Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India (2018)

Naa Peru Surya

After writing a couple of hits for Telugu cinema, Vakkantham Vamsi has moved into directing his own screenplay with the release of Naa Peru Surya, Naa Illu India. However, despite an excellent opening scene, the film quickly loses momentum and is let down by poor story development and lack-lustre dialogue, most notably between the hero and his estranged father. The bones of the story are there, but Vamsi tries to mix in too much masala in the form of a dodgy crime boss and a rather limp romance, that dilute down what could have been an excellent coming of age movie. It’s still entertaining though, mainly due to an outstanding performance from Allu Arjun, while there are some excellent action and dance sequences that almost make up for the jumbled storyline.

Bunny is Surya, an army officer with more than a few anger management issues. This leads him into trouble, although to be fair the two incidences where he loses his temper in the opening scene are reasonably justified. It’s more that the magnitude of his response is well above what would be considered ‘normal’ and that’s what ends up being his downfall. After an incident with a terrorist leads to his dismissal from the army, his only shot at redemption is to get a letter signed by eminent psychologist Dr Rama Krishna Raju (Arjun Sarja) certifying that Surya has conquered his anger issues. The problem is that Dr Rama is actually Surya’s father, although the two haven’t spoken since Surya walked out when he was 16 years of age. Surya has been raised and supported by his ‘uncle’ Rao Ramesh, who has sponsored his recruitment into the army and manages to persuade his commander, Colonel Sanjay Shrivastav (Boman Irani) to give Surya one last chance.

There is great potential here, but the basic story of Surya’s road to redemption is almost lost behind the subplot of conflict with gangster Challa (R Sarathkumar) his son (Thakur Anoop Singh) and henchmen, Pradeep Rawat and Harish Uthaman. While these scenes are well filmed with great action sequences, Surya’s anger management plans languish in poorly constructed scenes with his father. Where there should have been crackling tension between Surya and Dr Rama there is instead uncomfortable chat that doesn’t come close to developing any kind of relationship between the two men. Granted the premise is that Dr Rama has completely shut Surya out of his life, and Surya will do absolutely anything to get back into his beloved army, but their interactions are so cold and clumsy that they become meaningless. What I wanted was tension and some level of self-realisation from Dr Rama and Surya, but instead there is just Surya’s anger, represented by discordant background music, and a manufactured conflict between Surya and Challa’s son that he needs to ignore if Surya is to go 21 days without fighting.

Oh yes – that’s the other odd plot point. If Surya can demonstrate no angry outbursts in 21 days he will apparently have conquered his problem. This sounds like a google-based plan of anger management and not the evidence-based behavioural therapy expected from a University based psychology professor, but by this point it’s not one of the most far-fetched ideas in the film.

Also problematical is Surya’s romance with Varsha (Anu Emmanuel). Anyone faced with the kind of anger towards them displayed by Surya would start running and not look back, so Varsha’s continued interest in Surya is hard to fathom, especially when she has zero chemistry with Bunny (and how is this even possible?). The romance makes little sense and doesn’t fit into Surya’s self-inflicted isolation shown in earlier scenes when he single-mindedly pursues his goal to be stationed at the border. Anu Emmanuel has little to do other than look glamorous and ‘stand by her man’ at the appropriate point in proceedings. All of which she does competently but it’s another disappointingly pointless heroine role that adds little to the main story. Another wasted character is Surya’s mother, who doesn’t fit at all well into the narrative and fluctuates between apparently not recognising her son and extreme anger at his absence for all these years.

Despite the shortcomings with the screenplay, what does work here is the character of Surya and his struggles to conform. Surya does manage to control his anger but it’s at the expense of his own self-worth and Bunny gets that inner conflict across perfectly. He shows the enthusiasm and fire that drives Surya to be the best soldier he can be, along with Surya’s passion for his country and makes it seem completely natural. Even better are the later scenes where Surya has to come to terms with the compromises he has made to try and meet his 21 days target. What the dialogue doesn’t manage to get across is plain to see on Surya’s face and in his body language. It really is one of the best performances I’ve seen from Allu Arjun and he completely gets under the skin of his character, dour and driven, with only the songs showing his normal cheeky grin. The support cast are all competent and do as much as they can with their limited roles. Thakur Anoop Singh makes the most impact and is impressive in the action scenes, while Vennela Kishore does manage to sneak in some comedy. It’s great to see Arjun Sarja back onscreen but disappointing that he has so little to do here.

The action sequences are excellent and choreographed to make Surya’s one-man army seem plausible, particularly when intercut with scenes of his army training. Naturally no-one can stop Surya when he’s angry, but the action is well put together and Bunny makes it all look effortless. The songs are generally good too, although the first two have little dancing – which surely is a crime in an Allu Arjun film. However just as I thought that, Lover also, Fighter also started with some great moves and awesome tricks with a cap. Bunny interchanges between ultra-classy and gangsta-wannabe in this song, but when it’s right, no-one does stylish like Allu Arjun!

