Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020)

A new year, a new Bunny film, and this one is a lot of fun. Trivikram has come up with a different slant on a traditional storyline around babies swapped at birth, and then adds in an unusual father/son dynamic on top. Murali Sharma gets to act his heart out, the support cast are terrific and Bunny is on top form throughout. Yes, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is a little slow to start and there are a few mis-steps initially, but there is much to enjoy in this mix of family drama, action and romance.  

The movie opens with two babies being switched immediately after birth. The rich Ramachandra (Jayaram) and his wife Yasu (Tabu) end up with the son of Valmiki (Murali Sharma) and his wife (Rohini). There is some history between the two men as they used to work together until Ramachandra married the boss’s daughter and ended up running the business. Valmiki has ended up working for his old friend and is resentful and bitter about the situation as he feels it’s luck rather than talent which has given Ramachandra his success. The only people who know about the switched children are the nurse, who meets with a tragic accident and falls into a coma, and Valmiki. Sadly no significant jewellery, birthmarks or songs, but obviously film aficionados will instantly recognise the nurse’s coma as potentially important!

The film then moves to the present day where nature has trumped nurture and Raj (Sushanth) has grown up to be quiet, hesitant and totally unable to replicate his father’s business success. Meanwhile, despite Valmiki’s antagonism, Bantu (Allu Arjun) is smart, canny and very capable, although he does have one flaw – he always has to tell the truth. There is some very well-written conflict between father and son as Valmiki treats Bantu badly, while Bantu tries everything he can to get any sign of approval at all from his father. Meanwhile, Ramachandra is desperate to get Raj involved in the business, but it’s something for which he shows no aptitude, instead demonstrating positive disinterest. Thrown into this mix is Appala Naidu (Samuthirakani) and his son (Govind Padmasoorya) who are out to grab some of Ramachandra’s company for themselves. Appala Naidu is a thug who runs the docks, while his son is more sophisticated but obsessed with the idea of taking over Ramachandra’s business.

What lifts this movie above being simply yet another masala pot-boiler, is the relationship between Bantu and his father Valmiki. The sheer nastiness of Valmiki and his determined mistreatment of Bantu is cleverly done and well contrasted with Valmiki’s servile attentiveness when working with Ramachandra. Murali Sharma is simply brilliant here and his total lack of remorse for his actions, the fate of the nurse and his treatment of Bantu is perfectly portrayed along with his innately selfish nature. And while Murali Sharma is outstanding, Bunny too is superb in these interactions, displaying nuanced emotion and plenty of depth to his character. There is a beautiful moment after Banto finds out the truth that really is emotionally perfect, and Bunny plays it brilliantly. Naturally the estranged sons and their various families need to be reunited but it’s not quite that simple. While Bantu fights his way past Valmiki and gradually charms Ramachandra and his father-in-law Aditya Radhakrishnan (Sachin Khedekar), the family is dealing with a number of problems. There is conflict between Ramachandra and his wife, his brother-in-law is cheating and stealing money from the company, and Raj’s inability to deal with Kashiram is also causing problems.

As Bantu becomes involved with the family, Trivikram tones down the comedy and OTT action for some good solid family drama that’s written for maximum emotional effect. It works because the characters are well realised and each acts true to themselves, making the emotions more real and adding to the story.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the romance angle. Mainly this comes from the odd introduction of Amulya (Pooja Hegde) as Bantu’s boss in a new job. When he first meets Amulya, Bantu can only see her legs and is unable to lift his eyes above her skirt level for much of the first half of the movie. For a film that then goes on to talk about it is wrong to fight with women and then treats Yasu’s character so well, this is a significant step back to outdated ideas of ‘comedy’ and ‘romance’. With the odd start, despite good chemistry between Bunny and Pooja Hegde, the love story always feels just a little off, not helped by Pooja’s initially ‘strong business woman’ persona fading into the background as Bantu starts to work for Ramachandra and she is relegated to being simply ‘the love interest’. The film really didn’t need a love track for both Raj and Bantu, especially when Trivikram tries to muddy the waters here too and just succeeds in making both Pooja Hegde and Nivetha Pethuraj appear insipid. 

