Taxiwaala (2018)

Taxiwaala

Rahul Sankrityan’s Taxiwaala is a supernatural comedy based around a taxi driver’s relationship with his car – which turns out to have a few more extras than he bargained for. The film has plenty of laughs, mixed in with a smattering of uncanny moments and just enough to jump scares to keep it interesting, although it does start to falter a little in the second half. Thankfully Vijay Devarakonda, Madhunandan and Vishnu Oi make an excellent team, helping to keep the film on track as it attempts to veer off down a number of side alleys. Their top-notch performances and a well written story ensure Taxiwaala is entertaining, even if it does end with an overly sentimental finale.

The film starts with a few set-up scenes to introduce the concept of a haunted car and it doesn’t really take off until Shiva (Vijay Devarakonda) arrives at his uncle’s garage in Hyderabad, looking for work. His uncle Babai (Madhunandan) runs the garage along with his apprentice (Vishnu Oi) called Hollywood because of his interest in American films. Babai suggests a number of jobs for Shiva, but since all of these involve major effort for little reward, Shiva struggles to stay in any of them longer than a day. So when an advert for taxi drivers goes up on a billboard near the garage, it seems like the answer to Shiva’s problems. Except that he needs a car… and he doesn’t have any money…

Luckily for Shiva his brother (Ravi Prakash) and sister-in-law (Kalyani) come to his rescue and raise the money he needs. With his limited funds, Shiva doesn’t have much choice, but is overjoyed when a broker finds him a vintage Contessa car at the right price. Even though the owner Raghu Ram (Sijju Menon) seems dodgy, and we already know that the car has given its previous owner some issues, Shiva is ecstatic with his purchase and takes time to fully restore the vintage car before starting work as a taxi driver. Although Shiva does well as a taxi driver, it doesn’t take long for the true nature of his car to make itself known and Shiva has to decide if the risk is worth the reward. It’s not as simple as just giving up either, since Shiva is paying for his sister-in-law’s vital medical treatment now that he is in a position to pay his brother back.

What works really well here is the character of Shiva and his petrol-head fuelled love of his car. It’s easy to understand how he falls heads over heels for the vintage automobile at first sight and why it becomes such an integral part of his life so quickly. His girlfriend Anu even comments that she takes second place to the car, and that is very definitely true. Vijay Devakonda has plenty of charisma and he turns it on full for much of this film, endearing himself to his passengers and ultimately the audience too as he comes to grips with working as a taxi driver and dealing with customers. Vijay has great comedic timing and uses it to good effect throughout the film so that his actions come across as totally spontaneous, which is a hard thing to get right. Madheenandan and Vishnu Oi are also hilarious and writer Saikumar Reddy has done an excellent job with the dialogues which really are laugh-out-loud funny. Adding a more traditional comedy actor can completely change the tone of a film and move the comedy focus away from the action, however here Chammak Chandra enhances the story in his support role without taking anything away from the main leads. Also, a major plus is the fact that his comedy comes through dialogue rather than slapstick and his involvement is kept in context with the main action.

Newcomer Priyanka Jawalkar plays the role of Anu, a taxi passenger who ends up in a relationship with Shiva after he behaves chivalrously when she is very drunk one night. After the initial meeting, Priyanka has very little to do here, the entire romance is pretty much all contained in one song, and she doesn’t have much chemistry with Vijay so it’s hard to say too much about her capabilities. However she’s fine with what she has to work with and it will be interesting to see her in a more central role. Malavika Nair has a little more to do as Sisira Bharadwaj and there is an extended flashback in the second half that explains her story. She still doesn’t have enough screen time to make much of an impact but her performance is competent even if I didn’t quite buy into the reasoning behind her choices. The flashback involves Yamuna as Sisira’s mother, Shijju as her stepfather and Ravi Varma as a paranormal professor who explains the concept of astral projection, all of which means that the flashback is rather too long. While the length means it detracts somewhat from the main story, it does provide a neat explanation for everything that has happened so far and sets up the finale reasonably well.

Overall the film looks good and the special effects are well done, especially those centered on the car. The jump scares are genuinely unexpected and mostly tied in with some comedy which works really well. Jakes Bejoy’s music also fits the mood, particularly the background score, and the songs themselves are reasonably catchy. Sujith Sarang provides excellent cinematography and the action is all well choreographed and suits the characterisation of Shiva. There are no big all out fight scenes, but instead plenty of small action scenes, the most impressive of which require Vijay to act against the car. It’s to his credit that he makes these believable with his reactions. Rekhs and her team (credited for a change!) do a magnificent job ensuring that the subtitles make sense in English, and they have also subtitled the written captions, which are so often forgotten in films. I love the yellow font too, which is so much more visible and easier to read than white.

The only real issues here are the long diversions in the second half to explain the supernatural element and a rather schmaltzy finale which all happens a little too easily for me. For the most part the story moves along well and although there are some obvious plot holes I think that is to be expected when talking about something so unrealistic. The best part of the film is undoubtedly the comedy but with great performances and a well written story, Taxiwaala is definitely another hit for Vijay Devarakonda. It’s clear he’s going places too – last night’s Melbourne show was the first Telugu film in a long time that played to a full cinema and the film had an appreciative reception. This is one definitely worth catching on the big screen to get the full impact of the special effects and really appreciate the comedy.

 

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Lakshyam

Lakshyam is a highly entertaining mishmash of romance, comedy, action, politics and family drama. It succeeds largely because of the casting – Jagapathi Babu, Gopichand and Anushka in particular do a fine job – and some skilful writing and direction that balance all the elements.

