Nannaku Prematho

Nannaku Prematho treads the line between mass action shtick and a more restrained thriller. Sukumar is attentive to foreshadowing and resolving the things he sets up so it is all very satisfying. Note: I think I’ve avoided giving away most of the surprises, but this is not completely spoiler free.

Abhiram (Tarak) is the youngest son of Subramanyam (Rajendra Prasad), a successful enough NRI businessman. But all families have secrets and when Subramanyam is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he tells his three sons about his past. He was once even the even wealthier Ramesh Chandra Prasad, but was cheated by an associate who has gone on to become filthy rich and influential on a global scale. He wants those wrongs righted, and the lost wealth back, before he dies. The two older sons humour him but have no intention of paying anything more than lip service. Abhi is more action oriented and he decides to ruin Krishnamurthy (Jagapathi Babu) so his father can die in peace. He decides to throw everything he has at this, including emptying out the family bank accounts. And his method? Making Krishnamurthy’s daughter Divya (Rakul Preet Singh) fall for him so he can worm his way in to Krishnamurthy’s good books and then steal all the things. His brothers are not supportive after losing the family fortune twice, Divya is unimpressed when she rumbles him, but Abhi is undaunted.

Despite the premise that Abhi will use Divya the relationship that develops between them, as much as any relationships in this film are developed, is quite respectful and they seem to like each other. Sukumar falls back on the hero saving heroine from a completely unnecessary and gratuitous rape scenario but this is a big budget Telugu film and it’s not like they have the inclination to actually think about having the hero talk to a woman with a brain. When Abhi tries to get over losing Divya he doesn’t want her insulted or cheapened in any way, so he focusses his anger on her father. I like that he didn’t think less of her because of either how their relationship started or who she was related to. But I am not sure he really knew her all that well either. He knew what he wanted to know of her. A lot of the tension is really about misunderstanding. And when people do understand the situation or the motivation, they deal with it and it makes sense. Mostly. The character with minimal respect for Divya is her father.

Tarak is low key and solid in his 25th film, and manages to make the shift into heroic daring and action a seamless extension of Abhi’s character. It was well judged, and helped by some thoughtful plotting. Sure there was still some near certain death, and suspension of logic and laws of physics, but overall his challenges required brain as well as brawn. Abhi tries not to let extreme emotions sway his behaviour, but he isn’t dull. He has a sense of humour to go with his overweening confidence, treats his sidekicks like valued helpers most of the time, and Tarak has a nice rapport with his co-stars. I was really interested in how Abhi was going to solve the various challenges thrown in his way and very invested in seeing him win over the slimy Krishnamurthy. The action scenes seem like a breeze for Tarak, and he gets to strut his stuff in a few songs too.

Rakul Preet Singh has some fairly thin material as Divyanka, but manages to pull a decent performance out of it. She doesn’t simper, she looks Abhi straight in the eye and demands answers. It is nice to have an unapologetic and self-assured woman as the heroine. Divya was also given a little bit of space to be angry, be sad, be scared, get drunk, hang out with friends, and be a person in her own right. It’s not a ground breaking role, but I liked the performance and the hints of being more than just an accessory for the hero. Rakul Preet just turns up in the songs, does great face, and leaves most of the work to Tarak which suited me fine. She dressed appropriately for the part, wore stylish and sensible flat shoes which made me ridiculously happy, and only suffered a few dodgy outfits. I also liked that her conflict over her father heading for a collision with Abhi was somewhat resolved, albeit in a thrifty way.

Set in the UK and Spain the film’s style is urban and the characters well to do. It all looks crisp, well composed, and orderly. Tarak’s image as Abhi was a mildly dandified hipster about town, affluent and understated. But I laughed at the matching outfits all three sons wore in one critical scene. Otherwise the wardrobe team did well. I’ve been thinking about eyebrows a lot since I rewatched this.

Also interesting – I’ve never seen a plot hinge on a car full of guinea pigs before. The poor little buggers were thrown around a bit, which I find distressing. But the stupid science thing that had me rolling my eyes turned out to be a ruse so I’m glad that was not supposed to be a thing. The songs by Devi Sri Prasad are OK and are integrated well into the action.

The supporting cast is strong, even if they don’t always seem essential. Jagapathi Babu is in his element as the urbane, narcissistic, Krishnamurthy. How cool that he gave Abhi a swipe card to get into his office anytime without breaking in, he was so confident he would win. The way the story was fleshed out around the characters made sense in this world, and there were few false notes. Hooray for quietly competent Kate (Liza van der Smissen) in amongst the sidekicks. I was honestly puzzled by why Srinivas Avasarala was even in the film because I can’t recall his character doing anything necessary. Rajeev Kanakala does high emotion well, but his character was hampered by the lack of connection between some scenes. Rajendra Prasad isn’t in the film for long but his presence permeates everything.

I have a small gripe. The opening titles are over a badly animated approximation of a Rube Goldberg machine….Why not just build one instead of faking it? But the film is fairly well constructed, has decent internal logic, throws in a few elaborate surprises, and like a Goldberg machine everything lands where it should.

