Kaala (2018)

Kaala

As with his previous film Madras, Pa. Ranjith is out to deliver a message and the fact that he has Superstar Rajinikanth on board is almost irrelevant. The film is all about the politics of land clearance in the slums of Mumbai and the population of Dharavi who rise in revolt against unscrupulous developers. Where Pa Ranjith does make use of Rajinikanth’s star power is to emphasise Kaala’s role as ‘King of Dharavi’ (presumably only the Tamil-speaking part) and he adds just enough slow-motion walking and villain tossing to keep fans happy. But for the most part this is a story about people power and that makes it rather more interesting than the usual Superstar-centric flick. Best of all Rajinikanth plays an age-appropriate character who has a touching romance with his (relatively) age-appropriate wife, Selvi (Eswari Rao) while reminding us just how good Rajinikanth is as an actor.

Karikaalan (Rajinikanth) aka Kaala is the ageing leader of the slums who is pushed to defend his area from developers out to make Mumbai ‘Pure’ and beautiful. Once a gangster, he’s now a family man, and his introduction shows him playing cricket with his grandchildren and enjoying life at home. There are many domestic touches; Kaala’s relationship with his wife, the pet dog that follows him everywhere, and the rather more problematic relationship be has with his youngest son, but when it counts, Kaala still has the power to stop the bulldozers in their tracks when they show up to develop the dhobi ghat. He’s ably assisted by his eldest son Selvam (Dileepan) who dives straight into action and never lets dialogue get in the way of a good scrap, and his many loyal followers who believe that Kaala is still the ultimate authority in the area. On the other hand, his son Lenin (Manikandan) is an activist who prefers demonstration and petitions to direct action along with his girlfriend Charumathi (Anjali Patil). Manikandan is excellent and his portrayal of the frustrations with trying to fight a legal but slow and difficult battle against the background of his father and brother’s illegal but successful campaigns is brilliantly done. Anjali Patil stands out too as a force to be reckoned with, and her scrappy Charumathi is passionate and vibrant in her defence of the local community.

Opposing Kaala at every turn is corrupt politician Hari Dhadha (Nana Patekar) who is behind the developers plans to clear the land. He’s also a man with incredibly squeaky sandals. I’m not sure if India has the same superstition, but in Ireland squeaky shoes are a sign that they haven’t been paid for, with the implication that the wearer is someone who cannot be trusted. It fits Hari perfectly so I really hope this was intentional and not just a wardrobe glitch!

Dharavi sits on prime real estate and the developers want to rehouse only a small portion of the current residents, while saving the bulk of their redevelopment for the rich who will pay above the odds to live in such a convenient location. Hari and Kaala have a history, which makes their clashes personal, and Pa Ranjith ties their rivalry into the story of Rama and Raavana, but with a twist. Hari may always wear white and live in a house painted white with all white furnishings, but his Rama is a villain with no respect for the common man. Kaala wears black, lives in a house shrouded in shadows with a black settee, but this Raavana is the hero, fighting selflessly for the poor and oppressed who cannot stand up for themselves.

Rajinikanth steps easily into the role of the people’s defender, but what makes his Kaala so impressive is the relatability of the character. Despite his god-like status in the area he is a family man at heart and is simply trying to do his best for everyone. He is still in love with his wife and the scenes with Eswari Rao are brilliantly written to show the depth of their relationship while still allowing the couple to bicker continuously – typical of any long-term couple. The arrival of Kaala’s previous lover Zareena (Huma Qureshi) as a housing development specialist adds spice to the mix and the conflict of emotions from all involved is well worked into the narrative. However, Huma Qureshi’s character isn’t as well developed as that of Selvi and towards the end she’s side-lined just when I was expecting her to take a more prominent role. Zareena is a single mother and there is also an unfinished thread about her daughter which starts and then peters out into nothing, as if Pa Ranjith was so involved with everything else that he forgot to come back and tie off this part of the story.

