Gautamiputra Satakarni

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For his latest film Krish takes inspiration from historical figure Gautamiputra Satakarni; a king who ruled in the South of India a couple of thousand years ago. Since little seems to be known about his reign, Krish is free to take the few major events that have been recorded and develop these into a plausible story, which he does reasonably well. The film follows Satakarni (Balakrishna) through a number of battles as he consolidates his rule over Southern India, and then moves north to tackle the invading Greeks. As a historical epic, there is plenty to enjoy but the film doesn’t shed much light on the man behind the warrior king despite a few diversions into his relationship with his mother and wife.

Over the opening credits, the young Satakarni declares that the only way to stop the petty wars between neighbouring kingdoms is for one man to conquer them all and thus unify the country. Needless to say, even at such a young age, Satakarni knows that he is the right man for the job and as the film begins the adult Satakarni has already embarked on his campaign. He starts off small by conquering a few neighbouring kingdoms (Milind Gunaji is good as one of the kings here) and then turns his sights towards the north, sending emissaries to King Nahapana (Kabir Bedi). Unsurprisingly Nahapana doesn’t respond well to a demand that he peacefully submits to becoming a vassal of Satakarni, and the scene is set for war!

Satakarni alienates his wife Vashishthee (Shriya Saran) when he takes his young son along to battle which allows for the development of some tension between the two. At the same time, Satakarni is shown as having great respect for his mother Gautami Balashri (Hema Malini), whom he has left to govern while he is off fighting his battles. These two relationships allow for more emotional and character-driven scenes to balance the battles that form the rest of the film. These are epically grand and give Balakrishna plenty of opportunity to make declarations (they’re much more dramatic than mere speeches) while looking imposing in armour and carrying a large sword. He has the gravitas and spectacular moustache required to play the ruler of the Satavahanan empire, although his age does seem to slow him down in the action scenes.

I enjoyed watching Balakrishna as Satakarni and this was a good choice for his 100th film. The character allows him to behave as the usual style of Telugu hero (unstoppable one-man army) but this time he does have an army to back him up. He’s also impressive in the more emotional scenes and his delivery of the epic speeches is very well done. Shriya Saran is also excellent as Satakarni’s wife and makes an impact despite her limited amount of time onscreen. There is the excitement of her reuniting with the king after time apart, their happiness together and then the shock of her young son heading into battle. Although at times she does emote just a little too much, at least the historical nature of the drama allows her to do so. The historical aspect also makes the sight of an older and portlier Balakrishna chasing Vashti around the royal bedchamber a little more acceptable, although I was reminded of portraits of the English King Henry the Eighth and his procession of younger wives. I find Shriya Saran can be a bit hit and miss, but here she is a definite hit and the relationship between her and Balakrishna works much better than expected. Hema Malini too is very good as the dowager queen, dealing with the pesky problems that crop up while her son is away subduing the realm. She does this with grace and style, looking regal and definitely projecting an aura that she is not to be trifled with.

After subduing Nahapana, the next challenge for Satakarni is the army of invading Greeks led by Demetrius. While the scenes where Satakarni plots his campaign are well delivered, the battle scenes are a little more patchy. For the most part when the camera is showing close ups of the action the battles look superb, but there are a few glitches between the CGI and staged fight scenes. These are mainly errors of perspective where there is a CGI view of massed warriors which moves in to show a smaller group of men and horses surrounded by green fields. For the most part the effects are well integrated into the live action and the battles do look good, but the few errors do divert attention away from the overall spectacle. The other problem is that a couple of the battles go on just that little bit too long. Some of this is due to repetitions of the same scene, as for example during the storming of the walls of Nahapana’s citadel but some just seem overly drawn out while Balakrishna indulges in some heroics which would mean certain death on a real battlefield.

