Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (2020)

A new year, a new Bunny film, and this one is a lot of fun. Trivikram has come up with a different slant on a traditional storyline around babies swapped at birth, and then adds in an unusual father/son dynamic on top. Murali Sharma gets to act his heart out, the support cast are terrific and Bunny is on top form throughout. Yes, Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo is a little slow to start and there are a few mis-steps initially, but there is much to enjoy in this mix of family drama, action and romance.  

The movie opens with two babies being switched immediately after birth. The rich Ramachandra (Jayaram) and his wife Yasu (Tabu) end up with the son of Valmiki (Murali Sharma) and his wife (Rohini). There is some history between the two men as they used to work together until Ramachandra married the boss’s daughter and ended up running the business. Valmiki has ended up working for his old friend and is resentful and bitter about the situation as he feels it’s luck rather than talent which has given Ramachandra his success. The only people who know about the switched children are the nurse, who meets with a tragic accident and falls into a coma, and Valmiki. Sadly no significant jewellery, birthmarks or songs, but obviously film aficionados will instantly recognise the nurse’s coma as potentially important!

The film then moves to the present day where nature has trumped nurture and Raj (Sushanth) has grown up to be quiet, hesitant and totally unable to replicate his father’s business success. Meanwhile, despite Valmiki’s antagonism, Bantu (Allu Arjun) is smart, canny and very capable, although he does have one flaw – he always has to tell the truth. There is some very well-written conflict between father and son as Valmiki treats Bantu badly, while Bantu tries everything he can to get any sign of approval at all from his father. Meanwhile, Ramachandra is desperate to get Raj involved in the business, but it’s something for which he shows no aptitude, instead demonstrating positive disinterest. Thrown into this mix is Appala Naidu (Samuthirakani) and his son (Govind Padmasoorya) who are out to grab some of Ramachandra’s company for themselves. Appala Naidu is a thug who runs the docks, while his son is more sophisticated but obsessed with the idea of taking over Ramachandra’s business.

What lifts this movie above being simply yet another masala pot-boiler, is the relationship between Bantu and his father Valmiki. The sheer nastiness of Valmiki and his determined mistreatment of Bantu is cleverly done and well contrasted with Valmiki’s servile attentiveness when working with Ramachandra. Murali Sharma is simply brilliant here and his total lack of remorse for his actions, the fate of the nurse and his treatment of Bantu is perfectly portrayed along with his innately selfish nature. And while Murali Sharma is outstanding, Bunny too is superb in these interactions, displaying nuanced emotion and plenty of depth to his character. There is a beautiful moment after Banto finds out the truth that really is emotionally perfect, and Bunny plays it brilliantly. Naturally the estranged sons and their various families need to be reunited but it’s not quite that simple. While Bantu fights his way past Valmiki and gradually charms Ramachandra and his father-in-law Aditya Radhakrishnan (Sachin Khedekar), the family is dealing with a number of problems. There is conflict between Ramachandra and his wife, his brother-in-law is cheating and stealing money from the company, and Raj’s inability to deal with Kashiram is also causing problems.

As Bantu becomes involved with the family, Trivikram tones down the comedy and OTT action for some good solid family drama that’s written for maximum emotional effect. It works because the characters are well realised and each acts true to themselves, making the emotions more real and adding to the story.

What doesn’t work quite as well is the romance angle. Mainly this comes from the odd introduction of Amulya (Pooja Hegde) as Bantu’s boss in a new job. When he first meets Amulya, Bantu can only see her legs and is unable to lift his eyes above her skirt level for much of the first half of the movie. For a film that then goes on to talk about it is wrong to fight with women and then treats Yasu’s character so well, this is a significant step back to outdated ideas of ‘comedy’ and ‘romance’. With the odd start, despite good chemistry between Bunny and Pooja Hegde, the love story always feels just a little off, not helped by Pooja’s initially ‘strong business woman’ persona fading into the background as Bantu starts to work for Ramachandra and she is relegated to being simply ‘the love interest’. The film really didn’t need a love track for both Raj and Bantu, especially when Trivikram tries to muddy the waters here too and just succeeds in making both Pooja Hegde and Nivetha Pethuraj appear insipid. 

