R…Rajkumar (2013)

R...Rajkumar

Prabhu Dheva (where did the extra ‘h’ come from?), the dance guru, directing Shahid Kapoor, one of the few Hindi actors who can dance – surely that has to be a good thing?

R...Rajkumar

Well… the premise is there, but in delivery R…Rajkumar is not as good as expected.  While the dancing is excellent (and it is fantastic to see a director make full use of Shahid’s talents in that respect), there are a few too many distasteful misogynistic moments to make this film anything other than just OK.  Shahid makes a reasonable attempt at masala served southern style, and his goofy shirts, dreadful hair and love struck Romeo are entertaining if somewhat reminiscent of Siddharth in Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana.  Although Shahid does his best, the story is standard fare, and adheres strictly to the usual Telugu formula complete with cartoonish fight scenes and ineffectual heroine.  It’s such a shame when all the ingredients are there to make a much better film, if only a little more thought had gone into the screenplay.

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Romeo Rajkumar turns up in a small town where two rival gangs are battling for control of the opium trade, managing to arrive just at the right time to save Chanda (Sonakshi Sinha) from a stray bullet. Simultaneously he falls deeply in love with her after just one brief glance – so deeply in fact, that the mere sight of his ‘lollipop’ (gah!) is enough to halt him in his tracks.   And I do mean completely stop – no matter what – even when taking part in an assassination or when driving the getaway car after another attack on a rival gang. Much hilarious comedy ensues. Well, to be fair, it is funny the first time or two, but it just gets repeated a few too many times.

Rajkumar signs up with Shivraj (Sonu Sood) and soon becomes one of his top men in the fight against rival gang boss Parmar (Ashish Vidyarthi) becoming good friends with Qamar Ali (Mukul Dev) in the process.  The first half is full of outrageous shirts, bad hair and some amazing dance moves from Shahid along with a brief appearance from Prabhu Deva himself.

R...Rajkumar

But while Shahid is blowing kisses and generally making an idiot of himself, there are darker scenes such as an apparent rape in the police station which is treated as an everyday occurrence and not worthy of further mention.  Further threats of violence and rape against the heroine are also treated as comedy and while some of the lewd dialogue is funny, most is offensive rather than comical.

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Sonakshi Sinha starts off as a feisty village girl with great attitude as she beats up a gang of louts who dare to wolf-whistle at her and her friends. She berates Rajkumar for his unwanted attentions repeatedly, until she manages to overcome her aversion to eighties hair and loud shirts and decides that maybe Rajkumar isn’t so bad after all. But that’s the end of any personality for Chanda, who rapidly becomes vapid and useless, totally unable to defend herself against her uncle and his plans for her marriage, and completely helpless in the face of Shivraj’s attempts to seduce her. It’s a role Sonaskshi Sinha has done many times in the past but she has less conviction in her character here, and it shows.  There is no energy in her performance and zero chemistry with her co-star which makes me wonder why Prabhu Deva didn’t pick someone like Trisha or even Charme Kaur (who turns up in a song) who surely would have brought more oomph to the role.

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Equally disappointing is Sonu Sood who is less menacing and more buffoonish than expected as a gang boss.  Ashish Vidyarthi is even more of a caricature as his rival, while Asrani is actually rather restrained in his role as spiritual advisor to Shivraj.  It’s bitter sweet to see Srihari appear here as the über villain Ajit Taaka, in one of his last appearances.  Generally he’s fine in spite of a rather unconvincing storyline and one rather bizarre scene where he appears gyrating with some bikini clad women on top of a hotel in (supposedly) Hong Kong. Best to just ignore and move along – when did masala ever have to make sense?

What does work well in the film are the songs by Pritam.  Prabhu Deva does an excellent job with the choreography, as for example here in Saree Ke Fall Sa where he uses the backing dancers and a few basic props to good effect.  The only exception is the last item song with Ragini Dwivedi and Scarlett Wilson which is shambolic with much less of a southern feel.

While the film initially feels like a series of short comedy sketches, everything slows down in the second half and becomes a little more serious with more fight scenes and fewer songs.  The inevitable final showdown is good, although I don’t think Shahid is quite as convincing in ‘back-from-the-edge-of-death’ recoveries as, for example, Shahrukh in Chennai Express, which does make the last fight scene funnier than I think it was meant to be. The film could definitely do with fewer rape references, and a more socially responsible hero would have made for less uncomfortable viewing.  Still, Shahid puts in a good performance and seeing him dance up a storm southern style, makes R…Rajkumar worth a watch, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights I expected.

