Manam (2014)

Manam

Manam is a beautiful film and a breath of fresh air in an industry usually dominated by beat-‘em-up heroes and the same old innuendo masquerading as comedy.  Featuring three generations of the Akkineni family and Nageswara Rao’s final screen appearance, it could very easily have tipped into trite sentimentality, but Vikram Kumar’s screenplay keeps the film on track with an novel storyline, sweet romances and genuinely funny comedy.  I have to admit that I almost didn’t buy a ticket when I read that Manam was being advertised as a comedy, since without subtitles most of the humour tends to pass me by (even with subtitles in some cases!) but Manam would have been a watchable and entertaining film even without subs.  As it was, being able to understand the jokes and laugh at the same time as the rest of the audience was excellent.  Long may this trend for subtitled Telugu films continue in Melbourne!

Manam Manam

The film starts in the 1980’s with the unhappy marriage of Radha (Naga Chaitanya) and Krishna (Samantha) who bicker and fight even on the occasion of their son’s sixth birthday.  The very next day they are both killed in a car accident, leaving the young Bittu an orphan and his wish to see them happy together unfulfilled.  This doesn’t seem to have held Bittu back however, as the film moves to the present day, and the now grownup Nageshwar Rao (Nagarjuna) is in Mumbai to receive the Businessman of the Year award.  However, on the flight back to Hyderabad, Nageshwar is seated beside a young man who is the image of his late father, and this begins his crusade to bring his ‘parents’ back together again.  Nagarjuna is absolutely perfect here and his child-like wonder at discovering ‘his father’ is brilliantly portrayed.  The scene is well written too, with the just the right amount of comedy to keep it from cloying sentimentality and Vikram Kumar even manages to make the suggestion of such an occurrence seem perfectly plausible.

Samantha and ChaitanyaManamNageshwar reasons that if his father has been reborn, then his mother must be around somewhere too, and to this end he scours the streets of Hyderabad until he tracks down Priya (Samantha) who is the image of his mother and, luckily for Nageshwar and his plans, she immediately feels a connection.  Again Nagarjuna’s determined search is neatly summarised in just a few shots and the obvious unlikely coincidences feel much less contrived than expected.  It help that both Nageshwar and Priya are very likeable characters and Nagarjuna and Samantha ensure their interactions are full of genuine warmth and respect.

ManamNagarjuna

Having found his re-incarnated father and mother, Nageshwar has to find a way to re-ignite their romance.  In the midst of his attempts to bring about true love, Nageshwar finds love himself when Anjali (Shriya) commandeers his car to carry a sick man to hospital.  As it turns out, the older man is Chaitanya (Akkineni Nageswara Rao) who has seen his parents Seetharamudu and Ramalakshmi  reborn as Nageshwar and Anjali.  It’s then his turn to explain the past and try to reunite the lost lovers.

Manam

ANR is the absolute star of the show, and seems to take great delight in playing the octogenarian matchmaker.  He is mesmerising every time he appears, and his facial expressions and reactions to every other character are superb.  For his part, Nagarjuna is quietly competent as Nageshwar Rao with a subtle but effective performance, and his romance with Ramalakshmi in the second half is an absolute delight to watch.  There seems to be something in Temple’s theory that Shriya Saran’s irritation factor is related to the length of her hair, as here she has long hair and is actually pretty good.  Shriya looks beautiful and displays an engaging personality as a 1920’s traditional villager, and she is just as stunning as the cool and efficient Dr Anjali.  I vote Shriya always has long hair in her movies!

Manam

Nagarjuna and Shriya also share good chemistry together, which is sadly conspicuously absent in the romance between Samantha and Chaitanya, although to be fair the script really doesn’t ever let them develop much sparkage except in the way of confrontation.  Despite the lack of passion with Chaitanya, Samantha shines as Priya / Krishna.  She sparkles in her songs, and is full of bubbly enthusiasm as she meets Nageshwara, but her pain at her perceived husband’s betrayal is obvious as is her contempt of Chaitanya’s Nagarjuna.  Chaitanya is also better than usual, although that may be because his role mainly requires him to play a drunk and obnoxious college student which he seems to fit well.  The usual suspects pop up as various mothers, fathers, cousins etc, but do watch out for the brief cameo appearance of Amitabh Bachchan which garnered plenty of cheers from the audience.

