Janatha Garage

I want to grab Koratala Siva and shake him till his teeth rattle, then kick him into the middle of next week. He has managed to get a top notch cast and the beginning of a good idea and turn it into something far less than the sum of its parts.

Sathyam (The Complete Actor Mohanlal) is the head of Janatha Garage, a leader, and is genuine in his desire to give the little people a fair go. Mohanlal has great conviction and gravitas when he speaks of what is right and fair, and he gives the impression of a man who seeks to take a balanced view but who will never take the easy way out. He gathers a small crew of like-minded men who also represent in shorthand the diversity of Hyderabad. Janatha Garage repairs engines and problems.

Anand (Young Tiger NTR) has an unusual hero entrance where he arrives to … plant a tree. Or actually, tell someone he’s busy and so can they please plant the tree. Anand’s environmentalism is very simple. Trees good, humans bad. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with wanton destruction as long as it is him dishing out the destruction. He is given an overblown fight intro where he beats some thugs up while claiming to be giving them a taste of Mother Nature’s temper. He tells people what to do and believes they will do it because he has told them so. Sathyam sees him as a good fit for Janatha Garage, and welcomes him into the fold.

Some of the movie’s highlights are the scenes between NTR Jr and Mohanlal. Their characters have a connection that is unknown to either of them for quite some time, so that added a bit of interest for the audience. They both bring more to the table than that flimsy screenplay required. The actors portray a nice dynamic – warm, mutual respect, and a recognition of the gradual changing of the guard and what that means. But there are too many gaps and things that Anand in particular just accepts too easily. This is not a lack in Tarak’s acting – I felt he added as much complexity as he could. Both Anand and Sathyam are so sure they are right, and that their right is more right than anyone else’s idea of right. Anand in particular brooks no discussion and has no compassion for anyone who opposes him. It robs his character of any inner life, and makes them both rather joyless.

And that lack of heart is the real problem with this film. For a story that should be so intimately tied to people and their daily struggles, once the story moves to Hyderabad Janatha Garage seems to take place in a lifeless bubble. The sound design makes it seem like they are on a stage with echoing dubbing and swelling string music every time Janatha Garage is invoked. In contrast, an early scene of Anand running through a slum area in Mumbai had a real sense of place and the vibrant, persistent signs of life in high density cities. Even in the impressively choreographed action scenes, Anand takes on all comers alone. He finally allows the other Garage guys in on the final fight but they are barely on camera. And he never even gets a mark on his linen shirts, let alone get his hair messed up. I wonder if his construction strength hair product was environmentally friendly? His apparent invulnerability also saps the drama of tension because you know how every fight will end before it starts.

The support cast are pushed so far into the periphery that I was actually a bit sad to recognise so many capable actors. The Janatha Garage family includes Rahman as Sathyam’s murdered brother, Sithara as Anand’s aunty, Suresh as his uncle, and Devayani as Sathyam’s wife. Perennial favourite Ajay is likeable and sympathetic, Brahmaji doesn’t look angry for maybe 40 seconds of his total screentime, Saikumar is suave as police chief Chandrasekhar, and I liked Vennela Kishore’s fleeting appearance as an inappropriate office manager flirting with Samantha. I have just spent as much time on developing their characters as Koratala Siva did.

The baddies were played by Sachin Khedekar and Ashish Vidyarthi who both exuded an urbane egotism in their pursuit of wealth. They both want to keep a distance from what is being done, but have no illusions about the outcome. Unni Mukundan plays Sathyam’s son Raghava who goes over to the dark side. Raghava is slimy and bit of a sook and I cared not one jot for his well-being. But I did wonder just how he turned out that way when everyone else even tenuously associated with Janatha Garage was lining up for sainthood.

Samantha and Nithya Menon are capable, and both project warmth and liveliness which was sorely lacking in the rest of the film. But their relationships with each other and with Anand were never developed, and their storylines just fizzled out. Even Anand, apart from one tearful scene, seemed largely to forget that he had a girlfriend and a spare.

Luckily there are beautiful visuals from cinematographer S. Thirunavukkarasu, especially when the story heads out of town and Anand gets his groove on while frolicking in the mountains. Tarak can express such joy when he dances and it was a relief to see Anand lighten up. Rock On Bro is exactly what you’d expect if you briefed a 70s metal cover band to write a theme for a tourism ad with a hippy vibe. Having said that, the Apple Beauty song has possibly the worst lyrics I’ve heard since Eurovision. I pitied the subtitle team for having to work with such gems as “when you devour me I am like the Apple logo on an iPhone”. But don’t take my word for it. Here is a sample:

And who on earth thought Kajal could deliver a skanky item? She’s very attractive, she gives it her all, but she has none of the sensuality or basic coordination required to dance her way in and out of trouble. And casting a Mumbai girl to perform a Telugu item called Pakka Local…Luckily Tarak decides he can’t see the excellent sets go to waste so he jumps in.

I’m putting the flaws in Janatha Garage firmly on Koratala Siva’s account. He had a super cast, a decent budget, and a good idea and he threw most of it away with shoddy writing and empty clichés. One for the Tarak or Mohanlal fans who will enjoy the star performances.

