Mersal (2017)

Mersal

After drought ravaged farmers in Kaththi and violence against women in Theri, Vijay latest crusade is against corrupt medical practitioners in Atlee’s Mersal. There are few surprises in the storyline which follows a standard revenge formula, but the approach is stylish and the addition of a magician does ensure a few unexpected tricks. Vijay takes on a triple role that puts him front and centre for most of the film, which is just as well since it’s mainly his charisma that lifts Mersal above its well-worn story. But there are also energetic dance numbers, excellent special effects and a credible and suitably nasty villain making Mersal a major improvement on Vijay’s last film and worth catching on the big screen if you can.

Vijay plays a triple role – two brothers (one who is unaware of the other’s existence), and then their father in an extended flashback sequence. The story jumps around a lot as well as moving in and out of flashback so it’s deliberately not always clear which character we are watching at any given time. The film starts with the abductions of 4 men, all connected in some way to the same hospital, although it’s takes a while before we find out who they are and why they have been abducted. The police receive an anonymous tip off which leads them to arrest local hero and all round good guy Dr Marran (Vijay) who is known as the ₹5 doctor due to the fees he charges his patients. His arrest almost sparks a mini riot but once Police Officer Rathnavel (Sathyaraj) begins his interview (which for no good reason is conducted in a derelict building on a construction site) the story of the two brothers starts to unfold.

The other brother, Vetri (Vijay), is a magician and uses his powers to take revenge on the men he feels were responsible for his father’s death. It’s never clear how the brothers ended up separated or why Marran is brought up by his foster mother Sarala (Kovai Sarala) in ignorance of Vetri’s existence, but then Atlee seems to prefer focusing on the result rather than bothering with such basic explanations. Vetri is ably assisted in his magic and in his revenge by Vadivu (Vadivelu) who also moonlights as Maaran’s helper. This means Vetri knows exactly where Marran is and can use that information to his own advantage. While in Paris (really Poland, but close enough), Vetri meets Anu Pallavi (Kajal Aggarwal) who is acting as a general gofer for the rather greedy and lecherous Dr Arjun Zachariah (Hareesh Peradi). Dr Zachariah is the polar opposite of Maaran, believing that good medicine is commercial medicine and the only reason to be a doctor is to turn a huge profit and benefit from the misery of disease. Maraan on the other hand is a proponent of universal free health care as a basic human right, although he doesn’t seem to have really thought through exactly how this style of medical care will be funded if his dream is to become a reality.

While Vetri dances his way into Dr Anu’s heart in Paris, Maaran meets journalist Tara (Samantha) during an interview on a TV talk show. Love blossoms through another song but Maaran’s TV appearance has brought him to the attention of Dr Daniel Arockiyaraj (S.J. Surya) who recognises Maaran as being the spitting image of his father. Daniel and Vetrimaaran (Vijay) had an acrimonious history and Daniel immediately sets out to find and destroy the son of his enemy.

The best part of the film is the extended flashback after the interval which focuses on the reasons behind Vetri’s revenge and Daniel’s antipathy. S.J. Surya revels in his role as a conniving and deceitful doctor in wide collared shirts and spectacular flares but Vijay steals the show here with his performance as a villager with a big heart and even bigger muscles.  Nithya Menen is also superb as Vetrimaaran’s wife Aishwarya (aka Ice), although she does have the best of the three female roles. Her Ice is passionate and inspiring in her devotion to the idea of readily available health care in their village, and she gets the chance to really bring out the emotions of her character well. She also has excellent chemistry with Vijay and this is the relationship that works the best out of the three, although to be fair both Samantha and Kajal get little screen time with the hero and little chance to develop their respective relationships.

There are a few oddities in this part of the film though. There is a sudden jump between Ice’s admission into the hospital and her final fate without much explanation of what goes wrong. Also, a potential fight between Vetrimaaran and Daniel’s henchmen is over before it begins with the gang all lying on the ground bleeding and moaning seconds after they approach Vetrimaaran. I’m not sure if these cuts are an Australian specific issue since I haven’t seen any mention of them in any other reviews, but it does seem odd and makes these final flashback scenes seem rushed and a little confusing.

