Psycho (2020)

There are certain things you expect from a Mysskin film, an obsession with feet, unusual camera angles and a cast of odd characters, and for the most part Psycho delivers, although parts of the story follow a familiar and more traditional route. Perhaps most shockingly the love story here follows the tired old trope of stalking = true love, but when Mysskin moves outside the basics into the realm of child abuse, Stockholm syndrome and psychosis, the film starts to take some intriguing turns where anything seems possible. Although not his best film, Psycho is bloody, challenging and intriguing on many levels, and seems set to become another deserved success for Mysskin.

The title comes from the film’s protagonist, a psychopathic killer who brutally murders women before leaving their bodies prominently displayed to public view. The film starts with one such murder which is shown in gory detail as we watch the killer, Angulimala (Rajkumar Pitchumani), in action. The body, minus head, is dumped in a public location and the reaction shots are classic Mysskin, first a low shot of victim’s family as they approach and then switching to aerial shots to capture the distress and heartbreak. The murders have apparently been going on for a few years and the police are baffled without any obvious suspects or useful leads. The investigation is led by Muthu (Ram) who has a tendency to sing old Tamil songs at odd moments, but sadly we never find out why and his back story is never explored. The entire police operation is kept superficial and peripheral to the main story and although there are occasional mentions of forensic tests and interviews, these are all simply a background beat to the murders. 

The focus of the film is RJ Dahini (Aditi Rao Hydari) who is the killer’s next victim. Possibly because she talked to a psychologist about psychopaths on her radio show, or maybe just because she fits the killer’s victim profile, being young and female. But Dahini is also being stalked by a blind musician, Gautham (Udhayanidhi Stalin) who turns up with his carer Rajanayakam (Singampuli) everywhere that Dahini goes. She is understandably frustrated and annoyed by Gautham’s inability to take no for an answer, but Mysskin follows this sadly over-used and out-dated trope right to the end, and gradually Dahini starts to rethink her opinion of Gautham. Just in time for her to be kidnapped by Angulimala. 

Dahini is sure that she will be rescued by Gautham and I’m not totally sure whether this conviction is because she has actually fallen in love with him, or just because his stalker tendencies mean he can find her anywhere. Rather improbably, Angulimala gives Gautham 7 days to find and rescue her, although it the break in routine doesn’t stop his need to kill.  Meanwhile Gautham recruits paraplegic ex-cop Kamala Das (Nithya Menen) to help him with the search. Kamala was paralysed after falling down some stairs during the search for the killer, and has her own darkness to overcome to be able to help Gautham through his. With Guatham’s enhanced senses and Kamala’s cop insights they soon get close to the killer, while Dahini’s captivity allows her to understand what drives Angulimala to kill over and over again.

Mysskin has based his film on the Buddhist story of Aṅgulimāla, and even names his psychopathic killer after him. However, this Angulimala has a rather more sordid backstory that ends up allowing Dahini to empathise with her captor. While bringing in the element of institutionalised child abuse and adding the concept of religious sin raises some interesting questions, Mysskin perhaps takes it a little too far here when he suggests that Angulimala is purely a victim of his circumstance and deserving of our sympathy. Perhaps he did have a rough upbringing, but he’s a stone-cold killer and there is more to the making of a murderer than purely nurture alone. On the other hand, Dahini’s apparent Stockholm syndrome does make sense and her reactions to Angulimala’s revelations are neatly written into the story. Aditi Rao Hydari is perfectly cast here and she does an excellent job as a victim and unwilling observer to Angulimala’s executions. She appears fragile and yielding, but is able to demonstrate the inner core of strength that allows her character to survive her ordeal. It’s a great performance and Aditi is compelling in the role. For the most part her reactions are that I would expect from any normal person in the same situation, and her character is well written to capture the different range of emotions. My favourite moment is when, after gaining a little more freedom of movement, she finds a bathroom and immediately makes use of the facilities – it seemed such a perfectly natural and human thing to do.

Udhayanidhi Stalin is fine as Gautham, but his determined devotion to Dahini isn’t convincing, partly due to the way the romance develops but mainly because there is little back story for the character. There is little opportunity for him to develop any real interaction with Dahini before she is taken by Angulimala, and her conviction that Gautham will come for her mainly seems to be driven by his stalker tendencies rather than the true love he insists he feels for her. Udhayanidhi is better in the scenes where he is persuading Kamala to help, or pleading with Muthu to let him be involved in the police investigation, where we can see the reasoning behind his actions even if the motivation is less believable. Probably the most convincing character of the investigating team is Kamala and Nithya Menen is excellent here, ensuring that she gets the mix of bitterness and self-interest mixed with compassion just right. I love her snarky responses and ability to add a lighter touch to what is otherwise a rather heavily emotional thriller. No matter the situation, she can be counted on for a sarcastic quip or bitter diatribe about her situation. I felt that in the midst of all the bizarre happenings and total craziness of Guatham’s investigation, Kamala acted quite rationally for her character and this helped ground the film whenever Mysskin was in danger of being carried away by theatricality.

Another major plus in the film is the wonderful music from Ilaiyaraaja. The melodies are beautiful and haunting, while the background score is atmospheric and fits the film perfectly. Kudos to Sharan Rajan for translating the songs as songs (instead of literal word for word translations) and making the lyrics scan beautifully. Well done too, to the producers for making the subs yellow and for crediting both the subtitler and Subemy, something which unfortunately very few seem to do.

