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.

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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.

 

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!