118

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K.V. Guhan moves from DOP to director in this paranormal thriller starring Kalyan Ram and Nivetha Thomas. It’s fast-paced, to the extent that at times plot points feel rushed as K.V. Guhan packs a lot of story into the 2 hour runtime. This dilutes some of the tension, as do some rather gaping plot holes, but for the most part 118 is an entertaining and even occasionally surprising tale.

The film opens with the graphic and violent beating of a woman which is quickly revealed to be a dream so shocking that it wakes up investigative reporter Guatham (Kalyan Ram). The time on the clock is 1.18am so Gautham wipes his fevered brow and goes back to sleep before heading out the next morning on a jeep safari. He doesn’t appear to think any more about the dream, until 6 months later when he has exactly the same dream again, waking at the same time in the same room at the same resort. The room is #118, the time is again 1.18am and this time Gautham takes it as ‘a sign’. It’s never explicitly mentioned that this seems to be some sort of ghostly visitation – not even when Gautham tracks down other guests who stayed in the same room, but the implication is that this is an imprint of a horrible event rather than a foretelling of one that’s yet to come.

Gautham has a helpful police officer friend, courtesy of a big political money laundering scam he helped to bust previously. This lets him track phone calls and find out confidential information that he would never manage to elicit by himself. A missing girl in the same location eventually gives him the information to identify the woman in his dream as Aadya (Nivetha Thomas) and aided by his fiancée Medha (Shalini Pandey) and friend (Prabhas Sreenu) he starts to investigate what happened in room 118.

One of the problems I have with the film is that everything happens a little too easily for Gautham. As an investigative reporter, stories just seem to fall into his lap, and there are a few too many coincidences during his inquiries that lead him to various clues. He finds the site where in his dream he saw Aadya’s car being pushed off a cliff rather too conveniently, and then, without even stopping to consider the consequences, he jumps into the water to see if there is indeed a car at the bottom. And even though the police are aware of the missing persons cases, they don’t seem to be investigating at all, giving Gautham free rein to trample all over potential evidence and alert possible suspects at every turn. The villains too are rather clichéd, resorting to the usual threats, ineffective ambushes and intimidation by road rage. Their grand plan is also nonsensical and would never have had any chance of succeeding but then to be fair that does apply to most filmi villains.

There is also some very shonky pseudo-science as Gautham consults a ‘dream-doctor’ (Nasser) who helps him experience what he calls ‘lucid dreaming’ (which is an actual phenomenon, although not quite as described here) to help get to the bottom of his dream. This involves wires attached to his head (of course) and pretty pictures of neurones firing but is really just a way for Gautham to quickly find the answer without going through some more rigorous investigative processes. Nonetheless, it’s a novel approach and works reasonably well given the paranormal theme of the film.

Kalyan Ram is good as the man trying to get to the bottom of a nightmare and at least his job gives him most of the skills he needs to be able to track down clues. However, the speed at which he discovers key points doesn’t leave much room for character development since the film moves quickly from one action scene to the next. He manages to get across the idea that Gautham is a man dedicated to discovering the truth and does a good job with displaying various emotions as the details of the case some to light. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Kalyan Ram in a lead role before, and he carries the movie easily with good screen presence and enough charisma to make Gautham a likeable hero.

Although she doesn’t have much screentime, Nivetha Thomas is excellent in a flash-back sequence that explains exactly what Aadya was doing and how she ended up in room 118. She has the best developed role since she gets some back story, plus she has morals and principles which are a sure sign she is going to suffer for them. She’s an accomplished actor and has a serene presence that helps to explain why Gautham is so passionate about finding out what actually happened to Aadya. I really liked her in Chaappa Kurish and she’s even better here where she gets to take on a meatier role.

Prabhas Sreenu is fairly subdued in his role as Gautham’s friend who’s always that step of two behind, but he fits well into the role and provides a good sounding board as required. However, I couldn’t see the point of the romantic track with Shalini Pandey or why it was necessary to add some scenes with Gautham’s mother (Geetha Bhascker) since neither contributed anything to the story. Both are absolutely fine in their small roles, but they had little to do and even less relevance to the story.

While there are some issues with the film, the overall story and the performances of Kalyan Ram and Nivetha Thomas make this worth a watch in the cinema. The story moves along quickly and although there are some clichéd ideas, the investigation itself is different enough to be interesting. I enjoyed watching this, and did even jump once or twice although I did also laugh a few times at some of the more ridiculous notions. The film is well made, it generally looks slick and polished and Shekar Chandra’s soundtrack is better than average although this is mainly background music as there is only one song. At only 2 hours this one feels short and snappy too. One to watch for Nivetha Thomas , Kalyan Ram and the novel puzzle he has to solve.

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Arjun Reddy

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Sandeep Vanga’s début film is epic. I don’t mean epic in the sense of Sanjay Leela Bhansali style staging (although at points it is), but rather epic in terms of story and exceptional attention to detail. It’s an all-encompassing tale of one man’s journey through love and loss, through addiction, pain and despair but still managing to survive with the support of his friends. The attention to detail in the story is exquisite and Vijay Deverakonda is outstanding as the titular character who is essentially a modern-day Devdas. But this story is so much more complicated than Devdas. It’s almost a documentary where every small facet of Arjun’s life is laid bare for the audience to pick over and examine in detail. So, we see Arjun’s family, his girlfriend and her family, college friends and enemies, work colleagues, even friends’ families who all have a role to play in the story. It’s also epic in terms of the love story where the passion is so large and so over-whelming that it bursts from the screen in waves of emotion that almost drown out everything else; where nothing else matters to Arjun and Preeti except each other and the scale of their love. This is selfishness and single-mindedness taken to the extreme and yet Sandeep Vanga somehow makes it seem plausible. And finally, it’s epic in terms of Arjun’s descent into alcoholism and drug abuse to the point where I was amazed he was still alive after his binges, let alone coherent. It’s also a little over 3 hours long – epic indeed!

