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!

Kanche

Kanche

Varun Tej takes on the role of a soldier in the Second World War so effortlessly in Kanche that it’s hard to believe this is only his second movie. His performance is one of the highlights of a film that has at its heart a simple love story but uses a more ambitious setting to deliver a deeper social message based on the literal and psychological ‘fences’ of the title.  The story starts in Thirties India and moves to the battle torn landscape of Italy during the Second World War using flashback sequences to keep the focus on Dhrupati Hari Babu (Varun Tej) and his romance with Seetha Devi (Pragya Jaiswal). It’s an unusual backdrop for an Indian film and despite a tendency towards melodrama in the second half Kanche is one of the better films I’ve seen this year and well worth catching in the cinema if you can.

The story starts when Hari meets Seetha while they are both studying in Madrasapattinam and Hari is working part-time as a waiter in a social club. Hari is outspoken but respectful with a twinkle in his eye, while Seetha is the perfect lady, always looking absolutely stunning in elegant saris, sparkling jewellery and perfect make-up. I was a little surprised at how liberal her thinking was for a wealthy and presumably somewhat sheltered girl in 1936, but Pragya has just a touch of aloofness which gives more authenticity to her role and she certainly looks the part. The couple have sparkling chemistry together and the romance moves along with a freshness that belies the familiarity of the story. Varun plays Hari with the perfect mix of serious scholar and carefree larrikin to make him an appealing character, and gives an immediate contrast with later scenes where he is more introspective and self-contained as a soldier in the Indian Army.

Although Seetha is from a royal family and Hari is the son of the local barber, their romance blossoms while they are away from home. When they return from college however their relationship seems doomed to failure since social norms decree that Seetha must marry a man from her own class. Seetha and Hari try to enlist the help of Seetha’s brother Eeshwar Prasad (Nikitin Dheer) but he is firmly on the side of tradition and opposes the match almost more vigorously than Seetha’s father. Nikitin plays Eeshwar with a permanent sneer that looks painful to maintain and becomes almost comical with each reappearance. There are whiffs of a more rational and intelligent man but they don’t seem to be able to make it past the facial grimace and Eeshwar is too one dimensional to be completely convincing here. Sowcar Janaki has more scope as Seetha’s mother, trying to get her daughter to conform while at the same time acknowledging that as a woman she has little influence and no effective assistance to offer. I love the subtle message that Krish adds here about the role of women in Indian society which is just as effective as his more obvious statements about social divides later in the film.

The class divide isn’t enough drama for Krish though, and he adds in inter-caste rivalries in the village which increase the tension and lead to literal fences being constructed alongside the invisible social barriers to keep different groups of villagers apart. The village is split by class, caste and gender which makes for a lot to expect Hari to fix in the final half of the film!

The romance is told as flashback sequences interspersed with events on the battlefields in Italy and although the love story follows a predictable path, the rest of the film is rather more unexpected. Eeshwar is now Hari’s commanding officer and still hasn’t lost the sneer or his enmity towards Hari although the two avoid each other as much as possible. Krish doesn’t fall into the trap of making Eeshwar a vindictive bully and Nikitin does a better job in these scenes, making Eeshwar an honourable and decent man behind the curled upper lip. As events unfold, Eeshwar is forced to depend on Hari when he is captured by the German army along with the other commanding officers. Hari and a few other soldiers set out to rescue them but find themselves confronted by Nazi atrocities in a small town they pass through and need to adjust their plans accordingly.

There are a number of more subtle messages that are almost lost as Krish hammers home the point that anything can be achieved through co-operation and mutual trust. The camaraderie between the soldiers – British and Indian – is unexpected and an interesting counterpoint to the more usual rivalry and prejudice seen in other films. Hari’s letters to Seetha also provide a different view of the war and her unseen presence provides support for Hari as he struggles with the realities of the conflict.

One of my pet hates in films with foreign characters is the usually poor quality of the performances, however here the actors are good and generally appropriately cast. The commanding German officer and a family of bakers in a small Italian village are particularly effective and add credibility to this part of the film, while the various British soldiers are also all good in their roles.  The dubbing is however not as successful with a definite miss on some of the British army accents making the British General sounding more like an East End butcher rather than an officer of the British Army. There is also some confusion with the Italian villagers who speak variously in oddly accented Italian and German, although this is mostly drowned out by the Telugu voice-over. Still, overall the foreigners are much better than usual and are convincingly part of the film storyline rather than simply extras in the background for added flavour.

The pace in the second half is slower and the particularly in the final scenes the action becomes overly dramatic where less really would have been more compelling. The end is also heavy on the films message of peaceful co-existence through mutual respect and tolerance, even adding a baby called Hope just in case there could be anyone who missed the point. However despite the awkward melodrama and overly drawn out final fight scene, the story is still powerful and Varun is impressive right to the end. Definitely an actor to look out for.

With good performances, an interesting story and some clever dialogue, Kanche demonstrates Krish’s ability to think outside the norms of Telugu cinema and deliver another great film. Don’t miss it!

Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum

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Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum is complex, controlled, visually beautiful and highly entertaining. Taking themes ranging from corruption, environmental vandalism and the disenfranchisement of the poor to Telugu film standards of revenge and justice, director Krish keeps it all in hand, gathering momentum to the dramatic showdown.

B Tech Babu (Rana) is an actor in his grandfather’s traditional Surabhi theatre troupe, performing devotional plays as well as ones based on old films and stories. (I was delighted to recognise bits of Patala Bhairavi)  He is planning to leave the theatre and go work in the US. But Subramanyam (Kota Srinivasa Rao) dies and Babu feels compelled to ensure his final play is staged at a fair in Bellary. Devika (Nayantara) is in the region filming an expose of land grabs and illegal mining practices. She interviews workers and tracks down rural folks displaced from their lands. Boy meets girl, he is smitten, she is annoyed, but they both keep on with their work and their romantic relationship is a minor facet of the story. Their connection grows as they are thrown together under an external threat. Redappa (Milind Gunaji) is the villain of the piece. His goons threaten the theatre company and he is out to prevent any interference in his mining business so has his sights on Devika. He has a deeper tie to Babu than is initially apparent and his relationship to all the various players is gradually revealed.

It is a little complicated but I felt I followed most of the plot despite this being another Adventure Without Subtitles. I had to really concentrate on who was who, and was completely taken in by one of the plot twists until the truth was revealed. I saw this with two friends – one who dislikes seeing unsubtitled films and the other had only seen one other Telugu film – and they both found it hard going. The audience were whistling, cheering and laughing at a lot of the dialogue, real belly laughs at that, so I am looking forward to seeing this with subtitles. Hopefully the DVD doesn’t take as long to release as Vedam did.

KVJ backstage Babu

I think this is easily Rana’s best performance to date. When Babu’s grandfather died, there was no weeping and chest beating but a definite sadness and quiet loss. There are lighter moments and some glimpses of vulnerability as well as the heroics. Rana’s dialogue delivery and the costumes for the plays within the movie were lots of fun.

KVJ Babu takes a break

He switched between young lad about town and theatrical mode with ease. I got a sense of the character’s struggle with tradition and his fundamental sense of fair play. The fight scenes were excellent and Krish knew how to use his hero to best effect. All Rana did in one sequence was stand suddenly and the audience cheered madly as the bad guy’s knee and hip joints popped and crunched. Plus Rana has Toes of Death.

Despite his ability to carry off a choreographed fight Rana cannot do the same for the other kind of choreography. He can execute dance steps but has no timing at all. The editing was very kind, and it largely worked in Ranga Marthanda, but his shortcomings were all too evident. I wonder if now Charan and Bunny are married, they don’t have time to coach their mate. Poor Rana. But he has an excellent heroic run and he is very tall. My rowing coach used to say to me whenever I had had a disastrous training session ‘you can learn technique but you can’t learn height’.

KVJ Devika at work

Nayantara is glammed up with false lashes and shiny perfect hair, but Devika is primarily focussed on her film and the cause she hopes to help. She has some contact with the CBI and I am not sure whether they were using her to get evidence or she was informing to them. There is a tough side to her and she doesn’t just sit back and wait for the men to sort things out.

Nayantara and Rana

There is no chemistry between Babu and Devika at first as the interest is on his side and he got her offside by acting like an idiot, but it does develop. Devika described Babu to her mother on the phone but that was based on him just being in front of her and looking good so I think she was giving her mum a wishlist rather than declaring an interest. Regardless, the romance is not necessary to make the story development make sense as the characters have other motives for their actions. Nayantara conveyed a sense of purpose and resilience often lacking in filmi heroines.

KVJ Venkatesh Sameera and Rana

The music sounded too familiar at times so I wondered if Mani Sharma had recycled some of his other work. The songs pop up all over the place but they provide a timeout from the action or explain important theories like ‘media is a circus’. If you have ever wondered what Rana would look like as a dwarf, on stilts, or wearing a lilac sequinned cowboy hat ‘Spicy Spicy Girl’ will provide answers. And they solved his dancing issues by getting him to flex to the beat. Venkatesh made a guest appearance in a fun item number with Sameera Reddy and the audience went nuts. The second item was not strictly necessary (are they ever?) but Hazel Keech was just dire. Oh for the love of Helen –  hire a girl who can dance!

KVJ Theatre Company

This is such a beautiful production. Backstage glimpses of the theatre company are dominated by jewel tones, gilding and rich fabrics in honeyed light while the town scenes are sun bleached with harsh shadows. The fairground lights and shapes were used effectively without being overwhelming. The contrast between the forest and the mines could not be more pointed.  People were dressed appropriate to their characters and apart from the songs, the costume team only got away with one lurid shirt – Redappa’s main enforcer wore a fetching mauve satin with shiny spots. A special shout out to whoever designed the theatre costumes for Rana – his Narasimha look was quite something.

KVJ Rana as Narasimha

A lot of the violence was directed at mouths – people had their tongues cut out, their lips pulled at, were forced to swallow boiling water. It was disturbing at times but seemed to be a literal representation of power silencing the poor and unrepresented. The action scenes use a lot of wire work and different film techniques to heighten the drama. The climax fight merges the symbolism of Narasimha with the film hero style in extravagant and memorable fashion.

The support cast includes Brahmi in a pointless gig as a rival actor, Satyam Rajesh and Raghu Babu as members of Subramanyam’s troupe, Murali Krishna Posani as a comedy taxi driver, Adithya as Babu’s murdered father, Murli Sharma in a pivotal role and many others. I liked seeing Krish’s attention to detail in the background scenes. The Surabhi company members were often seen repairing costumes or organising props and makeup and it felt like a working theatre group.

I found Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum immensely satisfying and never dull. Krish balances dialogue driven and action scenes, and draws out the themes to make a cohesive and substantial narrative. Rana excels as the modern hero with traditional inspirations and Nayantara was appealing as a heroine with a brain. This is one of my favourite films in 2012.  I’m crossing my fingers the DVD doesn’t take as long to release as Vedam did.