Mahanati

Mahanati

Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati is a spellbinding biopic that celebrates the life of Savitri in sumptuous colour with haunting re-enactments of her most famous scenes. Keerthy Suresh invokes the magic of Savitri’s screen presence while Samantha ties it all together as a journalist researching the legendary actor’s life for a newspaper article. At just under three hours, the film still only scratches the surface of Savitri’s story, but with an impressive cast and convincing dialogue, Mahanati is a mesmerising look at one of the most successful film actors from the South.

The film opens with Savitri falling into a coma and being taken to a hospital whose bemused staff have no idea who they have just admitted. One year later, on the anniversary of her illness, journalist Madhura Vani (Samantha Akkineni) is given the task of writing about the film star for a short article in the newspaper. Vani is shy and frumpy, struggling to make her mark in the male-dominated profession of journalism and she is dismayed at what she thinks is a throw-away assignment. But once she starts speaking to the people who knew Savitri, Vani becomes intrigued by the star and her generous and compassionate personality. As she learns more, Vani draws inspiration from Savitri and becomes empowered to make changes in her own life and stand up for herself. This interweaving of Vani’s story into the life of Savitri is ingenious and allows Nag Ashwin to focus on the more positive aspects of Savitri’s legacy, although he doesn’t avoid the drama either.

The film shows Savitri’s early life after her father dies and her mother goes to live with relatives. Even as a child, Savitri was a force to be reckoned with. Her determination and will to succeed is demonstrated as she learns to dance despite the dance instructor telling her she lacks discipline and will not be able to master the skill. I loved these early scenes and the young actor playing the child Savitri who is a real find. She is full of life and totally charming with plenty of attitude – perfect for the role!

Savitri is shown taking part in theatrical shows under the supervision of her Uncle, K.V. Chowdary (Rajendra Prasad), and her abortive first trip to Chennai to become an actress is also depicted. This is beautifully done, with Savitri in full fan mode as she tries to get glimpses of her favourite actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao (Naga Chaitanya), and being almost totally oblivious to the man who takes her photo, Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan).

Nag Ashwin doesn’t dwell too much on Savitri’s rich film history but focuses instead on the real-life drama of her marriage to Gemini Ganesan and subsequent estrangement from her uncle. Her iconic roles are shown in a montage and Keerthy Suresh does a fantastic job in re-creating these accurately, including a poignant song from Devadasu and the wonderful scene in Mayabazar where Savitri is playing Ghatotkacha impersonating Sasirekha.

I’ve been waiting for a film that showcases Keerthy’s talents as an actor, and finally she gets her moment to shine. She really is amazing here and completely nails a wide range of emotions. From the early bubbly and happily carefree girl all the way through to the devastated wife who turns to alcohol, Keerthy makes us live every moment and completely believe in her portrayal of a legendary actor. A standout is the moment when she learns Gemini Ganesan is already married and her dreams of romance turn to ashes. This, and her subsequent difficult decision to marry the man she loves despite everything are simply perfect, with none of the actors overplaying the emotion, but still managing to make the audience feel every heartache and each moment of elation.

Dulquer Salmaan is also a perfect choice for the ultimate romantic actor of the time; Gemini Ganesan. He has plenty of charm and when he sets out to woo Savitri, she doesn’t stand a chance! Their romance sparkles on screen and Dulquer is just as convincing when he portrays Gemini Ganesan’s jealousy at his wife’s success and subsequent alcoholism. The story is told from Savitri’s viewpoint, so Dulquer has less screen time after Savitri finds out about his affairs, but throughout it’s an excellent performance that makes the drama and emotion behind their relationship very real.

The secondary story of Madhura Vani and her struggle to be accepted as a serious journalist is well integrated into the main plot. Nag Ashwin uses Vani to introduce key witnesses to events in Savitri’s life that allow the film to move back into flashback. But is also emphasises the importance of Savitri as a role model and inspiration, while Samantha’s success over the other, male reporters is an important step for Telugu cinema. Here is a film that has a female lead who isn’t defined by her romance with a male character and who is allowed to have a personality and story of her own. Although there is a romance (with Vijay Devarakonda in a very bad wig), it’s very much part of Vani’s own story and important mainly as a way for her to assert her independence from her father’s plans.