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Ustad Hotel

Ustad Hotel poster

After watching the excellent Bangalore Days I was on the lookout for more from writer/director Anjali Menon and director Anwar Rasheed, and luckily found their previous co-venture Ustad Hotel lurking in my pile of ‘to-be-watched’ DVD’s.  The other drawcard pushing this up the list was the appearance of Dulquer Salmaan, who has impressed so far in every performance I’ve seen and seems to have the knack of picking a good script. And once again, the combination does not disappoint. Ustad Hotel is a gem of a film and fully deserves the many accolades and awards received, including its three National Film Awards in 2012. The story is simple but beautifully executed with stunning cinematography and excellent performances from the whole cast. It’s a real feast for the senses given that most of the film revolves around food and cooking, so probably best not to watch on an empty stomach!

The film tells the story of Faizal (Dulquer Salmaan), commonly called Faizi, and the path he takes to find his true place in life. Along the way we see details of his different relationships – with his four sisters, his father and most importantly with his grandfather, the owner of the Ustad Hotel.

Faizi’s story starts before he is born when his father Abdul Razaq (Siddique) and mother Fareeda (Praveena) are expecting their first child. Abdul’s confidence that the baby will be a boy and his disappointment when this child, and the next three are all girls, sets our expectations for a typically traditional family and in the main this is what we get. By the time Faizi is finally born, his ambitious father has already planned out his son’s life, which leaves little room for what Faizi himself actually wants. Luckily Faizi has his four sisters who bring him up after their mother dies and seem to have his best interests at heart. His sisters know that he is training to be a chef in Switzerland while his father thinks he is studying for an MBA, but they aren’t impressed by his European girlfriend or by his plans to work in London. As a result they conspire to bring him back to India, but still keep his father in the dark about Faizi’s true plans.

At the same time Abdul has arranged a bride visit for Faizi as soon as he steps off the plane, but things don’t go well when Faizi tells his intended bride Shahana (Nithya Menon) of his intention to work as a chef. Faizi’s furious father confiscates his passport and in desperation Faizi turns to his grandfather Kareem (Thilakan) who runs a small beachside restaurant in Kozhikode.

Kareem acts as a mentor to Faizi and teaches him not only how to cook his famous biriyani, but also how to care for a business, including his workers, and the general community around him. The obvious respect which Kareem receives from everyone from his staff and customers, to the chef in the five-star hotel nearby, makes Faizi realise that there is more to his grandfather than he previously realised. Everyone sees him as Kareem’s grandson and that defines his place in a way that has never been so clear before.  The story is well crafted and the relationship between the two is beautifully developed as Kareem starts by making Faizi a general helper and gradually allows him to develop his cooking skills while ensuring he gains a more mature outlook on life.

Thilakan is perfect as Kareem and he is the glue that holds the story together. There is a twinkle in his eye as he describes running off with the bride from a wedding where he was employed to cook, and the wistful delight with which he describes watching rain in the desert is pitched just right. He has a number of maxims he lives by, including that every meal should feed the mind as well as the stomach and every glass of sulaimani should contain a little bit of love. With these simple words and by ensuring his workers all have extra funds should they need it, Kareem teaches Faizi how to be a good person, not just a good cook. He is a man who lives his life with no regrets and has compassion for all, which makes him the ideal mentor for Faizi.

Dulquer is also excellent, and while the role of a trendy young NRI returning to India may be straightforward, his Faizi does appear to be genuinely at a crossroads.  He imbues his character with plenty of charm but also gives Faizi an element of confusion and bewilderment that fits his indecision perfectly. Dulquer and Thilakan share wonderful chemistry and their relationship comes across as very genuine – the respected elder and the young apprentice both in the film and presumably also in real life given that this is only Dulquer’s second film. Mamukkoya also deserves special mention in his role as Ummar, Kareem’s manager and almost another member of the family. He is very natural in the role and his conversations with Kareem about Faizi are exactly what you would expect from an old and trusted employee asked to give his opinion on the wayward young member of the family.

Nithya Menon appears as the love interest for Faizi and her Shahana is an interesting character. At one moment she is wearing a burka and conforming to the demands of her rather strict family, but in the next she steals out and is singing in a rock band and wearing Western clothes. Nithya Menon is as wonderful as ever and even in her limited time onscreen she makes an impression, but I really would have liked to see a little more of her in the second half.

While Faizi deals with the repercussions of defying his father, he gets a job at the five-star hotel next door and has a chance to use his training to cook more Western style dishes, or ‘oag cosin’ as my subtitles call it! There is a plot to drive Kareem out of the hotel and close down the Ustad Hotel and finally Faizi makes a trip to Madurai to see just how cooking with love should be carried out. It all ties together perhaps a little too neatly at the end but it’s hard to complain when it’s all done so well with S Lokanathan’s stunning cinematography ensuring each scene looks perfect.

