Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020)

A new year, a new Bunny film, and this one is a lot of fun. Trivikram has come up with a different slant on a traditional storyline around babies swapped at birth, and then adds in an unusual father/son dynamic on top. Murali Sharma gets to act his heart out, the support cast are terrific and Bunny is on top form throughout. Yes, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is a little slow to start and there are a few mis-steps initially, but there is much to enjoy in this mix of family drama, action and romance.  

The movie opens with two babies being switched immediately after birth. The rich Ramachandra (Jayaram) and his wife Yasu (Tabu) end up with the son of Valmiki (Murali Sharma) and his wife (Rohini). There is some history between the two men as they used to work together until Ramachandra married the boss’s daughter and ended up running the business. Valmiki has ended up working for his old friend and is resentful and bitter about the situation as he feels it’s luck rather than talent which has given Ramachandra his success. The only people who know about the switched children are the nurse, who meets with a tragic accident and falls into a coma, and Valmiki. Sadly no significant jewellery, birthmarks or songs, but obviously film aficionados will instantly recognise the nurse’s coma as potentially important!

The film then moves to the present day where nature has trumped nurture and Raj (Sushanth) has grown up to be quiet, hesitant and totally unable to replicate his father’s business success. Meanwhile, despite Valmiki’s antagonism, Bantu (Allu Arjun) is smart, canny and very capable, although he does have one flaw – he always has to tell the truth. There is some very well-written conflict between father and son as Valmiki treats Bantu badly, while Bantu tries everything he can to get any sign of approval at all from his father. Meanwhile, Ramachandra is desperate to get Raj involved in the business, but it’s something for which he shows no aptitude, instead demonstrating positive disinterest. Thrown into this mix is Appala Naidu (Samuthirakani) and his son (Govind Padmasoorya) who are out to grab some of Ramachandra’s company for themselves. Appala Naidu is a thug who runs the docks, while his son is more sophisticated but obsessed with the idea of taking over Ramachandra’s business.

What lifts this movie above being simply yet another masala pot-boiler, is the relationship between Bantu and his father Valmiki. The sheer nastiness of Valmiki and his determined mistreatment of Bantu is cleverly done and well contrasted with Valmiki’s servile attentiveness when working with Ramachandra. Murali Sharma is simply brilliant here and his total lack of remorse for his actions, the fate of the nurse and his treatment of Bantu is perfectly portrayed along with his innately selfish nature. And while Murali Sharma is outstanding, Bunny too is superb in these interactions, displaying nuanced emotion and plenty of depth to his character. There is a beautiful moment after Banto finds out the truth that really is emotionally perfect, and Bunny plays it brilliantly. Naturally the estranged sons and their various families need to be reunited but it’s not quite that simple. While Bantu fights his way past Valmiki and gradually charms Ramachandra and his father-in-law Aditya Radhakrishnan (Sachin Khedekar), the family is dealing with a number of problems. There is conflict between Ramachandra and his wife, his brother-in-law is cheating and stealing money from the company, and Raj’s inability to deal with Kashiram is also causing problems.

As Bantu becomes involved with the family, Trivikram tones down the comedy and OTT action for some good solid family drama that’s written for maximum emotional effect. It works because the characters are well realised and each acts true to themselves, making the emotions more real and adding to the story.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the romance angle. Mainly this comes from the odd introduction of Amulya (Pooja Hegde) as Bantu’s boss in a new job. When he first meets Amulya, Bantu can only see her legs and is unable to lift his eyes above her skirt level for much of the first half of the movie. For a film that then goes on to talk about it is wrong to fight with women and then treats Yasu’s character so well, this is a significant step back to outdated ideas of ‘comedy’ and ‘romance’. With the odd start, despite good chemistry between Bunny and Pooja Hegde, the love story always feels just a little off, not helped by Pooja’s initially ‘strong business woman’ persona fading into the background as Bantu starts to work for Ramachandra and she is relegated to being simply ‘the love interest’. The film really didn’t need a love track for both Raj and Bantu, especially when Trivikram tries to muddy the waters here too and just succeeds in making both Pooja Hegde and Nivetha Pethuraj appear insipid. 