There is a plethora of other actors who appear in cameo roles as various screen legends of the time. Just a few are Mohan Babu as S.V. Ranga Rao, Prakash Raj as director/producer Aluri Chakrapani and Krish appearing as K.V. Reddy. It’s a real who’s who of Telugu/Tamil cinema of the time and I was inspired to read up on some of these directors and producers whose names I recognised when I left the cinema. Mickey J. Meyer’s music fits the film perfectly too and Dani Sanchez-Lopez does an excellent job with the cinematography. The effects team have managed to recreate Chennai in the fifties and the costume department deserve special mention for the wonderful outfits worn by Keerthy and Dulquer. The end credits juxtapose shots of Savitri with those of Keerthy in the same film role and the resemblance really is astonishing.

Overall there is fantastic attention to detail for both the scenes in the early eighties and Chennai in the fifties that ensure the film feels authentic, although I did sympathise with Samantha and her selection of ruffled shirts and long skirts. Everything about the film seems to have been well researched and the sets dressed to add plenty of authentic flavour. Including the film segments in black and white also adds to the whole period feel of the film and emphasises just how much impact Savitri had at the time. I also have to comment on the excellent subtitles by Rekhs that ensured the drama of each scene was well conveyed. After the last few Telugu films I’ve watched where literal translations have made a mockery of important scenes it is such a relief to have proper idiomatic English that makes sense and doesn’t detract from the dialogue. Until I can learn Telugu (a vain hope given my lack of success with Tamil) Rekhs subtitles are the next best thing to understanding the dialogue myself and I always cheer when I see ‘Subtitles by Rekhs’ appear on screen.

Mahanati is an excellent dramatisation of the life of one of South India’s best known and well-loved actors. I don’t know enough about the details of Savitri’s history to comment on its accuracy but from all I have read, Nag Ashwin has captured the essence of Savitri’s story while Keerthy Suresh has brought her memory to vivid life. It’s ultimately a sad story but also a lovely tribute to Savitri and a reminder of what a wonderful actor she was. Mahanati is a real treat for fans of both classic and contemporary Telugu cinema – don’t miss it!

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Si3 (Singam III)

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Si3 is the third film in the Singam franchise from writer/director Hari and team, and it follows the same basic formula as the previous two films. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but the problem here is that Hari sticks rigidly to the format and includes far too much lacklustre comedy and insipid songs that do nothing but distract from the main plot. That is rather less than expected too, although there is plenty of fast-paced action and blistering fight scenes, the story is scantily developed while characters some and go without ever establishing any sense of who they are and what their relationship is to the story. Suriya also seems to be on overdrive – every dialogue is delivered in either a hoarse snarl or a loud shout and the character of Durai Singam even less plausible than usual, having moved on from portraying a one-man army to more elemental unstoppable force that slams villains into the ground so hard that they almost ricochet into orbit. It’s excessive and overdone but the fight scenes are still fun to watch – if only the rest of the movie had been anywhere near as entertaining.

As the film begins, Durai Singam is seconded to the CBI and sent to Vizag in Andhra Pradesh to investigate the murder of Police Commissioner Ramakrishna (Jayaprakash). The local police are surprisingly grateful to have Singam foisted onto them but the local villains, headed up by the enterprising M.S. Reddy (Sarath Saxena) are rather less thrilled by his arrival. Cue major fight at the train station that’s over almost before it begins as Singam throws his opponents through anything remotely breakable before leaving for Vizag police station. Vidhya (Shruti Haasan) spots Singam’s thug annihilation program at the station and instantly decides to follow and harass him by declaring her undying love at every opportunity. Vidhya’s attempts to entice Singam to reciprocate her love are mainly used as comedy, although there is nothing remotely funny about any of these scenes and Vidhya’s character is painfully immature and brattish. Vidhya is an investigative reporter and does have a minor part to play in the plot as well, but Shruti is completely wasted here in a role that requires her to do little more than pout at appropriate places and dance in a few oddly placed songs.

