Arjun opens with a bleeding and intense Mahesh Babu staring down the camera. We see a bloody blade, and a gang of rowdies running towards him as he waits in a downpour of rain. It’s a gripping start.

Which then gives way to a happy inspirational song and a flashback. After he kills those rowdies of course. A flashback narrative structure can often diminish the drama as the viewer knows the end point. In this case, Gunasekhar uses the form to heighten the tension. While things had obviously gone wrong, the details emerge gradually. We know Mahesh is waiting to deal with his enemies, but it takes time to discover who they are and what has happened.

Often in a big star vehicle, the supporting characters are mere sketches. But Gunasekhar has populated the film with memorable people played by excellent actors.  As in the previous Mahesh/Gunasekhar project, Okkadu, there is a strong web of relationships that makes it much more engaging. Arjun (Mahesh) is a protective twin determined to look after his sister Meenakhi (Keerthi Reddy). He isn’t one of those sociopath heroes who exist in isolation. There is a pleasantly lived in look to the family home, his office worker parents wear slightly dowdy clothes, and their story is firmly middle class. It’s refreshing to have a hero with a family and to see a sister be more important than a prospective girlfriend. But they are not angels.

Dolce – this is for you!

As always, a film hero who kills bad guys is not doing anything really wrong so we needn’t be troubled by morality. But there does seem to be recognition that there are always consequences. Certainly there is a different rule for the baddies, and especially if they kill good people.

Prakash Raj is Bala Nayagar, a Madurai based bigwig. His wife, played by the still striking Saritha, is his perfect life partner Andal. She knows what he likes to eat, his moods, and when to kill people who annoy him. When their son Uday (Raja) wants to marry college sweetheart Meenakshi they are furious as his engagement to a rich girl had been fixed. The couple are enthusiastic but only moderately successful killers, and many of their schemes to remove Meenakshi fail to comedic effect.

Saritha and Prakash Raj seem to have a side bet on who can out-over-act the other and are great fun. But despite the often ludicrous shenanigans, they each have an intensity that makes them genuinely menacing at times. Prakash Raj can turn from jovial to chilling calculation in a blink and Saritha is his match.

Mahesh also crosses paths with Rupa (Shriya) – a very annoying girl who invites her own downfall by….blowing a kiss at him. Yes! This cannot be allowed without some form of payback. How dare she! The only way honour can be satisfied is if he stalks her, then harasses her until she marries him.

The romances play out very differently. Meenakshi and Uday love each other but neither feels they can upset their parents’ plans. Arjun lays down the law – Meenakshi will not elope and if Uday wants her, he has to tell his parents and all must be done out in the open. This is how he introduces her to the Nayagars. The song gets full points for colour, movement and excellent use of locations. Plus – parrot costumes.

There is a theme of blood being thicker than water, and even before things start to take a turn, Arjun is determined not to abandon his sister once she is married. Meenakshi is in peril, often unaware of the danger and even defending her in-laws much to her twin’s dismay. Keerthi Reddy has a nice rapport with Mahesh although her role dwindles once she enters her in-laws home. She has some intense scenes as she shows her pain at her brother’s actions. Although Meenakshi is often passive, it rarely seems that she is passive through a lack of sense. As with some other characters in the film, it is a blend of mass genre cliché and soap opera – this time damsel in distress mixed with modern bride meets traditional family. The parallel of Meenakshi as a divine being and as his sister is not lost on Arjun. The goddess gives comfort and support when his sister turns away, and maybe a small nudge of coincidence.

Of course, Rupa lives in Madurai with her domineering dad (Tanikella Bharani). Arjun’s pursuit of Rupa at first seems more about putting her in her place than any romantic attachment, but it is amusing. I am also grateful to the subtitle team who kindly explained the wordplay.

Rupa is a really silly character but she does gain appeal over time.  She offers to help Arjun when he is at a low point, which makes him see her in a new light (perhaps the light of her doing what makes him happy). Shriya gives a very energetic performance, initially edging onto the Genelia Manic Pixie Dream Girl scale but kind of endearing once she settles. One thing I like about Shriya is that she never seems overawed by her co-stars, and she just goes for it and claims her bit of the screen. She withstands a varied but determined assault by the wardrobe team in the songs. As a couple she and Mahesh have some chemistry but mostly they seem to have fun in their dances. This is my favourite of their duets, choreographed by Lawrence.

Mahesh is superb. His anguish over Meenakshi and his playfulness with Rupa are equally believable, and no one emanates fury like he does. Thanks to a thoughtful screenplay, Mahesh has room to act as well as showcase his heroic chops.

He uses his lanky frame and the baby faced killer stare to great effect. Some scenes with Meenakshi were really emotional, and he showed the conflict and worry that drove Arjun. It helped give the eventual denouement a much greater urgency and sense of consequence. It also made his super killing powers seem almost believable as it was clear Arjun was desperate to protect his sister at any cost. He did seem to wear more layers of shirts as the film progressed. Was this a visual representation of his attempt to stave off external threats? Or just a change in the weather? But his shirts were not the only item of clothing to make me look twice.

