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.

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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!

Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo

sahasam-swasaga-sagipo

Gautham Menon’s latest released simultaneously in Tamil and Telugu, but I preferred this version, even though both are identical in terms of story and cast apart from the male lead. Naga Chaitanya is excellent in the lead role in this version, although Simbu is almost as good in the Tamil film, but the story seems to work better with the less physically imposing Chaitanya and the chemistry between him and female lead Manjima Mohan has significantly more sparkage too. Gautham Menon has stuck to his two favourite themes of action and romance but this time with a rather different approach to give a film with two distinct and very different halves. The first half is all about the romance with no indication about what lies ahead except for brief flashes during the opening credits that suggest there may be troubled times at some point, and a message that the film is inspired from a scene in the Godfather – not a film known as a touchy, feely love story! The second half explodes into violence and action just before the interval and the film quickly becomes a thriller with plenty of suspense and good action sequences. Overall the combination works well, although the action part of the film is somewhat let down by unlikely police corruption and a few too many co-incidences. Still, if you can just go with the flow and ignore the implausibility of parts of the plot then Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo is a good entertainer helped along by excellent performances and a better than average soundtrack.

Naga Chaitanya’s character doesn’t get a name until near the end of the film, and since it’s part of the plot I won’t reveal it here but will just refer to him as Chaitanya. At the start of the film we learn that the first love of his life is his Royal Enfield and that he plans to go on a road trip to Kanyakumari and watch the sun rise over the sea. Chaitanya has completed a degree in engineering and an MBA but now has to decide what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Around the same time his sister finishes her degree and starts an internship along with a friend, who also comes to stay with the family. As soon as Chaitanya sees Leela (Manjima Mohan) he falls in love with her, although he plays it cool and doesn’t immediately say anything. Instead he talks to his friends incessantly about Leela, spends more time at home so that he can see her and spends most evenings chatting to her after everyone else has gone to sleep. They develop a friendship and when Chaitanya finally leaves on his road trip Leela asks to come along too. Chaitanya happily drops his friend Mahesh (Sathish Krishnan) in favour of her company and without telling anyone the two set off on Chaitanya’s Royal Enfield for the South.

The romance is handled with a light touch as Chaitanya is determined to be ‘decent’ and Leela initially seems to think of him as just a friend. However, there are significant glances, chance looks and those late night conversations that slowly develop into significant chemistry between the couple when they head off on the road trip. A.R Rahman’s music provides emotional support to the romance and with that, and the wonderfully evocative sunrise it does seem inevitable that love will bloom before the couple return home. Chaitanya has improved significantly since his role in Ye Maaya Chesave and his performance here is excellent as a young man experiencing his first real love of the non-vehicular kind. He appears more mature and this gives him more plausibility when he talks about his feelings during the voiceover sections of the film. The scenes with his friends are also well written and include some comedy that helps keep the first half light. The combination of family life, friends and developing romance ensure Chaitanya is a likeable character with an easy-going personality and generally upbeat approach to life.

Manjima Mohan looks beautiful and does a good job with her character, successfully combining traditional (her father checking out the family before she starts her stay) with modern (her decision to go on a road trip with a guy she hardly knows) to give an overall picture of a confident young woman who has definite plans and the determination to follow through with them. I liked her in Oru Vadakkan Selfie and she is even better here, appearing very natural and coping well with a role that demands a range of emotions as events start to head out of control in the second half. She seems very natural and was just as good in the light romantic scenes as in the heavy emotional drama where she really got to pull out all the stops and give it her all. I loved her ability to still look amazing even with her make-up running down her face and as always I love it when a heroine contributes to her own rescue, even if she couldn’t quite manage it all by herself.

The action and violence of the second half comes as a real shock after the slow-building love story and everyday characterisations of the lead pair. Suddenly Chaitanya has to deal with situations that are far from his previous experience although as he frequently mentions in the voice-overs, he believes he has the confidence and capability to deal with whatever life throws at him. Luckily for both Chaitanya and Leela this does indeed seem to be the case. The action sequences are fast, frequently very violent and generally unexpected. Dan Macarthur’s camera work ensures these scenes seem full of energy and confusion, just as I’d expect in any real life fight. There is a blurriness and disorientation as the action unfolds which is in direct contrast to the periods of calm where events move slowly and there is a chance to breathe. The contrast is brilliantly done and makes the action sequences stand out even more as completely alien to Chaitanya’s experience and expectation.

Unfortunately, all of this technical excellence is let down by the screenplay which starts to become ever more fanciful, particularly with the inclusion of corrupt police officers led by Kamath (Baba Sehgal). The police appear to do whatever they want without any fear of being caught or held to account for their actions despite these occurring in full view of hospital staff, hotel patrons and numerous other witnesses. Baba Sehgal is ridiculously over the top, almost cartoonish in his portrayal, and this badly impacts the rest of the film, even when the story becomes more rational. The climax too is disappointing with the final events appearing rushed and too opportune and neatly packaged to be fully engaging.

Still, despite the issues with the second half, the film is still engaging. There is plenty of suspense and like everyone else in the cinema I was on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what was going to happen next. In particular, the picturisation of the song Vellipomake is unique and a great way to completely change the direction of the film while the rest of A.R. Rahman’s songs fit well into the screenplay and enhance the romance between the lead couple. Both Naga Chaitanya and Manjima Mohan are excellent, as too is Sathish Krishnan and the various actors who play members of Chaitanya’s family so that even though the story doesn’t always make sense, the actors draw you into their world regardless. Sahasam Swasaga Sagipo has its flaws but there is still much to enjoy despite the dodgy ending. Focus instead on the excellent performances from Naga Chaitanya and Manjima Mohan, enjoy the soundtrack and beautiful scenery, and suspend disbelief enough to appreciate the contrasts and suspense of the second half.