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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Mankatha

Mankatha

I missed Mankantha when I was in Chennai due to limited time and sold-out shows in my usual cinemas – which I guess was a good indication that the film would be worth seeing.  Venkat Prabhu’s fourth film does feature his usual crowd of young actors, but also stars Ajith Kumar in his fiftieth film – it’s all about the numbers!  Mankatha is an action thriller based around the theft of illegal gambling money and features so many twists and turns that at times it’s hard to keep up with just who’s double-crossing who.  Although there are a few leaps of faith required to fully engage with the plot, overall the pace of the action and an excellent performance from Ajith in a negative role make the film well worth a watch.

The story starts with Ajith as Police Officer Vinayak Mahadevan, landing onto the screen in a typical Tamil Hero entrance style (i.e. unlikely appearance from out of nowhere) to prevent what appears to be a corrupt police execution of smuggler Faizal (Aravind Akash).  The lines are blurred right from the start – is Vinayak a hero, fighting corruption and gambling despite being suspended from duty for saving Faizal, or does his drunkenness and casual infidelity  point to even bigger character flaws and a tendency to flout the rules for his own benefit?  Each subsequent scene makes the conundrum more difficult to solve, and this ambiguity runs throughout the action in the first half.  It’s not until much later in the film that Vinayak’s true character becomes apparent (or does it?) and his real motives are revealed.

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Then there is ‘Action King’ Arjun, who appears as Prithviraj, the head of a special task force entrusted with stamping out illegal gambling on cricket matches after the head of the anti-corruption squad Kamal Ekambaram (Subbu Panchu) commits suicide due to his own gambling debt.  However Kamal isn’t dead, but instead reappears as one of the investigative team, a detail which I kept expecting to have some relevance, but it never actually does.  Arjun is very OTT in his action scenes, made even funnier by his terrible floppy hair, but otherwise delivers  a generally straitlaced and relatively heroic portrayal of a senior police officer intent on stamping out gambling.

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Vinayak, one night stands aside, is in a relationship with Sanjana (Trisha), the daughter of Arumuha Chettiyar (Jayaprakash).  Chettiyar runs the illegal gambling network in Mumbai along with various other illegal activities, and he also just happens to be the man who employs Faizal.  Was this good planning by Vinayak, or just a coincidence?

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Since Vinayak apparently turns a blind eye to Chettiyar’s illegal activities the question then follows, is this all part of an undercover plan to infiltrate the gang and bring down Chettiyar or does Vinayak really not care about his potential father-in-law breaking the law beyond the opportunity to pocket a few bribes?  It’s hard to tell, as Ajith makes the most of his devastatingly cheeky grin and ever more crazy persona to keep everyone guessing his true motives.

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Meanwhile, Chettiyar’s henchman Sumanth (Vaibhav) is in cahoots with local Sub-Inspector Ganesh (Ashwin Kakumanu) and bar-owner Mahat (Mahat Raghavendra) to steal the gambling take from the IPL final.  Mahat ropes in his friend from home Prem (Premji Amaren) who just happens to be an IT expert as well as a terminal idiot.  A little of Premji’s humour here goes a long way and less really would have been better, but cleverly developed group dynamics and good performances from the rest of the gang help keep the story on track.  In due course, Vinayak finds out about the plot which just happens to coincide with his own plans to loot the money, and the conspirators end up joining together to steal $5 billion in US dollars.  While some of the heist details require a major suspension of disbelief, the rest of the story deviously pits everyone against each other with  betrayals, plot twists and unexpected revelations, which mean it’s necessary to concentrate and pay attention to work out just who is allied with who at any given time.

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While the guys get all of the action and pretty much all of the storyline, there is very little for Trisha and the other female characters to do.  Anjali has perhaps the next most realised role as Sumanth’s wife, but her only value is as a bargaining tool later in the story.  Andrea as Prithviraj’s wife and Lakshmi Rai have even less of a role, and almost all of the female roles could have been eliminated without making any real ripple in the story.  The songs are also mainly superfluous although the soundtrack by Yuvan Shankar Raja does have a few memorable tracks.  This is probably the best choreographed, although the visual effects for Vaada Bin Laada are worth a look too (watch out for the plane on the wall that takes flight).

Ajith is definitely the star of the show in a negative role that must have been a hoot to play.  He spits venomous lines with great joie de vivre, throws in plenty of bleeped out profanity and his crazed megalomania is wonderful to behold.  He has great chemistry with Arjun and the two take control of every scene they are in.  However Vaibhav is also notable and the other cast members all provide solid performances.  While the focus is on the action there is also some nifty camera work from Sakthi Saravanan, including a great shot of some boys playing cricket in the slums while Vinayak chases down Sumanth.

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Mankatha is not the most convincing heist film, and it would definitely benefit from trimming some of the excess in the form of unnecessary songs and peripheral characters, but it succeeds in entertaining which after all is the main purpose of cinema.  I loved the twists and turns and appreciated Ajith’s excellent demonstration of just how to keep everyone guessing while Arjun tries his best to convince everyone that he is the hero.  It’s amusing and doesn’t take itself too seriously which makes for an enjoyable watch. 3 ½ stars.

