Arjun

 Arjun opens with a bleeding and intense Mahesh Babu staring down the camera. We see a bloody blade, and a gang of rowdies running towards him as he waits in a downpour of rain. It’s a gripping start.

Which then gives way to a happy inspirational song and a flashback. After he kills those rowdies of course. A flashback narrative structure can often diminish the drama as the viewer knows the end point. In this case, Gunasekhar uses the form to heighten the tension. While things had obviously gone wrong, the details emerge gradually. We know Mahesh is waiting to deal with his enemies, but it takes time to discover who they are and what has happened.

Often in a big star vehicle, the supporting characters are mere sketches. But Gunasekhar has populated the film with memorable people played by excellent actors.  As in the previous Mahesh/Gunasekhar project, Okkadu, there is a strong web of relationships that makes it much more engaging. Arjun (Mahesh) is a protective twin determined to look after his sister Meenakhi (Keerthi Reddy). He isn’t one of those sociopath heroes who exist in isolation. There is a pleasantly lived in look to the family home, his office worker parents wear slightly dowdy clothes, and their story is firmly middle class. It’s refreshing to have a hero with a family and to see a sister be more important than a prospective girlfriend. But they are not angels.

Dolce – this is for you!

As always, a film hero who kills bad guys is not doing anything really wrong so we needn’t be troubled by morality. But there does seem to be recognition that there are always consequences. Certainly there is a different rule for the baddies, and especially if they kill good people.

Prakash Raj is Bala Nayagar, a Madurai based bigwig. His wife, played by the still striking Saritha, is his perfect life partner Andal. She knows what he likes to eat, his moods, and when to kill people who annoy him. When their son Uday (Raja) wants to marry college sweetheart Meenakshi they are furious as his engagement to a rich girl had been fixed. The couple are enthusiastic but only moderately successful killers, and many of their schemes to remove Meenakshi fail to comedic effect.

Saritha and Prakash Raj seem to have a side bet on who can out-over-act the other and are great fun. But despite the often ludicrous shenanigans, they each have an intensity that makes them genuinely menacing at times. Prakash Raj can turn from jovial to chilling calculation in a blink and Saritha is his match.

Mahesh also crosses paths with Rupa (Shriya) – a very annoying girl who invites her own downfall by….blowing a kiss at him. Yes! This cannot be allowed without some form of payback. How dare she! The only way honour can be satisfied is if he stalks her, then harasses her until she marries him.

The romances play out very differently. Meenakshi and Uday love each other but neither feels they can upset their parents’ plans. Arjun lays down the law – Meenakshi will not elope and if Uday wants her, he has to tell his parents and all must be done out in the open. This is how he introduces her to the Nayagars. The song gets full points for colour, movement and excellent use of locations. Plus – parrot costumes.

There is a theme of blood being thicker than water, and even before things start to take a turn, Arjun is determined not to abandon his sister once she is married. Meenakshi is in peril, often unaware of the danger and even defending her in-laws much to her twin’s dismay. Keerthi Reddy has a nice rapport with Mahesh although her role dwindles once she enters her in-laws home. She has some intense scenes as she shows her pain at her brother’s actions. Although Meenakshi is often passive, it rarely seems that she is passive through a lack of sense. As with some other characters in the film, it is a blend of mass genre cliché and soap opera – this time damsel in distress mixed with modern bride meets traditional family. The parallel of Meenakshi as a divine being and as his sister is not lost on Arjun. The goddess gives comfort and support when his sister turns away, and maybe a small nudge of coincidence.

Of course, Rupa lives in Madurai with her domineering dad (Tanikella Bharani). Arjun’s pursuit of Rupa at first seems more about putting her in her place than any romantic attachment, but it is amusing. I am also grateful to the subtitle team who kindly explained the wordplay.