There is plenty to enjoy in Gautamiputra Satakarni, even with the slightly uneven mix of plentiful epic battles and intermittent emotional drama. Balakrishna exudes power and authority while the appropriately grandiose costumes and palace sets seem to paint the time period well. Not that I would know if they were wrong, but judging by the paintings in museums I’ve seen while in India, this all looked pretty good! The soundtrack by Chirantan Bhatt is also excellent and to his and Krish’s credit, the songs don’t feel out of place in the narrative. However at the end of the day there is no real insight into the characters and the all too brief glimpse of Satakarni’s achievements only leads to more questions. This isn’t an attempt to detail the life of a famous ruler or to tell the story of a kingdom, but instead is a series of vignettes of what might have occurred, without delving too deeply into the why. Too, Balakrishna plays Satakarni as a regular Telugu hero with all the unlikely ability to stop an army single handedly so the story never feels quite as realistic as it should. But once the drums start beating and the swords clash that seems unimportant – the spectacle and grandeur of ancient India sweep across the screen and Gautamiputra Satakarni charges to victory!

Life is Beautiful (2012)

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I’m not sure whether Life is Beautiful needs to be an hour shorter or about 5 hours longer. Sekhar Kammula’s observational style might play out better as a mini-series than a film as while not a lot really happens, neither do we get much insight into some of the large ensemble of characters. And understanding more about them might have made all the difference when, for want of a better word, things go a bit stupid.

Sreenu, Chinni and Sathya move to a Hyderabad housing development to stay with relatives when their mother (Amala Akkineni) tells them she needs to take a work transfer for a year. It’s clear their aunt just tolerates them, and the rich aunty (Surekha Vani) next door doesn’t want to know the kids. But where Gold Phase has shiny cars and swimming pools, the B Phase colony is rich in characters and goodwill. Money causes all manner of tension, but mostly between those who value work and self-improvement over those take their privilege for granted. In a similar vein, the film contrasts the superficial gated enclosure of Gold Phase with the more organic sense of community in B Phase where sharing is second nature.

The B Phase kids expect to work to make their own way. Chinni is trying to get into a prestigious English school and Sathya (Rashmi Sastry) is preparing to study medicine. Nagaraj helps new neighbour Laxmi (Zara Shah) to find a job so she can continue her engineering studies, and his lack of education and prospects is a recurring theme. Sreenu (Abhijeet Duddala) soon meets Nagaraj (Sudhakar Komakula) the local cool dude and Abhi (Kaushik Darbha), a sweet-natured geek. Cousin Paddhu (Shagun Kaur) is pretty and confident, and keeps Sreenu on his toes. They’re all good hearted and fundamentally optimistic, and friendship comes easily. It’s not hard to like them and I enjoyed watching them grapple with coming of age and growing responsibility.

I really like that the girls are interested in finding the right life partner not just a hot hero, and that their parents are broadly supportive of their right to do so (if not of their choices). I’m not as happy with some of the films tricks to get the girls to realise who they love. There is an odd decision to make Paru (Shriya Saran) have a gimmicky epiphany, as though she was incapable of understanding her own feelings without a billboard sized clue. And I couldn’t really get on board with her ‘I must win Miss India to fulfil my mother’s dying wish’ thing.  I didn’t think Ajay (Vijay Sai) was really a bad guy, but he had a different view of sex and relationships so Laxmi found herself fleeing what she saw as overly determined advances. It seemed she was being punished for straying from Nagaraj and B Phase. Nagaraj has a reverse snobbery about educated people and blames Laxmi for the encounter. And once a boy has decided he likes a girl, that girl should only do what he says or face harsh criticism. Maybe it is just an illustration of how it is easy to be liberal when you’re comfortable, but how people under pressure can revert to type. Maya (Anjala Zaveri) was being harassed by a sleazy caller so the boys actually use their education to catch the culprit. But then their biggest problem seems to be that he is a Gold Phase guy and shouldn’t be allowed to ogle their local hottie while they may do so at their whim. When Maya comes to bail the lads out at the police station, they seem shocked that women can Do Thinking And Other Good Stuff Too. So it’s a mixed bag but the women are distinct and interesting characters and that was pleasing.

