Arjun Reddy

Poster

Sandeep Vanga’s début film is epic. I don’t mean epic in the sense of Sanjay Leela Bhansali style staging (although at points it is), but rather epic in terms of story and exceptional attention to detail. It’s an all-encompassing tale of one man’s journey through love and loss, through addiction, pain and despair but still managing to survive with the support of his friends. The attention to detail in the story is exquisite and Vijay Deverakonda is outstanding as the titular character who is essentially a modern-day Devdas. But this story is so much more complicated than Devdas. It’s almost a documentary where every small facet of Arjun’s life is laid bare for the audience to pick over and examine in detail. So, we see Arjun’s family, his girlfriend and her family, college friends and enemies, work colleagues, even friends’ families who all have a role to play in the story. It’s also epic in terms of the love story where the passion is so large and so over-whelming that it bursts from the screen in waves of emotion that almost drown out everything else; where nothing else matters to Arjun and Preeti except each other and the scale of their love. This is selfishness and single-mindedness taken to the extreme and yet Sandeep Vanga somehow makes it seem plausible. And finally, it’s epic in terms of Arjun’s descent into alcoholism and drug abuse to the point where I was amazed he was still alive after his binges, let alone coherent. It’s also a little over 3 hours long – epic indeed!

Arjun (Vijay Deverakonda) is a Masters student at medical college when he first sees Preeti (Shalini Pandey), one of the new intake of first year students. He desires her as soon as he sets eyes on her and as college topper and all-round hero of the college he quickly marks her as his ‘property’. Strangely Preeti doesn’t seem too upset by Arjun taking over her life, but acquiesces to all of his demands, even when he tells her who to befriend, and she falls quickly fall into love and into Arjun’s bed without any objections. But then Arjun is popular and smart, so perhaps her instant attraction is understandable. He’s also brash and over-confident with anger management issues. He picks a fight at a football match and refuses to apologise afterwards because the fight was pretty much the whole point of the event for Arjun. Once Arjun falls for Preeti, he is completely obsessed by her and every single insult is of monumental importance, requiring instant satisfaction for which he is willing to beat the entire world to death if necessary.

It’s interesting that Preeti doesn’t have a voice until well into the narrative. Perhaps her reticence is because she’s simply over-whelmed by the attentions of the most popular guy in the college. There is the usual stalking = love trope as Arjun basically bullies Preeti into being his girlfriend, but somehow it seems possible given that Arjun is a free spirit and the normal rules don’t seem to apply. However, once Preeti falls in love, she’s just as obsessed as Arjun, to the point of following him up north when he moves away to finish his surgical residency. The love story is intense and physical with both Arjun and Preeti as single-minded as each other, and both utterly dependent on the other for their happiness.

Of course this is a story of loss and when Preeti’s family reject Arjun and marry her off to someone from their own caste, Arjun immediately sinks into despair. He quickly becomes an alcoholic and drug addict, although still manages to work as a surgeon with a devoted team of nurses who hide his drinking from management. His obsession with Preeti leads to an estrangement from his own father (Sanjay Swaroop) and the emotion in these scenes is raw and very believable. My favourite line in the entire film is when Arjun’s grandmother (Kanchana) is talking to Arjun’s brother Gautham (Kamal Kamaraju) and sums my own thoughts up beautifully by saying: ‘he wants to suffer – then let him!’

The story works because although Arjun lives life right on the very edge, his bad decisions are believable and mixed up with actions which so often are right. He’s a capable surgeon who really cares about his patients, and who all love him as a result. Ditto the other staff at the hospital who adore him. He is rather less considerate of his friends and continually abuses Shiva (an absolutely brilliant Rahul Ramakrishna) for having no ambition, even when Shiva is constantly rescuing Arjun from the consequences of his own excesses. No matter what his friends try, Arjun remains fixated on Preeti and addicted to alcohol or any other chemical that can blot out his misery for a few hours.

