Majili

Majili

Shiva Nirvana’s Majili is a romance that feels oddly dated where the characters make some very strange choices, and the plot harks back to attitudes that might have seemed plausible 30 years ago. Naga Chaitanya plays a cricket player whose life is destroyed when he loses the girl of his dreams, while Samantha is the woman waiting patiently for him to notice her. The film is helped considerably by good performances from the main leads, but it’s the support cast of Posani Krishna Murali, Suhas and Rao Ramesh, who end up making the film more interesting than the story would suggest.

The film begins with Poorna (Naga Chaitanya) as a miserably grumpy cricket umpire who spends his night getting drunk in a specific hotel room. The story behind his descent into the bottle is told in flashback when he was a younger wannabe cricket player, and his father had just given him a year to work at making it into a career. Shortly after landing a place on the Vizag Railways team, Poorna meets Anshu (Divyansha Kaushik), the daughter of a navy officer based in the town and the two start a relationship. It’s a patchy affair right from the start as there is little chemistry between the couple and their social divide makes their meetings awkward and clumsy. That might have worked, except there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Anshu to prefer Poorna over anyone in her own social circle, and after he puts her into a situation where she is almost raped, Anshu’s continued desire to be with Poorna seems even less likely. Although Chaitanya tries his best, this is just another typical love story, with the usual parental opposition and a bad guy in the form of Bhushan (Subbaraju). Divyansha Kaushik is bland and unobjectionable, but the romance is all just too unlikely to make any impression, and the finale that ends with Poorna in a hotel room seems completely implausible and a whimpering end to a supposedly grandiose love affair.

Poorna’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and heartache-induced torpor is also overly extreme for such a lacklustre romance. He wallows in his misery and seems unable to find anything worthwhile to do with his time other than mourn the loss of his ‘one true love’. However, at some point in the intervening years he somehow manages to get married to Sravani (Samantha Akkineni) who puts up with his idleness, drunkenness and morose personality with completely unlikely composure. The story tries to make us believe that she always loved Poorna and is happy simply to be his wife, despite the cold shoulder treatment she receives and his total lack of support – either emotional or financial. In fact, it’s Sravani who supports the family with her job as a railway clerk since Poorna’s father (Rao Ramesh) has retired and Poorna is too busy being miserable.

Thankfully, despite her irritatingly subservient attitude, Samantha breathes life and energy into the film. Her interactions with her father (Posani Kirshna Murali) and Porna’s father (Rao Ramesh) are the perfect mixture of funny and sad, and here at last is the spark that was so sadly missing in the first half. Although Sravani’s attitude to her husband quickly becomes wearing, Samantha somehow manages to keep her character from being completely irritating and despite wanting to shake some sense into her, I felt that her rationale was at least constant and made sense from her character’s point of view. Poorna on the other hand was just a waste of space who didn’t take any of the many opportunities he had to turn his life around. The final piece in the puzzle that leads to Poorna’s redemption is lazy and poorly done, although again it’s Sravani who has the best of the generally weak dialogue and ends up as the only one who acts according to her established persona.

Posani Krishna Murali is brilliant as Sravani’s father and his comedy keeps the film from being totally subsumed in weepy tragedy. Rao Ramesh is also unfailingly sensible and brings some much-needed common sense, as does Suhas who shines in a small role as one of Poorna’s long-suffering friends. Subbaraju is totally wasted in the role of a small-town thug with a political agenda who has no significant part to play other than to be the ‘bad guy’ for Poorna to fight at regular intervals. This would have been a much better film without the usual Telugu commercial elements – removing the dull romance, repetitive fight scenes and glamourous song sequences and adding more of Sravani, her family and her story would have made for a more interesting film. Some explanation for Sravani’s ridiculously self-sacrificing attitude would have helped too other than the wishy-washy enduring love that is used.

Overall, Majili is disappointing. The story isn’t plausible and never comes together to form a coherent whole. The bittiness of the plot transfers to the characters, who also don’t always act in keeping with their role. There simply isn’t enough of the good parts – Samantha, Posani Krishna Murali – but instead far too much insipid romance. Gopi Sundar’s songs though are generally good and Vishnu Sharma’s cinematography captures the claustrophobic feel of the family well in the latter half of the film. I wanted to like this, I like Chaitanya and Samantha and perhaps as their first film together I expected a little too much. Worth watching for Samantha, the support cast and Chaitanya in the second half.

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Savyasachi

Savyasachi

I have a theory that Indian screenwriters search medical texts for the most bizarre sounding diseases which they then change out of almost all recognition, blend them together and then use this bizarre hybrid as the plot for a film. That might at least go some way to explaining why Vikram (Naga Chaitanya) is introduced as the surviving half of a ‘vanishing twin’ pregnancy, the inaccurate explanation of which is only one of the fantastical medical diagnoses described in the film. That may not have been a bad move if the idea of a separate parasitic twin living through his brother’s left hand was better explored, but Savyasachi doesn’t seem to know if it’s a romance, a thriller or a comedy about alien hand syndrome, and by the end I was no wiser either.

