been shortened (all those slow-mo fight moves and echoing repeats!) to improve the film flow. One strictly for the fans, and even then be prepared for a less than thrilling experience.

Pravarakhyudu

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I’m quite fond of hero uncle Jagapathi Babu and I always find Priyamani worth watching. They definitely make this more watchable than the material warrants, although I did enjoy the relatively low key look at relationships in this romantic comedy. The comedy is the unfortunate bit.

Recently returned from the US, Sasi (Jagapathi Babu) is taken out to meet many prospective brides. He is an educated man and his funky glasses impress, but he seems to struggle when presented with a modern opinionated woman who has ideas about her own life. But one day, while driving in the country, Sasi is drawn to a woman he sees working in a field. His friend Ravi (Sunil) tells him that is because she looks like his legendary ex-girlfriend Shailaja (Priyamani).

We are hurtled into the past where Sasi wears his hair in a down do, and everyone looks years too old to be an undergraduate student. Shailu is arrogant and none too kind to her suitors, humiliating one by reading his letter out to her friends while he listens. But she has a point that she shouldn’t have to reciprocate just because a guy likes her. Sasi tells her guys don’t like her because she is good at studies and things, it’s just because she is hot. Shailu is offended as she believes her superior qualities make men fall for her. Cue shower scene (for Shailu, of course).

Sasi sees romance and sex as biologically necessary but love is just a stupid human invention. At a temple festival Shailu sees only the beautiful spiritual celebration while Sasi spots the couples taking advantage of the crowd to cop a feel. She is intensely irritated by him yet seeks him out all the time (she knows she does both things and that annoys her too), and he seems quite unruffled although it’s obvious he is attracted to her. When a fellow student threatens suicide by jumping from a water tank, Shailu challenges him to do something to break up the crowd and their encouragement of the wild behaviour – so he kisses her. He sees it as a tactic to draw the crowds’ attention and stop them encouraging the boy to jump, but Shailu starts to see all of his past actions as hints of his love for her.

Shailu tells all her friends she loves him just as he arrives to laugh it off as a bit of silliness. Shailu insists that he is lying to conceal his heart, and a rainy goodbye is on the cards. Question – why did none of the friends run for shelter? Or use the handy umbrella lying there. Or just give them some privacy? Shailaja goes to transfer out of college, but he says he will leave and does. There is a lot of Goodbye Forever in this film.

Back in the present day Shailu is the very strict principal of a ladies college and gets introduced with a jaunty chorus of “Lady Hitler!” Oh dear. But she does wear some nice sarees. And I do question that one of her perceived negative characteristics is that she gets security to beat up eve teasers outside the college. Is that really worse than eve teasing? Anyway. Her school had been looking for a Zoology lecturer and Sasi just happens to be a world famous Zoology lecturer.

Will Sasi ever overcome his intimacy issues that he says stem from not being breastfed as an infant? Will Shailu ever get off her high horse? Please. Nothing is impossible when you have an entire college stationery cupboard at your disposal.

Sasi turns into a mansplaining fauxmenist at times, usually to prove Shailu wrong. So I sometimes found myself agreeing with what he was saying even as I was itching to give him a tight slap for being such an arse. According to this film women feel empowered once a man, most likely Sasi, has told them how and when they may do so. But then he tells a girl she is at least partly responsible for a boy trying to kidnap her so you know Sasi really is a Telugu film hero, albeit one low on biffo and machetes. Jagapathi Babu manages to play off that tension between genuine good guy and insufferable know it all very well. He has a likeable screen persona and he is a good actor. He cannot dance to save his life and generally refuses to even try, preferring enigmatic walking, jazz hands and occasionally fighting with the air around him. Although with lyrics like”her booty is bigger than a Mercedes Benz. Baby baby baby, she’s my best friend”, I can understand he may not have felt inspired.

While she gets a slightly better deal out of the soundtrack, Priyamani has a challenging role in some respects. Shailu is often extreme and inflexible, although she is clearly not a bad person. But having been humiliated once by Sasi, she has a dim view of humanity and believes she needs to keep herself and her students safe from those bad boys.

Shailu’s character bears the burden of silly decisions (and a few dodgy outfits) for the sake of getting the plot to where writer-director Madan wanted it. But Priyamani brought her own presence and nuance to the piece. Both she and Jagapathi Babu added their own touches to the roles and their rapport and interactions helped me find enough to respect in both characters that I could overlook the worst. There was more of a Much Ado About Nothing vibe to the relationship than a Taming of the Shrew and I enjoyed some of the verbal sparring.

Unfortunately there are the tedious comedy tracks. Brahmi is in his element as a slimy teacher and does have the occasional good one liner. Ali is at his sleazy worst in an appalling racist, sexist, and homophobic skit set during a school trip to South Africa. Hamsa Nandini plays a glamorous married teacher with an eye for the professor, and is effectively coquettish as she irritate Shailu into fits of jealousy. Sunil is inoffensively amusing as Sasi’s mate Ravi, and does his usual bewildered shtick.

I like the leads, and am slowly working my way through as many of their films as I can track down.  Both the story and style of the film are quite engaging, and the fast forward button was made for those moments when Ali suddenly appears in tribal getup. See this if you like the idea of a slightly quirky hero with a smart and articulate woman, or just want a bit more talking and less killing in your mass fare. Plus a lion. 3 ½ stars!