Even with the incredibly strong performance from Murali Sharma, this is Bunny’s film from start to finish and he really is superb throughout. The stylish star manages to pull off a mullet (just) and despite a distinct lack of hair continuity in the film, he does look very good indeed, especially in the songs. As always Bunny’s dancing is outstanding, but his acting matches up to his footwork skills, and he does an excellent job in the more emotional moments. His comedic timing is also very good, while a scene in the boardroom where he pays tribute to a number of Telugu films heroes is just brilliant! Bunny’s acting has definitely matured, even in comparison to his last hit with Trivikram, S/O  Satyamurthy, which I feel was his previous best performance to date. Here Bunny shows good emotional depth, well-executed action and a real sense of commitment to the character that pays off and makes Bantu appear a genuine and appealing person, rather than just a filmi character.

The dance sequences are excellent, and I loved the attention to detail in many of the songs, like the random background dancers in Butta Bomma who pop up hula-hooping from time to time. The music from S. Thaman is also great and suits the film too. The songs are really catchy even if the lyrics are occasionally a bit odd (maybe a subtitling issue?) and the background score helps lift the emotional moments in the film. There is a real who’s who of support cast as well. Naturally Brahmi pops up, just in a song this time, but we also get Navdeep and the sadly underused Rahul Ramakrishna as workmates of Bantu, Cinemachaat favourite Ajay as one of Appala Naidu’s thugs, Rajendra Prasad as a police officer and Brahmaji as a businessman trying to buy Amulya’s business. Tabu is beautiful and grace personified as Yasu, while Jayaram and Sachin Khedekar are both excellent. Unfortunately, Rohini doesn’t have very much to do as Bantu’s mother and his sister (Vaishnavi Chaitanya) also has a very limited role, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to see their family dynamic developed more. However, there is already a lot happening in this film, and perhaps it’s just as well that the drama is mostly limited to Ramachandra’s family.

Although the basic story is nothing new, the way Trivikram has developed the characters of Bantu and Valmiki is different, especially when mixed in with the family drama of Bantu’s real father. While all the necessary components are here – songs, drama, action sequences and even the luke-warm romance, it’s having a good story that really makes Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo such a worthwhile and entertaining watch. I really enjoyed this film and would recommend it as a fun film, perfect for the holiday season.

Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava

Trivikram’s Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava is a bit of a throwback to the factionist rowdy fests of yore, albeit with a bit of a difference. How much of a real difference though?

Veera Raghava Reddy (NTR Jr) returns to his village after studying abroad. His father Narappa Reddy (Naga Babu) is delighted to see his boy back at home although he is worried by a recent escalation in a decades old feud with Basi Reddy (Jagapathi Babu). Predictably enough they are ambushed on the drive home. What does a good son do when he is the heir to conflict? Is killing and mayhem the only way? Or can a Telugu mass film hero broker a lasting peace based on doing what is right for the people?

There was some character development for Raghava, if not for anyone else. It was good to see him learn from both experience and from wise counsel, and then apply those learnings. Raghava struggles with the community’s expectation that he will be a carbon copy of his father. NTR Jr is excellent and can show restraint and slow burning rage as well as going for the big emotional notes. We get to see Raghava in shock after a very traumatic incident, and his ensuing grief. He’s not superhuman although of course he has the usual kit of gravity bending tricks up his sleeve. This is a film where the hero is often seen simply sitting and thinking. He can dial a conflict down to a terse conversation as well as firing up at the villainous Basi Reddy. He has goals and makes his decisions in light of the objective. At key times people tell him that the man that prevents a war is a great man. Raghava also believes the man that wants peace has to have the strength to win a war. The hero must win, but maybe not in exactly the way usually predicted in this style of film.

Aravindha might be a bit princessy but as she says to Raghava, nobody is only what they appear to be. She tells him straight up what she expects from a partner. She also tells him women think hard about which man they will be best suited to while men see a pretty face, hound her ‘til she gives in, then leave her at home and bugger off to do whatever. When he considers the example of his own parents it makes him realise that he needs to change if he wants to be with Avi. He still decides to go win his war but promises once that is over, he will concentrate on her from that moment onwards. Which is a bit of an each way bet but as this film is kind of about compromise and negotiation it is fitting. Pooja Hegde is stunning, and while Avi is perfectly happy to get by on looks when it suits her, she has a sharp mind and a healthy dose of self-awareness. They have a nice rapport and I liked that the film took the time to show them talking, helping each other with little things, and feeling their feelings.