Kaala also has support from his drunkard brother-in-law Vaaliyappan (Samuthirakani) who has some excellent lines in the second half when Hari successfully enlists police chief Pankaj Patil (Pankaj Tripathi) to burn down part of the slums. Ramesh Thilak also pops up as a reporter who has a more important role to play than first appears, while Sayaji Shinde, Ravi Kale and Sampath Raj are all good in minor roles. One of the best scenes though belongs to Lenin when he visits Charumathi in her building. He’s been campaigning for this type of development to replace the chawls but is dismayed by the endless stairs to climb when the lift is out of order and the over-crowding and lack of personal space in each small flat. It’s an excellent way to show the issues associated with rehousing schemes and the problems caused by squeezing people together into such tiny spaces, although it takes more drastic events before Lenin returns to his father’s side of the argument.

There are some excellent fight scenes although these don’t all feature Rajinikanth. However, the best (and my favourite) involves Kaala with an umbrella in a flyover in the rain. The final showdown in Dharavi is also well shot with excellent use of colour and plenty of symbolism for those who like to spot such stuff. I enjoyed the songs too, although there are a group of rap artists who keep popping up and look rather out of place. Rajinikanth keeps his moves basic and simple in keeping with his character, but he does look well and the choreography generally fits into the ambiance of the movie.

Nana Patekar makes a fantastic villain and is a suitable mix of wily politician and nasty thug throughout. His first scene with Zareena is very well written to portray the misogynistic behaviour so typical of politicians, but this time Pa Ranjith makes a point of letting the audience see exactly how petty and small-minded Hari appears as a result. Unfortunately, Nana’s dubbing isn’t always well done and the timing is out in a few scenes which is distracting. Along the same lines, the subtitles seem to be rather strict translations, which doesn’t always make sense in English and a few scenes suffer as a result.

Kaala is the film I wanted to see from the pairing of Pa Ranjith and Rajinikanth, and I enjoyed this much more than Kabali. There are strong female characters, a good support cast with well realised roles and an excellent performance from the superstar. There are a few glitches but for the most part the story is engaging with a simple message that translates well onto the big screen. Ranjith may prefer to use a wide brush for his political statements, but it’s the small details that work best here along with good use of the support characters. Highly recommended.

Advertisements

Agnyaathavaasi

PosterDespite a stellar cast and a rocking soundtrack, Agynyaathavaasi turns out to be a rather disappointing watch. Trivikram takes an interesting plot and fills it chock full of masala, to the extent that the story of a son’s mission to exact vengeance on his father’s killers becomes lost in the morass of comedy, romance and OTT fight scenes. Nothing too much out of the ordinary for a Telugu film then you might think, but there is simply too much of everything here, making Agynyaathavaasi a clutter of confusion instead of the thrilling action film it could have been.

The story (when you can catch a glimpse of it) follows the exploits of Balasubramanyam (aka Abhishikth Bhargav aka Bala aka Abhi!) as he attempts to discover who murdered his father and brother, and then follow through to exact revenge. Abhi (Pawan Kalyan) has been raised in secrecy, allowing his younger half-brother to assume the role of heir to his father Vinda’s pharmaceutical empire. Vinda (Boman Irani) is notorious for always having a Plan B, hence the existence of Abhi who is rather oddly is his step-mother’s favourite, despite his exiled status. Indrani (Khushboo) suspects that her son and husband did not die accidental deaths, and calls Abhi back to discover which of the two aspirants to Vinda’s AB Company were responsible for the deed. Varma (Rao Ramesh) and Sharma (Murali Sharma) have been part of the company since its formation, but neither seem up to the challenge of running a multi-national organisation. Both actors do their best, but with poorly etched characters played mainly for comedic value it’s hard to see why they could ever be in the running as suspects for the murders.

Adding more unnecessary slapstick is Raghu Babu as a particularly sleazy office manager whose antics aren’t even remotely funny and who is completely superfluous to the plot. As too are Abhi’s side-kicks, who start off by offering technical support for his scheme to infiltrate the company but end up as a kind of enthusiastic group of cheer-leaders on the sidelines instead. These include Tanikella Bharani as Abhi’s uncle, Srinivasa Reddy and Abhishek Maharshi who all gasp, cringe and applaud at appropriate moments but otherwise have little to do as Abhi smoothly goes about his investigation without encountering too many problems.

