Rani Kasula Rangamma (1981)

I’m conflicted about this film. This was an Adventure Without Subtitles so I know there are some crucial dialogues I have missed but the action kind of speaks for itself. I’m going to go for a spoiler right off the bat as that sets the context for my thinking, and there are more spoilers to follow. And it’s a long read because I’m feeling ranty.

Sridevi gives an excellent performance and I really liked her character, the titular Rani Kasula Rangamma. Chiranjeevi excels in his negative role as he has the dramatic skill and isn’t reluctant to go there. Which brings me to my problem with the film.

What a horrible premise! The appropriate redress for rape is for the woman to marry her rapist. I know that the double standard of sexual propriety means that by surviving an assault she is ruined in the eyes of patriarchal society, and this was made in 1981. But it’s just revolting. And yet this is a really good film in so many ways, much more entertaining than it sounds when you know the plot, and with some decent surprises throughout. Director T.L.V Prasad keeps things moving along, with a tone midway between melodrama and thriller.

Rangamma (Sridevi) is a cheeky and quick witted village girl, confident she can look after herself, and well liked around the area. Seetanna (Nutan Prasad) has a crush on her and often daydreams about her reciprocating his feelings but that just leads to some terrible dancing.  Sukumar (Chiranjevi) and his camp friend, maybe meant to be a hijra, Kannayya (Rallapalli) turn up in the village. Kannayya goes and inspects farm workers and chooses a woman for Sukumar to rape. The deed is represented by a montage of a dove trying to escape from what looked like a stuffed hawk, but there is no ambiguity. He just goes home and has a conversation about marriage with his father (Kongara Jaggayya). Sukumar wants to enjoy life (and presumably, being a serial rapist) and says marriage has no meaning at all. His dad gives him A Look but says nothing.

Rangamma is frequently the object of unwanted male attention and has no qualms about fighting assailants and telling off a sleazy village elder (Allu Ramalingaiah) for planting wrong notions in Seetanna’s head. Sukumar and Kannayya spot her going to fetch water, and who wouldn’t find the sight of Sridevi frolicking in a river delightful. Sukumar makes numerous attempts to try and trap her. Eventually he takes a direct approach and corners her while she is alone in her own house. She puts up a hell of a fight but is bundled into the jeep and driven away, presumably so he could take his time. No hawk and dove montage here, the struggle looked far too real with both actors channelling strong emotions. Meanwhile Seetanna goes to her house to propose (I think) and sees the assault in progress. He catches up to the car but he gets knocked out, and Sukumar cheerfully gets on with his plan. Rangamma’s necklace seems to give her a sense of protection or a blessing, and she loses all fight when it is torn off. Afterwards Rangamma staggers out and picks up the thread Seetanna had brought for her. She demands Sukumar marry her now she has been ruined. He laughs at her naiveté, pushes her into a well, and leaves her for dead. Presumably he’ll be home in time for dinner with Daddy.

Sukumar’s dad hires a familiar looking young lady in a stylish western dress and hair do. When she takes a letter for Sukumar he freaks out at the sight of her but she calmly insists she is Roja, not this Rangamma person. He can’t leave her alone, and starts with his cat and mouse games trying to prove Roja is Rangamma. He’s not always on task though. He did sleaze on to Jayamalini x 2 after an item number. Eventually he takes a large sum of money to her apartment and seems to be either trying to buy her or make her leave. It doesn’t work as next thing you know, his dad is about to marry her.

Sukumar has a fit at the sight of her necklace and confronts her in front of everyone. Is she or is she not Rani Kasula Rangamma? Yes she bloody well is. He tries to tell his dad why she is unsuitable without incriminating himself but eventually he stumbles and she sees an opening. Rangamma tells him forcefully she will not let him weasel out of being responsible. And then his dad spills the beans – he knows all about what happened and has been plotting with Rangamma to reform Sukumar or at least make him marry her. And he does. Blergh! And she looks vaguely happy about it all. I get that she gains some social protection but…he’s an unrepentant serial rapist.

