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.

Majili

Majili

Shiva Nirvana’s Majili is a romance that feels oddly dated where the characters make some very strange choices, and the plot harks back to attitudes that might have seemed plausible 30 years ago. Naga Chaitanya plays a cricket player whose life is destroyed when he loses the girl of his dreams, while Samantha is the woman waiting patiently for him to notice her. The film is helped considerably by good performances from the main leads, but it’s the support cast of Posani Krishna Murali, Suhas and Rao Ramesh, who end up making the film more interesting than the story would suggest.

The film begins with Poorna (Naga Chaitanya) as a miserably grumpy cricket umpire who spends his night getting drunk in a specific hotel room. The story behind his descent into the bottle is told in flashback when he was a younger wannabe cricket player, and his father had just given him a year to work at making it into a career. Shortly after landing a place on the Vizag Railways team, Poorna meets Anshu (Divyansha Kaushik), the daughter of a navy officer based in the town and the two start a relationship. It’s a patchy affair right from the start as there is little chemistry between the couple and their social divide makes their meetings awkward and clumsy. That might have worked, except there doesn’t seem to be any reason for Anshu to prefer Poorna over anyone in her own social circle, and after he puts her into a situation where she is almost raped, Anshu’s continued desire to be with Poorna seems even less likely. Although Chaitanya tries his best, this is just another typical love story, with the usual parental opposition and a bad guy in the form of Bhushan (Subbaraju). Divyansha Kaushik is bland and unobjectionable, but the romance is all just too unlikely to make any impression, and the finale that ends with Poorna in a hotel room seems completely implausible and a whimpering end to a supposedly grandiose love affair.

Poorna’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and heartache-induced torpor is also overly extreme for such a lacklustre romance. He wallows in his misery and seems unable to find anything worthwhile to do with his time other than mourn the loss of his ‘one true love’. However, at some point in the intervening years he somehow manages to get married to Sravani (Samantha Akkineni) who puts up with his idleness, drunkenness and morose personality with completely unlikely composure. The story tries to make us believe that she always loved Poorna and is happy simply to be his wife, despite the cold shoulder treatment she receives and his total lack of support – either emotional or financial. In fact, it’s Sravani who supports the family with her job as a railway clerk since Poorna’s father (Rao Ramesh) has retired and Poorna is too busy being miserable.

Thankfully, despite her irritatingly subservient attitude, Samantha breathes life and energy into the film. Her interactions with her father (Posani Kirshna Murali) and Porna’s father (Rao Ramesh) are the perfect mixture of funny and sad, and here at last is the spark that was so sadly missing in the first half. Although Sravani’s attitude to her husband quickly becomes wearing, Samantha somehow manages to keep her character from being completely irritating and despite wanting to shake some sense into her, I felt that her rationale was at least constant and made sense from her character’s point of view. Poorna on the other hand was just a waste of space who didn’t take any of the many opportunities he had to turn his life around. The final piece in the puzzle that leads to Poorna’s redemption is lazy and poorly done, although again it’s Sravani who has the best of the generally weak dialogue and ends up as the only one who acts according to her established persona.

Posani Krishna Murali is brilliant as Sravani’s father and his comedy keeps the film from being totally subsumed in weepy tragedy. Rao Ramesh is also unfailingly sensible and brings some much-needed common sense, as does Suhas who shines in a small role as one of Poorna’s long-suffering friends. Subbaraju is totally wasted in the role of a small-town thug with a political agenda who has no significant part to play other than to be the ‘bad guy’ for Poorna to fight at regular intervals. This would have been a much better film without the usual Telugu commercial elements – removing the dull romance, repetitive fight scenes and glamourous song sequences and adding more of Sravani, her family and her story would have made for a more interesting film. Some explanation for Sravani’s ridiculously self-sacrificing attitude would have helped too other than the wishy-washy enduring love that is used.

Overall, Majili is disappointing. The story isn’t plausible and never comes together to form a coherent whole. The bittiness of the plot transfers to the characters, who also don’t always act in keeping with their role. There simply isn’t enough of the good parts – Samantha, Posani Krishna Murali – but instead far too much insipid romance. Gopi Sundar’s songs though are generally good and Vishnu Sharma’s cinematography captures the claustrophobic feel of the family well in the latter half of the film. I wanted to like this, I like Chaitanya and Samantha and perhaps as their first film together I expected a little too much. Worth watching for Samantha, the support cast and Chaitanya in the second half.