Even with the incredibly strong performance from Murali Sharma, this is Bunny’s film from start to finish and he really is superb throughout. The stylish star manages to pull off a mullet (just) and despite a distinct lack of hair continuity in the film, he does look very good indeed, especially in the songs. As always Bunny’s dancing is outstanding, but his acting matches up to his footwork skills, and he does an excellent job in the more emotional moments. His comedic timing is also very good, while a scene in the boardroom where he pays tribute to a number of Telugu films heroes is just brilliant! Bunny’s acting has definitely matured, even in comparison to his last hit with Trivikram, S/O  Satyamurthy, which I feel was his previous best performance to date. Here Bunny shows good emotional depth, well-executed action and a real sense of commitment to the character that pays off and makes Bantu appear a genuine and appealing person, rather than just a filmi character.

The dance sequences are excellent, and I loved the attention to detail in many of the songs, like the random background dancers in Butta Bomma who pop up hula-hooping from time to time. The music from S. Thaman is also great and suits the film too. The songs are really catchy even if the lyrics are occasionally a bit odd (maybe a subtitling issue?) and the background score helps lift the emotional moments in the film. There is a real who’s who of support cast as well. Naturally Brahmi pops up, just in a song this time, but we also get Navdeep and the sadly underused Rahul Ramakrishna as workmates of Bantu, Cinemachaat favourite Ajay as one of Appala Naidu’s thugs, Rajendra Prasad as a police officer and Brahmaji as a businessman trying to buy Amulya’s business. Tabu is beautiful and grace personified as Yasu, while Jayaram and Sachin Khedekar are both excellent. Unfortunately, Rohini doesn’t have very much to do as Bantu’s mother and his sister (Vaishnavi Chaitanya) also has a very limited role, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to see their family dynamic developed more. However, there is already a lot happening in this film, and perhaps it’s just as well that the drama is mostly limited to Ramachandra’s family.

Although the basic story is nothing new, the way Trivikram has developed the characters of Bantu and Valmiki is different, especially when mixed in with the family drama of Bantu’s real father. While all the necessary components are here – songs, drama, action sequences and even the luke-warm romance, it’s having a good story that really makes Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo such a worthwhile and entertaining watch. I really enjoyed this film and would recommend it as a fun film, perfect for the holiday season.

Saaho

I didn’t read any reviews before I went to see Saaho, but I’d seen comments on social media that were mostly negative. So I wasn’t expecting great things from the film, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Sure there are plenty of flaws, including a confusing story, poorly developed villains and far too many songs, but I loved the action, all the special effects and especially the imposing presence of Prabhas. Think standard Telegu Mass on VFX steroids, and that’s pretty much what you get with Saaho. Logic has never been high on the agenda for these kinds of films, not when directors can just blow up, beat up or shoot up everything in the hero’s path and writer/director Sujeeth follows he standard formula here. Nonsensical yes, but entertaining – definitely!

Let’s talk about the negative aspects first. The film opens with a confusing array of characters, not helped by long, complicated sentences of subtitles which vanished off the screen too quickly for me to read them. Then, the introduction scene for Prabhas is surprisingly poorly executed. Who is the man he is trying to rescue from a bad situation with a gang of thugs? There is some by-play about a whistling pressure cooker to give Prabhas a set time to carry out the rescue, but then there are no whistles – why set this up and then fail to deliver? And when this character reappears, his part in the finale is so rushed and poorly subtitled that I have no idea what exactly he was supposed to be doing. So, we’re off to a bad start, which is compounded by key events being rushed through and important characters appearing and disappearing without any clear idea of who they are and what role they play in the plot. It’s not helped by the subtitles which sometimes took me some time to work out and even with my bad Telugu I could tell that they missed a lot of information. The list of bad guys grows longer and longer, on top of which their alliances change, there are numerous double crosses and their relationships to each other are poorly described, so after a while the best idea is to stop trying to figure it out and just enjoy all the mayhem!

And the mayhem is what works very well here. This is where all the money was spent, and the result is slick and fast paced action with excellent fight scenes and lots of explosions. There are fast cars, motorbikes, even chase scenes with heavily armoured trucks and excavators but perhaps the most ridiculous involve men wearing mechanical flying suits and Prabhas carrying out some do-si-doing with a helicopter. At one point, at the end of a song, for no apparent reason there is a tank that drives over a couple of cars. It’s like they had a few thousands of dollars left and decided that adding a tank would complete the line-up of transport options! Throughout it all Prabhas is a tower of strength and stays true to the Telugu hero ‘code of conduct’ by endeavouring to single handedly take down all his enemies, be impervious to bullets, indestructible regardless of whether there are crashes, explosions or he leaps off a cliff without a parachute (more on that later), and of course still find time to romance the girl, talk tough and always, always look ultra-cool!

