Govinda Govinda

Sri Devi is the main reason to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s film. She is wonderful as the plucky and caring Naveena, drawn into a mysterious plot involving religious nutters, dark rituals, and a dodgy taxi driver with anger management issues.

I watched this without subtitles and didn’t have too much difficulty following the plot, but wish I had been able to understand more of the conversations. Maybe things would have seemed more cohesive if I got the “as you know, Naveena” exposition. Or perhaps not.

The film opens with a religious back story to explain the significance of Venkateswara and the Tirumala Venkateswara temple at Tirupathi. And then the RGV factor kicks in and you can safely forget doctrine and logic as you know it. In the present day, an evil tantric commissions Paresh (Paresh Rawal) to steal Venkateswara’s crown from the temple. The relic combined with some human sacrifice will give the tantric ultimate power or something. Naveena (Sridevi) is a Telugu woman living in Bangkok. She returns to India to fetch her grandmother and take her back to Bangkok so they can live together. Seenu (Nagarjuna) is the taxi driver that picks her up from the station and takes her downtown. Seenu’s father, the temple security guard, is implicated in the theft, and little Babu (Master Anilraj), who Seenu calls Boss, is the only witness who can identify the real criminals. When Seenu and Babu go to Bangkok trying to clear the dad’s name, the kid wanders off and ends up on TV as a missing child. Naveena sees him and comes to the rescue, and is reunited with Seenu. Their lives are entwined on a level neither realises. Eventually all the ducks get in a fairly clumsy row, and it is time for Seenu and Naveena to try and thwart the tantric and save the world. It’s lucky for them that Vishnu had been sneakily keeping an eye on them all along.

The film is most alive when Sridevi is on screen. Naveena does a little of the scream-and-run heroine shtick but is largely sensible, thinks first, and tries to do things for herself even if it pushes her out of her comfort zone. Her outfits are a little…odd. I’ve never been a fan of the pedal pusher, and am on the fence when it comes to onesies. It’s hardly the worst character wardrobe Sridevi had to contend with. Perhaps Naveena was just veeeeery fashion forward, or maybe she was soft hearted and didn’t want Seenu to cop all the bad denim. There are some parallels with Kshana Kshanam although the story isn’t as strong. Naveena still has enough range as a character that Sridevi has something to work with. Whether she is being a clueless tourist or running for her life, she makes that moment feel real and with a sense of consequence.

Her cheeky expressions are an excellent distraction from the spectacle of Nag “dancing”, and the comedy is a good fit for her. Rewatching the movie to screencap for this review was so sad. Sridevi was well cast, had a decent and age appropriate costar, and a director who knew she was pure gold. Watching this did cheer me up a bit after reading so many Hindi-centric reviews of her career and best films. I firmly believe she did most of her best work in the South and if people have only seen her Hindi films, they’re missing out.

Nagarjuna is fine as Seenu. He’s probably the 90s hero I have seen the least of, so I don’t have a lot to compare this performance to. [Note: I hate the much vaunted Geethanjali with the fire of a thousand suns. Do not recommend it. Do. Not.] He is likeable as Seenu, lairising around with his highrise mullet, dressed in loud shirts and acid wash. He’s a good hearted guy even if he might be slightly dodgy when it comes to making a buck. Seenu is very close to his family, and seems proud of his father while not wanting to follow in his footsteps. The story is all over the pace and Seenu’s character is pretty flimsy and Nagarjuna does well to make him so engaging. His confusion and determination were equally believable, even when the situations were not. Some of his scenes with Sridevi are lovely as Seenu starts to realise his feelings, and he seemed to have a warm rapport with Master Anilraj who played Babu. His dancing style mostly consists of energetic walking with occasional bursts of pointing at things or people. But he kicks arse in the action sequences.

Paresh Rawal and Kota Srinivasa Rao are the main thieves, augmenting their gang with some dodgy foreigners. The extravagantly bewigged and made-up Dhir is the evil tantric, with a hint of depressed poodle in his styling. They’re all as horrible as you would expect, and overact like there will be no scenery to chew tomorrow. Kallu Chidambaram is an evil looking red herring. Annapurna plays Seenu’s mother and as you would expect, they’re quite sweet and natural with each other. Child actor Anilraj has no dialogue and that may be why I liked him so much.

As I have come to expect from RGV, the background score is loud and percussion driven. It works well to build a sense of urgency in some scenes but in others it is like someone rattling a tin full of buttons. And the Raj-Koti songs are forgettable, apart from the ungainly choreo and peak 90s Fashion and the obligatory item by Silk Smitha. I did like the way the film signals it belongs in a place and time. Characters listen to songs from movies of the day, there are signals that the audience would be immediately familiar with. So while there are exotic foreign locations, other than the sleazy girly bar we don’t do the rounds of tourist attractions. It’s quite grounded and a little bit grubby.