Although the main focus of the film is Vijay, the rest of the support cast are all good, including Rajendran as an unlikely Health minister and Kaali Venkat as an auto driver whose daughter died due to corruption in the health service. The music from A.R. Rahman doesn’t stand out as anything special, but it does fit into the screenplay well while Atlee places the songs wisely throughout. G.K. Vishnu works wonders with the cinematography and the effects are magical despite the sometimes cheesy nature of the tricks. Watch out for a scene where Vijay fights with a deck of cards – the fusion of the magic storyline into a standard masala tale is a better fit than I expected. Of course the real magic here is that Vijay seems to be growing younger with each new film and he’s just as energetic as ever too.

However Mersal is more than just a revenge drama and there is a definite political slant to the story. To start with, medical negligence and corruption is an emotive topic, that has been much in the news recently with a series of high profile deaths in the Indian medical system. Vetri makes a rather political statement towards the end of the film as he speaks to the crowd outside the courtroom and asking why India can’t fund heathcare as well as Singapore when the Indian government collects a much larger amount of GST. This is much more direct than Vijay’s message about suicidal farmers in Kaththi and does come across as a warning to the current government that they are being judged as lacking leadership in this issue. Vijay underscores the political theme with several nods to MGR, including a scene where Vetrimaaran walks in to a cinema to accuse village officials of corruption just as MGR strides onto the screen in the background. Is this the next stage in Vijay’s political campaign or is he just making the best use of his star power and philanthropic tendencies? Only time will tell, but in Mersal, Atlee has combined politics and entertainment without diluting the message or preaching to his audience- something a lot of Holywood films could do well to emulate.

 

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion

Baahubali-2-Poster

In the lead up to possibly the biggest Telugu film release this year, the question I wanted to know wasn’t so much, ‘why did Kattappa kill Baahubali?’, but rather, was Baahubali 2 going to be worth the wait? And the answer has to be a resounding yes! Rajamouli breathes new life into the traditional story of sibling rivalry and dynastic disputes, ensuring that The Conclusion is every bit as exciting as The Beginning. There is the same epic scale, fantastical scenery and gravity-defying action sequences plus plenty of Prabhas and Rana in fine flexing form. Best of all, this time round Anushka gets to prove that’s she’s just as much of a warrior as the guys and she completely kicks butt as the beautiful princess Devasena.

Rajamouli’s commitment to blood and gore starts right from the opening credits where a number of key events from the first film are loving re-created as CGI ceramic statues – including a torso and detached head with spiralling blood. You just know it’s going to be spectacular when even the opening credits have such exquisite attention to detail – and it just keeps on getting better.

Logically, the film begins where we ended last time, with Kattappa (Sathyaraj) relating the story of his father to Mahendra Baahubali (Prabhas). Straight away we’re swept back into the flashback and the conundrum of who will rule Mahishmati – Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) or Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati)? Although at the end of Part 1 Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan) declared that Amarendra would be King, Bhallala is still plotting and scheming along with his father Bijjaladeva (Nasser) ensuring that the path to the throne is likely to be littered with dead bodies. Once Amarendra leaves for a whistle-stop tour of the kingdom before his coronation, the way is clear for Bhallala to plan his brother’s downfall and even if the story is relatively predictable, it’s how we get to that final betrayal that really matters.

On his tour, Amarendra travels through the vassal kingdom of Kuntala where he meets Devasena for the first time and falls in love. The romance is beautifully developed, from the moment when Amarendra sees Devasena wielding a sword and is completely smitten, to a sequence where, in the middle of a battle, he teaches her how to fire multiple arrows at the same time. It all unfolds very naturally with little of the sexism of the previous film – this is a more equal partnership and both treat it as such right from the beginning. Anushka is completely mesmerising as Devasena and has as much arrogance and belief in her own self-worth as Sivagami, ensuring that the two have some powerful clashes that almost outdo the fights on the battlefield. Here is all the back story we wanted that explains how Devasena could survive for those 25 years chained in front of the palace with her all-consuming desire for revenge. My favourite part is Devasena’s reaction to Bhallala’s sleazy commander-in-chief when he harasses the women at a temple. She believes in swift and pertinent justice, which got a huge cheer from the cinema and totally won me over to her side for the rest of the film.