After the initial confusion the film settles down with Prabhas as an undercover cop who has been seconded to an investigation team after a series of burglaries in Mumbai. Amritha (Shraddha Kapoor) is the nominal female detective who is continually shunted aside by her boss Shinde (Prakash Belavadi), while tech specialist David (Murali Sharma) and Goswami (Vennela Kishore) round out the team. The police think they spot the thief (Neil Nitin Mukesh) on CCT and the team then devise a super complicated plan to bring him in. This involves convincing him to steal a ‘black box’ which is vital to open a vault full of money and gold in the gangster city of Waaji.

Waaji is a super high-tech city run by the Roy corporation headed by Narantak Roy (Jackie Shroff). After his assassination, Devraj (Chunky Pandey) is poised to take over the cartel when Roy’s previously hidden son, Vishwank (Arun Vijay) appears and thwarts his plans. The various cartel members are each trying to take over the top spot, but key lieutenant Kalki (Mandira Bedi) supports Vishwank, although his position is far from secure and he needs the black box to be able to pay off the various cartel members. The action moves to Waaji in the second half after the black box is stolen and Saaho (Prabhas) becomes involved in the power plays by Devraj and Vishwank.

Most of the Southern Indian actors play their usual kind of roles well here. Tinnu Anand is good as Devraj’s disabled father and Arun Vijay does well as Vishwank despite the dodgy writing while Supreeth and the cast of support thugs are suitably OTT. Mahesh Manjrekar has a reasonable role as one of the cartel members, but Madira Bedi is probably the best realised of these characters and I love her smooth operator approach to playing a gang member. The rest of the Hindi actors are a bit hit and miss. This might be more due to the language problem as they were better when speaking in English. Jackie Shroff is probably the best of the lot, possibly because he has only has a small role to play and little dialogue. Neil Nitin Mukesh seems uncomfortable throughout and Chunky Pandey desperately overacts every time he appears. To be fair, Shraddha Kapoor is pretty good in a more action-based role and she does have reasonable chemistry with Prabhas in their romance scenes. The problem is the songs, which don’t fit well into the narrative and don’t add anything to the story. This is an all action film, and the songs act as speed breakers, taking the audience out of the story. Probably the best is the Jacqueline Fernandez item number, which is just ridiculous enough to fit the plot, with the previously mentioned tank, machine guns, and lots of scantily glad women in a swimming pool.

Sujeeth however is equal opportunity in objectifying his stars, and Prabhas gets to jump off a cliff wearing nothing but ripped jeans, but only after he throws his parachute off the edge first. It’s that kind of film. Shraddha Kapoor actually comes off pretty well in the costume stakes, wearing generally sensible clothes, apart from in the songs. Prabhas looks uber-cool wearing cropped pants and trendy loafers once he gives up the denim and leather look of the first half.

Saaho is a fairly typical Telugu action hero film. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense and the cast of thousands list of characters is confusing, but there are some good ideas in there that would have worked better if they’d been kept simpler. Having lots of special effects doesn’t hide the limitations of the story, but it does make it fun to watch. I saw the Telugu version at a fairly full theatre in Melbourne, and most of the audience seemed to be enjoying the film as much as I was. We did all laugh at scenes that I think were supposed to be dramatic and tense, but there was plenty of applauding and cheering whenever Prabhas got to obliterate (literally!) the bad guys. All up, Saaho is simply entertaining and a fun piece of visual theatre. One for fans of Prabhas, mayhem and OTT mass action.

Bhaagamathie


Anushka carries Ashok’s hodgepodge of horror and suspense, reinforcing her credentials as a leading actress. While the concept is good, the visuals are (mostly) impressive, and the cast is strong, the pacing is a little off and Ashok is heavy handed with the “twists”.