Rupa is a really silly character but she does gain appeal over time.  She offers to help Arjun when he is at a low point, which makes him see her in a new light (perhaps the light of her doing what makes him happy). Shriya gives a very energetic performance, initially edging onto the Genelia Manic Pixie Dream Girl scale but kind of endearing once she settles. One thing I like about Shriya is that she never seems overawed by her co-stars, and she just goes for it and claims her bit of the screen. She withstands a varied but determined assault by the wardrobe team in the songs. As a couple she and Mahesh have some chemistry but mostly they seem to have fun in their dances. This is my favourite of their duets, choreographed by Lawrence.

Mahesh is superb. His anguish over Meenakshi and his playfulness with Rupa are equally believable, and no one emanates fury like he does. Thanks to a thoughtful screenplay, Mahesh has room to act as well as showcase his heroic chops.

He uses his lanky frame and the baby faced killer stare to great effect. Some scenes with Meenakshi were really emotional, and he showed the conflict and worry that drove Arjun. It helped give the eventual denouement a much greater urgency and sense of consequence. It also made his super killing powers seem almost believable as it was clear Arjun was desperate to protect his sister at any cost. He did seem to wear more layers of shirts as the film progressed. Was this a visual representation of his attempt to stave off external threats? Or just a change in the weather? But his shirts were not the only item of clothing to make me look twice.

The excellent fights directed by Vijayan range from almost lyrical to frenetic. Even his mother gets Arjun to sort out bad guys for her so his skill and bravado have some basis in the story and aren’t just a post-interval acquisition. Arjun has a fairly laconic style, always looks like he knows he will win, and he can fight under water which is very handy indeed.

Admittedly, I have doubts about why no one can see him in what seems to be a fairly clear pool, but whatever. The climax of the film is dramatic, suspenseful, over the top and totally improbable but completely compelling.

The Madurai set has stunning architecture and decorative flourishes and the crowds provide concealment, camouflage and distraction. The film combines the lush visuals of the temple set with opulent interiors, the intense jewel like colours of silk saris and excellent lighting. The camera work and edits are in keeping with the tone of each scene. The CGI, while a bit dodgy, was used for maximum impact. The soundtrack is OK but I remember the picturisations more than the music so I wouldn’t say Mani Sharma had done anything outstanding.

See this for fine actors, great visuals, exciting action and of course a hero you can count on. Mahesh delivers – Arjun is a winner! 4 ½ stars.

Heather says: While I didn’t enjoy this as much as Temple I think it’s an interesting story and the relationship between Arjun and his sister is well developed. Mahesh is excellent as the faithful brother who will do anything to keep his sister safe and happy and it’s really his performance which makes this more than just a run of the mill action film. I also liked Kirti Reddy  as Meenakshi and thought her early scenes with Arjun were convincing in showing the rivalry and the affection between the two

I did find it a little incredible that Arjun’s mother Kamala was quite happy to set her son up to face a room full of rowdy’s and then walk away and leave him to it.  While I appreciate her faith and confidence in her son, I’m more inclined to agree with Meenakshi’s view that it wasn’t a very responsible attitude for a parent to have. It was a quite a novel approach though and as Temple mentioned, did set up the fight scenes for the rest of the film very well.

I loved Prakash Raj here as the father intent on marrying his son to his best advantage, but he was totally outdone by Saritha as his wife. She was fantastic in her obsession with the 1001 crore dowry and her expressions as she was either murdering someone or extorting her husband to murder were brilliant. Combined with Kamala, this has to be the film with the blood-thirstiest mothers I have seen and they both added a totally new dimension to the filmi ma character. I loved them!

On the negative side though, I couldn’t understand the point of Shriya’s character at all. It doesn’t help that I really don’t like her as an actress, but the plot with Rupa seemed to be stuck on as an after-thought. I don’t think a romance was necessary, particularly since her character had no relationship to anyone else in the plot, and it could have been omitted without any disruption to the rest of the story. My irritation with Rupa in this film was inversely proportional to the amount of clothes she was wearing. In the opening sequence while she was teasing Arjun wearing skimpy clothes she was incredibly annoying and I really hated the first song with her. Later on, when she was more modestly dressed in a sari I was better able to ignore her and her presence wasn’t quite as grating.