Even with the incredibly strong performance from Murali Sharma, this is Bunny’s film from start to finish and he really is superb throughout. The stylish star manages to pull off a mullet (just) and despite a distinct lack of hair continuity in the film, he does look very good indeed, especially in the songs. As always Bunny’s dancing is outstanding, but his acting matches up to his footwork skills, and he does an excellent job in the more emotional moments. His comedic timing is also very good, while a scene in the boardroom where he pays tribute to a number of Telugu films heroes is just brilliant! Bunny’s acting has definitely matured, even in comparison to his last hit with Trivikram, S/O  Satyamurthy, which I feel was his previous best performance to date. Here Bunny shows good emotional depth, well-executed action and a real sense of commitment to the character that pays off and makes Bantu appear a genuine and appealing person, rather than just a filmi character.

The dance sequences are excellent, and I loved the attention to detail in many of the songs, like the random background dancers in Butta Bomma who pop up hula-hooping from time to time. The music from S. Thaman is also great and suits the film too. The songs are really catchy even if the lyrics are occasionally a bit odd (maybe a subtitling issue?) and the background score helps lift the emotional moments in the film. There is a real who’s who of support cast as well. Naturally Brahmi pops up, just in a song this time, but we also get Navdeep and the sadly underused Rahul Ramakrishna as workmates of Bantu, Cinemachaat favourite Ajay as one of Appala Naidu’s thugs, Rajendra Prasad as a police officer and Brahmaji as a businessman trying to buy Amulya’s business. Tabu is beautiful and grace personified as Yasu, while Jayaram and Sachin Khedekar are both excellent. Unfortunately, Rohini doesn’t have very much to do as Bantu’s mother and his sister (Vaishnavi Chaitanya) also has a very limited role, which is a shame as it would have been interesting to see their family dynamic developed more. However, there is already a lot happening in this film, and perhaps it’s just as well that the drama is mostly limited to Ramachandra’s family.

Although the basic story is nothing new, the way Trivikram has developed the characters of Bantu and Valmiki is different, especially when mixed in with the family drama of Bantu’s real father. While all the necessary components are here – songs, drama, action sequences and even the luke-warm romance, it’s having a good story that really makes Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo such a worthwhile and entertaining watch. I really enjoyed this film and would recommend it as a fun film, perfect for the holiday season.

Bhaagamathie


Anushka carries Ashok’s hodgepodge of horror and suspense, reinforcing her credentials as a leading actress. While the concept is good, the visuals are (mostly) impressive, and the cast is strong, the pacing is a little off and Ashok is heavy handed with the “twists”.

In an attempt to stymie man of the people Minister Eswar Prasad (Jayaram) in his path to the CM job, hard nosed Vaishnavi (Asha Sarath) and an ACP with convenient ethics (Murali Sharma) are told to get the dirt. Eswar’s former secretary, IAS officer Chanchala (Anushka), is serving time for killing her fiance who just happens to be the ACPs younger brother. She is taken from her cell for an unofficial interrogation and relocated to a decrepit old mansion in a spooky forest setting. What could possibly go wrong?

Chanchala and Vaishnavi play cat and mouse as Chanchala insists she is answering truthfully while not saying what Vaishnavi wants to hear. But after the interrogation sessions, Chanchala is confined to quarters with only the work of the VFX team to keep her company in the mouldering splendour of Bhaagamathie’s palatial home. And who is Bhaagamathie? Local legend says she is a demon, history may indicate she is a queen who trusted the wrong person, or is she just a figment of Chanchala’s imagination? Is Chanchala haunted, mad, or possessed? Murali Sharma (whose character name I forget) wants Chanchala dead and is quite happy to see her suffer at the hands of unknown possibly demonic tormentors. Comedy officers played by Prabhas Sreenu, Dhanraj and Vidyullekha Raman bumble around and add credence to Chanchala’s claims of supernatural goings on. What is really happening in that house? And if Chanchala is playing at being mad, what is her end game?

