Sammohanam (2018)

 

Sammohanam is kind of like Notting Hill (acknowledged by writer/director Mohan Krishna Indraganti), only with a few Telugu film staples and bonus rowdies. I liked it enormously, almost against my better judgement especially when it goes a bit awry in the second half.

Warning! partial spoilers ahead.

 

Film buff Sarvesh (Naresh) and wife Anasuya (Pavithra Lokesh) keep a beautiful and welcoming home, and she keeps the entire neighbourhood in snacks and sweets. Daughter Divya (Harini) is studying, and son Vijay (Sudheer Babu) is determined to be a picture book author. When Sarva is approached to let a film crew use his house, he agrees immediately on just one condition. They have to give him a role. Vijay is disgusted at the idea. He is an intellectual snob who believes while books can transform a mind movies are cheap and do damage. Divya is all for it because the It Girl of the day, Sameera Rathod (Aditi Rao Hydari), is the heroine. Sarva will brook no arguments, and the shoot commences. Sameera overhears Vijay and family mocking her bad Telugu and asks him to coach her. He reluctantly accepts and they develop a friendship that could be something more. After an uncomfortable start, everyone settles down and family and crew fall into a new routine. But they can’t all stay in this happy little bubble forever. What will happen when Sameera leaves? Will Vijay stop pouting? And will Sarva get his big acting break?

The answer in short is that people have their hearts broken, and some are mended. Sarva gets all ready for the movie premier only to find he was left on the editing room floor. He is devastated but his love for film cannot be killed. When Vijay was depressed over Sameera, his mum told him that rejection wasn’t the end of the world and that just because someone doesn’t return your feelings, that doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of love or that nobody else will love you. Don’t take it out on them, try and be there for them as it’s a hard time for both of you. It was done with warmth and a little bit of humour that made her advice relatable.

Aditi Rao Hydari delivered a good performance, although sometimes she was left with nothing to do but make doe eyes. Sameera’s character was well developed with respect to her work as an actress. She made it clear that while some producers (and co-stars) expected her to be little more than a prostitute, she was proud of her skills and training and wouldn’t sell herself out. There were many small moments and reactions where you could see Sameera subtly navigating the constant intrusion by Kishore the star kid. I liked when the family and loser mates started treating her more like a person, not a star, even when she was wearing one of her micro-skirts. She blossomed in their house, with people around who seemed genuinely to care for her, not for her status. But when her Dark Secret threw a spanner in the works, Mohan Krishan Indraganti reverted to film cliches. Sameera was being abused and gaslighted by an old friend and refused to tell anyone except her friend and assistant Ramya (Hari Teja). This led to lots of scenes with Aditi just staring at Vijay as he worked himself into a welter of negative emotions. She is made responsible for her own misery because apparently all she had to do was tell Vijay – easier said than done. Also why does a man have to physically threaten another man before a woman can consider herself safe? It felt a bit cobbled together to please the intended audience, and to allow the hero to take over.

Sudheer Babu is competent but bland. In part that is due to the writing as Vijay is introverted, but subtle emoting doesn’t seem to be in Sudheer’s wheelhouse. I felt that the scenes that worked best between Sameera and Vijay were because of Aditi’s energy which he could reciprocate or bounce off and they flowed nicely. But when the characters were at odds she seemed effortlessly in the moment and he was Acting. Of course he is the hero so getting the girl of his choice is a foregone conclusion, but there was a little emotional growth on the way that was a good sign. Vijay’s scenes with his dad are also nicely done and that brings me to the real star of the film.

Naresh. His performance as Sarva is beautiful. He is everything that comedy uncles try, and fail, to be. Whether he was crying at an old film, flirting with his wife (how shocking!) or throwing a tantrum over being denied his chance at stardom, I loved every moment. Even in the incredibly daft scene where he helps Vijay and the boys deal with Sameera’s problematic associate, he was hilarious. Naresh plays Sarva as a heart on sleeve kind of guy, and some of his scenes were unexpectedly touching. His rapport with Anasuya (Pavithra Lokesh) is really nice, and I enjoyed her performance too. They have a couple of scenes talking about the kids where you can believe they respect each other and rely on each other’s judgement. Unless it’s about films.

