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.

Kutty Srank

I’d only ever seen one Malayalam film before this, the excellent Manichitrathazhu, so I was ready to double my Mollywood count with Kutty Srank. I’d read that the film had won a number of National Film awards in India and had also screened at a number of international film festivals, so it sounded like a good film to catch. I was lucky enough to be able to see Kutty Srank subtitled on the big screen here in Melbourne as part of the Indian Film Festival organised by our friends at India Talkies. Going by the two films I’ve now seen and recommendations from the excellent totally filmi blog I will definitely be watching a lot more Mollywood.

The film tells the story of a disreputable sailor who earns his living working on the rivers of Kerala. We see him through the eyes of three dissimilar women and he is someone different to each of them. The film asks us to decide which of these different personas is the real Kutty Srank. Is he a thug and killer, an actor, a lover or a faithful husband? By the end of the film we even question if he is really dead, despite the film beginning with the discovery of a corpse. The writer/director Shaji N Karun never really answers any of these questions, but allows us to draw our own conclusions as each part of the story unfolds.

Revamma (Padmapriya) is the first person to come forward and identify a corpse, which has been found on the beach. She explains her connection with Kutty Srank in a flash back sequence. Her father Moopan is the local don in their area near Malabar and is a man literally steeped in blood.  Revamma’s memories of her early life are related to blood in some way and blood features heavily throughout the first scenes. Adding to all this symbolism, Kutty Srank has an intermittent nose bleed and his nostrils are permanently filled with the smell of blood. Revamma has returned from studying overseas and overthrows Moorpan’s great plans for her by announcing that she is going to become a Buddhist. Her father’s reaction is fairly predictable but his plans backfire when he uses Kutty Srank to dispose of a Buddhist monk who was with Revamma.

Kutty Srank’s loyalty to Moopan is unwavering and unquestioning until this betrayal and Revamma takes immediate advantage of Kutty Sranks despair and confusion, using this vulnerability as a way to engineer her escape. Despite the overly heavy blood symbolism this part of the story is fairly logical and the characters react in understandable if rather extreme ways.  Mamooty plays the swaggering thug Kutty Srank to perfection, making him violent but with enough shadows and depth to hint at much more to the man. Moopan’s rather grandiose living conditions are a nice contrast to the rest of the film and his affectations make him easier to despise.  Revamma seems to have been driven insane by her early experiences and her behaviour is very irrational and disturbed. The only normal people here are Revamma’s aunt and uncle who seem to be genuinely trying to help her and deal with her father as best as possible.  The escape takes Revamma and Kutty Srank close to Cochin where he meets Pemmana (Kamalinee Mukherjee), the second woman who turns up to identify the body.

 It appears that Kutty Srank has worked as a ferryboat captain in Pemmana’s village previously, but skipped out under dubious circumstances as is his usual habit. He is great friends with Pemmana’s brother, Loni (Suresh Krishna) who picks Kutty Srank to play the lead role in their annual Chavittu Nadakam about Emperor Charlemagne.

This traditional drama provides an excuse for some fantastic costumes, singing, dancing and stomping around the stage by the various members of the village. It also allows Mammootty to showcase the more human and fun side to Kutty Srank’s character. Although the menace is still there, the interactions between Kutty Srank and Loni give him an opportunity to laugh, joke and drunkenly sing as they roam around the village. The local priest is not happy to hear of the irreligious Kutty Srank taking part in the play and also taking over the affections of Pemmana. Father Yonas (Siddique) has been enlisted by the feckless Joppan to push his match with her and as Joppan seethes with jealousy, Father Yonas whips up fear and mistrust of Kutty Srank.

Tensions escalate in the village and there is plenty of scope for betrayal and murder – it rapidly becomes merely a question of who and when. Moopan’s henchmen also turn up on the river again in a very groovy speedboat. This, along with the death of his best friend, means that Kutty Srank is ready to skip town again. Avoiding the attentions of Pemmana and escaping a murder hunt are purely side benefits.

The third woman who turns up to identify the body is a mute, Kali. She has been living with an older woman who has amazing interpretative skills and understands exactly what Kali is trying to say. She is introduced as Kutty Srank’s pregnant wife and sensationally states that the body is not her husband. The final flashback tells her story which starts after Kutty Srank has moved on to Travancore trying once again to elude Moopan’s men .

Kutty Srank has taken up with Unnithan (Sai Kumar) who presides over an unhappy family where tragedy has been the normal order for the past 10 years. Unnithan blames this on Kali, a local mute who lives in the forest, and has tried a number of ways to be rid of her. As his trusted man, Kutty Srank heads off in a drunken rage to kill Kali but when he finds her and sees her pitiful existence he is unable to go through with the execution. He ends up being cared for by Kali following a snake bite and eventually becomes her husband.

We see a more tender and caring side of Kutty Srank through the eyes of Unnithan’s daughter in law Nalini who romanticises the couple in an escape from the misery of her own daily existence.  In the end Kali and Kutty Srank have to make a run for it as Moopan’s men have again put in an appearance.   The last scene takes place back in the village where the play must go on, and this leads to the final chapter in Kutty Srank’s life.

The film hinges on the performance of Mammootty since he’s on screen for almost all the film. In each storyline he brings out the complexities of his character and allows a little more of his inner nature to be revealed.  Mammootty brings plenty of physicality to the role and exudes menace and tenderness with equal conviction. He has stacks of charisma and it’s easy to see why the easy-going Loni hails him as a friend and all the woman in his life are fascinated by him. This is the first film I’ve seen with Mammootty in the lead and it’s obvious why he’s such a big star in Mollywood.

His co-stars manage to hold their own well enough against the superstar despite their smaller roles. Padmapriya does an excellent job of showing frailty and mental confusion. By the end, her enforced peaceful existence and escape from her father seems to have had an effect and she acts more normally. Kamalinee Mukherjee is fine as the obsessed young girl enthralled by the older man, but her character is more of a caricature. Her actions to get what she wants are appropriately shocking and this gives an unexpected twist to the story.  The outstanding performance of the three is by Meena Kumari as Kali. She is impressive as the frightened yet determined woman who finds the inner strength to deal with the frustrations and dangers of her existence. She has enough compassion to be able to love the man who tried to kill her and manages to convey all of this through her facial expressions and gestures alone.  The other supporting actors all do well within their roles but apart from the three women, the other characters are all more lightly drawn to ensure that the focus of the film is firmly on Kutty Srank.

The film excels in the cinematography and the different parts of Kerala are beautifully filmed by Anjali Shukla. The landscape is as much a character in the film as the other actors. It shapes the actions of many of the protagonists and provides both livelihood and death in equal amounts. The film won 5 awards at the National Film awards and has been screened at a number of film festivals. It’s definitely worth catching in a cinema if you get a chance to appreciate the sweeping shots that really highlight the beauty of Kerala. 4 ½ stars.