I’ve tried not to spoil the plot too much as there are some nifty set pieces, a few minor surprises along the way, and quite a ripping yarn if you just go with it. When RGV is good, he’s good. And when Sridevi is good she’s brilliant. 4 slightly teary eyed and sentimental stars!

Advertisements

Department

Someone needs to take all of Ram Gopal Varma’s gadgets, lock them in the toy box and hide the key. A potentially interesting thriller, Department was swamped by RGV’s ‘rogue’ methodology. My guess is ROGUE stands for Ridiculously Overindulgent Gimmickry Undermines Everything. The nauseating (literally) camerawork and a dearth of story and character development made this a disappointing experience. But there were a few positives including an excellent effort by the wardrobe department and a handful of quite good performances.

Had the gimmick of cameras mounted on actors and props been used with restraint it could have been really striking.  For example, a chase around the Crawford market area – it looked great as the camerawork enhanced the sense of speed and confusion of the pursuit. But it is hard to appreciate someone’s acting when the camera crawls up one nostril and emerges from their ear, or is spinning around the bottom of a tea cup. The background score is what I’ve come to expect from RGV – loud, intrusive and annoying so combine that with the dizzying visuals and it is unpleasant.

The story is a standard of the cop genre: a young, slightly idealistic officer is teamed up with a shady older legend on the force. Sanjay Dutt and Rana Daggubati had a good dynamic between their characters and they played off each other well. Sanjay has a brooding reserve that suited Mahadev’s moral ambiguity, and he was world weary and cynical to the core. Mahadev has his own agenda, which is revealed all too slowly. Shivnarayan was no young ratbag to be easily distracted or lead astray– he was focussed on his career and working towards his goals. But he is realising there are many more shades of grey than he expected. Rana is a competent actor, and he certainly looks right for this role. He seemed more at ease in the second half when the action ramps up.

Mind you some of the dialogue is so stilted no one could make it work. There are great insights along the lines of “A mistake done intentionally is not a mistake”. If only I had been in charge of the Cliche Department, I would have found a much more inspirational desk calendar to pinch quotes from. A subtitle that spelled gangrene ‘gang-grin’ was another highlight.

The underworld aspect is less successful. Sawatya (wildly overacted by Vijay Raaz), and his opposition – a mysterious voice on the phone – are at war. But they didn’t provide adequate tension for the machinations of the plot to make sense or be interesting. Sawatya’s deputy DK (Abhimanyu Singh) is ridiculous, stupid, and not at all convincing. People keep banging on about Abhimanyu Singh’s intensity but I think he is just a really bad actor. Even as a corpse, he hams it up.

Amitabh as Sarjay Rao spent the first half chewing the scenery and the second being enigmatic. It wasn’t the performance I was hoping for although he was an interesting character. Excessive exposition drained the potential drama and made the characters less interesting as they did little thinking for themselves. The police would get news of their target’s whereabouts apparently out of thin air. There is no consistent internal logic, too many contradictions, and the story just doesn’t hold up. RGV seems to think he has discovered the concept of moral ambiguity and the idea is pounded home. It’s clumsy and tedious.

Lakshmi Manchu was quite good as Mahadev’s wife. Satya was from a police family so she had already worked through any moral issues she may have had about her husband’s activities. Shivnarayan’s fiancée, Doctor Bharti (Anjana Sukhani) made less sense. She seemed to have few concerns about her intended being an ‘encounter king’, and no thought about what it might mean to be married to someone who was pissing off gangsters at a rate of knots. Madhu Shalini as Naseer had a potentially interesting role – a female gangster who was as tough as nails. But her motivations weren’t clear or consistent, the relationship with DK was not believable and her acting ranged from terrible to mediocre. However I don’t think anyone would have fared well in the scene where she basically fellated a kulfi as she and DK fantasised about taking over and killing everyone. It was gross.

Nathalia Kaur got a lot of (RGV generated) publicity for her debut. Her assets are obvious and just in case you missed anything that camera gets right in there (the gold undies were unexpected and I am so glad she was wearing them). But for an item girl she lacks sensuality and relies on making what I can only describe as ‘porno face’.  Even with the minimal demands of the choreo, her ‘dancing’ was terrible. I don’t usually have a problem with the skanky item, and appearances by the likes of Mumaith Khan, Malaika Arora Khan, Rambha and others are often a highlight. This made me uncomfortable as between Nathalia’s performance and the dirty old man camera gaze creeping all over her body, it is just nasty.

