Simhadri

A story told in two parts, Simhadri is uneven. The things I love, I love. And the things I don’t, I really don’t. Rajamouli is always worth watching however, and it is kind of fun to look back at his earlier efforts even when the execution is a little laboured. Tarak is likeable enough, although his acting has improved greatly since 2003.

Simhadri (Tarak) is an orphan living in the household of Ram Bhupal Varma (Nasser) and his wife (Sangeetha). Simhadri is intensely loyal and has anger management issues, and his violence in service of the family is seen as endearing and almost a joke. Anyway, as they keep saying, it’s OK to kill or be killed if it is for the good of people. Tarak and Nasser have some nice badinage and their relationship does seem rock solid and a reasonable motivation for much of what follows. Simhadri is irresistible to women, especially Kasthuri (Ankitha), the daughter of the house. But he spends a lot of time and money with childlike Indu (Bhumika Chawla), and that becomes an issue when Kasthuri finds out. Apparently Simhadri’s style of beating people is medically identifiable and frequently lethal…Or at least that is what a visiting doctor from Kerala says happens when Singamalai beats someone up. But is Singamalai the same person as Simhadri? Why do truckloads of people with many and varied motivations turn up looking for him? Is he leading a double life?

Tarak gets one of the best hero entrance scenes ever, and a quite impractical yet very impressive weapon of choice. The action scenes are crunching and generally humourless, with varying degrees of gore. And he really is delightful in the songs where he is the bumblebee of dance – it seems he shouldn’t be able to move like that but look at him go!

M.M Keeravani’s soundtrack has a dreary orphan song, some cheesy duets, and offers Tarak a range of opportunities to bust a move. It even includes that romantic Indian classic – Cotton Eye Joe!

But Simhadri has to participate in comedy disease shenanigans, and wear some very unpleasant headbands not suited to the hamster-cheeked gent. The obligatory scenes paying homage to the senior NTR are a little overdone, as well as suffering from early 2000s technical limitations. Seeing the younger actors try to leverage their family name while appeasing the inherited fan base and also create their own image is quite interesting to me.

The relationship between Simhadri and Indu is troubling given her childlike mentality. The portrayal is a little flirtatious or at least uses filmi romance visuals which is creepy. Even Simhadri’s family immediately assume she is a prostitute, despite her little girl braids and outfits. And I was appalled by her horrible neighbours. Orphanism isn’t contagious! But despite all this rich material, that renowned wet dishrag of an actress Bhumika uses at most two three facial expressions. The relationship between Simhadri and Kasturi is equally perplexing, although for different reasons. Apparently the way to spark romance is to either scare a man or be scared in front of him. So dropping an ant down your bra and all the following shrieking and jiggling makes perfect sense then. I was kind of glad Ankitha is terrible in this as it would have been sad seeing a good actress enduring the stupidity of the script.

Despite his dubious interpretation of the female psyche, Rajamouli did win a few “you go girl!” points for casting Ramya Krishnan as an item girl.

I found it highly amusing that the song is pretty much along the theme of “do you want fries with that”. But seriously, I am so impressed she has managed such a long and varied career and has made some super films along the way.

The support cast is rich with talent and recognisable faces. Nasser is all reasonable and understanding until someone disagrees with him, then it is “my way or the highway”. He is a great foil for Tarak. Mukesh Rishi is vile and compelling as Bhai Sahib, the big bad gangster. Rahul Dev is slimy Nair, who sparks about an hour of graphic violence including rape and torturing children. Sharat Saxena is the ultimate useless policeman who abdicates all responsibility to the vigilantism of Simhadri. Bhanu Chander has a small but pivotal role that relies on him never making a sensible decision. All of these actors are good, but all their characters need at least one tight slap or maybe a whack with the fancy significant weapon. You know I am close to despair when I can say truthfully that Brahmi and his character is one of the highlights. I also liked Rallapalli and Ragini as Indu’s carers, and Hema as the cheeky maid and confidante to Kasturi.

While the pace is a bit draggy, Rajamouli shines in the action sequences where he uses creative visuals to heighten the drama. Simhadri leaps over the threshold and is then seen landing on the road on a motorcycle. When Simhadri takes on Nair’s gang the fight is intercut with a religious festival, reinforcing that he is doing godly work and getting the adrenaline flowing. The final fight scene has Tarak moving at normal speed but the rowdies in slomo, which was an effective treatment compared with just speeding it all up.

There are some issues with the story, but this is not one to overthink the plot. I mean I can think of several other and better ways to solve the old “bomb in the suitcase” problem…but who wants the sensible masala version?

See this for all the mass tricks, a hero on his way to becoming a genuine star, and a director who backs himself to be playful with the big ticket elements. 3 ½ stars!

