SPYder

SPYder wants to be a clever cyber spy thriller but is more a vigilante story with some bells and whistles. Mahesh is a compelling presence, and Rakul Preet Singh is a good match for him. But AR Murugadoss seems to have lost his own plot in the second half

Warning: Some mild-ish spoilers follow.

Shiva (Mahesh) is wildly overqualified to be an intelligence officer, tapping phones illegally albeit with a government mandate to break that law in order to proactively stop people who may break other laws. Hmmm. He is also a genius software developer. One of his inventions analyses calls for signs of fear and pleas for help. When Shiva gets the bat signal he may go rescue people himself, or call on supporters who know of his sideline. On one call he “meets” Charlie (Rakul Preet Singh), a medical student interested in finding a friend with benefits. Through another call he unwittingly sends a friend to her death. Sickened by the consequences of his outsourcing, he finds proof the murderer is a serial killer. Shiva sets out to find him and obtain closure for himself and for all the victims. What starts out driven by data and psychological profiling soon turns into a series of tactical encounters.

Shiva is judge, jury, and executioner as he knew once people went into the legal system it was pointless. Mahesh plays Shiva as focussed, and kind of grim. And Shiva does so much talking – dialogues, voiceover, exposition… Despite the high stakes cat and mouse game, there are times a lighter touch would have been welcome. The scene where he chased Charlie’s auto, jumped in and asked her two questions, then jumped out and ran away had a nice flavour of deadpan absurdity. But when he ran towards the evil Bairavudu, the fierce emotion and torment he was feeling was palpable. Mahesh is a seriously good actor and I was a little disappointed the material let him down.

For those tracking Mahesh’s reluctant acquiescence to the shameless skinshow, he did wear tshirts, and flashed a glimpse of ankle in some manpris. I feel that the costume designer has been watching a bit of Kpop lately, with asymmetrical tailoring supersized to fit Mahesh’s lanky frame. I am grateful he went the mesh shirt (over a tee) and let the dancers don the mesh pants. He hasn’t varied his dance style from rhythmic hopping and emphatic pointing.

Mahesh, maaaate, it’s not the 90s anymore. The songs make a visual statement but musically they do little to lift the movie. And the English lyrics in Achcham Telugandham are woeful…hopefully deliberately!

A scrap of cloth at the scene of the double murder had traces of blood from 8 more people. And then a character said “and three of them were men”. Yeah it’s not like 7 women had also been killed. Someone think of the men! Also the stalking trope is given a twist but it is still stalking. Charlie confronts Shiva early on but as his mate Varun (under-utilised but highly likeable Priyadarshi) says, she noticed what he was wearing so of course she must have fallen for him. The “but she secretly wants it” explanation left a bad taste as did her cheerful acceptance that it wasn’t a big deal if it was Shiva tapping her phone.

Despite all the macho BS, the ladies fare quite well. Charlie wants sex without silly romantic shenanigans and decides Shiva is just right. She says to his mum “I’m 21. My parents have been married 20 years. I take after my mother!” and wins maternal endorsement to try her luck. Rakul Preet Singh has pep without being a manic pixie. Charlie was assertive and still a bit girly, and it was a pity after the boulder incident when it seems everyone forgot she was in the movie and ran off to the next scene without her. Charlie just gets to stand around in the background a lot despite all the likely issues with professional ethics, police procedure, and common sense. It was a waste of a competent actress.

In one of the best sequences of the film, a bunch of neighbourhood mums and aunties are persuaded to help Shiva in a dangerous rescue. He is in a van driving through traffic as he gives each of them a task, and they get shit done in magnificent style and to great music. The aunties not only saved the day but probably booked in coffee catch-ups and shopping trips as they climbed up poles and leapt across balconies. The audience, including me, cheered.

There’s some glossing over and leaps of faith required to buy in. Technology that can record, analyse, prioritise calls in real time from all across Hyderabad whether on analogue or digital networks and presumably in any language sounds great. But I can’t even get a Google doc to load on my work laptop! Shiva just happened to have a green screen handy when he needed to interrupt an evening soap. And he always knew exactly which of all the variables to choose, just on his gut instinct.

