Kanche

Kanche

Varun Tej takes on the role of a soldier in the Second World War so effortlessly in Kanche that it’s hard to believe this is only his second movie. His performance is one of the highlights of a film that has at its heart a simple love story but uses a more ambitious setting to deliver a deeper social message based on the literal and psychological ‘fences’ of the title.  The story starts in Thirties India and moves to the battle torn landscape of Italy during the Second World War using flashback sequences to keep the focus on Dhrupati Hari Babu (Varun Tej) and his romance with Seetha Devi (Pragya Jaiswal). It’s an unusual backdrop for an Indian film and despite a tendency towards melodrama in the second half Kanche is one of the better films I’ve seen this year and well worth catching in the cinema if you can.

The story starts when Hari meets Seetha while they are both studying in Madrasapattinam and Hari is working part-time as a waiter in a social club. Hari is outspoken but respectful with a twinkle in his eye, while Seetha is the perfect lady, always looking absolutely stunning in elegant saris, sparkling jewellery and perfect make-up. I was a little surprised at how liberal her thinking was for a wealthy and presumably somewhat sheltered girl in 1936, but Pragya has just a touch of aloofness which gives more authenticity to her role and she certainly looks the part. The couple have sparkling chemistry together and the romance moves along with a freshness that belies the familiarity of the story. Varun plays Hari with the perfect mix of serious scholar and carefree larrikin to make him an appealing character, and gives an immediate contrast with later scenes where he is more introspective and self-contained as a soldier in the Indian Army.

Although Seetha is from a royal family and Hari is the son of the local barber, their romance blossoms while they are away from home. When they return from college however their relationship seems doomed to failure since social norms decree that Seetha must marry a man from her own class. Seetha and Hari try to enlist the help of Seetha’s brother Eeshwar Prasad (Nikitin Dheer) but he is firmly on the side of tradition and opposes the match almost more vigorously than Seetha’s father. Nikitin plays Eeshwar with a permanent sneer that looks painful to maintain and becomes almost comical with each reappearance. There are whiffs of a more rational and intelligent man but they don’t seem to be able to make it past the facial grimace and Eeshwar is too one dimensional to be completely convincing here. Sowcar Janaki has more scope as Seetha’s mother, trying to get her daughter to conform while at the same time acknowledging that as a woman she has little influence and no effective assistance to offer. I love the subtle message that Krish adds here about the role of women in Indian society which is just as effective as his more obvious statements about social divides later in the film.

The class divide isn’t enough drama for Krish though, and he adds in inter-caste rivalries in the village which increase the tension and lead to literal fences being constructed alongside the invisible social barriers to keep different groups of villagers apart. The village is split by class, caste and gender which makes for a lot to expect Hari to fix in the final half of the film!

The romance is told as flashback sequences interspersed with events on the battlefields in Italy and although the love story follows a predictable path, the rest of the film is rather more unexpected. Eeshwar is now Hari’s commanding officer and still hasn’t lost the sneer or his enmity towards Hari although the two avoid each other as much as possible. Krish doesn’t fall into the trap of making Eeshwar a vindictive bully and Nikitin does a better job in these scenes, making Eeshwar an honourable and decent man behind the curled upper lip. As events unfold, Eeshwar is forced to depend on Hari when he is captured by the German army along with the other commanding officers. Hari and a few other soldiers set out to rescue them but find themselves confronted by Nazi atrocities in a small town they pass through and need to adjust their plans accordingly.

There are a number of more subtle messages that are almost lost as Krish hammers home the point that anything can be achieved through co-operation and mutual trust. The camaraderie between the soldiers – British and Indian – is unexpected and an interesting counterpoint to the more usual rivalry and prejudice seen in other films. Hari’s letters to Seetha also provide a different view of the war and her unseen presence provides support for Hari as he struggles with the realities of the conflict.

