Rani Kasula Rangamma (1981)

I’m conflicted about this film. This was an Adventure Without Subtitles so I know there are some crucial dialogues I have missed but the action kind of speaks for itself. I’m going to go for a spoiler right off the bat as that sets the context for my thinking, and there are more spoilers to follow. And it’s a long read because I’m feeling ranty.

Sridevi gives an excellent performance and I really liked her character, the titular Rani Kasula Rangamma. Chiranjeevi excels in his negative role as he has the dramatic skill and isn’t reluctant to go there. Which brings me to my problem with the film.

What a horrible premise! The appropriate redress for rape is for the woman to marry her rapist. I know that the double standard of sexual propriety means that by surviving an assault she is ruined in the eyes of patriarchal society, and this was made in 1981. But it’s just revolting. And yet this is a really good film in so many ways, much more entertaining than it sounds when you know the plot, and with some decent surprises throughout. Director T.L.V Prasad keeps things moving along, with a tone midway between melodrama and thriller.

Rangamma (Sridevi) is a cheeky and quick witted village girl, confident she can look after herself, and well liked around the area. Seetanna (Nutan Prasad) has a crush on her and often daydreams about her reciprocating his feelings but that just leads to some terrible dancing.  Sukumar (Chiranjevi) and his camp friend, maybe meant to be a hijra, Kannayya (Rallapalli) turn up in the village. Kannayya goes and inspects farm workers and chooses a woman for Sukumar to rape. The deed is represented by a montage of a dove trying to escape from what looked like a stuffed hawk, but there is no ambiguity. He just goes home and has a conversation about marriage with his father (Kongara Jaggayya). Sukumar wants to enjoy life (and presumably, being a serial rapist) and says marriage has no meaning at all. His dad gives him A Look but says nothing.

Rangamma is frequently the object of unwanted male attention and has no qualms about fighting assailants and telling off a sleazy village elder (Allu Ramalingaiah) for planting wrong notions in Seetanna’s head. Sukumar and Kannayya spot her going to fetch water, and who wouldn’t find the sight of Sridevi frolicking in a river delightful. Sukumar makes numerous attempts to try and trap her. Eventually he takes a direct approach and corners her while she is alone in her own house. She puts up a hell of a fight but is bundled into the jeep and driven away, presumably so he could take his time. No hawk and dove montage here, the struggle looked far too real with both actors channelling strong emotions. Meanwhile Seetanna goes to her house to propose (I think) and sees the assault in progress. He catches up to the car but he gets knocked out, and Sukumar cheerfully gets on with his plan. Rangamma’s necklace seems to give her a sense of protection or a blessing, and she loses all fight when it is torn off. Afterwards Rangamma staggers out and picks up the thread Seetanna had brought for her. She demands Sukumar marry her now she has been ruined. He laughs at her naiveté, pushes her into a well, and leaves her for dead. Presumably he’ll be home in time for dinner with Daddy.

Sukumar’s dad hires a familiar looking young lady in a stylish western dress and hair do. When she takes a letter for Sukumar he freaks out at the sight of her but she calmly insists she is Roja, not this Rangamma person. He can’t leave her alone, and starts with his cat and mouse games trying to prove Roja is Rangamma. He’s not always on task though. He did sleaze on to Jayamalini x 2 after an item number. Eventually he takes a large sum of money to her apartment and seems to be either trying to buy her or make her leave. It doesn’t work as next thing you know, his dad is about to marry her.

Sukumar has a fit at the sight of her necklace and confronts her in front of everyone. Is she or is she not Rani Kasula Rangamma? Yes she bloody well is. He tries to tell his dad why she is unsuitable without incriminating himself but eventually he stumbles and she sees an opening. Rangamma tells him forcefully she will not let him weasel out of being responsible. And then his dad spills the beans – he knows all about what happened and has been plotting with Rangamma to reform Sukumar or at least make him marry her. And he does. Blergh! And she looks vaguely happy about it all. I get that she gains some social protection but…he’s an unrepentant serial rapist.