R...Rajkumar

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Ko Antey Koti

Ko-Ante-Koti-

The vintage heist genre has been reinvigorated by the likes of Steven Soderbergh, Guy Ritchie, Choi Dong-Hoon, Abhinay Dey and Akshat Verma. Anish Kuruvilla adds his own stamp with Ko Antey Koti.

The rules of heist films require that the target must be audacious and the very elaborate plan must rely on split second timing and specialist skills. There will be loads of characters with unique talents and many of them are disposable. There must be at least one despicable villain who must have a grievance with the hero. Subplots abound, as do betrayals.  Add family or romantic tensions, a heap of flashbacks, and you’ve got the basics.

Ko-Antey-Koti-Sharwanand and SrihariKo-Antey-Koti-tired of running

Sharwanand is one of my least favourite Telugu actors but I will grudgingly admit he is improving a bit. He was terrible in the tedious Gamyam (I refuse to let Heather give me my DVD back), he had moments of adequacy in Prasthanam, and he manages to be convincing as Vamsi most of the time. Vamsi seems to be a criminal through lack of motivation to do anything else rather than any commitment to being an outlaw. Sharwanand is perfectly fine in conversational or romantic scenes. When he has to convey powerful emotions he seems to pause for an instant before deciding what expression to use, and so he seems stilted. Having said that, he has good rapport with Priya Anand and their scenes flow very nicely. He generally plays Vamsi as grumpy and whiny, so his lighter moments with Sathya and the troupe or with Chitti and PC are quite endearing.

Ko-Antey-Koti-Sathya rehearsingKo-Antey-Koti-happy times

There are few Indian cinema leading ladies that look as though they really could travel by public transport or know their way around a kitchen. Go on. Picture Katrina Kaif catching the 86 tram. Priya Anand has a freshness and natural vivacity that plays to great effect in this role. Sathya is a slightly unusual heroine by Telugu film standards as she has a brain and uses it. She is voluble and a bit too inclined to Do Good through street theatre, but her chatter is often a tactic to bulldoze over any objections.

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People find themselves doing as she asks even though they had no intention of agreeing. I’m not convinced that her dance students would learn much, but the kids seemed to enjoy leaping about with her. Sathya’s determination to lead a socially responsible life makes sense when more of her family story emerges. Her relationship with Vamsi is complicated by a shared connection neither knows of. The past is hard to escape, even when it isn’t your own.

Ko-Antey-Koti-Maya and the wigKo-Antey-Koti-Maya is angry

The late Srihari is the criminal mastermind, Maya. Maya is crude and has no love for anything except money. He uses people to get what he wants and has no compunction about terminating an association. Srihari dominates the confrontational scenes with total ease. This works quite well considering Vamsi and the other sidekicks are supposed to be relatively unthreatening. I questioned why he would hire so many idiots but all became clear. Srihari gives Maya a plausible charm, as long as you don’t look too closely at the calculating eyes. And you forgive the dodgy wig. It’s another in a long line of bellowing patriarchal figures for Srihari but he brings it and Maya is a despicable man.

Ko-Antey-Koti-Priya AnandKo-Antey-Koti-Vamsi

The romance between Sathya and Vamsi is developed in ways that are credible yet still entertaining. One of the things I liked most about Kuruvilla’s Avakai Biryani was the way relationships grew and were strengthened through shared small moments, and he is similarly detailed in this story. Even the romantic sideplot with Chitti and a prostitute was funny and a little touching. Sathya helps Vamsi because he needs help, not because she is smitten with insta-love for The Hero. She chooses to be a happy and good-natured girl, and her open heart allows Vamsi the opportunity to see himself as he could be if he made different choices.

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Anish Kuruvilla added some fun flourishes. Sparks literally fly when the couple kiss and no filmi cliché is overlooked as they prance through a gloriously pretty montage. Vamsi acts the part of an actor and proposes on stage, being more honest in his pretence than as himself.

Sex is treated in a non-scurrilous manner. Sathya was actually wearing more fabric when swaddled in her bedsheets than in any of her sarees. I cheer for a heroine who doesn’t have to die immediately after she sleeps with her boyfriend, and it is refreshing to see consensual and mutual attraction between the lead characters.  I also liked that Vamsi acknowledged Sathya’s right to have some input into a critical decision. It wasn’t a grand speech, but a moment that showed their pragmatism and trust in each other.

