118

Poster

K.V. Guhan moves from DOP to director in this paranormal thriller starring Kalyan Ram and Nivetha Thomas. It’s fast-paced, to the extent that at times plot points feel rushed as K.V. Guhan packs a lot of story into the 2 hour runtime. This dilutes some of the tension, as do some rather gaping plot holes, but for the most part 118 is an entertaining and even occasionally surprising tale.

The film opens with the graphic and violent beating of a woman which is quickly revealed to be a dream so shocking that it wakes up investigative reporter Guatham (Kalyan Ram). The time on the clock is 1.18am so Gautham wipes his fevered brow and goes back to sleep before heading out the next morning on a jeep safari. He doesn’t appear to think any more about the dream, until 6 months later when he has exactly the same dream again, waking at the same time in the same room at the same resort. The room is #118, the time is again 1.18am and this time Gautham takes it as ‘a sign’. It’s never explicitly mentioned that this seems to be some sort of ghostly visitation – not even when Gautham tracks down other guests who stayed in the same room, but the implication is that this is an imprint of a horrible event rather than a foretelling of one that’s yet to come.

Gautham has a helpful police officer friend, courtesy of a big political money laundering scam he helped to bust previously. This lets him track phone calls and find out confidential information that he would never manage to elicit by himself. A missing girl in the same location eventually gives him the information to identify the woman in his dream as Aadya (Nivetha Thomas) and aided by his fiancée Medha (Shalini Pandey) and friend (Prabhas Sreenu) he starts to investigate what happened in room 118.

One of the problems I have with the film is that everything happens a little too easily for Gautham. As an investigative reporter, stories just seem to fall into his lap, and there are a few too many coincidences during his inquiries that lead him to various clues. He finds the site where in his dream he saw Aadya’s car being pushed off a cliff rather too conveniently, and then, without even stopping to consider the consequences, he jumps into the water to see if there is indeed a car at the bottom. And even though the police are aware of the missing persons cases, they don’t seem to be investigating at all, giving Gautham free rein to trample all over potential evidence and alert possible suspects at every turn. The villains too are rather clichéd, resorting to the usual threats, ineffective ambushes and intimidation by road rage. Their grand plan is also nonsensical and would never have had any chance of succeeding but then to be fair that does apply to most filmi villains.

There is also some very shonky pseudo-science as Gautham consults a ‘dream-doctor’ (Nasser) who helps him experience what he calls ‘lucid dreaming’ (which is an actual phenomenon, although not quite as described here) to help get to the bottom of his dream. This involves wires attached to his head (of course) and pretty pictures of neurones firing but is really just a way for Gautham to quickly find the answer without going through some more rigorous investigative processes. Nonetheless, it’s a novel approach and works reasonably well given the paranormal theme of the film.

Kalyan Ram is good as the man trying to get to the bottom of a nightmare and at least his job gives him most of the skills he needs to be able to track down clues. However, the speed at which he discovers key points doesn’t leave much room for character development since the film moves quickly from one action scene to the next. He manages to get across the idea that Gautham is a man dedicated to discovering the truth and does a good job with displaying various emotions as the details of the case some to light. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kalyan Ram in a lead role before, and he carries the movie easily with good screen presence and enough charisma to make Gautham a likeable hero.

Although she doesn’t have much screentime, Nivetha Thomas is excellent in a flash-back sequence that explains exactly what Aadya was doing and how she ended up in room 118. She has the best developed role since she gets some back story, plus she has morals and principles which are a sure sign she is going to suffer for them. She’s an accomplished actor and has a serene presence that helps to explain why Gautham is so passionate about finding out what actually happened to Aadya. I really liked her in Chaappa Kurish and she’s even better here where she gets to take on a meatier role.

Prabhas Sreenu is fairly subdued in his role as Gautham’s friend who’s always that step of two behind, but he fits well into the role and provides a good sounding board as required. However, I couldn’t see the point of the romantic track with Shalini Pandey or why it was necessary to add some scenes with Gautham’s mother (Geetha Bhascker) since neither contributed anything to the story. Both are absolutely fine in their small roles, but they had little to do and even less relevance to the story.

While there are some issues with the film, the overall story and the performances of Kalyan Ram and Nivetha Thomas make this worth a watch in the cinema. The story moves along quickly and although there are some clichéd ideas, the investigation itself is different enough to be interesting. I enjoyed watching this, and did even jump once or twice although I did also laugh a few times at some of the more ridiculous notions. The film is well made, it generally looks slick and polished and Shekar Chandra’s soundtrack is better than average although this is mainly background music as there is only one song. At only 2 hours this one feels short and snappy too. One to watch for Nivetha Thomas , Kalyan Ram and the novel puzzle he has to solve.