Sridevi is fantastic. She conveys a huge range of emotions from cheerful innocence through to vengeful anger and is always convincing and compelling. Rangamma is outspoken and articulate, never passive. Roja is a total contrast, her mild character and fashionable style designed to appeal to her rapist and throw him off guard. Their body language is usually very different but in scenes where Roja has had just about enough of all the useless men in the office cracking on to her, you suddenly see Rangamma in the set of her jaw or the way she positions her hands. I loved the casually wide eyed way she would play with Sukumar’s paranoia about her identity. There’s a scene where she gets to save Sukumar from a well, and her disdain and focus on the task plays beautifully off his panic and confused flailing.

Of course she gets to dance. I preferred the happy, carefree, folky numbers because the Indian clothing was much more flattering for her. But the 80s side by side prancing in a park was entertaining too, especially as you can see that back in those days Chiranjeevi had to work at keeping up with her.

Does that logo on his trackie jacket look a bit phallic? Life would be so much easier if all the potential rapists wore a badge. Chiranjeevi plays Sukumar as a devil in his own right but with a façade of filial respect when at home. He will still smoke and drink (and rape) but never in front of Daddy. It would have been very easy for this to be a caricature but Sukumar really starts to lose his marbles once he sees Roja. He doesn’t ever show any remorse for his crimes, but fear of being exposed drives him to try and prove Roja must be Rangamma. He doesn’t seem to have any friends but Kannayya, maybe because they are both outsiders in terms of what gets them off versus societal norms. He is vile but plausible and sometimes charming. And when he decides he might quite fancy Roja anyway, it is both understandable because she is lovely, and completely disgusting because has already raped and murdered her. Technically Chiru is in a supporting role but he dominates his scenes, unless Sridevi is there. Then it’s a nicely judged blend of dramatic tension and sheer charisma that also helped give these two characters depth.

This is probably a film for Sridevi or Chiranjeevi completists. I might have been slightly happier if the final shot was of him in jail, not getting married. The themes and some values are so very far from what I find acceptable, but it’s well made and well written and with great actors. 3 ½ stars!

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Govinda Govinda

Sri Devi is the main reason to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s film. She is wonderful as the plucky and caring Naveena, drawn into a mysterious plot involving religious nutters, dark rituals, and a dodgy taxi driver with anger management issues.

I watched this without subtitles and didn’t have too much difficulty following the plot, but wish I had been able to understand more of the conversations. Maybe things would have seemed more cohesive if I got the “as you know, Naveena” exposition. Or perhaps not.

The film opens with a religious back story to explain the significance of Venkateswara and the Tirumala Venkateswara temple at Tirupathi. And then the RGV factor kicks in and you can safely forget doctrine and logic as you know it. In the present day, an evil tantric commissions Paresh (Paresh Rawal) to steal Venkateswara’s crown from the temple. The relic combined with some human sacrifice will give the tantric ultimate power or something. Naveena (Sridevi) is a Telugu woman living in Bangkok. She returns to India to fetch her grandmother and take her back to Bangkok so they can live together. Seenu (Nagarjuna) is the taxi driver that picks her up from the station and takes her downtown. Seenu’s father, the temple security guard, is implicated in the theft, and little Babu (Master Anilraj), who Seenu calls Boss, is the only witness who can identify the real criminals. When Seenu and Babu go to Bangkok trying to clear the dad’s name, the kid wanders off and ends up on TV as a missing child. Naveena sees him and comes to the rescue, and is reunited with Seenu. Their lives are entwined on a level neither realises. Eventually all the ducks get in a fairly clumsy row, and it is time for Seenu and Naveena to try and thwart the tantric and save the world. It’s lucky for them that Vishnu had been sneakily keeping an eye on them all along.

The film is most alive when Sridevi is on screen. Naveena does a little of the scream-and-run heroine shtick but is largely sensible, thinks first, and tries to do things for herself even if it pushes her out of her comfort zone. Her outfits are a little…odd. I’ve never been a fan of the pedal pusher, and am on the fence when it comes to onesies. It’s hardly the worst character wardrobe Sridevi had to contend with. Perhaps Naveena was just veeeeery fashion forward, or maybe she was soft hearted and didn’t want Seenu to cop all the bad denim. There are some parallels with Kshana Kshanam although the story isn’t as strong. Naveena still has enough range as a character that Sridevi has something to work with. Whether she is being a clueless tourist or running for her life, she makes that moment feel real and with a sense of consequence.