While the main story of Meenakshi’s marriage and murderous in-laws was engaging and the action thrilling, there was a little too much fluff in the rest of the story for me to become totally engaged with the other characters. A winner in terms of Mahesh’s performance and worth seeing how Gunasekhar proves Arjun can walk on water. 3 ½ stars.

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Anand (2004)

If there is such a thing as a good kind of stalking love story, Anand is probably it. Sekhar Kammula builds characters that have quirks and flaws, and his effort translates into an engaging modern romance. Although the film is called Anand, it’s actually well balanced between Anand (Raja) and Rupa (Kamalinee Mukherjee), at least in the director’s cut version.

Rupa is orphaned after a drunk driver hits her family’s car. Forward 8 years and Rupa (now played by Kamalinee) is a bit of a control freak, and preparing for her wedding to Rahul (often heard but not seen playback singer, Anuj Gurwara). His family are wealthy and traditional, and she is under pressure to modify her behaviour to suit them. She is scared of her future but trusts to god and her own spirit to help her through the challenges she expects lie ahead.

Rupa has pride and a belief that she deserves love and a good future. When Rahul reveals his weakness in the face of family disapproval, she realises she may be making a mistake. Finally, after a showdown with the domineering mother-in-law to be over wearing her mother’s heirloom saree, Rupa calls the wedding off.

I like that there are consequences, but it’s not over the top. Her life goes on, and while there is some embarrassment and explaining, her friends are all there for her, as is her old job. She supports herself financially, and seems to have a good life. It makes a refreshing change from all the filmi orphans living Cinderella type lives on charity from relatives.

The drunk driver is a presence throughout the film, although Rupa doesn’t know this. The shock of causing the accident made Gopalan (played by Gururaj – I think) revert to a childlike state. Initially I had some reservations about whether he was a necessary character, and how his condition would be portrayed. However, I enjoyed his presence and I give due credit to Gururaj for his performance.

Gopalan is loved by his family, and included in all their activities. He isn’t swept into a corner, and no one distances themselves from this damaged man. It was sweet seeing the family in conference, with Gopalan doing that Dad thing of dozing in front of the TV while Anand and his mum argued. They all know what happened, and Anand even describes it as an oddly positive change – a driven man finally happy with simplicity. It isn’t quite as syrupy as that sounds. I really liked the decision to show a content middle-class family who had achieved comfort in their lives at this point.

Anand (Raja) sees Rupa and decides he wants to get to know the real person. He knows her history (she doesn’t know he knows) and while he has sympathy for her, that isn’t his primary motivation. His mother is keen to marry him off, and Anand is tired of the marriage treadmill. He knows he is eligible and doesn’t trust first impressions, and he isn’t really keen on settling down unless he feels he has met his life partner. When he sees Rupa breaking her wedding off, he is intrigued as well as attracted to her. He concocts a story, rents a spare room at her house, and starts to work on getting to know her. He isn’t sure what he feels for Rupa, and he knows there is more to a relationship than just chemistry, so I think the decision to spend some time with her was wise but the method is questionable.

It is a kind of stalking, he does conceal his identity from her, and he manipulates circumstances where possible. It didn’t totally put me off because he is aware of his intrusion into Rupa’s life and he is open about his motives when her friends challenge him. And he can take ‘no’ for an answer. Raja is very much part of an ensemble, not a dominant hero type. He has a pleasant enough boy next door style but wasn’t outstanding.

Better known for directing than acting, Anish Kuruvilla is Anand’s cousin Raju. He is the voice of reason and logic, so of course no one ever listens to him. He supports Anand despite his misgivings, and has an excellent array of pained expressions. Raju is also a colossal snob, and this allows Kammula to introduce some points around discrimination and entitlement. It’s a funny, likeable performance despite the occasionally irritating character. Really, since he seems determined to avoid directing another film in my lifetime (hint Anish, HINT) I don’t see why he doesn’t act more.

