Rakshasudu (1986)

Rakshasudu is all stops out mass from A Kodandarami Reddy. Chiru is The Nameless Hero, there are many people known by initials only, and you can’t go past his back up team of Nagababu, Suhasini, Radha and Sumalata. Evildoers beware!

A woman (Annapurna) goes into labour in an orphanage or children’s home. The unscrupulous owner (Allu Ramalingaiah) steals and sells her baby boy to a beggar who uses the kid to augment his begging routine. He is not a loving father figure, and physically abuses the child. The kid fights back, demanding to know where his real parents are, and one day finds himself sold and on the way to a mysterious island where he will work as a slave.

The nameless child grows up to be Chiranjeevi. In due course Chiru escapes the island, along with his bestie Simham (Nagendra babu) and an excellent dog. He goes to the orphanage and demands to know where his mother is. Allu Ramalingaiah asks for a large sum of money in return, and Chiru duly goes to steal it. But he is caught by wealthy JK (Rao Gopal Rao) and they make a deal. Chiru will terminate evil VR (Kannada Prabhakar) who owns the island where he was imprisoned, and JK will help him find his mother.

JK’s relative or assistant Vani (Sumalatha) is already on task regarding VR. She helps Chiru meet Shailu (Radha). Shailu is smitten immediately but he isn’t keen except that she is VR’s daughter. This opens up a whole new avenue of revenge for Chiru. He keeps an assignation with Shailu who sends a lot of mixed signals by bouncing on her bed and thrusting at him. What is he to make of it all? As soon as is decent, he is off to her dad’s place, presumably to announce he is out for vengeance and BTW about your daughter’s virginity…It doesn’t go down well with VR. But it is kind of amusing to watch the alpha male posturing backed up by handy photos. I would have been asking where the photographer was hiding but Shailu doesn’t care. She just wants Chiranjeevi. Poor Radha. She is doomed to be second fiddle, although she does her best to be unmissable. But Chiru is not all about being menacing and duplicitous.

Sumathi (Suhasini), a teacher, is dragged by a podgy Labrador to the river bank where she finds an injured Chiru. I have no idea how he got there, but I assume VR is responsible. Romance clearly starts to bloom as he convalesces, and her students find this a riveting spectator sport. Via flashback we see how VR killed her family when they were preparing to celebrate a festival. I think only Sumathi and her policeman brother Vijay (Rajendra Prasad) survived. Suhasini and Chiranjeevi seem to have good chemistry. In amongst all the wild shenanigans she looks like she is genuinely amused at some points but then I remember. Suhasini is a great actress.

Chiru is even more fired up for revenge now he knows who killed Sumathi’s family. He loves her and wants to start dishing out the comeuppances. But first he has to deal with Shailu and her incessant groping. While I don’t really like a lot of what his character does, especially when it comes to Shailu, I like the performance a lot. This role has the full Hero gamut from wisecracking to arse kicking and a whole lot of emo wallowing and shameless flirting. And random songs.

My notes here say: Song! Snow! Sleds!

There are so many flashbacks. Chiru recognises an old man in a photo in Sumathi’s album, and that sparks a memory of when he helped a Golden Labrador with a leg injury. His kindness was repaid in spades. When Chiru ends up high above the ground, strung up between two trees, the dog climbs a tree and crawls out along a branch to untie his human. What an anipal!

And maybe it’s the same dog who is delivering his love letters. Of course, the problem with sending your love letters by Labrador courier is that you may not be communicating with who you think you are. Chiru dreams of Sumathi but Shailu asserts herself in the song fantasies, perpetuating the love triangle that nobody is aware of. Yet.

Back in the island days, Chiru’s impressive high kicking fighting style wins the affection of VR’s lady friend, Jayamala. And that leads to the gladiator mini-skirt song.

Given the robes the slaves wear, the mini dress kind of makes sense as a glammed up version of his work uniform. So if nothing else I am grateful to the film for clearing that up. But Chiru is not to be hers. Of course he winds up in a Love Parallelogram. A Triangle is simply not Mega enough!

In the present day, Shailu sees Chiranjeevi with Sumathi, and her head splits into two with a nice montage happening where her brain should be. She is devastated.