Jagapathi Babu is quite the villain de jour in Telugu films. I loathed Basi Reddy but kind of loved the boots and all commitment to making him despicable. There’s no subtlety in the character but the performance has some beautifully modulated beats and peaks that add an edge. Sunil was effective as the decent guy who helped Raghava out, mercifully not bogging the plot down in Comedy Uncle mode. Naresh and Srinivasa Reddy were tedious and time consuming. Rao Ramesh and Subhalekha Sudhakar added another element as the crafty career politicians who have drifted away from representing the people and were caught up in winning for the sake of winning. And many That Guys flew across the screen, bleeding, screaming, crying, and suffering for their art.

Eesha Rebba also had a tiny role with not much to say for herself, but her expressions were perfect for an irritated younger sister. Supriya Pathak and Sithara both deliver some strong dialogue on the folly of men indulging in constant bloodshed and who pays the price. Easwari Rao and Devayani play silent wives of warring men, but both can pack a punch without saying a word. Which is just as well since Trivikram silences them just at the moment when they should have been heard. It is telling that when the hero is delivering a big speech about what he learned from the women in his life that none of the women, who are all present, gets to speak for herself. So everyone ignored what the women said until the biggest baddest strongest man repeated their words, then everyone listened to him. Again, nice idea but didn’t quite land the execution.

I’m not saying this is a totally sensible version of a mass film. Who sets up a high security meeting complete with metal detector at the entrance and then leaves a nail gun lying around! The percussion of the BGM matched Tarak ferociously beating his opponents with sticks. And Trivikram gets Raghava’s shirt off in perfect mass style in the midst of raging carnage. The device by which Trivikram got Veera Raghava Reddy into Aravindha’s home as driver/bodyguard Raghava could only aspire to be called flimsy. And there are the usual 50 to 1 fighting odds when our hero takes on truckloads of armed rowdies and emerges with nary a blemish despite the unbridled enthusiasm of the Fake Blood Department.

The upbeat songs were most successful in their picturisations. Peniviti was made unintentionally funny with all the stringed instrumentalists getting soggy in the rain. Tarak is amazingly talented and looks like he is having a ball when the music kicks in and he can go for it. Pooja Hegde doesn’t really try and keep up with him but she puts a lot of energy into Reddy Ikkada Soodu and does some excellent face.

There are some minor similarities with the recent Rangasthalam, like the setting and a hero who takes on a sociopathic Jagapathi Babu character. Unfortunately one also seems to be the dodgy subtitles.  Is gizzard curry really a sign of love? What are cooling glasses and when should one wear them? Does administering Celine really cure a fever? How much chaos is required before your shirt buttons pop off? Ladies, would you be carried away by a man who says he looks like a sword with a moustache? It’s sad to see scrimping on something like the subs which shouldn’t be an afterthought, and would help capitalise on the success of other Telugu films with new markets.

Trivikram has tested the water for a new kind of hero but ultimately falls back on the old standards. Tarak is really coming into his own as an actor and makes the most of the range he’s given here, and the female ensemble cast was exceptional. See it if you like epic revengey films and have a high tolerance for gore.

Duvvada Jagannadham (2017)

In his latest release Harish Shankar sticks closely to the standard formula for Telugu hero-centric films, which makes Duvvada Jagannadham rather less exciting than it could have been. There is hardly any suspense and few surprises as the hero flexes his muscles, obliterates the bad guys and romances the heroine while recouping lost money for the victims of a property scam. What makes it watchable are the excellent performances from Allu Arjun, Rao Ramesh and Subbaraju who add life and energy to an otherwise pedestrian plot. The story might be plodding along, but the cast give it their all, and with many other veteran performers including Murali Sharma and Posani Krishna Murali, and some good songs, DJ ends up as a reasonable timepass.

The story opens with a young Duvvada Jagannadham Sastry picking up a gun and executing a gang of thugs who attack policeman Purushottham (Murali Sharma) in his local market. Not content with his body count so far, he then turns the gun on a suspected rapist in the police station and shoots him too. Bizarrely the police officer in question rapidly recovers from his previously incapacitating wound and then doesn’t bat an eyelid at the young multiple murderer, instead enlisting him as a vigilante in his never-ending war against crime. Because of course there is nothing abnormal about a young boy killing in cold blood (and also being a fantastic shot) – not in this film at any rate.

