Oh Baby (2019)

Oh Baby is a remake of Korean film Miss Granny, and although I haven’t seen the original, it appears that director Nandini Reddy has stuck fairly closely to the original story. The film is a fantasy rom-com where an acerbic older lady is changed to her 24-year old self and given a second chance to make her dreams come true. Both Samantha as the younger Baby and Lakshmi as the elder version are excellent and thanks to their performances and the rest of the lead cast this is an entertaining and light-hearted watch.

Baby (Lakshmi) is basically a typical grandmother. She organises everyone in the family, spoiling her grandson Rocky (Teja Sajja), mothering her son Nani (Rao Ramesh) and terrorising her daughter-in-law Madhavi (Pragathi). Not content with ruling the roost at home, she also runs a café in the same college where her son teaches physiotherapy and routinely trades words with her long-time friends Chanti (Rajendra Prasad) and Sulochana (Urvashi). While she adores her son, Baby has a soft spot for Rocky since he is an aspiring musician and Baby once wanted to be a singer too, but had to put her career on hold when she was widowed shortly after giving birth to her son. When Madhavi is hospitalised with stress after dealing with her mother-in-law one time too many, Baby is berated by her granddaughter Divya (Aneesha Dama) who telle her that she is the reason behind Madhavi’s collapse resulting in Baby deciding to leave the family home. But first she has to have her picture taken just in case it’s needed for her obituary and check in on Rocky’s first real gig, during which experience she is magically restored to her youth as the now 24-year old Swathi (Samantha).

Swathi finds lodgings with her old friend Chanti and his prickly daughter Anasuya (Sunayan) who has never liked Baby. Through various coincidences Swathi hooks up with her grandson Rocky’s band and is given the opportunity to finally fulfil her dreams of becoming a singer when the group are given a wild-card entry into a music competition. In the meantime, Nani mourns the loss of his mother, while Chanti, initially distressed at losing his friend, works out what has happened and is keen to support Swathi (much to the horror of Sulchana and Anasuya). There is also a romance of sorts as Vikram (Naga Shourya), the producer of the music show, is also entranced by Swathi and her rather unusual approach to life. But unfortunately Swathi’s new-found youth is not permanent and the situation with her family requires resolution, so it seems as if Baby will have to sacrifice her dreams for the sake of her family once more.

The comedy hinges on the rejuvenated Baby acting as if she is still a cranky old lady, and this is where the movie really excels. Lakshmi is superb at setting up the character of Baby in the opening scenes. She is deliciously insulting and knows just what to say to most get under her victim’s skin, while at the same time appearing to be solicitous and concerned. It’s a masterful performance, brilliantly funny and a side-splittingly accurate portrayal of everybody’s worst nightmare of an ageing relative. When she becomes the youthful Swathi, Samantha takes over and delivers a simply superb performance, perfectly encompassing an old woman stuck in a young woman’s body. Her movements, her walk, and her absolute delight in having normal bowel movements again are spot-on, best encompassed in the title song where Baby re-invents herself as Swathi.

Also integral to the comedy is Chanti as Baby’s long-time suitor, first desperately leading the search for her and then clandestinely trying to support Swathi in her quest for stardom. Rajendra Prasad is terrific here and shows off his impeccable comedy timing while providing the necessary support for Samantha and Lakshmi. Although his romantic overtures are frequently OTT, they are integral to his character and Rajendra ensures that he is always funny despite being rather over-enthusiastic.

Where the film is less successful is in the emotional aspects. Although Ramesh Rao is believable in his role as Baby’s son, the rest of the family are broadly drawn and Madhavi’s illness in particular is quickly brushed over.  Rocky’s blind self-ambition tends to strike a slightly sour note too since he continually compares Swathi to his grandmother, but doesn’t seem too upset that Baby has apparently vanished. Nani teached geriatric physioteherapy which is also used to point out that old people deserve a better deal in society, but again this goes nowhere and has little impact. As too the background story of Sulchana which could have been better used in the screenplay.

The romantic angle also doesn’t fit well, mainly because it’s not clear if this is supposed to be serious or played more for the comedy aspect. As a result, the romance feels disconnected to the rest of the story and ends up as a mild distraction that splutters into nothing at the finale. Another issue is the music which is surprisingly disappointing for a film all about a wannabe singer. Apart from the title song, most of Mickey J. Meyer’s songs, although pleasing enough, are just not up to the challenge of delivering the kind of memorable hits needed for this kind of movie.

