Geetha Govindam (2018)

Geetha Govindam

Parasuram’s Geetha Govindam takes a while to get going, but once it’s up and running, this romantic comedy is better than expected, mostly due to the excellent performances from Vijay Deverakonda and Rashmika Mandanna. It also helps that the heroine is a strong character who doesn’t get repeatedly shunted aside by the hero, and that the story takes an alternative approach to the usual stalker plot. Add in some catchy songs, another good performance from Rahul Ramakrishna, and Geetha Govindam is definitely well worth a watch.

The film starts with Vijay Govind (Vijay Deverakonda) relating the story of his romance to a passer-by (Nithya Menen) as she waits for her car to be repaired. This seem to be a rather outdated way to introduce the story, but there is a reason for Nithya’s character, although that isn’t clear until the very end of the film. However, instead of diving right into the story, there is a prolonged and rather slow introduction that sets up Vijay’s character. For the most part he’s a fairly typical young bloke who enjoys hanging out and drinking with his friends, but Vijay also has a rather idealised view of marriage that makes him appear naïve and innocent. That doesn’t stop him following a girl and staging a mock fight scene in an attempt to make her fall for him, but he’s also flustered by the amorous advances of one of his students at the local college where he teaches. Vijay also has a bad habit of listening to his friend Krishna (Rahul Ramakrishna) who has a rather more direct approach to women and acts as the devil on Vijay’s shoulder, enticing him into bad decisions. The angel on Vijay’s other shoulder is his father (Naga Babu) who has brought him up to respect women and act responsibly. The question here is which voice Vijay will follow when he sees Geetha (Rashmika Mandanna) in a temple and is instantly attracted.

After a less than auspicious start, Vijay’s luck turns when he’s travelling home for his sister’s engagement and Geetha ends up on the same bus. Unfortunately for Vijay, Geetha still isn’t in the slightest bit interested and when he starts to talk to her on the bus she shuts him down immediately, calling him out for asking stupid questions. I love this interaction as Geetha demonstrates she won’t take any nonsense from Vijay and that she is quite able to stand up for herself.  A partial softening on her stance as the journey goes on, is abruptly banished when Vijay does something stupid, egged on by the drunken ramblings of his friend Krishna. From here, things go seriously downhill, made even worse when it turns out that Geetha’s brother Phaneendra (Subbaraju) is engaged to be married to Govind’s sister (Mouryani). Geetha wants her brother to avenge her honour and Phaneendra is out for blood while Vijay’s father asserts that he would literally die if Vijay ever did anything to smirch his reputation. Vijay now has a serious problem on his hands. Worse still, he has to rely on Geetha not revealing the true story, when she has every reason to shame Vijay in front of his family.  To add to his woes, Vijay and Geetha are tasked with delivering the invitations and doing all the shopping for the wedding, which throws them together repeatedly back in Hyderabad.

Geetha thinks that Vijay is an irresponsible womaniser and sees evidence of his debauchery everywhere. Vijay on the other hand is desperate to prove that he’s actually a nice guy and that everything that happened was an accident. This gives plenty of opportunity for some excellent comedy but still allows the point to be made that Geetha has every right to be angry and upset – a point which Vijay also acknowledges. His continual ‘Madam’ and ‘sorry’ are used to good effect as is his claim that he did not mean it wantedly (I think the subtitles meant wantonly which would make more sense!).

The friction between Vijay and Geetha works well due to excellent chemistry between the two actors. Rashmika is perfect as an angry young woman who sees no reason to believe anything her brother-in-law-to-be says and her responses to his protestations of innocence are delivered with just the right amount of distain. Rashmika is just as good here as she was in Kirik Party with the added bonus that she is onscreen for the entire film here. Naturally she does start to fall for Vijay – with all that charm and a very cute smile, it would be hard to resist, but Rashmika ensures her characters change of heart is kept convincing and reasonably plausible. Even if all it takes is 1 explanation and a song.

Vijay Deverakonda completely sheds his Arjun Reddy persona and totally owns the film as a man desperate to redeem himself in the eyes of the girl he really likes while making sure he doesn’t incur the wrath of her brother or jeopardise his sister’s wedding. There is some excellent comedy here as Vijay wriggles and grovels, willing to try almost anything to prove to Geetha that he’s not the man she thinks he is. While it’s impressive that Parasuram manages to take a fairly standard character and bring something new to the story, Vijay really takes on all of his characters failings and makes them believable. There is really no rational explanation why the nice and well brought up Vijay would do some of the things suggested by Krishna, but Vijay Deverakonda makes it seem not only plausible but perfectly logical nonetheless.

While the relationship between Geetha and Vijay is well done, there are a few misses in the film too. Vennela Kishore pops up as a potential bridegroom for Geetha, but his character is oddly written and doesn’t fit well into the rest of the story. The slow introduction is also an issue and there are a few scenes that are just too unlikely to work. These end up as distractions rather than adding to the story, and as a result some of the second half feels overly long and drawn out. Adding Nithya Menon’s character to a frame narrative is also an odd choice and really not necessary while a few of the other characters, Ravi Prakash’s police officer for example, don’t add anything to the plot either.