Sridevi is fantastic. She conveys a huge range of emotions from cheerful innocence through to vengeful anger and is always convincing and compelling. Rangamma is outspoken and articulate, never passive. Roja is a total contrast, her mild character and fashionable style designed to appeal to her rapist and throw him off guard. Their body language is usually very different but in scenes where Roja has had just about enough of all the useless men in the office cracking on to her, you suddenly see Rangamma in the set of her jaw or the way she positions her hands. I loved the casually wide eyed way she would play with Sukumar’s paranoia about her identity. There’s a scene where she gets to save Sukumar from a well, and her disdain and focus on the task plays beautifully off his panic and confused flailing.

Of course she gets to dance. I preferred the happy, carefree, folky numbers because the Indian clothing was much more flattering for her. But the 80s side by side prancing in a park was entertaining too, especially as you can see that back in those days Chiranjeevi had to work at keeping up with her.

Does that logo on his trackie jacket look a bit phallic? Life would be so much easier if all the potential rapists wore a badge. Chiranjeevi plays Sukumar as a devil in his own right but with a façade of filial respect when at home. He will still smoke and drink (and rape) but never in front of Daddy. It would have been very easy for this to be a caricature but Sukumar really starts to lose his marbles once he sees Roja. He doesn’t ever show any remorse for his crimes, but fear of being exposed drives him to try and prove Roja must be Rangamma. He doesn’t seem to have any friends but Kannayya, maybe because they are both outsiders in terms of what gets them off versus societal norms. He is vile but plausible and sometimes charming. And when he decides he might quite fancy Roja anyway, it is both understandable because she is lovely, and completely disgusting because has already raped and murdered her. Technically Chiru is in a supporting role but he dominates his scenes, unless Sridevi is there. Then it’s a nicely judged blend of dramatic tension and sheer charisma that also helped give these two characters depth.

This is probably a film for Sridevi or Chiranjeevi completists. I might have been slightly happier if the final shot was of him in jail, not getting married. The themes and some values are so very far from what I find acceptable, but it’s well made and well written and with great actors. 3 ½ stars!

Donga (1985)

It’s 1985, one of the better hairstyle eras for Chiranjeevi, and director A Kodandarami Reddy is at the wheel with Chakravarthy’s funky soundtrack blaring. Donga is energetic, pure mass, and spits on the grave of anyone who ever said “less is more”.

Phani (Chiranjeevi) is a Robin Hood kind of thief who steals from the rich and pays off the debts of the poor. Phani’s father Chandrasekhar died of a filmi heart attack as a result of Kodandaramayya’s (Rao Gopal Rao) chicanery. Kodandaramayya is still going strong with his thieving and extortion schemes and has a slimy sidekick in Anjaneyulu (Gollapudi Maruthi Rao) and a toadying servant Rama Subbaiah (Allu Ramalingaiah) plus a resident goon. As a good Telugu film hero, Phani is intent on avenging his family and getting his sister married well. He has a somewhat useful friend or sidekick in Ranga (Nutan Prasad) too. Phani falls for Kodandaramayya’s daughter Manjulatha (Radha) so you know the path to his revenge will be full of complications and spontaneous dance breaks. And that’s without the competition for apparently the only eligible man in town, Anjanayeulu’s son Rajesh (Raja).

Donga is full of action packed set pieces as Phani tricks and thieves his way across town. The fights are full of “Karate”, back flips, slo mo leaping, spin kicks and you name it. One of the things I love most about Chiru is that he just goes for it. It might be ridiculous, the outfits might be insane, but he does his best to stick that landing every time. Phani uses brains as well as brawn, phoning in a tip about undeclared cash to get an office raided by the tax department, and generally being smarter than the bad guys. I found this next bit a little confusing with no subtitles but I think Tax officer R Viswanath (Sridhar) wants to get his sister married well and needs money for her dowry. In the tangled finances in this small filmi world he ends up being cheated by Kodandaramayya who is robbed by Phani, compounding the problem of paying the debt. R Viswanath is found dead and once Phani realises what had happened with the money, that just adds to his drive for revenge.

Phani is of course irresistible to women. I don’t know anyone else who could rock the knitted singlet like he does, so he must have that je ne sais quoi. He steals Manjulatha’s little red car and then sets up a meeting to hand it back. For reasons that are not entirely clear but yet seem to make sense to Phani, he pranks her with this Thriller-iffic dance. Pump the volume up, warm up to avoid injury, move the furniture back a bit further than you think you need to (those lunge slides need some room) and have a go at this!