Vakkantham Vamsi tries to include ideas about the evolution of home-grown terrorists but this is overly simplified and has little impact. I was expecting plenty of patriotism and Naa Peru Surya has a surfeit of flag waving and speeches about a United India that feel contrived, but inevitable in any film that mentions the army. If Vamsi had stuck to a straight-forward story about one man’s redemption this would have been an excellent film. However as it stands, with the additions of a gangster storyline, romance and failed family relationships, Naa Peru Surya has too many threads vying for attention and doesn’t do justice to any of them. Worth watching for Bunny, Arjun Sarja, who does a good job with his limited dialogue, and the dance sequences – just don’t expect too much from the story.

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Pandaga Chesko (2015)

Pandaga Chesko

This is the first film from ‘Energetic Star’ Ram that I’ve seen in the cinema, a fact that seemed surprising until I realised that Ram’s last film release was in 2013. I’m always wary with films billed as comedy, and Pandaga Chesko isn’t an exception to the rule that they should be approached with caution. However, surprisingly it isn’t Brahmi’s stale sleazy comedy that’s the biggest issue here, or the usual surfeit of comedy uncles with no real role in the story. Rather, the plot itself is tired, repetitive and well past it’s use by date. The story follows a young NRI’s return to India to attempt to reunite two families – sound familiar? Attarintiki Daredi, Govindudu Andarivadele and a whole host of other films have told this story before, and told it better. However Ram is personable and definitely energetic, although his performance and the best efforts of the support cast aren’t quite enough to save the film from being anything more than a one time watch for me.

Ram is Karthik, an NRI living in Portugal and a successful businessman running his own business. His success is enough to make him a candidate for marriage with Anushka (Sonal Chauhan) who is also a successful businesswoman although from her behaviour it seems barely conceivable that she could organise a two-ticket raffle let alone a business empire. But as her ability to play rugby to win a sports club presumably shows, she is a woman of hidden talents and a rather surprisingly slutty wardrobe for a business tycoon.

After Karthik and Anushka meet and decide that a merger would give them both the best chance to succeed in their respective businesses, Karthik learns of a complaint against his factory in India and heads off to fix the problem a month before his wedding. He’s also found out about a feud in his mother’s family, and despite not having shown any family feelings up until now, decides that while he is back in India he might as well sort out that little problem too.

However it’s not going to be as easy as Karthik thinks. For a start, no sooner does Karthik see Green Army founder and activist Divya (Rakul Preet Singh) than he falls in love with her. And the family feud proves to be tricky too, particularly when Karthik confuses the issue by including various other people pretending to be someone else. And muddying the waters further is Weekend Venkat Rao (Brahmi) sent to bring Karthik home for his wedding with Anushka but who spends his time indulging in cheap and nasty comedy instead.

Most of the comedy is in the dialogue so I didn’t find the film as funny as the rest of the audience, and since the physical humour mainly comes courtesy of Brahmi it’s generally crass and not particularly amusing. M S Narayana does have a small role but is generally not well used, while Abhimanyu Singh is reasonably funny in his role as a bumbling goonda in love with Divya. Divya and Karthik get some of the better comedy scenes too, although I don’t think all of it was actually supposed to be funny! They do make a likeable couple though and their scenes together are the most enjoyable part of the film.

The best performances come from the veterans in the cast including Jayaprakash, Sai Kumar, Raghu Babu and Pavitra Lokesh to name just a few of the large support crew. The feud between Karthik’s uncle and his erstwhile best friend is fairly standard fare but the actors give it their all and this part of the film works well. Rakul Preet Singh is good and has plenty of chemistry with Ram that serves their romance well, but Sonal Chauhan is a disaster in a role that doesn’t suit her and is badly written to boot. Ram doesn’t get much chance to show off his acting skills here either but he does well with what he is given – and if nothing else he does have good wardrobe choices and an energetic dance style. However even the choreography isn’t novel and although the songs from S Thaman are fine and generally well placed they don’t stand out as anything special.

Overall Pandaga Chesko does raise a few laughs but is let down by the disappointingly derivative and formulaic story. It’s frustrating since the film is well made with a great cast and generally good performances which do at least go some way towards making up for the tired plot. It’s not a terrible film, and it mainly works as a comedy, but it just needs a newer angle on a familiar tale and perhaps a few less comedy uncles. Worth watching for Ram and his energetic dance sequences, the romance scenes between Karthik and Divya and Arthur Wilson’s excellent cinematography.

Nagadevathe (2000)

nagadevathe-poster

Sai Prakash’s 2000 film Nagadevathe is snakecentric, packed with special effects, and Soundarya and Prema are more than capable of shouldering the lead roles. The film is available on Youtube in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu so you can choose your own adventure without subtitles, and it has also been dubbed into Hindi under the title Naag Shakti.