Bhairavudu (SJ Surya) is a nihilist and a sadist. He has no objective other than killing for the sake of it, and feel entitles to inflict pain. He is a creature of death and hatred, born in a graveyard. Surya is effectively menacing when he is passing through crowds or observing his intended victims, a cold hunger emanating from him. But when he starts with the capering and shrieking, it’s just acting crazy and it doesn’t ring true. What was with the hessian gimp mask? He could have done with more restraint, and Mahesh could have boiled over a little more and I think the second half would have been more compelling.

Jayaprakash is Shiva’s sensible dad and I think Dheepa Ramanujam plays Shiva’s sensible mum. RJ Balaji and Priyadarshi Pulikonda play Shiva’s down to earth work mates, both low key with the occasional laugh arising from their reactions to their heroic friend. I think the villains were instructed to overact because Bharath tries to get his teethmarks into the scenery.

You’d expect anything Santosh Sivan does to look amazing, and SPYder is very stylish. There are some good, and some dodgy, CGI effects, and the action sequences are full throttle. AR Murugadoss had a good idea but didn’t work through the detail to ensure the finale was as satisfying as the start of this larger than life conflict. Nevertheless there is plenty to enjoy, especially for the Mahesh fans.

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Brahmotsavam (2016)

Brahmotsavam

Srikanth Addala’s Brahmotsavam is a real mishmash of a film, where random family scene follows random family scene with the emphasis on feel-good values and upbeat emotions rather than anything inconvenient like a storyline. This is one film where the subtitles didn’t seem to help at all and much of the dialogue made absolutely no sense, but a few other audience members explained that not only were the subtitles inaccurate, but that the script was fairly random too and they were just as confused. It doesn’t help that most of the characters don’t have actual names but are called brother, brother-in-law or sister-in-law (and there are a lot of them), making Brahmotsavam less of a celebration and more of a memory test. Mahesh is always watchable and the strong cast are all charismatic, but with nothing much actually happening over more than two and a half hours, Brahmotsavam is sadly uninspiring.

The film starts with a family celebration, which I think was a wedding but could have been almost anything – maybe just breakfast – given the families propensity for breaking into song and dance at any moment.  Whatever the occasion, Sathyaraj likes to ensure that the whole family celebrate it together – that’s all his brothers, their wives, children and his brother-in-law Rao Ramesh. Everyone is sickeningly happy all the time except for Rao Ramesh who suffers from intense (but understandable) familiyitis and resents Sathyaraj’s success with the paint factory he runs. Naturally everyone in the family works at the paint factory when they’re not singing and dancing around the family home, and they’re all deliriously happy to be working there too. It’s actually a little odd to see Mahesh in such ultra-happy family mode for most of the film, but when he sheds the happy and has to show a range of emotions he really is excellent. More of this would have made for a better and more enjoyable film.

Just to add to his individuality a small animated figure appears to speak to Rao Ramesh any time he is particularly exasperated with his brother-in-law. Since most of the time this imaginary figure berates him for his lack of appreciation for Sathyaraj and the family gatherings this has the effect of making Rao Ramesh even more miserable and less willing to participate. After the first 15minutes I was totally on Rao Ramesh’s side and could completely understand how the continual en masse family gatherings could very easily make anyone want to run screaming for the hills as fast as possible. Rao Ramesh is much more tolerant however and manages to last almost until the second half before he snaps and leaves the family group.

As part of the celebrations, Kajal arrives from Australia for a few months and her father decides it would an excellent idea if she stayed with Sathyaraj and his family rather than spend the time with her own relatives. She’s gorgeous and confident, and Mahesh is smitten the moment he sets eyes on her. However, since she lives in Australia where the accepted practice if you like someone is to tell them you’re interested, Kajal is rather taken aback by someone staring relentlessly at her at every available opportunity without speaking. Living in the same house makes it ridiculously easy for Mahesh to stalk Kajal without appearing to do so but after a few uncomfortable moments Kajal seems intrigued by her silent admirer. The romance progresses as expected but despite Mahesh and Kajal seeming to get on well together, Kajal decides that she wants more from life than to be the wife of a paint manufacturer and decides to move on. She has ambition and is prepared to sacrifice what’s basically a holiday romance for her in order to ensure her dreams come true. I like this assertiveness in her character and Kajal is appropriately confident in the role, while still remaining respectful to the family and her father. It’s a good performance and I like this more mature and sensible Kajal.

