Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019)

Surender Reddy’s history inspired epic is indeed epic. The sets are impressive, the set pieces are huge, the cast includes almost everyone working in Telugu films plus some ring-ins. And to top it off, Chiranjeevi. Very few things will compel me to see a movie at 7am. Chiru is one of those things.

It’s hard when you want to cram a lot of exposition into a ripping yarn, and Reddy fumbles the pace. Pawan Kalyan narrates,  Anushka Shetty makes a welcome yet probably unnecessary cameo as Rani Lakshmibai, using the story of Narasimha Reddy (Chiranjeevi) to inspire her outnumbered troops. And eventually we get to the main event – Narasimha Reddy, all grown up and ready to rumble. From there the remainder of the first half is about the local battle against Jackson, a sadistic white supremacist. The second half has to regain momentum for the final conflict with the even more revolting Cochrane, wearer of bad hats and owner of a mysterious black panther just to ram home his villainous leanings. Along the way Narasimha Reddy is mentored by his guru, supported and challenged by his peers, and adored by all women. But he is always hated by the Brits and he returns their enmity in spades. The film jumps around visually and looks amazing, the geography is frequently mystifying, but the narrative is dead linear and predictable. With lots of repetition for the people who decide to make important phone calls or switch seats several times during the movie.

Reddy does some things to perfection, and he gives Chiranjeevi some impressive hero entrances. He balanced the spiritual and the legendary heroic aspects along with the Megastar obligation to provide something familiar yet extraordinary with each return. But there are also some poor directorial choices and I really do have to get this off my chest now. I know this is a ye olden days film, I know they made some gestures towards historical accuracy….but no dancing?!? Chiranjeevi NOT DANCING AT ALL?!! Seriously. Walking around and pointing during a song is not enough. Could he not get his folky festival appropriate groove on with his people just once? Some of the fire twirling guys looked understandably nervous so maybe they could have used some Megastar spark instead.

 

Surender Reddy uses tight closeups on Chiranjeevi’s face as Narasimha Reddy absorbs news or prepares to roar inspiration or threats. Chiru goes all in, whether he is comforting a child or dismembering an enemy. It’s all about that commitment and the Mega charisma that makes you believe that people would follow him into a war, believing he is a chosen one. The action scenes allow him to kill in varied ways and with great gusto, busting out the athleticism and grace we don’t get to see in a dance (yes, I’m bitter about it). I especially enjoyed Jackson’s comeuppance as it drew upon earlier skills demonstrated so there was a pleasing blend of “oh, of course!” and WTFery. Despite being at a 7am show there was vocal appreciation of the gore and creative ways of killing. The special effects around the actors and stunt performers in the war and fight scenes worked pretty well, but some other effects were a bit amateurish and made what should have been impactful look silly. That was a blessing in parts, as if the CGI was better a couple of scenes would have been seriously traumatising.

The wig department is there for Chiru every step of the way. He has his fluffy Romance Hair, and two variants of Action Hair (one with man bun, one without). His outfits are detailed but not overwhelming or fussy, and avoid the period costume trap of looking like he’s been upholstered rather than tailored. He sported a nicely woven war sandal so I was pleased to see some appropriately statement footwear too.

Nayanthara had the clumpy eyelashes of a perpetual crier while Tamannaah had perfect eyelashes for flirting or murderous rages. And there’s about all the character development you get. Both actresses deliver what they can, but all the women in this story are required to do is support and/or sacrifice. Tamannaah plays a dancer but mostly sings, exhorting people to join the rebellion. She has a lovely, very sad, scene that made me sad because there was no room in the film for her acting ability. Nayanthara plays Sidhamma as shy and hopelessly worshipping her man. Again, she added some delicate touches to her characterisation but that may have been professional pride because I suspect the direction was “Stand there. Then go stand there. And cry.”