Harini is lively and natural, and I enjoyed her expressions as she swanned through the chaos of the shoot. She’s a capable and competent girl who seems able to sort the wheat from the chaff. When Vijay starts barking orders at Divya, Divya shouts back for him to stop moral policing her, she’s not an idiot. Their parents respect both kids’ positions and negotiate with each of them accordingly. There is no sense that Divya’s opinion is less valid than Vijay’s.

Of course Vijay has to have some friends with no purpose in life but to follow him around and be shorter and less atttractive. Murthy (Rahul Ramakrishna) is sleazy and dumb, and Seenu (Abhay Bethiganti) seems a little nicer and a bit more dim. Hari Teja has little to do as Ramya until one loooong piece of exposition. The always reliable Tanikella Bharani plays a small but significant role, and there are some cameos to spot.

The look and feel of the film is very appealing. But the story wasn’t as strong in the second half when it switched from character driven to plot driven action. The subtitles by rekhs and crew were a delight. They were idiomatic and clear, and the jokes translated well. When Sarva watches a character actor shouting his lines, he observes “He speaks Tegulu not Telugu”. I snorted as I suspect I may be picking up Tegulu from movies too. And there is a series of digs at heroes who get their break because of family connections. The soundtrack is almost completely forgettable, but emo balladeering is my least favourite genre so I probably just blotted it out.

The second half doesn’t live up to the very engaging start. But it’s still a refreshing and well considered film in many aspects, with a couple of great performances. Come for the romance, stay for the parents!

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Agnyaathavaasi

PosterDespite a stellar cast and a rocking soundtrack, Agynyaathavaasi turns out to be a rather disappointing watch. Trivikram takes an interesting plot and fills it chock full of masala, to the extent that the story of a son’s mission to exact vengeance on his father’s killers becomes lost in the morass of comedy, romance and OTT fight scenes. Nothing too much out of the ordinary for a Telugu film then you might think, but there is simply too much of everything here, making Agynyaathavaasi a clutter of confusion instead of the thrilling action film it could have been.

The story (when you can catch a glimpse of it) follows the exploits of Balasubramanyam (aka Abhishikth Bhargav aka Bala aka Abhi!) as he attempts to discover who murdered his father and brother, and then follow through to exact revenge. Abhi (Pawan Kalyan) has been raised in secrecy, allowing his younger half-brother to assume the role of heir to his father Vinda’s pharmaceutical empire. Vinda (Boman Irani) is notorious for always having a Plan B, hence the existence of Abhi who is rather oddly is his step-mother’s favourite, despite his exiled status. Indrani (Khushboo) suspects that her son and husband did not die accidental deaths, and calls Abhi back to discover which of the two aspirants to Vinda’s AB Company were responsible for the deed. Varma (Rao Ramesh) and Sharma (Murali Sharma) have been part of the company since its formation, but neither seem up to the challenge of running a multi-national organisation. Both actors do their best, but with poorly etched characters played mainly for comedic value it’s hard to see why they could ever be in the running as suspects for the murders.

Adding more unnecessary slapstick is Raghu Babu as a particularly sleazy office manager whose antics aren’t even remotely funny and who is completely superfluous to the plot. As too are Abhi’s side-kicks, who start off by offering technical support for his scheme to infiltrate the company but end up as a kind of enthusiastic group of cheer-leaders on the sidelines instead. These include Tanikella Bharani as Abhi’s uncle, Srinivasa Reddy and Abhishek Maharshi who all gasp, cringe and applaud at appropriate moments but otherwise have little to do as Abhi smoothly goes about his investigation without encountering too many problems.