Her cheeky expressions are an excellent distraction from the spectacle of Nag “dancing”, and the comedy is a good fit for her. Rewatching the movie to screencap for this review was so sad. Sridevi was well cast, had a decent and age appropriate costar, and a director who knew she was pure gold. Watching this did cheer me up a bit after reading so many Hindi-centric reviews of her career and best films. I firmly believe she did most of her best work in the South and if people have only seen her Hindi films, they’re missing out.

Nagarjuna is fine as Seenu. He’s probably the 90s hero I have seen the least of, so I don’t have a lot to compare this performance to. [Note: I hate the much vaunted Geethanjali with the fire of a thousand suns. Do not recommend it. Do. Not.] He is likeable as Seenu, lairising around with his highrise mullet, dressed in loud shirts and acid wash. He’s a good hearted guy even if he might be slightly dodgy when it comes to making a buck. Seenu is very close to his family, and seems proud of his father while not wanting to follow in his footsteps. The story is all over the pace and Seenu’s character is pretty flimsy and Nagarjuna does well to make him so engaging. His confusion and determination were equally believable, even when the situations were not. Some of his scenes with Sridevi are lovely as Seenu starts to realise his feelings, and he seemed to have a warm rapport with Master Anilraj who played Babu. His dancing style mostly consists of energetic walking with occasional bursts of pointing at things or people. But he kicks arse in the action sequences.

Paresh Rawal and Kota Srinivasa Rao are the main thieves, augmenting their gang with some dodgy foreigners. The extravagantly bewigged and made-up Dhir is the evil tantric, with a hint of depressed poodle in his styling. They’re all as horrible as you would expect, and overact like there will be no scenery to chew tomorrow. Kallu Chidambaram is an evil looking red herring. Annapurna plays Seenu’s mother and as you would expect, they’re quite sweet and natural with each other. Child actor Anilraj has no dialogue and that may be why I liked him so much.

As I have come to expect from RGV, the background score is loud and percussion driven. It works well to build a sense of urgency in some scenes but in others it is like someone rattling a tin full of buttons. And the Raj-Koti songs are forgettable, apart from the ungainly choreo and peak 90s Fashion and the obligatory item by Silk Smitha. I did like the way the film signals it belongs in a place and time. Characters listen to songs from movies of the day, there are signals that the audience would be immediately familiar with. So while there are exotic foreign locations, other than the sleazy girly bar we don’t do the rounds of tourist attractions. It’s quite grounded and a little bit grubby.

I’ve tried not to spoil the plot too much as there are some nifty set pieces, a few minor surprises along the way, and quite a ripping yarn if you just go with it. When RGV is good, he’s good. And when Sridevi is good she’s brilliant. 4 slightly teary eyed and sentimental stars!

Vetagadu (1979)

Vetagadu

K. Raghavendra Rao’s 1979 film is a classic featuring N.T. Rama Rao and Sridevi in a mystery/romance full of stupendous seventies fashion and glorious home décor. Jandhyala’s story seems to have all the required elements but despite having 2 DVD copies of this film that say ‘with English subtitles’ neither my copies, nor the versions available on YT are subtitled, so I’m really just going with my interpretation of events. And there is a lot going on. As well as a jewellery theft, there is a murder, a feud between two rich families, some shenanigans in a tea plantation, a tribal village with a propensity for celebrating by dancing, a cosy villain’s lair and a convoluted plot to expose the criminals. N.T. Rama Rao looks a little old to be romping around the forest and fighting off the bad guys, but he does it with plenty of style while Sridevi is simply stunning as the heroine trying to find out what really happened to her mother. Apologies for the poor quality of the screencaps – in addition to no subtitles the DVD’s are of equally bad quality.

The film starts with Gayatri (Pushpalata) performing a musical interlude for her family, including her husband Ananda Bhupathi (Jaggayya) and young daughter Roja, at what seems to be a house-warming for their new palace. During her performance Gayatri wears a super-sparkly necklace which quickly attracts the attention of the palace’s steward, Sivananam (Rao Gopal Rao). Sivananam hatches a plot to steal the necklace that involves kidnapping Gayatri the next time she attends the temple. However, Gayatri manages to escape from her captors and runs into the forest where she meets Kalyana Gajapathi (Kanta Rao), a friend of the family who lives in the neighbouring palace. Kalyana Gajapathi attempts to fight the kidnappers but is killed in the struggle, while Gayatri manages to give her necklace to a local tribesman before the thugs catch up with her too.