The youngsters various relationships absorb most of the film, but they all have families and other issues to deal with. Sreenu and his sisters find out the real reason for their mother’s absence – a reason that made me furious and considering whether to pull the plug on the movie – and have to think hard about what to do with their lives. On the other hand, Abhi and his mum have a really nice relationship. She knows he is a bit weird and nerdy but she loves him for his quirks, and he is super smart and appreciative of her support. Paddhu is caught between her snobby parents expectations and her own heart, plus a dithering Indian Filmi Boy, but she is not a pushover and nor are they villains. Friends help friends, and sometimes friends force friends to confront things they might try to avoid.

Language is both a conduit and barrier. Chinni is denied a place in school because she doesn’t speak English, although she is eloquent when speaking Telugu. Nagaraj tells new neighbour Laxmi that Telangana speakers aren’t formal, they speak from the heart. I couldn’t pick up on the nuances of language in the conversations about Andhra and Telangana speech, although I assume that would resonate with the local audience.

The cast are largely novices and they generally do quite well. Of the young actors, Kaushik and Shagun Kaur were my favourites maybe because they played sunny characters and seemed genuine. I smiled when I saw them and could easily overlook a couple of wobbly acting moments. Amala Akkineni is the largely absent mother, and while I like her performance a lot I had strong reservations about the plot manipulation tied to her character. Shriya Saran is very natural as Paru, the It Girl of Gold Phase, pretty and a princess. And she shows a different side in her scenes with Abhi and the guys where she is at ease, genuine, and friendly.

I don’t like the songs. Especially the English lyrics in this one. It is Eurovision level bad.

My test for whether a song enhances a film is simple. I imagine the sequence, replacing the filmi song with Boston’s More Than A Feeling – a truly naff song which is all about itself. If it works just as well as the movie song I reckon the film could have done without. Obviously if there is excellent dancing, great costumes, or Chiru, I don’t question the validity of the musical interlude.

The song montages are well put together and do help amplify the mood and inner feelings. The locations and set dressing are lovely to look at and the details help flesh out the characters living in the various houses and streets. C Vijay Kumar has collaborated with Sekhar Kammula on several films and their styles mesh very well. He knows how to get the most out of fields, trees and rooftop terraces.

Kammula uses some cheap and cheesy effects which is at odds with his predilection for slice of life stories featuring the unexceptional middle class. Animated hearts when the scruffy boy dog fell for the ritzy lady dog was mildly funny but then there was the magic at the wedding, the magic at Miss India…the (bad and nonsensical) magic. While David Copperfield need not worry about losing his day job, it was nice to see Anish Kuruvilla acting. And Anish, if you don’t like being a character actor you could always, I dunno, direct another film. Just a thought.

I really like Sekhar Kammula’s films, even though I have a few issues with his horrible taste in music and addiction to animated effects, as he can tell simple stories well. While Life Is Beautiful is meandering and low on drama, I do like the characters and the glimpses into their lives. 3 stars!

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Gopala Gopala (2015)

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Gopala Gopala, so good I watched it twice! Well, actually I would do that more often for more films if Melbourne had an extra show, which is what happened this week with Gopala Gopala. But it is a fun film and I enjoyed watching Venkatesh and Pawan Kaylan in their first movie together. I haven’t seen either the Hindi version of this movie, or the original Australian film that inspired both and that could be one of the reasons why I enjoyed Gopala Gopala as much as I did. I’ve read that this Telugu remake follows the original faithfully and as a result it may only be worth a watch if you haven’t seen OMG, or like me feel that Pawan Kalyan as God seems a more plausible choice than Akshay Kumar.

The Gopala of the title is a shopkeeper who decides to sue God when his insurance claim is rejected following an earthquake that has destroyed his livelihood. The insurance company representative points out that Gopala has signed the contract that lists (in small print) the exclusions for his insurance, including an ‘Act of God’ and since no-one else but God could have caused the earthquake, Gopala is out of luck and out of compensation. It’s a nice idea, even if the term act of god is a legal construct rather than anything remotely religious, but the film works on the premise that either God does not exist and therefore the insurance company has to pay, or God was responsible and the onus of care rests with his agents on Earth. Along the way the film questions the morality of the various religious orders and their representatives, but is clear throughout that despite Gopala’s own personal disbelief there is actually no question about the validity of God in any of his incarnations. It’s the charlatans and irrational customs that come up for criticism and the writers throw in some good questions about morality in general for later contemplation.

