Agnyaathavaasi

PosterDespite a stellar cast and a rocking soundtrack, Agynyaathavaasi turns out to be a rather disappointing watch. Trivikram takes an interesting plot and fills it chock full of masala, to the extent that the story of a son’s mission to exact vengeance on his father’s killers becomes lost in the morass of comedy, romance and OTT fight scenes. Nothing too much out of the ordinary for a Telugu film then you might think, but there is simply too much of everything here, making Agynyaathavaasi a clutter of confusion instead of the thrilling action film it could have been.

The story (when you can catch a glimpse of it) follows the exploits of Balasubramanyam (aka Abhishikth Bhargav aka Bala aka Abhi!) as he attempts to discover who murdered his father and brother, and then follow through to exact revenge. Abhi (Pawan Kalyan) has been raised in secrecy, allowing his younger half-brother to assume the role of heir to his father Vinda’s pharmaceutical empire. Vinda (Boman Irani) is notorious for always having a Plan B, hence the existence of Abhi who is rather oddly is his step-mother’s favourite, despite his exiled status. Indrani (Khushboo) suspects that her son and husband did not die accidental deaths, and calls Abhi back to discover which of the two aspirants to Vinda’s AB Company were responsible for the deed. Varma (Rao Ramesh) and Sharma (Murali Sharma) have been part of the company since its formation, but neither seem up to the challenge of running a multi-national organisation. Both actors do their best, but with poorly etched characters played mainly for comedic value it’s hard to see why they could ever be in the running as suspects for the murders.

Adding more unnecessary slapstick is Raghu Babu as a particularly sleazy office manager whose antics aren’t even remotely funny and who is completely superfluous to the plot. As too are Abhi’s side-kicks, who start off by offering technical support for his scheme to infiltrate the company but end up as a kind of enthusiastic group of cheer-leaders on the sidelines instead. These include Tanikella Bharani as Abhi’s uncle, Srinivasa Reddy and Abhishek Maharshi who all gasp, cringe and applaud at appropriate moments but otherwise have little to do as Abhi smoothly goes about his investigation without encountering too many problems.

Naturally there has to be a romance – so why not two? Anu Emmanuel and Keerthy Suresh are the two women Abhi uses as part of his schemes to discover the truth, which goes some way to explaining the mainly superficial nature of the relationships. Still it does mean a couple of songs and a quick jaunt to Bulgaria in between Abhi’s many fight scenes. Outside of this though, the two actors only appear as light relief in between beautifully staged but surprisingly dull fight scenes.

Normally the saving grace in these films is the performances of the actors, but almost everyone here, including Pawan Kalyan overact like crazy. The Powerstar doesn’t seem engaged with the screenplay at all for most of the film – not surprisingly perhaps, since I found it difficult to engage with too! There’s a bizarre scene where an insightful police officer (Sampath Raj) starts to postulate on who Abhi could possibly be, and manages to reconstruct the entire sequence of events without any clues, witnesses or evidence to back up his theory! It’s another example of needless frills that hinder the story. A flashback sequence would have worked much better and there was no need to add such speculation, particularly when the police officer involved reported that both Vinda and his son died by accident despite Vinda being shot in the head before he plunged to his death from a high-rise.

On the plus side, the music from Anirudh Ravichandler is excellent and suits both the action and romantic sections of the screenplay. The songs are also catchy, but for the most part don’t sit well within the screenplay and most seem to be added rather randomly. Despite this, the choreography is excellent and the locations beautifully filmed. Indeed, overall the cinematography is excellent with some stunning shots of Varanasi near the start of the film. I also liked the attempt to link Abhi’s story to parts of the Mahabharata and the story of Krishna, which helped to fill in some of the back-story that was glossed over rather quickly.

There are some terrific performances too in the midst of all the general scenery chewing. Boman Irani is good and Khushboo is notable in her return to the big screen as Abhi’s step-mother and Vinda’s widow. She’s compelling in her scenes and her understated performance stands out in the midst of all the other melodrama. Also very good is Aadhi Pinisetty as the main protagonist, Seetharam. He gets the balance between arrogant brat and murdering megalomaniac just right while looking dapper and well-groomed at every occasion. Despite only a short amount of screentime Aadhi is impressive and makes an excellent villain once again.

Agynyaathavaasi is simply too uneven to be anything other than a one-time watch. Although there is a good basic storyline, the added fluff and masala buries it too deep and not even the excellent production values can keep it from sinking under all that weight. Although Khushboo and Aadhi along with Anirudh’s music and V. Manikandan’s cinematography are worth seeing, this is really a film best for fans only.

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Sardaar Gabbar Singh (2016)

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I didn’t expect great things from Sardaar Gabbar Singh, so wasn’t surprised when it turned out to be a formulaic action flick that’s overly reliant on Pawan Kalyan’s star power.  What the makers of Sardaar Gabbar Singh seem to have missed is that Dabangg and its Telugu remake Gabbar Singh were successful because they poked fun at the traditional herocentric films of the seventies and eighties. Here was a hero who wasn’t pure and honourable but instead was a bit crooked himself and out to look after No 1 above all else. If other people happened to benefit from that self-interest, well and good, but that wasn’t the main motivation behind Officer Chulbul Pandey’s vendetta against Chedi Singh. And therein lies the problem with Sardaar Gabbar Singh. While the first half gets off to a good start, by the time the story is starting to take shape Gabbar Singh (Pawan Kalyan) turns out to be just too, well, good. He’s not selfish enough, not corrupt enough and not greedy enough to win our hearts the way Chulbul Pandey did in Dabangg. For all it’s faults though the film does have an entertaining first half and the big budget ensures top-notch fight scenes and well constructed sets. It’s just a pity the rest is so pedestrian and clichéd.

The story is threadbare thin and follows a by-the-numbers good cop vs. evil landlord format with a beautiful and hapless princess thrown in to add a little glamour. After a cute opening scene to prove that Gabbar Singh has always stood up for himself (even as a child when sleeping under a Sholay film poster on the streets), he next appears as a rough and tough cop determined to bring his own form of justice to bad guys everywhere. Luckily for Gabbar Singh the crooks haven’t learnt that they need to attack en masse rather than one at a time if they want to have any chance of winning, so right from the first fight, he has little difficulty in overcoming an entire gang all by himself. At least the fight is well choreographed and Pawan Kalyan is funny as well as competent while taking down the latest collection of inept gangsters. His success means that Gabbar Singh is shipped off to a town in dire need of some law and order, with his best mate since childhood Samba (Ali) dragged along too.

The villain of the story is cartoonishly over-the-top evil and sadistic, while his crimes are varied and myriad. Bhairao Singh (Sharad Kelkar) has destroyed the local farmland by mining after viciously disposing of the villagers who happened to be living there. He’s also taken over the roads for his own use, intimidated the locals by killing anyone who opposes his rule and maintained a triad of lieutenants who commit various other crimes in his name. In Bhairao Singh’s sights is the land owned by Princess Arshi Devi (Kajal Aggarwal), as another potential site for a mine – although the concept of prospecting to discover if there is anything worth mining never seems to cross his mind. In the meantime, Gabbar Singh has the princess herself in his sights while simultaneously attempting to win control of the town back from Bhairao Singh. Adding to the impressive cast line-up but not necessarily to the plot, Mukesh Rishi plays the role of General Hari Narayana, guardian to the princess who is trying to secure a deal with hotelier Ramesh Talwar (Rao Ramesh) to save Arshi’s palace and secure her future.

Gabbar Singh is a one-man army capable of overcoming a seemingly never-ending parade of thugs while dodging bullets, speeding trucks, horses and everything else that comes his way. He wins back the local school for the children, fights against oppression and is prepared to give up the girl of his dreams because of her higher station in life. In short he’s a paragon of everything that is right and good, and that really just makes him rather dull and uninteresting. Thankfully Pawan Kalyan has the charisma and screen presence to make something more of his character, but even he can’t save the overlong and drearily predictable second half. Even the fight scenes start to become dull as Pawan Kalyan shows off his martial arts skills (impressive) and the thugs repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Another problem is the character of Bhairao Singh who is basically a caricature of an ‘evil overlord’ and is only required to curl his lip autocratically and look down his nose at everyone else to play his part. Although Sharad Kelkar has an impressive sneer and can flare his nostrils when required, it’s not a demanding role and he’s too cartoonish to be a properly intimidating villain. The usual suspects who appear as his multitude of henchmen and assistants are not on screen for long enough to make an impression, while Brahmaji appears as police officer who seems to suddenly back Bhairao Singh for no apparent reason. Surprisingly, although Ali and Brahmi provide much of the comedy they are both fairly subdued and practically disappear in the second half leaving Pawan Kalyan to supply the humour as well as the action. For me the most interesting character is Gayathri, Bhairao’s wife. It’s a small role but Sanjjanaa makes the most of her time on screen and conveys a lot of meaning though her body language and eyes, making more of an impact than many of the other seasoned actors around her.

Devi Dri Prasad’s songs work well in the first half, especially the title track and Tauba Tauba which has the best picturisation and is fun to watch.

However the romantic songs in the second half are poorly placed and slow the pace considerably. They’re also very unimaginatively shot in the snow-covered peaks of Switzerland which for me is just a cliché too far.  Otherwise the film looks beautiful with Arshi Devi’s palace looking stunning and Kajal dressed in amazingly beautiful costumes and jewelry. The village does look as if it’s somewhere in the Wild West instead of India, but there are plenty of doors, boxes, miscellaneous carts and glass windows for the thugs to be thrown against, so it serves its purpose well.

Sadly Sardaar Gabbar Singh fails as a follow-up to Gabbar Singh, with the only link being the lead character’s name and occupation. The industry self-referential comedy that made Dabangg such a success is missing and there is little to recommend it other than Pawan Kalyan and a couple of good songs. While the first half is entertaining, the film badly loses its way after the interval and becomes yet another overlong and repetitive action film. It’s not terrible but given the team behind the film it’s disappointing that this is the result. One only for fans.

Gopala Gopala (2015)

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Gopala Gopala, so good I watched it twice! Well, actually I would do that more often for more films if Melbourne had an extra show, which is what happened this week with Gopala Gopala. But it is a fun film and I enjoyed watching Venkatesh and Pawan Kaylan in their first movie together. I haven’t seen either the Hindi version of this movie, or the original Australian film that inspired both and that could be one of the reasons why I enjoyed Gopala Gopala as much as I did. I’ve read that this Telugu remake follows the original faithfully and as a result it may only be worth a watch if you haven’t seen OMG, or like me feel that Pawan Kalyan as God seems a more plausible choice than Akshay Kumar.

The Gopala of the title is a shopkeeper who decides to sue God when his insurance claim is rejected following an earthquake that has destroyed his livelihood. The insurance company representative points out that Gopala has signed the contract that lists (in small print) the exclusions for his insurance, including an ‘Act of God’ and since no-one else but God could have caused the earthquake, Gopala is out of luck and out of compensation. It’s a nice idea, even if the term act of god is a legal construct rather than anything remotely religious, but the film works on the premise that either God does not exist and therefore the insurance company has to pay, or God was responsible and the onus of care rests with his agents on Earth. Along the way the film questions the morality of the various religious orders and their representatives, but is clear throughout that despite Gopala’s own personal disbelief there is actually no question about the validity of God in any of his incarnations. It’s the charlatans and irrational customs that come up for criticism and the writers throw in some good questions about morality in general for later contemplation.

Venkatesh pitches his character perfectly as a non-believer who makes his living selling Hindu statues and religious artifacts even though he finds the rituals and superstitious involved in worship ridiculous. Just as much of a con in fact as his ordinary tap water masquerading as authentic water from the Ganges. His shady dealings aside, at heart Gopala is a compassionate man who is shown to indulge in random acts of kindness and generally feels some compassion for people less fortunate than himself. The problem here though is that his good deeds come across as rather contrived given the way they are somewhat haphazardly inserted into the narrative. However Venkatesh mixes his skepticism with obvious tolerance for his wife’s idiosyncrasies and his salesman has plenty of charm mixed in with his complaints, making Gopala a generally likeable character.

His wife however is Gopala’s polar opposite in all things religious. Meenakshi (Shriya Saran) prays to any and every possible God and shrine while falling for every piece of chicanery she sees during her devotions. I’ve mentioned before that Shriya seems to be better in roles that require her to have long hair, and she stays true to that judgement here, giving a good performance as a devoted wife and mother in every sense of the word. Although Shriya doesn’t have a lot of scope in her role, her presence does add grace and a human face to the otherwise random devotees who face Gopala’s scorn. Somewhere in the middle is Otthu (Krishnudu), Gopala’s assistant in his shop who prays to the gods and follows the rituals but is the one who suggests a religious trip to Varanasi will be the perfect time to stock up on cheap artifacts to sell at inflated prices back in Hyderabad. Krishnudu has good comedy timing but apart from funny early scenes he is also relegated to the sidelines once God appears to help Gopala in his quest for justice.

Ah, yes, God.

Gopala GopalaPawan Kalyan makes his grand entrance as Krishna just before the interval, and his presence immediately enriches the story and lifts the energy of the film. The reaction in Melbourne was loud and enthusiastic both times I saw Gopala Gopala, which somehow seems rather appropriate for the appearance of a deity, even if he doesn’t arrive with the classic blue skin and associated regalia I expected. The role suits Pawan Kalyan’s restrained delivery style when not in full action mode, and his Krishna is a little distant but very charismatic. As may be expected from a divine being he offers guidance rather than direct intervention and is often cryptic in his dialogue, although his explanation of why bad things happen to good people sounds like classical political spin. Gopala never asks any of the big questions (such as why just his shop was destroyed – would have been my first question. That and where do all the lost socks go?) but that makes the relationship between the two feel more genuine and does stay true to Gopala’s persistent disbelief in an all-powerful deity.

The film does slow down a little in the second half when Gopala takes the assorted bunch of priests and swami’s to court but Mithun Chakraborthy, Posani Krishna Murali and Diksha Panth are all good in their respective roles as unethical leaders of their temples and organisations and the comedy helps to keep things moving along. Mithun as Leeladhara Swamy in particular has an impressive collection of idiosyncrasies although all three are so obviously corrupt and self-aggrandising that it seems hard to believe they would lower themselves to appear in court. Gopala is an equal opportunity plaintive and also summons representatives from the Muslim and Christian churches, while receiving help from lawyer Akbar Bhai (Murali Sharma) and determined opposition from Shankar Narayana (Ashish Vidyarthi) who has the unenviable task of representing the religious leaders. Interspersed with all the courtroom drama there are a number of songs by Anoop Rubens which are mainly fairly upbeat and fit into the narrative well. My favourite is a beautiful flute piece, but this runs a close second, particularly since it includes both Venkatesh and Pawan Kalyan dancing.

While Gopala Gopala is often rather simplistic with characters painted a little too black or white, Kishore Kumar Pardasany has made an entertaining movie that includes a discussion of superstition in religion without getting bogged down in dogma and matters of faith.   Pawan Kalyan and Venkatesh Daggubati have great chemistry and work well together while the rest of the cast provide excellent support and good comedy. This really was much better than I expected and is definitely well worth a watch – or two!