The excellent fights directed by Vijayan range from almost lyrical to frenetic. Even his mother gets Arjun to sort out bad guys for her so his skill and bravado have some basis in the story and aren’t just a post-interval acquisition. Arjun has a fairly laconic style, always looks like he knows he will win, and he can fight under water which is very handy indeed.

Admittedly, I have doubts about why no one can see him in what seems to be a fairly clear pool, but whatever. The climax of the film is dramatic, suspenseful, over the top and totally improbable but completely compelling.

The Madurai set has stunning architecture and decorative flourishes and the crowds provide concealment, camouflage and distraction. The film combines the lush visuals of the temple set with opulent interiors, the intense jewel like colours of silk saris and excellent lighting. The camera work and edits are in keeping with the tone of each scene. The CGI, while a bit dodgy, was used for maximum impact. The soundtrack is OK but I remember the picturisations more than the music so I wouldn’t say Mani Sharma had done anything outstanding.

See this for fine actors, great visuals, exciting action and of course a hero you can count on. Mahesh delivers – Arjun is a winner! 4 ½ stars.

Heather says: While I didn’t enjoy this as much as Temple I think it’s an interesting story and the relationship between Arjun and his sister is well developed. Mahesh is excellent as the faithful brother who will do anything to keep his sister safe and happy and it’s really his performance which makes this more than just a run of the mill action film. I also liked Kirti Reddy  as Meenakshi and thought her early scenes with Arjun were convincing in showing the rivalry and the affection between the two

I did find it a little incredible that Arjun’s mother Kamala was quite happy to set her son up to face a room full of rowdy’s and then walk away and leave him to it.  While I appreciate her faith and confidence in her son, I’m more inclined to agree with Meenakshi’s view that it wasn’t a very responsible attitude for a parent to have. It was a quite a novel approach though and as Temple mentioned, did set up the fight scenes for the rest of the film very well.

I loved Prakash Raj here as the father intent on marrying his son to his best advantage, but he was totally outdone by Saritha as his wife. She was fantastic in her obsession with the 1001 crore dowry and her expressions as she was either murdering someone or extorting her husband to murder were brilliant. Combined with Kamala, this has to be the film with the blood-thirstiest mothers I have seen and they both added a totally new dimension to the filmi ma character. I loved them!

On the negative side though, I couldn’t understand the point of Shriya’s character at all. It doesn’t help that I really don’t like her as an actress, but the plot with Rupa seemed to be stuck on as an after-thought. I don’t think a romance was necessary, particularly since her character had no relationship to anyone else in the plot, and it could have been omitted without any disruption to the rest of the story. My irritation with Rupa in this film was inversely proportional to the amount of clothes she was wearing. In the opening sequence while she was teasing Arjun wearing skimpy clothes she was incredibly annoying and I really hated the first song with her. Later on, when she was more modestly dressed in a sari I was better able to ignore her and her presence wasn’t quite as grating.

While the main story of Meenakshi’s marriage and murderous in-laws was engaging and the action thrilling, there was a little too much fluff in the rest of the story for me to become totally engaged with the other characters. A winner in terms of Mahesh’s performance and worth seeing how Gunasekhar proves Arjun can walk on water. 3 ½ stars.

Maro Charithra (1978)

This classic film can be briefly described as bi-lingual Romeo and Juliet set on the beaches of Vizag. From the engaging lead pair of Kamal Haasan and Saritha, the strong supporting actors, to the bold black and white cinematography, catchy soundtrack and fab 70s fashions, this K Balachander film is stunning.  But be warned – Romeo and Juliet never lived happily ever after and this film stays true to its inspiration.

I haven’t identified all the actors in the cast as the information isn’t on my DVD and online sources don’t seem to match actor with character so please let me know who I’ve missed out.

Kamal Haasan is Balu, a Tamil Brahmin lad who moves in next door to Telugu speaking Swapna played by the lovely Saritha.

They feel an instant attraction, but cannot communicate easily through speech so improvise a language of percussion, mime, light switch flicking and of course dance! I don’t know whether I was happy or disheartened to see the one and only Learn Telugu in 30 Days text book. Surely things have changed since 1977? If not in romance, then at least in school books?

Saritha is beautiful, headstrong and a minx. I’m glad this was filmed in B&W as I suspect what looks striking in monochrome might have been horrifying in colour! Swapna is a modern girl, quick to deal with unwanted attention from the creep in the bookshop and proud of her academic achievements. She and her father read (badly subtitled) Shakespeare to each other; indeed, Romeo and Juliet are mentioned. Saritha has an earthy physicality and she lights up when Swapna is happily in love. Her character keeps unfolding which is impressive in a fairly simple story.