The gang of chieftains are largely undifferentiated, but a few make more substantial contributions. Mukesh Rishi got no love from the wig department so the hat team went all out for him. Brahmaji does his usual furious faces. Ravi Kishan got an economy wig and no moral compass to speak of. Jagapathi Babu is quietly compelling as Veera Reddy, a believer grappling with the consequences of betrayal. My favourite was Sudeep’s Avuku Raju. He dripped disdain, his silent reactions were anywhere from menacing to hilarious, and his frenemy dynamic with Narasimha Reddy was absolutely beautiful. The biggest supporting cast cheer was for Vijay Sethupathi as Tamil leader, Raja Paandi. Amitabh Bachchan as the lugubrious Guru Gosayi Venkanna got no response at all. I actually disliked his character. Mentoring is one thing but being a manipulative puppet master is something else.

The European actors range from adequate to terrible. It doesn’t require great subtlety to be a despicable cartoonish villain, so the patchy acting and clunky dialogues didn’t bother me too much. I did like that the film doesn’t pussy-foot around the British attitude that dark skinned people were inferior, and that nobody pretended the conflict was about anything but money and resources. The patriotic aspects of Narasimha Reddy’s fight got a great response from the audience and we all enjoyed seeing the white guys get what was coming to them.

The subtitles are largely OK but there are some strange errors. The subs express asking for forgiveness or offering an apology as asking for an apology regardless of context, which was confusing. Some things were overly literal and not meaningful. I particularly liked the subtitles that explained an accomplishment as “He is a great man. He has mastered the art of holding his breath in water”. Greatness may await us all, friends! And whoever was on spell checking left us with gems like “Your’s Sincerly”. Such a big budget film, and so little respect for the dialogues. Sigh.

Yes, there’s a story. Yes, there’s some History. Yes, there is a huge cast. Yes, it’s a film on a massive scale. And yet it all rests on Chiranjeevi. He delivers so much of the success of the film but can’t quite overcome the flaws. One to see on the big screen if you can, just to appreciate the grandeur, the guyliner, and the wigs.

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Puli (2015)

Puli

Chimbu Deven’s latest film may be set in a fantasy world of strange creatures and magical beings, but the story itself is mundane without any of the epic sweep required for such a tale. It’s also slow going, with most of the first half a dreary romance between Marudheeran (Vijay) and Pavazhamani (Shruti Haasan), although it does improve post interval once Sridevi and Sudeep appear onscreen. Despite the numerous fight scenes and explicit violence, the simplistic plot seems to be aimed more at children, with every obstacle easily overcome and the obvious outcome never in any doubt. That may also explain the relatively bloodless scenes of dismemberment and general carnage that would more usually be awash with gallons of fake blood, but instead the fight scenes here are frequently lacklustre, dull and repetitive. However there are a few reasons to watch, mainly down to Sridevi in her extravagantly evil queen avatar, good special effects and the always reliable Sudeep and Vijay.

Puli tells the story of a land which has been invaded and settled by a race of demons, who have enslaved the native humans. These Vedalam are easily recognisable by their blue eyes, tendency to sprout fangs when annoyed and ability to fly though the air, although their spiky armour and general arrogant grumpiness are a more distant and therefore safer method of identification. The young Marudheeran arrives in one of the subjugated villages as a baby, floating in a basket on the river, along with a mysterious egg that hatches into a talking bird. The talking bird is pretty well done as far as special effects go, and I was expecting it to be important to the plot in some way, but it really isn’t. Even though there is a sort of reason for the bird’s inclusion at the end, basically it’s a very under-utilized special effect that didn’t need to be able to talk and doesn’t get much chance to do so anyway. Overall this illustrates the problem with most of the special effects in the film. Although they are well done, the effects dazzle for a moment but are then relegated to background noise and ultimately have little to add to the plot. It’s a shame as the film looks fantastical but the uninspired story keeps it earthbound.

Marudheeran is adopted by one of the villagers and is trained by his stepfather in fighting and disguise as part of a general communal wish to overthrow the demons. However once Pavalamalli (Shruti Haasan) returns to the village, Marudheeran spends his time chasing after his childhood friend, much to the displeasure of her parents. Just as Marudheeran and Pavalamalli get married in secret, she is stolen by the demons and Marudheeran sets out with his trusty friends Thambi Ramaiah and Sathyan to rescue her from the impregnable city of Vedalakottai. They plan to disguise themselves as demons to get into the city and then hope they can find Pavalamalli and get out again, but that’s it in terms of preparation. There is no attempt to deal with the epic scale of such an endeavour and make the journey and planning part of the adventure. This means there isn’t any sense of danger or excitement, just a pedestrian slog to find the city and rescue the girl. Nothing new, and could just as easily have been set in the present time anywhere in India with much the same plot and ending.

