Baahubali

Baahubali-Poster

Baahubali is reminiscent of classics like Patala Bhairavi and Gulebakavali Katha, with long lost princes, secluded kingdoms, stunning visuals and swashbuckling action. Rajamouli builds steadily to the cliffhanger climax with some fun, flirting, fighting and flashbacks along the way.

A baby is saved by the sacrifice of a majestic woman. He grows up happy and ignorant in a small village, but is always drawn to the high mountains. He tries to scale the massive waterfall to reach the peaks but always fails. Until one day a vision of a beautiful woman leads him to success and he stumbles into the kingdom of Mahishmati. Grown up and frequently shirtless Shivudu (Prabhas) meets his dream love Avanthika (Tamannaah). She is a warrior on a mission to rescue Devasena (Anushka Shetty), held captive for over 25 years by ruthless king Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati). Bhalla hates Devasena because she once chose his rival, the legendary Baahubali. And Shivudu is the very image of Baahubali. Hmmmm.

The majestic woman was Sivagami, the queen mother, played by the stunning and regal Ramya Krishnan in an extended flashback.

I was so excited to see her in the cast, and even more so that she has a substantial role. Sivagami is reasonable but ruthless, her eyes blaze with power, and her word is the law. She rules the kingdom and Ramya Krishnan commands every scene she is in. Sivagami has a nice dynamic with Kattappa (Sathyaraj), her enforcer and bodyguard. Sathyaraj doesn’t need a lot of dialogue to build a strong characterisation, and as the story unfolds Kattappa becomes more complex and ambiguous. This royal family has some baggage.

There is always a point where a Telugu film hero pushes all others aside so he can do the hero-ing. I quite liked that when Shivudu tells Avanthika that her dreams are now his so he will go free Devasena for her, he actually had no skin in the game and really was doing it to help her. Sure, he had had some run ins with the kingdom guards but he didn’t know who he was or that he might have a more personal interest in the outcome. Avanthika drugged him to give herself a head start and he didn’t reproach her for that either. It was more of a partnership, with Shivudu acknowledging that she wasn’t going to give up just because she had been distracted by his flexing.

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I have high hopes that by the time the second movie starts Avanthika’s ankle is healed and she will resume arse-kicking, and will be motivated by having something to fight for rather than a cause to sacrifice herself for. I also liked that Avanthika’s nihilism was displaced somewhat by an appreciation of beauty and her acceptance of love even if it is a filmi cliche.

The subtitle team gave Shivudu an unexpectedly genteel aspect as he frequently said things like ‘oh my!’ and ‘oh my goodness!” which didn’t seem all that warrior like. Prabhas is so genial and his dialogue delivery sounds a bit too modern and mumbly for a genre piece, but he totally commits to the role and does the best dance-fight-makeover I have seen. While I objected to Avanthika being forcibly partially stripped (mostly due to the inclement weather), I did appreciate that Shivudu had a steady hand with the eyeliner. And that Rajamouli had Prabhas cavorting under a waterfall as much as Tamannaah did. Prabhas and Tamannaah make a nice looking couple but I am more interested in seeing how their story ends.

Rana was very impressive, both for his ye olden days shirtless physique and his performance. Rana gave Bhallaladeva enough smirking nastiness to be delightfully hateful but also showed he was a smart and fearless warrior who legitimately had reason to expect he could be king. Bhalla might not go out of his way to remove Baahubali, but he would take advantage of a situation if fate presented. His scenes with Devasena were imbued with the weight of years of brooding and venom and he declaimed the spiteful dialogue with fiery precision. Anushka gave as good as she got so I am looking forward to their backstory being developed in the next film and seeing a bit less of her dodgy weather-beaten makeup.

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The Kalakeya are Ooga Booga natives complete with dodgy “tribal’ accoutrements, falling somewhere on the Mad Max to Lord of the Rings tribal baddies spectrum. They presumably can’t speak Telugu because they are Orc-ish, and I guess choosing another regional language would have opened up various cans of worms so the faux Bushman-esque dialogue may be a smarter workaround than it seemed.