Although Singam is now married to Kavya (Anushka Shetty), he decides that for security reasons she shouldn’t accompany him to Andhra. However, Kavya decides to come along incognito using working for her father as an excuse, managing a few brief meetings with Singam and suffering through some appallingly bad wardrobe choices during an awkward song in the snow. Like the rest of Singam’s family back in TN, Anushka only appears as a means to link the previous movies to Si3 and otherwise her presence is completely superfluous to the plot.

Sarath Saxena is good as the don in charge of the criminal element in Vizag, but he doesn’t appear on-screen enough to develop much of a presence. He’s also not the main villain either, which is a shame since he would have been a much better choice than Thakur Anoop Singh. Singh’s Vittal is the son of the Central Home Minister but despite his parentage is an Australian citizen based in Sydney. His company is involved in the illegal dumping of Australian waste in India, with the Vizag part of the operation under the control of Reddy and his gang, which provides the connection back to the murder of the police commissioner. Sadly Vittal is an ineffectual villain who looks as if he has just stepped out of a shampoo commercial and spends most of his time pumping weights and channelling his inner Salman Khan. He is also horrifically violent to women, using this as a tactic to force other men to follow his commands. It seems oddly cowardly for a Tamil villain and I presume that Hari was ensuring that Singam’s opponent appeared as vile as possible, although I don’t think this was the best approach. Vittal is childish and indecisive and it’s hard to believe that he has built up a criminal empire given his whingeing and temper tantrums whenever things don’t go his way.

Without a strong villain, the story collapses into a series of frenetic fight scenes, punch dialogues from Singam and puerile comedy from Soori as police officer Veeram. There are some excellent actors in the support cast but they are given little to do and have very limited screen time. As in the previous Singam films, the focus is all on Suriya and the wafer-thin plot is purely an excuse to add in more fight scenes and shots of Suriya morphing into a lion or confidently striding around Vizag in his police uniform. Thankfully, Suriya is up to the challenge with his presence almost enough to hold the entire film together despite the hectic pace and general lack of a coherent storyline.

Harris Jayaraj provides the music but the songs are not memorable and the best, an item song featuring Neetu Chandra, is completely overpowered by the action taking place around the dancers. The rest are insipid love songs which are erratically pictured in various foreign locations, although I was happy to see Suriya in a Rishi Kapoor-style jumper at one point.

The best parts of the film are undoubtedly the fight scenes (despite the insane tossing around of villains like confetti), and Hari makes sure there are plenty including a variety of locations and items-to-be-smashed too. While Suriya is excellent as Durai Singam no-one else in the film has a chance to appear as anything other than as a bystander to events, although Krish does just manage to be noticed as Singam’s trusty assistant Sreenivas. Si3 suffers from the success of the previous Singam films as Hari has tried to make the third outing bigger, louder and even more action-packed but without a coherent plot, all the special effects, super-speed action and fight choreography aren’t enough to make a good film. Si3 is watchable, entertaining in parts and occasionally thrilling, but it could have been so much better.

Gautamiputra Satakarni

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For his latest film Krish takes inspiration from historical figure Gautamiputra Satakarni; a king who ruled in the South of India a couple of thousand years ago. Since little seems to be known about his reign, Krish is free to take the few major events that have been recorded and develop these into a plausible story, which he does reasonably well. The film follows Satakarni (Balakrishna) through a number of battles as he consolidates his rule over Southern India, and then moves north to tackle the invading Greeks. As a historical epic, there is plenty to enjoy but the film doesn’t shed much light on the man behind the warrior king despite a few diversions into his relationship with his mother and wife.