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Jai Lava Kusa

Jai Lava Kusa poster

NTR’s latest film takes the main masala ingredient of separated siblings as its theme, and weaves a standard tale of betrayal, revenge and political aspirations with plenty of fight scenes, the odd romantic moment and an exposé of bad parenting. Tarak plays three separate roles in the film, and to his credit he does differentiate all three characters well, particularly given their completely identical appearance by the end. However, with the exception of the child actor (?actors?) three versions of NTR means that no-one else gets a look in and the story suffers as a result. But if all you want is 2 ½ hours of mindless entertainment with big music numbers, even bigger fight scenes and plenty of Tarak, then Jai Lava Kusa ticks all the boxes.

The film starts with three identical triplets who are brought up by their uncle after their mother dies. I couldn’t work out if the same child actor plays all three or if K.S. Ravindra just happened to get three really similar kids (which seems more likely). Whichever it is, he (they) are excellent, particularly in the portrayal of the young Jai. The young actors here set up the interactions between the triplets which will go on to shape their adult characters, and I thoroughly enjoyed their frank portrayal of emotion and demonstration of just how nasty kids can be. At the same time, Posani Krishna Murali as their uncle and guardian shows exactly how not to deal with a child who has a speech impediment and generally fails at being a parental figure. The triplets perform on stage in mythological dramas but while Lava and Kusa are big stars, Jai is denied the same success by his stammer. Not content with ridiculing and humiliating Jai, his uncle also beats him which starts to take its toll, leading to Jai’s suitably theatrical response that leaves all three brothers separated and thinking the others are dead.

Moving forward a few years and Kusa (NTR Jr) has become a thief with a terrible haircut and a hopeless sidekick who soon fades into the background. A car accident reunites Kusa with his long-lost brother Lava, but here there is no need here for amulets, significant songs or other filmi contrivances since the two know each other immediately given that they are identical. Lava (also NTR Jr) is a mild-mannered bank manager with a crush on his marriage broker and after a haircut (thank goodness!) Kusa and Lava embark on a scheme of impersonation to let Kusa sort out problems in the bank while Lava attempts to woo Priya (Raashi Khanna). A scene about the impact of monetisation is excellent here, but for the most part there are some terrible clichés in this part of the film. Hamsa Nandini has a truly awful role as a vamp in the bank while the story itself is pedestrian and treads very familiar ground. What does work is the difference Tarak manages to create between the two brothers, despite looking identical. He keeps the personalities and the voice tone different, while the effects used to let the two brothers appear together work well

The second half is much better as Lava and Kusa find out what happened to the final brother, Jai (NTR Jr). While he still stammers, Jai has become the leader of a gang of thugs and goes by the name of Ravana, with all the symbolism that implies. Jai is totally different from the other two brothers and Tarak plays him with a brooding intensity that overpowers Lava and Kusa whenever they are together. It’s a fantastic performance and works to lift the second part of the film as Jai, in his guise of Ravana, terrorises a village with his gang. With his nifty retrievable axe on a chain Ravana deals out death on a daily basis, but needs a total image revamp when he decides to pursue a political career and win over the heart of Simran (Nivetha Thomas). There is also a plot thread that introduces a rival for Ravana in the form of Sarkar (Ronit Roy) to ensure that there are enough fight scenes and general mayhem for the film finale, while having three versions of Jai running around allows for some comedy to stop the film drowning in too much gore. The film doesn’t ever aspire to any kind of realism so the over the top fight scenes fit right in, and the lack of any appropriate authoritarian response to the excessive bloodshed seems perfectly logical. But it’s the more negative character of Jai that dominates and with plenty of melodrama and a deep voice, Tarak ensures that this is the character you remember at the end of the film.

This being an NTR Jr film there are big song and dance numbers which generally have little to do with the actual story, but which look fantastic on the big screen. Tamannah turns up in an item song, which was better than expected, and for the most part the songs are inoffensive and the dancing is first class. However they tend to appear out of nowhere and do act as distractions for the main storyline.

With all the focus being on the three brothers, there is little room for anything else. Ronit Roy’s character is a standard Telugu villain without any differentiating characteristics, while Harish Uthaman and Brahmaji pop up in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles. The other support characters only appear briefly to explain what happened to the brothers as they were growing up and both Raashi Khanna and Nivetha Thomas are under-utilised in roles that have minimal character development. This really is all about NTR Jr and his ability to successfully pull off a triple role with three very different characters. From that perspective the film is a huge success – Tarak is very impressive as Jai and makes me wish he appeared in more negative character roles, given how well he does here. It’s NTR Jr’s film all the way and he carries it easily with impressive performances in all three roles. It’s just a pity that the story doesn’t come together as strongly or leave such an impression. Worth watching for Tarak and for the whole visual spectacle, just don’t expect too much from the plot.

 

Ninnu Kori

Ninnu Kori had the potential to be good. I like the concept, and it is rare to see a first love is not the only love story. Unfortunately Shiva Nirvana squandered a great cast on a badly written screenplay full of paternalistic BS.