In an attempt to stymie man of the people Minister Eswar Prasad (Jayaram) in his path to the CM job, hard nosed Vaishnavi (Asha Sarath) and an ACP with convenient ethics (Murali Sharma) are told to get the dirt. Eswar’s former secretary, IAS officer Chanchala (Anushka), is serving time for killing her fiance who just happens to be the ACPs younger brother. She is taken from her cell for an unofficial interrogation and relocated to a decrepit old mansion in a spooky forest setting. What could possibly go wrong?

Chanchala and Vaishnavi play cat and mouse as Chanchala insists she is answering truthfully while not saying what Vaishnavi wants to hear. But after the interrogation sessions, Chanchala is confined to quarters with only the work of the VFX team to keep her company in the mouldering splendour of Bhaagamathie’s palatial home. And who is Bhaagamathie? Local legend says she is a demon, history may indicate she is a queen who trusted the wrong person, or is she just a figment of Chanchala’s imagination? Is Chanchala haunted, mad, or possessed? Murali Sharma (whose character name I forget) wants Chanchala dead and is quite happy to see her suffer at the hands of unknown possibly demonic tormentors. Comedy officers played by Prabhas Sreenu, Dhanraj and Vidyullekha Raman bumble around and add credence to Chanchala’s claims of supernatural goings on. What is really happening in that house? And if Chanchala is playing at being mad, what is her end game?

Anushka takes everything in stride and delivers a superb performance. Ashok throws in some Arundhati references, but Chanchala is a different woman. She is rational and curious, and goes looking for what caused that bump in the night. She knows the game the CBI is playing and will not perjure herself just for her own freedom. She is strong and ethical, and people maybe should have paid more attention to that facet of her character. Her fear and determination to survive are palpable. There are times where Chanchala seemed to be playing a game with her captors and I genuinely didn’t know what to believe, was she duplicitous, or you know, possessed and innocent. I was impatient to get back to Chanchala when she was not on screen. Whether you believe her condition is spiritual, psychological, or fraudulent, Anushka’s performance packs a wallop.

The supporting cast is strong but most of the roles are cookie-cutter and have no subtlety or sense of inner life. Jayaram is too good to be true as the people’s pick. Murali Sharma does well as the conflicted cop, but his character is written with little ambiguity so there is not much tension when it comes to crunch time. He does what the script needs, not so much what his character’s past actions might have indicated up to that point. Asha Sarath is strong and Vaishnavi is a good foil for Anushka but again, Vaishnavi is following the demands of the plot and sometimes they forget to write her brain into key scenes. It was nice when it made a come back. Unni Mukundan appears in several flashbacks as Shakthi, Chanchala’s murdered fiance. He was fine, but again his character was written to do things to fill a gap in the plot so he was limited with what he could bring to the table. Thalaivasal Vijay plays a character that surely had to be a reference to the doctor in Chandramukhi or Manichitrathazhu. And then he disappears, never to be mentioned again.

While the visual design is excellent and the atmosphere really works to add a sense of mystery and creepiness, Ashok messes up the pacing of some of the revelations and the logic doesn’t always bear scrutiny. He seems to prefer to show and tell and show again rather than assuming his audience has seen the same movies he has or that they can follow the breadcrumbs and reach their own conclusion. There are nods to Manichitrathazhu, Arundhati, the Usual Suspects, but not all are seamless or successful. The first half is all about building the supernatural element and reinforcing Chanchala’s status as a murderer. Then when she is finally removed from the scene after a night rich in incidents and mayhem, there is a sudden shift. The supposed revelations come one after the other and there is no time to absorb and reflect back on the prior events and reset your expectations before Ashok throws in another twist and shows all the details. But for all the surveillance technology and supposed experts observing via CCTV, nobody asked the same questions I was asking myself. A flaw in the writing, or was I really destined to be a highly successful filmi villain?

Thaman’s soundtrack is mostly confined to adding loud dramatic underscoring, just in case you didn’t realise you were supposed to be scared. Or maybe to let the audience know they should terminate their very loud phone conversation and pay attention to this bit coming up. In deference to this genre, there was only one duet and no big musical production numbers.

I enjoyed this for the way Ashok built his film world, and for Anushka tearing it up. I don’t think anyone could be genuinely completely surprised by the twists and turns but the journey is largely entertaining. With a couple of good minor “Boo!” scares into the bargain.