Manam

It’s not all perfect though – the inclusion of Ali as a dance teacher is unnecessary and M.S. Narayana’s role is too obvious and crude to fit with the rest of the characterisation.  However Brahmi is good as Nagashwara’s assistant and without any misogynistic humour, he manages a restrained performance that proves he can act perfectly well when required.

Manam benefits from a sweet and  simple telling of a relatively convoluted story.  There are no exciting car chases, no big fight scenes and no cliff-hangers (even though the last few minutes attempt to raise the dramatic tension), but overall it’s an entertaining and watchable film.  All praise must go to Akkineni Nageswara Rao and Nagarjuna for their exemplary performances, but the younger generation hold their own, with even Chaitanya showing that he learnt something from the rest of his family while on set.  Definitely recommended viewing and a last performance to savour from one of the legends of Telugu cinema.

Sivaji (2007)

Sivaji is a wonderfully over-the-top film celebrating all things Rajinikanth. There are references to the superstar’s previous films and to his own life, plenty of classic Rajni style and he’s present in almost every frame. Sivaji also features stunning sets for the songs and a myriad of different looks for Rajinikanth throughout the film. While the story has an interesting plot involving corruption, the screenplay gets somewhat tangled in the numerous set-ups to introduce the next song or fight scene.  But in the face of so much else that is fantastic, the disjointed nature of the story doesn’t seem to matter. When the first song is as much fun as this, then the film is already a winner for me. This features Nayantara in a cameo role along with an incredible number of  men with round, jiggling painted bellies – I love it!

The film opens with Sivaji returning from the USA with truck-loads of money and deciding to set up a University and Hospital where everything will be available to the poor for free. His grand plans are opposed by local businessman Adisheshan (Suman) who blocks him at every turn. To make Sivaji’s life more difficult there is the practice of bribes and kick-backs that seems to be built in to the system at every stage. Despite his unwillingness to play along, Sivaji has no choice but to fall in line and pay everyone off if he wants to get his hospital and university built. I’m quite sure that all these people in yellow hats were the inspiration for minions in Despicable Me – or at least they should have been.

Ultimately this works to Adisheshan’s advantage when he contrives to have Sivaji arrested and charged in court. There Sivaji admits that he paid bribes to get permission to build and ends up losing everything. This might have been the end of the Sivaji foundation, but Adisheshan is the one person in Tamil Nadu who has no idea who he’s really dealing with and he rashly mocks his defeated enemy.  This sparks Sivaji’s quest for revenge, and the 1 rupee coin Adisheshan tosses at him to start his begging career becomes a talisman and also funds the start of the fight back. Sivaji devises a cunning plan to restore his finances and bring about Adisheshan’s downfall at the same time.

Rajinikanth is truly in his element here as the crusading Sivaji. He still has his trademark tricks, but this new  health conscious Sivaji spruiks the ‘cigarettes are bad for you’ message, catching mints and tossing his sunglasses instead of cigarettes. It’s all a little contrived, but the tricks are so much a part of any Rajni film that Sivaji would seem incomplete without them. There areplenty of fight scenes, and these are well choreographed by Peter Hein. The final showdown features some Matrix style action and Rajinikanth pulls it off with great style. If he has slowed down a little in some of the fight scenes and songs, well, that’s understandable but it’s barely noticeable. As well as the romantic songs, there is a fabulous sequence where Rajinikanth impersonates Sivaji Ganesan, MGR and Kamal Hassan and he gets really gets the mannerisms of the different stars very well.

During the course of his crusade against corruption, Sivaji meets and falls in love with Tamizhselvi (Shriya) and despite her family’s initial reluctance and dire predictions of disaster from the priest, the two go ahead and get married. Thankfully Shriya is much less annoying than usual, perhaps because she is totally overshadowed by Rajinikanth, but I stand by my previous observations that the more clothes she wears the less irritating she is. Her main raison d’être here is to look pretty in the songs which she does very well.

Other than her presence in the songs, Tamizhselvi is the ‘perfect Tamil girl’ of Sivaji’s dreams and that ensures plenty of traditional outfits and a fairly restrained performance, making her more tolerable than usual. Someone in wardrobe really does have a grudge against her though because she does appear in some of the worst outfits I’ve seen in the song ‘Style’.  I’m not quite sure what to make of this song for many reasons. As a song extoling style it has some truly dreadful costumes and the whole white-skinned Rajni just seems very wrong. I’m always perplexed by the quest for paler skin in India, but then I’m equally as baffled by the drive for tanned skin among Europeans. I don’t like the melody or the lyrics of this song at all, but it does feature an incredible selection of amazing wigs for Rajni and is worth watching for that alone. Pick your favourite style!