The story as I believe it to be goes something like this. Gauri is regarded as a bad luck omen in her village, possibly just because she is barren. She and her husband offer hospitality to Shiva and Parvati who are pretending to be travellers. The gods tell Gauri why she is infertile – she accidentally killed a clutch of snake eggs and has been cursed. But they tell her how to stop them from continuing to punish her. Soon after, Gauri discovers she is pregnant. A difficult labour nearly ends badly but a glowing mystical snake appears and turns into Nagamma (Soundarya), who ensures a safe birth. There is a backstory involving a man who foolishly kills a snake and is cursed, his household goods transforming to snake mounds. He and his family do penance and after giving the deceased snake a proper funeral, his home is restored. Nagamma moves in to the termite hill to keep an eye on them or something. A shrine is built around the main snake mound and over time, more and more people come to pay their respects to the snake goddess. Nagalakshmi is born to be a devotee of Nagamma, and they have quite a warm and personal bond right from Nagalakshmi’s birth. Grown up Nagalakshmi (Prema) meets Shivaji (Sai Kumar) and love blossoms. There is some kind of conflict between their families and I couldn’t work out if it was an old feud, the rich boy poor girl thing, or just garden variety mother (deliberately turning her son into an evil possessed snake) issues. Nagamma tries to protect her favourite humans, and they could all benefit from some better decision making. Things get worse before they can get better, and the effects team are kept busy with magical healings, snake assists, helpful talking parrots, attack vultures, heaven, hell and the kitchen sink.

I enjoy the snake film genre for a few reasons. Often the female characters are more prominent and powerful or more nuanced, or both, and that makes me happy. There is usually a pervading sense of right in the film’s world as the snakes are able to enact justice that is missing for the masses. Snakes may act out of common sense or compassion, unlike many non-magical humans. Snakes are alert to every opportunity to get their groove on, with varying degrees of success along the scale from Jeetendra to Sri Devi. And the outfits are frequently a bit special. On many levels, from the very shallow to only slightly less shallow, Nagadevathe delivers.

I think Soundarya is lovely and in this film she maintains an air of benevolent authority in even the most trying times. Given that she often only has her face to act with (the rest of her having been replaced by a giant CGI snake), she does very well.

In one scene reminiscent of Ammoru, Nagalakshmi has summoned guests to eat at a special pooja. They are turned back by the Evil In-Laws but Nagamma calls on her sister deities to come along. She gets the undivided attention of the effects and saree teams as she personifies water, wind, earth, fire and more.

I admit to some disappointment that despite a most excellent spangly body suit, the obligatory “nagin assailed by been-wielding baddies” scene resulted in a disappointing dance. More like she was rolling around on the floor looking for a lost (blue) contact lense at times.

I liked Prema a lot in Devi, and her performance is solid. She has a flirty but down to earth tone with Sai Kumar, and a nice rapport with Soundarya. Prema is tall and elegant looking but has an energy that lends equally well to comedy and romantic shenanigans. Nagalakshmi has the strength and faith to stay on task and Prema really showed the power and intensity of her determination as well as her softer side. I could see why the snakes would want to chip in at her wedding. She was a good friend and fundamentally nice without being a pushover. Nagalakshmi knows what’s what and once she finds out the truth of her situation she takes steps to protect her loved ones and engage some divine assistance to sort out the problem. I recalled musing on the toxicity of Chiru’s bodly fluids in Punnami Nagu, and Shivaji also appears to have a lethal, um, bite. I have never been so glad to see so many silly interruptions of a wedding night.

Sai Kumar is Shivaji. He seems so nice and yet… When his snake nature dominates he is predatory and poisonous. Now I was confused as to how a snake goddess could be unaware her favourite disciple was marrying a serial killer faux snake, but maybe there are cosmic rules about that kind of snake-by-venomous-inoculation. Shivaji was unaware of his snakey activities and oblivious to the black magic worshipping going on around him. Nagalakshmi was often in peril and I was quite worn out from yelling at the screen for her husband to either wake up to himself or to get away from her. I’m more used to seeing Sai Kumar as a villain or an elder statesman so seeing him as a romantic lead was novel. Even if the effects team did seem to take too much pleasure in distorting his face into a snakelike mask.

The support cast includes stalwarts Babu Mohan, Tanikella Bharani, and other familiar faces doing familiar shtick. I couldn’t put names to all the faces but I was largely able to place which characters were Good and which were Not Good.

I did get a little confused at times since without the benefit of subtitles, I rely on the visual cues. Thankfully the signs are generally clear and umabiguous. Nagamma’s arch enemy is an evil mystic who favours an eagle motif and prances about in a shiny red outfit with a fluttering black cape. I liked that his cape was attached to the sleeves of his onesie as that helped ensure some vigorous and character appropriate flapping. The effects team worked themselves into a lather of laser eyes, snake shaped shadows, nasty afflictions, sparkly things, space monsters and of course giant multi-headed cosmic snakes.

Some key scenes are very similar to ones from Devi (1999) or even Ammoru (1995). Although this time around Prema was not the cosmic snake, and Soundarya was the powerful goddess. The story is laden with a bit of everything and the commitment to the theme is unquestionable. I can’t say the commitment to logic is equal.

See this if you like to see competent actresses take centre stage and if you enjoy a bit of a spectacle en route to a good comeuppance. 3 ½ stars!