Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi (2017)

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi is a film about friendship that starts off well but unfortunately falls apart in the second half. Anupama Parameswaran is excellent as the love interest for both Abhi (Ram Pothineni) and Vasu (Sree Vishnu), but as soon as she disappears the film loses its way and heads deep into cliché territory before finally backtracking and ruining the most interesting development from the first half. The story starts with a good idea, but there’s simply not enough depth for a full 2 ½ hours of screenplay and by the time the film ends, the story has been stretched so thin, there are holes all over the place. The actors are good, the songs and dance sequences enjoyable and the scenery spectacular, but without any real substance to the story, Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi sadly doesn’t make a lasting impression.

The bromance here is between Abhi (Ram Pothineni) and Vasu (Sree Vishnu), and for the most part their relationship is dealt with well, although the final conclusion does appear rather more artificial and forced. Abhi and Vasu are both likeable characters and their friendship has a solid basis, starting from their time together in school. A young Vasu is able to break through Abhi’s misery on the anniversary of his mother’s death and as a result the two friends become inseparable despite the difference in their social status. They remain friends throughout college although the group broadens to include Sathish (Priyadarshi Pulikonda), Kishore (Kireeti Damaraju) and Sai. But by the time Sathish, Kishore and Sai are getting together to discuss Kishore’s wedding, Abhi and Vasu are nowhere to be seen. Abhi has been missing for 4 years and the friends haven’t spoken to Vasu for 2 years, so naturally there is a flashback sequence to see where it all went wrong.

It turns out that Abhi and Vasu both fell in love with the same girl, aspiring doctor Maha (Anupama Parameshwaran). Initially they approach this problem with the same levelheadedness they have shown all along and come up with a plan to let Maha know how they both feel – and then leave it up to her to decide. This seems a radical departure for a Telugu film, where female characters rarely seem to be allowed a mind of their own, but Kishore Tirumala allows Maha to have an opinion and make a choice based on what she knows about the two men.

Abhi has stayed in Vizag after college and spends his time playing guitar with his band and chilling with friends. He’s relaxed and fairly carefree while waiting for the results of his final exams which is a total contrast to Maha. She’s driven to succeed by her parents expectations and is completing her medical degree because it is what they expect her to do. What she really wants to do is sing, and since Abhi plays in a band what could be simpler than the two getting together?  At the same time, Vasu has gone back to his family who are friends with Maha’s parents. When Vasu meets and falls in love with Maha, it seems to be the perfect match for the two families, and even Maha seems fairly happy with the prospect.

Up to this point the film is good, if perhaps a little slow. And I liked the idea that the girl would get to choose, without any undue influence from either the two guys, their families or even her friends. But it’s after Maha makes her choice and Abhi and Vasu part company that the story starts to fizzle.

The second half sees the introduction of Maggie (Lavanya Tripathi) a ditzy and completely inept wedding planner. It’s amazing that she’s managed to get the guests together and book a venue given her financial woes, tendency to get drunk and general unawareness of what is going on. I think Maggie was supposed to be ‘fun’ and ‘modern’ to make her a contrast to Maha, but she’s simply not either of these, and ends up as a clichéd filmi airhead. This characterisation is incredibly frustrating after Kishore Tirumala starts with better realised characters and a more mature approach with Abhi, Vasu and Maha. It’s literally teeth gritting stuff to watch Maggie lurch from manufactured disaster to contrived mistake while her employee helpfully points out where she’s going wrong. The stand-off between Abhi and Vasu also veers more into rather more immature territory, but that is more plausible, since many quarrels do appear ridiculous and childish from the outside.

Ram is good as Abhi, although not even he can really make a man-band look appealing! Ram looks considerably younger in the second half when he sheds his heavy beard, but otherwise the somewhat subdued rock-star look suits him well. I like Abhi’s casual approach to life and his relaxed attitude combined with a genuinely caring persona, which makes for an interesting romance between Abhi and Maha. Ram and Anupama have good chemistry together too, and the romance, although slow to develop does feel genuine. Sree Vishnu is also good as the more serious of the two friends, although sensible Vasu really only appears once the friends have finished college. His character does work better earlier in the film when Vasu is less reserved and but overall the friendship is a believable relationship, and there is a genuine warmth between Abhi and Vasu. Sree does fade more into the background in the second half, but in compensation the other friends get more screen time which provides some desperately needed relief from the irritating Maggie! Lavanya Tripathi doesn’t get much chance to be anything other than annoying, but Anupama Parameswaran is lovely as Maha and does a good job at portraying the two quite different relationships.

The music from Devi Dri Prasad works well in the film, and the songs are well pictured with some excellent choreography, but the real stand-out is the excellent cinematography. Sameer Reddy beautifully captures the seascapes of Vizag and the lush scenery of Ooty which provide the main backdrops for the action.

Vunnadhi Okate Zindagi is the story of a reasonable and pleasant friendship between two reasonable and pleasant men that hits a few snags but is ultimately resolved in a reasonable and pleasant way. Despite the theme of conflict between best buddies, there is no real angst here which may be part of the problem, particularly as the film ends up drifting along to the inevitable conclusion. Good characters and an interesting idea are one thing, but Kishore Tirumala needed a sharper screenplay and a better way for his characters to solve their problems than a ditzy wedding planner. The friendship portrayed by Ram and Sree makes this one worth watching but be prepared for the irritating second half.

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SPYder

SPYder wants to be a clever cyber spy thriller but is more a vigilante story with some bells and whistles. Mahesh is a compelling presence, and Rakul Preet Singh is a good match for him. But AR Murugadoss seems to have lost his own plot in the second half

Warning: Some mild-ish spoilers follow.

Shiva (Mahesh) is wildly overqualified to be an intelligence officer, tapping phones illegally albeit with a government mandate to break that law in order to proactively stop people who may break other laws. Hmmm. He is also a genius software developer. One of his inventions analyses calls for signs of fear and pleas for help. When Shiva gets the bat signal he may go rescue people himself, or call on supporters who know of his sideline. On one call he “meets” Charlie (Rakul Preet Singh), a medical student interested in finding a friend with benefits. Through another call he unwittingly sends a friend to her death. Sickened by the consequences of his outsourcing, he finds proof the murderer is a serial killer. Shiva sets out to find him and obtain closure for himself and for all the victims. What starts out driven by data and psychological profiling soon turns into a series of tactical encounters.

Shiva is judge, jury, and executioner as he knew once people went into the legal system it was pointless. Mahesh plays Shiva as focussed, and kind of grim. And Shiva does so much talking – dialogues, voiceover, exposition… Despite the high stakes cat and mouse game, there are times a lighter touch would have been welcome. The scene where he chased Charlie’s auto, jumped in and asked her two questions, then jumped out and ran away had a nice flavour of deadpan absurdity. But when he ran towards the evil Bairavudu, the fierce emotion and torment he was feeling was palpable. Mahesh is a seriously good actor and I was a little disappointed the material let him down.

For those tracking Mahesh’s reluctant acquiescence to the shameless skinshow, he did wear tshirts, and flashed a glimpse of ankle in some manpris. I feel that the costume designer has been watching a bit of Kpop lately, with asymmetrical tailoring supersized to fit Mahesh’s lanky frame. I am grateful he went the mesh shirt (over a tee) and let the dancers don the mesh pants. He hasn’t varied his dance style from rhythmic hopping and emphatic pointing.

Mahesh, maaaate, it’s not the 90s anymore. The songs make a visual statement but musically they do little to lift the movie. And the English lyrics in Achcham Telugandham are woeful…hopefully deliberately!

A scrap of cloth at the scene of the double murder had traces of blood from 8 more people. And then a character said “and three of them were men”. Yeah it’s not like 7 women had also been killed. Someone think of the men! Also the stalking trope is given a twist but it is still stalking. Charlie confronts Shiva early on but as his mate Varun (under-utilised but highly likeable Priyadarshi) says, she noticed what he was wearing so of course she must have fallen for him. The “but she secretly wants it” explanation left a bad taste as did her cheerful acceptance that it wasn’t a big deal if it was Shiva tapping her phone.

Despite all the macho BS, the ladies fare quite well. Charlie wants sex without silly romantic shenanigans and decides Shiva is just right. She says to his mum “I’m 21. My parents have been married 20 years. I take after my mother!” and wins maternal endorsement to try her luck. Rakul Preet Singh has pep without being a manic pixie. Charlie was assertive and still a bit girly, and it was a pity after the boulder incident when it seems everyone forgot she was in the movie and ran off to the next scene without her. Charlie just gets to stand around in the background a lot despite all the likely issues with professional ethics, police procedure, and common sense. It was a waste of a competent actress.

In one of the best sequences of the film, a bunch of neighbourhood mums and aunties are persuaded to help Shiva in a dangerous rescue. He is in a van driving through traffic as he gives each of them a task, and they get shit done in magnificent style and to great music. The aunties not only saved the day but probably booked in coffee catch-ups and shopping trips as they climbed up poles and leapt across balconies. The audience, including me, cheered.

There’s some glossing over and leaps of faith required to buy in. Technology that can record, analyse, prioritise calls in real time from all across Hyderabad whether on analogue or digital networks and presumably in any language sounds great. But I can’t even get a Google doc to load on my work laptop! Shiva just happened to have a green screen handy when he needed to interrupt an evening soap. And he always knew exactly which of all the variables to choose, just on his gut instinct.

Bhairavudu (SJ Surya) is a nihilist and a sadist. He has no objective other than killing for the sake of it, and feel entitles to inflict pain. He is a creature of death and hatred, born in a graveyard. Surya is effectively menacing when he is passing through crowds or observing his intended victims, a cold hunger emanating from him. But when he starts with the capering and shrieking, it’s just acting crazy and it doesn’t ring true. What was with the hessian gimp mask? He could have done with more restraint, and Mahesh could have boiled over a little more and I think the second half would have been more compelling.

Jayaprakash is Shiva’s sensible dad and I think Dheepa Ramanujam plays Shiva’s sensible mum. RJ Balaji and Priyadarshi Pulikonda play Shiva’s down to earth work mates, both low key with the occasional laugh arising from their reactions to their heroic friend. I think the villains were instructed to overact because Bharath tries to get his teethmarks into the scenery.

You’d expect anything Santosh Sivan does to look amazing, and SPYder is very stylish. There are some good, and some dodgy, CGI effects, and the action sequences are full throttle. AR Murugadoss had a good idea but didn’t work through the detail to ensure the finale was as satisfying as the start of this larger than life conflict. Nevertheless there is plenty to enjoy, especially for the Mahesh fans.

Pelli Choopulu (2016)

 

PelliChoopulu-posterI loved Pelli Choopulu (or #pellichoopulu as it is also known). Writer-Director Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam has an ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for people and their quirks. It’s a funny, feel good, movie with a little dash of realism, and packed with great characters. And – it had subtitles!

Prashanth, with his family and friends, goes to meet a prospective bride. After an idli related mishap on the way he asks for somewhere to change into a clean shirt when he arrives. Prashanth, Chitra, and a little boy there because this is a family friendly rom-com, get locked in her room. While they wait for a carpenter to come and break them out, they decide to have the chat they need to have. Initially awkward, they warm up and talk about their relationships and life goals. Chitra feels that Prashanth should follow his passion for cooking and not just drift along. He doesn’t really understand her drive. They have a frank conversation interspersed with laughter and good natured jokes at each other’s expense. Things turn awkward again when it turns out Prashanth’s dad got the address wrong, and everyone has to shuffle off to the right meetings. But at the very least, a friendship has begun. When Chitra needed a cook for her food truck, and Prashanth needed a business to impress his intended father-in-law, working together was a no-brainer. Then the question was – will they or won’t they?