The action scenes are awesome and the final battle is truly spectacular. While there is a heavy reliance on war machines and fancy armaments (I loved Bhalla’s Lawn Mower of Death), the stakes are still very personal. Kalakeya tries to stop Baahubali by literally throwing more people at the problem. It’s a cheesy idea played totally straight and it just about took the roof off the theatre when Baahubali emerged from under the pile of bodies.

The production design is beautiful and this is well worth seeing in a cinema just for the gorgeous fairy tale design and for all the things. The waterfall! The CGI is sometimes clunky but it does create the right impression even if specific moments are not seamless. I am not sure what I think about the watermark that appeared on screen whenever a CGI animal was in the shot. I wasn’t fooled for a second by the bull that Rana wrestled but I admit I was paying more attention to his shoulders than the bovine opponent. A fight scene in the ice and snow is poetic and deadly like a masala-fied  Zhang Yimou, and the subsequent toboggan escape is pure Bond. There were about 20 shoemakers credited in the end titles. After some discussion Heather and I decided that it must be hard to make shoes that don’t look like shoes but that still do the trick. Bravo cobblers! Take a bow goldsmiths!

MM Keeravani’s soundtrack left minimal impression on me as I was caught up in the story and visuals. The item number Manohari was a stand-out; sensual, saucy, and a bit silly. The girls got handsy with Prabhas as as lots of drunk guys swayed past on ropes or acted as platforms for the ladies. He was more like a prop for the girls, and they used his lanky frame to excellent effect.

Rajamouli has a knack for casting. I’d never thought of Sunil as a leading man but Maryada Ramanna proved otherwise, and we all know the real star of Eega. Casting Ramya Krishnan as Sivagami is genius, and while I was slightly disappointed that Anushka had so little time on screen in this first film I am very VERY excited about seeing her character in the finale. The support cast are all pretty solid and the multitude of characters are distinct and memorable from Shivudu’s villager family to the minor royals and the forces out to liberate Devasena. Oh, and Rajamouli himself, finally venturing out of the end credits and into the main film.

SS Rajamouli has a great sense of how to translate narrative into visuals and how to build the world he needs to tell his story. Baahubali is truly grand and still totally masala, true to its Telugu roots. See it!

Heather says: Baahubali is an epic film in every sense of the word and I loved every minute! It really is sweeping fantasy adventure on a gigantic scale and I will need to watch it again (and again!) to fully appreciate all the amazing detail. From the sheer immenseness of the towering waterfall in the opening scenes and the lavish Kingdom of Mahishmati to the delicate design of the jewelry and everything in between, the film looks amazing – due no doubt to the cast of thousands mentioned in the end credits. But it’s not just a visual spectacle, as Rajamouli breathes life into a classic mix of mythology and folklore to provide an entertaining and captivating story, naturally along with a good dash of derring-do and plenty of flexing of muscles!

I’m a big fan of Prabhas and he really came into his own once he got a sword in his hand. I was quite impressed by his rock-climbing technique too, although he did seem to miss a few good cracklines that might have made his ascent somewhat easier. However it’s not all just about the muscle flexing, and Prabhas does have plenty of likeable charm throughout and adopts a suitably commanding presence on the battlefield. Rana was every bit as good and he seemed to relish the occasional ambiguity of his character even while embracing the dark side.As Temple mentions, Peter Hein’s action is excellent on every level, and the epic battle scene in the second half is simply superb. I prefer to think of Bhallaladeva’s device as the spinning scythes of doom, perhaps betraying my love of LOTR, but there is plenty of other weaponry to make my inner fantasy nerd happy.