Still, there are plenty of good ideas in Puli, it’s just that they get such short shrift and don’t have as much impact as they should. For example, Marudheeran and colleagues meet a race of miniature people where there is a brief ‘we can show you the way’ moment and then the little people are used mainly for comedy. However the effects and the cinematography are once again very good, with clever use of seeds and leaves as clothing, and wonderful peanut shell blouses that are simply inspired!

Unusually, Vijay doesn’t fit as the hero of the film as well as he should, at least initially. His introduction and the subsequent fight scenes establish his character as more of a trickster and comedian while his pursuit of Pavalamalli is pedestrian and lacking animation. It’s not until the second half of the film where he comes up against his nemesis General Jalatharangam (Sudeep) that Marudheeran starts to properly fill the role of the warrior hero and Vijay gets a chance to throw his energy fully into the part. Just about at this time though there is a flashback sequence where Vijay plays his father – a man born to be in a shampoo commercial and doomed by his reliance on slow-mo fighting and accompanying wind-machine. I did appreciate Vijay’s mastery of the hair toss though and once he gets into full warrior mode, there is no stopping him.

Sudeep is good in a role that lets him convey volumes with just a look and a sneer, although he really needed more time onscreen being evil to make his character thoroughly despicable. Jalatharangam is a fairly standard villain but Sudeep imbues him with an arrogant coldness that works well and there’s just enough sliminess added for good measure. Sridevi too makes the most of her role as an evil queen and shows what a fantastic actor she is even with her limited time onscreen. She totally owns each scene when she appears and her sweeping presence lifts the energy of the film. She has the best costumes and stunning make-up but these go almost unnoticed beside her commanding presence and expressive eyes. And she plays a harp – perfect! I hope this, and her recent appearance in English Vinglish mean that we will get to see more Sridevi films in the future – she is the best thing about Puli for sure.

Hansika Motwani plays Queen Yamanadevi’s daughter and at least Chimbu Deven doesn’t make the mistake of trying to get her to actually dance in any of her songs. Hansika looks good and has an amazing peacock outfit at the end but doesn’t do much else of note in the film, although she does manage better chemistry in a few brief moments with Vijay than Shruti does in an entire romantic song. Overall Devi Sri Prasad’s songs are fairly uninspiring and the choreography rather repetitive, but Vijay is energetic and the backing dancers are enthusiastic in a range of diverse costumes.

Except for Sridevi, Puli mostly disappoints with a weak story and fairly nondescript songs. Sudeep and Vijay are fine but both characters need better definition and depth rather than simply relying on the ability and star power of the actors. Both do what they can, but the film could have been so much better with just a little more complexity. Good cinematography from Natarajan Subramaniam and great visual effects make Puli worth watching on the big screen but probably only for fans. Otherwise probably best to wait for the DVD where the fast forward button will make Puli a more enjoyable watch.

Bachchan (2013)

Bachchan

Bachchan was recommended to me by numerous people when I went to watch Ugramm a few weeks ago, and since I read that the film had won a number of awards in India plus it starred the usually pretty awesome Sudeep Kiccha I thought it would be worth tracking down on DVD.  But when I started to watch it I was very disappointed.  After about 20 minutes I just couldn’t watch any more relentless and seemingly pointless violence or blatant sexism and had to give up.   It took another two attempts before I managed to get more than 30 minutes into the film, and I spent most of that time wondering why this film had been recommended to me! But then I got further in, finally reached the excellent second half, and realised exactly why this film had appealed to so many people – even me eventually.  It does get immeasurably better in the second half, and looking back the opening scenes make more sense in retrospect, although I still feel a less chauvinistic approach would have made them easier viewing. However, if you can make it past the first thirty minutes, there really is a lot to like about Bachchan.