Naturally there has to be a romance – so why not two? Anu Emmanuel and Keerthy Suresh are the two women Abhi uses as part of his schemes to discover the truth, which goes some way to explaining the mainly superficial nature of the relationships. Still it does mean a couple of songs and a quick jaunt to Bulgaria in between Abhi’s many fight scenes. Outside of this though, the two actors only appear as light relief in between beautifully staged but surprisingly dull fight scenes.

Normally the saving grace in these films is the performances of the actors, but almost everyone here, including Pawan Kalyan overact like crazy. The Powerstar doesn’t seem engaged with the screenplay at all for most of the film – not surprisingly perhaps, since I found it difficult to engage with too! There’s a bizarre scene where an insightful police officer (Sampath Raj) starts to postulate on who Abhi could possibly be, and manages to reconstruct the entire sequence of events without any clues, witnesses or evidence to back up his theory! It’s another example of needless frills that hinder the story. A flashback sequence would have worked much better and there was no need to add such speculation, particularly when the police officer involved reported that both Vinda and his son died by accident despite Vinda being shot in the head before he plunged to his death from a high-rise.

On the plus side, the music from Anirudh Ravichandler is excellent and suits both the action and romantic sections of the screenplay. The songs are also catchy, but for the most part don’t sit well within the screenplay and most seem to be added rather randomly. Despite this, the choreography is excellent and the locations beautifully filmed. Indeed, overall the cinematography is excellent with some stunning shots of Varanasi near the start of the film. I also liked the attempt to link Abhi’s story to parts of the Mahabharata and the story of Krishna, which helped to fill in some of the back-story that was glossed over rather quickly.

There are some terrific performances too in the midst of all the general scenery chewing. Boman Irani is good and Khushboo is notable in her return to the big screen as Abhi’s step-mother and Vinda’s widow. She’s compelling in her scenes and her understated performance stands out in the midst of all the other melodrama. Also very good is Aadhi Pinisetty as the main protagonist, Seetharam. He gets the balance between arrogant brat and murdering megalomaniac just right while looking dapper and well-groomed at every occasion. Despite only a short amount of screentime Aadhi is impressive and makes an excellent villain once again.

Agynyaathavaasi is simply too uneven to be anything other than a one-time watch. Although there is a good basic storyline, the added fluff and masala buries it too deep and not even the excellent production values can keep it from sinking under all that weight. Although Khushboo and Aadhi along with Anirudh’s music and V. Manikandan’s cinematography are worth seeing, this is really a film best for fans only.

Nene Raju Nene Mantri

 

Radha Jogendra (Rana Daggubati) narrates his story to a film crew as he awaits execution. He was once a simple money lender with a shrewd mind and a moral compass provided by his wife Radha (Kajal). After a couple of years of marriage Radha finally fell pregnant and the happy couple were over the moon. Sadly Radha lost the baby and her ability to conceive again after being attacked for accidentally infringing on the imaginary rights of the village leader’s wife. Yes, I know. Jogendra decides if he was the village head nobody would insult Radha again. So he schemes his way into the role. Then he eyes off the MLA position. Then a ministry. Then the CM gig. He always justifies his ambition as his means of giving Radha the best in life, but he is playing the game for the sake of power too. Can he keep outwitting his opponents? Where will he draw the line? And what does Radha make of it all?

Teja’s “Nene Raju Nene Mantri” is set in the murky world of politics but has all the flair and improbability of a cowboy film. It is great fun if you can ignore the death toll, and I always like a decent comeuppance.

Jogendra (Rana) adores his wife, but everyone else is expendable or interchangeable. He is deceptively simple looking, but his mind is subtle and calculating. Rana dominates his scenes and not just because he is twice the size of anyone else in the film. He is fully at home as the morally dubious but highly effective Jogendra and delivers his one-liners and proverbs with great relish. The action scenes are often brutal but then he switches to a convincing warmth and playfulness in his scenes with Kajal. There’s more complexity to Jogendra than I was expecting, and a lot more of the mass hero hijinks than I expected too. I laughed a lot at Jogendra’s amazing aptitude for killing, and his ability to stay on task.