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Gautamiputra Satakarni

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For his latest film Krish takes inspiration from historical figure Gautamiputra Satakarni; a king who ruled in the South of India a couple of thousand years ago. Since little seems to be known about his reign, Krish is free to take the few major events that have been recorded and develop these into a plausible story, which he does reasonably well. The film follows Satakarni (Balakrishna) through a number of battles as he consolidates his rule over Southern India, and then moves north to tackle the invading Greeks. As a historical epic, there is plenty to enjoy but the film doesn’t shed much light on the man behind the warrior king despite a few diversions into his relationship with his mother and wife.

Over the opening credits, the young Satakarni declares that the only way to stop the petty wars between neighbouring kingdoms is for one man to conquer them all and thus unify the country. Needless to say, even at such a young age, Satakarni knows that he is the right man for the job and as the film begins the adult Satakarni has already embarked on his campaign. He starts off small by conquering a few neighbouring kingdoms (Milind Gunaji is good as one of the kings here) and then turns his sights towards the north, sending emissaries to King Nahapana (Kabir Bedi). Unsurprisingly Nahapana doesn’t respond well to a demand that he peacefully submits to becoming a vassal of Satakarni, and the scene is set for war!

Satakarni alienates his wife Vashishthee (Shriya Saran) when he takes his young son along to battle which allows for the development of some tension between the two. At the same time, Satakarni is shown as having great respect for his mother Gautami Balashri (Hema Malini), whom he has left to govern while he is off fighting his battles. These two relationships allow for more emotional and character-driven scenes to balance the battles that form the rest of the film. These are epically grand and give Balakrishna plenty of opportunity to make declarations (they’re much more dramatic than mere speeches) while looking imposing in armour and carrying a large sword. He has the gravitas and spectacular moustache required to play the ruler of the Satavahanan empire, although his age does seem to slow him down in the action scenes.

I enjoyed watching Balakrishna as Satakarni and this was a good choice for his 100th film. The character allows him to behave as the usual style of Telugu hero (unstoppable one-man army) but this time he does have an army to back him up. He’s also impressive in the more emotional scenes and his delivery of the epic speeches is very well done. Shriya Saran is also excellent as Satakarni’s wife and makes an impact despite her limited amount of time onscreen. There is the excitement of her reuniting with the king after time apart, their happiness together and then the shock of her young son heading into battle. Although at times she does emote just a little too much, at least the historical nature of the drama allows her to do so. The historical aspect also makes the sight of an older and portlier Balakrishna chasing Vashti around the royal bedchamber a little more acceptable, although I was reminded of portraits of the English King Henry the Eighth and his procession of younger wives. I find Shriya Saran can be a bit hit and miss, but here she is a definite hit and the relationship between her and Balakrishna works much better than expected. Hema Malini too is very good as the dowager queen, dealing with the pesky problems that crop up while her son is away subduing the realm. She does this with grace and style, looking regal and definitely projecting an aura that she is not to be trifled with.

After subduing Nahapana, the next challenge for Satakarni is the army of invading Greeks led by Demetrius. While the scenes where Satakarni plots his campaign are well delivered, the battle scenes are a little more patchy. For the most part when the camera is showing close ups of the action the battles look superb, but there are a few glitches between the CGI and staged fight scenes. These are mainly errors of perspective where there is a CGI view of massed warriors which moves in to show a smaller group of men and horses surrounded by green fields. For the most part the effects are well integrated into the live action and the battles do look good, but the few errors do divert attention away from the overall spectacle. The other problem is that a couple of the battles go on just that little bit too long. Some of this is due to repetitions of the same scene, as for example during the storming of the walls of Nahapana’s citadel but some just seem overly drawn out while Balakrishna indulges in some heroics which would mean certain death on a real battlefield.

There is plenty to enjoy in Gautamiputra Satakarni, even with the slightly uneven mix of plentiful epic battles and intermittent emotional drama. Balakrishna exudes power and authority while the appropriately grandiose costumes and palace sets seem to paint the time period well. Not that I would know if they were wrong, but judging by the paintings in museums I’ve seen while in India, this all looked pretty good! The soundtrack by Chirantan Bhatt is also excellent and to his and Krish’s credit, the songs don’t feel out of place in the narrative. However at the end of the day there is no real insight into the characters and the all too brief glimpse of Satakarni’s achievements only leads to more questions. This isn’t an attempt to detail the life of a famous ruler or to tell the story of a kingdom, but instead is a series of vignettes of what might have occurred, without delving too deeply into the why. Too, Balakrishna plays Satakarni as a regular Telugu hero with all the unlikely ability to stop an army single handedly so the story never feels quite as realistic as it should. But once the drums start beating and the swords clash that seems unimportant – the spectacle and grandeur of ancient India sweep across the screen and Gautamiputra Satakarni charges to victory!

Khaidi No 150

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I thought the original film (Kaththi) was mediocre so I had low expectations. And I was honestly happy at seeing Big Chiru on screen, my first ever Megastar FDFS, and the bonus of subtitles. The audience went nuts when Chiru’s foot first appeared. Apparently I am not the only one who takes a keen interest in Mega Footwear. And the screaming and paper throwing erupted at the start of every song and every fight. It felt so good to be among my people.