Arjun (Vijay Deverakonda) is a Masters student at medical college when he first sees Preeti (Shalini Pandey), one of the new intake of first year students. He desires her as soon as he sets eyes on her and as college topper and all-round hero of the college he quickly marks her as his ‘property’. Strangely Preeti doesn’t seem too upset by Arjun taking over her life, but acquiesces to all of his demands, even when he tells her who to befriend, and she falls quickly fall into love and into Arjun’s bed without any objections. But then Arjun is popular and smart, so perhaps her instant attraction is understandable. He’s also brash and over-confident with anger management issues. He picks a fight at a football match and refuses to apologise afterwards because the fight was pretty much the whole point of the event for Arjun. Once Arjun falls for Preeti, he is completely obsessed by her and every single insult is of monumental importance, requiring instant satisfaction for which he is willing to beat the entire world to death if necessary.

It’s interesting that Preeti doesn’t have a voice until well into the narrative. Perhaps her reticence is because she’s simply over-whelmed by the attentions of the most popular guy in the college. There is the usual stalking = love trope as Arjun basically bullies Preeti into being his girlfriend, but somehow it seems possible given that Arjun is a free spirit and the normal rules don’t seem to apply. However, once Preeti falls in love, she’s just as obsessed as Arjun, to the point of following him up north when he moves away to finish his surgical residency. The love story is intense and physical with both Arjun and Preeti as single-minded as each other, and both utterly dependent on the other for their happiness.

Of course this is a story of loss and when Preeti’s family reject Arjun and marry her off to someone from their own caste, Arjun immediately sinks into despair. He quickly becomes an alcoholic and drug addict, although still manages to work as a surgeon with a devoted team of nurses who hide his drinking from management. His obsession with Preeti leads to an estrangement from his own father (Sanjay Swaroop) and the emotion in these scenes is raw and very believable. My favourite line in the entire film is when Arjun’s grandmother (Kanchana) is talking to Arjun’s brother Gautham (Kamal Kamaraju) and sums my own thoughts up beautifully by saying: ‘he wants to suffer – then let him!’

The story works because although Arjun lives life right on the very edge, his bad decisions are believable and mixed up with actions which so often are right. He’s a capable surgeon who really cares about his patients, and who all love him as a result. Ditto the other staff at the hospital who adore him. He is rather less considerate of his friends and continually abuses Shiva (an absolutely brilliant Rahul Ramakrishna) for having no ambition, even when Shiva is constantly rescuing Arjun from the consequences of his own excesses. No matter what his friends try, Arjun remains fixated on Preeti and addicted to alcohol or any other chemical that can blot out his misery for a few hours.

Sandeep Vanga conveys the fundamental selfishness of love in his story, and in his focus on Arjun succeeds in painting a realistically raw picture of despair and a broken heart. With all his flaws, Arjun is still a sympathetic character and the sheer depth of the emotion portrayed here drives a visceral response to many of the scenes in the film. Vijay Deverakonda really is incredible as Arjun and it’s a testament to the excellence of his acting skills that the character remains sympathetic despite Arjun’s many shortcomings. He ensures Arjun’s obsessive nature is sharply revealed in the early scenes and the swings between lover and addict, anger and happiness, hope and despair are amazingly powerful. This really is excellent work from Vijay and it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Also very impressive is Rahul Ramakrishna who strikes exactly the right balance as Arjun’s long-suffering friend Shiva, and his mixture of humour and concern feels true to life. His character is also very relatable, made even more so by the clever scenes with his own father that are so different to Arjun’s posturing, making Shiva my favourite character in the film. His dialogue too is clever with some great self-deprecation, but Rahul also manages to convey his hurt at Arjun’s remarks, despite knowing it’s the alcohol and drugs talking. The other friends, Kamal (Kalyan Subrahmanyam), Keerthi (Anisha Alla) and Vidya (Aditi Myakal) are also very good, as are the rest of the support cast. Radhan provides the music which suits the film well and the songs are used as backdrop while moving the story forward. No big song and dance numbers, but this is not that sort of film.

Even with the over-blown nature of Arjun’s romance and subsequent melt-down, the story feels realistic and plausible, mainly due to the excellent characterisations and honest dialogue. Arjun’s addiction is particularly well done and is an surprisingly  accurate description with his downwards spiral into self-absorption, mania, paranoia and continual pattern of pushing people away despite their attempts to help. This is good storytelling and I really hope the Telugu film industry can start to move away from current clichéd and formulaic screenplays into similarly more open and realistic films. It’s been a trend in the rest of the South for the last few years and it finally seems to be reaching Hyderabad. While Arjun Reddy may not be a film for everybody, it is an excellent watch and I enjoyed every minute – even if it’s not always a comfortable film to view. Highly recommended.