The wardrobe team came up with a good look for Rana. Well, once I got over my confusion at seeing him in a shirt. There’s lots of monochromatic linens, a slightly modernised traditional look, and a fairly subtle way to emphasise his physique without it looking like his clothes were painted on. What else…Oh yes, there is a hulk-out shirt ripping moment, just to prove the gym sessions haven’t ended.

Radha (Kajal) is on the surface too saintly. But I really liked her chemistry with Rana, and some of her less sweet moments saved Radha for me. I loved when she fired up and told Jogendra she’d forgive so many of his mistakes (like shagging Devika Rani) but not the thing he just said. Or when he chided her for acting childish and she said it was because they didn’t have a child, and they both looked stricken. I didn’t like that everyone except Jogendra saw Radha’s value relative to her having a baby. She had no purpose or context in the script other than “wife”, so I was impressed with Kajal for bringing a bit more to the table. She showed Radha’s growing discomfort with her husband’s actions and her inner conflict because she knew he did it all for her. The wardrobe team dressed her in beautiful sarees that increased in opulence but always suited Radha, and Kajal looked comfortable in her skin. However. Radha was the perfect wife who would sacrifice anything for husband but that final sacrifice was just DUMB. The method struck me as quite improbable. Having said that, I still felt intensely sad when the cortege visited surrounding villages.

Devika Rani (Catherine Tresa) is a badly dressed avatar of media whoredom. Her painfully high silver wedge sandals and the almost there skirts were hideous. I guess the wardrobe team can’t love all their cast members equally. While it is good that Devika Rani was shown to be a confident woman I was concerned that none of her social media strategies were sound. Never hire anyone who says their plan is to send everything viral. And her character made little sense. But it does speak to the thinking around campaigning and media manipulation, with clicktivism and slacktivism getting a passing nod even if I am not sure that is what Teja was aiming at. Her major achievement in the film might have been that she had zero chemistry with Rana. What was probably supposed to be a titillating scene was just awkward and cold, with Rana looking like he was resigned to an invasive medical procedure. Catherine has some convincing moments in solo scenes, but as soon as Rana or Kajal shows up her lack of acting skill is all too evident.

The villains are unfortunately quite familiar types from everyday life. The cop who takes bribes (Ajay), the gangster turned politician (Padeep Rawat), career politicians with no objective beyond lining their pockets (Tanikella Bharani, Ashutosh Rana, Posani Krishna Murali). All of these performances were solid, and there was some genuine menace and just nastiness in their interactions with Jogendra. Rana looked like he was having the time of his life threatening Ajay. Ashutosh Rana’s character didn’t know if he was coming or going sometimes, with a wry use of proverbs to explain how proverb-spouting Jogendra could beat him. I quite liked the one that went “if the cat is blind a mouse can hit it with a stick”. A convenient morality permeates the film. If Jogendra kills someone (or a hundred someones), don’t take it to heart. They were all bad so he was doing a good thing. Well, except for one. Navdeep wasn’t given much to do as Shiva but he managed to make an impression as one of the only people who held Jogendra morally accountable.

Anoop Ruben’s soundtrack tends towards the anthemic, which suits the purposeful journey Jogendra is on. They didn’t make Kajal and Rana dance which is also a blessing. There was a bit of convulsive twitching in one song but then lots of walking (him) and a bit of frolicking (her). Good decision dance team! I loved the special appearance by dance master Shiva Shankar. There is some dodgy VFX but realistic effects could have been overwhelming in the gory bits. And there is a sound effect for everything. There’s nothing new or outstanding in the direction but I feel the pace was pretty well managed until the finale which was a little drawn out. The dialogues contain proverbs and local sayings and I think the subtitlers did a good job of conveying some of the flavour.

It’s an engaging story with Rana and Kajal coming up with the goods and a decent support cast. I should be more concerned about the body count, the gender roles, the apathy surrounding politics, the problem solving preferences of a sociopathic charmer. But I was highly entertained and amused by the machinations and mayhem. Because he is Jogendra.