Anushka takes everything in stride and delivers a superb performance. Ashok throws in some Arundhati references, but Chanchala is a different woman. She is rational and curious, and goes looking for what caused that bump in the night. She knows the game the CBI is playing and will not perjure herself just for her own freedom. She is strong and ethical, and people maybe should have paid more attention to that facet of her character. Her fear and determination to survive are palpable. There are times where Chanchala seemed to be playing a game with her captors and I genuinely didn’t know what to believe, was she duplicitous, or you know, possessed and innocent. I was impatient to get back to Chanchala when she was not on screen. Whether you believe her condition is spiritual, psychological, or fraudulent, Anushka’s performance packs a wallop.

The supporting cast is strong but most of the roles are cookie-cutter and have no subtlety or sense of inner life. Jayaram is too good to be true as the people’s pick. Murali Sharma does well as the conflicted cop, but his character is written with little ambiguity so there is not much tension when it comes to crunch time. He does what the script needs, not so much what his character’s past actions might have indicated up to that point. Asha Sarath is strong and Vaishnavi is a good foil for Anushka but again, Vaishnavi is following the demands of the plot and sometimes they forget to write her brain into key scenes. It was nice when it made a come back. Unni Mukundan appears in several flashbacks as Shakthi, Chanchala’s murdered fiance. He was fine, but again his character was written to do things to fill a gap in the plot so he was limited with what he could bring to the table. Thalaivasal Vijay plays a character that surely had to be a reference to the doctor in Chandramukhi or Manichitrathazhu. And then he disappears, never to be mentioned again.

While the visual design is excellent and the atmosphere really works to add a sense of mystery and creepiness, Ashok messes up the pacing of some of the revelations and the logic doesn’t always bear scrutiny. He seems to prefer to show and tell and show again rather than assuming his audience has seen the same movies he has or that they can follow the breadcrumbs and reach their own conclusion. There are nods to Manichitrathazhu, Arundhati, the Usual Suspects, but not all are seamless or successful. The first half is all about building the supernatural element and reinforcing Chanchala’s status as a murderer. Then when she is finally removed from the scene after a night rich in incidents and mayhem, there is a sudden shift. The supposed revelations come one after the other and there is no time to absorb and reflect back on the prior events and reset your expectations before Ashok throws in another twist and shows all the details. But for all the surveillance technology and supposed experts observing via CCTV, nobody asked the same questions I was asking myself. A flaw in the writing, or was I really destined to be a highly successful filmi villain?

Thaman’s soundtrack is mostly confined to adding loud dramatic underscoring, just in case you didn’t realise you were supposed to be scared. Or maybe to let the audience know they should terminate their very loud phone conversation and pay attention to this bit coming up. In deference to this genre, there was only one duet and no big musical production numbers.

I enjoyed this for the way Ashok built his film world, and for Anushka tearing it up. I don’t think anyone could be genuinely completely surprised by the twists and turns but the journey is largely entertaining. With a couple of good minor “Boo!” scares into the bargain.

 

Ramayya Vastavayya (2013)

Ramayya Vasthavayya

It seems like a very long time since the last NTR Jr. film and since I read some speculation about Tarak’s ‘new look’ I was interested to see exactly what Harish Shankar had come up with.  However the ‘new look’ is really just the old look, except for the odd moment on horseback which I admit was pretty cool.  And there were some groovy new shades.  But otherwise Ramayya Vastavayya sticks to the same old formula with the usual faces reprising roles they have played a million times before. Ultimately not even the actors seem to be able to rustle up much enthusiasm and although Tarak and Samantha both work hard and deliver good performances, the film is still let down by the clichéd storyline and stereotypical characters.

