Jai Bhim

It took me a few weeks to watch this film as I just couldn’t get past the brutalisation of Rajakannu, Sengeni and their families by the police. However, it’s well worth sticking it out past the first hour as the film ends up as an excellent legal drama with superb performances from the entire cast. In particular, Lijomol Jose stands out as a tribal woman fighting for justice against an entire system which discriminates against her at every turn while Suriya excels in a more subdued role as the advocate fighting for justice.

The film starts with a demonstration of wanton discrimination with prisoners being selected to be charged with false cases based on their caste. It’s a short and callous scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film illustrating that there is no mercy and no justice for those who have no social standing or who cannot afford bribes. The film then moves to Rajakannu (Manikandan) and his family trapping rats for the local famers and catching snakes. Although they have been employed by the landowners to carry out this work, they are treated as vagabonds and ruffians, seemingly due to their poverty and inability to rise above their lowly status. The tribal people live in a vicious circle of being unable to obtain the rights other villagers take for granted as they cannot obtain documentation, without which they cannot vote, register for land or tribal grants and are therefore not seen as existing at all.

In the midst of all this callous and barbarous treatment, Rajakannu and Sengeni (Lijomol Jose) hope for a better life, dreaming of one day owning a brick house in the village. It’s somewhat ironic then that Rajakannu has to leave and work as a labourer making bricks while Sengeni is pregnant and stays at home to look after their daughter. However, a jewellery theft at the local headman’s house results in Rajakannu being accused of the crime after he was known to have been at the house to catch a snake, despite being nowhere in the vicinity at the time. As Rajakannu is away at the brick factory, his brother Iruttupan (M. Chinraasu), his sister Pachaiammal (Sujatha), his brother-in-law Mosakutty (Rajendran) and the very pregnant Sengeni are all taken to the police station and tortured to find out his whereabouts. Once they have Rajakannu, the two women are released, but the torture continues for Rajakannu and the other 2 men as the police, Sub-Inspector Gurumurthy (Tamizh), Constable Veerasamy (Supergood Subramani) and Constable Kirubakaran (Bala Hasan) try to beat a confession from them.

Arriving at the police station the next day, Sengeni is told that her husband Iruttupan and Mosakutty have all escaped, but there is no trace of them anywhere. Desperate, Sengeni enlists the help of Mythra (Rajisha Vijayan), an educated woman who has been teaching the adults to read and write. Mythra also struggles to make her voice heard, but on finding out about a lawyer who fights pro bono for human rights cases she enlists his help for Sengeni. Once Chandru (Suriya) takes the case, Sengeni finally has someone who is listening to her who will fight for her right to justice.

The first hour of the film is unforgivingly brutal and difficult to watch. The torture of the women and men is shown in enough detail to make for gruesome viewing, and it seems to be never-ending. In between the scenes of beating and torture, the general social injustice shown to the tribal people is also shockingly inhumane, particularly since it is shown to be so casual and ingrained with villagers who themselves are living quite poorly. It took a couple of attempts for me to get through this section of the film, as it really is quite horrific and depressing. Thankfully, once the court case starts, there is more optimism and despite the investigation team having to revisit the horrors of the men’s imprisonment and torture, there is respect for Sengeni and her determination to find out the truth. 

Chandru is assisted by IG Perumalsamy (Prakash Raj) who, despite his dislike of lawyers and support of police brutality, vows to conduct a fair and thorough investigation. As more and more corruption comes to light, Advocate General Ram Mohan (Rao Ramesh) takes over the police defence and attempts to get the case thrown out of court. Perhaps unrealistically, Chandru seems to have little difficulty in getting the judges to see his point of view. He is able to get time to conduct investigations and support for his questioning of witnesses without too much difficulty and his speeches in court are simple and to the point. The drama and suspense is kept for the investigation into what has happened to the 3 men, with Chandru racing across the countryside trying to find witnesses who can discredit the police story. There is also constant pressure on Sengeni to back down which includes more intimidation from the police as well as offers of large amounts of compensation if she will drop the case.

