Taxiwaala (2018)

Taxiwaala

Rahul Sankrityan’s Taxiwaala is a supernatural comedy based around a taxi driver’s relationship with his car – which turns out to have a few more extras than he bargained for. The film has plenty of laughs, mixed in with a smattering of uncanny moments and just enough to jump scares to keep it interesting, although it does start to falter a little in the second half. Thankfully Vijay Devarakonda, Madhunandan and Vishnu Oi make an excellent team, helping to keep the film on track as it attempts to veer off down a number of side alleys. Their top-notch performances and a well written story ensure Taxiwaala is entertaining, even if it does end with an overly sentimental finale.

The film starts with a few set-up scenes to introduce the concept of a haunted car and it doesn’t really take off until Shiva (Vijay Devarakonda) arrives at his uncle’s garage in Hyderabad, looking for work. His uncle Babai (Madhunandan) runs the garage along with his apprentice (Vishnu Oi) called Hollywood because of his interest in American films. Babai suggests a number of jobs for Shiva, but since all of these involve major effort for little reward, Shiva struggles to stay in any of them longer than a day. So when an advert for taxi drivers goes up on a billboard near the garage, it seems like the answer to Shiva’s problems. Except that he needs a car… and he doesn’t have any money…

Luckily for Shiva his brother (Ravi Prakash) and sister-in-law (Kalyani) come to his rescue and raise the money he needs. With his limited funds, Shiva doesn’t have much choice, but is overjoyed when a broker finds him a vintage Contessa car at the right price. Even though the owner Raghu Ram (Sijju Menon) seems dodgy, and we already know that the car has given its previous owner some issues, Shiva is ecstatic with his purchase and takes time to fully restore the vintage car before starting work as a taxi driver. Although Shiva does well as a taxi driver, it doesn’t take long for the true nature of his car to make itself known and Shiva has to decide if the risk is worth the reward. It’s not as simple as just giving up either, since Shiva is paying for his sister-in-law’s vital medical treatment now that he is in a position to pay his brother back.

What works really well here is the character of Shiva and his petrol-head fuelled love of his car. It’s easy to understand how he falls heads over heels for the vintage automobile at first sight and why it becomes such an integral part of his life so quickly. His girlfriend Anu even comments that she takes second place to the car, and that is very definitely true. Vijay Devakonda has plenty of charisma and he turns it on full for much of this film, endearing himself to his passengers and ultimately the audience too as he comes to grips with working as a taxi driver and dealing with customers. Vijay has great comedic timing and uses it to good effect throughout the film so that his actions come across as totally spontaneous, which is a hard thing to get right. Madheenandan and Vishnu Oi are also hilarious and writer Saikumar Reddy has done an excellent job with the dialogues which really are laugh-out-loud funny. Adding a more traditional comedy actor can completely change the tone of a film and move the comedy focus away from the action, however here Chammak Chandra enhances the story in his support role without taking anything away from the main leads. Also, a major plus is the fact that his comedy comes through dialogue rather than slapstick and his involvement is kept in context with the main action.

Newcomer Priyanka Jawalkar plays the role of Anu, a taxi passenger who ends up in a relationship with Shiva after he behaves chivalrously when she is very drunk one night. After the initial meeting, Priyanka has very little to do here, the entire romance is pretty much all contained in one song, and she doesn’t have much chemistry with Vijay so it’s hard to say too much about her capabilities. However she’s fine with what she has to work with and it will be interesting to see her in a more central role. Malavika Nair has a little more to do as Sisira Bharadwaj and there is an extended flashback in the second half that explains her story. She still doesn’t have enough screen time to make much of an impact but her performance is competent even if I didn’t quite buy into the reasoning behind her choices. The flashback involves Yamuna as Sisira’s mother, Shijju as her stepfather and Ravi Varma as a paranormal professor who explains the concept of astral projection, all of which means that the flashback is rather too long. While the length means it detracts somewhat from the main story, it does provide a neat explanation for everything that has happened so far and sets up the finale reasonably well.

Overall the film looks good and the special effects are well done, especially those centered on the car. The jump scares are genuinely unexpected and mostly tied in with some comedy which works really well. Jakes Bejoy’s music also fits the mood, particularly the background score, and the songs themselves are reasonably catchy. Sujith Sarang provides excellent cinematography and the action is all well choreographed and suits the characterisation of Shiva. There are no big all out fight scenes, but instead plenty of small action scenes, the most impressive of which require Vijay to act against the car. It’s to his credit that he makes these believable with his reactions. Rekhs and her team (credited for a change!) do a magnificent job ensuring that the subtitles make sense in English, and they have also subtitled the written captions, which are so often forgotten in films. I love the yellow font too, which is so much more visible and easier to read than white.