The end of the film brings closure to many of these tangled relationships. Usually by killing one of the people involved. There is a classic Masala Death Trap, needlessly complex shenanigans, feats of improbable strength, red paint galore. Who will live happily ever after? And who will be crushed by the Mega-boots?

Not a classic but an excellent ripping yarn, a great cast, and all the things I expect from Chiru. 4 stars! (a bonus half a star for making sense of the mini skirt)

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Vanaprastham (1999)

Vanaprastham

When I asked for recommendations for Mohanlal films some time ago, Vanaprastham was mentioned a number of times, and now I understand why so many people suggested it.  I think this is the best performance by Mohanlal I’ve seen, and it has whetted my appetite for more of his films.  Although Vanaprastham is a simple story about a Kathakali performer set in the middle of the last century, Mohanlal’s performance brings depth and intensity to the role and he is mesmerising.  Presumably due to the fifties era, there is plenty of repressed emotion and the reliance of the Kathakali performer on facial movement transfers directly as Kunhikuttan (Mohanlal) doesn’t say much but rather lets his expressions and in particular his eyes,  speak for him.  It’s a sad film, but it’s beautifully shot with gorgeous costumes and, as ever in Malayalam cinema, stunning cinematography.  Like the previous Shaji Karun directed film I watched (Kutty Srank), there is much about the story that is untold and left to the imagination, although the drama does proceed more linearly here.  Just in case anyone needs any more motivation to watch, Vanaprastham (aka The Last dance or Pilgrimage) screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival when it was released in 1999, and won accolades at other international festivals as well as a number of National awards.

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Kunhikuttan is introduced by a series of brief images interspersed between the opening credits which suggest that he is a lazy man who drinks, is looked after by his mother, disliked by his wife and adored by his daughter who is desperately trying to get his attention. And while that does sum him up on a purely superficial level, there is much more to Kunhikuttan.  A flashback shows his acceptance into dance classes as a child in the thirties, and reveals that he has never had any contact with his nobleman father.  This is a loss which he feels throughout his life and it appears to at least partly explain some of his reactions to subsequent events.  There is a lovely connection here between the scenes of the dance school with Kunhikuttan as a child and then again as an adult, where the same background of the temple elephants being dressed in their finery is unchanged despite the changes in Kunhikuttan. I also love the young Kunhikuttan’s expressions as he dances, particularly compared to the more rigid faces of the other boys.

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Kunhikuttan has an unhappy arranged marriage and his wife Savithri (Kukku Parameswaran) seems to despise him and his performance career.  Her antipathy towards her husband is one of the ’things that are never explained’, and there didn’t appear to be any obvious reason behind her animosity. Kunhikuttan’s daughter on the other hand adores him, and she is the one bright spot in his life outside of his stage performances.

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At the start of the film, Kunhikuttan has just reached the point in his career where he is able to play male roles, and he takes on the part of Arjuna in a performance which is seen by the niece of the Diwan, Subhadra (Suhasini).  Her character is at first only glimpsed as a hand at the window of the women’s viewing area, and this seems to be a foretelling that she is a private and somewhat hidden persona. Although one with excellent taste in jewellery.

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Subhadra is always alone and lives in a large house with only two elderly servants for company. She is mainly depicted as always writing, sometimes even during the performances, and she seems a rather pitiable character who is lost in her own dreams and fills her days with illusions.  She falls in love with Kunhikuttan but it is immediately apparent that she is obsessed with Arjuna the character rather than Kunhikuttan the man.  All her writing is put to good effect though as she writes a version of the Arjuna/ Subhadra story which she persuades Kunhikuttan to perform.

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Subhadra’s obsession is clear in the scene after the two have made love.  Subhadra seems to revel in the smears of make-up on her face and looks ecstatic, while Kunhikuttan sneaks out of the room, guiltily carrying his costume and immediately goes to bathe.

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Subhadra has no time for Kunhikuttan the man and when she has his child she allows him to meet his son briefly and then explains that she will have nothing more to do with him.  Kunhikuttan yearns to be with his son, particularly since he never knew his own father, but he is denied the opportunity to be a part of his son’s life. This is just one more pain for Kunhikuttan to deal with, along with his continual poverty, his unhappy home life and the looming illness of his friend.