What makes this film for me is the strength and determination shown by Sengeni in the face of so many obstacles. Despite her lack of literacy and knowledge about the legal system, she is steadfast in her desire to find out the truth no matter how impossible it seems. Lijomol Jose is simply brilliant and her portrayal of Sengeni drives home the almost insurmountable challenges faced by someone of her status trying to challenge the state authority. She makes Sengeni’s love for her husband a natural extension of their family life together, and her terror while in the hands of the police, followed by her devastation when Rajakannu disappears is perfectly shown. The character of Sengeni comes alive in her capable hands and she invests the audience in her story at every step.

Suriya is also excellent, although his performance focuses more on Chandru’s determination for justice rather than on flowery court speeches or dramatic discoveries. There is little backstory and no explanation of why he so strongly supports human rights, but despite this he is credible as a lawyer and the more restrained performance suits the story. It also helps to focus attention on Sengeni and the police brutality as the key elements of the film. The contrast between his more humane approach and that of almost everyone else in the film, also emphasizes how endemic discrimination against people like Rajakannu and Sengeni is within the rest of society.  

Director T.J. Gnanavel wrote the screenplay which is based on a true story according to IMDb etc. (Rather annoyingly the subtitles didn’t translate any of the written material on screen, which I think covered this aspect of the film).  While the story is compelling, the overly long and frequently repeated scenes of police brutality and torture seemed unnecessary and at times almost voyeuristic. Perhaps Gnanavel was trying to shock his audience and drive home the issue of police violence, but for me they made the film difficult to watch as the torture scenes went on and on without any end in sight. What I found more shocking was the casual discrimination faced at every turn by the tribal people, something that had a more lasting and significant impact than all the violence shown in the police station because it was more realistic and believable. Despite these issues with the screenplay, the characterisations of the main characters are all excellent and once past the torture scenes the rest of the film works well. Issues of caste and social justice are often harrowing to watch but the overwhelming feeling from Jai Bhim is one of hope and resilience, despite the downbeat start to the film. The music from Sean Roldan is also emotive and fits well with the screenplay while S.R. Kathir’s cinematography impresses with his skill at framing and his contrast between the claustrophobic scenes in the police station and the light and air of the courtroom.

As I wrote at the start, this was a difficult film to watch, which I think was the point T.J. Gnanavel was trying to make. I’m not sure if this was the best approach for such an important subject and I’m sure that making the torture scenes shorter would still get the message across just as well without reducing the impact. If you can make it through the first hour, the rest of the film does impress. Not for the faint-hearted but well worth it for Suriya, Lijomol Jose and the rest of the excellent cast. 4 stars.

Sarileru Neekevvaru

Anil Ravipudi’s latest film Sarileru Neekevvaru is an odd mix of action and comedy that individually are fine but which don’t gel together particularly well. On the plus side, Mahesh Babu is excellent, Vijayashanti is an absolute standout and Prakash Raj is back to doing what he does best as a nasty and vindictive villain. It’s an entertaining film but for me could have been better if Anil Ravipudi had stuck to just one idea and made 2 movies instead. 

The film opens with Bharati (Vijayashanti) establishing her no-nonsense persona by slapping a drunk and obnoxious student in her class before moving northwards to introduce Major Ajay Krishna (Mahesh Babu), a bomb disposal expert in the army. After setting a rather somber tone with Ajay in front of the Indian flag, the film takes an abrupt turn into comedy as Ajay is called to defuse a bomb but insists on his side-kick Shiv Prasad (Rajendra Prasad) brewing him a cup of coffee first. Then just as quickly things turn serious again as Ajay shoots the bomber dead after a short chase through the streets. It’s this jerky transition between comedy and action that makes it difficult to connect with the film as the emotional changes are too sudden to be anything other than jarring, even though each works well for that particular scene.

Bharati’s son Ajay is also a soldier in Major Ajay’s team, but when he is seriously injured in action, Major Ajay goes to visit Bharati to try and break the news sometime during her daughter’s wedding. This is another scene that doesn’t sit well, as it seems quite unlikely that this would actually happen in real life, given that there was no need to keep the incident secret. It also seemed an unlikely use of resources to send a bomb expert away to a wedding when his talents were so clearly needed by the army. It’s obvious at this stage where the film is going to go since Major Ajay is an orphan, but the whole set-up is too filmi and contrived to fit naturally into the story.

On the train the film switches back into comedy as Ajay meets Samskruthi (Rashmika Mandanna) and her crazy family. Samskruthi is desperate not to marry her father’s choice of a groom and enlists her two sisters and her mother (Sangeetha Krish) in every more ridiculous schemes to find an alternate husband. Most of this is laugh-out-loud funny, but some portions are simply inappropriate and not at all amusing – there is nothing funny about rape or domestic violence for instance. However I enjoyed watching the heroine stalk the hero for a change, even if it is clumsily set up. Rashmika is good in these comedy sequences, but I kept wishing that I just wish that Samskruthi had been less of a loosu ponnu caricature and had more to do than just chase after Ajay. I’ve seen Rashmika in a few films now and she is an excellent actress so it’s a real shame that she doesn’t have more to do here, especially in the second half. The best comedy actually comes from Sangeetha as Samskruthi’s mother. She has some of the funniest facial expressions and excellent comedic timing throughout, even making her oft-repeated line about being married off at 14 years of age much funnier that it really should be.

It is odd that Samskruthi is such a poorly realised character since Anil Ravipudi proves he can write a good female role with Bharati. Vijayashanti is superb here and her defiance of MLA Nagendra Reddy (Prakash Raj) is very well written. I really like how she is a strong and confident woman who has managed to raise her family, maintain a farm and teach medicine as a single parent. Her confrontations with Nagendra Reddy work well, and her gradual adoption of Ajay seems plausible given her overall character. It’s good to see someone other than the hero get the chance to fight back, and even though she then relies on Ajay to ‘rescue’ her, Bharati still gets stuck in when she needs to. 

There are a number of brief appearances from CinemaChaat favourites including Ajay as one of Nagendra Reddy’s thugs, and Subbaraju as Crime Branch Koti; an investigator who becomes involved when a number of murders are discovered relating to Nagendra Reddy. Rao Ramesh appears as Samskruthi’s long suffering father and Jayaprakash Reddy is excellent as Nagendra Reddy’s father who has very clear ideas about how to get rid of any opposition. The mix of comedy and action works better in the scenes with Prakash Raj and his various thugs, although there is still the odd serious note that appears to break the flow of the film. Part of this harks back to Ajay being in the army, and he repeatedly brings up the fact that soldiers are at the border defending the country against attack, while politicians feather their nests and don’t look after the people they are meant to represent. It’s a fair point, but I don’t think comparing the army to the politicians works as well as Anil Ravipudi may have wished. I can see what he’s getting at, but I don’t think that bringing the army into the discussion is necessary to point out why Nagendra Reddy and his counterparts are bad men.

The film itself is well put together with fantastic action sequences while Mahesh looks fighting fit and appropriately athletic throughout. The comedy sequences too are well put together, and it’s mainly the melding of these components that seems to have been skipped. Sarileru Neekevvaru works as a better than average Mahesh movie thanks to the strong supporting cast and a reasonable storyline, but it could have been just that little bit better if either the comedy had been toned down or the action made less heavy-handed. It’s still a worthwhile watch and worth it for Mahesh, Vijayashanti and Prakash Raj.

Oh Baby (2019)

Oh Baby is a remake of Korean film Miss Granny, and although I haven’t seen the original, it appears that director Nandini Reddy has stuck fairly closely to the original story. The film is a fantasy rom-com where an acerbic older lady is changed to her 24-year old self and given a second chance to make her dreams come true. Both Samantha as the younger Baby and Lakshmi as the elder version are excellent and thanks to their performances and the rest of the lead cast this is an entertaining and light-hearted watch.

Baby (Lakshmi) is basically a typical grandmother. She organises everyone in the family, spoiling her grandson Rocky (Teja Sajja), mothering her son Nani (Rao Ramesh) and terrorising her daughter-in-law Madhavi (Pragathi). Not content with ruling the roost at home, she also runs a café in the same college where her son teaches physiotherapy and routinely trades words with her long-time friends Chanti (Rajendra Prasad) and Sulochana (Urvashi). While she adores her son, Baby has a soft spot for Rocky since he is an aspiring musician and Baby once wanted to be a singer too, but had to put her career on hold when she was widowed shortly after giving birth to her son. When Madhavi is hospitalised with stress after dealing with her mother-in-law one time too many, Baby is berated by her granddaughter Divya (Aneesha Dama) who telle her that she is the reason behind Madhavi’s collapse resulting in Baby deciding to leave the family home. But first she has to have her picture taken just in case it’s needed for her obituary and check in on Rocky’s first real gig, during which experience she is magically restored to her youth as the now 24-year old Swathi (Samantha).