The story goes like this. Escaped convict Seenu (Chiranjeevi) witnesses an attempted hit on a stranger, Sankar (Chiranjeevi). He takes Sankar to hospital but swaps over their ID so he can remain free, assuming that the police will let the other man go once they realise the error. Seenu then impersonates Sankar, and acquires a nursing home full of old men from the village of Neeru. As he understand their story, and gets to watch a handy documentary on Sankar’s crusade against the evil corporates, Seenu takes up the fight as his own.

In many ways this is a perfect comeback vehicle for Chiranjeevi. The dual role and the breadth of the action means no matter what his fans want from him, they’re likely to get it. He delivers action, big speeches, garish outfits, and some of his trademark dance moves (the veena step!), all with minor modification to suit a gentleman of a certain age. And most of that is done in the initial prologue section. The dual role means he can play both mass and class aspects of the standard hero, and even asks Lakshmi (Kajal) which she prefers before telling her his name. Sankar wears brainy glasses (HOT. Just saying) where Seenu has a more flamboyant style. There are references both in the script and the background music to his previous films, some of them drawing roars of appreciation from a very vocal crowd. He has a sidekick (Ali), an enemy (Tarun Arora), a frenemy (Brahmanandam as Doberman), and many comedy uncles and familiar actors as supports, dependants, and thugs. He also has an irrelevant love interest. See? Everything!

I was wondering how they would deal with the age gap between Chiru and Kajal and the answer is that Seenu thinks Lakshmi is a childhood sweetheart, but then realises they just look alike. So I decided that young at heart Seenu always thinks of himself as that twenty-something dude about town rather than thinking we’d believe they were actually the same age. I really should be on the payroll to find far-fetched solutions to ill-conceived plot devices…And the fight scenes are grand and full of energy, even though Chiru has long since left his limber acrobatic years behind. The songs also work to cover over the years because they are more a platform for people to worship the Megastar not a display of romance. The lyrics are mostly about how great he is, the choreo is very peacock-esque as he and the backing dudes strut their stuff, and the ladies just wiggle when in shot.

“Ammadu lets do Kummudu” is probably the worst song I will hear this year but as soon as it was over I would have hit replay if I could have. It has all the visuals I could ask for – prancing, colourful outfits, bedazzled Mega-shoes, and a guest appearance by Charan. Father and son look so chuffed to be dancing together. The backing dancer costumes are a wonder throughout. From drapey chiffon to see through plastic jackets, you name it, they had to wear it.

Kajal’s character is irrelevant, and she can hardly dance, so I really paid little attention to her. However. In every song picturisation she wears extremely sensible walking shoes regardless of her dress. So I was mildly diverted and wondered if it was due to her height compared to Chiru, perhaps she had an injury and couldn’t wear the usual ugly strappy sandals, was it some kind of statement. I don’t know. I doubt that this is what she wants to be remembered for but it really is the most interesting thing about Lakshmi.

Farmer suicide is a real issue given pretty superficial treatment by V.V Vinayak, although I appreciate he tried to show the effects of the ever shortening media cycle on long running issues. But the main components of the story felt off kilter. Farming life was overly romanticised, described as a necessary fate, and condemned as too harsh, often in the same grand speech. The speech that got a really big response was one about people being forced out of their villages and having to take crappy jobs in the big cities to earn some money. But the film seemed adamant that people should stay on the land, which I think is a bit simplistic as country kids may want or need to pursue other careers and they should have those opportunities. Sankar was supposed to be a man of principle but didn’t hesitate for a nanosecond when offered a deal to let some thugs kill Seenu if they got him out of jail. It was OK to throw in a tasteless joke that Doberman (Brahmi) had raped 100 women. And Ali in drag is never necessary to any movie ever. And the Megastar presence really dominates so that the reliable and accomplished guys like Nasser had little opportunity to make much of their roles. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention to anyone but Chiru!

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There are also some genuinely funny moments. I think my favourite was  when Posani Krishna Murali’s men all pretended to pick up phone calls as he was blustering and wandered off looking busy rather than face Seenu. Or maybe when Brahmi lost his religion during a huge fight scene. I also liked the thinking behind one fight scene that progressed through corporate thugs, oiled up baldy muscle men who looked like an angry pack of Maltesers, and finally the bad hair gang.

Lest you think I am completely superficial and only looked at the shoes, there was an interesting moment regarding justice in this film world. The judge (played by Naga Babu) says that if a single person kills that is murder, but if society kills it’s a revolution. It’s a problematic statement once you get thinking about the mob and riots but it did mean someone notionally good avoided jail time, and the person they killed was bad news anyway. No biggie.

Will Khaidi No 150 make a fan of anyone who isn’t? Probably not. Does any of that matter if you are a fan? No way!

Pssst  – Make sure you stay for the end credits for some glimpses of the famous visitors on set, and Lawrence closely monitoring a dance and giving someone the stinkeye.