Over the opening credits, the young Satakarni declares that the only way to stop the petty wars between neighbouring kingdoms is for one man to conquer them all and thus unify the country. Needless to say, even at such a young age, Satakarni knows that he is the right man for the job and as the film begins the adult Satakarni has already embarked on his campaign. He starts off small by conquering a few neighbouring kingdoms (Milind Gunaji is good as one of the kings here) and then turns his sights towards the north, sending emissaries to King Nahapana (Kabir Bedi). Unsurprisingly Nahapana doesn’t respond well to a demand that he peacefully submits to becoming a vassal of Satakarni, and the scene is set for war!

Satakarni alienates his wife Vashishthee (Shriya Saran) when he takes his young son along to battle which allows for the development of some tension between the two. At the same time, Satakarni is shown as having great respect for his mother Gautami Balashri (Hema Malini), whom he has left to govern while he is off fighting his battles. These two relationships allow for more emotional and character-driven scenes to balance the battles that form the rest of the film. These are epically grand and give Balakrishna plenty of opportunity to make declarations (they’re much more dramatic than mere speeches) while looking imposing in armour and carrying a large sword. He has the gravitas and spectacular moustache required to play the ruler of the Satavahanan empire, although his age does seem to slow him down in the action scenes.

I enjoyed watching Balakrishna as Satakarni and this was a good choice for his 100th film. The character allows him to behave as the usual style of Telugu hero (unstoppable one-man army) but this time he does have an army to back him up. He’s also impressive in the more emotional scenes and his delivery of the epic speeches is very well done. Shriya Saran is also excellent as Satakarni’s wife and makes an impact despite her limited amount of time onscreen. There is the excitement of her reuniting with the king after time apart, their happiness together and then the shock of her young son heading into battle. Although at times she does emote just a little too much, at least the historical nature of the drama allows her to do so. The historical aspect also makes the sight of an older and portlier Balakrishna chasing Vashti around the royal bedchamber a little more acceptable, although I was reminded of portraits of the English King Henry the Eighth and his procession of younger wives. I find Shriya Saran can be a bit hit and miss, but here she is a definite hit and the relationship between her and Balakrishna works much better than expected. Hema Malini too is very good as the dowager queen, dealing with the pesky problems that crop up while her son is away subduing the realm. She does this with grace and style, looking regal and definitely projecting an aura that she is not to be trifled with.

After subduing Nahapana, the next challenge for Satakarni is the army of invading Greeks led by Demetrius. While the scenes where Satakarni plots his campaign are well delivered, the battle scenes are a little more patchy. For the most part when the camera is showing close ups of the action the battles look superb, but there are a few glitches between the CGI and staged fight scenes. These are mainly errors of perspective where there is a CGI view of massed warriors which moves in to show a smaller group of men and horses surrounded by green fields. For the most part the effects are well integrated into the live action and the battles do look good, but the few errors do divert attention away from the overall spectacle. The other problem is that a couple of the battles go on just that little bit too long. Some of this is due to repetitions of the same scene, as for example during the storming of the walls of Nahapana’s citadel but some just seem overly drawn out while Balakrishna indulges in some heroics which would mean certain death on a real battlefield.

There is plenty to enjoy in Gautamiputra Satakarni, even with the slightly uneven mix of plentiful epic battles and intermittent emotional drama. Balakrishna exudes power and authority while the appropriately grandiose costumes and palace sets seem to paint the time period well. Not that I would know if they were wrong, but judging by the paintings in museums I’ve seen while in India, this all looked pretty good! The soundtrack by Chirantan Bhatt is also excellent and to his and Krish’s credit, the songs don’t feel out of place in the narrative. However at the end of the day there is no real insight into the characters and the all too brief glimpse of Satakarni’s achievements only leads to more questions. This isn’t an attempt to detail the life of a famous ruler or to tell the story of a kingdom, but instead is a series of vignettes of what might have occurred, without delving too deeply into the why. Too, Balakrishna plays Satakarni as a regular Telugu hero with all the unlikely ability to stop an army single handedly so the story never feels quite as realistic as it should. But once the drums start beating and the swords clash that seems unimportant – the spectacle and grandeur of ancient India sweep across the screen and Gautamiputra Satakarni charges to victory!