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.

Nagadevathe (2000)

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Sai Prakash’s 2000 film Nagadevathe is snakecentric, packed with special effects, and Soundarya and Prema are more than capable of shouldering the lead roles. The film is available on Youtube in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu so you can choose your own adventure without subtitles, and it has also been dubbed into Hindi under the title Naag Shakti.

The story as I believe it to be goes something like this. Gauri is regarded as a bad luck omen in her village, possibly just because she is barren. She and her husband offer hospitality to Shiva and Parvati who are pretending to be travellers. The gods tell Gauri why she is infertile – she accidentally killed a clutch of snake eggs and has been cursed. But they tell her how to stop them from continuing to punish her. Soon after, Gauri discovers she is pregnant. A difficult labour nearly ends badly but a glowing mystical snake appears and turns into Nagamma (Soundarya), who ensures a safe birth. There is a backstory involving a man who foolishly kills a snake and is cursed, his household goods transforming to snake mounds. He and his family do penance and after giving the deceased snake a proper funeral, his home is restored. Nagamma moves in to the termite hill to keep an eye on them or something. A shrine is built around the main snake mound and over time, more and more people come to pay their respects to the snake goddess. Nagalakshmi is born to be a devotee of Nagamma, and they have quite a warm and personal bond right from Nagalakshmi’s birth. Grown up Nagalakshmi (Prema) meets Shivaji (Sai Kumar) and love blossoms. There is some kind of conflict between their families and I couldn’t work out if it was an old feud, the rich boy poor girl thing, or just garden variety mother (deliberately turning her son into an evil possessed snake) issues. Nagamma tries to protect her favourite humans, and they could all benefit from some better decision making. Things get worse before they can get better, and the effects team are kept busy with magical healings, snake assists, helpful talking parrots, attack vultures, heaven, hell and the kitchen sink.

I enjoy the snake film genre for a few reasons. Often the female characters are more prominent and powerful or more nuanced, or both, and that makes me happy. There is usually a pervading sense of right in the film’s world as the snakes are able to enact justice that is missing for the masses. Snakes may act out of common sense or compassion, unlike many non-magical humans. Snakes are alert to every opportunity to get their groove on, with varying degrees of success along the scale from Jeetendra to Sri Devi. And the outfits are frequently a bit special. On many levels, from the very shallow to only slightly less shallow, Nagadevathe delivers.

I think Soundarya is lovely and in this film she maintains an air of benevolent authority in even the most trying times. Given that she often only has her face to act with (the rest of her having been replaced by a giant CGI snake), she does very well.

In one scene reminiscent of Ammoru, Nagalakshmi has summoned guests to eat at a special pooja. They are turned back by the Evil In-Laws but Nagamma calls on her sister deities to come along. She gets the undivided attention of the effects and saree teams as she personifies water, wind, earth, fire and more.

I admit to some disappointment that despite a most excellent spangly body suit, the obligatory “nagin assailed by been-wielding baddies” scene resulted in a disappointing dance. More like she was rolling around on the floor looking for a lost (blue) contact lense at times.

I liked Prema a lot in Devi, and her performance is solid. She has a flirty but down to earth tone with Sai Kumar, and a nice rapport with Soundarya. Prema is tall and elegant looking but has an energy that lends equally well to comedy and romantic shenanigans. Nagalakshmi has the strength and faith to stay on task and Prema really showed the power and intensity of her determination as well as her softer side. I could see why the snakes would want to chip in at her wedding. She was a good friend and fundamentally nice without being a pushover. Nagalakshmi knows what’s what and once she finds out the truth of her situation she takes steps to protect her loved ones and engage some divine assistance to sort out the problem. I recalled musing on the toxicity of Chiru’s bodly fluids in Punnami Nagu, and Shivaji also appears to have a lethal, um, bite. I have never been so glad to see so many silly interruptions of a wedding night.

Sai Kumar is Shivaji. He seems so nice and yet… When his snake nature dominates he is predatory and poisonous. Now I was confused as to how a snake goddess could be unaware her favourite disciple was marrying a serial killer faux snake, but maybe there are cosmic rules about that kind of snake-by-venomous-inoculation. Shivaji was unaware of his snakey activities and oblivious to the black magic worshipping going on around him. Nagalakshmi was often in peril and I was quite worn out from yelling at the screen for her husband to either wake up to himself or to get away from her. I’m more used to seeing Sai Kumar as a villain or an elder statesman so seeing him as a romantic lead was novel. Even if the effects team did seem to take too much pleasure in distorting his face into a snakelike mask.

The support cast includes stalwarts Babu Mohan, Tanikella Bharani, and other familiar faces doing familiar shtick. I couldn’t put names to all the faces but I was largely able to place which characters were Good and which were Not Good.

I did get a little confused at times since without the benefit of subtitles, I rely on the visual cues. Thankfully the signs are generally clear and umabiguous. Nagamma’s arch enemy is an evil mystic who favours an eagle motif and prances about in a shiny red outfit with a fluttering black cape. I liked that his cape was attached to the sleeves of his onesie as that helped ensure some vigorous and character appropriate flapping. The effects team worked themselves into a lather of laser eyes, snake shaped shadows, nasty afflictions, sparkly things, space monsters and of course giant multi-headed cosmic snakes.

Some key scenes are very similar to ones from Devi (1999) or even Ammoru (1995). Although this time around Prema was not the cosmic snake, and Soundarya was the powerful goddess. The story is laden with a bit of everything and the commitment to the theme is unquestionable. I can’t say the commitment to logic is equal.

See this if you like to see competent actresses take centre stage and if you enjoy a bit of a spectacle en route to a good comeuppance. 3 ½ stars!