Tanvir Mir does a fantastic job with the cinematography, heightening tension with clever use of lighting in the scenes with Angulimala and contrasting this with the bright sunlit spaces where the bodies are found. I love a sequence where Gautham is driving (yes, really) and the car is a ribbon of light moving across the otherwise black screen. Even an overly theatrical scene where Dahini finds out more about Angulimala’s past is held together by the immaculate staging and imaginative use of light and shadow. There is so much attention to detail here in the set design and every single piece seems to be symbolic in some way. Gautham sits at home underneath a wall sculpture of a spreading tree, the religious imagery is continued by having a hacker listing to Madonna’s Frozen and the turning blades of windmills after watching the killer expertly wield his own knives.

I have to say that Psycho isn’t my favourite film from Mysskin. There are a number of unresolved issues such as how the killer chooses his victims and why he displays them in the manner he does. Also, there are a number of leaps of faith required to believe that Gautham really would be able to track Dahini in the few days he has available, and at the core, I don’t feel that the attempt to pass Angulimala as a damaged child really works. But if you are prepared to put these small issues aside and just enjoy the sheer spectacle, the characterisations and the performances as well as the wonderful music, then Psycho is definitely one for fans of the thriller/slasher genre. For the rest, be warned that it is significantly gory, right from the very first scene which may not be to everyone’s tastes. For the audience in Melbourne, who gave the film a resounding round of applause at the end, it most definitely was.

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.

Pandaga Chesko (2015)

Pandaga Chesko

This is the first film from ‘Energetic Star’ Ram that I’ve seen in the cinema, a fact that seemed surprising until I realised that Ram’s last film release was in 2013. I’m always wary with films billed as comedy, and Pandaga Chesko isn’t an exception to the rule that they should be approached with caution. However, surprisingly it isn’t Brahmi’s stale sleazy comedy that’s the biggest issue here, or the usual surfeit of comedy uncles with no real role in the story. Rather, the plot itself is tired, repetitive and well past it’s use by date. The story follows a young NRI’s return to India to attempt to reunite two families – sound familiar? Attarintiki Daredi, Govindudu Andarivadele and a whole host of other films have told this story before, and told it better. However Ram is personable and definitely energetic, although his performance and the best efforts of the support cast aren’t quite enough to save the film from being anything more than a one time watch for me.

Ram is Karthik, an NRI living in Portugal and a successful businessman running his own business. His success is enough to make him a candidate for marriage with Anushka (Sonal Chauhan) who is also a successful businesswoman although from her behaviour it seems barely conceivable that she could organise a two-ticket raffle let alone a business empire. But as her ability to play rugby to win a sports club presumably shows, she is a woman of hidden talents and a rather surprisingly slutty wardrobe for a business tycoon.

After Karthik and Anushka meet and decide that a merger would give them both the best chance to succeed in their respective businesses, Karthik learns of a complaint against his factory in India and heads off to fix the problem a month before his wedding. He’s also found out about a feud in his mother’s family, and despite not having shown any family feelings up until now, decides that while he is back in India he might as well sort out that little problem too.

However it’s not going to be as easy as Karthik thinks. For a start, no sooner does Karthik see Green Army founder and activist Divya (Rakul Preet Singh) than he falls in love with her. And the family feud proves to be tricky too, particularly when Karthik confuses the issue by including various other people pretending to be someone else. And muddying the waters further is Weekend Venkat Rao (Brahmi) sent to bring Karthik home for his wedding with Anushka but who spends his time indulging in cheap and nasty comedy instead.

Most of the comedy is in the dialogue so I didn’t find the film as funny as the rest of the audience, and since the physical humour mainly comes courtesy of Brahmi it’s generally crass and not particularly amusing. M S Narayana does have a small role but is generally not well used, while Abhimanyu Singh is reasonably funny in his role as a bumbling goonda in love with Divya. Divya and Karthik get some of the better comedy scenes too, although I don’t think all of it was actually supposed to be funny! They do make a likeable couple though and their scenes together are the most enjoyable part of the film.

The best performances come from the veterans in the cast including Jayaprakash, Sai Kumar, Raghu Babu and Pavitra Lokesh to name just a few of the large support crew. The feud between Karthik’s uncle and his erstwhile best friend is fairly standard fare but the actors give it their all and this part of the film works well. Rakul Preet Singh is good and has plenty of chemistry with Ram that serves their romance well, but Sonal Chauhan is a disaster in a role that doesn’t suit her and is badly written to boot. Ram doesn’t get much chance to show off his acting skills here either but he does well with what he is given – and if nothing else he does have good wardrobe choices and an energetic dance style. However even the choreography isn’t novel and although the songs from S Thaman are fine and generally well placed they don’t stand out as anything special.

Overall Pandaga Chesko does raise a few laughs but is let down by the disappointingly derivative and formulaic story. It’s frustrating since the film is well made with a great cast and generally good performances which do at least go some way towards making up for the tired plot. It’s not a terrible film, and it mainly works as a comedy, but it just needs a newer angle on a familiar tale and perhaps a few less comedy uncles. Worth watching for Ram and his energetic dance sequences, the romance scenes between Karthik and Divya and Arthur Wilson’s excellent cinematography.