Jyo Achyutananda

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The film opens with an awkward family photo session. The photographer tries to get the two boys to loosen up and stand closer together, and tries to get the mum to look mildly happy. And so we learn the brothers Achyuth (Nara Rohit) and Anand (Naga Shourya) had a falling out and the mother (Seetha) is grieving her recently deceased husband…Well, to be fair she spends the whole film looking tearful or giving people the stink eye. The tension continues at home as Achyuth reminds Anand of the disparity in their earnings and who is the head of the family.

Through flashbacks we see the boys in happier, pre-moustache times. They sneak cigarettes and enjoy gossipy chat over snacks, and seem to be each other’s best friends. There is rivalry over the dumbest things but it is all pretty good natured. Until they both fall for the same girl. Jyosna, or Jyo (Regina Cassandra) is their new neighbour and commits the crime of being single and gorgeous. The boys fall over themselves to impress her, but she sees them only as friends. This does nothing to dampen their enthusiasm and they cut each other’s lunch with abandon. Anand is goofy and puppy like but Achyuth reveals a less likeable side of his persona, especially when he burns her passport to prevent her from leaving to study overseas. Yes. And then they blame her somehow for their father having a heart attack, assuming she told him that his sons were vile and that’s why he dropped dead. Jyo leaves with the support of her dad (a beautifully warm and understated Tanikella Bharani) and so that chapter closes. But the boys’ rivalry festers into something nastier over the years…and then Jyo comes back.

The way the story unfolds initially is lots of fun. Each brother tells his wife that it was the other brother who had a thing for Jyo and the detailed recounting is filled with little jibes. The brother who is acting out the story being told gets to do some excellent hamming and spout cheesy dialogue. Then we see the “real” version of all three becoming friends and indulging in a song montage all over Hyderabad.

Here’s another notable song moment.  Man stalks girl at market, girl tries to make him go away, man becomes more persistent, girl goes to the police who throw her back into the man’s arms and then join in the dance. It was an early inkling that I was going to have issues with this film.

The second half covers what happens after Jyo returns, and I found myself liking both brothers less and less. They rarely spared a thought for their wives other than to try and keep them away from Jyo. They didn’t even think that much about Jyo and what she wanted. They were too far gone in their chest-beating weenie-waving man games.

It seems men are the only people in the film, the women are just fixtures. Priya and Kalpana are mocked by their husbands’ machinations to get with Jyo and the lies they tell. The lines are funny and their acting is fine, but the characters are not given any respect and the audience isn’t expected to find a problem with that. In some ways Jyo is punished for her failure to like one of the boys. She has to deal with the aggravation and the obstacles put in her way, try and sort out her own life and relationships, and she even gets saddled with fixing Achyuth and Anand. In a film supposedly about love and relationships, it’s a shame so many of the relationships seem a bit toxic.

I loved the performances by Nara Rohit and Naga Shourya. Loved them. They looked perfect, their chemistry was fantastic, their comedy timing was spot on, and when they fought it felt like they really meant it. Their late night snuggles and gossip like an old married couple were very funny and they brought the complex dynamic in their relationship to life. It seemed effortless. I wish they’d been playing characters I could have loved as much. Anand was the least objectionable because I could see his behaviour was driven more by emotion and impulse in the moment, and by conditioning to kick back at his overbearing big brother. Achyuth was more calculating and deliberately set out to hurt Anand and to control Jyo. I’d be laughing at something silly he’d do or say and then recoiling at the next moment. For example, at a corporate tennis match he hit the ball into an opponent’s face and high-fived his partner. The writing of his mean spiritedness is excellent and the things he chooses to do are really hurtful. So it was quality work in terms of insight into a sibling rivalry. But there is no real penalty for him, or Anand, and they reconcile because they want to go back to the good old days.

Regina Cassandra is great as Jyosna. Despite occasionally being made to forget she has a brain, Jyo is a smart and independent woman who has ideas about her future and who should be in it. She is lively without being manic and I liked the way she shifted tone slightly depending on which of the brothers she was talking to. Jyo’s return and the subsequent scheme to set things back to rights was a bit muddled but I enjoyed all of her screen time. And I was chuffed when Nani showed up for her.

Srinivas Avasarala wrote and directed and shows his love of, and influences from, cinema. While the structure works and he handles the flashbacks quite well, he maybe lacked some confidence in his audience. Every joke is underscored with loud sound effects, there is a bit too much repetition in some scenes, and he hammers home the obvious points. Visually the film is pleasant but gets a bit cheesy in songs. I liked the parallels between present day and the past boys relationships and the ending was neatly done.

The audience was in stitches at some of the lines, so I missed a lot. But if all the jokes were on par with the English ones, then I don’t think it was a huge loss. Has anyone over the age of 9 ever said “I miss you from the heart of my bottom” and genuinely expected a laugh?

