Rudhramadevi (2015)

Rudramadevi-Posters-2

If Rudhramadevi had been made in 1956 I’d have loved it, no question. But Gunasekhar struggles to realise his grand vision and the ripping story drags at times. The main cast give their all, but they can’t compensate for some poor directorial decisions and sloppy execution.

The first thing that hit me was the VFX. I thought it was maybe a deliberate stylistic choice as there are animated montages that look like a childs picture book. But it is just shonky quality, used too liberally, and with poor judgement. At least it distracted me from wondering what Marco Polo’s stuck on beard was made of. And why Marco Polo was in the film.

The story is so interesting this should have almost written itself. A girl is raised as a boy and keeps up the pretence to protect her kingdom for as long as she can. But Gunasekhar spends far too much time with the various enemies and uses loads of clunky “As you know Bob” exposition. I felt that there were some holes in the film and Gunasekhar was trying to paper over those gaps with other techniques including a Mega voiceover and a peasant who announced every new character with bio as well as voicing the people’s dissatisfaction with their rulers.

Anushka owns every frame she is in. She adjusts her posture and facial muscles so there is a clear distinction between Rudradeva and Rudhramadevi and is convincingly commanding. She has some weird darkening makeup on as a boy, but it does allow her to look stunningly radiant when she girls up.

Her closest female friends are Nithya Menen as her wife Muktamba and Catherine Tresa as The Other One Who doesn’t Wear Much, and there is a lightness and ease in the way Anushka moves as she drops the pretence and heavy armour undershirt to dance in the “Yay! I’m a girl” numbers. She did her damnedest in the tandav but while her expressions told a powerful story, her dancing was not as compelling. Rudhramadevi used Veerabhadra’s feelings for her to get him back on task, but she evinced far more concern about Muktamba’s reaction and wellbeing. That ruthlessness and emotional intelligence wasn’t really explored and I felt the film needed to reveal how she ruled, not just show a sequence of events.

 

I put that clip in just for some shirtless Rana. He looks so chuffed when he is prancing almost in time.

Rudramadevi-Rana Anushka

I knew a “Zorro” moment was nigh when Rudradeva wore a blue tunic done up with pink princess ribbons, and the gender reveal is a bit ho-hum. Veerabhadra took the whole “Dude, you’re not a dude” revelation quite well, all things considered. There is little sexual chemistry between Rudhramadevi and Veerabhadra, but the actors have a nice rapport, like childhood friends. I enjoyed moments like when Rana playfully tweaked Anushka’s nose as he said goodbye. While the writing skimmed the surface of characters emotional lives, the actors added their own flavour.

Gona Ganna Reddy (Bunny) and his horse seem to have ridden in from a different film; something more gothic perhaps or even a KPop music video (Jaejoong’s stylist may be moonlighting as a Telugu horse costume designer).  Bunny plays his character as unrelentingly dour and with one facial expression, but his one liners got the audience cheering. And he rarely blinks. It’s intense and unsettling after a while.

Rudrama Devi Posters

The support cast is huge. Hari Hara Devudu (Suman) and Murari Devudu (Aditya) are the Statler and Waldorf of villains. They sit back and critique everyone else but rarely do anything themselves, unless you count letting their allies die horrible deaths. Their brother Naga Devudu (Baba Sehgal) shows commendable willingness to really go for the snake theme. Nithya Menen is underutilized as Muktamba. I enjoyed her scenes with Anushka and thought her decision to respect the sacrifice and say nothing was interesting. This contrasted with the shouty peasants who just flat out refused to accept a woman, despite a rousing Prakash Raj girl power speech. Prakash Raj is in good form as Shiva Devaiah, the mastermind of the scheme that sees Rudhramadevi raised as the boy Rudradeva. Villain Mahadeva (Vikramjeet Virk) spends most of the film prancing atop a phallic tower made of polystyrene. Amusing, but you know a great hero or heroine deserves a genuinely scary bad guy and he is not the real deal no matter how many people he kills out of spite. Hamsa Nandini is slinky and duplicitous, the Bond girl of courtly spies.

