Awe

Awe takes a crack at some familiar material, trying to deliver something new. And it is something new in the context of mainstream Telugu film, far from the usual mass hero driven shenanigans. But it reminded me of a couple of  Hollywood films, and Prasanth Varma is a bit heavy handed and clearly doesn’t want anyone to miss out on his cleverness. This was a film I wanted to love but I was left mildly underwhelmed.

SPOILER ALERT! I want to mention a couple of ideas the film plays with so I will have a few spoilers. But I will leave a few surprises.

Radha (Eesha Rebba) waits at a restaurant with her parents. They’re going to meet her partner, Krish, for the first time. Krish sounds like exactly what her parents wanted for Radha; a doctor, same caste, only child. But Krish is a woman (Nityha Menen). We jump into the story of Nala (Priyardarshi Pullikonda) a down on his luck man trying out for a job as a cook. He is clueless but luckily a wise talking fish (voiced by Nani) is there to help and a talking tree (voiced by Ravi Teja) is there because there weren’t enough comedy uncles in the cast. The episodes spool by. A precocious little girl Moksha (Kaitlyn) has a battle of magic and wits with a rude, overbearing magician (Murli Sharma). A doorman (Srinivas Avasarala) is building a time machine so he can go find his parents. But then the mysterious Parvathi (Devadarshini) arrives from the future to stop him. Mira (Regina Cassandra) is plotting a heist with her boyfriend, and the stress and the drugs she takes trigger interesting hallucinations or maybe something more sinister. In between the scene shifts to Kali (Kajal Aggarwal), a woman in obvious distress who is waiting for a sign.

The stories and their locations seem unrelated initially so the jumping around was a bit irritating as episodes terminate in a cliffhanger. As the film loops back to pick up the various stories the location and times merge into one quirky looking food court, and the characters start to be seen in each other’s worlds. The set design is kind of shoddy and obviously fake which also puzzled me at first. The morse code device looked like a prop from a low budget school play. But like Pizza, a lot of things make much more sense after a point. It’s a bit risky leaving things looking half baked until that clicks for the audience. If you miss all the hints it is spelled out by the end. The one dimensional characters also make more sense once you realise how they relate back to one particular person and how they colour the way the others are depicted.

Because the story is told in quite a gimmicky way I didn’t feel the actors were all able to rise above the material. Murli Sharma is trapped in a tedious story and not even his wild overacting could get him out of it. Priyadarshi didn’t really hit his stride until the latter part of his story. And no matter how I consider it, I can’t see how the fish and the tree fit into the overarching conceit of the film other than to get some more star names on the poster. Rohini was fun and still heartfelt as Radha’s mum, struggling not to let her disapproval break a vow of silence.. Regina Cassandra has presence and Mira is a challenging role in some respects, being an unlikeable and untrustworthy person. She seems like a misfit in the largely family friendly ensemble of characters but may be the most real.

Prasanth Varma was ambitious in his treatment of a film without a Hero. A bit of research on female psychology and gender would have helped enormously with the execution. Kajal was unusually sombre as Kali and did her best to show the confusion and pain of long term mental illness and emotional damage. Her character made one particular choice that didn’t ring true and a cursory Google would have told the writer to choose something else. But having a happy and openly lesbian couple is such a positive change in representation in Indian films, I can’t whinge too much. And good on Nithya Menen for giving Krish a go. She was cheeky, a bit irreverent, loved the ladies and all in all embraced her namesake as a role model. But Krish’s explanation of why Radha identified as gay was more driven by the plot than any nuanced analysis, overly simplistic but I think well intentioned. There is some truth in saying some women could reduce psychological issues if they spoke up about being assaulted and got help, but there was almost no consideration that the better solution is for men to stop raping women. Everything comes back to women having to save themselves.

It’s a good film but I wanted great. I saw the big reveal coming from a mile away, so I wanted more from the characterisation and the detail of living this life. See it and see what you think.

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Guppy (2016)

guppy-poster

Guppy is the beautifully filmed début from writer/ director Johnpaul George featuring Chethan Lal and Tovino Thomas in the lead roles. The story is set in a small sea-side community in Kerala, and the scenery is stunning with vibrancy of colour in every frame. Cinematographer Girish Gangadharan makes the most of the beautiful location and with excellent music from Vishnu Vijay the film appears magical even before the wonderfully iridescent CGI guppies appear on-screen. The story follows the day-to-day life of Michael (Chethan Lal) aka Guppy and the problems that develop when an engineer comes to the colony, but mainly it’s the story of a young boy, his struggles to help his disabled mother and his relationships with the various people he interacts with on a routine basis.

Michael is known to everyone in his community as Guppy after the small fish he sells to supplement his income. He also works at a tea stall beside the local school where the owner Pappan (Alancier Ley) seems to be something of a father figure for Guppy as his own father is dead. His mother (Rohini) had a stroke after her husband died which left her paralysed from the waist down and Guppy looks after her as well as he can. His major goal is to buy an automated wheelchair for her so that she can get around when he is not there – and his fish sales are a vital part of that plan. The guppies are bought by local government officer Lalichan (Sudheer Karamana) as part of an initiative to help reduce the mosquito population by placing the fish in areas of standing water in the hope that they will devour the mosquito larvae. Despite knowing all about Guppy’s home situation and the plans for his earnings, Lalichan keeps half of the money for himself and only pays Guppy a small amount for each fish – a petty corruption but a common theme in his various deals with pretty much everyone throughout the film. It’s not just Lalichan either. Everyone in the community seems to inflate prices and expect bribes suggesting such corruption is normal and expected, even in such a small and remote village. Most disturbing is the acceptance of the practice as normal – shocking from my perspective that this is perceived as common practice and that no-one is even remotely bothered by it.

The first part of the film paints the picture of Guppy’s life – looking after his mother, working to raise money for her new wheelchair, breeding and selling guppies and hanging out with his friends.

There is a romantic interest in local schoolgirl Aamina (Nandhana) who wears a veil and is kept close to home by her grandfather Upooppa (Sreenivasan) which means all the local boys hang around at every available opportunity, trying to catch a glimpse of her. The other members of the community all have a role to play too and each slice of community life adds depth to the depiction of life in a small seaside village in Kerala.

Guppy’s relationship with his mother is beautifully depicted and there are some great moments, such as how he deals with his mother’s snoring, the way she prepares his fish food for him every morning, and the care Guppy takes each day in giving his mother her bath. Chethan Lal is excellent here, his emotions are perfectly displayed and the mix of joy and wonder when he feeds his fish, and excitement as he nears his goal of buying the wheelchair are superb. This is my favourite part of the film as each interaction gradually weaves the pattern of Guppy’s life, and although there are difficulties, there are also moments of happiness and camaraderie with his mother and friends.

Guppy is well liked in the community. His initiative in breeding the guppies is admired and his devotion to his mother is also appreciated by everyone who knows him, so it’s a shock when newly arrived engineer Thejus Varky seems to immediately take a dislike to Guppy. The engineer has been brought to the village by aspiring politician Onachan (Noby Marcose) and village officer Krishnan (Dileesh Pothan) to build a bridge over the railway but he doesn’t appear in time for the grand celebration prepared for his arrival. Which is a pity since it is rather special! Who could resist Michael Jackson, Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth singing a Christmas song together?

Thejus is an odd character who immediately stands out from the rest of the village due to his motorcycle, his unusual dress sense and his bushy beard. Although Tovino Thomas is excellent in his portrayal of an egotistical and rather arrogant engineer, the character of Thejus doesn’t seem totally plausible – even after his full story is revealed later in the film. Thejus can be charming, as when he meets with his friend Krishnan or in his dealings with his landlord in the village, but all too often he is haughty and appears to look down on the villagers he has come to help. He is easily frustrated by the railway crossing supervisor Upoppa and rudely snubs his offers of tea and a place to sit, while his vendetta against Guppy is strangely childish and immature. Guppy’s reaction is a little more believable, given that an adolescent may be expected to act in an occasionally irrational manner, but this part of the film seems rather more contrived and filmy. However, the tension between the two is well-developed and despite a few unrealistic twists, the conflict between Thejus and Guppy becomes compelling.