The good bits are good, the actors are great, but the film left a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe this would improve with the benefit of subtitles but whatever it is that raised my hackles would still be there. It’s a shame. I’d love to see more low-key relationship driven films coming out of the Telugu industry, but not ones that idolise a load of male wish fulfilment BS. (Note: I have a longstanding love-hate relationship with the film Love Actually so I’ve got form in this genre)

Sardaar Gabbar Singh (2016)

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I didn’t expect great things from Sardaar Gabbar Singh, so wasn’t surprised when it turned out to be a formulaic action flick that’s overly reliant on Pawan Kalyan’s star power.  What the makers of Sardaar Gabbar Singh seem to have missed is that Dabangg and its Telugu remake Gabbar Singh were successful because they poked fun at the traditional herocentric films of the seventies and eighties. Here was a hero who wasn’t pure and honourable but instead was a bit crooked himself and out to look after No 1 above all else. If other people happened to benefit from that self-interest, well and good, but that wasn’t the main motivation behind Officer Chulbul Pandey’s vendetta against Chedi Singh. And therein lies the problem with Sardaar Gabbar Singh. While the first half gets off to a good start, by the time the story is starting to take shape Gabbar Singh (Pawan Kalyan) turns out to be just too, well, good. He’s not selfish enough, not corrupt enough and not greedy enough to win our hearts the way Chulbul Pandey did in Dabangg. For all it’s faults though the film does have an entertaining first half and the big budget ensures top-notch fight scenes and well constructed sets. It’s just a pity the rest is so pedestrian and clichéd.

The story is threadbare thin and follows a by-the-numbers good cop vs. evil landlord format with a beautiful and hapless princess thrown in to add a little glamour. After a cute opening scene to prove that Gabbar Singh has always stood up for himself (even as a child when sleeping under a Sholay film poster on the streets), he next appears as a rough and tough cop determined to bring his own form of justice to bad guys everywhere. Luckily for Gabbar Singh the crooks haven’t learnt that they need to attack en masse rather than one at a time if they want to have any chance of winning, so right from the first fight, he has little difficulty in overcoming an entire gang all by himself. At least the fight is well choreographed and Pawan Kalyan is funny as well as competent while taking down the latest collection of inept gangsters. His success means that Gabbar Singh is shipped off to a town in dire need of some law and order, with his best mate since childhood Samba (Ali) dragged along too.

The villain of the story is cartoonishly over-the-top evil and sadistic, while his crimes are varied and myriad. Bhairao Singh (Sharad Kelkar) has destroyed the local farmland by mining after viciously disposing of the villagers who happened to be living there. He’s also taken over the roads for his own use, intimidated the locals by killing anyone who opposes his rule and maintained a triad of lieutenants who commit various other crimes in his name. In Bhairao Singh’s sights is the land owned by Princess Arshi Devi (Kajal Aggarwal), as another potential site for a mine – although the concept of prospecting to discover if there is anything worth mining never seems to cross his mind. In the meantime, Gabbar Singh has the princess herself in his sights while simultaneously attempting to win control of the town back from Bhairao Singh. Adding to the impressive cast line-up but not necessarily to the plot, Mukesh Rishi plays the role of General Hari Narayana, guardian to the princess who is trying to secure a deal with hotelier Ramesh Talwar (Rao Ramesh) to save Arshi’s palace and secure her future.

Gabbar Singh is a one-man army capable of overcoming a seemingly never-ending parade of thugs while dodging bullets, speeding trucks, horses and everything else that comes his way. He wins back the local school for the children, fights against oppression and is prepared to give up the girl of his dreams because of her higher station in life. In short he’s a paragon of everything that is right and good, and that really just makes him rather dull and uninteresting. Thankfully Pawan Kalyan has the charisma and screen presence to make something more of his character, but even he can’t save the overlong and drearily predictable second half. Even the fight scenes start to become dull as Pawan Kalyan shows off his martial arts skills (impressive) and the thugs repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Another problem is the character of Bhairao Singh who is basically a caricature of an ‘evil overlord’ and is only required to curl his lip autocratically and look down his nose at everyone else to play his part. Although Sharad Kelkar has an impressive sneer and can flare his nostrils when required, it’s not a demanding role and he’s too cartoonish to be a properly intimidating villain. The usual suspects who appear as his multitude of henchmen and assistants are not on screen for long enough to make an impression, while Brahmaji appears as police officer who seems to suddenly back Bhairao Singh for no apparent reason. Surprisingly, although Ali and Brahmi provide much of the comedy they are both fairly subdued and practically disappear in the second half leaving Pawan Kalyan to supply the humour as well as the action. For me the most interesting character is Gayathri, Bhairao’s wife. It’s a small role but Sanjjanaa makes the most of her time on screen and conveys a lot of meaning though her body language and eyes, making more of an impact than many of the other seasoned actors around her.

Devi Dri Prasad’s songs work well in the first half, especially the title track and Tauba Tauba which has the best picturisation and is fun to watch.

However the romantic songs in the second half are poorly placed and slow the pace considerably. They’re also very unimaginatively shot in the snow-covered peaks of Switzerland which for me is just a cliché too far.  Otherwise the film looks beautiful with Arshi Devi’s palace looking stunning and Kajal dressed in amazingly beautiful costumes and jewelry. The village does look as if it’s somewhere in the Wild West instead of India, but there are plenty of doors, boxes, miscellaneous carts and glass windows for the thugs to be thrown against, so it serves its purpose well.

