Nagadevathe (2000)

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Sai Prakash’s 2000 film Nagadevathe is snakecentric, packed with special effects, and Soundarya and Prema are more than capable of shouldering the lead roles. The film is available on Youtube in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu so you can choose your own adventure without subtitles, and it has also been dubbed into Hindi under the title Naag Shakti.

The story as I believe it to be goes something like this. Gauri is regarded as a bad luck omen in her village, possibly just because she is barren. She and her husband offer hospitality to Shiva and Parvati who are pretending to be travellers. The gods tell Gauri why she is infertile – she accidentally killed a clutch of snake eggs and has been cursed. But they tell her how to stop them from continuing to punish her. Soon after, Gauri discovers she is pregnant. A difficult labour nearly ends badly but a glowing mystical snake appears and turns into Nagamma (Soundarya), who ensures a safe birth. There is a backstory involving a man who foolishly kills a snake and is cursed, his household goods transforming to snake mounds. He and his family do penance and after giving the deceased snake a proper funeral, his home is restored. Nagamma moves in to the termite hill to keep an eye on them or something. A shrine is built around the main snake mound and over time, more and more people come to pay their respects to the snake goddess. Nagalakshmi is born to be a devotee of Nagamma, and they have quite a warm and personal bond right from Nagalakshmi’s birth. Grown up Nagalakshmi (Prema) meets Shivaji (Sai Kumar) and love blossoms. There is some kind of conflict between their families and I couldn’t work out if it was an old feud, the rich boy poor girl thing, or just garden variety mother (deliberately turning her son into an evil possessed snake) issues. Nagamma tries to protect her favourite humans, and they could all benefit from some better decision making. Things get worse before they can get better, and the effects team are kept busy with magical healings, snake assists, helpful talking parrots, attack vultures, heaven, hell and the kitchen sink.

I enjoy the snake film genre for a few reasons. Often the female characters are more prominent and powerful or more nuanced, or both, and that makes me happy. There is usually a pervading sense of right in the film’s world as the snakes are able to enact justice that is missing for the masses. Snakes may act out of common sense or compassion, unlike many non-magical humans. Snakes are alert to every opportunity to get their groove on, with varying degrees of success along the scale from Jeetendra to Sri Devi. And the outfits are frequently a bit special. On many levels, from the very shallow to only slightly less shallow, Nagadevathe delivers.

I think Soundarya is lovely and in this film she maintains an air of benevolent authority in even the most trying times. Given that she often only has her face to act with (the rest of her having been replaced by a giant CGI snake), she does very well.

In one scene reminiscent of Ammoru, Nagalakshmi has summoned guests to eat at a special pooja. They are turned back by the Evil In-Laws but Nagamma calls on her sister deities to come along. She gets the undivided attention of the effects and saree teams as she personifies water, wind, earth, fire and more.

I admit to some disappointment that despite a most excellent spangly body suit, the obligatory “nagin assailed by been-wielding baddies” scene resulted in a disappointing dance. More like she was rolling around on the floor looking for a lost (blue) contact lense at times.

I liked Prema a lot in Devi, and her performance is solid. She has a flirty but down to earth tone with Sai Kumar, and a nice rapport with Soundarya. Prema is tall and elegant looking but has an energy that lends equally well to comedy and romantic shenanigans. Nagalakshmi has the strength and faith to stay on task and Prema really showed the power and intensity of her determination as well as her softer side. I could see why the snakes would want to chip in at her wedding. She was a good friend and fundamentally nice without being a pushover. Nagalakshmi knows what’s what and once she finds out the truth of her situation she takes steps to protect her loved ones and engage some divine assistance to sort out the problem. I recalled musing on the toxicity of Chiru’s bodly fluids in Punnami Nagu, and Shivaji also appears to have a lethal, um, bite. I have never been so glad to see so many silly interruptions of a wedding night.

Sai Kumar is Shivaji. He seems so nice and yet… When his snake nature dominates he is predatory and poisonous. Now I was confused as to how a snake goddess could be unaware her favourite disciple was marrying a serial killer faux snake, but maybe there are cosmic rules about that kind of snake-by-venomous-inoculation. Shivaji was unaware of his snakey activities and oblivious to the black magic worshipping going on around him. Nagalakshmi was often in peril and I was quite worn out from yelling at the screen for her husband to either wake up to himself or to get away from her. I’m more used to seeing Sai Kumar as a villain or an elder statesman so seeing him as a romantic lead was novel. Even if the effects team did seem to take too much pleasure in distorting his face into a snakelike mask.