What works well in the film is the story of Guppy and his mother. Guppy’s struggles to raise enough money for a wheelchair are realistically dealt with. I love that he first sees a fully automated wheelchair when watching the film Bangalore Days – up until that point he has no idea that such things existed. The love between Guppy and his mother is beautifully depicted and blends seamlessly into the general warmth of the whole community. The conflict between Guppy and the engineer is less successful but there are still some excellent scenes, particularly between Thejus Varky and Chinappa (Poojappura Ravi), the older man who runs the guest house where he has set up his tent, and his interactions with both Onachan and Krishnan. All the actors are good in their roles and their performances ensure that the occasionally convoluted storyline doesn’t get too bogged down with all the detail.

The excellent cinematography is another reason to watch the film. Even though the CGI fish are obviously not real, they are still wonderful to look at, and Johnpaul George weaves guppies into the story in many ways. The fish appear as painting on the walls, in lightbulbs in Guppy’s house and as decorations on his friend’s vehicle as well as swimming around in the drainage canal behind the school. The whole look of the film is just as colourful – whether it’s the brightly painted village, the stunning seascapes or the vibrant villagers, it all looks beautiful and instantly makes you want to move to a seaside village in Southern India!

What doesn’t work quite so well is the sheer number of characters and some of the extraneous plotlines that don’t really add anything to the main story. Each character seems to have to have their own small story and while some are quite fun, most only serve to divert attention away from Guppy and his story. However it’s hard to quibble too much, since the characters are generally fascinating and it gives even more of an opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery.

This is a lovely little film that takes a different look at adolescence, neatly giving Guppy rural innocence but enough street-smart knowledge to ensure that he can match wits with the likes of an engineer. Well worth watching for Chethan Lal and Tovino Thomas, plus the excellent support cast, and to savour yet more stunning images of Kerala. 4 stars.

Gentleman (2016)

 

Gentleman_posterFans of the duplicate hero genre will not be surprised by the plot developments in Mohan Krishna Indraganti’s Gentleman, but it is an enjoyable film with some very good performances. Unfortunately the trailer doesn’t do the film justice. But here it is.

Aiswarya and Catherine meet on an international flight heading back to Hyderabad. In a stilted “hey I know how we can fill in the time” scene, the ladies decide to tell each other about the men in their lives.

Cathy tells her self-described cinematic story of meeting Gowtham, and falling head over heels. Now, Gowtham is the typical filmi hero stalkerish won’t take no for an answer guy, but Catherine sends him encouraging signals. Their dates are actually very cute, they have fun together, and they do seem to genuinely like each other. She had to leave him to go do a VFX course in the UK, and can’t wait to see him again.

Aiswarya tells Cathy about her perfect fiancé Jai. Where Catherine and Gowtham were endearingly real, Jai and Aiswarya are annoying, privileged and clueless. They can get in the sea. They go on a roadtrip for two days, and ostentatiously leave all their money in their checked baggage. Aiswarya makes up rules about not working or trading things for money and not calling home. This is to test them and their compatibility. So they whinge the whole way to their destination, except for a brief break for Rajnikanth impressions, and take advantage of the hospitality of poorer locals. In one of many brilliant decisions, Jai feeds Aiswarya magic mushrooms then freaks out when the hallucinogens kick in. Finally they decide they must be each other’s soulmates because really, who else could stand either of them?

