Rx 100

Rx 100

There is an interesting story lurking behind all the violence and sex in Ajay Bhupathi’s directorial debut, but it’s frequently hidden behind a rambling approach and a lax attitude towards editing. The story of a young man driven to drugs and alcohol by the loss of his ‘one-true-love’ also leads to comparisons with Arjun Reddy and Devdas, but the village-based Rx 100 has none of the epic scale or attention to detail seen in these films. However, there are some good points and Ajay Bhupathi has made a real attempt to deliver something different, even if he does falter somewhat with the execution.

Rx 100 is basically a love story (although perhaps not quite as ‘incredible’ as advertised), with various diversions into standard masala-style village-based politics. Where the film takes a different route is in the development of the romance between Shiva (Kartikeya Gummakonda) and Indu (Payal Rajput), and the events that happen after the couple are separated by Indu’s father, Vishwanadham (Rao Ramesh). The first half sets up the background, introducing Shiva as a violent and unpredictable man who beats up one of Vishwanadham’s men in front of a remarkably unresponsive crowd in the local market. The police are reluctant to press charges despite Shiva’s reputation,although the inspector threatens action if Shiva’s guardian (Ramki) fails to control his excesses in future. Despite oddly being called Daddy by all the villagers, Shiva’s guardian is mostly well respected but politics and Shiva’s relationship with Indu have soured his friendship with Vishwanadham, leading to a general rivalry between the two men.

The film moves into flash-back mode to explain how Shiva ended up addicted to alcohol and cannabis, roaming around the village on an Rx 100 Yamaha bike threatening Vishwanadham’s men, destroying his property and generally interfering in his business as much as one drunk can. The flashback starts with Vishwanadham’s win in the local elections and the subsequent celebrations, which just happen to coincide with the return of Vishwanadham’s daughter Indu.

Shiva isn’t particularly impressed by Indu when she arrives back in the village after finishing her engineering degree, mostly because she is rude and disrespectful to her grandmother, but she’s also just not a particularly appealing character. Indu has a sophistication and modern taste in fashion that is completely at odds with her more traditional family, but it’s her approach to romance that really sets her apart. She sees Shiva shirtless during the celebration and instantly falls in lust, leading her to bully her way into his life and basically act like any typical Telugu filmi hero in order to gain his attention. While it’s refreshing to have the tables turned and the girl carry out the stalking, I wonder if it’s really likely that Shiva would be quite so innocent and naïve as he is portrayed here?

Indu teaches Shiva how to kiss, how to smoke and eventually how to have a full-blown love affair as she sneaks away from home and the two head out to the fields on Shiva’s trusty Rx 100. Sadly for the two lovers, their idyllic summer can’t last and just when Indu seems to be ready to speak to her father about the romance, Vishwanadham announces her marriage to an NRI from America. So far apart from the fairly explicit (for a Telugu film) sex scenes and the girl chasing the guy dynamic, the story seems to be following a well-trodden path.

However, it’s the fallout from what happens next that sets the story off on a completely unexpected trajectory, with Shiva spending the next three years pining for his lost love and attempting to seek revenge on her father after Indu leaves for the USA. When Indu finally does come home the revelations that follow alter life irrevocably for both families, ending with a shocking and mostly novel finale.

While the story picks up in the second half, sadly the execution never quite reaches the level needed to make Rx 100 compelling viewing. It’s a real mishmash of good and bad – often in the same scene. For example, when Shiva is dragged from the wedding, he is badly beaten up by Vishwanadham ‘s men and locked in a barn. While it’s refreshing to have a hero who doesn’t have the strength of a thousand men and who stays down after being realistically thrashed, the problem here is that after the first beating, the gang return and do it again. And again. While this may be a nod to the ‘real-life’ story supposedly portrayed by the film, it’s simply unnecessary at this point in the film, and simply drags out the scene for no gain in the story. The same problem occurs with the love-making scenes which seem to be more an opportunity for Kartieya to take his shirt off (again), and for Payal Rajput to show plenty of skin. It’s part of the story up to a point and then it just becomes gratuitous and voyeuristic. Also problematic is the climax which seems to absolve Shiva of responsibility for his excesses while blaming everyone else and generally Ajay Bhupathi tells the story as a flat narrative without much depth or insight into the characters behaviour.

What does work well is the relationship between Vishwanadham and Daddy, with the two veteran actors providing a solid backbone to the story. Both Ramesh Rao and Ramki fit perfectly into their roles and give the film some much needed structure and balance, while of the support cast, Lakshmam is notable in his role as Daddy’s right hand man. Payal Rajput too is excellent, and her portrayal of Indu as an opportunistic and callous personality with few redeeming features is well done. In particular her performance in the finale is fantastic and provides a good contrast to Kartikeya Gummakonda’s rather excessive scenery chewing. For the most part Kartikeya veers between a good representation of a rather naïve and gullible young man and an exaggerated idea of desperation. When he’s not overdoing the emotion, he’s good but dialling back on some of the excesses would have made for a more polished performance and overall a more entertaining film.