Venkatesh pitches his character perfectly as a non-believer who makes his living selling Hindu statues and religious artifacts even though he finds the rituals and superstitious involved in worship ridiculous. Just as much of a con in fact as his ordinary tap water masquerading as authentic water from the Ganges. His shady dealings aside, at heart Gopala is a compassionate man who is shown to indulge in random acts of kindness and generally feels some compassion for people less fortunate than himself. The problem here though is that his good deeds come across as rather contrived given the way they are somewhat haphazardly inserted into the narrative. However Venkatesh mixes his skepticism with obvious tolerance for his wife’s idiosyncrasies and his salesman has plenty of charm mixed in with his complaints, making Gopala a generally likeable character.

His wife however is Gopala’s polar opposite in all things religious. Meenakshi (Shriya Saran) prays to any and every possible God and shrine while falling for every piece of chicanery she sees during her devotions. I’ve mentioned before that Shriya seems to be better in roles that require her to have long hair, and she stays true to that judgement here, giving a good performance as a devoted wife and mother in every sense of the word. Although Shriya doesn’t have a lot of scope in her role, her presence does add grace and a human face to the otherwise random devotees who face Gopala’s scorn. Somewhere in the middle is Otthu (Krishnudu), Gopala’s assistant in his shop who prays to the gods and follows the rituals but is the one who suggests a religious trip to Varanasi will be the perfect time to stock up on cheap artifacts to sell at inflated prices back in Hyderabad. Krishnudu has good comedy timing but apart from funny early scenes he is also relegated to the sidelines once God appears to help Gopala in his quest for justice.

Ah, yes, God.

Gopala GopalaPawan Kalyan makes his grand entrance as Krishna just before the interval, and his presence immediately enriches the story and lifts the energy of the film. The reaction in Melbourne was loud and enthusiastic both times I saw Gopala Gopala, which somehow seems rather appropriate for the appearance of a deity, even if he doesn’t arrive with the classic blue skin and associated regalia I expected. The role suits Pawan Kalyan’s restrained delivery style when not in full action mode, and his Krishna is a little distant but very charismatic. As may be expected from a divine being he offers guidance rather than direct intervention and is often cryptic in his dialogue, although his explanation of why bad things happen to good people sounds like classical political spin. Gopala never asks any of the big questions (such as why just his shop was destroyed – would have been my first question. That and where do all the lost socks go?) but that makes the relationship between the two feel more genuine and does stay true to Gopala’s persistent disbelief in an all-powerful deity.

The film does slow down a little in the second half when Gopala takes the assorted bunch of priests and swami’s to court but Mithun Chakraborthy, Posani Krishna Murali and Diksha Panth are all good in their respective roles as unethical leaders of their temples and organisations and the comedy helps to keep things moving along. Mithun as Leeladhara Swamy in particular has an impressive collection of idiosyncrasies although all three are so obviously corrupt and self-aggrandising that it seems hard to believe they would lower themselves to appear in court. Gopala is an equal opportunity plaintive and also summons representatives from the Muslim and Christian churches, while receiving help from lawyer Akbar Bhai (Murali Sharma) and determined opposition from Shankar Narayana (Ashish Vidyarthi) who has the unenviable task of representing the religious leaders. Interspersed with all the courtroom drama there are a number of songs by Anoop Rubens which are mainly fairly upbeat and fit into the narrative well. My favourite is a beautiful flute piece, but this runs a close second, particularly since it includes both Venkatesh and Pawan Kalyan dancing.

While Gopala Gopala is often rather simplistic with characters painted a little too black or white, Kishore Kumar Pardasany has made an entertaining movie that includes a discussion of superstition in religion without getting bogged down in dogma and matters of faith.   Pawan Kalyan and Venkatesh Daggubati have great chemistry and work well together while the rest of the cast provide excellent support and good comedy. This really was much better than I expected and is definitely well worth a watch – or two!