However, the film works best when Samantha or Laksmi are front and centre, and thankfully this is the case for almost every scene. It’s fantastic that in to-day’s mostly male-centric Telugu cinema, this is a film that is focused almost entirely on its female leads and works entirely because of that focus. Samantha is simply luminous, she looks gorgeous as Swathi and yet still remains hilariously funny, delivering her one-liners naturally with faultless timing. I always like Samantha and she was the main reason for watching the film, but I was surprised at just how good she was, almost entirely carrying the film with only Lakshmi occasionally outdoing her performance.

Although not everything in the film works, Oh Baby is definitely worth watching to catch Samantha acting as an old lady, and to see Lakshmi light up the screen once more. It’s funny when either of the two are onscreen and with Rajendra Prasad and Rao Ramesh providing able support, the film is better than average. For me this was a great film for the holiday season and a good all-round family entertainer. 3 ½ stars.

Gods of Dharmapuri (2019)

Director/writer/actor Anish Kuruvilla’s latest, Gods of Dharmapuri (G.o.D), is a ten part series currently available with English subtitles on Zee5. (You can sign up for a free trial – just remember to cancel before the billing date). The action is set in a remote mining settlement, opening with the arrival of Pratap Reddy, his wife, and kids. But this is not a heartwarming underdog story, or a Kaala Patthar-esque industrial relations primer. Think more like Animal Farm as the new arrival starts his climb to the top of the muck heap.

A taciturn and surly man, I’d love to tell you Pratap has a heart of gold but he is driven by ego not empathy. After becoming a spokeman for the miners, he forms a political alliance with Ranga Rao (John Kottoly) and opposes D.N Reddy (L.B Sriram), the incumbent member and dictator. The men of the community accept Pratap as their leader, and D.N Reddy loses the blind obedience he had commanded. But Pratap moves further away from being a voice for workers like him and resents being a tool of the party. He asks what has the power – the hammer or the arm that wields it. Raj Deepak Shetty imposes himself on every frame, looming like a dark cloud. He may not say much but his rage and hunger are palpable. He doesn’t have relationships so much as he gathers retainers and servants.

Pratap has two sons. Venu (Satyadev Kancharana in an impressively nuanced performance) is the eldest and a clean cut good guy who likes to keep his hands clean. Other people do the dirty work and then he agonises over it. Ravi (Karthik Rathnam) is 80% penis and 20% hair. He loves movies, sex, booze, and his hairdo. Subtlety is not his thing and Rathnam goes all in to portray that. The brothers are so different and they are perpetually in disagreement over how to handle problems. But they love each other and are each other’s most reliable friends. The boys always assume they are in the right because they have the power to punish anyone who insults them.  And Venu certainly wants to win at any cost, despite preferring to manipulate rather than go full machete. He was going to get out, but Ravi caused a problem and suddenly Venu couldn’t escape. He asks Pratap how much longer they have to keep stopping him from acting on his rage and digging them into a deeper hole. You can see the dynasty shaping itself as they jostle for position.

The wives are always on the fringe of things, listening and quietly organising and sharing resources. The husbands all turn a blind eye, trading their wives bodies to sleazy managers for job security. When Saroja (Sruthi Jayan) is raped by a supervisor she suffers in silence. The rape was horrible, but that wasn’t the only sexual violence in her life. And women have to pay for men’s crimes with their own bodies time and time again. Saroja was deprived of a much wanted baby because of Pratap’s pride and entitlement. Acutely aware that one day her family will pay for their actions, she tries to shake some sense into the boys but Pratap dominates their lives. Sruthi Jayan is effortlessly expressive, and the moral burden Saroja carries is etched on her face. It’s not all gloom, and she does have a loving and warm relationship with Venu. Maybe because he was the best bet for breaking the cycle of violence and scheming.

