Engeyum Eppothum

Engeyum Eppothum

Engeyum Eppothum starts with a fairly gruesome bus crash, so it’s clear straight away that there isn’t going to be a happy ending – particularly since the rest of the film is a flashback of events leading up to the fatal accident.  However the journey to get there is just as important, and on the way to the death and mayhem there are a couple of enjoyable love stories that make you wish that there was actually going to be a happy ending.  One of the stories is set in Trichy, and it always makes me happy to see the city on screen, especially when they seem to have filmed in a number of places I recognise.  It’s the same with the bus station in Chennai, which also looks very familiar, and the whole film brings back memories of travelling by bus in India – although thankfully without the horror ending. One of the buses is a private bus running from Chennai to Trichy, while the other is a government bus travelling in the other direction, and the four main leads are passengers on one or other of the two.  Flashbacks introduce the four and tell their story in the lead up to the accident.

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Amudha (Ananya) arrives in Chennai for a job interview, but is completely at a loss when her sister fails to pick her up due to a family emergency.  Luckily for her though, Gautham (Sharwanand) just happens to be dropping a friend at the bus station and Amudha manages to persuade him to show her to the bus stop.  She’s so totally lost in the city that despite her suspicions of him, Gautham ends up spending the whole day taking her to her interview, waiting for her and then taking her to her sister’s house.

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Ananya plays the mistrustful girl from the country flawlessly here which is mainly why this love story feels so real.  Her mannerisms, and the way she relies on her sister’s instructions rather than believe Gautham when he tells her it is time to get off the bus are perfect ‘small town girl in the big city’ behaviours which I recognise from my own move from the country.  Her reaction when she sees girls in tight Western clothes is just perfect, as is the way she behaves in a restaurant when Gautham finally manages to persuade her that he is really quite harmless.  Her character is very well written to show the awe and trepidation of being somewhere where everything is unfamiliar, and Ananya does a fantastic job of portraying all that angst along with the wonder and amazement.

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Sharwanand seems very wooden and unemotional in contrast, and while that does work to some extent for his character, there is very little emotion, and nothing to suggest that he would go to Trichy to look for Amudha later.  There really needed to be more open engagement with Amudha and at least some reaction to her character which doesn’t occur until near the end of the film when it is all a bit too late.

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Engeyum EppothumThe second romance is set in Trichy where Kathiresan (Jai) watches Manimegalai (Anjali) every morning as she gets ready for work.  I love that this takes place in the back streets behind the Rock Fort Temple and that they meet in Mukkambu Park (both places that I know very well), which makes their romance seem that little bit more real to me.  Kathiresan has a good job, but is also from the country and is rather shy.  Rather than approach Manimegalai, he is content to watch her from a distance and co-ordinate his shirt colour to whatever she happens to be wearing that day.  This is a little known but obviously effective form of courtship, since Manimegalai does indeed notice his wardrobe choices.

Manimegalai doesn’t have the same reticence problem at all.  She is forthright and downright bossy, forcing Jai to skip work to meet her, sign up for organ donation and confront her previous suitor.  Naturally she’s a nurse.  Their story the best part of the film and Anjali steals the show with admirable support from Jai.  He is perfect as the quiet young man, completely swept away by Manimegalai and totally out of his depth.  And yet he still adores her and that comes across plainly in Jai’s body language and facial expressions.

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It’s a fantastic performance but he is still upstaged by Anjali.  She is superb, from her initial domineering persona to the ruthlessly efficient nurse who manages to keep it all together in the aftermath of the crash.  It gives her final breakdown more impact too, and suddenly Kathiresan’s devotion makes perfect sense.  Throughout the romance both Jai and Anjali have good chemistry together, and as their love story develops their characters also acquire depth and back-story which also makes their relationship more convincing.

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Woven through the film are small vignettes about other passengers on the bus which, while emphasising the point that every stranger has a story to tell, do make the film seem more of a road safety video.  Still, the developing romance between two students and the various other interactions between the passengers help round out the film and make the final scenes more engaging.  The bus crash is unnecessarily graphic with severed limbs and gore in abundance, none of which really adds any more to the story.  The crash alone would have been catastrophic enough and director M. Sarvanan does drive home the road safety message with a very big hammer.