Rajamouli is also to be congratulated for including four strong female characters who all have important roles to play in the story and who don’t fade into the background when the hero appears. Ramya Krishnan surely must have the best eyes in the business and her imperial mannerisms were perfectly delivered. I think I need to adopt her attitude for my lectures – my word is the law! Great also to see Tamannaah’s warrior role wasn’t just an excuse to let her run around in skimpy attire and wave a sword, inappropriate winter clothing aside. She did get to do some real fighting and looked appropriately fierce when required. Like Temple I was disappointed in Anushka’s make-up but I’m definitely looking forward to learning more about her character and Sathyaraj’s excellent Kattappa in the conclusion. With amazing production and excellent performances from all the cast, plus Rajamouli’s legendary story telling skills, Baahubali is not to be missed. Just make sure you see if in the cinema for the full effect. All I can add is roll on part 2!

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Anji

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Anji is an unashamed tilt at a commercial blockbuster with an obviously huge budget and everything including the kitchen sink by way of recommended masala ingredients. Kodi Ramakrishna directed Devi, Ammoru, and the more recent Arundhati, all of which had big special effects and equally big performances. I think those films are more effective than Anji overall as the stories were less obviously ‘inspired’ by Hollywood. Also I suspect that casting such a big name hero skewed the story towards him, leaving mostly comic relief and buffoonery for the other performers. But the visuals are pretty good and Chiranjeevi brings his own style and verve to the adventure.

Back in 1932 a nasty man with blue contacts and huge teeth (Bhupinder Singh) tried to steal a sacred relic, the Aatmalingam. The Aatmalingam catches the waters of the Akasa Ganga every 72 years, and drinking that water grants immortality. Luckily for us and not so luckily for him, he triggers the defences around the Aatmalingam. Bhatia barely escapes, losing an arm to a sentient flying sword.

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I must just question the wisdom of sending a man with those fingernails to do a delicate job of thievery.

In 2004, when the heavenly miracle is due to occur again, Bhatia (now overacted by Tinnu Anand with odd prosthetic earlobes) once again has a crack at gaining supreme power. A diary containing the pertinent lore was sent to Swapna (Namrata Shirodkar), a student in the USA, to keep it safe. She returns to India and thanks to fate and public transport, meets Anji (Chiranjeevi) and is pursued by idiots (MS Narayana and gang). After hiring Anji to escort her to her destination, the two realise they have to protect the Aatmalingam (and all the people) and defeat the bad guy. They join forces in an adventure with epic overtones and rush towards the final confrontation.

There are numerous scenes lifted directly from other films – the Crocodile Dundee knife scene, references to the Indiana Jones series and Romancing The Stone among others – but with a Telugu mass and Megastar spin.

Big special effects are one thing but the actors still have to deliver. Anji rights wrongs, protects the defenceless and keep an eye on the guru (Nagendra Babu in some terrible wrinkle makeup). One thing I consistently enjoy about Chiru’s films is that even in the most familiar material he doesn’t seem to be phoning it in. I liked that Anji was a little bit whiny and ‘why me?’ in some scenes but his morals were sound. Chiru had good rapport with his brother Nagendra Babu and with the other filmi family members. The action scenes (by Peter Hein) are fast and often played for laughs as well as adrenalin, and Chiru highkicks and leaps like there is no tomorrow. Anji is ambushed in the jungle, beaten and pushed over a cliff but Heroes bounce when they hit rock bottom (literally and figuratively it seems). The dances are energetic and lots of fun. Anji is often the object of female fantasy in the songs so I quite enjoyed pondering why someone would imagine that particular outfit or that dance move when their thoughts turned to love (or lust). Chik Buk Pori is beautifully shot and features Chiru and his backing dudes, Ramya Krishnan as a flirty con artist, singing orphans and a random white chick. Who could ask for more?