One of my pet hates in films with foreign characters is the usually poor quality of the performances, however here the actors are good and generally appropriately cast. The commanding German officer and a family of bakers in a small Italian village are particularly effective and add credibility to this part of the film, while the various British soldiers are also all good in their roles.  The dubbing is however not as successful with a definite miss on some of the British army accents making the British General sounding more like an East End butcher rather than an officer of the British Army. There is also some confusion with the Italian villagers who speak variously in oddly accented Italian and German, although this is mostly drowned out by the Telugu voice-over. Still, overall the foreigners are much better than usual and are convincingly part of the film storyline rather than simply extras in the background for added flavour.

The pace in the second half is slower and the particularly in the final scenes the action becomes overly dramatic where less really would have been more compelling. The end is also heavy on the films message of peaceful co-existence through mutual respect and tolerance, even adding a baby called Hope just in case there could be anyone who missed the point. However despite the awkward melodrama and overly drawn out final fight scene, the story is still powerful and Varun is impressive right to the end. Definitely an actor to look out for.

With good performances, an interesting story and some clever dialogue, Kanche demonstrates Krish’s ability to think outside the norms of Telugu cinema and deliver another great film. Don’t miss it!

Aditya 369

Aditya 369-Poster

When I heard Singeetham Srinivasa Rao’s Aditya 369 described as ‘historical science fiction’ I was immediately curious.  It is less about science or history and more about the outfits and derring-do, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film is on Youtube without subtitles and there is a diverting but not very helpful plot summary on Wiki should you wish to swot before taking the journey. But no one in the film prepares, so please do not feel obliged.

Aditya 369-time machine

The plot goes something like this. Professor Ramdas (Tinnu Anand) is an eccentric inventor, but apparently does well enough for himself that he can support a large house and workshop and keep his daughter Hema (Mohini) in stylish polyester outfits. His life’s work is a time machine called Aditya 369. The professor takes a low key approach to security and intellectual property, allowing just about anyone to come and have a look at the machine.

Aditya 369-Amrish Puri

Raja Verma (Amrish Puri) is a crook with a particular interest in historical regalia and diamonds. He arranges to steal a golfball sized diamond from the local museum and replace it with a fake. Now, if you call one guard with obsessive rule observance a diligent approach to security, then this museum was world class. Young Kishore (Master Tarun) is accidentally locked in,  witnesses the theft and has to be rescued when he tries to outrun the thieves.

Aditya 369-Balakrishna and Master Tarun

He confides in his saviour Krishna Kumar (Balakrishna) who decides to investigate.  Kishore decides to take his fellow plucky orphans on a spin in the time machine, is rescued by Krishna,  and Krishna and Hema are sent back to the past where they rescue Silk Smitha and meet Sri Krishna Deva Rayalu (also Balakrishna) and learn about the Golfball Diamond.

You know how in lots of time travel fiction the first rule is don’t change anything and don’t use modern stuff and cause ruptures in the fabric of time? When I saw the two emergency suitcases stashed in the time machine I assumed historically appropriate costumes. Well, at least the inhabitants of 1526 got an eyeful of fine 80s fashions. And listened to a boombox.

I disliked Krishna once he had landed back in time. In the presence of poets and scholars he had only ever read about, he couldn’t help but stick his oar in and go for a bit of one-upmanship. It was really tiresome and just made no sense. The dialogue seemed to go along the lines of “As you know Jim, I have an electric shaver” “Wow! Please, unknown man who says he is from another time but based on those clothes may be a nutter, tell us what to do”.

Following that sojourn in the glorious past, the crew is catapulted into the future where they nearly die from radiation before being given their own shiny space suits. To be fair to Krishna and his lax approach to historical contamination, the future people didn’t seem to have any qualms about revealing significant details that characters would not yet have experienced. But while I could understand the future people knowing their history,  I expected a bit more curiosity from the people in that past. The final scenes bring hero, villain, professor and know-all child into conflict as things almost literally spin out of control as Krishna has to rescue his friends and save the world.