The support cast includes stalwarts Babu Mohan, Tanikella Bharani, and other familiar faces doing familiar shtick. I couldn’t put names to all the faces but I was largely able to place which characters were Good and which were Not Good.

I did get a little confused at times since without the benefit of subtitles, I rely on the visual cues. Thankfully the signs are generally clear and umabiguous. Nagamma’s arch enemy is an evil mystic who favours an eagle motif and prances about in a shiny red outfit with a fluttering black cape. I liked that his cape was attached to the sleeves of his onesie as that helped ensure some vigorous and character appropriate flapping. The effects team worked themselves into a lather of laser eyes, snake shaped shadows, nasty afflictions, sparkly things, space monsters and of course giant multi-headed cosmic snakes.

Some key scenes are very similar to ones from Devi (1999) or even Ammoru (1995). Although this time around Prema was not the cosmic snake, and Soundarya was the powerful goddess. The story is laden with a bit of everything and the commitment to the theme is unquestionable. I can’t say the commitment to logic is equal.

See this if you like to see competent actresses take centre stage and if you enjoy a bit of a spectacle en route to a good comeuppance. 3 ½ stars!

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Padayappa

Padayappa

Many thanks to regular readers Violet and KB for suggesting Padayappa (1999) when I asked for Ramya Krishnan film recommendations. I believe that director K.S. Ravikumar cast her after seeing Ammoru, and I understand why. Padayappa has an amazing cast, an often incredible story, and all the trappings of a revenge drama custom built for superstar hero Rajinikanth. It also has a strong female antagonist that was perfect for Ramya Krishnan, who won the Tamil Filmfare Best Actress for the role. The support cast includes such talented actors as Sivaji Ganesan and Soundarya, along with Manivannan, Lakshmi, Nasser and even a brief appearance by Prakash Raj.

Padayappa (Rajinikanth) comes home to attend a family wedding. He falls in love with poor but honest Vasundhara (Soundarya) however overseas educated rich girl Nilambari (Ramya Krishnan) decides she must have him for herself. Her branch of the family is riddled with self-serving weaklings and their machinations help hasten the death of Padayappa’s father, played by legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan. Padayappa stays in the village to support his mother and sister, sort out the cheating relatives, and also to try and woo Vasundhara. The conflict between Nilambari and everyone who gets in her way is the main focus, although there are the obligatory comedy tracks and lots of rousing speeches.

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In Padayappa Rajinikanth is Superstar Rajni the Hero rather than using his considerable acting skills for a fully developed character that required any subtlety. The thing I always find admirable about Rajni is that he commits to the role and to the style of film he is in, and that conviction makes even the most preposterous shenanigans seem somehow right.

Padayappa is moral, righteous and has absolutely no self-doubt. He has all the trademark Rajni mannerisms from the snappy salute with whooshing sound effects, the cigar trick, the ability to force his enemies to attack him one by one and at a pace that allows him to win, the power to make multiple cars explode just by looking at them. There is some light and shade as Padayappa gets all silly and tongue-tied around Vasundhara, or as he grieves for his family’s losses but he is less a character and more a personification of Heroic Values.

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Confession – I am so fond of Rajni that I really don’t care that his fight scenes are implausible or his ‘dancing’ quite terrible. But I could have done without the shirtless flexing.

I rarely take issue with the (usually considerable) age gap between Rajni and his heroines. Maybe it’s because I discovered him comparatively recently so to me he has always been an elder statesman of film. And to some extent his reputation overshadows any character he plays.  He’s Rajinikanth!

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Nilambari is compelling yet totally unlikeable. A spoilt girl who never took no for an answer, Nilambari often does things more likely to be done by the hero – she stalks the hero, she grabs him and kisses him in front of everyone at a wedding then saunters off casually, she torments her rival (the lowly Vasundhara) and threatens anyone who tries to obstruct her.

