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.

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Ninnu Kori

Ninnu Kori had the potential to be good. I like the concept, and it is rare to see a first love is not the only love story. Unfortunately Shiva Nirvana squandered a great cast on a badly written screenplay full of paternalistic BS.

Uma (Nani) meets Pallavi (Nivetha Thomas) when she suddenly decides he must teach her to dance. The moment he touches her, he falls in love. Pallavi takes longer to succumb, and their developing friendship and ensuing romance is among the few highlights. Uma rents the upstairs room at Pallavi’s family home, carrying on a clandestine romance under the eagle eye of her dad (Murali Sharma). Uma seems to have no family, is a PhD student with no job lined up, and he doesn’t seem inclined to try too hard. Pallavi begs him to marry her as while she will elope and upset her parents, she won’t disgrace the whole family by running away after they fix a match. He overhears her father interfering in another family’s elopement issue and the speech about what fathers know their daughters need hits home. Pallavi’s marriage is arranged in Vizag while Uma is studying in Delhi. She calls him in a last ditch attempt, but he talks over her about his own news. So Pallavi marries Arun (Aadhi Pinisetty) who seems nice despite a penchant for Disney songs. They move to the US and life is good. Until Uma turns up determined to “save” Pallavi from what he believes must be a loveless marriage.

The film sounds promising as it acknowledges that it is fine to have a past, and it is OK to move on from an unsuccessful relationship. Sadly almost every time someone made a good or thoughtful point, they then pretty much did the opposite of what they said. When Uma says not to interfere between Arun and Pallavi, the next scene is of Uma and others engineering a confrontation between the spouses.

According to Kona Venkat’s screenplay, under NO circumstances should you ask a woman what is important to her. Men must only ever discuss this with another man, preferably one with his own agenda or, even better, no idea at all. Rather than tell Pallavi the truth, Arun shared an admittedly touching scene with Uma where Uma was forced to realise he was the equivalent of a cocaine fuelled suicidal ex wannabe girlfriend. Several men in the audience applauded while I wondered why Arun couldn’t be honest with his wife but could spill his guts to the guy trying to replace him.

Shiva Nirvana takes all the cheap shots, and none of them necessary. Pallavi’s best friend Kavita had to be a fat chick and the butt of some mean one-liners. Addiction and mental illness were treated flippantly as a now you see it now you don’t excuse for Uma’s shenanigans. A black actor was cast as a knife wielding mugger while most of the other American extras were white.

At the end of the film Uma grandly states he has learned his lesson and will marry first, fall in love after. I have no issue with arranged marriages, but I take exception to the man who behaved like a dick being applauded for deciding to bestow himself upon some poor woman. He constantly put himself first, blamed everyone else if he didn’t get what he wanted, and took advantage of Arun and Pallavi’s kindness. What a catch. What a hero.

Nani is the Simon the Likeable of Telugu cinema and I blame him for making me stay beyond half time. In the first stage of Uma’s love for Pallavi, Nani plays him as a genuine, nice, boy next door type. He is playful and affectionate, and wants to get his degree and a job before marrying Pallavi. Once she marries Arun, Uma becomes an alcoholic which Nani demonstrates by sporting a beard and drinking so hard he almost bites the top off a hipflask. When Uma goes to stay with Arun and Pallavi he is all spite and manipulative snark. His snide remarks got lots of laughs but despite good comedic timing I wanted to kick him. Pallavi tells him she is happy, but Uma knows better. He couldn’t move on, how can she?

Pallavi starts out as a bit daft but eventually, perhaps in spite of the screenplay, Nivetha Thomas develops her character into a lovely young woman. Her grief at their break up and her anger at Uma’s selfishness are portrayed with restraint and judgement. When Pallavi thinks Arun has cheated, Nivetha made the melodrama feel grounded in Pallavi’s previous experience. She had some strong dialogue, and Pallavi was willing and able to articulate her feelings, but the men only listen to themselves. Pallavi was hurt to think that Uma was wallowing in pain because he assumed she was miserable while I was upset that he never listened to her.

Aadhi Pinisetty has a quiet energy that plays off Nani’s more extrovert childish antics. At first I thought Arun was a bit wet, but Aadhi shows the reaction and immediate squashing down of his feelings. He and Nivetha have a different chemistry, convincing as a settled couple. And because husbands are heroes, he also got to beat someone up. I was very distracted by his unfortunate 70s blow wave though. I’m going to blame the director because he bollocksed up so many other things he may as well cop the hair crimes too.

Tanikella Bharani is understated in a small role as Uma’s professor and mentor, in as much as a mentor calls on an ex to sort out his most brilliant student’s life. Balireddy Pruthviraj is Lovababu, Pallavi’s (comedy) uncle. I can’t really fault any of the support actors, except for the usual “any white person will do, especially one in a bikini” extras.

Gopi Sunder’s soundtrack is adequate without being memorable. The background score is hamfisted with crashing percussion to indicate drama, and strings and synths denoting romance. The visual language is clunky, and things that probably sounded cool look amateurish in execution (e.g. Uma splashing water on his face cutting to a crashing wave).  There are vague attempts to paper over some plot holes and some very awkward exposition. The pace is uneven, wallowing in Uma’s angst while speeding past pivotal moments.

The film is a mansplainer’s delight and Uma, who behaves appallingly, is constantly rewarded for being an arse. I was disappointed by Ninnu Kori, and don’t recommend it because of the stupidity and toxic messages disguised as respect for tradition and the power of love.

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)