Moving quickly among to the present day and Duvvada Jagannadham (Allu Arjun), aka Sastry is a Brahmin priest who runs an all-vegetarian catering business in Vijayawada along with various members of his family. Sastry is devout, speaks in very precise Telugu and is passionate about his cooking, although he doesn’t take life too seriously as demonstrated by a recurring joke about using asafoetida in tamarind rice. Bunny is good here, particularly with the comedy scenes and dialogue, while the trio of Sastry, his father (Tanikella Bharani) and uncle (Chandramohan) make a good team as they feed the hungry hordes of wedding guests around Vijayawada.

However, when Sastry answers his phone he becomes a totally different person – his posture is different, his voice deeper and the language less classical. Going by the name of DJ, Sastry’s alter ego is still a vigilante killer working for Purushottham eliminating criminals permanently from the streets of Hyderabad. DJ is super stylish and ultra cool, which ensures that Bunny remains ‘the stylish star’ despite spending much of the film in more traditional attire. Naturally DJ is also an accomplished killer, although quite where he learnt his skills is as much of a mystery as his motivation to cleanse Hyderabad of all criminals. The action scenes here are all beautifully choreographed by Ram Lakshman and Bunny carries out the various impalings, defenestrations and executions as smoothly and effortlessly as he performs his dance routines, and with just as much style. Sadly, there isn’t much else to the character of DJ beyond the dapper surface and efficient bloodshed. There is no rationale behind why his character is driven to such violence, particularly since he has been raised as a priest and generally seems to be a kind-hearted and benevolent priest at that. There is a brief comment by his father at the start, questioning why his son has so much rage, but this is not explored at all, and of course Sastry never shows any sign of the explosive ferocity that is characteristic of DJ.

Naturally there is also a heroine, and as might be expected from the formulaic plot, Pooja Hegde’s presence is completely superfluous to the story with her only purpose seemingly to be to appear in as many skimpy costumes as possible and dance in a few songs. The brazen character of Pooja seems unlikely to appeal to the traditionally minded Sastry, and although her designer credentials might interest DJ, her nasty, childish behaviour when they first meet is unlikely to impress. The camera spends more time focused on Pooja’s navel than on her face and it’s a shame that the only real emotion she gets a chance to display is when she’s shopping in Abu Dhabi – her excitement here is the only genuine moment her character has throughout the entire film. Still, she does look stunning, and has good chemistry with Bunny in the songs, but it’s a shame that she has no opportunity to do anything more.

DJ becomes personally involved in the case of a property scam where the real criminal Royyala Naidu (Rao Ramesh) hides behind a proxy (played by Prabhakar). Royyala’s son Chintu (Subbaraju) also becomes involved when Royyala conspires with Pooja’s father Minister Kusuman (Posani Krishna Murali) to marry their respective children. Subbaraju is excellent as a crook with an unusual idiosyncrasy, particularly in the final showdown with DJ and Royyala.

Throughout the film Bunny excels with his comedic dialogue as Sastry and does a good job of keeping the two sides of his character quite separate and different. As always his dancing is superb on every level and I did appreciate his collection of sparkly sneakers in various colours too. Devi Sri Prasad’s songs are good, although the song sequences aren’t connected to the plot of the film and seem to be simply added in as part of the standard formula – “fight scene/ family scene/ romantic moment/ song”, and repeat. However, the dance sequences add in energy and give Pooja and Sastry/DJ a chance to develop their romance that otherwise appears rather lacklustre.

Duvvada Jagannadham is disappointing, but the action sequences are impressive, the songs are excellent and Bunny is always watchable. There are some good dialogues that were well appreciated by the audience here in Melbourne, and the comedy with Bunny, Vennela Kishore as his cousin Vighneswara Sastry and the rest of the family is generally pretty funny. The major issue here is the formulaic plot and uninspiring screenplay that feels dull despite the good performances from the cast. However it’s not all bad and there are some scenes that work very well, it’s just that it doesn’t all gel together as it should. Worth watching for Bunny, the songs and the action, just don’t expect too much from the plot.