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Ramya Krishnan gave Nilambari a beautiful façade over a twisted and arrogant core. It is great to see an actress capable of such expression and subtlety and who is not afraid to reveal the ugliness of a character’s dark side. She took it up to Rajinikanth and more than held her own in their confrontational scenes.

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Nilambari’s outfits improved but her attitude never did.

There is a village tradition that couples should only marry when both want to, either through love or mutual agreement. Padayappa rebukes Nilambari saying a good woman should be well-mannered and demure, so it’s not exactly progressive but I liked seeing girls get a voice too.

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Vasundhara (Soundarya) is Padayappa’s ideal woman. She is a servant in Nilambari’s household, but her family used to be wealthy. Devout and domesticated as well as very pretty, Vasundhara obviously likes Padayappa too. She and Rajni seem to have nice rapport and the courtship is more about shy conversations and sideways glances. It’s quite cute if predictable. Soundarya does well to build up a character that is only lightly sketched out by the screenplay and dialogue. I did yell at Vasundhara a couple of times to STOP TRUSTING NILAMBARI. Luckily her devotion earns her some snake assisted escapes from near certain death.

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Soundarya also does an excellent job of dancing around Rajni in their songs together. She often has a cheeky smile on her face, so Vasundhara might have a colourful fantasy life to balance her dutiful side.

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The dynamic between Padayappa and Nilambari was interesting as this is an instance where the hero is quite passive. Padayappa doesn’t do anything to torment or punish Nilambari other than be happily married to the one he loves. She is insignificant to him, and that is what drives her insane.

The song picturisations have all the colour and excitement I expected. AR Rahman’s music is a good fit and his use of recurring motifs helps express the characters inner lives.

Minsara Poove sees Nilambari dancing her feelings for Padayappa as he sings for Vasundhara. It’s very pretty, apart from the bits that are happening in Nilambari’s fantasy. She really needed a better dream wardrobe designer. Suthi Suthi is colourful, with giant puppets and lots of costume changes for Soundarya and Rajni. Kikku Yerudhey is a little out of place in terms of the story and I think it was only there to get Rajni prancing about with lots of young girls (Padayappa’s daughter’s school friends) and drunk uncles. Or maybe just to let the director make his trademark cameo appearance.

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There are fight scenes, cars stunts, a murderous cow (not a euphemisism for Nilambari) and all manner of excitement as well as the revenge and drama.

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Padayappa’s friends are largely there to provide comic interruptions but they also do an excellent line in relationship advice and support (and hiding behind trees).

Padayappa-Sivaji Ganesan and Lakshmi

The legendary Sivaji Ganesan had a small but pivotal role as Padayappa’s father and was still quite magnetic. Lakshmi made the most of her big scenes as the surprisingly fierce mother. The always excellent Manivannan made his character despicable and yet pitiful while Nasser was just despicable.

Padayappa-Prakash Raj

And a quite svelte Prakash Raj was a nice bonus as a police officer. The casting budget for this film must have been enormous.

At almost 3 hours Padayappa does drag occasionally but just as I was thinking that surely things must settle down, K.S. Ravikumar would ramp up the action. See it for a classic village family revenge masala style story with a first class cast and loads of colour and movement. 4 stars!

Ammoru

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Ammoru is a 1995 film combining mythology and religion with a family drama. Directed by Kodi Ramakrishna, strong performances, a well plotted story and well modulated pace ensure this never gets dull. I like the socio-fantasy and mythological genres and Ammoru has plenty of the elements I find interesting and entertaining.

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An entire village is praying to be saved from an illness when a mysterious lady approaches. A kindly woman offers her a meal and shelter after the stranger had been turned away from food dedicated to the deity. In return, the mystery woman makes an infusion of neem leaves and directs the village lady to sprinkle it in front of every house but, whatever she does, not to look back. The stranger will watch over the lady’s house until she returns. Of course she looks, and sees Ammoru in her full glory. Knowing that the goddess would leave the village at the conclusion of the task, the lady kills herself to avoid returning and Ammoru stays and becomes the resident deity. Some years later, the orphan Bhavani is in danger from rapacious Leelamma and her black magic practitioner son Gorakh. Bhavani stopped Gorakh from burying a young girl alive in a ritual to gain his wish so he was not a fan. Leelamma wanted to marry her own daughter off to wealthy Surya, but he married Bhavani to rescue her from Leelamma instigated humiliation. A lifelong devotee of Ammoru, Bhavani is protected time and time again by the goddess. But just when things are at their darkest, Bhavani sends her protector away and compels her not to return unless certain conditions are met.