Naturally there has to be a romance – so why not two? Anu Emmanuel and Keerthy Suresh are the two women Abhi uses as part of his schemes to discover the truth, which goes some way to explaining the mainly superficial nature of the relationships. Still it does mean a couple of songs and a quick jaunt to Bulgaria in between Abhi’s many fight scenes. Outside of this though, the two actors only appear as light relief in between beautifully staged but surprisingly dull fight scenes.

Normally the saving grace in these films is the performances of the actors, but almost everyone here, including Pawan Kalyan overact like crazy. The Powerstar doesn’t seem engaged with the screenplay at all for most of the film – not surprisingly perhaps, since I found it difficult to engage with too! There’s a bizarre scene where an insightful police officer (Sampath Raj) starts to postulate on who Abhi could possibly be, and manages to reconstruct the entire sequence of events without any clues, witnesses or evidence to back up his theory! It’s another example of needless frills that hinder the story. A flashback sequence would have worked much better and there was no need to add such speculation, particularly when the police officer involved reported that both Vinda and his son died by accident despite Vinda being shot in the head before he plunged to his death from a high-rise.

On the plus side, the music from Anirudh Ravichandler is excellent and suits both the action and romantic sections of the screenplay. The songs are also catchy, but for the most part don’t sit well within the screenplay and most seem to be added rather randomly. Despite this, the choreography is excellent and the locations beautifully filmed. Indeed, overall the cinematography is excellent with some stunning shots of Varanasi near the start of the film. I also liked the attempt to link Abhi’s story to parts of the Mahabharata and the story of Krishna, which helped to fill in some of the back-story that was glossed over rather quickly.

There are some terrific performances too in the midst of all the general scenery chewing. Boman Irani is good and Khushboo is notable in her return to the big screen as Abhi’s step-mother and Vinda’s widow. She’s compelling in her scenes and her understated performance stands out in the midst of all the other melodrama. Also very good is Aadhi Pinisetty as the main protagonist, Seetharam. He gets the balance between arrogant brat and murdering megalomaniac just right while looking dapper and well-groomed at every occasion. Despite only a short amount of screentime Aadhi is impressive and makes an excellent villain once again.

Agynyaathavaasi is simply too uneven to be anything other than a one-time watch. Although there is a good basic storyline, the added fluff and masala buries it too deep and not even the excellent production values can keep it from sinking under all that weight. Although Khushboo and Aadhi along with Anirudh’s music and V. Manikandan’s cinematography are worth seeing, this is really a film best for fans only.

Babu Bangaram

babu-bangaram-poster

 

Maruthi has loaded the formulaic Babu Bangaram with lots of references and jokes that rely on Vekatesh’s earlier films and persona. But there are also some more fun and interesting supporting characters than you often get in a mass movie, and the silliness has a certain charm. And Venkatesh is just so likeable on screen that he gets away with it.

The film opens with a flashback. Ye Olden Venkatesh allows some whinging “Europeans” in a diverting selection of bad wigs to eat at his table, despite them being unwelcome in the country. He allows a pregnant woman to have surgery before himself despite being mid heart attack. So he dies a saint, revered as a truly unselfish man. Flash forward and Krishna (Venkatesh) is a policeman, with his grandfather’s soft heart as well as his looks. Indeed one of his subordinates calls him “the pity police”.

Babu-Bangaram-Krishna

After a hard day of beating up rowdies and then visiting them in hospital, Krishna is hanging out with his colleagues. He sees a woman in distress and is smitten by her integrity and her beauty, possibly in that order. Sailu (Nayanthara) is trying to keep her family together and financially viable in the absence of her father who is in hiding from crooked MLA Puchappa (Posani Krishna Murali) and his associate Mallesh Yadav (Sampath Raj). Krishna infiltrates her family in order to help solve her problem and to help himself find a wife.

Sailu sees through the machinations of her would be husband (Prudhviraj) and confronts him, making it clear that she is not interested nor is she stupid. She also says that Krishna has been helping her because of who he is and not because of an ulterior motive. Then she grabs Krishna by the wrist and drags him away. You go, girl! She’s a smart young woman, and her moments of annoyance, fear and anger are all quite proportionate to the stupidity and aggression of the men threatening her. When she finds that Krishna may not what seems she is equally firm in kicking him to the curb until he can prove his integrity.

babu-bangaram-smitten

The film is most enjoyable when Krishna is off balance and trying to woo Sailu while also doing his job and being taunted by his friends. Once the cat and mouse game with the baddies becomes the focus in the second half, the story is more prosaic and by the numbers.

