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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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.

Autonagar Surya

Autonagar Surya

Deva Katta’s Autonagar Surya doesn’t seem to know quite what it wants to be and as a result ends up as a disappointing muddle.  There are elements of a message film with the ‘one man against the system’ storyline, but at the same time the film attempts a broader social commentary while following a standard mass entertainer formula – including the obligatory romance and fight scenes.   There is little of the subtlety Deva Katta brought to Prasthanam and the additions of Brahmi and Venu Madhav with a woeful comedy track certainly don’t help.  After watching the more recent Manam, where Chaitanya displayed improved acting maturity, it’s disappointing to watch his uneven performance here, particularly since the film focuses heavily on his character. In fact the best performances come from the support cast, including Surya’s group of friends and the assorted thugs and villains, but despite their best efforts they’re not enough to make Autonagar Surya more than a one time watch.

Autonagar Surya

The film starts off well enough – if a little on the violent side.  After an initial parade and explosion, where Chaitanya’s Surya is blasted into the sky like a cheap rocket, there is a flashback to explain who he is and how he got to be a human firework.  The young Surya is orphaned when an obnoxious thug detrains his parents when they try to intervene in a rape.  Surya ends up being brought up by his uncle (Sai Kumar) who has little time for the orphan as he thoroughly disapproved of his parent’s marriage, and Surya moves in with the auto mechanic opposite.  Cut to a few years later where Surya has grown up to develop an interest in all things mechanical and demonstrates an accompanying bad fashion sense.  Although to be fair, so do his friends too.  So far so good then, until he gets on the wrong side of the local union boss and ends up in jail for murder.

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This turns out to have been a blessing in disguise, since while in jail Surya manages to study for a degree in engineering.  On his release, after a seemingly short time (5 years for murder?), he pressures his friends into helping him build a battery powered car.  However the union is still in power and worse still, his uncle is now the elected president and still has no time for his nephew (not his niece as suggested by the subtitles!).  However Surya has the hope of the downtrodden and a powerful vocabulary on his side.  With the help of his friends he decides to tackle the union thugs, but despite all his speechifying and rhetoric he basically employs their dubious tactics of fighting, kidnap and intimidation to achieve his aims.

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Sticking to the formula, there is a romance between Surya and his uncle’s daughter Siri (Samantha).  Samantha looks beautiful and has a couple of good scenes where she gets to explore her comedic side, but mostly she has frustratingly little to do. The love story is really only an excuse for a couple of forgettable songs with dull choreography and is dealt the death knell by a distinct lack of chemistry between Chaitanya and Samantha.  They seem to be more like best mates rather than lovers, and that probably would have made a more believable storyline too.

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There are many fight scenes, particularly in the second half, which tend to be on the grisly side with plenty of spouting blood and the odd limb or two flying around.  The graphic fights seem to be at odds with Surya’s more intellectual dialogue relating to the human condition and it just doesn’t add up that such a technical and generally rational genius should also be a competent and vicious fighter. Chaitanya also doesn’t quite look the part, as he seems too young, and just not angry enough to be the classic ‘angry young man’ that I think Deva Katta wants to portray. Generally there is an overall lack of passion which makes Surya’s revolutionary speeches and rabble rousing dialogues fall somewhat flat.  It’s so frustrating when Naga Chaitanya has demonstrated that he can be much better than this.  At least the union thugs all know exactly what they are doing and why, so the various atrocities carried out by the gang fit more easily into the mass formula.  Ajay is particularly effective as one of the main villains, and it’s good to see him in a more protracted role.  Jayaprakash Reddy is a little too subdued, but is otherwise fine and Madhu impresses as an exceptionally evil mayor.

Autonagar Surya

While the first half shows some interesting potential, the second half drags and shows Surya to be just as vindictive and violent as the thugs he is trying to replace.  The good ideas introduced at the beginning seem to be submerged beneath repetitive fights, numerous references to RGV’s Shiva, and oddly placed songs.  Maybe I expected too much from Deva Katta after Prasthanam, but Autonagar Surya doesn’t come close to his previous film, despite the good ideas at the start.  Overall Autonagar Surya is disappointing on many levels, although does warrant a look for the excellent support cast and some impressive sets.