Thankfully, with much of the subject matter being the accident, there are no big song and dance numbers and most of C. Sathya’s music is used to move the story forward with montages of the two couples.  The film title translates to Anytime, Anywhere and seems to relate to both romance and tragedy – you can meet your soul mate where and when you least expect to, and disaster can strike in exactly the same way.  As such, the film plays on the very normality of every scene, any of which could happen to anyone at any moment and the characters are all very normal, everyday people.  It’s a simple story and yet insightful, and one that resonates with anyone who has ever sat on public transport and wondered about the stories of their fellow passengers.  4 stars.

Ko Antey Koti

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The vintage heist genre has been reinvigorated by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Guy Ritchie, Choi Dong-Hoon, Abhinay Dey and Akshat Verma. Anish Kuruvilla adds his own stamp with Ko Antey Koti.

The rules of heist films require that the target must be audacious and the very elaborate plan must rely on split second timing and specialist skills. There will be loads of characters with unique talents and many of them are disposable. There must be at least one despicable villain who must have a grievance with the hero. Subplots abound, as do betrayals.  Add family or romantic tensions, a heap of flashbacks, and you’ve got the basics.

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Sharwanand is one of my least favourite Telugu actors but I will grudgingly admit he is improving a bit. He was terrible in the tedious Gamyam (I refuse to let Heather give me my DVD back), he had moments of adequacy in Prasthanam, and he manages to be convincing as Vamsi most of the time. Vamsi seems to be a criminal through lack of motivation to do anything else rather than any commitment to being an outlaw. Sharwanand is perfectly fine in conversational or romantic scenes. When he has to convey powerful emotions he seems to pause for an instant before deciding what expression to use, and so he seems stilted. Having said that, he has good rapport with Priya Anand and their scenes flow very nicely. He generally plays Vamsi as grumpy and whiny, so his lighter moments with Sathya and the troupe or with Chitti and PC are quite endearing.

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There are few Indian cinema leading ladies that look as though they really could travel by public transport or know their way around a kitchen. Go on. Picture Katrina Kaif catching the 86 tram. Priya Anand has a freshness and natural vivacity that plays to great effect in this role. Sathya is a slightly unusual heroine by Telugu film standards as she has a brain and uses it. She is voluble and a bit too inclined to Do Good through street theatre, but her chatter is often a tactic to bulldoze over any objections.

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People find themselves doing as she asks even though they had no intention of agreeing. I’m not convinced that her dance students would learn much, but the kids seemed to enjoy leaping about with her. Sathya’s determination to lead a socially responsible life makes sense when more of her family story emerges. Her relationship with Vamsi is complicated by a shared connection neither knows of. The past is hard to escape, even when it isn’t your own.

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The late Srihari is the criminal mastermind, Maya. Maya is crude and has no love for anything except money. He uses people to get what he wants and has no compunction about terminating an association. Srihari dominates the confrontational scenes with total ease. This works quite well considering Vamsi and the other sidekicks are supposed to be relatively unthreatening. I questioned why he would hire so many idiots but all became clear. Srihari gives Maya a plausible charm, as long as you don’t look too closely at the calculating eyes. And you forgive the dodgy wig. It’s another in a long line of bellowing patriarchal figures for Srihari but he brings it and Maya is a despicable man.

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The romance between Sathya and Vamsi is developed in ways that are credible yet still entertaining. One of the things I liked most about Kuruvilla’s Avakai Biryani was the way relationships grew and were strengthened through shared small moments, and he is similarly detailed in this story. Even the romantic sideplot with Chitti and a prostitute was funny and a little touching. Sathya helps Vamsi because he needs help, not because she is smitten with insta-love for The Hero. She chooses to be a happy and good-natured girl, and her open heart allows Vamsi the opportunity to see himself as he could be if he made different choices.

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Anish Kuruvilla added some fun flourishes. Sparks literally fly when the couple kiss and no filmi cliché is overlooked as they prance through a gloriously pretty montage. Vamsi acts the part of an actor and proposes on stage, being more honest in his pretence than as himself.

Sex is treated in a non-scurrilous manner. Sathya was actually wearing more fabric when swaddled in her bedsheets than in any of her sarees. I cheer for a heroine who doesn’t have to die immediately after she sleeps with her boyfriend, and it is refreshing to see consensual and mutual attraction between the lead characters.  I also liked that Vamsi acknowledged Sathya’s right to have some input into a critical decision. It wasn’t a grand speech, but a moment that showed their pragmatism and trust in each other.