Ko-Antey-Koti-seedyKo-Antey-Koti-Sathya and Vamsi

Cinematographers Erukulla Rakesh and Naveen Yadav captured the different worlds the characters inhabit. The light is harsher and the shadows deeper in Maya’s criminal milieu, places full of twists and turns, the suggestion of hidden watchers. Vamsi and Sathya fall in love in a much more colourful and soft setting, a rural paradise and open skies that give space for dreams. The final scenes are in an arid landscape as everything is laid bare and no secrets remain. I really liked the styling of the seedy nightclubs, the squalid apartments, the activity humming through the street scenes. There is a strong sense of place and a modern feel to the sharp edits and angles.

Ko-Antey-Koti-PC and ChittiKo-Antey-Koti-comedy

The abundance of incidental characters can mean that characterisations are sketchy. Gluttonous PC (Nishal) and scrawny, one-eyed Chitti (Lakshman) play it as broad as can be. There is no subtlety. Perhaps because of my allergy to Indian film comedy, I was not even slightly sad to see some sidekicks bite the dust early on. If someone minor has a tragic backstory or is the butt of all jokes, do not bet on that character making it to intermission. Corrupt policeman Ranjit Kumar (Vinay Verma) is on the trail of the stolen goods and has his own grudge against Vamsi and Maya. He is a type rather than a realistic or subtle interpretation, but that wasn’t a drawback. The fun of this genre is the guessing and double-guessing rather than delving into a layered psyche.

The songs are used very well and to an extent they amplify characters’ inner lives. I was not overly impressed by the picturesque wandering and montages – I like a big dance number or two. Shakti Kanth has chosen to use different styles of music that match with the action and help build the atmosphere.

It’s refreshing to see a boys own adventure have interesting female characters. There is a little more realism to some of the relationships and there are some gorgeous visuals. The comedy sidekicks are neither funny nor interesting so I tuned out while they were doing their thing. I’m still not convinced by Sharwanand but Priya Anand and Srihari are great. Kuruvilla juggles the elaborate setup and flashbacks in a structured way that feels dynamic but is still logical so I never felt I lost the internal timeline. He’s a realist, especially about traffic and human nature. Well worth a look, especially if you like a more urban gritty thriller. 3 ½ stars!

Saroja

Saroja is a fairly standard thriller with a decent dose of dramatic tension thanks to some very good performances and loads of visual flair. I ordered the Tamil DVD but was sent the Telugu dub, which apart from the obvious difference also cast Srihari instead of Jayaram in a pivotal role. I quite like Srihari as an actor, and as I speak neither language subtitles are subtitles, so I was happy enough. I’ll be referring to characters by their names in the Telugu version.

Prakash Raj is Viswanatham, a successful Hyderabadi businessman. He is a self centred man, in an uneasy marriage and not giving his teenage daughter Saroja as much attention as he gives his breakfast.

That is until Saroja (Vega), is kidnapped. It’s one of my favourite Prakash Raj performances as he conveys fear, despair and regrets with only a scant amount of dialogue. His reactions and expressions are just perfect. There is a scene where he and his wife are watching home movies of Saroja. They can’t look at each other as they have an intimate conversation that is realistically awkward and painful.

The depth of characterisation established so simply helped me care about what happened to Saroja since it meant so much to her father.

Saroja gets an intro song about girl power and the evils of alcohol, which she delivers after sneaking out of her window to get to the gig. She is largely absent until late in the film as the drama is centred on the police operation to find her, but her character is established as resourceful and independent.

Srihari is Viswa’s friend Ravi, a charismatic policeman who takes on this very personal case. Srihari running isn’t exactly a greyhound so the chase scenes had me worried, but he is an authority figure and pillar of strength. Ravi orchestrates the police activity to recover Saroja and is on hand to witness the devastating effect the kidnapping has on his friend. There is a bit more complexity to his role than just a standard crusading cop though and Srihari and Prakash Raj share some excellent eye to eye moments. I don’t really buy his excuse for something he does, but it wasn’t a big deal overall.

There is a second storyline that will collide with the straightforward police procedural. It centres on a group of friends, totally unrelated to Viswanatham and his concerns.

Vaibhav is Rama Swamy.  The girl he loves (Kajal Aggarwal in a brief appearance) gets engaged to his friend Ajay. He is trying to make the best of his lot and comes across as a moody but not unpleasant guy. Ajay (Shiva) is a soap actor who thinks he is a little more special than he is, and tries to get by on what he considers to be charm. He gets some of the better intentionally funny lines as he cites his TV serial commitments as a reason for avoiding anything he doesn’t want to do. Rama’s older brother Renga Swamy (SP Charan) is the average guy – happy, married with a daughter, middle class, comfortably podgy. Premji Amaren (brother of the director) is the comic relief, Ganesh, and almost every time he opened his mouth I wanted to kill him. To be fair, his straight dramatic scenes were good and a few of the jokes were funny.  Every time he saw a pretty girl, badly dressed angels would cavort around her, and the angels got grumpier as they had to keep reappearing for different girls.