The film opens with a girl running away from her own wedding. She looks so pretty and pristine as she scoots off across town, eventually making a rendezvous with a bloody and battered man. I was intrigued by the look of happy pride on her face when he efficiently blew up a car, shot a policeman and then hopped on the back of her moped. I wondered how they got to this point, and what was going to happen next. With a bit of time travel, we get to the chronological start of the story. The film is very well constructed, and the flashback and current day sequences flow well. There are some pleasingly playful references to filmi clichés and the cast seem to enjoy the improbable shenanigans.

Anushka is Indu, a modern uppity type of college girl. She has a very specific list of demands for a prospective husband and seems to think it is perfectly reasonable to share this with a young child on the train. Pinky immediately decides to set Indu up with her uncle, Chandu. He has his own, very different, list of required qualities and even the kid knows it’s not likely to work.

Anushka is one of my favourite current day actresses (yes, actress not ‘heroine’), and she is quite good in this role. Her character has some silly and selfish moments, but underneath it she is a likeable young woman. At the very least she knows when to apologise for her mistakes, so she is not too bratty. Indu is a Telugu heroine so of course if anything goes wrong she is reliant on any and every man within 20 metres of her for help and a solution. But the helpless female act is balanced with Indu cheekily pretending to be a gangleader’s sister and using his name to get her own way. This leads her into conflict with the cool dude on campus, Chandu. So she calls her little train friend’s uncle to sort him out. Yes – Chandu again. So there is a romantic comedy of errors as Chandu takes on Chandu and tries to bluff his way through. The silliness is increased with Brahmi and Venu Madhav battling each other for control of the student canteen.

My reason for picking this film a while ago was that I hadn’t seen Gopichand in a lead role and I was curious. He does well and seems to be a good generalist in terms of Hero Skills. He can act a bit, dance a bit, fight a bit, and has an engaging onscreen presence. His introduction scene is vintage hero stuff – he is chained and dangling upside down in a police lockup. But with a single bound he frees himself and escapes to wreak havoc. The college romance scenes don’t work quite so well as the later more energetic action sequences but he and Anushka do have chemistry and he gets right into hamming it up. And let me applaud a song with a backup dancing Spiderman.There is not enough of it around.

Chandu and Indu eventually fall in love and actually tell each other so they then just have to deal with all the usual obstacles – telling his family, her disapproving dad, and of course a crazed psychopath who happens to be a mad inventor. Chandu also gets caught in the fallout of his brother’s activities. He is a man of action, and takes a direct approach to solving problems. Although I did like that he sometimes cowed his opponent just with a graphic description of what he would do, so had no need of the actual biffo. You can have your cake and eat it too – a non-violent solution that incorporates a violent fantasy sequence. Gopichand is well able to match the changing tone of the film from the fluffy  romance to the revenge driven action and drama.

Chandu’s brother is Inspector Bose – Jagapathi Babu. He is an honest, crusading policeman and of course is wildly unpopular with the underworld. Newly transferred to Hyderabad, Bose takes on Section Shankar, Indu’s ‘brother’, a thug protected by senior police. I like Jagapathi Babu and this role is a good fit for him. Bose is a cop but also a family man and has a competitive relationship with his brother and his journalist father (Kota Srinivasa Rao) so there is lots of scope for his offbeat style.

The brothers have different approaches but are not forced into a separation or battle for whose philosophy should win, and I really liked seeing that more natural sibling rivalry. They were great mates as well as brothers, and the family scenes were fun. Bose and his wife (Kalyani) have a very affectionate relationship, and it is a nice domestic environment. But Bose also has a kickarse side and Jagapathi Babu gets his own action sequences, including some excellent use of coconuts as both defense and offense. He is also the victim of one of the most elaborate assassination attempts I can recall seeing. I was muttering “What? He’s not dead – yet? What!” as the drama kept unfurling.

It’s interesting that once again the law is shown as helpless in the face of crime and they rely on people like Chandu to get things done. Dharmavarapu Subramanyam is cast as an honest cop, and his comedic skills are used to help the story as a bumbling but good guy. Even Ashish Vidyarthi as the DIG makes it clear that the police need to rely on subterfuge to even compete let alone succeed, so there is an oddly defeatist note to the brother’s battle with Section Shankar and his corrupt cop associate (Devaraj).

I was moderately alarmed when I read the long list of ‘comedy uncles’ in the cast, but Srivas and writers Gopimohan and M Rathnam do an excellent job of balancing the story elements and allowing a lot of the humour to emerge in a more natural style. Kota Srinivasa Rao is in good form as the newsman father who believes he might possibly be in charge of his household. Venu Madhav and Brahmi have a running battle which keeps them from bogging down the rest of the story, and when they do interact with the rest of the characters it is usually fun. And there are some amusing touches – a fixer for Section Shankar has gunfire as his ringtone, one rowdy knocks himself out in a fight, and there are lots of little reactions and one-liners that liven things up.

The song picturisations are nothing out of the ordinary and neither is Mani Sharma’s music, but they are executed and placed well. Anushka is not much of a dancer although she does give her dance performances some energy and excellent facial expressions. I would say Gopichand’s natural genre might be ‘uncle dance’ and he does it pretty well. He certainly looked like he had fun dancing, and it added another degree of contrast to his vengeful brother aspect. And he seemed quite unperturbed by some of the shirts bestowed upon him.

Lakshyam does strain the credibility muscles more than a few times, but it is such an entertaining and well paced effort that I just go with the flow. The cast are good and are given characters with a little bit more depth than I expected. There are convoluted schemes, a deathtrap, peculiar decision making – all the trappings of a good potboiler. The writing is clever and kept me smiling if not laughing out loud. And the baddies got their various comeuppances in suitable style. It was all quite satisfying.

Give it a go! 3 ½ stars.