Divya Mathews (Samyukta Hornad) is the young reporter, a professional woman sent to do a story about the family dynasty. She doesn’t wear a saree and  she has sex with Venu, her interviewee, so we know she is Modern. I understood why her character was needed but there was something a bit off, and a sizeable mismatch between her career and the scale of the stories local politics could sustain. I also felt that her taking a cheap shot at Venu’s wife Swapna (Chandini Chowdary) was a misstep by the writers. She had plenty of grievances without resorting to petty and uncharacteristic jealousy. And for a reporter, maybe a bit more fact checking and insight into motives would have helped establish her career and credibility as a character. Or finding a different boss.

Writer/director Anish Kuruvilla also stars as Rao, a slimy rural Rupert Murdoch who manipulates the news he publishes to get the political results he wants. It might be a good indicator that I hate this character with the fire of a thousand suns. Media and politics in bed together is no surprise, but Rao has no real convictions. He just wants what is advantageous to him, and presumably for the bigger shark somewhere in the shadows.

The significant supporting characters are relatively few in number, which made the story’s world feel too small for the stakes we were meant to believe in. However I really enjoyed getting to know more about the various That Guys who enabled Pratap’s rise. Chalapathi (Jagadeesh Prathap Bhandari) is a relative of some sort, and he remains steadfastly with Pratap. Chinappa and Seenaiah are the peanut gallery, freeloading when they can and passing commentary on everyone. I didn’t mind their shenanigans as they gave a cynical fly on the wall perspective. Some supporters became disenchanted with Pratap’s tactics, some like Raghu were resigned to staying with the horse they had picked, most would go wherever the wind took them. One of my favourite scenes is when a woman insists on her right to vote. Seeing her stand up to male indifference and dismissal and claim her name and her democratic right was beautiful, and it anchored the story back to the the little people who had no control over the poltical wheeling and dealing.

I liked that the episodes are not uniform in length, but seemed to stop and start where it made sense to do so. While there are some stylised visuals they mesh well with the beats of the story.  For classic mass fans, there is a significant gold tooth and a significant horseshoe. Many of the male actors looked a lot happier from episode 5 onwards when the tight fitting retro wigs were left in the past.  I was very unimpressed by the prosthetics team. A scene that should have packed a visceral punch was ridiculous due to the amateurish crafting of dismembered bits and pieces. Depicting sexual violence is often problematic with a tendency to voyeursim or sensationalising the act. I was both horrified by what was happening on screen and impressed at the restrained direction that left no doubt but also left a lot to the imagination.

The subtitles are mostly good, and the saltiness of the language is appropriate to the setting and characters. There are a couple of episodes where it felt like a different person was writing the subs and sometimes the translations were too literal. Are fish smilies a thing? I want to know. Not enough to really research it myself, but still. The original soundtrack is excellent and yet sometimes too fresh and modern, not always suited to the rural recent past.

If you like your dramas to come with a kick in the head, this is highly recommended.

Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy (2019)

Surender Reddy’s history inspired epic is indeed epic. The sets are impressive, the set pieces are huge, the cast includes almost everyone working in Telugu films plus some ring-ins. And to top it off, Chiranjeevi. Very few things will compel me to see a movie at 7am. Chiru is one of those things.

It’s hard when you want to cram a lot of exposition into a ripping yarn, and Reddy fumbles the pace. Pawan Kalyan narrates,  Anushka Shetty makes a welcome yet probably unnecessary cameo as Rani Lakshmibai, using the story of Narasimha Reddy (Chiranjeevi) to inspire her outnumbered troops. And eventually we get to the main event – Narasimha Reddy, all grown up and ready to rumble. From there the remainder of the first half is about the local battle against Jackson, a sadistic white supremacist. The second half has to regain momentum for the final conflict with the even more revolting Cochrane, wearer of bad hats and owner of a mysterious black panther just to ram home his villainous leanings. Along the way Narasimha Reddy is mentored by his guru, supported and challenged by his peers, and adored by all women. But he is always hated by the Brits and he returns their enmity in spades. The film jumps around visually and looks amazing, the geography is frequently mystifying, but the narrative is dead linear and predictable. With lots of repetition for the people who decide to make important phone calls or switch seats several times during the movie.

Reddy does some things to perfection, and he gives Chiranjeevi some impressive hero entrances. He balanced the spiritual and the legendary heroic aspects along with the Megastar obligation to provide something familiar yet extraordinary with each return. But there are also some poor directorial choices and I really do have to get this off my chest now. I know this is a ye olden days film, I know they made some gestures towards historical accuracy….but no dancing?!? Chiranjeevi NOT DANCING AT ALL?!! Seriously. Walking around and pointing during a song is not enough. Could he not get his folky festival appropriate groove on with his people just once? Some of the fire twirling guys looked understandably nervous so maybe they could have used some Megastar spark instead.