Namrata Shirodkar is perhaps best known as the woman who persuaded Mahesh Babu he could wear t-shirts, AND wear them one at a time. Oh, and she is a former Miss India. Swapna seems like a smart modern girl while in the US – she flies a plane, drives a fast fancy car – all of which is promising in an adventure. So I was confused when she came to India and walking and talking simultaneously seemed to be rather challenging. Her acting mostly ranges from jiggle and giggle to SCREAM and grimace. And the Telugu dubbing gives her a breathy little girl voice which is just annoying. She doesn’t have great chemistry with Chiru, but romance is a fair way down the ranks of subplots which was refreshing. I was expecting more substance in this role based on Ammoru and Devi which had fierce female leads. Namrata’s performance holds up reasonably well as she wasn’t challenged to deliver much more than be a foil for The Hero. Although Swapna did remember some of her foreign skills and I was pleased to see her steal and hotwire a bus to save the obligatory orphans.

The songs are well integrated into the action so they don’t halt the momentum. I wouldn’t care anyway because Chiru! Dancing! Lawrence is credited as a choreographer and he works so well with Chiranjeevi. Swapna throws some bark on the fire and ends up stoned. He knows what it is but he inhales anyway (eventually, after helpfully explaining what was happening). All of which leads Abbo Nee Amma. Om Shanti Om is stylistically a little weird but Namrata’s outfits add some entertainment value even if her dancing doesn’t. Reema Sen makes an appearance in Mirapakaya Bajji that has excellent use of Chiru.

There are some cool effects but there are also polyester stick on beards and an unconvincing roasted lizard on a stick. And a baby crocodile that squeaks like a rubber mouse. But I was pleased to see that when Anji’s dog attacked to save a family member it was clearly a stuffed toy and not a real dog being shaken around. And the horse stunts were not too scary. Where the adventure intersects more with history and religion, the quality and scale of the effects improves although the gore levels were consistent throughout. The religious elements are woven into the action very well and give the story more substance. In one scene Anji accidentally does the right things in the right order and is protected from the giant snake and flying sword. Because I understood what he should do I found the sequence gripping, where sometimes I wonder ‘who made this nonsensical ritual up?’. Some of the magical effects when the Aatmalingam is discovered are very pretty, and there are some excellent locations and sets. Maybe Kodi Ramakrishna is a thrifty director and spends his budget where it will have the most impact. The final confrontation takes place in the Himalayas and Heaven, under the eye of Shiva. It’s all quite grand and otherworldly.

Anji is entertaining from start to finish. My DVD ends quite abruptly following the showdown between Bhatia and Anji but I am quite happy as Swapna was doing something useful for a change, and I suspect if there is a missing scene it probably has singing orphans. Chiru owns his role and his energy is evident in every scene. If you like fantasy or supernatural adventures or have a soft spot for Indiana Jones and Chiranjeevi then I highly recommend Anji. 4 stars!

Ammoru

Ammoru_Poster

Ammoru is a 1995 film combining mythology and religion with a family drama. Directed by Kodi Ramakrishna, strong performances, a well plotted story and well modulated pace ensure this never gets dull. I like the socio-fantasy and mythological genres and Ammoru has plenty of the elements I find interesting and entertaining.

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An entire village is praying to be saved from an illness when a mysterious lady approaches. A kindly woman offers her a meal and shelter after the stranger had been turned away from food dedicated to the deity. In return, the mystery woman makes an infusion of neem leaves and directs the village lady to sprinkle it in front of every house but, whatever she does, not to look back. The stranger will watch over the lady’s house until she returns. Of course she looks, and sees Ammoru in her full glory. Knowing that the goddess would leave the village at the conclusion of the task, the lady kills herself to avoid returning and Ammoru stays and becomes the resident deity. Some years later, the orphan Bhavani is in danger from rapacious Leelamma and her black magic practitioner son Gorakh. Bhavani stopped Gorakh from burying a young girl alive in a ritual to gain his wish so he was not a fan. Leelamma wanted to marry her own daughter off to wealthy Surya, but he married Bhavani to rescue her from Leelamma instigated humiliation. A lifelong devotee of Ammoru, Bhavani is protected time and time again by the goddess. But just when things are at their darkest, Bhavani sends her protector away and compels her not to return unless certain conditions are met.