Luckily someone in wardrobe realised the movie was off the rails and took a bold step that almost saved the day. Nasia and DK form their own gang – we dubbed them the Fashion Gang.

 

They dress really badly, over accessorise and spend too long fussing over their clothes when they should be running away from Rana. Meanwhile Shivnarayan has had an epiphany. He had temporarily lost his mojo once he was out of uniform and in civvies. There was some unfortunate double (acid wash) denim, and a regrettable lurex bandanna incident. But by the second half he had developed a signature style and was teaming jeans and a simple (very snug across the shoulders) linen shirt or a (so tight it looked painted on) polo shirt with minimal accessories – watch, shoes, belt and gun.

 

Classic and classy. He became the Fashion Police! He pursues and kills members of DK’s Fashion Gang – the guy in the green and purple stripy shirt, the guy in the gingham bandanna, the bedraggled beardy man, finally the leaders themselves. So when Sanjay Dutt turned up wearing double acid wash….well. It was riveting. Not enough to make this a film worth seeing, but it did keep me entertained just when I was giving up.

I feel bad for the actors in Department, especially Sanjay Dutt, Rana, Deepak Tijori and Lakshmi Manchu who I think gave solid performances. It’s a shame they have been undermined by RGV’s self indulgent antics and the lack of quality story and dialogue. Honestly I can’t recommend this is worth seeing. Unless you enjoy seeing those Crimes  of Fashion soundly punished!

Sarkar

I held out on watching Sarkar til a couple of years ago. I’m ambivalent about Ram Gopal Varma films. When he is good, he is terrific. But he has wasted some interesting ideas and great actors in projects that seem to be more about RGV than making a film (like RGV ki Aag, and that film all about Mahie Gill’s cleavage). I’m also on the fence about Amitabh Bachchan in this late career phase. He’s made some bad film choices (like Boom!) and not always acted to his ability. But Sarkar combines a focussed and controlled RGV with a complex performance from Amitabh and the result is a dark and gripping film.

Subhash Nagre (Amitabh) is an old school mafia lord. He believes in family, honour and loyalty. He isn’t painted as really good or sympathetic but he has a certain integrity, an old fashioned set of rules that he adheres to and that he upholds. Nagre is connected to his community and neighbourhood, and thinks of the social cost as well as the profit and loss numbers. His people worship him, gathering outside his mansion to catch a glimpse of their Sarkar. They come to him when the system fails them, and he is their justice. Amitabh looks picture perfect. He creates a focal point in every scene with his stillness and his gaze. I found I was almost hypnotised by him, drawn to watching Subhash’s reactions no matter what else was happening. There is a carefully controlled rage in some scenes that is far more unnerving than any histrionics would have been.

While Subhash acknowledges that he operates outside the law, he says ‘I do what is right for the people’. When people come to him asking for solutions, he accepts their obeisance with little expression. He makes a semblance of not wanting people to touch his feet etc but I wondered what would happen to anyone who dared not to. Some scenes are accompanied by a religious chant(Govinda Govinda featuring Amitabh’s vocals) showing the deification of Sarkar. There are glimpses of the monstrous ego behind the facade, the steely will that does not tolerate opposition or failure, and the carefully checked anger. We also see the family man and affectionate grandfather. Subhash Nagre is a complex man and he is a master strategist. Amitabh shows all of these nuances without being too actorly and I was watching the character, not the performance.

Subhash Nagre is challenged from within and without his family. Rashid (Zakir Hussain) is the new type of criminal. His decisions are all commercial and he has no empathy or reserve. He is not the kind of man Subhash is used to. There is no whitewashing of how Nagre makes his money, but the clashes hinge on honour and intent. He will not budge from his principles. His enemies know that to remove the man they must first destroy his reputation.

Son Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan) returns from the US. Baby B has a role where doing an impression of his dad is actually appropriate. Initially believing that his father simply helps others, his eyes are opened to the realities of the family business. In a conversation with Pooja (Katrina Kaif) they refer to the Sarkar empire as a parallel government, supporting the people and doing what is right, not just what is legal. Shankar is appalled at how his father is portrayed in the media. He is the golden boy, the one his father wanted to keep clean and safe from the business. The focus and decision making Shankar used in his corporate life are now applied to his family concerns. He is a quick learner and he will do what it takes.

Abhishek is not completely convincing but he does structure his performance well. Initially Shankar is relaxed and engaging and his body language is more open. As he is drawn more into the threats to his dad, he assumes more of Subhash’s mannerisms and strategies. Abhishek’s face becomes less expressive, he speaks more slowly and moves more deliberately. And he is ice cold, like his father.