I liked the sensible conversations between Chitra and Prashanth as well as the more playful scenes. She could easily outgun him in a battle of wits, but gave him his fair dues. The dowry discussion was interesting. Prashanth saw a substantial dowry as a way he could relieve his father’s worries and avoid a life where, based on his work experiences to date, he would most likely fail. Chitra was dismissive of his motives saying he was taking the easy way, and Prashanth agreed but saw nothing wrong with that. He found himself engaged, pending running a successful business, to a rich girl with a slightly unhinged father (Anish Kuruvilla). Richa and her dad took almost no interest in him as a person beyond his horoscope, and it was clear that he wouldn’t have voting rights in any decisions. Prashanth tried not to be offended by their behaviour, but the effort was visible. Would the lure of dowry win? Would he and Chitra realise that while they’re both imperfect they are perfect for each other?

Ritu Varma’s Chitra is feminine but practical, assertive but not rude. She is an articulate, educated girl who knows what she wants and that she is worth it. Chitra was hurt by a previous boyfriend, Vikram, but more because he effectively ran away without the courtesy of a face to face break up. Chitra also felt that her dad didn’t appreciate her as he wanted a son. But she didn’t let these things scar her. She got her MBA, she had a plan to make some money, and wanted to move to Australia. She was prepared to listen to her feelings, trust her gut, and go ahead with her business idea.

Vijay Deverakonda plays Prashanth as a bit dim and a little hopeless, but not in a bad way. Prashanth is an underachiever who decided not to try too hard because he knew he couldn’t do what he wanted anyway. He just wanted to find a way to get his family off his back, and not to keep feeling like a failure. When he is doing the things he loves – like cooking or drinking with his mates – his body language changes and he is more present and more confident. His call centre melt down is a sight to behold! When he is switched off his uncertainty shows in how he speaks and moves, and he seems to take up less space. It took me a while to recognise him as the actor who played one of the rich kids in Life is Beautiful, but I knew I’d seen those eyelashes before.

I think for Chitra to stay in charge, and not have to change to suit a partner, she needed a cute puppy type like Prashanth. He would give her the space to be herself, and not fight her on all the decisions. And Prashanth had some backbone when it came to showing her affection and support, telling her father off for wanting to send his own in house Ambani away for the sake of acquiring a son. What was wrong with the amazing daughter he already had? And dad agreed, later telling Chitra that he loved her and would support her no matter what and to take her time. He would still keep arranging the marriage meetings because of all the family expectations, but she was not to feel pressured to accept.

The relationships are depicted beautifully. Prashanth and Chitra get the bulk of attention on their will they won’t they romance, but the families and friends are very much part of the goings on. Prashanth was lolling around at home, with a drink topped up from his dad’s liquor stash. When his grandmother took a sip her reactions were priceless and the unspoken threats, mimed blackmail, and affectionate laughter as they shared a sneaky tipple was just gorgeous. Gururaj Manepalli and Kedar Shankar play the gruff but good hearted dads, and they showed how the tension between what their kids wanted and what they wanted for their kids was driving them both to distraction.

Prashanth’s friends are good value. Priyadarshi Pulikonda is a scene stealer with his droll expressions and slightly vague timing that made me wonder if Kaushik was an idiot or a genius. Vishnu (Abhay Bethiganti) is more sensible but has a larrikin streak a mile wide. They all know they could try harder, but they don’t judge each other (I was doing enough judging for everyone!). Everyone needs friends who just accept them and give them a hand when they can.

Once I recognised Vijay Deverakonda I couldn’t help but think of Life is Beautiful. Pelli Choopulu has a lot of the things I like about Sekhar Kammula’s films (a strong sense of community, realistic issues, good ensemble cast, Anish Kuruvilla who will seemingly do anything to avoid directing) and less of the things I don’t like so much (the assumption boys are right,  over-engineered plot developments, excessive and badly executed VFX).

The audience here in Melbourne went off at all the Australian references and the engineering jokes. The biggest reaction was garnered by mention of a potential groom from Melbourne who had a really good job. (7-11? Enquired one of the audience, to great merriment). Slightly sarcastic good humour was the prevailing mood for the movie, and for the viewers.

See this for a story full of love and warmth, laugh out loud zingy lines, relationships that make sense, and the delightful cast who bring it all to life.