Satya Krishnan as best friend Anita has a slightly acerbic yet affectionate nature, and her down to earth comments add a realistic level of dissent and question to the dialogues.

She and Raju have the job of watching their friends fumble with the burgeoning relationship, and their wry observations often deflate the drama or add a dash of humour. I liked the film in-joke when Anita has an Indra flashback and asks Raju if he has ever been in movies. She and Kamalinee took the acting honours in my book. And I love her husky voice – such a nice change from all the super squeaky heroines!

Rahul reappears on the scene, and Rupa and Anand are torn from their comfortable little routine. Rupa finally admits to herself that she loves Anand, but what to do? Anand leaves the next steps up to her.  I like the resolution. I felt it suited Rupa’s character completely and I appreciated that Anand hadn’t gone bitter and started hating her. He accepted that her decision and opinions were valid and essential to any possible future together.

Anand’s family acknowledge a sense of obligation to Rupa, and want to help her secure her future, but there is also trepidation at how they could live together after the truth comes out. It’s a very filmi situation but the emotions feel real – how will that sense of indebtedness balance the anger and resentment, and is forgiveness truly possible? I think Rupa blames herself so much for the accident that she had never considered blaming anyone else until confronted with the man responsible. Having to come face to face with the truth sparked another stage of grieving and she had to forgive herself as well as Gopalan. Kamalinee was convincing in her grief, and rather than loud histrionics she used her physical expression to show the transformation.

I like the realistic touches in the background detail. Rupa has a kitchen with packets of cereal and jars on the shelves, she gardens and washes her own clothes. People use public transport and their idea of a big night out is going to the movies. The house that Rupa lives in is located in an oasis like compound, but it looks a little ramshackle. There are people who fail exams and still have a happy enough life, and people with high aspirations. It’s all very easy to relate to.

I have a few dislikes. There are horrible cutesy kids and I could have done without them. Their performances were fine it’s just a directorial choice I disagree with. And the background soundtrack is a bit too whimsical for my liking. The songs by K.M. Radha Krishnan are great, and are a little classically influenced so it’s quite a contrast to the cheesy background score. I really like Shreya Ghoshal so her singing is a bonus. There is little dancing, although I see in Wiki Sekhar Kammula gets a credit for choreography.

As  modern film romances I prefer Avakai Biryani and Godavari to Anand, although that may be a bit of rural romanticism on my part as the locations were nicer. But I liked seeing a smart woman in control of her own life as a heroine,  people I could relate to, and the non-preachy social observations. 3 and 1/2 stars!

Heather says: There are a lot of things I really like about this film. Sekhar Kammula has the knack of telling a simple story in a very realistic way with genuine characters. And although the story is simple, there is enough complexity in the way it is told to keep it interesting and fresh. The characters are all down to earth and act in very believable and normal ways to the different situations throughout the film. Rupa does have a tendency towards melodrama but I think that is just part of her character and since I have quite a few friends who behave similarly (it must be all the Bollywood we watch!) I found her over-reactions to be just another facet of her personality. And I think a bride approaching her wedding day is entitled to a little drama anyway. There are a lot of little touches in the film which are very simple but help to convey an idea of the various personalities. Rupa’s regular morning coffee and Anita’s morning runs give us insights into their character and their lives seem very typical of the average person. I think Kamalinee Mukherjee is excellent at showing Rupa to be a strong minded and compassionate woman who has some issues due to her past, but is determined to make her own way in the world. I also really like Anita’s character, and think that Satya Krishnan is very good in this role. Her visualisation of a scene from Indra when Anand’s cousin is talking to her was excellent, and I can really understand exactly what she is thinking as a result.