Sadly Sardaar Gabbar Singh fails as a follow-up to Gabbar Singh, with the only link being the lead character’s name and occupation. The industry self-referential comedy that made Dabangg such a success is missing and there is little to recommend it other than Pawan Kalyan and a couple of good songs. While the first half is entertaining, the film badly loses its way after the interval and becomes yet another overlong and repetitive action film. It’s not terrible but given the team behind the film it’s disappointing that this is the result. One only for fans.

Karthikeya

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Karthikeya is an interesting mix of supernatural suspense and crime thriller with a soupçon of snakey vengeance thrown in for good measure. Chandoo Mondeti’s début has plenty of character development and a good storyline, although it does take a long time to get to the meat of the plot. However it starts well and the second half has plenty going on making Karthikeya a better than average watch.

The film begins with the unexplained death of an endowment officer investigating the closure of a temple in Subramanyapuram, although his inquiry seems to be completely unofficial. Shankar (Raja Ravindra) has time to make a final phone call before his death, but naturally hasn’t actually managed to finish his report detailing what’s behind the mystery of the temple before calling his friend. Doesn’t anyone in these films ever realize that boasting about their achievements before actually completing them is a surefire way to ensure they aren’t going to make it to the end of the movie? Especially when there are eavesdropping snakes to consider!

Having set the scene for a mystery thriller, the film then moves away from the story of the temple to introduce Karthik (Nikhil Siddharth) and his family. Karthik is a medical student who puts his faith in science and has no hesitation in spending the night in a haunted mortuary to prove that there is nothing supernatural going on. However when his superstitious mother (Tulasi) calls to report that his horoscope has him meeting a girl who will bring him luck, despite his skepticism Karthik keeps his eyes peeled and pays attention when he meets Valli (Swati Reddy) on campus. I like Karthik’s combination of respect for his mother’s beliefs with a scientific curiosity that drives him to find an answer to every question. He seems more normal and down to earth than most heroes and his tendency to reach for reason makes him a likeable and possibly a rather more intelligent character, despite his rather inane approach to romance.

As in many Telugu films the romance isn’t well handled, and the heroine has little more to do than apply the usual romance formula.

Step One – reject the guy
Step Two – see him in a better light and reconsider
Step Three – fall for the guy and declare your undying love

Swati does all of that perfectly well, but I was hoping for a little more given that her character is a dental student who should know better. Swati and Nikhil have a sweet camaraderie but no romantic sizzle and appear more like friends than lovers for most of the film. However, given that the focus of the story is the temple mystery this is perhaps for the best since the romance really adds little to the plot and is fairly irrelevant at the end of the day.

The story behind the temple is explained using a series of beautiful drawings that detail the building of the temple and the subsequent miracle that occurred on the full moon night of Karthika month. However the mystery started the previous year when one of the temple trustees collapsed during the annual ceremony and a few days later two lovers were found dead in the temple with snake bites. Rumours then began about strange noises and the death of the chief priest was the final straw resulting in the closure of the temple.

Kathik and his friends are sent to Subramanyapuram for a medical camp and end up staying in the temple trustee’s bungalow – a grand building in the forest with an imposing five headed snake sculpture on the top. The mystery is just the thing to keep Karthik entertained in between working at the medical camp and romancing Valli, despite his mother’s warning that he is in danger from snakes and the whole mystery involves a number of deaths from snake bite Valli is also on the camp since Subramanyapuram is her home village and her father (Tanikella Bharani) is a prominent village elder and astrologer who provides a good counter for Karthik’s scientific beliefs.

There is some amount of suspense as shadowy snakes are seen around the bungalow but unfortunately Chandoo Mondeti never develops any real feeling of menace which would have helped increase tension as Karthik gets closer to the answer. Although the police officer ACP Shankar (Kishore) involved in the case is also killed, his death is over very quickly and isn’t used to increase the suspense either. However the plot itself is more realistic than usual and even the dodgy science has some basis in fact even if it’s not completely believable. Chandoo Mondeti also includes some social issues including female infanticide and the shonky practices of fake spiritual leaders, blending them well into the plot and avoiding too moralistic a stance.

Nikhil is good as Karthik and balances his scientific beliefs with respect for the village traditions well. Satya and Praveen have small roles as his friends and provide most of the comedy which is less slapstick and more successful than usual. The rest of the support cast are also good, including Jogi Naidu as the temple handyman and Rao Ramesh as the Head of the Endowments office. There are no big song and dance numbers, with most of the songs used to show the developing romance between Karthik and Valli, however they fit well into the narrative and are generally enjoyable too.

Overall Karthikeya is a good story that could have done with a little more suspense but still keeps enough tension in the plot to keep it interesting right to the end. A few more snakes and less romance would have helped, but I could say that of most films really, and the CGI works well here to make the snake moments work well. Definitely worth a watch for an interesting mix of supernatural and murder mystery along with some good performances and clever use of science. 4 stars.