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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Khaidi No 786

 

What a way to kick off Megabirthday2017!

Vijaya Bapineedu’s film opens with married woman Radha (Bhanupriya) going on a journey that clearly makes her sad, which cuts to a defiant Gopi (Chiranjeevi) under interrogation at the police station. Gopi is taken to the office and something makes him so mad he actually flips a table. Then he beats everyone up, has a few choice words for the key players, and gets back into his cell. The film then moves to a long flashback, explaining who Gopi is and how he came to be in the lock-up.

Radha is the daughter of local bigwig and furry suited villain Surya Chandra Rao (Kota Srinivasa Rao). One day Gopi refuses to let her car pass his cart, and she swears vengeance. Clearly the only way this can end is in True Love.

Chiranjeevi and Bhanupriya have good chemistry, and that is tested through a long series of clashes that Radha never really wins. She goes to learn music from Gopi with the intent of punishing him for blocking the road. She storms off insulting everyone, so Gopi goes to teach her a lesson…by lassoing her car then forcing her to dance in what might be a choreographed rape threat. So she tries to run over him and kills his harmonium. So he beats her car up, egged on by the children she almost ran over too. She slaps a kid, and that is Just Too Much. But when she frames Gopi for rape, she gets the whip hand. Literally.

In turn he whips a marriage chain out of nowhere and marries her very much against her will, and as payback. Despite their relationship being adversarial at the start, Radha gives as good as she gets, at least verbally. Eventually Gopi weakens, and finally Radha has her way with him. And Radha’s song fantasies are the worst dressed by far, so there is perhaps an element of payback. At the jail she steals a few moments with him and OMG his smouldering glance is enough to trigger a hideous hat-fest of a song. Love it! She is also the one who initiates the physical relationship, so I felt that they achieved a healthier balance in their dynamic over time.

But Radha’s dad sets up a thug to kill Gopi, and after the attempt fails Asirayya (Mohan Babu) convinces Surya Chandra Rao to kill the henchman and set Gopi up for the murder.  Just as well Gopi is a one man justice seeking machine with a very bad temper!

Chiru gets to show off his athleticism in the fight scenes, throwing himself and his opponents around with verve. I like that Chiru remembers to act while fighting, so Gopi’s motivation and level of fury is always apparent. The action scenes cover a lot of ground and use lots of props, a very entertaining combination. My favourite fight was with the That Guy who wore boots so fancy I was not surprised Chiru would fight him.

There is minimal romance in the dramatic scenes, but plenty of emotion. I liked Gopi’s relationship with his family as the guys seemed affectionate and supportive of each other. But when he was angry – helpfully indicated by scenes of crashing waves – look out!

Bhanupriya is excellent as potentially unlikeable Radha. She was never beaten into submission but came around to the realisation that her dad wasn’t all that while Gopi was rather fine. Radha seemed comfortable making her own decisions, and was resolute when telling her creepy dad that Gopi was her only family and to leave her be. She remained strong through Gopi’s incarceration, even though clearly stressed and saddened by events. When his grandmother (Annapoorna) is killed, Radha is the one who colludes with Silk Smitha to get him to the funeral to light the pyre. The wardrobe department had a go at her in the songs, but she looks beautiful and elegant in her sarees. And when she faces off with her enemies, I definitely got the feeling Gopi was not the only tough nut in the family.

Silk Smitha is great as a good bad girl with an inexplicable thing for Satyanarayana Kaikala and a resourceful approach to life. I mean…of all the men in this film who I might want to get naked, he is not one. In one scene Radha is seeing a lawyer and I don’t know what he says but she starts seeing flashes of Silk which turns into this hideous song where she dances for the baddies and fondles a lot of fish.

The song is also a cover for Gopi’s family to get into villain HQ, although Asirayya sees through the unfortunate blackface disguises. And that is not even the silliest thing that happens.

The support actors generally have a reason for their existence. Satyanarayana Kaikala is funny and avuncular, Nutan Prasad and Allu Ramalingaiah are there for comedic shenanigans and heart. They even have a nice little “I’m Spartacus!” scene in an attempt to buy Gopi some time. Kota Srinivasa Rao chews the scenery and Mohan Babu is slimy and opportunistic. But you know, crocodiles aren’t that fussy about their food.

This is a highly entertaining and a perfect vehicle for Chiru and for Bhanupriya. There’s little you couldn’t predict but a few things you might not expect. And while there is a bit of clueless comedy, there is more collaboration and support when it counts. And crocodiles. 4 stars!

Lankeswarudu

Lankeswarudu Poster

Who could resist a film synopsis that says “Apart from crime Shankar is also a good dancer and he teaches dancing too”? Certainly not me and especially not when it stars Chiranjeevi. But Dasari Narayana Rao delivers little except for a solid performance from the Megastar and some diverting song picturisations in this lethargic stagger through a bunch of Hollywood “inspired” set pieces.

Siva and his sister Swapna are washed up on a beach. Alone in the world, the boy tries to make a living through odd jobbing and petty theft, eventually falling in with a gang. The siblings acquire a new brother, Kalyan, when his mother is killed saving the little girl. Ma put his hand in Siva’s hand and there you go. Adoption formalities completed. The kid who plays little orphan Kalyan is quite terrible at crying.

Thankfully we leap forward in time. Chiranjeevi enters casually taking his leopard for a stroll. After a recruitment process featuring Bob Christo and a pack of goondas he becomes Shankar, the right hand man of crimelord Dada (Satyanarana Kaikala). Dada already has two left hands in flashy dresser Mohan Babu and snake venom imbibing Raghuvaran.

When not preoccupied with his criminal activities, Shankar is also Siva and he is a dance god. Radha plays his love interest with a lot of “I just escaped from a high security psychiatric facility. Don’t you love ruffles?!?” She fantasises her way onto the stage by way of introduction and wears a spectacular array of fug. I think she either has a speech impediment or doesn’t speak Telugu, but all that ‘comedy’ went over my head, especially on fast forward. He signs an autograph on her arm because that’s not unhinged at all. And thus are their formalities completed and she will be his one true love whenever he gets around to it.

Kalyan has grown up to be a droopy looking guy (Kalyan Chakravarthy Nandamuri). Siva pays for him to take an exam or do something and next thing you know, Kali is a wilted figure in khaki. He’s joined the police, all funded by his brother’s secret criminal life. I just can’t warm to either the character or the actor so found my eye-rolling muscles got a workout during his scenes. Siva finally notices that his sister Swapna (Revathy) and Kalyan are quite handsy, and after a few tantrums on all sides he gets them married.

Things seem to be going well until Kali interrupts Siva’s dance class to tell him he is onto a big gang. I love how unconvinced the other guys seem by all the lycra. Then ensues some cat and mouse with the sidekicks setting Siva up and Kali trying to catch him. Siva is stuck in the middle trying to set things right by the victims and keep himself out of his brother’s way and both boys try and hide their dissent from the sister.

Kali confronts Siva with one of the best worst lines “Mr Siva you can break dance but you can’t break my sense”. Swapna and Kali move out, breaking Siva’s brotherly heart. Raghuvaran and Mohan Babu attack villagers who worship Shankar as a god, enraging him and upping the stakes.

Kali has a genius idea – get Swapna to fake her death and Siva will surely return for the funeral. Siva sees through this ruse but unfortunately for all concerned Kali is rubbish at working out drug dosage. Swapna dies just so her brother and husband can have one more big speech moment.

There are two distinct images for Chiranjeevi – the good big bro Siva and the metal studded baddie with leopard. He doesn’t have to do much more than swagger but as always Chiru just lends a little more authenticity to his dialogues than the film may demand. One thing I did see in this film that is usually glossed over was the Megasock. Admittedly they looked more like circulation stockings but it was good to see them out from the shadows of the Megaboots. And when most heroes would hit the bottle and settle for a pity party, Chiru gets his West Side Story on and manages to make it quite something.

And I have a theory about the costumes for this film. I think they drew lots and the actors took it in turns to raid the dress up box.

Chiru looks positively sedate except for the plunging necklines to indicate his Badness, Mahesh looks more like a porn star or maybe they just ran out of shirts, Mohan Babu looks like he is off to guest star in Miami Vice The Musical, and Radha seems to have stolen some of Chiru’s old dance outfits, especially in this song.

Radha’s character has very little to do in terms of the plot, but she sneaks her way into the film through the songs and her character’s robust fantasy life.

This does leave her at the mercy of the wardrobe department but she’s a trooper and doesn’t bat a false eyelash at any of the excesses. Revathy is also short changed and does little but gaze adoringly at her brother and sigh at her husband’s rhetoric.

I spotted the dragon wall decoration again, and suspect someone’s teenage daughter might be missing some kitten posters which turned up in the gang lair.

The action scenes are entertaining and explosive but most lack the manic energy they need to be more than run of the mill. Having said that, Chiru spin kicks and hee-yahs like there is no tomorrow so that was pleasing. I was also impressed by Raghuvaran’s venom based strategy, especially when he licked a horse and it dropped dead. Obviously not a good outcome for the horse, but so much more effective than the usual finicky filmi snake “could bite won’t bite” dithering. I have mild concerns for the leopard but admired her resourcefulness and loyalty. Nagendra Babu features in the build up to the climax confrontation. There are double crosses and gore galore. And the finale is very Die Hard, right down to Chiru’s white singlet.

Lankeswarudu does enough to be worth a watch, but doesn’t rate high on my list of Mega Favourites. See it for fun of spotting references to other films, the unintentional hilarity of the songs picturisations, and of course for Chiru. 3 stars!