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Cinematographers Erukulla Rakesh and Naveen Yadav captured the different worlds the characters inhabit. The light is harsher and the shadows deeper in Maya’s criminal milieu, places full of twists and turns, the suggestion of hidden watchers. Vamsi and Sathya fall in love in a much more colourful and soft setting, a rural paradise and open skies that give space for dreams. The final scenes are in an arid landscape as everything is laid bare and no secrets remain. I really liked the styling of the seedy nightclubs, the squalid apartments, the activity humming through the street scenes. There is a strong sense of place and a modern feel to the sharp edits and angles.

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The abundance of incidental characters can mean that characterisations are sketchy. Gluttonous PC (Nishal) and scrawny, one-eyed Chitti (Lakshman) play it as broad as can be. There is no subtlety. Perhaps because of my allergy to Indian film comedy, I was not even slightly sad to see some sidekicks bite the dust early on. If someone minor has a tragic backstory or is the butt of all jokes, do not bet on that character making it to intermission. Corrupt policeman Ranjit Kumar (Vinay Verma) is on the trail of the stolen goods and has his own grudge against Vamsi and Maya. He is a type rather than a realistic or subtle interpretation, but that wasn’t a drawback. The fun of this genre is the guessing and double-guessing rather than delving into a layered psyche.

The songs are used very well and to an extent they amplify characters’ inner lives. I was not overly impressed by the picturesque wandering and montages – I like a big dance number or two. Shakti Kanth has chosen to use different styles of music that match with the action and help build the atmosphere.

It’s refreshing to see a boys own adventure have interesting female characters. There is a little more realism to some of the relationships and there are some gorgeous visuals. The comedy sidekicks are neither funny nor interesting so I tuned out while they were doing their thing. I’m still not convinced by Sharwanand but Priya Anand and Srihari are great. Kuruvilla juggles the elaborate setup and flashbacks in a structured way that feels dynamic but is still logical so I never felt I lost the internal timeline. He’s a realist, especially about traffic and human nature. Well worth a look, especially if you like a more urban gritty thriller. 3 ½ stars!

Leader and Prasthanam

 

Politics, corruption and family dysfunction provide a fertile ground for film-makers and while they are not top of the list for us to view, there have been some interesting films made on these topics. There has been a lot of talk about both Leader and Prasthanam taking an innovative approach to these themes but we found each conventional in both their story and structure. Both make reference to land and mineral rights disputes, but the films aren’t really about the issues as much as they are about relationships and power. Because of the parallels and contrasts we decided to discuss them together. For the sake of simplicity, as well as being in keeping with the films’ focus, we are also concentrating on the main story and will skim over the subplots.

Leader is the debut film for actor Rana Daggubati, and is written and directed by Sekhar Kammula. That’s some seriously good pedigree and the production values reflect this. The story has more in common with Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington than any gritty political thriller but where Jimmy Stewart oozed heart, there is a hard manipulative core to Arjun Prasad (Rana Dagubbati). Arjun has money and is reckoned a man among men (CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Harvard graduate, tall, fine head of hair, looks good with or without a shirt, you know the deal). Despite his aim of rehabilitating the tarnished image of his murdered father through eliminating corruption and caste discrimination, Arjun immediately takes to his father’s methods.

He genuinely seems to believe the ends justify his means. Personal relationships are bought and sold and, while he does care for the people he is using, he will sacrifice anyone for his greater goal. Things come to a head after some emotional incidents, and despite some soul searching Arjun fails to change his strategy and continues to use any means at his disposal.  After a picturesque montage of Rana’s excellent enigmatic walking, he sets forth to rally the masses and triumph over his rivals. Characters appear along Arjun’s journey, some ready to give him wise advice and some there to set obstacles in his path.

But he is a hero in a fable where everything seems to be in shades of grey. The tacit support for bribery and corruption as legitimate techniques is hard to swallow, as well as the disregard for anything that might get in the way of making history take a kindly view of the dead CM. Arjun’s treatment of two women who have feelings for him is cruel, and reminds us that the heart of this story is ice cold.

Rana’s performance was difficult to assess. In some scenes he appeared quite deadpan and almost wooden but we believe that was due to the character keeping his cards close to his chest and not wanting to give any clues to his opponents. He is physically imposing and looked the part of the young man on the up and up. Some highly emotional scenes were underplayed and very moving. In scenes that required him to be lighter, more open, and even flirtatious, he was quite appealing so we think it was a combination of his inexperience and the director’s choices that made some episodes appear a bit awkward.

