Mahanati

Mahanati

Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati is a spellbinding biopic that celebrates the life of Savitri in sumptuous colour with haunting re-enactments of her most famous scenes. Keerthy Suresh invokes the magic of Savitri’s screen presence while Samantha ties it all together as a journalist researching the legendary actor’s life for a newspaper article. At just under three hours, the film still only scratches the surface of Savitri’s story, but with an impressive cast and convincing dialogue, Mahanati is a mesmerising look at one of the most successful film actors from the South.

The film opens with Savitri falling into a coma and being taken to a hospital whose bemused staff have no idea who they have just admitted. One year later, on the anniversary of her illness, journalist Madhura Vani (Samantha Akkineni) is given the task of writing about the film star for a short article in the newspaper. Vani is shy and frumpy, struggling to make her mark in the male-dominated profession of journalism and she is dismayed at what she thinks is a throw-away assignment. But once she starts speaking to the people who knew Savitri, Vani becomes intrigued by the star and her generous and compassionate personality. As she learns more, Vani draws inspiration from Savitri and becomes empowered to make changes in her own life and stand up for herself. This interweaving of Vani’s story into the life of Savitri is ingenious and allows Nag Ashwin to focus on the more positive aspects of Savitri’s legacy, although he doesn’t avoid the drama either.

The film shows Savitri’s early life after her father dies and her mother goes to live with relatives. Even as a child, Savitri was a force to be reckoned with. Her determination and will to succeed is demonstrated as she learns to dance despite the dance instructor telling her she lacks discipline and will not be able to master the skill. I loved these early scenes and the young actor playing the child Savitri who is a real find. She is full of life and totally charming with plenty of attitude – perfect for the role!

Savitri is shown taking part in theatrical shows under the supervision of her Uncle, K.V. Chowdary (Rajendra Prasad), and her abortive first trip to Chennai to become an actress is also depicted. This is beautifully done, with Savitri in full fan mode as she tries to get glimpses of her favourite actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao (Naga Chaitanya), and being almost totally oblivious to the man who takes her photo, Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan).

Nag Ashwin doesn’t dwell too much on Savitri’s rich film history but focuses instead on the real-life drama of her marriage to Gemini Ganesan and subsequent estrangement from her uncle. Her iconic roles are shown in a montage and Keerthy Suresh does a fantastic job in re-creating these accurately, including a poignant song from Devadasu and the wonderful scene in Mayabazar where Savitri is playing Ghatotkacha impersonating Sasirekha.

I’ve been waiting for a film that showcases Keerthy’s talents as an actor, and finally she gets her moment to shine. She really is amazing here and completely nails a wide range of emotions. From the early bubbly and happily carefree girl all the way through to the devastated wife who turns to alcohol, Keerthy makes us live every moment and completely believe in her portrayal of a legendary actor. A standout is the moment when she learns Gemini Ganesan is already married and her dreams of romance turn to ashes. This, and her subsequent difficult decision to marry the man she loves despite everything are simply perfect, with none of the actors overplaying the emotion, but still managing to make the audience feel every heartache and each moment of elation.

Dulquer Salmaan is also a perfect choice for the ultimate romantic actor of the time; Gemini Ganesan. He has plenty of charm and when he sets out to woo Savitri, she doesn’t stand a chance! Their romance sparkles on screen and Dulquer is just as convincing when he portrays Gemini Ganesan’s jealousy at his wife’s success and subsequent alcoholism. The story is told from Savitri’s viewpoint, so Dulquer has less screen time after Savitri finds out about his affairs, but throughout it’s an excellent performance that makes the drama and emotion behind their relationship very real.

The secondary story of Madhura Vani and her struggle to be accepted as a serious journalist is well integrated into the main plot. Nag Ashwin uses Vani to introduce key witnesses to events in Savitri’s life that allow the film to move back into flashback. But is also emphasises the importance of Savitri as a role model and inspiration, while Samantha’s success over the other, male reporters is an important step for Telugu cinema. Here is a film that has a female lead who isn’t defined by her romance with a male character and who is allowed to have a personality and story of her own. Although there is a romance (with Vijay Devarakonda in a very bad wig), it’s very much part of Vani’s own story and important mainly as a way for her to assert her independence from her father’s plans.