Sandeep Vanga conveys the fundamental selfishness of love in his story, and in his focus on Arjun succeeds in painting a realistically raw picture of despair and a broken heart. With all his flaws, Arjun is still a sympathetic character and the sheer depth of the emotion portrayed here drives a visceral response to many of the scenes in the film. Vijay Deverakonda really is incredible as Arjun and it’s a testament to the excellence of his acting skills that the character remains sympathetic despite Arjun’s many shortcomings. He ensures Arjun’s obsessive nature is sharply revealed in the early scenes and the swings between lover and addict, anger and happiness, hope and despair are amazingly powerful. This really is excellent work from Vijay and it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Also very impressive is Rahul Ramakrishna who strikes exactly the right balance as Arjun’s long-suffering friend Shiva, and his mixture of humour and concern feels true to life. His character is also very relatable, made even more so by the clever scenes with his own father that are so different to Arjun’s posturing, making Shiva my favourite character in the film. His dialogue too is clever with some great self-deprecation, but Rahul also manages to convey his hurt at Arjun’s remarks, despite knowing it’s the alcohol and drugs talking. The other friends, Kamal (Kalyan Subrahmanyam), Keerthi (Anisha Alla) and Vidya (Aditi Myakal) are also very good, as are the rest of the support cast. Radhan provides the music which suits the film well and the songs are used as backdrop while moving the story forward. No big song and dance numbers, but this is not that sort of film.

Even with the over-blown nature of Arjun’s romance and subsequent melt-down, the story feels realistic and plausible, mainly due to the excellent characterisations and honest dialogue. Arjun’s addiction is particularly well done and is an surprisingly  accurate description with his downwards spiral into self-absorption, mania, paranoia and continual pattern of pushing people away despite their attempts to help. This is good storytelling and I really hope the Telugu film industry can start to move away from current clichéd and formulaic screenplays into similarly more open and realistic films. It’s been a trend in the rest of the South for the last few years and it finally seems to be reaching Hyderabad. While Arjun Reddy may not be a film for everybody, it is an excellent watch and I enjoyed every minute – even if it’s not always a comfortable film to view. Highly recommended.

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Godavari

Sekhar Kammula has become one of my favourite directors, always entertaining me with interesting observations and a satisfying story. In Godavari he deposits his characters and their relationship issues on a boat, adding a philosophical dog, a sideplot or two and some beautiful scenery to leaven the mix. I’m not totally convinced by all of the elements but I do really like this film.

This song sets up the main characters, and acts as the now familiar promotion clip for Andhra Pradesh.

Kamalinee Mukherjee is Seetha, a would-be fashion designer. She has nightmares about losing her independence and her close relationship with her parents after she marries. I liked Seetha’s spirit, and I really felt for her coming off a rejection from a groom her parents pressured her into accepting. That had to sting. Seetha is vain and bratty at times but she is funny, insecure and compassionate as well, and admits fault when she is wrong.

Sumanth is Sriram, an unassuming guy who wants to get into politics and make the world better. He reveals a manipulative side as he cons his way into appointments with party officials. Perhaps he is a precursor to Arjun Prasad from Leader? He isn’t as effective in his personal life however. Ram is inarticulate when he should speak up, and doesn’t really see things for how they are – he is lost in a vision of how it should be.

Raji (Neetu Chandra) is spoilt, silly, self centred and yet not totally unlikeable. Raji judges a relationship by the trappings of Valentines’ cards, fancy coffee shops and all the showy things, things that just never occur to Ram, and she uses this as an excuse to push him away. Her parents know Ram wants to marry her but refuse as his simply isn’t the best offer and they are quite honest with him about this. Perhaps they know their daughter better.

Ravi (Kamal Kamaraju) is a cashed up bully, making the most of his status in the IPS. He seems to have some notions of manners and decency underneath all the arrogance, but has done a marvellous job of burying his better side. I can’t say I liked him at all, but I did end up thinking he could be a good match for Raji if he got over himself a little.