Swathi finds lodgings with her old friend Chanti and his prickly daughter Anasuya (Sunayan) who has never liked Baby. Through various coincidences Swathi hooks up with her grandson Rocky’s band and is given the opportunity to finally fulfil her dreams of becoming a singer when the group are given a wild-card entry into a music competition. In the meantime, Nani mourns the loss of his mother, while Chanti, initially distressed at losing his friend, works out what has happened and is keen to support Swathi (much to the horror of Sulchana and Anasuya). There is also a romance of sorts as Vikram (Naga Shourya), the producer of the music show, is also entranced by Swathi and her rather unusual approach to life. But unfortunately Swathi’s new-found youth is not permanent and the situation with her family requires resolution, so it seems as if Baby will have to sacrifice her dreams for the sake of her family once more.

The comedy hinges on the rejuvenated Baby acting as if she is still a cranky old lady, and this is where the movie really excels. Lakshmi is superb at setting up the character of Baby in the opening scenes. She is deliciously insulting and knows just what to say to most get under her victim’s skin, while at the same time appearing to be solicitous and concerned. It’s a masterful performance, brilliantly funny and a side-splittingly accurate portrayal of everybody’s worst nightmare of an ageing relative. When she becomes the youthful Swathi, Samantha takes over and delivers a simply superb performance, perfectly encompassing an old woman stuck in a young woman’s body. Her movements, her walk, and her absolute delight in having normal bowel movements again are spot-on, best encompassed in the title song where Baby re-invents herself as Swathi.

Also integral to the comedy is Chanti as Baby’s long-time suitor, first desperately leading the search for her and then clandestinely trying to support Swathi in her quest for stardom. Rajendra Prasad is terrific here and shows off his impeccable comedy timing while providing the necessary support for Samantha and Lakshmi. Although his romantic overtures are frequently OTT, they are integral to his character and Rajendra ensures that he is always funny despite being rather over-enthusiastic.

Where the film is less successful is in the emotional aspects. Although Ramesh Rao is believable in his role as Baby’s son, the rest of the family are broadly drawn and Madhavi’s illness in particular is quickly brushed over.  Rocky’s blind self-ambition tends to strike a slightly sour note too since he continually compares Swathi to his grandmother, but doesn’t seem too upset that Baby has apparently vanished. Nani teached geriatric physioteherapy which is also used to point out that old people deserve a better deal in society, but again this goes nowhere and has little impact. As too the background story of Sulchana which could have been better used in the screenplay.

The romantic angle also doesn’t fit well, mainly because it’s not clear if this is supposed to be serious or played more for the comedy aspect. As a result, the romance feels disconnected to the rest of the story and ends up as a mild distraction that splutters into nothing at the finale. Another issue is the music which is surprisingly disappointing for a film all about a wannabe singer. Apart from the title song, most of Mickey J. Meyer’s songs, although pleasing enough, are just not up to the challenge of delivering the kind of memorable hits needed for this kind of movie.

However, the film works best when Samantha or Laksmi are front and centre, and thankfully this is the case for almost every scene. It’s fantastic that in to-day’s mostly male-centric Telugu cinema, this is a film that is focused almost entirely on its female leads and works entirely because of that focus. Samantha is simply luminous, she looks gorgeous as Swathi and yet still remains hilariously funny, delivering her one-liners naturally with faultless timing. I always like Samantha and she was the main reason for watching the film, but I was surprised at just how good she was, almost entirely carrying the film with only Lakshmi occasionally outdoing her performance.

Although not everything in the film works, Oh Baby is definitely worth watching to catch Samantha acting as an old lady, and to see Lakshmi light up the screen once more. It’s funny when either of the two are onscreen and with Rajendra Prasad and Rao Ramesh providing able support, the film is better than average. For me this was a great film for the holiday season and a good all-round family entertainer. 3 ½ stars.