Ramya Krishnan is wonderfully regal as Sivagami, ruling in declarative sentences and still disinclined to believe that her son could possibly be evil. Rajamouli gives Sivagami the chance to show a little maternal guilt over her clear preference for her nephew over her own child, making her seem just a little more human. Later, she has doubts and struggles to reconcile her perception of Amarendra as the ‘perfect prince’ with his combative stance when he dares to question her decisions about Devasena. Some of her choices seemed a little unlikely when compared to the wily and competent ruler from Part 1, but factoring in her determination to uphold the law and the universal truth that a mother tends to believe her child, her decisions are within the realm of possibility at least.

Another big plus is CinemaChaat favourite Subbaraju as Kumara Varma, Devasena’s cousin. Although his character is initially played for laughs, there is a serious side too, as despite not being a fighter or showing any signs of a courageous heart, under Amarendra’s influence he finds the strength to fight back when necessary. In Rajamouli’s world, heroism is infectious and it’s not just the god-like heroes with super-human endurance who can make a difference, ordinary people can stand up and fight too. The theme continues when the film moves back to the present day, although not so well-defined, but it’s good to see a move away from a completely hero-centric storyline and more substantiative support characters.

I adore Prabhas and he is completely amazing in both roles here. As Amarendra he is fierce and combative, but also shows off his comedic skills along with a more romantic side to his character when he meets Devasena. The fight scenes are superb and I like that Amarendra has a handy, portable, travelling axe that is more effective than expected – it’s also a nice contrast to Bhallala Deva’s more ostentatious lawnmower of death and massive telescopic mace. Amarendra also shows commitment to science and engineering, taking the first steps to introduce Mahishmati to an industrial age with various contraptions he builds. Some of these are more practical than others, but obviously the skill is genetic since his son comes up with some similarly inventive ideas when faced with the challenge of attacking the city walls back in the present day. There is plenty of shirtless flexing too, although Prabhas mostly keeps his chest under wraps until later in the second half when he has to compete with Rana!

Of course, the strength of any hero is only as good as the villain he faces and Rana is excellent as the devious and amoral Bhallala. This time he is more obviously evil and deliberately choses the nastiest method he can to undermine Amarendra’s reputation with his mother. He’s also still a magnificent warrior, and the final battle scene with Mahendra in the present day is powerful and compelling as the two slug it out in front of the massive golden statue.

The final conclusion in the present day is fairly short and seems somewhat rushed with little dialogue or preparation before Baahubali heads off to tackle Bhallala. Disappointingly, Avanthika (Tamannaah) only has a very brief appearance during the final battle and no significant interaction with Baahubali at all. I like the symmetry between the start and the end of the film with Devasena’s fire-walk for justice, but I would have preferred a little less flashback and more of Baahubali’s reaction to his origins before the final battle. That battle is awesome, but also seems to finish rather abruptly, so I’m hoping (probably in vain) that we might perhaps get a Baahubali 3 that does delve into the relationships of the present day a little more.

I enjoyed M.M Keervani’s music, although I was too caught up in the visuals and catching the subtitles to really appreciate the full scope. However Hamsa Naava and Dandaalayyaa are both beautiful on the big screen and I loved the martial theme of Saahore Baahubali.

The visuals are stunning and although the CGI isn’t as slick as a HW production, it still looks amazing due to the sheer scale of the images. Although there may not be a waterfall this time, instead there is a beautiful palace in Kuntala, a stunning boat that turns into a flying swan surrounded by cloud horses and a totally epic coronation where a cast of thousands almost bring down the palace with their enthusiasm for Baahubali. The action too is on a grandiose scale. Aside from the titanic battles, Amarendra Baahubali surfs on the back of cows with flaming horns, rides on an elephant and fights almost without even looking at his opponents. It’s truly epic, particularly when combined  with the uplifting themes that justice will prevail and real courage comes from those who believe in truth. With amazing ability to draw you so completely into his world, Rajamouli delivers another enthralling story that needs to be seen on the big screen to fully appreciate his vision. Don’t miss it!