All the characters are flawed, but not in a dramatically damaged way. They’re just a bunch of people who have good and bad points, and for the most part are quite unremarkable. I found them easy to relate to, even the unpleasant ones, as they were well rounded and I could imagine them having lives outside of the film setting.

The boat setting appealed to me for a number of reasons. Not only did it provide a great device for containing the characters and their interactions, it looked great. It had all sorts of strange little additions,extensions and even a tower of sorts. I thought it looked delightfully like something out of a Miyazaki film. Whoever did the set dressing did a fantastic job too. All the powers were invoked to keep the boat safe and sound.

The boat trip also allowed the supporting characters to have things to do other than hang around Ram and Seetha.There was a nice sense of energy as the ever reliable Tanikella Bharani (the captain) and others bustled around. I enjoyed their presence all the more as they contributed to the background life and colour of the film. Seetha’s parents and sister had their own stuff going on at home, and there was a real lived-in feel to their domestic scenes as well. The nominal villains Raji and Ravi had their own issues to deal with, and even in their smaller roles showed some growth.

It wouldn’t be a boat story without stowaways. Chinna is a poor kid who pursues a mystery man (OK, it was Ravi) who does him out of the balloons he sells.  Koti, a dog, decides for his own reasons to get out of town. When Koti sees Chinna pay his bribe, he has a flashback to Daana Veera Suura Karna and swears fealty to his new master. They team up and give us their points of view but also provide the catalyst for people to reveal their own character – are they charitable, curious, mean or oblivious to the boy and dog?

While I liked the idea of Koti and the voiceover (by Sekhar Kammula, and what a world weary creature with a 3am whiskey voice he sounded), I did not like the CGI dog. The real dog had ample charm and verve and I don’t see the animation was necessary. I kept hoping it wasn’t because the real dog became, er, unavailable after a boating mishap. For those of you who demand pirates, there was a fairly silly episode involving a fugitive and a night ambush but it only served to show that Ram is reliable and Ravi isn’t so I will move on.

There is no surprise in the romantic pairing of our waterborne humans as their journey to Bhadrachalam follows that of Ram and Sita. Our Ram and Seetha are attracted to each other but there are obstacles, both real and imagined. I really enjoyed their conversations and the way both Sumanth and Kamalini showed the growing intimacy and comfort they felt in each other’s company as well as the pressure of the potential relationship.

They did daft things, sure, but there was no sense of them being stupid or unpleasant people. Kammula uses a lot of voiceover monologues, and both actors did a good job of mirroring the inner voice with their expressions, ranging from funny to heartfelt. Sometimes I find a voiceover can leave me at a distance, but in this case it worked well enough and suited the introspective nature of the characters.

I don’t like the background score at all. It is too cheesy, and seemed to try too hard to be whimsical. But the actual songs are more attuned to the mood of the scenes, and subtitled, so I could at least appreciate a fraction of Veturi’s lyrics as well as K.M Radha Krishnan’s melodies and the beautiful scenery. There is little dancing in the film, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate to much of the story; but if I have a criticism of Sekhar Kammula it is his over use of the montage. Then I saw Sumanth dance and I thought well, yeah, montages have their place— but there has to be a limit.

The lyrics draw attention to the beauty of the river and the power of unseen forces in our lives. The river is a metaphor for the forces in life that nudge us hither and thither, and the power of chance meeting and parting. But this Ram and Seetha also show that you can fight the current when you want to and make your own way.

Finally, I give Godavari 3 and ½ stars. For those who think 3 and ½ is just plucked from the air , it goes like this – Points on for the convincing performances, points off for the animated animals, points back on for the real dog, more points on for a parrot asserting her independence, some points off for too many montages, and finally points on for the film being so pretty. Watch it for the beautiful balance of observational style with a fresh twist on the filmi clichés.

Heather says: I really like the way that instead of road movies, the Telugu film industry has river films which surely do a great job for the tourist industry. The river looks beautiful here and the Godavari boat is fantastic. I love the way it’s at least 3 boats joined together, one of which has fantastic wooden panels and just to add a little more space it’s also towing a raft behind. It looks like a great way to travel from Rajamunday to Bhadrachalam, although I suspect in reality it would be rather wet and cold. I do appreciate the way that in time-honoured fashion everyone jumped underneath big blue plastic tarpaulins when the rain started. I remember those well from travelling on the top of buses in India and Nepal!

The story of the romance between Ram and Seetha, both rejected by their prospective partners, is different enough from the usual to be interesting and I like the way that Ram had to deal with being in such close proximity to Raji and her fiancé Ravi for the duration of the boat trip. Kamalinee Mukherjee’s Seetha is beautiful and chirpy and I really liked her character from the beginning. Even her obsession with her beauty is funny rather than irritating and I feel that she stayed true to her independent nature throughout the story. Although Ram is initially a very pedestrian character with his idealistic ways and mooning over Raji, he becomes more likeable in his interactions with Seetha and the young balloon seller Chinna. Ram and Seetha’s gradual attraction as they argue is realistically handled and I think both Sumanth and Kamalinee Mukherjee are well cast in their roles here. The cook Pullamma is a great character and her indignation when she thinks Ram has given her brother money because he feels sorry for him is one of my favourite scenes. I like the way Sekhar Kammula’s points out that poor people have pride and dignity very well, particularly since there is so much emphasis in the story about altruistic behaviour being the ideal to aim for.

As well as another reason to dislike Ravi (and I’m not sure we needed quite so many), Chinna’s character adds some funny comedy. The CGI talking dog is strange and I agree with Temple that it wasn’t necessary. The talking dog idea was fine and the voice-overs were quite funny and used well but I think this could all have been done with the real dog,  rather than introducing the CGI. But it wasn’t too much of a distraction and the story of Chinna and Koti is well written into the main story.  The characters of Raji and Ravi are also more than just part of the backstory and I appreciate the way that all of the supporting cast are used to further develop the romance between Seetha and Ram, either by helping them or by adding more obstacles to their path.

There are a few things that confuse me. I’m not sure why the fortune-teller decides to jump into the river. I can’t work out if he’s just chasing his parrot or if his declaration to Rama is more significant. The fight scene also seems totally unnecessary and the whole storyline of Veeraiah didn’t add anything other than a chance for Ram to be a hero.

There is so much to enjoy in this film. the boat setting, the lead actors, the story and the support characters are all excellent. I love the songs as well, especially Tippalu Tappalu in the rain, and the shots of the river are beautiful. Godavari is a really entertaining film and I give it 4 stars.

Avakai Biryani

Avakai Biryani is not only a boy meets girl romance; it is also a romance of a filmmaker and the country he clearly loves. Written and directed by Anish Kuruvilla, a protégé of Sekhar Kammula, it is a simple story that relies on a strong script, excellent characterisation and deft execution to lift it above the clichés.

Akbar Kalam is a Muslim, an auto driver, a student and an orphan. He is caught between worlds and striving to make his way. He lives in a charity cottage, works for Master-ji the local big-wig, and dreams of getting his B.Comm despite failing his exams several times. His exam record is a running joke in Devarakonda.

Spirited graduate Lakshmi (Bindhu Madhavi) and her Brahmin family arrive in Devarakonda needing to start over after losing their fortune. Lakshmi starts making and selling her signature avakai and tries to get her father motivated to get back on his feet.

They both belong and yet they don’t, both making the best of what they have, and so a friendship grows. Lakshmi agrees to tutor Akbar and he helps her fend off unwanted attention from Babar – a leader in the Muslim community and a man with a predilection for satin pajamas. I seriously doubt Akbar was failing only because of his English skills, but Lakshmi doesn’t give up on him as quickly as I would have!

The handling of diversity in the Devarakonda population seemed to me to be very well done. I don’t have the expertise to comment on the reality of this portrayal but can say that as a narrative device it works extremely well. While religion does draw a line through the community, it is depicted as one among many divisions in this village. There are lines of caste, creed, financial status, education and of relationships. Characters cross these lines and back again as the business of making a living and getting the chores done is uppermost and there are few moments of speechifying. The lines of division become much sharper when marriage is in question, and that underpins much of the story.

We see where this is heading a long time before Lakshmi and particularly Akbar seem to. I have my doubts as to how long a boy and girl can hide any “friendship” in a small community, but their roaming around does give Kuruvilla the chance to show the beauty of rural Andhra Pradesh. The growing relationship seems natural and unforced and is not based on any love-at-first-sight or stalking. He calls her Avakai (or as my subtitles have it, Pickles), referring to her identity but also to her hopes for building a future. Their love grows from knowing and valuing each other.

The obligatory spanner in the works comes from the ongoing tension with Babar which is fuelled by testosterone, religion and politics. Babar tries to use religion as a lever to force Akbar to back down but fails as the hero decides to do what’s right for the whole village in a scene with shades of SRK in Swades.

Threats are made, scuffles take place and things boil over between the two men. There is only one way for honour to be satisfied. By an auto race around the village! I know some people rolled their eyes at this episode but it rang true to me. I just rolled my eyes at the sheer stupidity and very boyish behaviour.  Oh and it allowed Kamal Kamaraju to get his shirt off, which I suspect is a legal obligation for any Telugu film hero.  And there was an explosion, which may also be a compulsory element as well as a machete flourish.

Having established his right to stay in the village, managed a scheme to bring mains water to Devarakonda and finally passed his exams, Akbar has one last obstacle – getting Lakshmi. Despite acknowledging his help and decency towards them all, her family refuse to consider him as a suitor because of his religion and because of his limited prospects. Akbar and Lakshmi simply go their separate ways. Her family pressure is too much to withstand, and he has no family to offer them shelter or support.

This is a total spoiler so stop now if you don’t want to know how it all ends.

Akbar throws himself into work, builds on his success in politics and becomes a respected member of the local council. Two years on, Lakshmi’s father hears him speak at a political meeting and apparently undergoes a change of heart on hearing successful Akbar still speak of Lakshmi with feeling. She sends Akbar a jar of pickles with a note asking him to meet her. He looks radiant with joy as he realises the note is from Lakshmi and she is doing well.

They meet, she pretends not to mind his dodgy moustache, and then hands him a wedding card. There are tears on both sides before he sees the card is for their own wedding and that’s it. Happy ever after time. I expected a bit of anger from Akbar at this cruel trick but I think it’s already clear who really wears the pants in this relationship.

Surprisingly I don’t think this ending was either a cop out or disgraceful behaviour by her dad. Neither Akbar nor Lakshmi had the resources to throw family aside and go it alone. I can imagine it would be hard to marry off an opinionated educated girl especially if people began to talk about her relationship with the Muslim boy. She may not have had many takers after all. And why wouldn’t career success influence a father who has experienced losing everything and seeing his family suffer? Anyway I liked the resolution. No fireworks, just happiness and relief. I really liked that the girl was fully involved in choosing her own path and went in with eyes wide open.

The cinematography is beautiful. The colours are lush and welcoming; the village is dilapidated and picturesque. Kuruvilla paces the story well and doesn’t resort to the predictable speeches and characters. Both leads look good but not too glamorous. Their dancing is not brilliant but it seems entirely suited to the characters so their emotions were the real focus, not fancy footwork.  The music blends with the story and the songs are used well, with matching choreography from Prem Rakshith

All the support cast are effective and resist descending into total caricatures. The actors who play Akbar’s best friends are great fun, particularly Praneeth as Sondu who is the embodiment of the fiery spirited party boy that loves his booze, good times and his mates.

I have said before that romance is my least favourite genre. Often I find the plots too silly and the characters poorly acted or insufficiently interesting for me to care about how they are going to navigate the ridiculous story. Avakai Biryani is a successful film for me. It has substance and some thoughtful commentary in addition to charm and pretty visuals. The leads give good solid performances, and the supporting performers are excellent. I give this 4 stars! Temple (Heather will post a film review soon. Don’t panic!)