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Mohanlal expresses his emotions perfectly, showing restraint and sincerity throughout.  His easy camaraderie with his fellow performers, his obsession with his son and the deteriorating relationship with his wife are all brought clearly to life.  Suhasini is also excellent as Subhadra and is particularly good in her scenes with Mohanlal when she is obsessing about Arjuna.  At times the film does get a little confusing, and the occasionally obtuse nature of the subtitles in my DVD copy didn’t help.  Kunhikuttan’s friend who is one of the singers is called Namboothiri, but I think that Kunhikuttan also uses this term (which I believe means Lord) to refer to his father.  Kunhikuttan goes to Kasi to perform rituals which I thought were for his friend, but later seemed to be for his father.  The ageing effect is also not terribly obvious, and it is only because Kunhikuttan’s daughter grows up that I was able to work out a significant amount of time had passed.

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The cinematography by Santosh Sivan and Renato Berta is simply stunning.  The natural world is cleverly contrasted with the artificial world of performing and every image is full of detail.  The art-form of Kathakali is showcased with beautiful images of the performances as well as glimpses into backstage life.  It’s a visual feast and at times I needed to rewind to fully grasp the action as I was distracted from reading the subtitles by the quality of the imagery.

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I was impressed by Mohanlal’s dancing, particularly since he isn’t a classically trained dancer and yet as far as I could tell, he held his own against the professional dancers in the cast.  I found it surprising that the dancers were all living in poverty despite the apparent recognition of their skills and I wonder if this is still the case to-day.  The costumes certainly all look expensive and they must go through truckloads of make up for each performance too!

Vanaprastham is full of symbolism, from the title referring to the stage of life where spiritual concerns take over from the day-to-day responsibilities, to the parallels between the story of Arjuna and Kunhikuttan’s life and I’m sure that there are many more details I missed. The performances are excellent, the background music by Zakir Hussain blends with the traditional songs and the story which seems so simple initially has plenty of complexity and depth.  It’s an absolute must watch and I thoroughly recommend it! A full 5 stars.

Varudu (2010)

Varudu

It seems to be an appropriate time to celebrate all things Allu Arjun – recent wedding anniversary, 10 years in the movie business and his upcoming birthday – so I thought I’d take a look back at Varudu. Not one of his more successful films in terms of the box office, but still one of my favourites since it not only stars Bunny, but Arya (another favourite) turns up in one of the most ridiculously over dramatic roles that I’ve seen outside of eighties Bollywood. And yet, this is a good thing! The film is overly romantic and slow to get going with a ridiculous story and dreadfully pretentious dialogue, but despite all these obvious flaws there is still a lot to enjoy in Varudu.

The opening scenes have nothing much to do with the rest of the film with Nisha (Sneha Ullal) attempting a dreadful Dhoom2-style Aishwarya Rai impression while Bunny demonstrates his skills on a motorbike and then on the basketball court. At least the rain makes Bunny’s hair look great, but otherwise it’s a clichéd hero introduction that leads into a rather disappointing song.  This is after all a Bunny film, so my expectations for excellent choreography and great dance moves are high but the first song doesn’t make it in terms of either the music or the dancing.  Thankfully though, both pick up considerably later.

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VaruduVaruduThe first half of the film describes how Sandeep (Allu Arjun) wants a traditional arranged marriage even though the initial scenes show him happily helping out an elopement by his friends and complimenting his parents on their successful love marriage.  The dialogue wants us to believe that he has just never found the right woman, although women are flinging themselves at him all the time, but these first scenes make him appear as if he’s just having too good a time to settle down and commit to one person.  However moving overseas to start work is apparently the best time to decide to get married, so Sandy happily acquiesces to his family’s suggestion that he tie the knot before he goes.

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Not content with foisting the whole decision making process onto his parents, he then insists that he wants a full traditional 5 day wedding just like his grandparents, and has no desire to even see the girl is he is to marry. In fact he reminds me more of a sixteen year old girl with his declarations about love and excitement about a five day wedding rather than a mature and sensible man about to head off to start work in the US.  However this is the least ridiculous part of the story (really!) and the build up to the wedding is actually rather sweet.  Sandeep has a good relationship with his mother (Suhasini) and father (Ashish Vidyarthi) and their scenes together, and those with the rest of the family feel comfortable and generally realistic.  There is a brief appearance by Brahmi as Dilip Raja, a marriage broker, but otherwise Varudu is fairly comedy uncle free with only a brief appearance by Ali later during the wedding song.

