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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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.

Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu

seethamma-vakitlo-sirimalle-chettu-poster

Set mostly in a beautiful rural location, and with Mahesh Babu and Venkatesh starring as brothers, this could have been a great feelgood movie. Writer/director Srikanth Addala has crafted a picturesque and sentimental family oriented film. Unfortunately he neglected to provide anything by way of drama and the brothers are unlikeable. It was very disappointing to see so much potential go to waste.

It’s a charming film to look at.  I loved the heroes’ introduction; everything from the composition of shots to the clever editing and the choreography that featured Venkatesh and some great random street dancing was so appealing. Unfortunately it was downhill from there as Venkatesh and Mahesh play entitled manchildren who exist at the centre of their own and all other universes.

Manchild 1 (Venkatesh) is fired from his job by a surly Kota Srinivasa Rao. It seemed that M1 was sacked because he was late or lazy or just rude and off he went in a cloud of indignation. Manchild 2 (Mahesh) was irresistible to women (The Mahesh Fan agrees) and constantly told these poor girls why they were not good enough for the likes of him. M2 is sarcastic, cranky, often funny, but the humour is mean-spirited in tone. M2 does tell M1 he needs to improve his attitude but neither man really thinks the problem is with them, it is always someone else.

Prakash Raj is introduced wandering around the village smiling benignly upon all he sees. He is a kind of a ‘simple man is a holy man’, and is totally absent from, and oblivious to, his sons’ lives. Prakash Raj phones it in, and added nothing to the film. Again – what a waste!

Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu Mahesh and Venkatesh

The family of mother, grandmother, sister and cousin devote themselves to running the household while M1 and M2 devote themselves to self-pity and lounging around until the next meal. Seeta (the cousin, played by Anjali) has her eye on M1 but he is oblivious because of course she should always be there to wait on him hand and foot. The boys’ sister Radha is married to a relative of M1’s former boss who looks down on Prakash Raj as a bit of a country bumpkin or something. There are tensions between the families, but a little compromise or swallowing of over-inflated pride by the boys could easily have de-escalated all that. There is a romance thread for M2 with Geeta (Samantha), also related to the ‘enemy’ family. Samantha got a really cute introduction song and dance and then all she had to do was make puppy eyes at M2 for the rest of the film. M1 and M2 fall out over Samantha as M1 is peeved at his little brother canoodling with the ‘enemy’. Much emo brooding ensues – a whole song montage worth – and neither considers compromise or conversation. They’d rather feel hard done by and betrayed.

I thought the first hour or so was just establishing the scene and people, and there would be some plot or character development. No. It is all ‘slice of life’ and watching these two sooky boys. In what is supposed to be the dramatic high point, things are eventually patched up but really – who cares? Two brats decide they’re on speaking terms again. Hurrah.

seethamma-vakitlo-sirimalle-chettu-not sulking

I really like both Mahesh and Venkatesh and they are very accomplished actors. I liked watching them together (especially when they weren’t sulking) and I enjoyed some of their scenes at home with the family. Mahesh fans will enjoy the occasional wardrobe malfunction that resulted when his modesty singlet rode up exposing the princely tummy.

Had there been a more engaging or credible story I might have been more sympathetic. The interview panel at GOOGLE asked M2 why he couldn’t smile from the heart – so he had a hissy fit and walked out. Who thinks that was a good idea? And who believes that is a legitimate interview question? M2 had a nice relationship with his grandmother, very playful and annoying, but loving. Why not set that conversation with his gran, not via product placement? M1 was very half-hearted in getting a new job. Why not show him as someone who lost their job through redundancy or something so we could empathise with his bitterness, rather than him just being a temperamental diva? Why not show him having to learn and grow like a real person? Why not show a threat to the family home or something that might compel the boys to get over themselves? Anything! In an action mass type film it doesn’t matter as much whether the hero is likeable because he exists to deliver victory and he does what it takes to win. In a character piece where there is no mitigating threat or transformative incident, there is nothing to dilute the boorishness.

Seethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu AnjaliSeethamma Vakitlo Sirimalle Chettu Samantha

The supporting actresses (including Jayasudha as the long suffering Ma) were good, all of them creating distinct characters and often funny. I would have liked to see more of them.

I liked the songs (by Mickey J Meyer) but in a film with little plot, more spectacle could have stopped me checking my watch. They could have included more big set pieces instead of wasting a good cast on montage after montage. Venkatesh and Anjali got the better of the duets in terms of choreography while Mahesh and Samantha scored the fancy foreign location. I suppose that (and splitting the heroic rescue 50/50) is how you keep two big name heroes happy.

The audience lapped it all up. The ladies seemed to laugh more at the family scenes, while the boys clearly thought these guys were legends. Normally after such a dialogue heavy film I would be keen to get the DVD and see what I missed. But I don’t think there is anything to gain from the aggravation of knowing exactly how objectionable they were. Oh this could have been so much better. Watch the songs and enjoy the pretty, but avoid the tedious glorification of the manchild!