Uma (Nani) meets Pallavi (Nivetha Thomas) when she suddenly decides he must teach her to dance. The moment he touches her, he falls in love. Pallavi takes longer to succumb, and their developing friendship and ensuing romance is among the few highlights. Uma rents the upstairs room at Pallavi’s family home, carrying on a clandestine romance under the eagle eye of her dad (Murali Sharma). Uma seems to have no family, is a PhD student with no job lined up, and he doesn’t seem inclined to try too hard. Pallavi begs him to marry her as while she will elope and upset her parents, she won’t disgrace the whole family by running away after they fix a match. He overhears her father interfering in another family’s elopement issue and the speech about what fathers know their daughters need hits home. Pallavi’s marriage is arranged in Vizag while Uma is studying in Delhi. She calls him in a last ditch attempt, but he talks over her about his own news. So Pallavi marries Arun (Aadhi Pinisetty) who seems nice despite a penchant for Disney songs. They move to the US and life is good. Until Uma turns up determined to “save” Pallavi from what he believes must be a loveless marriage.

The film sounds promising as it acknowledges that it is fine to have a past, and it is OK to move on from an unsuccessful relationship. Sadly almost every time someone made a good or thoughtful point, they then pretty much did the opposite of what they said. When Uma says not to interfere between Arun and Pallavi, the next scene is of Uma and others engineering a confrontation between the spouses.

According to Kona Venkat’s screenplay, under NO circumstances should you ask a woman what is important to her. Men must only ever discuss this with another man, preferably one with his own agenda or, even better, no idea at all. Rather than tell Pallavi the truth, Arun shared an admittedly touching scene with Uma where Uma was forced to realise he was the equivalent of a cocaine fuelled suicidal ex wannabe girlfriend. Several men in the audience applauded while I wondered why Arun couldn’t be honest with his wife but could spill his guts to the guy trying to replace him.

Shiva Nirvana takes all the cheap shots, and none of them necessary. Pallavi’s best friend Kavita had to be a fat chick and the butt of some mean one-liners. Addiction and mental illness were treated flippantly as a now you see it now you don’t excuse for Uma’s shenanigans. A black actor was cast as a knife wielding mugger while most of the other American extras were white.

At the end of the film Uma grandly states he has learned his lesson and will marry first, fall in love after. I have no issue with arranged marriages, but I take exception to the man who behaved like a dick being applauded for deciding to bestow himself upon some poor woman. He constantly put himself first, blamed everyone else if he didn’t get what he wanted, and took advantage of Arun and Pallavi’s kindness. What a catch. What a hero.

Nani is the Simon the Likeable of Telugu cinema and I blame him for making me stay beyond half time. In the first stage of Uma’s love for Pallavi, Nani plays him as a genuine, nice, boy next door type. He is playful and affectionate, and wants to get his degree and a job before marrying Pallavi. Once she marries Arun, Uma becomes an alcoholic which Nani demonstrates by sporting a beard and drinking so hard he almost bites the top off a hipflask. When Uma goes to stay with Arun and Pallavi he is all spite and manipulative snark. His snide remarks got lots of laughs but despite good comedic timing I wanted to kick him. Pallavi tells him she is happy, but Uma knows better. He couldn’t move on, how can she?

Pallavi starts out as a bit daft but eventually, perhaps in spite of the screenplay, Nivetha Thomas develops her character into a lovely young woman. Her grief at their break up and her anger at Uma’s selfishness are portrayed with restraint and judgement. When Pallavi thinks Arun has cheated, Nivetha made the melodrama feel grounded in Pallavi’s previous experience. She had some strong dialogue, and Pallavi was willing and able to articulate her feelings, but the men only listen to themselves. Pallavi was hurt to think that Uma was wallowing in pain because he assumed she was miserable while I was upset that he never listened to her.

Aadhi Pinisetty has a quiet energy that plays off Nani’s more extrovert childish antics. At first I thought Arun was a bit wet, but Aadhi shows the reaction and immediate squashing down of his feelings. He and Nivetha have a different chemistry, convincing as a settled couple. And because husbands are heroes, he also got to beat someone up. I was very distracted by his unfortunate 70s blow wave though. I’m going to blame the director because he bollocksed up so many other things he may as well cop the hair crimes too.

Tanikella Bharani is understated in a small role as Uma’s professor and mentor, in as much as a mentor calls on an ex to sort out his most brilliant student’s life. Balireddy Pruthviraj is Lovababu, Pallavi’s (comedy) uncle. I can’t really fault any of the support actors, except for the usual “any white person will do, especially one in a bikini” extras.

Gopi Sunder’s soundtrack is adequate without being memorable. The background score is hamfisted with crashing percussion to indicate drama, and strings and synths denoting romance. The visual language is clunky, and things that probably sounded cool look amateurish in execution (e.g. Uma splashing water on his face cutting to a crashing wave).  There are vague attempts to paper over some plot holes and some very awkward exposition. The pace is uneven, wallowing in Uma’s angst while speeding past pivotal moments.

The film is a mansplainer’s delight and Uma, who behaves appallingly, is constantly rewarded for being an arse. I was disappointed by Ninnu Kori, and don’t recommend it because of the stupidity and toxic messages disguised as respect for tradition and the power of love.