Ramya Krishna dominates as Ammoru although her screen time is limited. Her appearance as the goddess is stunning. The make-up and special effects teams do a great job of making her beautiful yet terrifying, especially when her vengeful nature is stirred.

Also playing an aspect of Ammoru is Baby Sunayana – a preternaturally wise child with a high pitched creepy giggle. I did wonder why no one remarked upon the smoke, coloured lights and echoey vocal effects that often accompanied her, but that is a mere detail. She happily torments Bhavani’s enemies, rarely confronting them directly but making sure their plans go awry. As the little maid, Sunayana is playful but intense with expressive eyes. She conveys maturity and substance despite an unfortunately shrill voice and holds her own in some dramatic scenes with Soundarya.

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One scene I particularly like is when Ammoru invites her sister deities to attend a ceremonial lunch after Leelamma turned away the intended mortal guests. The goddesses looked matronly and regal and the interplay of everyday and supernatural was striking but not overemphasised. The film often points to a gulf between religious belief and day to day practice. Ammoru is a mother figure, but she is all for tough love. She rewards those who do right and who try to help themselves.

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Soundarya delivers an accomplished performance as Bhavani. While the character is a bit dim at times, she has a backbone so there is ample range for the actress to do more than look winsome. She grows from a shy girl to a happy confident new bride who enjoys married life, but when Surya leaves for the USA her in-laws go on the attack. Her baby is targeted and her reputation is in tatters. Undermined and made to doubt her own sanity, Bhavani grows progressively weaker. But when Surya’s life is under direct threat Bhavani throws manners aside and demands Ammoru repay some of the devotion she has been given over the years.

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Soundarya transforms from meek to angry and demanding without seeming a caricature. It is a pity that Soundarya died young as she had the ability to play such a range of characters and emotions that her career should have been long and interesting.

But this is by no means a feminist film. Men still rule the roost, with Surya (Suresh) casually disregarding Bhavani’s preferences and generally ordering people about regardless of whether he knew what was going on. He also demands proof before offering obeisance to heaven, which is unwise I think when dealing with a goddess who claims Durga and Yellamma among her names. A girl who is almost raped is told she has to marry the rapist as that is the only way to preserve her honour.

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The fact that her own mother set the attempt up but intended Bhavani to be the victim did quell a little of my outrage. As did the bizarre sight of the near victim mopping sweat off her attacker with her chunni. And his complaint that he had already raped two women that day so he was a bit tired. As she is a low caste orphan, no one except the old priest takes Bhavani’s situation seriously.

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Rami Reddy plays the vile Gorakh with uninhibited nastiness. He is driven by overwhelming greed for wealth and power, and uses black magic as a means to that end. He is protected by an evil spirit and believes he is invincible. He was certainly hard to get rid of, surviving many a setback including having his head set alight. His mother Leelamma (Vadivukkarasi), despite having no paranormal tendencies, is even worse. She knows exactly what she is doing and feels no compunction at belittling and torturing Bhavani in an elaborate scheme to separate her from Suresh. While the baddies planning skills are a bit suspect there is no doubt about their commitment. Kallu Chidambaram is a hapless and occasionally demonically possessed servant and Babu Mohan rounds out the family.

The soundtrack is also very effective (despite that child’s playback singer’s voice). This isn’t a big song and dance film, the music is used mostly to create or enhance the atmosphere.

Ammoru-effects

The production design is great and the village scenes are pretty but not too sanitised. The effects used for Ammoru’s interventions and her manifestations are surprisingly good for 1995. Some scenes look a bit cut and paste but the effects budget was used wisely for the big impact moments. I think it helps that the things depicted are not just everyday objects and incidents, so artistic leeway is available for how power is illustrated.

While I don’t like some of the plot points, Ammoru compensates with excellent actresses given room to shine, and strong visuals that help tell the story. The story is gripping at times and while I could guess at the ending, I didn’t see all the twists and turns coming. Highly recommended. 4 ½ stars!