Overall Geetha Govindam is funny and entertaining, while the romance is just different enough to keep the story interesting Gopi Sundar’s music is well incorporated into the film and the songs are catchy and well choreographed to show the two leads to advantage. Worth watching for Vijay’s charm and Rashmika’s confidence which make this one of the better Telugu romantic films of the year so far.

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Awe

Awe takes a crack at some familiar material, trying to deliver something new. And it is something new in the context of mainstream Telugu film, far from the usual mass hero driven shenanigans. But it reminded me of a couple of  Hollywood films, and Prasanth Varma is a bit heavy handed and clearly doesn’t want anyone to miss out on his cleverness. This was a film I wanted to love but I was left mildly underwhelmed.

SPOILER ALERT! I want to mention a couple of ideas the film plays with so I will have a few spoilers. But I will leave a few surprises.

Radha (Eesha Rebba) waits at a restaurant with her parents. They’re going to meet her partner, Krish, for the first time. Krish sounds like exactly what her parents wanted for Radha; a doctor, same caste, only child. But Krish is a woman (Nityha Menen). We jump into the story of Nala (Priyardarshi Pullikonda) a down on his luck man trying out for a job as a cook. He is clueless but luckily a wise talking fish (voiced by Nani) is there to help and a talking tree (voiced by Ravi Teja) is there because there weren’t enough comedy uncles in the cast. The episodes spool by. A precocious little girl Moksha (Kaitlyn) has a battle of magic and wits with a rude, overbearing magician (Murli Sharma). A doorman (Srinivas Avasarala) is building a time machine so he can go find his parents. But then the mysterious Parvathi (Devadarshini) arrives from the future to stop him. Mira (Regina Cassandra) is plotting a heist with her boyfriend, and the stress and the drugs she takes trigger interesting hallucinations or maybe something more sinister. In between the scene shifts to Kali (Kajal Aggarwal), a woman in obvious distress who is waiting for a sign.

The stories and their locations seem unrelated initially so the jumping around was a bit irritating as episodes terminate in a cliffhanger. As the film loops back to pick up the various stories the location and times merge into one quirky looking food court, and the characters start to be seen in each other’s worlds. The set design is kind of shoddy and obviously fake which also puzzled me at first. The morse code device looked like a prop from a low budget school play. But like Pizza, a lot of things make much more sense after a point. It’s a bit risky leaving things looking half baked until that clicks for the audience. If you miss all the hints it is spelled out by the end. The one dimensional characters also make more sense once you realise how they relate back to one particular person and how they colour the way the others are depicted.

Because the story is told in quite a gimmicky way I didn’t feel the actors were all able to rise above the material. Murli Sharma is trapped in a tedious story and not even his wild overacting could get him out of it. Priyadarshi didn’t really hit his stride until the latter part of his story. And no matter how I consider it, I can’t see how the fish and the tree fit into the overarching conceit of the film other than to get some more star names on the poster. Rohini was fun and still heartfelt as Radha’s mum, struggling not to let her disapproval break a vow of silence.. Regina Cassandra has presence and Mira is a challenging role in some respects, being an unlikeable and untrustworthy person. She seems like a misfit in the largely family friendly ensemble of characters but may be the most real.

Prasanth Varma was ambitious in his treatment of a film without a Hero. A bit of research on female psychology and gender would have helped enormously with the execution. Kajal was unusually sombre as Kali and did her best to show the confusion and pain of long term mental illness and emotional damage. Her character made one particular choice that didn’t ring true and a cursory Google would have told the writer to choose something else. But having a happy and openly lesbian couple is such a positive change in representation in Indian films, I can’t whinge too much. And good on Nithya Menen for giving Krish a go. She was cheeky, a bit irreverent, loved the ladies and all in all embraced her namesake as a role model. But Krish’s explanation of why Radha identified as gay was more driven by the plot than any nuanced analysis, overly simplistic but I think well intentioned. There is some truth in saying some women could reduce psychological issues if they spoke up about being assaulted and got help, but there was almost no consideration that the better solution is for men to stop raping women. Everything comes back to women having to save themselves.

It’s a good film but I wanted great. I saw the big reveal coming from a mile away, so I wanted more from the characterisation and the detail of living this life. See it and see what you think.

Mersal (2017)

Mersal

After drought ravaged farmers in Kaththi and violence against women in Theri, Vijay latest crusade is against corrupt medical practitioners in Atlee’s Mersal. There are few surprises in the storyline which follows a standard revenge formula, but the approach is stylish and the addition of a magician does ensure a few unexpected tricks. Vijay takes on a triple role that puts him front and centre for most of the film, which is just as well since it’s mainly his charisma that lifts Mersal above its well-worn story. But there are also energetic dance numbers, excellent special effects and a credible and suitably nasty villain making Mersal a major improvement on Vijay’s last film and worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Vijay plays a triple role – two brothers (one who is unaware of the other’s existence), and then their father in an extended flashback sequence. The story jumps around a lot as well as moving in and out of flashback so it’s deliberately not always clear which character we are watching at any given time. The film starts with the abductions of 4 men, all connected in some way to the same hospital, although it’s takes a while before we find out who they are and why they have been abducted. The police receive an anonymous tip off which leads them to arrest local hero and all round good guy Dr Marran (Vijay) who is known as the ₹5 doctor due to the fees he charges his patients. His arrest almost sparks a mini riot but once Police Officer Rathnavel (Sathyaraj) begins his interview (which for no good reason is conducted in a derelict building on a construction site) the story of the two brothers starts to unfold.