What I don’t like as much was the character of Anand. Although Raja is perfectly fine in his portrayal of the character, I just don’t warm to Anand at all. He seems selfish and lazy and I can’t see why Rupa would want to get involved with him having just broken up with another selfish and lazy man. Anand relies too much on his cousin to help him out whenever he needs something done, and although his interaction with Samatha and Anita is good, it’s just not enough to make me like his character. I do like Anand’s speech to his Raju though, where he seems to realise that he hasn’t actually ‘fallen in love at first sight’ but that it’s more of an attraction. So it seems much more realistic when he says that first of all he has to get to know Rupa and she has to get to know him, and then they will see where it leads. This is a more reasonable approach than many other films where the boy declares his love and then stalks and harasses the girl until she agrees to marry him. And although I didn’t particularly like Anand his character was well developed and his relationship with Rupa was well portrayed.

The other support characters are all good and Rahul’s mother in particular seems to relish her role as the evil mother in law to be. Rahul’s character is well developed and the portrayal by Anuj Guwara was spot on. I agree withTemplethat it was lovely to see AnishKuruvilla on the other side of the camera and he was excellent as Raju. He really did have some of the best expressions.

The film has a great soundtrack and I do really like all of the female characters. It’s an enjoyable story with some lovely performances, but I just would have liked Anand’s character to be a nicer person.  3 ½ stars from me.

Aa Naluguru

Aa Naluguru is a quirky little film about the rather unbelievably good Raghu Ramaiah and his rather unbelievably bad family. According to my subtitles, the four people of the title are those four people in your life that you must look after so that they will be inclined to carry your coffin after you die – quite a sensible idea really. However as the film unfolds it seems that it may also refer to the four members of Raghu Ramaiah’s family who make his life so difficult, or maybe even to his four friends and co-workers who also have a large influence on him. The film is a little slow to start and perhaps overly moralistic, but succeeds for me mainly due to fantastic performances by Rajendra Prasad and Kota Srinivasa Rao.

Raghu Ramaiah is an editor who is a great philanthropist, giving half of his earnings to his wife and children and the other half to the poor.  He is very idealistic and believes that nothing is as important as love and compassion which means that he is constantly fighting against the corruption, greed and intolerance he sees every day in his community. His best friend Subrahmanyam (Subhalekha Sudhakar) has no such problems. He pays bribes and seems content to ignore the injustices he sees around him. Raghu Ramaiah’s other friend is the miserly money-lender Kotaiah who is happy to tell everyone that his only interest is money, and is a man so mean that he rations absolutely everything at home.

We meet Raghu Ramaiah at the end of his life, when two demons pop up in his bedroom to take his soul to hell.  This was just a little unexpected – firstly because I hadn’t expected a mythological aspect to the story but secondly why take his soul to hell when he had led such an exemplary life – or then again had he? Raghu Ramaiah turns out to be a little vain at any rate as he wants to be able to watch the mourners at his funeral. He successfully pleads with the demons to be able to stay longer on Earth, but this turns out to be a mistake since no-one seems to mourn him at all. As the demons ridicule him for this lack of affection from his family and friends he shows them scenes from the last few months of his life which explain the reaction to his death.

His children are all only concerned with money as they think this is what they need to achieve their selfish wants and desires. The eldest son Shekar (Raja) wants to become an SI in the police, but although he has passed all the necessary exams he finds that he can only get the job by paying a bribe.  Chinna, the younger son, wants to bribe a University to accept him into an Engineering course since he hasn’t got good enough grades to be accepted on his own merits.  Indra and her husband want to leave and start a new life overseas as he has no job, and doesn’t seem to be particularly worried about getting one.

They all keep pressing their father for money while he insists that they should be able to get by on their own merits, and in particular not pay bribes just because everyone else does.  However Raghu Ramaiah’s ideals are not accepted by his family and finally his son-in-law decides to capitalise on his father in law’s good name and start a finance company to cheat people.  This is the last straw, and Raghu Ramaiah finally breaks down at this threat to his reputation.  He borrows money from his friends and uses this to pay his children what they feel they are owed. After he dies, his sons and his son-in-law run away to avoid having to pay back the money their father has borrowed.

Note the prominent placement of Mother Theresa’s picture seen here over Raghu Ramaiah’s shoulder.

There is a great moment when medics come to collect Raghu Ramaiah’s eyes which he has donated, although this also brings to light the true circumstances of his death. But a story that involves eye donation is always a plus for me.

The rest of the film deals with the funeral and I have to say that no matter how many times I watch this film, the final scenes always make me cry. The simple outpouring of emotion at the funeral is very well done, and the grief in the loss of a man seen as a great humanitarian is very heartfelt.

There are a few problems with the story, written by Madan and the director Chandra Sidhartha. Raghu Ramaiah seems to be a very idealistic representation of a compassionate man and the story initially is very simplistic and moves slowly. It’s understandable that his family is frustrated with his overly charitable nature, although their demands for money and general lack of respect also seem unrealistic. Perhaps the director found this necessary to get his point across, but I think the same points could have been made more subtly. I don’t believe that anyone could be so overly benevolent to the detriment of their own family or adhere so rigidly to such morals. However while these flaws could have made Raghu Ramaiah very one-dimensional, Rajendra Prasad rounds out his character with a really fantastic performance. The interactions with his family are very well portrayed with a mixture of frustration, love and anger giving a more naturally human feel to the character despite the rather stilted language. Of course that could be the fault of the subtitles. Still, without the presence of Rajendra Prasad I don’t feel that this film would have had the same impact at all. Kota Srinivasa Rao is excellent as the miserly Kotaiah and the interaction between these two characters is the best part of the film. Aamani was good in her portrayal of the wife stuck in the middle, trying to keep everyone happy and failing, and it was interesting to see Raja in a more negative role.

While there aren’t very many songs in this film, the slow and sad version of the title song is used frequently as a background theme. But this fast version at Indra’s wedding does have some dancing at least.

Despite the problems I have with the story and the somewhat idealistic characterisations, the performances more than make up for these shortcomings for me. This is a film I’ve watched a number of times and still love the ending.  A film made by the performances and emotional final scenes and as such gets 3 1/2 stars from me.

Temple says:

I hate this film. I can’t decide if it is an amateurish attempt or a deliberately manipulative effort that insults the intelligence of the audience. I do need to discuss the plot as it is the supposed ‘twist’ that particularly annoys me, along with some poor writing.

I will leave a gap.

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Now if you want to avoid the spoiler, keep scrolling until you see the next puppy.

Raghu Ramaiah committed suicide. He did this with no real sense of crisis apart from his customary self pity, and just after borrowing loads of money from various friends and associates. His death effectively dropped his family and friends in a hole as the loans were a bit shady and his wife had no means of repaying them. The grown up children were presented as selfish caricatures, constantly shocked by their father’s decisions (they were also slow learners – I mean, he NEVER didn’t put charity first). Surely he wouldn’t have expected them to look after his widow properly. He abandoned his philosophy and his vows to his wife in what was portrayed as a fit of pique. Now, this is a shocking action for a holier-than-thou too-good-to-be-true philanthropist so I was expecting some unfolding of his character or past that would illuminate his choice. None was forthcoming. He sat on his cloud, hoping to see how much he was missed and trying to hide the truth from his demon companions. This vanity and selfishness might also have made for interesting character development but was brushed aside. Chandra Sidhartha decided to make this man a role model and have everyone awash with tears at his funeral. So is the take out from this, kill yourself if people disagree with you and then they’ll all be sorry? None of it held together for me as there was insufficient motivation for him to drink poison and no satisfactory exploration of the repercussions, followed by a glorification of a very flawed and slightly unpleasant character. The sickly sentimental ‘boo-hoo we’re not worthy of such a great man’ ending was infuriating.

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OK so now I have that rant out of my system. Rajendra Prasad did give a good performance. I was really hoping that a movie featuring the actors who are usually in supporting roles would be good as it is lovely to see them take the spotlight for a change. The scenes between Rajendra Prasad and Kota Srinivasa Rao are effective, and Rohit and Aamani were good in their supporting roles. I give this 1 star, only because some of the actors tried really hard.