Ustad Hotel is a film that flows beautifully, blending adept characterisations, a heart-warming story and traditional Keralan cuisine into a very tasty dish indeed. There are a few quibbles; Faizi’s Western girlfriend is horribly stereotyped and the second half could have been a little shorter without losing too much of the story. The romance between Faizi and Shahana seems to go from awkwardness after her initial rejection to a friendly relationship well, but the jump to romance seems to happen off camera as the two are suddenly an item without any further development of their relationship. However these are small points in an otherwise excellent film. Well worth watching for Dulquer, Thilakan and Nithya along with all the glorious shots of food. 4 ½ stars.

Apoorva Ragam

I must have read about Apoorva Ragam before I bought the DVD but I’d no idea about the story when I finally sat down to watch it. And that’s definitely the way to approach this film.  It relies on unexpected twists to deliver a rather different take on college romance and knowing too much about the story beforehand would take away much of its appeal. It’s genuinely surprising and has a heroine who’s prepared to fight back which is always a plus, but there is a little too much sentimentality for me, especially in the final scenes. It’s still an enjoyable film though, and I loved the myriad twists and turns which made the second half of the film much better than the first.

Apologies for the rather blurry screencaps – the DVD plays much better in a DVD player than on my laptop!

Apoorva Ragam starts just like every other Indian college-based film with a group of guys discussing how to get their friend Roopesh (Nishan) hooked up with the pretty and popular Nancy.  Nancy (Nithya Menon) is bubbly and confident unlike the rather shy and quiet Roopesh but after some plotting by his mates Tommy (Asif Ali) and Feroz (Abhishek Raveendran), Roopesh gets admitted into Nancy’s circle of friends.

A little more contriving and Roopesh finally declares his love to Nancy which unsurprisingly she reciprocates in full.  One inane college song later and the two appear to be a happy couple without a care in the world – so far so very predictable.

Except that there is a cloud on the horizon as a guy on a motorbike turns up looking for Tommy and Roopesh, and he doesn’t look as if he out to give them career advice either.

In another hint that not all may be as it seems, Tommy calls Nancy’s rich father to tell him that his daughter is in a relationship with some loser guy at college.  Although he trusts his daughter and doesn’t put much faith in the anonymous phone call, Melipaire reacts by setting up Nancy’s marriage to his business partner’s son.  In despair Nancy turns to her friends for their advice and after a little more drama Tommy and Narayanan (Vinay Forrt) suggest that Nancy and Roopesh get married and present her father with a fait accompli.  Nancy doesn’t seem too keen on the idea, but like all good movie heroines, she does what the hero expects her to do and in no time at all the wedding goes ahead.

So far, the film is following an entirely predictable path and not even a particularly impressive one at that. But then Melipaire confronts Roopesh and just when I was expecting the big speech full of undying love and unswerving loyalty, the tables turn completely and the film takes off in a totally different and much more interesting direction.

From here on there is twist after twist and the pace of the film picks up considerably.  There are some very clever ideas and some more bizarre moments – like when Roopesh ends up on the runway as a male model! The three guys, Roopesh, Tommy and Narayanan, all interact well and keep the action snappy and focused for the most part.  There are only two songs and this is the better of the two since it features some excellent uncle dancing from the boys as they bond on a road trip.

But while the story becomes interesting there are almost too many plot twists so that by the time it gets to the final climax scene it’s hard to be surprised by anything.  The constant shock revelations make it hard to connect to the characters and in addition the three leads are more caricatures rather than the well-developed individual personalities the earlier scenes seemed to promise.  There is also no back story to explain why Roopesh, Tommy and Narayanan ended up together and became involved in the elaborate schemes which develop.  Santhosh Jogi’s brief appearance as Sethu, the guy chasing after Tommy and Roopesh, is also confusing as it’s never clear exactly how he knew them or how he knew about their plans.  He seems to be used more to showcase the ruthlessness of the three and their tight camaraderie rather than as a way to further develop their story.

Nithya Menon is excellent as Nancy and is particularly good when she asserts her decisive personality.  She makes the most of her role and apart from a little over acting at the end, delivers the best performance in the film. I always like it when a heroine does the sensible thing and runs when faced with a bad situation and Nancy passes the test with flying colours.  In comparison, Nishan is rather wooden as Roopesh and after his first brilliant scene with Melipaire, he seems to rely on just two facial expressions which both make him look as if he has eaten something disagreeable.  Asif Ali is much better as Tommy but once the action moves away from the college campus he is pretty much sidelined while Vinay Forrt has even less to do as Narayanan.  Nancy’s father also seems to be a bit of a wimpy push-over and his over sentimental speeches with his daughter don’t really fit with the rest of the film.

This is the only film I’ve seen by Sibi Malayil although I have more of his films in the pile to watch.  I’ve read that this was a departure from his normal style of film-making which makes me wonder if the under-development of the characters was more of a deliberate experiment and an attempt to create a more edgy atmosphere.  It doesn’t quite work whatever the reason as there isn’t enough meat in the story to allow for the lack depth in the three guys. I still enjoyed watching Apoorva Ragam but it’s not a film that bears up well to a second viewing since once you know what is going to happen the flaws in the characterisations are very apparent.  As a one-time entertainer though it works well, and it does deliver as advertised – “an unusual story about love and…” 3 ½ stars.