There is a plethora of other actors who appear in cameo roles as various screen legends of the time. Just a few are Mohan Babu as S.V. Ranga Rao, Prakash Raj as director/producer Aluri Chakrapani and Krish appearing as K.V. Reddy. It’s a real who’s who of Telugu/Tamil cinema of the time and I was inspired to read up on some of these directors and producers whose names I recognised when I left the cinema. Mickey J. Meyer’s music fits the film perfectly too and Dani Sanchez-Lopez does an excellent job with the cinematography. The effects team have managed to recreate Chennai in the fifties and the costume department deserve special mention for the wonderful outfits worn by Keerthy and Dulquer. The end credits juxtapose shots of Savitri with those of Keerthy in the same film role and the resemblance really is astonishing.

Overall there is fantastic attention to detail for both the scenes in the early eighties and Chennai in the fifties that ensure the film feels authentic, although I did sympathise with Samantha and her selection of ruffled shirts and long skirts. Everything about the film seems to have been well researched and the sets dressed to add plenty of authentic flavour. Including the film segments in black and white also adds to the whole period feel of the film and emphasises just how much impact Savitri had at the time. I also have to comment on the excellent subtitles by Rekhs that ensured the drama of each scene was well conveyed. After the last few Telugu films I’ve watched where literal translations have made a mockery of important scenes it is such a relief to have proper idiomatic English that makes sense and doesn’t detract from the dialogue. Until I can learn Telugu (a vain hope given my lack of success with Tamil) Rekhs subtitles are the next best thing to understanding the dialogue myself and I always cheer when I see ‘Subtitles by Rekhs’ appear on screen.

Mahanati is an excellent dramatisation of the life of one of South India’s best known and well-loved actors. I don’t know enough about the details of Savitri’s history to comment on its accuracy but from all I have read, Nag Ashwin has captured the essence of Savitri’s story while Keerthy Suresh has brought her memory to vivid life. It’s ultimately a sad story but also a lovely tribute to Savitri and a reminder of what a wonderful actor she was. Mahanati is a real treat for fans of both classic and contemporary Telugu cinema – don’t miss it!

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Srimanthudu (2015)

Srimanthudu

Mahesh Babu’s latest is a commercial masala movie that manages to fit in some better than expected moments while still remaining true to its mass roots. Writer/director Koratala Siva has penned a good story and although the film could have done with some snappier editing and less one-sided fight scenes, overall Srimanthudu is an entertaining watch. Along with Mahesh Babu and Shruti Haasan, the film features a cast of thousands with almost every Telugu actor appearing at least briefly on-screen, but for a wonder there is only Ali as the mandatory comedy uncle and even he has a very truncated role. That alone makes it a step above the usual fare, and with Mahesh at his charismatic best and some great songs, Srimanthudu is well worth a trip to the cinema.

Mahesh plays Harsha, son of a millionaire businessman and the heir to both the company and his father’s fortune. However that’s not what Harsha wants and he refuses to conform and take over the business despite his father’s continual gentle pressure. The scenes between Harsha and his father Ravikanth (Jagapathi Babu) are a little clunky, but the sentiment hits at the right level with Harsha treating his father with respect despite disagreeing with him on almost every topic. Although Ravikanth is very much a family man, he is cold and distant with no interest in anything outside his millions, while Harsha is diametrically opposite, more interested in his father’s employees and their ambitions. Harsha isn’t totally adverse to those millions though and they do come in handy whenever he needs some cash for his various schemes.

When driving his mother (Sukanya) and sister to the temple one morning, Harsha sees Charu (Shruti Haasan) outside her hostel and drives round the block a few times to get a better look. Luckily for Harsha, Charu also turns out to be cousin to his friend Apparao (Vennela Kishore) and she turns up at his birthday party. She’s beautiful and quirky but her biggest draw for Harsha is that she’s studying rural development at college – something that sounds just his cup of tea. Naturally Harsha enrolls in the same course and while Charu is initially rather disheartened to discover that Harsha is really there to study and not just stalking her, romance does blossom between the two.

As Harsha is falling in love and discovering his true calling, the film jumps to a small rural village where a school has collapsed and Narayana (Rajendra Prasad) is running around with a permanent expression of dismay as tragedy after tragedy occurs. Head villain Sasi (Sampath Raj) and his team of muscle men are slowly sucking the life from the village as their beer factory uses up all the water, and Narayana is doing his best to halt the decline as families leave the village and farmers commit suicide. Sasi is also in league with his brother, Minister Venkat Rathnam (Mukesh Rishi), whose son Radha (Harish Uthaman) is threatening Harsha’s father, so it’s inevitable that Harsha will get involved and use his new knowledge of rural development to save the day. Along with his excellent skills in dishoom of course!