From the perspective of anywhere but 1985 Telugu film that is so bad it’s awesome. What were they thinking? “We’ve done a lot of Jackie Chan stuff so let’s mix it up a bit…Bond? No, done that to death. Death…Death. I know!” But it worked, she succumbed despite her father’s disapproval.

Radha and Chiru both look like they’re having fun with the daggy choreography. And Radha gets to do more than just sit and look pretty. The costume department really don’t do her many favours but she must have had a very high synthetic fabric tolerance. Manjulatha is often more articulate and decisive than I expected. She is harassed by a creep at the cinema so she belts him and tells him off. It was satisfying although clearly a punchline for a “women are bitches” joke. Despite the occasional toddler tantrum, she seems to make a lot of her own decisions and doesn’t seem to be a bad person despite her wealth and privilege.

Her dad spots her frolicking with Phani and maybe it is the enthusiastic prancing or that she starts wearing sarees, but he senses trouble and warns her off the mystery man. After the usual misunderstanding, tearful argument, unfortunate slapping incident, and some quality time with Phani’s mother, the deal is pretty well sealed. And Phani missed no opportunity to torment Kodandaramayya by showing off his relationship.

Phani goes to see Anajaneyulu but he has no luck in getting Viswanath’s debt reduced, so he says he will pay it all back himself. And goes to work in a quarry, maybe just because Chiru always wanted to try using a kanga. I would have thought stealing the money would be more practical given his skillset but whatever. Kodandaramayya sets up a cross country motorcycle race with significant prize money – and a great opportunity for his goons to erase Phani who is resplendent in canary yellow. Phani takes the dangerous job of laying explosives but the goon I call Coconut Machete tries to sabotage him. Somehow in all the biffo Phani realises that Kodandaramayya may have had more to do with Viswanath’s death than suspected. And in flashback Coconut Machete reveals it was not a suicide. BASTARDS! So of course Phani enters a dance competition and competes against Silk Smitha.

Look at him go! I love these bedazzled wrist guards and gaiters.

Phani is framed for murdering Silk, which is ridiculous. He’d already killed her on the dance floor. He goes on the run and it is on for young and old. I loved the car stunts and the fights, but right at the end the horse stunts, as usual, made me feel sick. What happens in the end? Does Phani triumph? You know the what, but the how is what matters!

Peak Chiru. Quality Radha.  Total mass. 4 stars!

Kirathakudu (1986)

If Kirathakudu didn’t have Chiru and Suhasini in the leads I am not sure I would have persisted. The first hour or so is very trying indeed. But then I would have missed out on an unexpected reworking of John Carpenter’s 1981 classic, “Escape From New York”. If I see Chiru plus subtitles, the DVD is an automatic purchase so I didn’t read anything about the film before I watched it. There is a voiceover about criminals and the government, but the concept wasn’t well translated in the subtitles. Imagine my delighted confusion when it started to seem somewhat familiar.

Chiranjeevi is Charan, a poor rich boy who just wants his father (Kongara Jaggaiah) to show him some affection. Charan spends his time winning every possible sporting and aeronautical trophy, beating people up, carousing and brooding in his room.

I enjoyed this sporting montage greatly, although it has prompted me to make a statement critical of Chiranjeevi.

His swimming style is splashy and inefficient and he would not have won a race against the under 9s in my swimming club. There – I’ve said it.

Maybe it’s not about winning the race, but about looking stylish on a lilo.

And making bad art.

He is a renaissance man, albeit one with questionable taste, a very bad temper and poor impulse control. He drinks heavily, and I think I was supposed to find this appearance a warning – but he looks so good!

Charan sees a quite unimpressive statue in a local emporium and runs afoul of Swetha (Suhasini) who has purchased the one of a kind piece. His reaction to finding out he can’t have it is extreme.

Swetha is a psychology student, and daughter of the local police chief. She is smart, self assured and is not intimidated by Charan. She is also a raging narcissist from the looks of her house – pictures of her adorn almost every wall.

It is interesting that Swetha is given career aspirations and a brain, and yet the dialogues are often very disparaging of women. Suhasini is such a graceful and intelligent actress that I was pleased to see her in a reasonably involved role. She is drawn to Charan both as an interesting psychological study and because he is Chiru – those eyes!