Ramya Krishna dominates as Ammoru although her screen time is limited. Her appearance as the goddess is stunning. The make-up and special effects teams do a great job of making her beautiful yet terrifying, especially when her vengeful nature is stirred.

Also playing an aspect of Ammoru is Baby Sunayana – a preternaturally wise child with a high pitched creepy giggle. I did wonder why no one remarked upon the smoke, coloured lights and echoey vocal effects that often accompanied her, but that is a mere detail. She happily torments Bhavani’s enemies, rarely confronting them directly but making sure their plans go awry. As the little maid, Sunayana is playful but intense with expressive eyes. She conveys maturity and substance despite an unfortunately shrill voice and holds her own in some dramatic scenes with Soundarya.

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One scene I particularly like is when Ammoru invites her sister deities to attend a ceremonial lunch after Leelamma turned away the intended mortal guests. The goddesses looked matronly and regal and the interplay of everyday and supernatural was striking but not overemphasised. The film often points to a gulf between religious belief and day to day practice. Ammoru is a mother figure, but she is all for tough love. She rewards those who do right and who try to help themselves.

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Soundarya delivers an accomplished performance as Bhavani. While the character is a bit dim at times, she has a backbone so there is ample range for the actress to do more than look winsome. She grows from a shy girl to a happy confident new bride who enjoys married life, but when Surya leaves for the USA her in-laws go on the attack. Her baby is targeted and her reputation is in tatters. Undermined and made to doubt her own sanity, Bhavani grows progressively weaker. But when Surya’s life is under direct threat Bhavani throws manners aside and demands Ammoru repay some of the devotion she has been given over the years.

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Soundarya transforms from meek to angry and demanding without seeming a caricature. It is a pity that Soundarya died young as she had the ability to play such a range of characters and emotions that her career should have been long and interesting.

But this is by no means a feminist film. Men still rule the roost, with Surya (Suresh) casually disregarding Bhavani’s preferences and generally ordering people about regardless of whether he knew what was going on. He also demands proof before offering obeisance to heaven, which is unwise I think when dealing with a goddess who claims Durga and Yellamma among her names. A girl who is almost raped is told she has to marry the rapist as that is the only way to preserve her honour.

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The fact that her own mother set the attempt up but intended Bhavani to be the victim did quell a little of my outrage. As did the bizarre sight of the near victim mopping sweat off her attacker with her chunni. And his complaint that he had already raped two women that day so he was a bit tired. As she is a low caste orphan, no one except the old priest takes Bhavani’s situation seriously.

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Rami Reddy plays the vile Gorakh with uninhibited nastiness. He is driven by overwhelming greed for wealth and power, and uses black magic as a means to that end. He is protected by an evil spirit and believes he is invincible. He was certainly hard to get rid of, surviving many a setback including having his head set alight. His mother Leelamma (Vadivukkarasi), despite having no paranormal tendencies, is even worse. She knows exactly what she is doing and feels no compunction at belittling and torturing Bhavani in an elaborate scheme to separate her from Suresh. While the baddies planning skills are a bit suspect there is no doubt about their commitment. Kallu Chidambaram is a hapless and occasionally demonically possessed servant and Babu Mohan rounds out the family.

The soundtrack is also very effective (despite that child’s playback singer’s voice). This isn’t a big song and dance film, the music is used mostly to create or enhance the atmosphere.

Ammoru-effects

The production design is great and the village scenes are pretty but not too sanitised. The effects used for Ammoru’s interventions and her manifestations are surprisingly good for 1995. Some scenes look a bit cut and paste but the effects budget was used wisely for the big impact moments. I think it helps that the things depicted are not just everyday objects and incidents, so artistic leeway is available for how power is illustrated.

While I don’t like some of the plot points, Ammoru compensates with excellent actresses given room to shine, and strong visuals that help tell the story. The story is gripping at times and while I could guess at the ending, I didn’t see all the twists and turns coming. Highly recommended. 4 ½ stars!