Vishnu (Kay Kay Menon) is the son most like his father in ambition, but lacking focus and self control. The tension in father-son relationship is well depicted as Vishnu challenges his father’s authority and decision making. The dynamic between Shankar and Vishnu is also fraught as Vishnu desperately wants to be taken seriously, to be the next Sarkar. Quick to flare up or retaliate he has no ‘off’ switch and only intermittent self awareness.

The pain of rejection drives him, and makes him vulnerable to manipulation. Vishnu is co-opted by his father’s enemies, and spirals into confusion, hate, anger and regret. He is an oddly sympathetic character despite committing some of the most heinous acts. I think that is due to the complex and changing emotions Kay Kay invests him with. Kay Kay is expressive and emotional where Amitabh is smouldering control.

The Nagre mansion is a world away from the glaring light and sound of the streets. It is almost timeless, and full of shadows and silhouettes. All around there are men at arms working out and waiting for trouble. The family live in a small pocket of domesticity within the encampment. It’s a bit claustrophobic, but also serene and sometimes beautiful. It is the price Nagre pays as he needs to be safe but accessible to the people who give him his status.

All around Mumbai there are shadowy figures in dark room havings meetings and plotting Subhash’s downfall. The story is well written by Manish Gupta, and gains in intensity as more deceptions unfold. Kota Srinivasa Rao is the repulsive Selvaramani, chortling his way through schemes and double crosses. His idea of honouring a friendship is requesting a quick death for someone. Anupam Kher has a small role as an anti-corruption politician and still manages to try and upstage everyone with a hammy death scene. Raju Mavani as Vishram Bhagat is the everyman type of villain – he seems perfectly reasonable yet he is calculating and meticulous in scheming to dethrone Nagre. Telugu actor Jeeva as Swami is less successful. His mannerisms and dialogue delivery are hammy, and while I believed he was a serious threat his wig didn’t convince me at all.

Supriya Pathak delivers a good performance as the mother watching her son go off the rails and placing her family in deadly jeopardy. Tanisha is likeable as Avantika, the foster daughter who is in love with Shankar. Katrina Kaif is not entirely terrible as Shankar’s American based girlfriend Pooja. But the women in Sarkar are background – providing all the support systems and needs for the menfolk, but not often in the spotlight. These relationships are important, and there is a lot of affection between family members but the men take care of business while the women take care of the men.

The visual design and camerawork throughout Sarkar is excellent and reinforces the drama and emotion. The majority of the film is shot in tight close ups, making the characters the focal point. When things move out into a broader shot, the background detail and bustle of extras and locations gives a strong real world flavour. Amar Mohile’s music is dramatic but not intrusive and the sound effects and orchestration are very effective.

It’s a fairly grim movie. There are lots of unlikeable characters and they do some despicable things. But it is such an accomplished film and just drags me in to that world. Every time I see it Amitabh reminds me yet again of why he is such a legend. Sarkar Raj was a worthy sequel, and builds on Sarkar very well. I’m cautiously looking forward to Department to see if RGV and the Big B can do it again in a different story. 4 stars.

Heather says: This isn’t one of my favourite Amitabh films despite the fact that I think he plays the part of the aging gangster well.  I think the problem is that the story of the film doesn’t engage my interest until near the end and I just don’t care enough about any of the characters to want to know what happens to them. However it does have some good points and the end is almost worth sitting through the preceding hour and a half. I do like how cold and clinical Amitabh appears and that his ruthless Don does have a more compassionate side. However that’s not enough to make me like him and since he’s not a malicious criminal either I don’t find him very interesting to watch.  His son Vishnu is more engaging and Kay Kay Menon’s performance is good enough to make me feel at least some aversion for his sleazy character, but Abishek as Shankar is incredibly wooden and quite tedious throughout. The most enjoyable scenes in the film for me are those with Selvar Mani and Virendra Swami, partly because Kota Srinivaso Rao and Jeeva both put in a very good performances and because those two characters do have some personality. The rest of the cast are all fine, and in fact many of the support actors draw my attention much more than the main leads. However I have no idea why Katrina Kaif bothered to turn up as she may as well not have been there for all the impact her character had on the story. I thought her role was fairly pointless and much better reasons could have been used for Shankar’s initial reluctance to help his father.

There are a lot of meaningful pauses and significant looks throughout the film which make it even slower. I was distracted looking at the set dressing (which was excellent!) and when there was dialogue found that I was concentrating on understanding the Hindi and trying not to look at the subtitles, rather than watching the action. The film itself is well shot and the general idea of the story is interesting, but the characters are so lacking in any type of appeal that it never really connects.  It’s not even that I found them dislikeable, they were just rather dull.  I give Sarkar 3 stars, mainly for the ending and a convincing if uninspiring performance from Amitabh.