Charan goes off the rails due to the influence of vampy Hamsa (Silk Smitha). Only Chiru could make Charan watchable as he broods, rants and sooks over why his daddy doesn’t love him and then commits crimes as a cry for attention.  Showing that she is smarter than most people in the film, Swetha finds Charan’s hideout and dobs him in to the police. He kidnaps her in a dramatic getaway and their forced proximity accelerates the already budding love.

Having been ruined by a tramp, he feels that the love of a good woman will let him live like a decent person. Yes. Surely it would be unreasonable to expect him to take responsibility or just grow up. She then takes on the burden of reforming Charan and settles in for a lifetime of prison visits. I found their song fantasies quite amusing – Swetha was all flowers and pretty colours, while Charan was much more, um, hands on. One thing they did have in common was their terrible taste in art.

Silk Smitha is Hamsa.

Well, Silk’s arse does most of the work thanks to the constant upskirting camera, but she sneaks the rest of herself into shot occasionally. Hamsa is a Bad Girl who entraps Charan and forces him to turn smuggler (bad) and wear pleather (not so bad). Again, I had to growl a bit at Charan crawling out of her bed the morning after and treating Hamsa like dirt for giving him what he wanted.

Mothers in the film are sacred but women who have sex are evil  – so I wondered briefly about how these idiots thought babies were made. I am not exactly sure why sleeping with Hamsa would be enough to place Charan under Snake’s control, especially given his cavalier attitude to the law and society, but it seems he was besmirched and that was it. The bad girl is usually a thankless role, but Silk gets a few pithy lines and an excellent confrontational cheerleading dance.

The second half of the film took a sharp turn towards awesome. Maybe because Chiru changed into this outfit?

The police need Charan’s help to take on Snake and rescue his dad (and the Top Secret papers) as they could not get into the badlands themselves. When Charan stole a car ferry and chuffed off about 10 seconds ahead of the cops, he managed to hide the ferry within walking distance of a sari shop and judging by the number of Swetha’s outfit changes, remain undetected for days. The man is a genius and I can see why the police appealed to him.

Armed with an array of gadgets and with deadly time release microcapsules implanted in his neck, Charan sets off to save the day. He lands a glider on top of a skyscraper in the crime quadrant, on a mission to rescue his father and protect Indian national security. He had to take a glider as there was no way in by land. In a puzzling development, Swetha and Baby (the cab driver played by Nutan Prasad) decide they have to follow him, and drive in through the front gate in a taxi, sedately avoiding the bombs planted along the route. While the residents look like a left over mob from a B grade post apocalypse horror movie, Swetha is able to glide around in her pristine sari without being spotted. The scenes in this second half are more closely aligned to the original film and the mood is both darker and more absurd.

Snake (Kannada Prabhakar) is the kingpin in the sealed off criminal zone. While John Carpenter recreated Manhattan as his prison colony, Snake has to make do with a warehouse complex a few minutes from the downtown area. He has possibly the best DIY lair and henchmen I’ve seen to date, and I enjoyed deciphering the very random graffiti.

Snake is also a psycho killer on a very short fuse.

This guy is quite fascinating.

He plays his role of chief henchman with a blend of odd chicken inspired noises and statue postures, and walks with what I can only describe as a slow-mo mince. While wearing a dress (maybe toga).Who is he?

And the guy who would have been played by Bob Christo in a Hindi version of this is back! Last seen in Adavi Donga (the apple peeler Wolverine claws guy) here he is sporting a fake scar and some hideous trousers.

How does it end? Is there any doubt?

It’s a film by A Kodandarami Reddy so I expected crazy, and the second half delivers. I did have to chant the ‘it was made in 1985’ mantra a few times, but even allowing for that I was irritated by some of the dialogue relating to women and their evil powers. Grow up guys! Yandamoori Veerendranath gets a writing credit, but this is a reasonably faithful remake with the addition of loads of sentiment and a message about good family values.

Chiru and Suhasini inject a bit of class into their scenes, and the WTFery dial is set to 11. I’m totally biased due to Chiranjeevi but I’d give this a cautious 3 stars, for the curiosity value of the remake and for the dystopian second half.

Here is a snippet of Silk’s big song number – it is interspersed with the final action sequence so I won’t give away all the surprises!