Balakrishna offers his usual high energy performance. He could never be accused of slacking off, except maybe in the dances where he often relies on a slow disco strut interspersed with vigorous flailing. Krishna doesn’t have any hidden depths so what you see is what you get. The character tried my patience and I found myself looking at the sets and backgrounds rather than caring about what was happening to the people. There were a couple of sickening stunts involving horses so that further tarnished the heroics.

Aditya 369-Mohini

Mohini is adequate as Hema given that for most of the film she is just part of Krishna’s baggage.

Aditya 369-walk like an Egyptian

Amrish Puri does his usual villain thing with flair. Raja Verma is a bit obsessed with things that are original and authentic which may explain his Faux-gyptian style robe.  The diamond was supposed to link all the times together but that part of the plot seemed like an afterthought.

There are comedy uncles but no one else gets much of a look in with Balakrishna in a double role so that is another positive for the film. Suthivelu plays a hapless policeman who gets dragged along on the time travels, and Brahmi makes a small appearance as a scientist.

Aditya 369-henchmen

I really enjoyed Raja Verma’s gang of purple shirted thugs who carried guns in violin cases, and then played violins as background music in an interrogation scene. I think that is the first time I’ve heard the violence/violins pun in an Indian film. Tinnu Anand seems to have his own personal wind machine in all his scenes, maybe to stop him overheating from overacting.  Annapurna is Krishna’s mum although she doesn’t get to do much apart from marvel at his awesomeness.

Illayaraja’s background score is lovely. The theme over the opening credits is lush and a little eery. The songs are melodic although mostly a bit random. I did like the dance off between Silk Smitha and Mohini to settle the matter of Krishna’s honour. Well, I did until of course Krishna decided he could play all the instruments AND do the dancing.

The production design has a retro charm that sometimes made me nostalgic for TV series like Lost in Space. Terminator 2 was released in the same year and the difference in technical capability is enormous.

The “ye olden days” segment was what I would expect from any Telugu film, but the futuristic episode was more remarkable for the efforts of the wardrobe department to really feature antennas and silver lame.

Apart from that, as noted earlier, the costumes were mostly 80s mainstream fashion – lots of high-waisted denim, synthetic fabrics and big hair. And the women didn’t fare much better.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy and Telugu films are a great place to find them. See this for the curiosity value of the Telugu mass hero formula applied to a different genre and for the low tech effects that have their own appeal. 3 stars!

Bhairava Dweepam

Bhairava Dweepam DVD

Released in 1994, Bhairava Dweepam is a lavish lolly coloured Telugu folk tale. Writer/director Singeetham Srinivasa Rao picked up a couple of awards and the film was both a commercial and critical success. Although I found it quite entertaining, there are a few things I couldn’t help but compare unfavourably with other similar films.

Bhairava-Dweepam-Vasundhara is rejected

The story is easy to follow, which was handy as I haven’t been able to find subtitles. Vasundhara (K.R Vijaya) had a baby, probably out of wedlock but certainly not to the liking of the royal family. When she takes her son to the prince, the father in question, she is turfed out into the stormy night. She has an accident in her small unstable boat and mother and child are separated. Vasundhara is taken in by a kindly hermit who also creates a magical (poorly trimmed fabric) flower that will thrive as long as her son is also alive.

The boy is adopted by a village leader and grows up to be Vijay (Balakrishna). The people rejoiced – except that baby in yellow. Vijay and his sidekick or adopted brother, (Mohan Babu), are out and about doing what boys in folktales do when they spy Padma (Roja). Vijay is instantly smitten and sets about finding his way into the palace to spend more time with her. Unbeknownst to Padma, an evil magician also has his sights set on her. Padma is rendered seriously ill by a spell and Vijay searches for a cure. Along the way he meets his mother but they don’t yet realise their connection. She gives him a protective amulet which comes in very handy. He discovers the nefarious plot and after much travail, confronts Bhairava to set things to rights.