But the comedy track mostly involved Ganesh acting stupid and grimacing wildly. If you find a man screaming his lungs out at the sight of a rat, or telling everyone loudly why he has to be quiet, funny maybe you’ll like him more than I do.

The boys set out on a roadtrip from Chennai to Hyderabad to go to a one day match. After driving for a few hours, including about 257 snack and pee breaks as well as a run in with Brahmi, they are delayed by a major road accident and decide to take an alternate route.

The storylines intersect when the guys take a wrong turn in the dark and end up in a spooky factory complex occupied by the imposing Sampath (Sampath Raj) and his gang, who have Saroja captive. The adrenalin rises from this point until the film’s conclusion as the boys try and extricate themselves from their perilous situation and accidentally seem to be rescuing the girl. There is always time for a dance break though! Kalyani (Nikitha) and Sampath entertain the troops and I have to say seeing all the bad guys in a dance number was a lot of fun.

The ‘heroes’ and the baddies are ordinary guys and the fights and chases are consistent with that. There are no amazing flying leaps and stunts, but there is a strong feeling of the fear and effort in those scenes which is amplified by the lighting and composition of the shots and Saravanan’s cinematography is impressive. Even when things got less believable, the characters remained true to themselves and didn’t develop superpowers. There is some question in my mind as to how well these guys could navigate an unfamiliar place in the dead of night, but whatever. I thought Vega was convincing and in most scenes looked like a school girl. There were signs of a romantic attraction between her and Ram that I thought was a bit not right in view of their character ages. It’s just a fleeting thing but was it necessary for it to be there at all?

The Yuvan Shankar Raja (Venkat Prabhu’s cousin – what a family) soundtrack is good and the range of musical styles supports the full span of the drama. While the songs are well placed in the story, I’m not sure all the picturisations were necessary. The montages sometimes caused a break from the overall mood as they were even more stylised than the rest of the film. The direction relies on gimmicks but that visual interest and excitement helped to give a standard plot a bit of freshness. The story doesn’t completely rely on the visuals so I didn’t feel it was too glossy for its own good. The performances, especially Prakash Raj’s, are compelling on their own.

It’s a film where the outcomes probably won’t surprise anyone, but the way those things happen might. If you want a modern looking comedy/drama/thriller that’s not too heavy on gore and showcases some good character actors, give this a go.  4 stars!

Heather says: Saroja has all the right ingredients to make a good film with an interesting story, excellent cast lineup and snappy dialogue. But it suffers a little from a very long set up with perhaps too much detail in some scenes and not enough in others. There are also a few scenes where the action takes place in poorly lit sets and I found it very hard to tell what was going on. However, once past the slow beginning, it’s a very enjoyable watch as it blends comedy with action and drama in a way that is rare in Tamil cinema. I do like the way the action is preceded with a date and time stamp in the opening sequences as it gives the feel of an American cop show and plants the idea that time is important. Although perhaps this isn’t followed up quite as well in later scenes. The introductions to the various characters are generally good, but I would have preferred director Venkat Prabhu to spend a little more time with Saroja’s family. It is clear that Viswanathan is caught up in his work and doesn’t have time for his daughter, but I think a little more information about the family dynamic would have made their characters more sympathetic. It took more time to get a feel for Saroja and her father as a result, although this may very well have been intentional, as we learn about the family as the film goes on, just as the four friends do.

The interaction between the friends is well done, and feels very realistic. Perhaps it’s not quite as realistic though that they remain undiscovered sneaking around the bad guys’ lair with all of their arguing and long conversations. But the comedy in these was good and the story was well played out in these scenes. The action sequences, at least those that are visible, are also well choreographed and there are some really good ideas in the execution of the various fight sequences.

I liked the twist at the end which I did not see coming at all, although I thought the justification by the villain was rather weak. In it for the money alone might have worked better, but it was still a good ending. I also enjoyed the comedy with Ganesh seeing angels appearing around pretty girls. All of the four characters worked well for me as they each had some endearing character traits and some really off-putting ones – just like in real life. They seemed like much more normal guys than typical filmi heroes which makes the film more interesting to watch.

This is the first of Venkat Prabhu’s films I’ve seen and it’s inspired me to find his others. I’d say skip over a lot of the set-up and then sit back to enjoy a really good action comedy. 3 ½  stars.