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The first half of the film is generally entertaining since it focuses on the developing romance between Nandu (NTR Jr) and Akshara (Samantha).  The romance aspect was perhaps enhanced by the fans behind throwing rose petals along with the usual strips of paper, but at least it made for a pleasingly more fragrant trip back to the old Chinatown cinemas in Melbourne.  As I’ve come to expect (yawn), Nanu sees Akshara one day while hanging out with his buddies at a coffee shop and falls instantly in love.  Akshara is not quite so sure and the ensuing comedy as Nandu tries to win her heart with a variety of schemes is amusing enough to overcome the usual discomfort of the’ stalking = true love’ theme.  

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Rohini Hattangadi pops up as an aunt of some sort to Akshara and her older sister and although her role is small and fairly gratuitous she still steals the limelight every time she appears.Presumably to appeal to a wider audience, there are numerous references back to classic films, the most blatant being Tarak’s entry scene.  Most of these are fairly obvious and seem contrived to ‘fit’ into the storyline, and I’m sure there are more that I missed (hopefully more subtle) by not understanding the dialogue.  

Samantha looks gorgeous and there is only one attempt by the notorious Telugu shoe designer to make her look ridiculous so I’m presuming she must be a favourite with wardrobe.  However, Akshara is a standard Telugu heroine, whose only purpose is to make the hero look good and is otherwise completely one dimensional, which seems a complete waste of Samantha’s talents. Still, she does get to dance and there is good chemsitry between Samantha and NTR Jr. which makes their interactions more enjoyable to watch.

Tarak’s Nandu seems a fairly typical hero – there are the requisite commanding dialogues laced with a modicum of modesty and comedy, excellent dancing skills and the ability to defeat numerous opponents by the mere flexing of a muscle or two accompanied by a snarling grimace.  As always, Tarak delivers exactly what is expected of him with plenty of animation and charisma, but since he’s playing the same character he has played in his last few films it feels stale and completely predictable.  The only really up side are the songs which feature better than usual choreography and excellent dancing from both Tarak and the backing dancers.  I loved the addition of spectacles as part of the costumes for one of the songs and the music by S. Thaman was generally catchy and effective, and at least better than the recent crop of new releases.

Ramayya Vasthavayya

After the interval, Nandu moves on from bouncing people off wall, floors and sundry items of furniture to hacking people apart with increasingly bloodier and even more poorly choreographed fight scenes.  I’m not sure who is responsible for the action for Ramayya Vastavayya, but they seem to have taken inspiration from episodes of Tom and Jerry rather than anything that remotely resembles a feasible fight scenario.  The gore content rises but it’s so ridiculous that even the various severing of limbs has little impact, particularly since the fights are so obviously staged and formulaic to begin with.

Ramayya Vasthavayya

The second half also moves the action to the countryside for Akshara’s sister’s wedding and attempts to explain the antipathy between Akshara’s father Nagabhushanam (Mukesh Rishi) and two assassins (Ajay – yay!) who tried to kill him at the beginning of the film.  This involves a lengthy flashback with Shruti Haasan as Nandu’s previous fiancée Amullu, but it’s dull, overlong and Shruti and NTR Jr. have absolutely zero chemistry together.  To make matters worse, P. Ravi Shankar appears as a stereotypical evil and lecherous politician with mannerisms straight out of the ‘Villains for Dummies’ handbook and, inevitably, Kota Srinivasa Rao appears as his equally evil father. Doesn’t he ever get tired of playing the same role?  Adding to the stereotypes, Tanikella Bharani appears as Amullu’s father, Saranya Ponvannan as her mother and M.S. Narayan briefly appears in a throwaway role which adds absolutely nothing to the plot.  Harish Shankar tries to evoke American crime shows by tying together moments from the first half with explanations later in the film, but it looks clumsy and is generally ineffective.

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Ramayya Vastavayya disappointingly doesn’t cover any new ground and Harish Shankar sticks to a very well-worn formula without adding anything novel.  With such a tired screenplay and an abrupt change of pace in the second half, it’s really only the songs that appeal despite generally good performances from the actors.  NTR Jr. is as good as ever, but even with his energy and the appeal of two heroines Ramayya Vasthavayya is really a film solely for the fans.  Still, it’s worth watching at least once for the dancing, which is excellent and much better than the film deserves.