See this if you like a good mass film but often wish they made more sense, and for people mostly acting like grown-ups. 4 stars! (deductions for gratuitous rapeyness and imperilled guinea pigs).

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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.

 

Simhadri

A story told in two parts, Simhadri is uneven. The things I love, I love. And the things I don’t, I really don’t. Rajamouli is always worth watching however, and it is kind of fun to look back at his earlier efforts even when the execution is a little laboured. Tarak is likeable enough, although his acting has improved greatly since 2003.

Simhadri (Tarak) is an orphan living in the household of Ram Bhupal Varma (Nasser) and his wife (Sangeetha). Simhadri is intensely loyal and has anger management issues, and his violence in service of the family is seen as endearing and almost a joke. Anyway, as they keep saying, it’s OK to kill or be killed if it is for the good of people. Tarak and Nasser have some nice badinage and their relationship does seem rock solid and a reasonable motivation for much of what follows. Simhadri is irresistible to women, especially Kasthuri (Ankitha), the daughter of the house. But he spends a lot of time and money with childlike Indu (Bhumika Chawla), and that becomes an issue when Kasthuri finds out. Apparently Simhadri’s style of beating people is medically identifiable and frequently lethal…Or at least that is what a visiting doctor from Kerala says happens when Singamalai beats someone up. But is Singamalai the same person as Simhadri? Why do truckloads of people with many and varied motivations turn up looking for him? Is he leading a double life?

Tarak gets one of the best hero entrance scenes ever, and a quite impractical yet very impressive weapon of choice. The action scenes are crunching and generally humourless, with varying degrees of gore. And he really is delightful in the songs where he is the bumblebee of dance – it seems he shouldn’t be able to move like that but look at him go!

M.M Keeravani’s soundtrack has a dreary orphan song, some cheesy duets, and offers Tarak a range of opportunities to bust a move. It even includes that romantic Indian classic – Cotton Eye Joe!

But Simhadri has to participate in comedy disease shenanigans, and wear some very unpleasant headbands not suited to the hamster-cheeked gent. The obligatory scenes paying homage to the senior NTR are a little overdone, as well as suffering from early 2000s technical limitations. Seeing the younger actors try to leverage their family name while appeasing the inherited fan base and also create their own image is quite interesting to me.

The relationship between Simhadri and Indu is troubling given her childlike mentality. The portrayal is a little flirtatious or at least uses filmi romance visuals which is creepy. Even Simhadri’s family immediately assume she is a prostitute, despite her little girl braids and outfits. And I was appalled by her horrible neighbours. Orphanism isn’t contagious! But despite all this rich material, that renowned wet dishrag of an actress Bhumika uses at most two three facial expressions. The relationship between Simhadri and Kasturi is equally perplexing, although for different reasons. Apparently the way to spark romance is to either scare a man or be scared in front of him. So dropping an ant down your bra and all the following shrieking and jiggling makes perfect sense then. I was kind of glad Ankitha is terrible in this as it would have been sad seeing a good actress enduring the stupidity of the script.

Despite his dubious interpretation of the female psyche, Rajamouli did win a few “you go girl!” points for casting Ramya Krishnan as an item girl.

I found it highly amusing that the song is pretty much along the theme of “do you want fries with that”. But seriously, I am so impressed she has managed such a long and varied career and has made some super films along the way.

The support cast is rich with talent and recognisable faces. Nasser is all reasonable and understanding until someone disagrees with him, then it is “my way or the highway”. He is a great foil for Tarak. Mukesh Rishi is vile and compelling as Bhai Sahib, the big bad gangster. Rahul Dev is slimy Nair, who sparks about an hour of graphic violence including rape and torturing children. Sharat Saxena is the ultimate useless policeman who abdicates all responsibility to the vigilantism of Simhadri. Bhanu Chander has a small but pivotal role that relies on him never making a sensible decision. All of these actors are good, but all their characters need at least one tight slap or maybe a whack with the fancy significant weapon. You know I am close to despair when I can say truthfully that Brahmi and his character is one of the highlights. I also liked Rallapalli and Ragini as Indu’s carers, and Hema as the cheeky maid and confidante to Kasturi.

While the pace is a bit draggy, Rajamouli shines in the action sequences where he uses creative visuals to heighten the drama. Simhadri leaps over the threshold and is then seen landing on the road on a motorcycle. When Simhadri takes on Nair’s gang the fight is intercut with a religious festival, reinforcing that he is doing godly work and getting the adrenaline flowing. The final fight scene has Tarak moving at normal speed but the rowdies in slomo, which was an effective treatment compared with just speeding it all up.

There are some issues with the story, but this is not one to overthink the plot. I mean I can think of several other and better ways to solve the old “bomb in the suitcase” problem…but who wants the sensible masala version?

See this for all the mass tricks, a hero on his way to becoming a genuine star, and a director who backs himself to be playful with the big ticket elements. 3 ½ stars!

Simhadri-last word