The Daggubati Dance Curse does manifest in Venkatesh, although I think it has hit peak (nadir?) with Rana. But in the final fight scene, is Maruthi really saying there are few things more frightening than Venkatesh in full dance mode? Brave. And maybe true. But funny nonetheless.

One of the things I always like about Venkatesh is that he works well in an ensemble, and seems quite generous in allowing the rest of the team to take some of the limelight. He has a nice rapport with Nayanthara and while the romance between Krishna and Sailu wasn’t one of sizzling chemistry, they seemed happy and compatible. The film revolves around Venkatesh and his film legacy and his is the titular Golden Boy. There are quotes and references to his earlier films that had the audience whooping and cheering, and even some I could catch. For example, Krishna constantly indicates his dismay and regret with a lilting “Ayyo Ayyo Ayayoooo”. There is also song dedicated to Venkatesh in which Venkatesh pays tribute to himself in a dance off with an energetic hijra. The action scenes are tailored to Krishna’s preference for minimal violence, which is also a kindly approach for a hero past his spring chicken years. More than anything, Venkatesh brings both solid acting and a sense of fun to the proceedings.

Nayanthara delivers a nicely judged performance. Sailu is annoyed by Krishna stalking her, but she starts to see that he may have his uses. Like carrying her groceries. Also she observes how he treats other people and that is a good indication he is a generous and kind man. Sailu had a filmi dilemma but a realistic approach to problem solving, and didn’t just rush into peril. I also liked that while Krishna believed he could give her a better life, she actually quite liked her life and just wanted the gang to leave her, her dad, and her sisters alone. She was articulate about boundaries and what was unacceptable behaviour. She was only a little bit too glam, and I liked her sensible but pretty wardrobe that mixed Indian and Western styles. Her pretend cello playing is abysmal though.

How many times have you wondered why the hero’s friends don’t tell him he’s delusional or suggest he may need to rethink his plans? Giridhar and Vennela Kishore are delightful as Krishna’s colleagues. Giridhar’s expressions are priceless and Vennela Kishore delivers his wry one-liners with a sense of glee, eyeballing Krishna to see how much more he could get away with. They still go along for the ride, but sometimes it seems they do that for their own amusement as much as because they are contractually obliged to be supportive.

All the usual suspects turn up in supporting roles. Despite the film having humour woven into the plot, comedy uncle Brahmi wedged himself into proceedings in a mercifully brief appearance as a dodgy magician. Sampath Raj and Posani Krishna Murali are over the top and yet I liked having criminals who had small, real world, achievable objectives. I don’t think the onsite violinists and guitarists were necessary, but all evil masterminds must have their Thing and it’s hard to build a good lair in a family home. Sampath Raj’s gang also has the best and most diverse collection of bad haircuts I’ve seen in ages.  And Brahmaji maintained an impressive level of anger at everything all the time.

Ghibran’s soundtrack leans a bit too much to the cheesy ballads, but he ticks all the required elements off. The song picturisations are also cheesy, sometimes in a good way. But the more up tempo songs work a bit better as they provide a different texture and contrast to the rest of the film.

This screening had subtitles, which makes life easier for me. And the subtitle team may also have been doing their bit for the drama. In one action scene Krishna lays into his foes, leaving them dripping with what they assume is blood. But it isn’t – he’s such a softie!- it’s pomegranate juice, as he had been thumping them with a bag of fruit. Not content with that the subs explained it as “promo granite”. Now that would have hurt!

This isn’t a great movie, but it’s more entertaining and a bit smarter in some aspects than I was expecting, especially in the first half. And for a mass action romance it is quite restrained in depictions of violence, and I laughed out loud a few times. It’s all nicely packaged for the Venkatesh fans, but even if you aren’t hardcore target audience you could do worse than watch this for a timepass.