Temple says:

Well, now we know where all those engineering grads with filmi connections end up…They built the kingdom and weaponry of Baahubali 2!

The thing I have long admired about Rajamouli is that even when I know what is going to happen, he crafts the drama and visuals so beautifully that I still care enough to be on the edge of my seat. It was a big ask to follow up the cliffhanger of the first film and not lose the dramatic propulsion to the finale and largely, he nailed it. There are some draggy bits but they weren’t actually dull so I didn’t mind having a bit of leisure to admire the design and occasional flourishes of whimsy. Finally, a director who gets how and when to use a swan boat (even if it looks like a top heavy chicken), and what a fantasy sequence can look like when you don’t try and make it all from painted polystyrene! I do wish they’d done something about Nasser’s rubber chicken claw hand though.

Prabhas is a delight, giving his characters both gentle goodness and a steely core, with the bonus of excellent nonchalant posing. Rana makes Bhalla a despicable and venomous man, but not completely incomprehensible in his motivation. I liked their dynamic together, and they just go all in on the fight scenes. Anushka is one of my favourites and I was so excited to see her character given some depth and competency, as well as all the usual accoutrements of a kickarse heroine. I think Prabhas can evince chemistry with anything or anyone, but Anushka gave Devasena such a liveliness that their scenes crackled with life. I actually didn’t mind that Tamannaah only appeared to kill a few baddies at the end. Based on the first film, she just didn’t stand up to Anushka or Ramya Krishnan and Avantika wasn’t integral to this part of the epic. I was glad she reappeared as a warrior though, not simpering in a sari. Subbaraju did a bit of simpering and flouncing so I guess he made up for that, with his OTT posturing settling into a more genuine will to do the right thing. And what is not to admire about Ramya Krishnan, who has been a charismatic and slightly terrifying presence in films for so long. She is amazing and Sivagami is a great fit for her.

Despite all the Ye Olden trappings, this is a pure masala film. The classic themes of family, orphans, loss, justice being separate from law, duty, and insta-love are all there. Rajamouli knows these conventions and tropes and he is so deft at throwing them into new and glittering configurations. He coaxed some truly epic characterisations out of his modern day urban kid actors, and allowed some of the old hands to shine. Yes there is some dodgy CGI and yes some actors are less impressive than others but it just works. Trust me.

Don’t nit pick. See it on the biggest screen you can. Enjoy!

Brahmotsavam (2016)

Brahmotsavam

Srikanth Addala’s Brahmotsavam is a real mishmash of a film, where random family scene follows random family scene with the emphasis on feel-good values and upbeat emotions rather than anything inconvenient like a storyline. This is one film where the subtitles didn’t seem to help at all and much of the dialogue made absolutely no sense, but a few other audience members explained that not only were the subtitles inaccurate, but that the script was fairly random too and they were just as confused. It doesn’t help that most of the characters don’t have actual names but are called brother, brother-in-law or sister-in-law (and there are a lot of them), making Brahmotsavam less of a celebration and more of a memory test. Mahesh is always watchable and the strong cast are all charismatic, but with nothing much actually happening over more than two and a half hours, Brahmotsavam is sadly uninspiring.

The film starts with a family celebration, which I think was a wedding but could have been almost anything – maybe just breakfast – given the families propensity for breaking into song and dance at any moment.  Whatever the occasion, Sathyaraj likes to ensure that the whole family celebrate it together – that’s all his brothers, their wives, children and his brother-in-law Rao Ramesh. Everyone is sickeningly happy all the time except for Rao Ramesh who suffers from intense (but understandable) familiyitis and resents Sathyaraj’s success with the paint factory he runs. Naturally everyone in the family works at the paint factory when they’re not singing and dancing around the family home, and they’re all deliriously happy to be working there too. It’s actually a little odd to see Mahesh in such ultra-happy family mode for most of the film, but when he sheds the happy and has to show a range of emotions he really is excellent. More of this would have made for a better and more enjoyable film.