Imagine Catherine’s surprise when she sees her new bestie walk up to Gowtham’s double at the airport. And imagine her shock when she goes to Gowtham’s home only to be told he was killed in an accident. Was there a connection between Gowtham and Jai? Was Gowtham’s death really an accident? What does her friend Aishu really know about the man she is going to marry? And now imagine the rest of the story! Or, just wait until the end when two characters do an awesomely committed bit of “As you know Bob” exposition and explain the entire plot for the convenience of an eavesdropping character and anyone in the audience who hasn’t worked it out.

Gentleman-Catherine and Gowtham

Niveda Thomas is fantastic as Catherine. Her acting is quite natural, and she has a healthy realistic beauty. Her chemistry with Nani was great, whether he was playing her boyfriend or the suspiciously perfect man going to marry her rich friend. When she started to question Jai’s integrity she took action herself and was as rational as someone so invested in the outcome could be. I also have to give some credit to whoever styled her for choosing a wardrobe that a normal young woman would wear instead of having her teeter around in high heels and higher skirts. Niveda has screen presence beyond what I’d expect for a 21 year old woman in an industry not known for developing actresses beyond their cup size.

Gentleman_Jai and Aiswarya

Surabhi was less impressive as Aiswarya, but that was likely due to the limitations of the character. Aishu was ignorant of the suspicions about her fiancé so was mostly the bubbly happy bride to be. She certainly looked the part of a pampered girl with an optimistic nature, and her scenes with Nani were generally good (if nauseating).

Nani’s characters developed from different directions. Gowtham was a bit of a pest who revealed his heart of gold as Cathy got to know him, while Jai started sweet and considerate, then revealed more of his ruthless side. Nani is always likeable, but he managed to make Jai creepily perfect so that everything he did after a certain point became suspicious, regardless of how innocuous it was. Even his 70s cop show blow wave seemed to indicate menace. Gowtham seemed less calculating, more of a take it as it comes kind of guy, and a bit glib. Gowtham’s fight scenes were very tongue in cheek and entertaining, which suits Nani to a T.

Sreemukhi is Nitya, a straight talking journalist who takes an interest in Jai’s business dealings and seeks Catherine out to help confirm her suspicions. They had a nice dynamic and it was good seeing another sane career woman in the ensemble. Srinivas Avasarala is good as Vamsi, Jai’s suspiciously agreeable cousin who doesn’t seem to mind being ignored continuously in favour of the golden boy. Vennela Kishore was amusing as highly strung work supervisor and Youtube legend. Tanikella Bharani has a small role as Jai’s uncle Mohan. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it gig so maybe he was just doing a favour for a mate. Vinay Varma is Catherine’s creepy uncle David, and I shed no tears for his character. This film was very smart in how it showed their relationship and Catherine’s reaction without getting into voyeuristic rapeyness. It was all wrong, and no more needed to be said. Rohini played Gowtham’s mum, and every time I see her on screen I just love her. Her acting is excellent, and she and Nani still had the rapport that I loved so much in Ala Modalaindi.

Saturday Night Fever had a dorky fun feel, with the main cast doing enthusiastically uncoordinated dancing that helped gloss over the song’s lack of freshness. Mani Sharma’s songs are standard formulaic film fare, and most add little either visually or musically. The engagement song at Aiswarya’s house (Dintaka Dintaka) was nice mostly for seeing the character actors get their moment in the spotlight.

I liked the use of graphic novel style effects in some early scenes but that seemed to go by the wayside later on in favour of standard dodgy looking breaking glass VFX and the like. Odd considering Catherine’s career, they didn’t seem to invest in getting that right.

While I was overjoyed to have subtitles, there were some silly errors in them. Broachers for brochures, one excellent instance of comma for coma, and my favourite – missionary for masonry (as in, the reinforcing rod is embedded in the missionary masonry). It did deflate a very tense scene.

See this for a complex and yet fast moving plot carried by Nani’s rock solid skills, and Niveda Thomas’ excellent heroine who does stuff that won’t make you facepalm all through the film.