The story is very similar to the gorgeous 1951 film, Patala Bhairavi. And that is where the comparisons start. Where Patala Bhairavi was stunning and NTR was effortlessly charismatic, Bhairava Dweepam is a bit less magical and Balakrishna is more workmanlike in constructing his performance. The special effects in 1994 have not moved on all that much from 1951. I did wonder what my 1994 self would have thought, but in 1994 I had already seen films like Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). While there were some things about Legend I don’t care for (Tom Cruise for starters), it did look like a magical fairytale and the unicorns are beautiful. Compare and contrast these approaches to prosthetic horse makeup.

While I appreciate the spirit of making do, even if it does result in a grumpy looking horse with feathers stuck on, I was left a little underwhelmed. It was a mixed bag and often more amusing than enchanting.

There are other sequences involving a two headed rubber chicken dragon attacking the flying bed used to whisk Padma to the villain’s cave, some tiny miniature people who help Vijay obtain a magical necklace, a mirror monster in a peekaboo green rubber suit and so much more. It is kind of great but not really good. Ajooba-esque, perhaps. And there are some horse stunts that look horrible. One scene involved Vijay using a stick to trip horses, and not all of them looked like they were going to get up. I deducted Hero points from Vijay on seeing that tactic.

Balakrishna works harder than anyone else in the cast. Vijay is in almost every scene and usually throwing himself into a duel or bounding about rescuing the princess so this is a physically demanding role. If Balakrishna had been paid per leap he would have cleaned up. Vijay helps or liberates a number of magical beings along the way, and they give him valuable assistance in his quest. Balakrishna certainly has the confident swagger down pat even if his dancing is less than impressive. But making a film that is so similar to one of NTR’s acclaimed roles and trying to replicate his style is a big ask. I thought the same when I watched Sri Rama Rajyam. There is nothing wrong with his performance, but he doesn’t have the same expressive quality or panache and so comes off as less engaging. Tarak (NTR Jr) seems to take a slightly different tack by paying a tribute to his grandfather in his films but not trying to mimic him as closely. That allows for more individuality and he has developed a kind of everyman hero persona (with phenomenal dancing skills). Balakrishna is more closely tied to the legacy and so I find it hard to appreciate him as an individual actor, at least based on the handful of his films I’ve seen. Plus he will always be This Guy to me.

Roja is the love interest, Padma Devi. Padma is your standard damsel in occasional distress. She does nothing other than look sparkly, frolic with her handmaidens and wait to be rescued from Certain Death. Roja is pretty and lively, and she handles the numerous songs and dances easily. But I think she would have spent more time in hair and makeup than having to learn her few lines. I did wonder why, since Bhairava required a virgin for his spell, no one thought about how Padma could disqualify herself.

The supporting cast are all good without being outstanding. Rambha has one of the big musical numbers as Yakshini, the owner of both magical necklace and green mirror monster. Giri Babu and Subhalekha  Sudhakar play scheming brothers (and Vijay’s relatives) who not only depose their own father but have their eye on Padma’s kingdom as well.

K.R Vijaya is good as Vasundhara and she does get a couple of quite dramatic scenes, including a classic Nahiin Face Off with Balakrishna.

The design department certainly went for it. Their philosophy could be summed up as ‘all the colours, all the time’. Vijay has an extensive wardrobe of gaudy leggings and tunics, nicely accessorised with an array of ornate boots and matching wristbands. I was particularly impressed with the outfit that had canary boots to match the yellow terry-towelling trim and headband. Perfect for the active hero! Roja is very glittery, as are her attendants. Bhairava’s island cave lair is more impressive from the outside but he does have more than the usual number of talking statues so that was something. There are comedy demons that help Vijay, and they look like something straight out of the kindergarten dress up box.

Bhairava Dweepam is entertaining enough, but having seen it twice now I don’t think I’d invest the time on watching it again. See it for a relatively recent take on the folkloric blockbuster and for the sheer energy and enthusiasm of the cast. 3 stars! (But if you’re a diehard fan of Ajooba, add an extra star!)

Bhairava-Dweepam-Rabbit

Also – I love this production house emblem.