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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Nijam

Nijam_title

Nijam (Truth) is an odd film. It is far too long, contains some truly repellent characters and the story requires maximum elasticity from your Disbelief Suspenders. And yet I find it draws me in. Produced, written and directed by Teja, Nijam deals with truth, corruption and the eternal Telugu film question of justice. Nijam won several awards and there were a few good films released in 2003 so I guess this really resonated with the audiences.

Nijam_Rama

Mahesh Babu is Rama, a shy studious weakling with no visible heroic qualities (apart from being fair skinned and irresistible to women). He idolises his fireman father (Ranganath) but it is the women in his life who really mould Rama’s character. His mother (Rameshwari) is a strong willed and protective woman.  His neighbour Janaki (Rakshita) is also strong willed and is determined to get her hands on Rama. The first 90 minutes or is just preamble to the real crux of the story and could have been condensed considerably. Following a run in with local heavy Devudu (Gopichand), Venkateswarlu is framed for murder. He is innocent but the police, especially Brahmaji, are corrupt and the process does not favour the truth.  Rama has to pay bribes just to visit his father and is asked for payment by a witness who could clear his dad. Brahmaji lets Devudu in the cell to take his revenge on Venkateswarlu and things start to go crazy. Rama discovers his father has been injured and tries to get him out of jail. At every turn people ask for bribes to do what is right or, even worse, just to do their job. Rama runs from pillar to post trying to raise the money he needs in time to save his father. Brahmaji colludes in an elaborate scheme to ensure Venkateswarlu dies outside of the jail. Rama is devastated by his father’s death but his mother is enraged. She decides her son will take revenge on those who lied and starts him on a training montage to build his strength and skills. She helps him choose targets in the same way she used to help with his schoolwork. Rameshwari accompanies him on missions and is active in taking vengeance. Things come to a head when Rama and his ma come to the attention of CBI officer (Prakash Raj) and the unhinged and homicidal Devudu.

Nijam_Rama is helplessNijam_baby faced killer

Rama is a challenging character as he spends half the film being a nerdy nobody and then becomes an invincible hero. Mahesh shows the transition well although I struggle to believe he was as affronted by the sight of a female ankle as his gasping and shrieking was intended to convey. He was vulnerable and a bit pathetic as Rama, while there were glimpses of a more aggressive side under his peaceful exterior. He modified his body language and posture as well as his voice to project that less threatening image. Early scenes are often played for laughs, a strong contrast to what is to come. There is a steep trajectory from a scuffle at the police station to the final bloody conflict where he uses anything and everything at his disposal. Mahesh certainly has the intensity to make it seem that this transformation could happen. Rama is firmly a mummy’s boy and that relationship was sustained, adding another dimension to the hero-on-a-mission.

Nijam_breakfastNijam_Rameshwari gives the orders

Rameshwari is very good as the mother. She doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, but she had a softer side too. There were some really nice domestic moments in the first half of the film. As soon as her husband dies she starts to think of how she can continue to live in the world that has so betrayed her family. The answer is to change the world and she gets on task immediately. This is such an unhealthy parent child relationship but the film wants us to understand that they were forced to become serial killers because corrupt society and the law did not allow them to remain innocent. She never repents of her actions but is worried about how it might impact her beloved son. The film ends with her being congratulated for being a righteous woman and building the future of the nation. A future built on serial killer vigilantes? Oh well, as long as they only kill the bad people…

Nijam_Rakshita

Rakshita was not bad but she had a thankless and poorly written role. I’ve read several reviews that think Janakis’s harassment of Rama is some manifestation of a woman owning her sexuality and should be celebrated. Some of those reviewers would be the first to cry ‘creepy/rapey/stalker’ when a male character behaves in the same way so I am not sure why they think this is a good thing. The whole drawn out gag with her pressing her breasts against Rama and teasing him with her newspaper padding went on for far too long. She does get a few good lines and I liked that she was unafraid, but I’m not sure if that was bravery or lack of self awareness. This song is quite amusing though as Rama rebukes Janaki for behaving as though he is hers for the taking.

I eventually warmed a little to Janaki a little. She stops just being irritating and does some practical and smart things which was a relief. While I like seeing a heroine with more to do than look pretty this is not really a character I want to see more of.

Nijam_Gopichand

Gopichand is over the top yet effective as psycho Devudu who believes he is a god. He killed his boss Sidda Reddy (Jayaprakash Reddy) because Reddy took Devudu’s girl Malli (Raasi). He killed Venkateswarlu because Malli’s brother was accidentally killed in their confrontation. When he wasn’t getting all hands on with Malli he killed and killed and killed. Gopichand really goes for it boots and all, and Devudu creates some of the most striking visuals as his mania incorporates religious motifs.

Nijam_Malli

Malli is his equal in murderous intent and has no qualms about sticking a knife into Rama when the chance presents. She is another of the driving forces in Nijam – the women who decide who and what must be punished.

Nijam_The whiteboard

Prakash Raj is the honest and competent police officer set to track down the mystery serial killer. Nobody does authoritarian with heart of gold as well as Prakash Raj. His character is a voice of sanity and reason, but then makes a decision that is totally at odds with his stated goals of upholding the law. Justice seems to be about intent and not actions.

The design of Nijam is one of its strengths. The houses and local markets all look realistic enough and the big set pieces for songs and fights are well shot. Red is a significant colour and not always as a tide of blood washing across the screen.  Red can be the blessing of vermillion or the pain of chilli powder in a wound. It’s all quite intense.

Nijam_a metaphorical snake perhaps

The songs often seemed out of place, especially once the death toll started to rise. The flirty duets gave way to more emotionally loaded songs but they interrupt the flow and slow the film down even more. The songs are shared out among the cast so everyone gets a chance to strut their stuff.

The pace is so slow it often feels like the story is happening in real time. It’s not a film I rewatch often but I think this is one of Mahesh’s stronger performances and more unusual roles. Teja just needed a bit more discipline when it came to editing and trimming down his screenplay. As a plus,  it does have strong female characters – I just don’t like them very much. 3 stars!