 

Surender Reddy uses tight closeups on Chiranjeevi’s face as Narasimha Reddy absorbs news or prepares to roar inspiration or threats. Chiru goes all in, whether he is comforting a child or dismembering an enemy. It’s all about that commitment and the Mega charisma that makes you believe that people would follow him into a war, believing he is a chosen one. The action scenes allow him to kill in varied ways and with great gusto, busting out the athleticism and grace we don’t get to see in a dance (yes, I’m bitter about it). I especially enjoyed Jackson’s comeuppance as it drew upon earlier skills demonstrated so there was a pleasing blend of “oh, of course!” and WTFery. Despite being at a 7am show there was vocal appreciation of the gore and creative ways of killing. The special effects around the actors and stunt performers in the war and fight scenes worked pretty well, but some other effects were a bit amateurish and made what should have been impactful look silly. That was a blessing in parts, as if the CGI was better a couple of scenes would have been seriously traumatising.

The wig department is there for Chiru every step of the way. He has his fluffy Romance Hair, and two variants of Action Hair (one with man bun, one without). His outfits are detailed but not overwhelming or fussy, and avoid the period costume trap of looking like he’s been upholstered rather than tailored. He sported a nicely woven war sandal so I was pleased to see some appropriately statement footwear too.

Nayanthara had the clumpy eyelashes of a perpetual crier while Tamannaah had perfect eyelashes for flirting or murderous rages. And there’s about all the character development you get. Both actresses deliver what they can, but all the women in this story are required to do is support and/or sacrifice. Tamannaah plays a dancer but mostly sings, exhorting people to join the rebellion. She has a lovely, very sad, scene that made me sad because there was no room in the film for her acting ability. Nayanthara plays Sidhamma as shy and hopelessly worshipping her man. Again, she added some delicate touches to her characterisation but that may have been professional pride because I suspect the direction was “Stand there. Then go stand there. And cry.”

The gang of chieftains are largely undifferentiated, but a few make more substantial contributions. Mukesh Rishi got no love from the wig department so the hat team went all out for him. Brahmaji does his usual furious faces. Ravi Kishan got an economy wig and no moral compass to speak of. Jagapathi Babu is quietly compelling as Veera Reddy, a believer grappling with the consequences of betrayal. My favourite was Sudeep’s Avuku Raju. He dripped disdain, his silent reactions were anywhere from menacing to hilarious, and his frenemy dynamic with Narasimha Reddy was absolutely beautiful. The biggest supporting cast cheer was for Vijay Sethupathi as Tamil leader, Raja Paandi. Amitabh Bachchan as the lugubrious Guru Gosayi Venkanna got no response at all. I actually disliked his character. Mentoring is one thing but being a manipulative puppet master is something else.

The European actors range from adequate to terrible. It doesn’t require great subtlety to be a despicable cartoonish villain, so the patchy acting and clunky dialogues didn’t bother me too much. I did like that the film doesn’t pussy-foot around the British attitude that dark skinned people were inferior, and that nobody pretended the conflict was about anything but money and resources. The patriotic aspects of Narasimha Reddy’s fight got a great response from the audience and we all enjoyed seeing the white guys get what was coming to them.

The subtitles are largely OK but there are some strange errors. The subs express asking for forgiveness or offering an apology as asking for an apology regardless of context, which was confusing. Some things were overly literal and not meaningful. I particularly liked the subtitles that explained an accomplishment as “He is a great man. He has mastered the art of holding his breath in water”. Greatness may await us all, friends! And whoever was on spell checking left us with gems like “Your’s Sincerly”. Such a big budget film, and so little respect for the dialogues. Sigh.

Yes, there’s a story. Yes, there’s some History. Yes, there is a huge cast. Yes, it’s a film on a massive scale. And yet it all rests on Chiranjeevi. He delivers so much of the success of the film but can’t quite overcome the flaws. One to see on the big screen if you can, just to appreciate the grandeur, the guyliner, and the wigs.