The film opens with a slugfest between Bharat (Sudeep Kiccha) and various members of the police force in a small police station. No-one is able to stop him as he smashes his way through the police station and ultimately kills Inspector Mahesh Deshpande (Ashish Vidyarthi) before escaping on a police bike.  Bharat then easily outwits the chasing police cars and heads to a hospital where he proceeds to defenestrate one of the doctors, Dr. Srinivasa Iyengar (Nasser) and escapes yet again.  This time though, we know he is going to get caught just as soon as a lorry full of water bottles appears in the middle of the shot.

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So once in custody for committing two murders (no mention of the destruction to property and general menace to society he represents) Bharat proceeds to tell his story to the investigating officer Vijay Kumar (Jagapathi Babu).  Seen in flashback, previously Bharat was a nice, happy (although rather patronising) real estate agent who was trying to be a force for good in the world, when he found himself hounded by a superstitious police officer and an obsessive doctor.  Inspector Deshpande fuelled jealousy in Bharat’s fiancée Anjali (Parul Yadav) by pointing out Bharat’s interest in a client’s daughter at every opportunity.  To be fair, Monica (Tulip Joshi) does seem to turn up everywhere and does show an unhealthy interest in a man whose attentions are otherwise engaged, but Bharat claims that this harassment was his motivation behind killing Despande.  Meanwhile Dr Iyengar sealed his fate when he refused medical assistance to Anjali and Bharat decided that he too had to die.

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The problem I have with these opening scenes isn’t that the story is trite and clichéd, but that it’s all so completely overdone.  Both Despande and Iyengar are terrible caricatures while Anjali appears as a woman with absolutely no self-worth.  Bharat bribes her with chocolate when she accuses him of being rude to her at work (which he was), and when she accuses him of spending time with Monica, he has only to click his fingers and she immediately forgives him all.  There is a reason behind all of this but since it’s not explained until much later in the film, it does make for uncomfortable viewing first time round.

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The first half isn’t all bad though.  There is a novel threat to a collection of flower pots, which is a welcome touch of humour and Sudeep is eminently watchable even when he’s being a complete pillock.  P. Ravi Shankar is also mildly amusing as the thug attempting to muscle in on Bharat’s business, and there is also plenty of excellent dorky uncle dancing in this song.

The film starts to improve when it’s gradually revealed that the story Bharat has told the police is a complete fabrication – hence the terrible characterisations in the first half.  The real Anjali proves to be a perfectly sensible and normal woman, while the other characters are nicely ambiguous until the real truth emerges.  There are plenty of twists and turns before we get there though and the second half turns out to be the out and out action thriller I was expecting from the start.  Throughout it all, Sudeep outclasses everyone else with chameleon-like changes of his character, and his performance is just enough to make up for the dodgy dialogue in the first half.  He does bring to life the film’s ‘Bachchan’ in Big B angry young man persona, although there is more to his character than just a generalised grudge against the world.  I’m presuming that director Shashank wanted to make a kind of homage to Amitabh Bachchan as there are many mentions of Big B and his films throughout, but he’s probably most referenced in this song with the bewilderingly badly dressed Tulip Joshi.  Poor Tulip – she really doesn’t come out of any of this well at all.

Bhavana makes a brief appearance as Anjali’s sister Ashwini, but probably the best performance from the three romance interests is from Parul Yadav.  Her character is more developed and despite the terrible beginning she does make a better showing in the second half.  Most of the rest of the support cast are fine but they are mainly there either to provide fodder for Bharat’s rage or to add layers of confusion to the plot, and are never any more than two-dimensional at best.  However the fight scenes are well choreographed even if they lean heavily towards standard Southern Indian tropes and the climax is satisfyingly OTT.

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The concept of Bachchan is good, but it is let down by the script in the first half (or perhaps just very bad subtitles) and a tendency to rely on standard filmi clichés.  Although the second half of the film is entertaining and very watchable, sitting through the first half to get there requires patience and perseverance.  Still, if you can make it through the first half hour, the rest up to the interval is ridiculous enough to be amusing and it is worth hanging in there to reach the excellent second half if you can.  I’d give the first half of Bachchan 2 stars and the second half 4 stars which gives an average of 3 – that seems about right overall.  Worth watching for Sudeep but I’d recommend leaving your brain behind for the first hour.