Gunasekhar’s massed set pieces lack richness. If you arrange a formation of extras with one or two carefully out of position people for randomness, but then use that same formation scores of times over it ends up looking ridiculous with the pattern repetition of those supposedly random bodies. A critical battle scene started with a cool idea – one army emerging in a serpent formation as their opponents attacked in an eagle formation. But it went on forever and looked far too fake. I was reminded of the similar but excellent lotus and arrow scene in Magadheera.

One of the few actors I could imagine would happily rappel down a structure (possibly without even checking there was a rope), Bunny was plagued with dodgy wire work. Anushka was also caught so that her feet didn’t quite hit the ground or was frozen in awkward and unconvincing poses in midair. Maybe it was supposed to look good in 3D but I can’t imagine it would. And too many fight scenes and chases were sped up to slapstick comedy pace.

There is abundant weird CGI, possibly a workaround for the 3D version, although I should have remembered the effects in Okkadu. For example, when a drawbridge is being lowered they faked the cogs and ropes too which you’d think would be doable and cheaper for real. The climax scene as Rudhramadevi and elephant bring doom upon her enemies should be thrilling but it is just opportunity to crank up the bad CGI. The use of CGI elephants seemed unnecessarily frequent especially when in many scenes there was no obvious risk of physical harm to an animal – why not use a real one? And there seemed to be a bit of tusk whitening done in post production that was distractingly odd.

A big shoutout to the helmet and armour department. No design was too silly or impractical for them to try. I really wish I could find a picture of Bunny’s Glomesh helmet from the final battle, but you will just have to make do with Rana’s special dressing up armour.

Despite the negatives I really appreciate seeing Anushka as the lead with so much screen time in an awesome story. Bunny and Rana bring more interest to their characters than the screenplay demands. I would have liked to see more relationship development generally, and especially between the ladies given the story is of a woman pretending to be a man. I really wish the film had been better executed as I can see what it might have been, and the gap between what was delivered and that potential is frustrating.

 

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Sahasam

Sahasam-Telugu-Movie-Poster

Who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt and adventure? Chandrasekhar Yeleti and the team who made Sahasam, that’s who! Well, at least they certainly haven’t made such a film so I have to wonder. Loosely drawing inspiration from Hollywood blockbusters like the Indiana Jones franchise and Telugu forebears such as Mosagallaku Mosagadu, this had the potential to be a highly entertaining tale. I expected better from the director of one of my favourites, Anukokunda Oka Roju.

The story centres on a simple and superstitious man who dreams of great wealth. When he finds his grandfather’s old papers he realises there may be a hidden family treasure. Unfortunately for Goutham (Gopichand) the treasure is stashed near his ancestral home in what is now Pakistan (shown in a flashback with Suman as the grandfather). And Pakistan, according to this film, is populated exclusively by terrorists. Even good characters think nothing of abducting people at gunpoint. Goutham crosses paths with Sreenidhi (Taapsee), a religious girl who is organising a pilgrimage to – guess where. He inveigles his way on to the trip and off they go. The second half of the film is the treasure hunt as Goutham tries to find the diamonds before Sultan (an, er, unbridled Shakti Kapoor) and his sidekick Dilawar (Raj Singh Arora) can get their hands on the loot.

Sahasam-the book

Gopichand has the requisite skillset for a Telugu film hero, but the material here is thin at best. The first hour or so is spent proving that Goutham is a bit dim and quite unlucky. You would only need so long to understand that if you were dumber than Goutham. The fight scenes are very athletic (the fake blood budget was fully utilised in many, many dismemberments) and Gopichand was clearly in his element in the thick of the action. Post interval Goutham becomes something of a puzzle solving killing machine with photographic recall which was moderately more entertaining. Goutham’s catchphrase is that he won’t take anything that isn’t his, but if it is his he will never give it up. And that sums him up as a dogged, dour hero rather than a swashbuckling one.