Super Deluxe

Super Deluxe

Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe is a significant step up from his previous film Aaranya Kaandam, aided by a sumptuous colour palette from P.S. Vinod and Nirav Shah, and the presence of a number of top actors from the South. Included are the likes of Vijay Sethupathi, Samantha, Fahadh Faasil, Ramya Krishnan and Mysskin but the newcomers are just as good and hold their own against the established stars. It’s an interesting story too, although after a good start the middle section does wander and become rather self-indulgent before ending with a stronger finale. It’s still a compelling watch, not just to discover what happens in the various threads, but also to spot influences, note the repeated motif’s and ultimately try to figure out just what Thiagarajan Kumararaja is trying to say. Super Deluxe isn’t for the faint-hearted – the language is strong and there are a number of confronting themes, but the juxtaposition of topical issues and out-and-out fantasy is intriguing even with a close to 3 hour run time.

The film consists of a number of different threads which don’t interconnect as such, but instead superficially intersect and occasionally influence each other. The first involves a cheating wife Vaembu (Samantha) and what happens when her husband Mugilan (Fahadh Faasil) discovers her infidelity when her lover has the bad taste to die during their lovemaking session. Next there are a group of schoolboys who arrange an elaborate plan to bunk school and watch porn movies. Their problems start when one of the four recognises his mother Leela (Ramya Krishnan) in the movie and the ripples from his subsequent actions have far-ranging consequences. Part of this sparks an existential crisis for Leela’s husband Dhanasekaran (Mysskin) who has become a faith healer after surviving the tsunami by holding on to a statue of Jesus. The other boys end up in trouble when they try to raise the funds to buy a new TV and end up in a truly out of this world experience. And then there is the story of Shilpa (Vijay Sethupathi), a transgender woman trying to reunite with the wife and young son she left behind many years before. It’s a fascinating blend of narratives and some of the stories work better than others. Or perhaps it’s more that some parts of each story are simply brilliant (and brilliantly simple), but then at times Thiagarajan Kumararaja and his co-writers seem to get carried away and try just that little too hard to be edgy and confrontational.

As well as a lot of swearing, there is a lot of sex in this film. Vaembu is first seen in bed with her lover, the teenage boys are obsessed with sex (although that’s not surprising) and there’s a creepy cop (Bagavathi Perumal) whose rapacious tendencies provide an important plot point in two of the stories. One of these is nasty but effective, while the other is too drawn out and staged to be convincing. In those parts where the film is subtle and suggests rather than shows, it is more chillingly real and packs more of a punch compared to the more filmi scenes with Vaembu, Mugilan and SI Berlin. Perhaps it’s a consequence of too many writers (Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K. Sekar and Thiagarajan Kumararaja are all credited with the screenplay), but Vaembu and Mugilan’s story is the least successful for me, despite fine performances from the two actors. Their relationship just doesn’t ring true and the characters are an odd mix of modern and traditional that doesn’t seem plausible. However, I appreciate that the fallen woman gets a shot at redemption and isn’t permanently tainted by her infidelity. Something which is also the case with Leela who is proud of her film achievements and sees no reason to disavow her presence in a porn movie. It is refreshingly different even if at times there is a feeling that some of the dialogue has been written by grubby little boys sitting and sniggering at the mere mention of sex. That may be more to do with the subtitles though as I have read a number of comments that some concepts weren’t translated accurately, particularly in respect to Ramya Krishnan’s character.

The most successful thread is that of Shilpa, and despite all the issues around a cis male actor playing a trans woman, Vijay Sethupathi is much more here than just a man in a wig. The issues here feel true to life, shocking as they are, as Shilpa tries to navigate a brief visit to her son’s school and faces prejudice and abuse at almost every turn. Ashwanth Ashokkumar is outstanding as her son Rasukutty and although Gayathrie has very little screen-time as the abandoned wife, she makes a strong impact as her facial expressions say so much more than any dialogue could possibly manage. Vijay transforms himself yet again and adds many layers and nuances to his character, alternating between comedy and tragedy but still providing a sense of the underlying weakness that drove Shilpa to abandon her family.

The first half has a lot of well-written comedy but immediately after the interval the film shifts into more serious territory. The pace is also more uneven in the second half, and the labyrinthine feeling of diving down a rabbit hole, so well done in the first half, falters as the frenetic pace slows. There is still a lot going on though, and with the richness of the visuals the film at times becomes almost overwhelming. There are close-ups of ants running up and down a door frame for example – the implication initially seems fairly straight forward, but is it really? There are so many questions and possible explanations for even the simplest shot and it seems that every single part of the set could have a secondary meaning. This is a film that I think does need multiple viewings, and I’m sure that I will see more detail each time.

There are plenty of film references here too – to both Indian and Western films and probably a lot more cultural references that completely passed me by. Despite the variability in the second half this is definitely a film that I’d recommend for the sumptuous visuals, excellent performances and intricate story. Thiagarajan Kumararaja has built a complex world that tries to encompass the natural, unnatural and everything in between. The best part about Super Deluxe is that he so very nearly succeeds.