There is nothing more to say about the plot – it succumbed to all the clichés and ended exactly as you might expect. But it is an interesting attempt to look expectations of justice and idealism, and transpose that into a political fantasy. The supporting cast were uniformly good, particularly Harsha Vardan as the secretary Ali and Richa Gangopadhyay as the love interest Archana. Priya Anand’s character Rathna was really short changed with some silly dialogues and behaviour but she made a strong impression in her time on screen and certainly injected a lot of energy into her scenes.

Prasthanam starts in an independent art house style before the much more conventional end. What begins as a dissection of a bitter dysfunctional family and the play of personal agendas in the public arena devolves into a gore fest with some badly placed songs.  Sharwanand plays Mitra, the ‘good’ son of an assassinated father, who seems to be the anointed one in his family’s dynasty. After his father’s murder, Mitra’s mother is married off to Loknatham (Sai Kumar) her husband’s adopted brother. The family relocates to the city but remain involved in politics and factionalism.

What really brought the story to life was the dazzling performance by Sundeep Kishan as jealous psycho step-brother Chinna – a substance abuser with a violent streak and a penchant for face paint. His character is a human train wreck: monstrous yet compellingly watchable as he ricochets from self pity to rage to scheming.

We differ in our opinion on Sharwanand’s acting but do agree he was one of the weaker elements of the film. The brothers are, on the face of it, totally dissimilar but both are driven by their notion of family and status. As the film progresses, the calculating intelligence and loyalty of Mitra is challenged over and over by the animal aggression of Chinna until the bloody and confronting climax. Mitra discovers that his brother and step-father are far more alike than he suspected and nobody wins as he ultimately takes up the same tactics as his family.

Visually the style of Deva Katta’s Prasthanam is both darkly real and annoyingly gimmicky with a reliance on clever angles and effects like blood spattering the camera lens. The songs in the first half are well integrated into the story and maintain a consistent style with the rest of the film.

It seems that someone panicked after watching the first half as there are several songs wedged at random into the second part of the film. Not only do they fail to match the narrative at all, but the placement of the picturisations is jarringly inept which contrasts with the more considered style of the earlier songs. [Thanks to the wonders of Twitter, we have just been told that songs were added for the DVD that were not in the theatrical release of the film. That still doesn’t explain the random placement, but it does help explain to us why reviews didn’t mention such a glaring flaw. Thanks for the explanation!]

Despite the much messier and grittier environment Prasthanam is as much a fiction as Leader is – but as Dolce and Namak pointed out, this family saga is inspired by Cain and Abel.

There is some attempt to inject humour, which is both misplaced and clumsy: one comedic sidekick character declares he will have to go commit a couple of rapes to get more respect, and has this remark met with sarcastic mirth. It was disappointing considering the intelligence behind the writing in general, and wedging the obligatory not so funny comedy track into a film with serious pretensions seemed odd.

As with Leader, the female characters provide an excuse for much of the action without having significant roles in the film. Both films rely on coincidence at crucial points, and the strain on our credulity diminished the impact of some key scenes.

Both leading men play outsiders. Arjun Prasad is the affluent, privileged, NRI son of a corrupt man, and we see Hyderabad and India through his eyes —mostly from boardrooms, restaurants and resorts. He does a lot of brooding and walking, often seeing without being seen as he floats through the ‘real world’. He says he is going to wake up the apathetic youth, and seems to be a symbol of the young cashed up generation in that respect.

Mitra is an unwitting outsider in his own family, but he is intimately involved in the workings of the political games. His world view is far more grounded in a village mentality and his vision of India is much less about air con and fancy cars and more about family and cash flow. This world view shatters when he discovers the truth about his father and step-father.

The soundtracks are forgettable, and apart from the really bad picturisations in Prasthanam, the songs had little impact. The lyrics in both films were quite significant in terms of the story but it just seemed to be a bit overstated at times.  And as for the naff English lyrics in the final ‘Leader’ song … Neither film really required much in the way of dancing and, while Sharwanand gave it a go, Rana stuck to his enigmatic walking.

Ultimately both films fall back into the familiar heroic narrative arc, one tragic and one triumphant. Both are fairly satisfying stories and generally well made films, but neither really departs from the predictable path.

Temple says: I found both films quite watchable and engaging, but both have flaws that prevent me from saying I totally enjoyed them. I don’t think they are really attempting anything different in either film as it’s the same old story of corruption and tangled family loyalties, just with modern urban backdrops.