As Goutham wasn’t motivated by the usual romantic notions, Taapsee had even less to do than might be expected from the heroine. I find her appeal inexplicable so that was an excellent result. She does use both her facial expressions (grimacing and simpering) so I suppose that is something of an achievement. To be fair, her big moment was as a goat substitute in a game of buzkashi so there wasn’t a lot of nuance for her to convey. Zara, an ally in Pakistan, was much more effective as a character and her performance was more appealing.

Ali’s character was supposed to be an Indian security expert living in Pakistan but he gave his usual shtick and Qayamat Raju was just an annoyance. Shakti Kapoor is insanely over the top and while I enjoy a properly nasty villain as much as the next person, he spiralled from cunning and ruthless to stupidly petulant and cowardly and finally outright buffoonery. I would not have bet on seeing a worse actor than Abhimanyu Singh in my lifetime but a new contender has emerged in Raj Singh Arora. His idea of intensity is pursed lips and bug eyed staring which has an unfortunately comedic effect when his glued on beard is taken into account. A villain can be crazy but they have to be a credible threat and imbue the dynamic with some menace. Otherwise they are just a jumped up comedy uncle.

If I may name drop, earlier this week I attended a masterclass by the amazing Suhasini. Among other things, she spoke about the difficulty of capturing the expression and spontaneity of the live scene when dubbing dialogues. The sound team in Sahasam decided to get around this by ignoring such details. At one point the dubbing is so bad that the screaming goes on long after Gopichand has shut his mouth, and minutes later vigorous fight noises are dubbed over characters who are doing nothing.

The production design is often excellent, but some clunky CGI does detract from the drama. I liked the scenes set in Goutham’s home as it looked eccentric and colourful but still lived in and real. Ladakh played the role of Pakistan and cinematographer Shyam Dutt used the stunning scenery and harsh light to good effect. Unfortunately Shakti Kapoor and his convoy of thugs are often blocking the view. The ‘olden days’ sequences are blighted by some cheap looking visual effects and inconsistent approach to things like light sources in underground chambers. I found myself being distracted by the similarity of all the spiderwebs in all the caves and wondered if they were bought in bulk.  And apparently the ‘terrorists’ use special bullets that can kill a man but not penetrate a car windscreen. Then there are the other special bullets that can destroy masonry but not harm Gopichand. Sigh.

There are five writers credited (including Chandrasekhar Yeleti) and I wonder if that contributed to the lack of cohesion in the story. There are several tangents that fail to develop into anything substantial or credible and the mood sometimes changes abruptly. The pacing is never quite right and there is no tension leading up to the final scene despite all the ingredients being present.  I read an interview with the director and he mentioned that he felt obliged to change things a bit to suit Gopichand’s image. Perhaps the film would have benefited from some more consideration as to how to incorporate the action hero elements.

The songs by Sri are average and not very memorable. The hero introduction has some visual flair but the songs don’t contribute to the story and the picturisations are nothing special.

It was like watching two really bad movies rolled into one. Sometimes that results in a guilty pleasure that is So Bad It’s Good. Sahasam is only halfway there if you catch my drift… 2 stars!

Sahasam-fugitives

Dhammu

I’d been warned to pick up my ticket early for Dhammu and although I wasn’t expecting a big crowd given the response to NTR Jr’s last few ventures, I did dutifully turn up before the suggested start time. And the guys on the door were right. By the time the film was ready to roll, the cinema was totally packed, which meant a very loud and enthusiastic response to Tarak’s explosive entrance on screen. Despite a few issues with the sound and difficulties getting the second reel of the movie to play, the audience maintained their enthusiasm which helped turn a run-of-the-mill mass masala film into an entertaining Friday night ‘adventure without subtitles’.

Dhammu starts with a flashback, setting up the story and explaining the rivalry between two families in a rural village. Within the first few moments there is a decapitation followed by various scenes of death and dismemberment so it’s fairly obvious that this isn’t going to be a fluffy romance despite the promise of two heroines on the poster. The two families seem determined to use the Kilkenny cat principle of conquest and it’s not long before the remnants of Suman’s family are reduced to living under the yoke of Nasser’s sadistic thugs. Once the scene is set, the film jumps to the present day and Tarak enters via a suitably ridiculous leap from a window onto a black 4WD. This is the first of many such black 4WD’s that gave their lives during the making of this film, so be prepared for crashes, inexplicable explosions and general vehicular destruction often for no apparent reason other than the director seemed to feel that it was time for another car (or 3) to meet an untimely end.

Tarak plays Ramachandra, an orphan who is against violence although that’s not entirely obvious since he’s beating up bad guys single-handedly from his first appearance on screen. OK, so he does fight with his hands behind his back and shows a reluctance to actually kill anyone, but at first I took that to be a novel trick fighting technique just because it looks good.

Ramachandra meets and instantly falls in love with Satya (Trisha) and after some initial very mild reluctance she seems to reciprocate. But it looks as if the romance, brief as it is, seems doomed to failure since Satya’s father (Subhalekha Sudhakar) wants her to marry a rich guy. Trisha looks lovely in some beautiful traditional outfits, but apart from looking pretty and the odd dance routine she has very little to do. The appearance of Karthika as the second heroine seems totally redundant as she gets even less screen time than Trisha and the attempt to create some rivalry falls flat.  Karthika also has so much collagen pumped into her lips that it looks as if they might burst at any moment while she’s speaking and this is incredibly distracting, particularly since I think she looked much better and prettier in Ko.

Both Trisha and Karthika look very stiff in the Neelo Undi Dhammu song and their awkwardness seems to increase in direct proportion to the shortness of their skirts. They both do much better in the songs where they are wearing more traditional outfits and the choreography seems to suit them better too. Tarak is on excellent form in all of the dance routines and although the songs by M.M. Keeravani aren’t particularly memorable the choreography is less fixed on trick moves and more on coordinated steps which look very slick. The only exception is the song Ruler which has little dancing and lots of CGI which looks rather out of place compared to the rest of the film.

By some means Ramachandra’s friend (Ali) learns of a rich family looking for a son to adopt and Ramachandra promptly applies to become a member of the Vasireddy family, adopting the name Vijayadwaja Sri Simha. However it’s not long before he discovers the drawbacks, namely being expected to resolve the feud between the two warring families once and for all as well as dealing with his entire extended family.

The fight scenes are the best part of Dhammu which is fortunate because there are quite a few. Tarak is often shown in slow-motion leaping and pouncing like his adopted family mascot of a lion and it works well. Mostly the fight sequences are totally over the top and unrealistic but they are expertly choreographed by Ram-Lakshman and look fantastic. People ricochet off cars, buildings and other people if they don’t happen to hit anything else in the way, or bounce off the ground in totally gravity defying ways which most of the audience seemed to find as entertaining as I did. There are lots of declarative speeches in between the various bouts of mayhem which generally went down well too, although there were a few scenes where they slow the pace considerably and it takes a while to pick up again.

The supporting cast are all well known actors and generally do justice to their roles. Kota Srinivasa Rao is familiar as the aging patriarch, while Tanikella Bharani, Suman and Sampath Raj all appear in small roles. Nasser is good as the slightly psychotic head of the opposing family and he also sports a wild and strange moustache which looks incredibly impractical. Ali is fairly inoffensive as Vijay’s friend and he got plenty of laughs from the audience, although his comedy did seem rather muted. Brahmi pops up for a few scenes but I couldn’t work out exactly what his role was in the Vasireddy family and he had very little impact. Venu Thottempudi also makes an appearance as a member of the Vasireddy family and was good in a brief but important appearance.

Overall Dhammu has nothing new to offer and relies heavily on NTR Jr to make the most of an overused storyline with standard masala ingredients. There are plenty of good moments and NTR Jr puts in an impressive performance but there isn’t anything to make this film stand out from other similar action movies in his filmography. It’s not brilliant but it works well enough as a mass entertainer, especially with an appreciative audience and I’d recommend watching at least once for Tarak, his dancing and some excellent fight scenes!