Multi-layer Mahesh has shed his multi layers for Srimanthudu and he mainly appears in a single shirt or elbow baring T-shirt, although the biggest cheers went to his appearance in a knee-baring lungi. He is a one-man unstoppable army and the fight scenes are more comical than exciting as Harsha dispatches any and all comers with ease. There is one fight scene at a wedding function which is cleverly choreographed, but the rest are a montage of villains hitting the ground and bouncing wildly in all directions while Harsha has no difficulty lifting men twice his size over his head and flinging them into the dirt. No one manages to even lay a finger on him until it becomes necessary for the plot, and even then it’s during a shady ambush where Harsha still comes out on top. It’s mayhem, but it’s Mahesh mayhem and I loved every minute!

Shruti Haasan has a role with some substance and she’s generally good as Charu, even managing to hold her own against the star power of Mahesh. It’s good to have a heroine who doesn’t fade into obscurity as soon as the action ramps up, and Charu’s character does have enough depth to move beyond the romance track. The love story itself is well blended into the village make-over story line, while Mahesh and Shruti have good chemistry together adding a touch of plausibility. Shruti also has some lovely outfits, although she does fall foul of the costume designers in the Charuseela song. Seriously, no explanation is possible for the studded shoes, while the female choreography just adds insult to injury. The other songs are all much better with Poorna appearing in the first Rama Rama song, while Shruti gets to strut her stuff in the rest. The music by Sri Devi Prasad is catchy and the choreography generally very good – I loved a brief flash-mob style interlude in the bangle market during one of the songs while Dhimmathirigae bursts onto the screen in a riot of colour and is just as awesome as this teaser suggests.

The accomplished support cast is excellent although with so many good actors quite a few seem underused. I would have liked to see more of Subbaraju, who briefly appears as one of Harsha’s relatives with a spiritual disposition, while Rahul Ravindran has a potentially interesting role as a rival for Harsha that sadly isn’t expanded any further. However Jagapathi Babu and Rajendra Prasad have better developed characters that allow shades of grey while Mukesh Rishi and Sampath Raj are just as black and despicable as such villains need to be.

Srimanthudu may not be a perfect film, but it is a welcome return to form for Mahesh and infinitely better than last year’s Aagadu. The film is a tad overlong and somewhat slow to get going in the second half, but at least Koratala Siva avoids any suggestion of appearing preachy by keeping the attention focused on Mahesh rather than the development work he is doing in the village. Nothing to complain about there! Mahesh is excellent throughout and with a story different enough to maintain interest and great performances all round, Srimanthudu is one of the better films I’ve seen this year. Recommended for Mahesh, Shruti Haasan and those crazy fight scenes.

Son of Satyamurthy

Son of Satyamurthy

After their previous success with Julayi, Allu Arjun and Trivikram are back together again with Son of Satyamurthy. The film features appearances from Ali, Brahmi and most of the Telugu film industry stalwarts, but despite the plethora of comedy uncles, it strives for a more serious tone and is a more traditional family drama. Bunny puts in a restrained performance compared to his earlier films, and it appears that Trivikram has concentrated on character development rather than glitzy glamour and full-on action of most Telugu cinema. The storyline has plenty of potential and I loved the inclusion of villains who are not wholly evil but have the capacity for reformation, but there are a few misses. The film is undermined by the inclusion of a few unnecessary characters that reduce the overall impact and at times the sheer number of protagonists threatens to drown the main storyline. However the central theme of a young man determined to stick to his father’s principles stands strong and Bunny does a fantastic job in a more serious role than usual.

S/o Satyamurthy

Prakash Raj is Satyamurthy; a rich man who is happy to lend money to all and sundry without judgement or seemingly any expectation of repayment. He has strong principles and his values have been absorbed by his family even if they don’t always agree with his open-handed policies. And perhaps they had a point, since Satyamurthy’s sudden death reveals a large amount of debt. The family lose their affluent lifestyle and downsize their house, possessions and expectations when Satyamurthy’s son, Viraj Anand (Allu Arjun), refuses to default on the loans and insists on doing the right thing – as his father would have wanted.