Naga Chaitanya does his best with a terrible script, Madhavan overacts like crazy and it’s not a good sign when the best characterisations come from Vennela Kishore, Bhumika Chawla (who is excellent as Vikram’s sister) and child actor Dishita Sehgal. The other major problem with Savyasachi is truly terrible subtitles which I would ascribe to using Google Translate except that there are many spelling errors. This makes it even more difficult to work out exactly what is going on, when even the actors don’t appear to have any idea. With so much wrong is there any reason to watch Savyasachi? Well, yes. The songs are good, the flash-back and family scenes in the first half are better realised, and even if Madhavan chews the scenery excessively his exploits as a villain are generally entertaining. So not terrible then and given the general incomprehensibility of the subtitles, probably a better watch if you understand more Telugu than I do.

Vikram is the surviving twin while his brother Aditya was ‘absorbed’ into Vikram during their mother’s ‘vanishing twin’ pregnancy. Aditya still lives on as a few neurones in Vikram’s brain and is able to express himself by independent movement of Vikram’s left hand. All this is described in detail by Vikram’s doctor (Rao Ramesh) and his mother Mahalakshmi (Kausalya) which is just as well as this mishmash of a number of different conditions does need a lot of explanation. However, apart from a habit of slapping buttocks and faces, Aditya doesn’t do much else until Vikram is threatened, when Vikram’s left hand suddenly develops uncanny spatial awareness and super-human reaction speed along with the ability to thrash innumerable villains. So, basically the usual hero ability to fight his way out of any given situation. Vikram even manages a bit of hero-style action himself, beating a group of students during a flashback scene at University, with his left hand tied behind his back. Just in case there was any suggestion that Vikram isn’t just as capable as his intangible twin.

The film starts with a bus crash that causes the death of everyone on board, apart from Vikram, and then promptly ignores this initial mystery for the entire rest of the first half. Instead, writer/director Chandoo Mondeti concentrates on developing a romance between Vikram and businesswoman Chitra (Nidhhi Agerwal), who has employed Vikram’s ad company Artihc to promote her company. Vikram is assisted in making his films by his best friend from school Kittu (Vennela Kishore) and Tenali (Satya) who are aware of Vikram’s ‘vanished’ twin and make allowances for the occasional bizarre behaviour of Vikram’s left hand.

Vikram and Chitra have a history together from their time in college which is shown in a series of flashback scenes. While at college, the two gradually begin a relationship, first as friends, but just as it seems to be developing into something more and Vikram was about to declare his love for Chitra, something happened and he vanished from college, never to be heard from again. Until rocking up to make an ad many years later. Despite this long separation, his sudden reappearance doesn’t generate too much reaction from Chitra, and after accepting Vikram’s rather lame excuses for dropping out of touch, the two rekindle their old romance. There isn’t much chemistry between Vikram and Chitra, but to be fair they don’t have many scenes with just the two of them together, and there is a fraction more sparkage in the college flashbacks. In fact, most of the actual romance happens during M.M. Keeravani’s catchy songs.

The first half also deals with Vikram’s relationship with his sister Siri (Bhumika Chawla) her husband (Bharath Reddy) and daughter Maha (Dishita Sehgal). This part of the film is better, and the family dynamic is well developed as Siri becomes annoyed and objects to Vikram spoiling Maha, allowing her to do whatever she wants, while at the same time appreciating the reasons behind her brother’s affection for her daughter. Bhumika Chawla is excellent as Siri, particularly in later scenes as her character has to deal with a considerable amount of complex emotion.

After all the family background and romance in the first half, the second half of the film totally shifts gear when Vikram returns from a trip to America to find his family has been targeted and his sister in hospital. Suddenly the pace picks up as Vikram struggles to find out who is attacking him, and what has happened to his family. Madhavan is rapidly identified as the villain here, but he plays Arun Raj with such cheerful bonhomie that it’s difficult to take him seriously. Arun also has an oddly weak reason for his behaviour that further undermines his villainous stature, so in the end I felt little investment in the outcome of their struggle. However, Arun does have uncanny ability to be able to find and follow Vikram which is explained by various cloning, cloaking and other electronic wizardry, which at least is slightly more probable than Vikram’s pop-up twin brother’s abilities.

Although the story struggles to keep everything moving forward together, the action sequences work well and there is plenty of energy in the confrontations between Vikram and Arun. While Vikram’s rogue left hand does take over for most of these scenes there is enough variety and challenge to keep them interesting, at least until Arun runs out of disposable henchmen to throw at Vikram. Chaitanya does well to keep his character even vaguely on track, but the uneven mix of comedy, action and paranormal doesn’t blend well, making Vikram appear like a fish out of water for much of the second half. Madhavan’s Arun is too one-dimensional to be anything other than a caricature and his scenery chewing plays into the cartoonish nature of the character. However, Arun is entertaining even if he doesn’t appear particularly villainous and the interactions with his servant (Thagubothu Ramesh) are amusing. On the other hand, Nidhhi Agerwal has little to do and really is just ‘the love interest’ while Vidyullekha Raman and Vennela Kisore play their usual type of characters proficiently and effectively.

I really liked Chandoo Mondeti’s previous film Karthikeya which had a much better mix of action and supernatural, but Savyasachi just doesn’t have a strong enough story and the various side-plots detract too much from the central action. This could have been a better film if the story had stuck to the idea of alien hand syndrome with a better realised villain or a more involved romance rather than trying to add both. This is one probably better watched on DVD or Netflix when you can forward past the slow and confusing set-up and get straight to the action.

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!