The film moves to the present day where Ananda Bhupathi has moved back to the city after losing his wife, and the young Roja has grown up into Sridevi. Sivananam has taken over running the estate where he runs various shady businesses, including trafficking young women, with the help of his son Hari (Satyanarayana). As with all good villains, Sivananam has a lair, which judging by the fishy view, appears to be underwater and is furnished with the usual accoutrements including a handy trap door and convenient crocodile for disposing of recalcitrant girls. Hari wanders around the tea plantation, acting as a lord of the manner in his fancy suits with matching hat and flower, selecting the women he wants and disposing of them in his father’s business.

Sivananam has grand plans to marry Hari and Roja, which he puts into action when Roja visits for a hunting trip. However, he’s reckoned without Raja (N.T. Ramo Rao), the son of Kalyana Gajapathi and a hunter still living in his father’s old palace. Roja meets Raja on her way to the forest and immediately dislikes his rather sleazy approach to romance. After crashing into her car and harassing her on the train, Raja then follows the tried and true method of tormenting Roja and stalking her to make her fall in love with him, but to Roja’s credit this doesn’t seem to work. However, Raja’s heart is really in the right place and when he rescues Roja from a gang of thugs she changes her mind and the two can get down to some serious prancing.

One night Roja hears music coming from the old abandoned palace, and when Raja investigates he finds a masked man attacking a young woman in the building. Further investigation leads him to suspect something shady is going on, but it’s not until he rescues another young tribal woman and meets her father (Chalapathi Rao) that he starts to put everything together. Since he’s a man of good sense, he enlists Roja’s help with his investigations, and between them they discover the real story of what happened to Gayatri and her necklace.

Of course that’s not nearly enough drama, so added in is a feud between Ananda Bhupathi and Raja’s family as he believes Kalyana Gajapathi was behind the theft of the necklace and disappearance of his wife, resulting in his refusal to allow Roja to marry Raja. There’s also something about a little girl who was killed in a road accident, who I think was Raja’s sister, which may explain why his father was off hunting in the forest when Gayatri went missing. Or may not – I’m not clear exactly how her death fits into the rest of the story. Naturally there is a comedy track too and Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah ham it up between them in a feud over one of the women from the tea plantation. There is also a rather sad and toothless tiger who gets dragged into the mix and is supposedly part of the ‘comedy’, but for the most part Nagesh and Allu Ramalingaiah play well off each other even if their antics seem rather dated now.

What helps Vetagadu immensely is the mystery-based storyline and the enthusiasm and energy of the leads. Rao Gopal Rao is good as the villain of the piece with a generally benevolent air as he plots and plans his way through various schemes. Satyanarayana is also excellent as his son, with all his affectations which he drops easily once he’s involved in a fight scene. There’s a particularly good moment where he swaps shoes during an item song to pick up some diamonds and has to carry off the disruption to his perfectly matched outfit. I do like his style!

But the real stars are NTR and particularly Sridevi who manages to make her romance with the ageing superstar reasonably believable. NTR helps things along by some energetic fight sequences and a number of good dance numbers including this one in the tribal village where he imagines Roja and himself as the lead dancers.

Sridevi is simply stunning and has plenty of scope to demonstrate the full range of her acting skills Her initial comedy scenes with Raja are good, and I definitely think she gets the upper hand even though she does eventually succumb to Raja’s charms, or at least his ability to get them out of a sticky situation. Roja also gets a chance to turn detective as she partners up with Raja to find out what happened to her mother and the heirloom necklace, vamping it up and flirting with Hari as well as schmoozing up to Sivananam. She’s also gorgeous in the dance sequences and manages to carry off the various ruffles and seventies fashion (even a crocheted dress) with plenty of style. NTR does well to keep up with her, and he’s excellent in scenes where he is chasing down the answers to the puzzle of his father’s disappearance and the mystery of the missing necklace.

Although the finale, where Raja attempts a disguise to fool Sivananam and Hari doesn’t work quite as well, the rest of the story is a good mix of romance and action, just the way a masala should be. I would love to see this properly restored with English subtitles but until then, this was an enjoyable watch, even without understanding the dialogue– worth it for Sridevi, N.T. Rama Rao and Chakravarthy’s catchy dance numbers. 3½ stars.