The other brother, Vetri (Vijay), is a magician and uses his powers to take revenge on the men he feels were responsible for his father’s death. It’s never clear how the brothers ended up separated or why Marran is brought up by his foster mother Sarala (Kovai Sarala) in ignorance of Vetri’s existence, but then Atlee seems to prefer focusing on the result rather than bothering with such basic explanations. Vetri is ably assisted in his magic and in his revenge by Vadivu (Vadivelu) who also moonlights as Maaran’s helper. This means Vetri knows exactly where Marran is and can use that information to his own advantage. While in Paris (really Poland, but close enough), Vetri meets Anu Pallavi (Kajal Aggarwal) who is acting as a general gofer for the rather greedy and lecherous Dr Arjun Zachariah (Hareesh Peradi). Dr Zachariah is the polar opposite of Maaran, believing that good medicine is commercial medicine and the only reason to be a doctor is to turn a huge profit and benefit from the misery of disease. Maraan on the other hand is a proponent of universal free health care as a basic human right, although he doesn’t seem to have really thought through exactly how this style of medical care will be funded if his dream is to become a reality.

While Vetri dances his way into Dr Anu’s heart in Paris, Maaran meets journalist Tara (Samantha) during an interview on a TV talk show. Love blossoms through another song but Maaran’s TV appearance has brought him to the attention of Dr Daniel Arockiyaraj (S.J. Surya) who recognises Maaran as being the spitting image of his father. Daniel and Vetrimaaran (Vijay) had an acrimonious history and Daniel immediately sets out to find and destroy the son of his enemy.

The best part of the film is the extended flashback after the interval which focuses on the reasons behind Vetri’s revenge and Daniel’s antipathy. S.J. Surya revels in his role as a conniving and deceitful doctor in wide collared shirts and spectacular flares but Vijay steals the show here with his performance as a villager with a big heart and even bigger muscles.  Nithya Menen is also superb as Vetrimaaran’s wife Aishwarya (aka Ice), although she does have the best of the three female roles. Her Ice is passionate and inspiring in her devotion to the idea of readily available health care in their village, and she gets the chance to really bring out the emotions of her character well. She also has excellent chemistry with Vijay and this is the relationship that works the best out of the three, although to be fair both Samantha and Kajal get little screen time with the hero and little chance to develop their respective relationships.

There are a few oddities in this part of the film though. There is a sudden jump between Ice’s admission into the hospital and her final fate without much explanation of what goes wrong. Also, a potential fight between Vetrimaaran and Daniel’s henchmen is over before it begins with the gang all lying on the ground bleeding and moaning seconds after they approach Vetrimaaran. I’m not sure if these cuts are an Australian specific issue since I haven’t seen any mention of them in any other reviews, but it does seem odd and makes these final flashback scenes seem rushed and a little confusing.

Although the main focus of the film is Vijay, the rest of the support cast are all good, including Rajendran as an unlikely Health minister and Kaali Venkat as an auto driver whose daughter died due to corruption in the health service. The music from A.R. Rahman doesn’t stand out as anything special, but it does fit into the screenplay well while Atlee places the songs wisely throughout. G.K. Vishnu works wonders with the cinematography and the effects are magical despite the sometimes cheesy nature of the tricks. Watch out for a scene where Vijay fights with a deck of cards – the fusion of the magic storyline into a standard masala tale is a better fit than I expected. Of course the real magic here is that Vijay seems to be growing younger with each new film and he’s just as energetic as ever too.

However Mersal is more than just a revenge drama and there is a definite political slant to the story. To start with, medical negligence and corruption is an emotive topic, that has been much in the news recently with a series of high profile deaths in the Indian medical system. Vetri makes a rather political statement towards the end of the film as he speaks to the crowd outside the courtroom and asking why India can’t fund heathcare as well as Singapore when the Indian government collects a much larger amount of GST. This is much more direct than Vijay’s message about suicidal farmers in Kaththi and does come across as a warning to the current government that they are being judged as lacking leadership in this issue. Vijay underscores the political theme with several nods to MGR, including a scene where Vetrimaaran walks in to a cinema to accuse village officials of corruption just as MGR strides onto the screen in the background. Is this the next stage in Vijay’s political campaign or is he just making the best use of his star power and philanthropic tendencies? Only time will tell, but in Mersal, Atlee has combined politics and entertainment without diluting the message or preaching to his audience- something a lot of Holywood films could do well to emulate.