In an odd addition, Vennela Kishore plays Viraj’s older brother who is incapacitated by his father’s death, but as his character is played mainly for laughs (which are never very funny and don’t add anything to the story), there doesn’t seem to be any real need for his inclusion. Similarly, Ali appears as Parandhamayya, some sort of assistant to Viraj in his new job, who is another character who could have been omitted without losing too much from the story. I rarely find Ali’s brand of comedy funny but here he is less slapstick than usual and generally rather muted, so while I can’t see much point to his character at least he is tolerable and occasionally amusing.

Although businessman Sambasiva Rao (Rajendra Prasad) blackballs Viraj, a friend helps by giving Viraj a job as a wedding event manager. Viraj is dumped by his own fiancée when loss of his fortune makes him less desirable as a husband, and naturally his first event is the marriage of his ex, Pallavi (Adah Sharma). This makes Viraj deal with his loss of wealth and prestige fairly early on in the film and also reinforces the contrast between his own morals and those of Pallavi’s rich but dishonest father (Rao Ramesh). In classic filmi style, Viraj manages to reconcile the various family members and in the course of events falls in love with one of the wedding guests. M.S. Narayana appears in his final film appearance here, and it is bitter-sweet to see him in one of his classic drunken uncle roles, especially when his role fits well into the storyline.

Bunny’s Viraj is a sensible and responsible young man and he does a great job of making his character principled without becoming preachy or overly moralistic. The only misstep is his tendency to invoke stories of Hindu Gods that sounds a little odd coming from someone who hadn’t previously demonstrated any evidence of a virtuous attitude. It would have made more sense to me if he’d quoted his father instead, but perhaps that is due to my lack of Telugu and reliance on the subtitles which may not have been too accurate – going by the atrocious spelling as a general guide to overall quality!

Subbalakshmi, aka Sameera (Samantha) is the wedding guest that Viraj takes a fancy to, and to her credit she immediately realises that Viraj is a keeper. In a move away from standard filmi heroines, Sameera is introduced holding a drink and a cigarette, and for some reason she is also a diabetic, although there didn’t seem to be any particular point to this other than as a brief comedy scene. I generally like Trivikram’s approach to his heroines, but he seems to lose interest once he moves on to the action and sadly Samantha disappears for much of the second half. However she is excellent in her role and has great onscreen chemistry with Arjun.  The couple look good together in the songs too, which pepper the first half and allow Bunny to demonstrate why he truly is the ‘stylish star’. There is some annoying hair discontinuity, but since the worst bouffy hair only appears in the songs it’s actually no bad thing that Bunny’s hair length is shorter for the rest of the film.

Rajendra Prasad and Upendra are the other standout performers and they both help bring the film to life. Much of the comedy is between Rajendra and Bunny, and is much funnier than the specific comedy threads with Brahmi and Ali. The two bounce lines off each other to good effect and are really much better than any of the assorted comedy uncles who fall flat in comparison. Upendra appears as the villain of the piece, and is as vicious and violent as required (per Telugu standard bad guy guidelines) but shows a different side when dealing with his wife and sister. He’s an interesting character and Upendra is excellent in the role, switching from demonic goggle-eyed evil one moment to concerned husband the next, but with so much else going on his role isn’t developed as much as I would like. Sneha is also very good as his sweet and serene wife, but Nithya Menen seems a little wasted in her role as a rival for Viraj’s affections. That’s a shame too as her character starts off well with an interesting plan of attack but it’s lost in the hodge-podge of action and Brahmi comedy that makes up the rest of the film.

There is a lot going on in Son of Satyamurthy and it does evoke films of yesteryear with the convoluted storyline, sheer number of characters and focus on honour, values and moral principles. The songs from Devi Sri Prasad aren’t too memorable, but they are well choreographed and smoothly flow into the storyline. Bunny dances better than ever and also looks amazing with Peter Hein’s fight choreography. Interestingly the fights aren’t as brutal and violent as usual (there is a hose as a weapon for instance), but the wirework and acrobatics are outstanding and very effective. I really enjoyed Son of Satyamurthy and although it would have benefitted from fewer characters and less formulaic comedy it’s an entertaining story with some excellent performances. Well worth seeing on the big screen to really appreciate Bunny’s dancing if you can.