And the contrasting faces of Shriya.

While the film deals with the theme of corruption, there is still plenty of comedy along the way. Although much of the humour comes from Rajinikanth and his various mannerisms, Vivek is excellent in his role as Sivaji’s uncle Arivu and provides many funny moments. Even though I’d normally cringe at Arivu’s match-making technique of parading girls in front of Sivaji, Arivu’s character is self-aware enough to make this funny rather than crass.  There is more slapstick comedy in the scenes with Tamizhselvi’s family who disapprove of Sivaji and his exuberant family. The actor playing Tamizhselvi’s father (Pattimandram Raja) has some excellent expressions and I love the way he looks as if he smells something bad every time he sees Sivaji.

On the other hand, Suman’s Adisheshan is a very mild mannered villain without any real evil tendencies. Although I’m sure this is meant to make sure that all eyes are firmly on Sivaji, he still seems rather unimpressive in comparison. His demeanour however is quite realistic as a businessman with political leanings and his reasons for opposing Sivaji are understandable considering how much the free hospital and university will cut into his profits. His methods of opposition are also consistent with his character and perhaps S. Shankar is trying to point out that corruption can be present in even the most reasonable appearing businessman.

The second half of the film relies more heavily on the effects and gimmicks, and it’s disappointing that Vivek’s character gets more sidelined. But it’s still a lot of fun to watch mainly due to Rajinikanth’s performance. The music by A. R Rahman is excellent apart from the Style song mentioned previously, and the high budget of the film is easily explained by the song picturisations. The sets and costumes are totally fabulous and both Thotta Tharani as art director and K. V. Anand as cinematographer deserve the awards they received for their work. There are guest appearances by a number of established Tamil stars including Raghuvaran and Manivannan and  the support cast are all very competent, although generally overshadowed by the superstar.

Although Endhiran (S. Shankar’s latest film with Rajinikanth), had a bigger budget and even more special effects, I prefer Sivaji. The story is engaging despite the way it jumps around and Shankar shows corruption within government systems in a way that seems quite plausible. Even though the one man crusade requires a leap of faith, it is after all Rajni and so anything is possible. It’s one to watch for the lavishness of the sets and the larger than life presence of Rajinikanth. And for all those wigs! 4 stars.

Temple says: Sivaji is what I have come to think of as a typical Shankar blockbuster in that it is all spectacle and very little plot. I think Heather is being overly kind in saying there is a theme to the story as I see it more as a collection of ideas that never really develops. Shankar introduces statements about corruption, the brain drain overseas as bright graduates pursue careers outside of India, the returning NRI and how they navigate between worlds, the obsession with all things American being seen as ‘better’ than local, the clash between tradition and modern living and the nostalgic ideals that may no longer exist. All interesting, and yet there is no real exploration of these notions as there is too much else happening. We move from fight to song to comedy to spectacular song and rarely pause for breath. It’s hugely entertaining, but it doesn’t really bear analysis.

Rajnikanth is in excellent form and this is his film from go to whoa. Sure he is way older than his character, but it somehow works as he deadpans his youthful dialogues, daring you to not believe,  and throws himself into the action with gusto. The fights have been tailored to suit him, and the music shop sequence is one of my all time favourites from any film industry. Shriya can range from terrible (e.g. Kanthaswamy) to pretty good,  and this is one of her better performances. She handles the comedy really well  (I love her expressions in the “Chandramuhki” sequence), isn’t completely overshadowed by Rajni, and does justice to the massive song sets and costumes. And she manages to look like she isn’t staring intently at Rajni’s wigs in the romantic moments so I decided Shriya may be a better actress than I had previously thought.

See this for the spectacular sets and design, for a Superstar who can dominate the hyperactive pace and attention grabbing visuals, for the music (except Style) and for the filmi equivalent of a crazy amusement park ride. You’ll be dizzy and none the wiser at the end, but it was so much fun while it lasted. 4 stars!

Arjun

 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.