Kamal Haasan is his usual cocky self and at times bears a distracting resemblance to Siddharth. Balu is a self centred layabout, happily sponging off his family and using his charm to keep his mother on his side. His high waisted flares are enough of a disincentive for me, not to mention the shorts, but Swapna is made of sterner stuff. Balu’s reactions are always hasty, and usually about him and what he wants.

Once his temper cools he is quite rational, but he never seems to learn this about himself and so his character development is not particularly strong. He totally loses himself in the classical dance sequences which reflect the inner turmoil of his character, and they are beautiful to watch as well as adding some emotional depth to Balu.

Nothing can remain secret for long, and Balu and Swapna don’t try very hard to be discreet, as the rocks and trees covered in their graffiti shows. She is pursued by the sleazy bookshop guy who happens to have a penchant for secret photography. He shows some very candid photos to Swapna’s parents with predictable results. As befits Romeo and Juliet, their families disapprove and seek to pressure the youngsters into marrying within their caste. The young lovers undertake to separate for a year to prove that they aren’t just infatuated. Once they are forced apart, the film becomes a lot more interesting as the story expands beyond the fresh faced puppy love and the supporting characters show some surprising qualities.

Swapna alternates between plaintive and defiant but never loses her resolve. Her behaviour at times frightens her parents who can’t understand her obsession let alone her bizarre actions. She drinks the ashes of a photo of Balu mixed in her coffee, she scrawls his name thousands of times on the walls. Her parents try to entice her away from Balu by dragging rich cousin Pattabhi into the household, but she plays him for a sucker and never wavers.

Balu is sent to Hyderabad to work for Hari Babu. Hari Babu takes Balu to a party at Reddy’s, a dissolute character with a band of freeloading friends which includes Balu’s neighbour in the lodging house, Papa. Her first scene includes a fairly detailed conversation about the effects of caffeine on the digestive tract and a flash of belly so it’s obvious from the get go she isn’t a shy girl. She wears trousers, goes to Reddy’s boozy parties and smokes. Papa pursues Balu and falls in love with him. When she realises that he is lost to her, she initially begs for him to sleep with her just once and after being rejected again, schemes for revenge. Considering all this, her character is surprisingly sympathetic and is even admired (with reservations) by her drinking buddies.

Also in the background of Reddy’s set is his sister Sandhya (Madhavi). A widow and an accomplished dancer, not quite a Mrs Robinson figure, she is a sympathetic presence for Balu. She helps him learn proper Telugu and to channel his energy, hormones and emotions into some beautiful dance sequences. She is drawn to his sadness and passion, and their common interests make a closer relationship seem inevitable.

After a misunderstanding over Swapna’s relationship with Pattabhi, Balu turns to Sandhya. Their affair is shown as a very matter of fact thing – they weren’t a couple and now they are, and a wedding is on the cards. No one seems terribly shocked by this relationship, except Papa who wants Balu for herself. Sandhya is shown as a resourceful woman who got on with life after her husband died, and isn’t needy or pathetic.

Sandhya discovers Balu’s unsent letters to Swapna, and takes herself to Vizag. She sees immediately that Swapna had never betrayed Balu and was waiting for him to return.  Instead of just  going home and getting on with her own wedding, she reassures Swapna that Balu has been faithful and will come back to her.  Sandhya’s anger in the scene where she sends Balu away with a flea in his ear and a ticket for the train is so moving. I felt that she identified with the girl who was going to lose her love, and partly hated Balu for cheating her on an emotional level. Contrast that with Balu’s immediate descent into self pity and woe, and I really had to cheer for the strong female characters that dominate the action.

Papa, Sandhya and Pattabhi are all swept aside by Balu and Swapna’s True Love. It’s a raw deal for Sandhya who seems a decent person, and sure to make her life that bit more difficult in the aftermath. There is a level of arrogance to the argument that love means never having to deal with the consequences for anyone other than your soulmate.

After giving signs of a happy future finally, the universe then aligns every possible obstacle and circumstance to prevent the marriage. As expected in a Romeo and Juliet inspired tale, the lovers come to a brutal, senseless, tragic end. The sleazy bookshop guy seizes his chance, and Swapna is brutalised in a sickening yet brilliantly edited sequence at the same time that Balu is attacked by paid rowdies. I really was on the edge of my seat through the final twenty minutes or so, hoping that the youngsters might make it even while knowing that a happy ending was never on the cards.

The film opens with disembodied voices talking over scenes of the places Balu and Swapna spent time together, almost like ghosts who couldn’t let go of their lives. It’s a scene that haunted me after the end titles had run. I have to give this 4 and 1/2 stars – for the stunning visuals, the charismatic lovers and the sheer skill of a film maker who could keep me watching even when I knew I didn’t want to.

Here’s a bonus clip for you – The dancing starts about 1 minute in: