Seethakaathi

Seethakaathi

Vijay Sethupathi is known for his tendency to choose rather more unconventional roles and for his 25thfilm he takes on the character of an ageing theatre actor in Balaji Tharaneetharan’s Seethakaathi. The film is a refreshing mix of theatrical performances, comedy and drama underlying a satirical look at the film industry and despite only appearing for roughly forty minutes of the almost three hour run time, Vijay Sethupathi is the heart and soul of the film. Mouli, Rajkumar and Sunil Reddy play the other major characters, perfectly blending comedy and drama as the story moves through the world of theatre, into the film industry and finally ends up in a court room. It’s a novel tale that’s difficult to discuss without revealing the core idea that makes it such a wonderfully quirky and offbeat film, but it’s well worth investing the time to watch Seethakaathi in the cinema to appreciate the attention to detail and sheer inventiveness of the story.

The film starts with a series of scenes from theatrical performances featuring acclaimed actor Ayya Aadhimoolam (Vijay Sethupathi). These begin with his early career and progress through the decades via various classical scenes before ending with the elderly actor performing the lead role of Aurangzeb. As the actor ages, the setting for the plays changes too, starting with an outdoor performance under the stars, moving to a packed house in a new theatre and finally to a sparsely attended show with the theatre hall shabby and showing its age and lack of funds. Watching from the wings is Ayya’s friend Parasuraman (Mouli), while his fellow actors revere Ayya and provide partisan support for the performances. This opening section is focused firmly on Ayya as the lead actor in each theatrical vignette and Vijay Sethupathi is simply incredible, holding the audience attention though long classical speeches and in truth being the mesmerising and captivating theatre actor he plays. The ageing process is well done too and the prosthetics and make-up ensure Vijay is convincing as an elderly man, although it’s his posture and slow, considered movements that authenticate his portrayal.

Despite his success, Ayya lives simply and uses an auto to get to and from the theatre. He is shown as caring deeply about his grandson and takes care of his extended family of actors and theatre workers too. Early on in his career when he is offered film roles, he declines saying that he prefers to work in front of a live audience, however, with the theatre becoming less popular, Ayya is convinced firstly to advertise his shows in the local paper, and then later to ‘appear’ in films. However, when he fails to show, first in Director Sundar’s (Bagavathi Perumal) film with Saravanan (Rajkumar) and then later for producer/actor Dhanapal (Sunil), Ayya and Parasuraman are drawn into a court case.

Balaji Tharaneetharan adds his quirky brand of comedy to the scenes set within the film industry and there are cameos from film directors Mahendran and Bharathiraja along with some other unexpected faces. In Balaji’s cinematic world, directors are shown as having the short end of the stick; having to pander to their lead actor’s whims while placating their producers and walking a fine line between creativity and farce. The producers on the other hand are more unethical and grasping, with profit being the only interest for most, while fame and fortune quickly corrupt even the most innocent of actors. Adding Ayya into this world produces some wonderful comedy and Sunil in particular is excellent in his début role. His comic timing is superb and with some excellent slap-stick added, he really has some of the funniest moments in the whole film.  The difference between the slowly decaying artform of the theatre and the brash and opportunistic world of cinema is used to good effect, both for comedy and drama.  Even the courtroom scenes have plenty of humour which helps to keep the action moving along, despite the overall length of the film.

The female roles here are more peripheral with Archana having little to do as Ayya’s wife Lakshmi while Ramya Nambeesan, Gayathrie and Parvathy Nair all have one or two important scenes, but then they move into the background for the rest of the film. However, on the plus side there are no unnecessary romances and none of the female roles are there solely for glamour – in fact quite the opposite, despite the setting of the film industry. A few other faces appear briefly including Karunakaran as a lawyer but the action in the second half is mainly focused on Sunil and Mouli.

The story is enhanced by Govind Vasantha’s music which fits well into the general ambience of the film and provides contrast between the worlds of the theatre and the film industry without ever being too intrusive. Cinematographer T.K. Saraskanth provides plenty of warmth and nostalgia in the theatre scenes, well-seasoned with a patina of age, while the film shoots are brighter in keeping with the more brash attitudes and modern outlook. The pace of the film changes too. The early theatrical scenes are allowed to run as they would do in a conventional theatre without any chopping and changing, but as the story moves into the present day and into the film industry the pace picks up and humour is added. Just like in any film, action moves from one location to another instead of the steady and unchanging location of the theatre. It’s another contrast that highlights the differences between the two worlds, despite both being involved with acting and the telling of stories. Another plus point are the subtitles which are grammatically correct and in beautifully visible yellow font. Thanks to Aarti Sivakumar for following in Rekhs footsteps and enhancing the dialogue by making it easily read and totally understandable.

Overall, Seethakaathi is a novel story told in an unconventional way. The early slow-paced drama eases into more commonplace action although the premise behind the plot is still unusual and one that raises further questions about the nature of art. The disappearance of the main lead so early is a bold step that pays off thanks to the good writing and accomplished performances from the rest of the cast, while Vijay Sethupathy’s performance, although short, is so amazing and incredible that the memory infuses the rest of the film. I loved every minute of this film and was surprised to realise the length as I never felt that it was dragging or that anything was unnecessary to the plot. I would have liked more Vijay Sethupathi (of course!) but the rest of the cast are simply excellent and the story works incredibly well as is, while I felt the whole point was to have the impact of the early theatrical scenes overlay the rest of the film. I haven’t seen Balaji Tharaneetharan’s earlier film Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom as I’ve never been able to find a copy with subtitles, but I will definitely be looking out for his next release. Highly recommended for Vijay Sethupathi, the exemplary cast and an offbeat approach to an unconventional story.

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Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava

Trivikram’s Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava is a bit of a throwback to the factionist rowdy fests of yore, albeit with a bit of a difference. How much of a real difference though?

Veera Raghava Reddy (NTR Jr) returns to his village after studying abroad. His father Narappa Reddy (Naga Babu) is delighted to see his boy back at home although he is worried by a recent escalation in a decades old feud with Basi Reddy (Jagapathi Babu). Predictably enough they are ambushed on the drive home. What does a good son do when he is the heir to conflict? Is killing and mayhem the only way? Or can a Telugu mass film hero broker a lasting peace based on doing what is right for the people?

There was some character development for Raghava, if not for anyone else. It was good to see him learn from both experience and from wise counsel, and then apply those learnings. Raghava struggles with the community’s expectation that he will be a carbon copy of his father. NTR Jr is excellent and can show restraint and slow burning rage as well as going for the big emotional notes. We get to see Raghava in shock after a very traumatic incident, and his ensuing grief. He’s not superhuman although of course he has the usual kit of gravity bending tricks up his sleeve. This is a film where the hero is often seen simply sitting and thinking. He can dial a conflict down to a terse conversation as well as firing up at the villainous Basi Reddy. He has goals and makes his decisions in light of the objective. At key times people tell him that the man that prevents a war is a great man. Raghava also believes the man that wants peace has to have the strength to win a war. The hero must win, but maybe not in exactly the way usually predicted in this style of film.

Aravindha might be a bit princessy but as she says to Raghava, nobody is only what they appear to be. She tells him straight up what she expects from a partner. She also tells him women think hard about which man they will be best suited to while men see a pretty face, hound her ‘til she gives in, then leave her at home and bugger off to do whatever. When he considers the example of his own parents it makes him realise that he needs to change if he wants to be with Avi. He still decides to go win his war but promises once that is over, he will concentrate on her from that moment onwards. Which is a bit of an each way bet but as this film is kind of about compromise and negotiation it is fitting. Pooja Hegde is stunning, and while Avi is perfectly happy to get by on looks when it suits her, she has a sharp mind and a healthy dose of self-awareness. They have a nice rapport and I liked that the film took the time to show them talking, helping each other with little things, and feeling their feelings.

Jagapathi Babu is quite the villain de jour in Telugu films. I loathed Basi Reddy but kind of loved the boots and all commitment to making him despicable. There’s no subtlety in the character but the performance has some beautifully modulated beats and peaks that add an edge. Sunil was effective as the decent guy who helped Raghava out, mercifully not bogging the plot down in Comedy Uncle mode. Naresh and Srinivasa Reddy were tedious and time consuming. Rao Ramesh and Subhalekha Sudhakar added another element as the crafty career politicians who have drifted away from representing the people and were caught up in winning for the sake of winning. And many That Guys flew across the screen, bleeding, screaming, crying, and suffering for their art.

Eesha Rebba also had a tiny role with not much to say for herself, but her expressions were perfect for an irritated younger sister. Supriya Pathak and Sithara both deliver some strong dialogue on the folly of men indulging in constant bloodshed and who pays the price. Easwari Rao and Devayani play silent wives of warring men, but both can pack a punch without saying a word. Which is just as well since Trivikram silences them just at the moment when they should have been heard. It is telling that when the hero is delivering a big speech about what he learned from the women in his life that none of the women, who are all present, gets to speak for herself. So everyone ignored what the women said until the biggest baddest strongest man repeated their words, then everyone listened to him. Again, nice idea but didn’t quite land the execution.

I’m not saying this is a totally sensible version of a mass film. Who sets up a high security meeting complete with metal detector at the entrance and then leaves a nail gun lying around! The percussion of the BGM matched Tarak ferociously beating his opponents with sticks. And Trivikram gets Raghava’s shirt off in perfect mass style in the midst of raging carnage. The device by which Trivikram got Veera Raghava Reddy into Aravindha’s home as driver/bodyguard Raghava could only aspire to be called flimsy. And there are the usual 50 to 1 fighting odds when our hero takes on truckloads of armed rowdies and emerges with nary a blemish despite the unbridled enthusiasm of the Fake Blood Department.

The upbeat songs were most successful in their picturisations. Peniviti was made unintentionally funny with all the stringed instrumentalists getting soggy in the rain. Tarak is amazingly talented and looks like he is having a ball when the music kicks in and he can go for it. Pooja Hegde doesn’t really try and keep up with him but she puts a lot of energy into Reddy Ikkada Soodu and does some excellent face.

There are some minor similarities with the recent Rangasthalam, like the setting and a hero who takes on a sociopathic Jagapathi Babu character. Unfortunately one also seems to be the dodgy subtitles.  Is gizzard curry really a sign of love? What are cooling glasses and when should one wear them? Does administering Celine really cure a fever? How much chaos is required before your shirt buttons pop off? Ladies, would you be carried away by a man who says he looks like a sword with a moustache? It’s sad to see scrimping on something like the subs which shouldn’t be an afterthought, and would help capitalise on the success of other Telugu films with new markets.

Trivikram has tested the water for a new kind of hero but ultimately falls back on the old standards. Tarak is really coming into his own as an actor and makes the most of the range he’s given here, and the female ensemble cast was exceptional. See it if you like epic revengey films and have a high tolerance for gore.

Parugu

Parugu

Parugu is Bhaskar’s 2008 follow-up to his hit film Bommarillu and despite a rather hit and miss screenplay the movie ended up being a hit, was remade in various other languages and scored a number of awards. While the story might be nothing new and labours under every single film cliché imaginable (love at first sight, stalking = love etc), both Prakash Raj and Allu Arjun are excellent and work well together to make Parugu more watchable than the synopsis suggests. Plus the film starts with Bunny on roller skates – how can you not appreciate that!

I particularly love this song since when I can tear my eyes away from Bunny dancing, I recognise many of the locations. Plus, as always Bunny’s energy and enthusiasm is incredibly infectious, making for a great start to the film.

Sadly, the film doesn’t manage to keep the energy for long as the story moves to a village where local big-wig Neelakanta (Prakash Raj) is presiding over the marriage of his daughter Subbalakshmi (Poonam Bajwa). However, not all goes to plan as Subbalakshmi elopes with local villager Erra Babu which sets her father and his army of goons off on a rampage to find her. As part of their investigations, they pick up all of Erra Babu’s friends from the village and soon widen their search to include Sharma (Saptagiri) from Kakinada, Seenu (Chitram Srinu) in Nellore and Krishna (Allu Arjun) in Hyderabad.

Neelakanta and his brother Chinnabbayi (Subbaraju) keep the men in a shed while they continue the search for Subbalakshmi and Erra Babu, although this seems likely to backfire when Krishna engineers an escape. However, just before making it to the train and freedom, Krishna is brought up short by a girl he sees in the morning mist. He falls instantly in love and resolves not to leave the area until he discovers her identity. Naturally, the girl Krishna has fallen for is the youngest daughter of Neelakanta and she’s already having a number of issues due to the fall-out from her sister’s elopement. Through a window in the shed she pleads with Krishna and the rest of the detainees to reveal her sister’s whereabouts but instead she gets caught in a blackmail trap and agrees to help Krishna find the girl of his dreams. While the audience know that Meena (Sheela Kaur) is the girl he has fallen in love with, neither Krishna nor Meena realise until well into the film that she is the one Krishna is trying to find.

There is some comedy in the first half as Krishna hatches up various schemes to search for the girl in the woods, while Sunil and Srinavasa Reddy add some slapstick to further lighten the mood. Prakash Raj does his usual ranting as an enraged father but Bhaskar aims to show him as a more sympathetic figure and changes tack with the character in the second half.

As Krishna discovers that the girl he loves is Neelakanta’s daughter, Neelakanta finds out that it is Krishna who has helped Subbalakshmi vanish and he tortures him to find out where his daughter is hiding. This results in everyone – Neelakanta, Chinabbayi, all the various thugs, Krishna and Erra Babu’s other friends and Meena, haring off to Hyderabad on the trail of the missing couple. Krishna takes advantage of every opportunity to speak to Meera and starts to manipulate her feelings for her father to his advantage.

Meena doesn’t instantly fall for Krishna, but rather tries to keep her distance and is generally upset and confused by his attentions. Sheela plays Meena as nervous and afraid, although also somewhat gullible and impressionable. Bhaskar has given Meena and her father the same nervous mannerisms which does help link the two as a family, but Neelakanta’s decision to bring Meena with him still stands out as odd. There is some attempt to have meaningful conversations between the two, but these don’t work as well as they could, and the relationship between Meena and her father seems cold and impersonal as a result.

Meena genuinely seems scared and anxious for most of the film – afraid of her father and his goons, afraid of the men in the shed, particularly Krishna and afraid of falling in love. There is a rather bizarre song where Krishna is dressed as a mad priest and chases Meena though the canyons of Petra before she wakes up to realise it’s a dream. Bhaskar isn’t as clear here as he could have been that stalking is not the best way to a girl’s heart and for all his cheer and mostly sunny personality at times Krishna’s behaviour is quite predatory, making Meena’s fear seem quite rational. There really isn’t any good reason for Krishna to continue his pursuit of such a reluctant object of his affections, and very little basis for Meena to change her opinion. So Meena’s gradual acceptance of Krishna doesn’t seem realistic and even when she does start to warm to him, the romance generally has little sparkage. It’s left to Arjun and Prakash Raj to provide the chemistry that keeps the film going, and they both do that magnificently!

As Neelakanta gets more and more desperate, Krishna starts to realise that it’s his love for Subbalakshmi and his concern for her welfare that is driving her father to such desperate lengths. Although the change from concern about reputation and prestige to concern about his daughter is uneven and not always convincing, the change in Neelakanta does make the point that families suffer in a myriad of ways after a runaway marriage and provides the families point of view rather than the usual romantic picture of an elopement. Strangely, neither Krishna nor Meena use this opportunity to approach Neelakanta about their own love affair, which draws out the already overly long screenplay even further without adding any more substance to the plot. However it’s the interactions between Krishna and Neelakanta that make the film interesting, and both actors work well together to make their conversations and gradual acceptance of each other the best part of the film.

This is a Bunny movie and so there are plenty of opportunities for him to shake a leg and demonstrate his dancing skills. This is one of the best although the location and costumes could have been better.

Prakash Raj is in his element here. He has plenty of material to work with – all the rage and fury when his daughter runs away, slow burning anger at the men who are hiding her whereabouts and plenty of angst and remorse as he starts to fear that he as lost her forever. However, Bunny matches him step for step and together the two bring credibility to their roles that the romance and hunt for Subbalakshmi fail to deliver. It may be predictable with a total lack of empathy for any of the female roles (for which I’ve deducted a star), but Parugu does have strong performances from Bunny and Prakash Raj and the idea that elopement isn’t the solution to every problem is at least a little different from the norm. Parugu is worth watching for Bunny (of course!), Prakash Raj and the excellent dance sequences, but best to consider as an action/drama rather than as a romance to avoid disappointment. 3 ½ stars.