Arrambam (2013)

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Arrambam is yet another Southern Indian film to use Mumbai as its backdrop, but really this action thriller could be set anywhere and still have the same impact.  Although there are a few Mumbai landmarks seen, the story is less about the location and more about the motivations behind the lead character’s quest for revenge, so despite Om Prakash’s excellent cinematography the background just isn’t important.  The action takes off immediately from the opening frames and there’s no time to take a breather until well into the second half. It’s fast, furious and best of all lots of fun as Ajith and Arya take on corruption in politics, the police force and basically just about everywhere!  There’s an excellent extended guest appearance from Rana Daggubati and even Nayanthara gets a chance to get in on the action and show off her ruthless side.  On the minus side, the songs aren’t too inspiring and there are a few gaping plot holes, but there is enough going on to make Arrambam an entertaining mass masala flick despite the lack of logic.

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The film opens with a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai, and Police Inspector Prakash (Kishore) is charged with tracking down this Mumbai, and Police Inspector Prakash (Kishore) is charged with tracking down this latest terrorist.  The man they are looking for is Ashok Kumar (Ajith), who has an unusual recruitment scheme to enlist the help of computer expert Arjun (Arya).  Also involved in Ashok’s master plan are his sidekicks Maya (Nayanthara) and Mango (Krishna) who assist Ashok with kidnapping Arjun and forcing him to hack into a number of computer networks.

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Despite this rather inauspicious beginning, Arya’s character actually adds some light relief to the film, starting with a flashback sequence to explain why Ashok targeted him in the first place.  This features Arya heavily made up and wearing a fat suit as a stereotypical computer nerd at college.  Even with his daunting appearance and apparent flatulence, Arjun is still pretty popular due to his ability to hack into the college computer system and change grades as required for the other students. However when he encounters Anita (Taapsee Pannu) and decides that she is his soul mate, he’s inspired to exercise and loose the flab.

During a rather disconcerting song where a now trim and fit Arjun sprouts blue wings for no apparent reason, he manages to woo the girl and ends up heading to Mumbai for a job interview.  One which doesn’t turn out anything like the way he expected.  Arya still keeps the nerd mentality even though he’s updated his fitness levels and appears suitably geeky throughout while also managing to keep up with the action.  It’s helped by his choice of T-shirts, but he gets the attitude right and his lack of awareness of the world around him is absolutely classic. Taapsee is ditzy and rather shrill as his reporter girlfriend but thankfully she’s not on screen often enough to be too annoying.

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While Ashok keeps telling his various victims to ‘keep it simple’, he himself makes things incredibly complicated by kidnapping Arjun and using threats against Anita to force Arjun’s compliance.  The first half keeps the thrills coming as Arjun attempts to escape and inform Inspector Prakash about Ashok and his criminal activities while trying not to endanger his girlfriend.

But of course that’s only part of the story and the second half involves a long flashback where Ashok’s motives are explained and suddenly the tables are turned.  The fast pace of the first half isn’t maintained and the film slows down considerably in the second, but there are still some good action sequences including a shoot-out sequence with Ashok’s old partner Sanjay (Rana Daggubati) and a high speed boat chase in Dubai.

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Ajith is in his element here and writer/director Vishnu Vardhan has kept Ashok’s character deliberately ambivalent while making sure he has plenty of charisma and charm.  Ashok punctuates the end of his sentences by putting on his sunnies (which at least lets you know the conversation is over), and he is always über cool and classy despite his terrorist activities.  The relationship between Ajith and Arya also works well although the sequences with Rana and Ajith stand out as some of the best in the film.  The camaraderie between the two actors feels very genuine and it’s easy to believe that they are long term friends and partners with their teasing banter and rapport during police operations.

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While Taapsee really is the drama queen the corrupt Home Minister Rane (Mahesh Manjrekar) describes, many of the other female roles have a strong presence.  Nayanthara gets to threaten, bluster and fight in many of her scenes and does an excellent job, keeping her fight sequences realistic and looking suitably athletic to carry it all off, while Suman Ranganathan is also very good in her small role.  I’m always happy to see Atul Kulkarni pop up although his role as the chief of police doesn’t really give him much scope here, and the rest of the supporting cast are equally kept mainly in the background.  Although I like Yuvan Shankar Raja’s soundtrack, the songs don’t work well in the film mainly because they disrupt the flow of the story. The item song featuring Akshara Gowda is particularly painful and seems completely pointless since it really doesn’t suit her character of the home minister’s daughter at all.  I don’t think that such a fast paced action thriller needs any songs other than the background score but at least the Holi song had more energy and made a little more sense in the context of the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Arrambam.  It’s fast paced, slick and stylish with plenty of action and I loved that one of the female characters was involved in the mayhem too. You go girl! The excitement and tension of the first half isn’t sustained through the second, but with Rana added in to the mix the action is still full on. Worth watching for Ajith and Arya as long as you can ignore the lack of logic and just sit back and enjoy the ride!

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