Luckily for Mahesh, Samantha turns up in slightly manic friendly overdrive mode and the pair set off pair set off around India in the search for Mahesh’s roots. One of the first family members he meets is the hapless Vennela Kishore and the couple decide to drag him along with them on their road trip. It seems strangely unnecessary but at least Vennela Kishore and Samantha speak to each other which does help to make sense of the second half. Samantha is just a little too zany to be convincing but her energy does help lift the second half. The problem here is a lack of definition for her role and a fluffy backstory that does little to establish her character.

The biggest issue with Brahmotsavam is the addition of too many random scenes which are only peripherally connected to the main ‘plot’ (such as it is) and don’t serve any purpose. For example, at one point Mahesh and his parents are talking by video connection to his sister in the UK. His mum is showing off various sarees while Mahesh teases his sister and the talk finally comes round to how much they miss her and wish she was there. Big family moment – lots of tears, virtual hugs and emotion. And then that’s it – she’s never mentioned again. So much of the film starts with an apparent purpose and then fizzles out without ever going anywhere, making it difficult to work out what (if anything) is relevant.

The first half is also very song heavy with most of the songs coming one after another with little reprieve, including one where Mahesh and his backing dancers frantically try to get insects out of their clothes. That is definitely one of the high points and got the most cheers from the fans in the audience, but possibly not for the choreography. The second half settles down to a standard road trip and there are fewer songs which makes this part of the film flow more smoothly. It’s still a series of random encounters, but at least that does fit in more with the idea of a journey to find yourself while Samantha keeps everything moving along nicely.

There are a few positives to the film. The songs by Mickey J Meyer are good if oddly placed, and Gopi Sundar’s background music is generally effective and not too intrusive. The film looks beautiful and R Rathnavelu’s cinematography captures the warmth of the family home and the stunning landscapes as Mahesh and Samantha travel around India. All the main leads are fine, if somewhat incomprehensible for much of the film, and Mahesh certainly delivers in terms of emotion but the star of the show is undoubtedly Rao Ramesh with his grumpy and often bewildered demeanour. However, the lack of a comprehensible storyline and the random pointlessness of many scenes means that Brahmotsavam is probably best enjoyed on DVD where it’s possible to skip the vague dialogue, watch the songs and admire the beautiful scenery without worrying about the deficiencies in the story.

Srimanthudu (2015)

Srimanthudu

Mahesh Babu’s latest is a commercial masala movie that manages to fit in some better than expected moments while still remaining true to its mass roots. Writer/director Koratala Siva has penned a good story and although the film could have done with some snappier editing and less one-sided fight scenes, overall Srimanthudu is an entertaining watch. Along with Mahesh Babu and Shruti Haasan, the film features a cast of thousands with almost every Telugu actor appearing at least briefly on-screen, but for a wonder there is only Ali as the mandatory comedy uncle and even he has a very truncated role. That alone makes it a step above the usual fare, and with Mahesh at his charismatic best and some great songs, Srimanthudu is well worth a trip to the cinema.

Mahesh plays Harsha, son of a millionaire businessman and the heir to both the company and his father’s fortune. However that’s not what Harsha wants and he refuses to conform and take over the business despite his father’s continual gentle pressure. The scenes between Harsha and his father Ravikanth (Jagapathi Babu) are a little clunky, but the sentiment hits at the right level with Harsha treating his father with respect despite disagreeing with him on almost every topic. Although Ravikanth is very much a family man, he is cold and distant with no interest in anything outside his millions, while Harsha is diametrically opposite, more interested in his father’s employees and their ambitions. Harsha isn’t totally adverse to those millions though and they do come in handy whenever he needs some cash for his various schemes.