Just to add to his individuality a small animated figure appears to speak to Rao Ramesh any time he is particularly exasperated with his brother-in-law. Since most of the time this imaginary figure berates him for his lack of appreciation for Sathyaraj and the family gatherings this has the effect of making Rao Ramesh even more miserable and less willing to participate. After the first 15minutes I was totally on Rao Ramesh’s side and could completely understand how the continual en masse family gatherings could very easily make anyone want to run screaming for the hills as fast as possible. Rao Ramesh is much more tolerant however and manages to last almost until the second half before he snaps and leaves the family group.

As part of the celebrations, Kajal arrives from Australia for a few months and her father decides it would an excellent idea if she stayed with Sathyaraj and his family rather than spend the time with her own relatives. She’s gorgeous and confident, and Mahesh is smitten the moment he sets eyes on her. However, since she lives in Australia where the accepted practice if you like someone is to tell them you’re interested, Kajal is rather taken aback by someone staring relentlessly at her at every available opportunity without speaking. Living in the same house makes it ridiculously easy for Mahesh to stalk Kajal without appearing to do so but after a few uncomfortable moments Kajal seems intrigued by her silent admirer. The romance progresses as expected but despite Mahesh and Kajal seeming to get on well together, Kajal decides that she wants more from life than to be the wife of a paint manufacturer and decides to move on. She has ambition and is prepared to sacrifice what’s basically a holiday romance for her in order to ensure her dreams come true. I like this assertiveness in her character and Kajal is appropriately confident in the role, while still remaining respectful to the family and her father. It’s a good performance and I like this more mature and sensible Kajal.

Luckily for Mahesh, Samantha turns up in slightly manic friendly overdrive mode and the pair set off pair set off around India in the search for Mahesh’s roots. One of the first family members he meets is the hapless Vennela Kishore and the couple decide to drag him along with them on their road trip. It seems strangely unnecessary but at least Vennela Kishore and Samantha speak to each other which does help to make sense of the second half. Samantha is just a little too zany to be convincing but her energy does help lift the second half. The problem here is a lack of definition for her role and a fluffy backstory that does little to establish her character.

The biggest issue with Brahmotsavam is the addition of too many random scenes which are only peripherally connected to the main ‘plot’ (such as it is) and don’t serve any purpose. For example, at one point Mahesh and his parents are talking by video connection to his sister in the UK. His mum is showing off various sarees while Mahesh teases his sister and the talk finally comes round to how much they miss her and wish she was there. Big family moment – lots of tears, virtual hugs and emotion. And then that’s it – she’s never mentioned again. So much of the film starts with an apparent purpose and then fizzles out without ever going anywhere, making it difficult to work out what (if anything) is relevant.

The first half is also very song heavy with most of the songs coming one after another with little reprieve, including one where Mahesh and his backing dancers frantically try to get insects out of their clothes. That is definitely one of the high points and got the most cheers from the fans in the audience, but possibly not for the choreography. The second half settles down to a standard road trip and there are fewer songs which makes this part of the film flow more smoothly. It’s still a series of random encounters, but at least that does fit in more with the idea of a journey to find yourself while Samantha keeps everything moving along nicely.

There are a few positives to the film. The songs by Mickey J Meyer are good if oddly placed, and Gopi Sundar’s background music is generally effective and not too intrusive. The film looks beautiful and R Rathnavelu’s cinematography captures the warmth of the family home and the stunning landscapes as Mahesh and Samantha travel around India. All the main leads are fine, if somewhat incomprehensible for much of the film, and Mahesh certainly delivers in terms of emotion but the star of the show is undoubtedly Rao Ramesh with his grumpy and often bewildered demeanour. However, the lack of a comprehensible storyline and the random pointlessness of many scenes means that Brahmotsavam is probably best enjoyed on DVD where it’s possible to skip the vague dialogue, watch the songs and admire the beautiful scenery without worrying about the deficiencies in the story.