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.

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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!

Jalsa

Jalsa-posterTrivikram’s Jalsa wanders all over the place with an uneven blend of romance and action packed drama. I had to check that it really was made in 2008 as the plot, and treatment of female characters, is very retro and not in a charming vintage way. Pawan Kalyan gives a good performance but unfortunately he can’t save the script and some glaring plotholes. Like the hero, Ileana D’Cruz rides out some stupid plot turns and inconsistencies in her character to hit the right notes in the more thought out scenes.

Jalsa-Prakash Raj

Sanjay Sahu (Pawan Kalyan) goes to ask his girlfriend’s (Kamalinee Mukerjee – don’t blink or you might miss her) father (Prakash Raj) for permission to marry Indu. He refuses and she is married off (to Kamal Kamaraju). Sanju goes back to his longest standing relationship, the one with the bottle. But then he meets Bhagi (Ileana) who falls for him on sight and eventually he returns her feelings. The story jumps forward and Bhagi finds out that Sanju had previously wanted to marry her sister. Naturally she is disturbed by the news, and flashes back to a history of getting her sisters hand-me-downs. Her dad assigns Pranav (Brahmi) to keep Bhagi safe from Sanju so you know this is serious. Unfortunately Pranav’s presence spurs Sanju on to some childish behaviour and the movie gets bogged down in comedy uncle shenanigans.

The first half sets up the romantic angle and then everything takes a sharp left turn as Sanju’s secret past as a naxalite is revealed. He is presented as the ‘good’ kind of terrorist who doesn’t want innocents to die. But still, he embraces violence so…. I think I find the rebel Sanju more interesting than the drunkard but I can’t say I wholeheartedly like either aspect of his character. The flashback also reveals his prior connection to Prakash Raj’s character as well as the villain Damodhar Reddy (Mukesh Rishi).

Bhagi is introduced as she plays an energetic game of squash at the gym, then races her friend Jo (Parvati Melton) to the car. They are confronted by a creep chases the terrified girls into the path of a very drunk saviour, none other than Sanju. I’m not convinced that moments after avoiding a threatened gang rape their thoughts would have turned to romance and bickering over who gets the guy. Bhagi starts out characterised as innocent and a bit dumb, but Ileana bounces daft lines back and forth with her friend Seenu (Sunil) as Bhagi tries to deal with her one-sided attraction to Sanju. Later as Bhagi becomes more assertive and playful Ileana has more fun as she plays off Pawan Kalyan, and also shows more range and depth. I quite liked Bhagi but I got the feeling the role was written piecemeal to suit particular scenes rather than conceived as a character in her own right.

Sanju is the guy who beats up all the guys who tease girls at college. It is nice that the hero defends people against bullies but I am tired of seeing women only allowed to be safe if the biggest bully lets them. He also goes on a rant about how aggravating it is that he can’t slap his future wife to control her for fear of the law and women’s groups. It was done for dramatic and ‘comedic’ purposes and it just doesn’t mesh with the thoughtful side of Sanju. He was a smart guy who chose to become a naxalite through tragic family circumstances but then seems to just forget all about it once he got into college. It really made no sense. And why does he always wander around with his belt undone? Despite my issues with the writing and the rape jokes, Pawan Kalyan is very funny in some of Sanju’s drunk monologues, with a deft balance of verbal and non-verbal comedy beats. The fight scenes are choreographed to his strengths, whether a precision martial arts style or a scrappy street brawl, and he gives them an elegance and energy that is totally missing from the lacklustre songs. I did like it when he punched a car and all the doors flew off. His choreo seems to be limited to ‘shuffle-shuffle-jiggle-wave your hands around’ but I suppose it helps him avoid direct comparisons with You Know Who.

There is a drawn out ‘comedy’ sequence where Sanju tells Brahmi’s character that he plans to drug and rape Bhagi. Then says he is only joking because it is no fun to rape an unconscious woman when you could have one running around and screaming. This kind of ‘joke’ is rife in 80 and 90s films, but at least I can pass that off as The Bad Old Days. Sanju’s plan to win Bhagi back seems to be to ruin any other chance for her until she caves in. And her sister insists Bhagi accept all this as it is Sanju’s way of expressing his love, and if a boy does that it is OK and you have to let him because he is a boy. Jalsa was made in 2008 by a smart director with a hero who is by all accounts quite intelligent so I cannot find it in me to make the same excuses for how this plays out.

One of the things I do really like is Mahesh’s laconic narration. His slightly lazy drawl hits the right notes of comedy, empathy, and sarcasm as he reveals more about Sanju than is evident in the drama.

Prakash Raj gets some nice bromantic moments with Pawan Kalyan but his character makes so many poor decisions that I lost all patience with him. Mukesh Rishi plays his usual imposing villain. He thinks nothing of killing an out of town Don on the way back to jail from his rejected bail hearing. Tanikella Bharani is creepy sidekick Bulli Reddy, his fixer. There is a tedious running gag between Sunil’s Bunk Seenu and Dharmavarapu Subramanyam’s greedy psychiatrist that I would have solved with a diagnosis of One Tight Slap, three times a day until the course is finished. Brahmi does his shtick, but is never more than mildly amusing. If you are looking for miracles to attribute to the Powerstar, he does seem to detoxify Ali who gives a fairly restrained character based performance. I generally enjoy Ali’s appearances in Pawan Kalyan’s films but typically loathe him in everything else so this is a mysterious but good thing.

Telugu Movie Science has long been on the cutting edge of creativity and the laws of physics are tested in Jalsa’s action scenes. As usual the showdowns involve an orderly lineup of hairy rowdies patiently taking turns to be beaten up. But no one can deny that disputes settled the old fashioned way – a swordfight – tend to have a definite outcome.

I can see why Powerstar fans, the most passionate movie fans EVER, often enthusiastically recommend this film. Pawan Kalyan is given ample scope to show his acting depth as well as his comedic and action chops and he really does shine in some scenes. It is just a pity that the story doesn’t really hold up and the direction seems more focussed on set pieces and not enough on bringing a balance to all the disparate elements. 3 stars.