Leader is the more successful film for me, as it is has an internal logic and the characters behave in a way that is consistent with their prior behaviour. As my friend Jenni The Mahesh Fan often says, the Dr Phil test for predicting future behaviour is based on past behaviour. So while Arjun Prasad is not a likeable person, the character acts in a way that accords with his previous behaviours. Even when he temporarily leaves politics, he manipulates that hiatus to eliminate an issue that couldn’t be resolved by legal means. So unlike Heather, I never thought he had ‘gone good’. I believed he was just manipulating the situation again which seemed in keeping with his actions to date. The film has a more cohesive story and builds to a cliched yet satisfactory conclusion. I don’t like the film, as I find its inherent message quite repugnant, but it does work as a piece of drama and once again Sekhar Kammula has told his story in an engaging and slightly offbeat way. Apart from some dodgy green screen effects, the visuals are really effective. I give Leader 4 stars for being a well made, quality film, but I hate the values it seems to promote.

Prasthanam was more entertaining on some levels, and yet a lot less satisfying overall. As the film moved away from the conflict between the brothers and became more about Mitra and Loknatham the wheels started to fall off. Sharwanand just didn’t make Mitra believable and his performance was weakest of the whole cast. He was fine in the lighter or more conversational scenes, but anything requiring extreme emotion fell flat. It didn’t help that many of the veteran actors around him were chewing the scenery for all they were worth, or that he was acting opposite Sundeep Kishan who just owned the screen whenever Chinna was around. There is something curiously immobile about Sharwanand’s face, and in all the scenes where I wasn’t hooked by his lack of emoting I found myself wondering  if he had already started to hit the Botox. The final scenes between Mitra and Loknath were just so tear-sodden and emotional and didn’t ring true for me. I thought the very last moments of Sai Kumar surrounded by a multitude of  his mirrored reflection was so much more real and powerful than all the snivelling as it showed what he really believed in. It’s very engaging to a point, but then the climax of the film just doesn’t work for me and the really silly handling of the songs threw the dramatic second half off kilter. I give Prasthanam 3 stars.

The women in both films are basically irrelevant to the plot. They are only there as mothers or potential wives and even when it seemed they would play a bigger role, it just didn’t eventuate. The actresses in these roles were all good, but the roles were on the margins of the heroic tales being told.  So while it was disappointing to see this happen yet again, it did at least allow for most of the focus to be on the core story.

Heather says: I enjoyed both these films, and despite a few irritating features which detract a little from the final overall impression, Leader and Prasthanam are very well worth watching.  I think that both are genuine attempts to step outside of the usual Masala fare, and within their limits are interesting stories, told well and with sincerity.

Leader for me was made by Rana’s performance, particularly considering this is his first film. However I really didn’t like his character at all!  Arjun is just as corrupt and manipulative as the other politicians around him.  Although I did sympathise initially as he possibly started with good intentions (I’m not convinced though), this very quickly changed as he began lying to everyone. After the interval where I suspect we were supposed to get behind Arjun and his campaign for the popular vote, I just found his deceitful attitude too much.  His attitude to the women in his life is another point against him, and I really didn’t want him to get the girl in the end.  But I think that to generate that response required some good acting which Rana delivered – as did the rest of the cast who are all excellent.  The lack of depth in the female characters stories was disappointing, and I don’t think a journalist could have been side-lined so easily – but this was fictional after all! Despite not liking the character and finding the whole story just too improbable, I still enjoyed the film.  Leader gets 3 ½ stars from me

Prasthanam for me was a more enjoyable story.  I do like a good villain, and Sundeep excelled in this role.  Sharwanand really appears wooden in comparison, and although I am not as critical of his acting as Temple, he doesn’t do his character justice here.  The biggest problem I have with Prasthanam is the strange song picturisations and their placement in the second half.  They just aren’t necessary and detract from the pace and mood of the film.  I liked the soundtrack on first hearing and found it a disappointment to see the songs on screen.  The female roles, although still small, seem to be better realised in this film but the struggle between the two brothers and the machinations of Sai Kumar’s character are the definite highlights.  The escalation of violence towards the end becomes improbable, and the conclusion is somewhat weak,  but despite these flaws the film kept my attention throughout.  Again all the supporting cast were very good, and I really liked the cinematography in the opening scenes.  Without the songs and the comedy track this could have been an excellent film.  As it is, I think it’s still very good and gets 4 stars from me.