When driving his mother (Sukanya) and sister to the temple one morning, Harsha sees Charu (Shruti Haasan) outside her hostel and drives round the block a few times to get a better look. Luckily for Harsha, Charu also turns out to be cousin to his friend Apparao (Vennela Kishore) and she turns up at his birthday party. She’s beautiful and quirky but her biggest draw for Harsha is that she’s studying rural development at college – something that sounds just his cup of tea. Naturally Harsha enrolls in the same course and while Charu is initially rather disheartened to discover that Harsha is really there to study and not just stalking her, romance does blossom between the two.

As Harsha is falling in love and discovering his true calling, the film jumps to a small rural village where a school has collapsed and Narayana (Rajendra Prasad) is running around with a permanent expression of dismay as tragedy after tragedy occurs. Head villain Sasi (Sampath Raj) and his team of muscle men are slowly sucking the life from the village as their beer factory uses up all the water, and Narayana is doing his best to halt the decline as families leave the village and farmers commit suicide. Sasi is also in league with his brother, Minister Venkat Rathnam (Mukesh Rishi), whose son Radha (Harish Uthaman) is threatening Harsha’s father, so it’s inevitable that Harsha will get involved and use his new knowledge of rural development to save the day. Along with his excellent skills in dishoom of course!

Multi-layer Mahesh has shed his multi layers for Srimanthudu and he mainly appears in a single shirt or elbow baring T-shirt, although the biggest cheers went to his appearance in a knee-baring lungi. He is a one-man unstoppable army and the fight scenes are more comical than exciting as Harsha dispatches any and all comers with ease. There is one fight scene at a wedding function which is cleverly choreographed, but the rest are a montage of villains hitting the ground and bouncing wildly in all directions while Harsha has no difficulty lifting men twice his size over his head and flinging them into the dirt. No one manages to even lay a finger on him until it becomes necessary for the plot, and even then it’s during a shady ambush where Harsha still comes out on top. It’s mayhem, but it’s Mahesh mayhem and I loved every minute!

Shruti Haasan has a role with some substance and she’s generally good as Charu, even managing to hold her own against the star power of Mahesh. It’s good to have a heroine who doesn’t fade into obscurity as soon as the action ramps up, and Charu’s character does have enough depth to move beyond the romance track. The love story itself is well blended into the village make-over story line, while Mahesh and Shruti have good chemistry together adding a touch of plausibility. Shruti also has some lovely outfits, although she does fall foul of the costume designers in the Charuseela song. Seriously, no explanation is possible for the studded shoes, while the female choreography just adds insult to injury. The other songs are all much better with Poorna appearing in the first Rama Rama song, while Shruti gets to strut her stuff in the rest. The music by Sri Devi Prasad is catchy and the choreography generally very good – I loved a brief flash-mob style interlude in the bangle market during one of the songs while Dhimmathirigae bursts onto the screen in a riot of colour and is just as awesome as this teaser suggests.

The accomplished support cast is excellent although with so many good actors quite a few seem underused. I would have liked to see more of Subbaraju, who briefly appears as one of Harsha’s relatives with a spiritual disposition, while Rahul Ravindran has a potentially interesting role as a rival for Harsha that sadly isn’t expanded any further. However Jagapathi Babu and Rajendra Prasad have better developed characters that allow shades of grey while Mukesh Rishi and Sampath Raj are just as black and despicable as such villains need to be.

Srimanthudu may not be a perfect film, but it is a welcome return to form for Mahesh and infinitely better than last year’s Aagadu. The film is a tad overlong and somewhat slow to get going in the second half, but at least Koratala Siva avoids any suggestion of appearing preachy by keeping the attention focused on Mahesh rather than the development work he is doing in the village. Nothing to complain about there! Mahesh is excellent throughout and with a story different enough to maintain interest and great performances all round, Srimanthudu is one of the better films I’ve seen this year. Recommended for Mahesh, Shruti Haasan and those crazy fight scenes.