The various wedding ceremonies, including the wonderfully colourful parade of the groom to the bride’s family, are pictured during a song.  It’s rather long, but definitely well worth a watch for an insight into the wedding preparations and rituals. Besides which there is possibly the best form of wedding transport and some great costumes in the crowd as everything gears up for the big day.

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The costumes and jewellery for the wedding scene are superb even though the scenery relies heavily on CGI.  We get to see the bride at the same time as Sandeep and although Deepthi (Bhanu Sri Mehra) doesn’t get very much screen-time (and even less dialogue), she does get some amazingly beautiful costumes. Although she is perhaps still just a little upstaged by Bunny in this song.

After all the romance and slow development of the first hour culminating in the the dream wedding, there is a sudden change of pace in the second half.   There is a disaster at the ceremony just before Sandeep ties the sacred thread and in the ensuing confusion the bride goes missing.  Within the space of 3 minutes there is classic hero-style running, a bike chase (kudos to the wardrobe department as Bunny never loses his wedding turban) and an exploding petrol truck.  It only gets more insane from here.

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Sandeep goes in search of Deepthi aided by the police force, but even with the top brass Comissioner Ahmed Khan (Nasser), Inspector Umesh Gupta (Brahmaji) and the Home Minister (Sayaji Shinde) involved they don’t appear to be making any headway.  Sandeep has more luck chasing random black cars and dodging truck drivers who seem to be on a mission to drive him off the hunt.  Finally his persistence pays off and there is a brief flashback to explain who has Deepthi and why.  Not that it makes any sense, particularly when this is the villain’s introduction.

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Arya is Diwaker, one half of the ‘Kings from Hell’ brothers, and completely immersed in his life of drama as he lives out his psychotic fantasies cheerily calling out his catchphrase ‘Evil Power’ at random moments to emphasize his craziness.  From his introduction the film careers even more off the rails as Arya hams it up for all he is worth as Diwaker and Sandeep declares his undying love for a girl he has barely met in some incredibly corny dialogue.  There are a few good moments though.  Sandeep proclaims (he doesn’t do anything as mundane as just speak by this stage) that Deepthi is his wife no matter what has happened to her during her ordeal.  It’s a more modern touch that makes Sandeep’s character more appealing, although the shocked reactions of the family are rather less attractive.  There are also some great chase sequences including some wonderful filmi medical magic and a ‘prisoner exchange’ on a bridge which allows director Gunasekhar to throw in lots of split screen moments.  The final showdown is completely over the top and utterly nonsensical, but since it involves a shirtless Bunny and Arya fighting on top of giant cooling towers I’m not complaining!

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New heroine Bhanu Sri Mehra doesn’t really get much of a chance to make an impact.  Her role is largely non-speaking and even when she does have something to say it tends to be a repetition of something Sandeep has earlier declaimed.  I do like that she made an attempt to fight back when abducted, but quite frankly I’m disappointed that in all her time locked in a room she hadn’t made any attempt to barricade the door or fashion a better weapon.  But at least she doesn’t just sit and whine and the make-up team did a good job making her look haggard after her experiences. The rest of the cast are all capable and do well in their roles, but ultimately the film is all about Bunny, and to a lesser extent Arya, so no-one else really gets much of a look in.

The music by Mani Sharma does improve after the first song and overall I like the soundtrack.  This song is my favourite, partly due to good choreography but also, who can resist random bouncing?  Plus I admire Bunny’s dedication in dancing even when he is injured, seen here with his hand in a rather excellently bedazzled cast.

Varadu is self-indulgent, unashamedly melodramatic and has massive plot holes big enough to swallow a small planetoid.  But despite that it’s heaps of fun and let’s be honest, I’m shallow enough to admit that Bunny and Arya are the major reasons why I enjoy this film.  I’d love to watch some out-takes as I’m quite sure they struggled to keep their faces straight for most of their scenes together.  I give Varudu 2 stars for the story but a full 5 stars for ensuring both Bunny and Arya spent as much time as possible without their shirts!