The only real issues here are the long diversions in the second half to explain the supernatural element and a rather schmaltzy finale which all happens a little too easily for me. For the most part the story moves along well and although there are some obvious plot holes I think that is to be expected when talking about something so unrealistic. The best part of the film is undoubtedly the comedy but with great performances and a well written story, Taxiwaala is definitely another hit for Vijay Devarakonda. It’s clear he’s going places too – last night’s Melbourne show was the first Telugu film in a long time that played to a full cinema and the film had an appreciative reception. This is one definitely worth catching on the big screen to get the full impact of the special effects and really appreciate the comedy.

 

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Kalyana Vaibhogame

Kalyana-Vaibhogame

I hadn’t originally planned to see Kalyana Vibhogame during the film’s brief appearance in Melbourne, but changed my mind when I discovered that a friend has a brief cameo role. Naturally I then had to see the film! I also really enjoyed watching Nandini Reddy’s previous film Ala Modalaindi so had reasonable hopes for a good story and interesting characters, but unfortunately Kalyana Vibhogame never quite hits the mark. At best it’s a bit of a mixed bag since, although it’s a well-worn storyline with frequent clichéd situations, there are also likeable characters and the comedy is generally funny. However the terrible ending ensures that the film is memorable more for what didn’t work, rather than for what did, and that’s disappointing.

Like many films that feature a love story where the starting point is the marriage of the main characters, there are a lot of contrived episodes to get the couple hitched. Shourya (Naga Shourya) works as a gaming designer with plans to move to the USA, but is being pressured by his parents to get married before his grandmother dies. Shourya has a good relationship with his grandmother so the real driving force behind his impending nuptials seems to be his mother (Aishwarya), although she never comes up with any particularly believable reason behind her attempts to force her son into marriage.  So right from the start it’s difficult to see exactly why Shourya feels that he can’t just say no, move to the USA and live the life he wants to lead.

Divya (Malavika Nair) on the other hand has her autocratic father (Anand) to deal with, whose overbearing attitude does at least give a convincing reason why she agrees to consider marriage. Divya talks up a good resistance when she speaks to her mother (Raasi) but isn’t able to follow through on her threats of independence when she speaks to her father. I liked the contrast between Divya’s day to day life as a medical graduate where she’s completely in control and then her inability to stand up to her father and his expectations. It’s more believable than Shourya’s situation and Malavika Nair is convincing and realistically hesitant in her role.

After meeting, Shourya and Divya plan to get married and then straight away apply for a divorce, reasoning that once they move to Hyderabad they will be out from under their parents influence and will be able to do what they want. However we know it’s never as simple as that. The pair enjoy their relative freedom but are constantly having to act the part of devoted newlyweds as their inconvenient families keep showing up. Nandini Reddy even throws in a Punjabi family friend who comes to live in their building with all the expected standard Punjabi jokes, just when the story was starting to improve.

And that’s the problem. There are some good dialogues and the relationship between Shourya and Divya doesn’t entirely follow the expected path. The inclusion of Shourya’s young brother who has Down’s syndrome is brilliant and a fantastic addition to the story. But then there’s another stereotypical character or trite and hackneyed attempt by Shourya to get Divya’s father to respect his wife and daughter, and the film loses pace once again. There is also never any real intimacy developed between the two characters which makes it even more unbelievable when they realise that they do love each other. When did they ever have a chance to fall in love? (Apart from in the songs of course!)

When it’s Shourya, Divya and their friends the film feels fresh and interesting, but once the families appear it’s back into well charted waters and the clichés just keep coming. The end in particular is too ridiculous to take seriously, despite an attempt by Divya’s mother to make a point about women’s rights which is completely overshadowed by the absurdity of the timing and the melodramatic events leading up to her declaration.

Even with the tired storyline, the actors all do a good job and to some extent that makes up for the deficiencies in the screenplay. Naga Shourya fits the part of a young professional and apart from his inability to stand up to his mother, his character is the most believable of the lot. He’s a typical guy – likes showing off, going out with his mates and chasing after pretty girls. Shourya also does well in generating sympathy for his character, painting him as basically a good guy at heart with a generous and respectful nature, and staying true to this portrayal throughout the film.

Although Divya too is a likeable character and Malavika Nair is excellent, the initial promise of her character isn’t fully realised. Divya seems to lose the gumption that let her enter into the deception in the first place and doesn’t seem to make the most of her situation in the same way as Shourya’s character. Granted she is female and is a doctor, but I expected to see the confident Divya of the early scenes in some of the interactions with Shourya, and instead she seems more immature and somehow diminished by the relationship. It’s like that tired cliché that after marriage the girl has to settle down, wear a sari and become the perfect wife. It’s not quite as bad as that here, but the impression is that Shourya is improved by his marriage while Divya seems to lose something of herself.

Overall Kalyana Vibhogame attempts a modern update of an old story but doesn’t  quite manage to pull it off. Although the characters start with a fresh outlook on life and matrimony, in the end the film follows a familiar path until the oddly overly dramatic finale. There are good dialogues, great performances and plenty of well written comedy which together do mean the film is worth a look, it’s just disappointing that there are frustratingly outdated stereotypical characters in abundance as well and as a result the film doesn’t engage as much as it should.