Other good points include a polished background score from Smaran and  enjoyable songs from Chaithan Bharadwaj along with excellent cinematography from Raam including some quirky shots that bring to mind Mysskin’s obsession with the view at floor-level. The novel approach to a love story is also a selling point, but there is too much dressing and not enough foundation to the story which reduces the impact. Rx 100 may not be an incredible love story, but it is interesting and if you can cope with the uneven delivery it does pay off in the end. If nothing else it leaves you wondering just what Ajay Bhupathi will come up with next.

 

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Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi (2018)

Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam’s follow up to the exceptional Pelli Choopulu suffers a little from second album syndrome. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I was left underwhelmed. Tharun Bhascker was so keen to draw us into his nostalgic world that I felt bombarded with descriptions and dialogues, but didn’t really get to know the characters for myself. I would have liked less of the how and what, more who and why.

Karthik (Sushanth Reddy) works as a club manager, hired to keep his own common people away from the VIPs. Vivek (Vishwak Naidu) is a mean drunk, a filmmaker who doesn’t make films, uncompromising and unlikeable. Uppu (Venkatesh Kakumanu) works as a wedding videographer and Kaushik (Abhinav Gomatam) is doing voiceovers for low budget TV comedy shows. All the guys have dreams, or a shared dream, that has pretty much been mothballed since 2007. In the present day, Karthik gets the nod to get engaged to his boss’s daughter. He’ll land a wife, a business, a fancy heirloom engagement ring to hand over, and a ticket to the USA, all as part of the deal. He gets the guys together for a celebratory drink and…hijinks ensue. The guys end up drunk, in Goa, minus the expensive ring, but plus a child relative Kaushik is supposed to be minding. Of course the only way to buy a replacement ring is to enter a film festival and win first prize. But that opens up old wounds and stirs old ambitions. Can the gang go back in order to move on?

I think the risk of a “slice of life” is that the viewer has to find some interest in the lives being examined. And some of the characters are not that compelling on their own merits, some are “types” rather than fully realised people in their own right. Vivek sits at one end of the scale, the intensely idealistic artist afraid to expose his work to judgement, and Karthik is his opposite, completely packing his ambitions away in favour of financial security. Uppu and Kaushik occupy the pragmatic middle, and are not the losers they seemed at first glance. They are still doing what they loved but not quite in the way they had hoped. But despite the flashbacks and memories, I felt I was experiencing it all second hand, not actually getting drawn into the story.

The film relies on a high degree of happy coincidence, and people seem to make decisions based on what the plot needs. A drunken truth or dare was framed as a bar promotion, thus introducing Shirley (Anisha Ambrose) as a promo girl who also turned up in Goa and by amazing chance happened to also be a musician who could be their composer. She also had the magical power of making people who wouldn’t have a meaningful conversation with each other agree to spill their guts on film for video content, all for a free drink. Shirley’s Russian friend Dasha just happened to have a great house with room for the guys to crash and she was prepared to act in their short film. The sapphire ring just happened to be sold by only one jeweller, based in Goa. Yes, life does often wave vaguely towards a solution after smashing you with a problem, but it felt contrived.

Sushanth is the nominal hero I guess, one who has packed up his dreams in order to be a good son. Karthik is a pleaser and usually goes out of his way to be inoffensive, which meant Sushanth is also nice but forgettable. I never felt the weight of Karthik’s decisions, or what it cost him. The resolution of his story was neither unexpected nor very interesting.

I am so over the myth of male artists being tortured souls who get a special exemption from behaving decently because of their art. Vishwaksen Naidu gives Vivek a dour intensity but I could take or leave him. Vivek blames his ex-girlfriend for his creative block, and uses aggression to cover his fear of judgement and rejection, literally diving in to a bottle to avoid facing reality. The breakup scene with his first girlfriend (Simran Chowdary) was horribly stilted and packed with clichés of the “it’s not you it’s me” line, all delivered in an expressionless staccato with Vivek grimacing and flexing. I also disliked that his redemption seemed to depend on Shirley, even if she seemed to have a reasonable handle on things.

I found myself barracking for Kaushik and Uppu, the guys who just get on with it. They know they’ll have to compromise to make a living, but they are kind of working on their craft and believe one day they’ll get their break. And they have professional standards, they’re just not obnoxious or precious about them. Venkatesh Kakumanu plays Uppu as pretty chill but with a keen sense of self-preservation and a dash of sarcasm. Abhinav Gomatam gives Kaushik a blend of empathy and shameless self-importance that made me cringe at times, and made him one of the more memorable characters. They are the underdogs in life and in the gang.

I don’t think every story has to have a 50/50 gender balance, but I was disappointed that the few women with any screen time had so little substance. The women – Anisha Ambrose, Simran Chowdhary and the actress who played Dasha – had so little to do apart from enable the men. Even the kid served little purpose other than one cheap potshot at his mother at the end. Karthik’s intended fiancée may as well have been played by a potato.

While the film is easy on the eye, my attention wandered a bit. (To be fair, that could be because of the uncle who spent the ENTIRE movie on a phone call and I think was describing a succession of surgical procedures.)  It’s a pleasant enough timepass, but I wanted more than OK. But. I do keep hoping the Telugu industry makes room for diverse stories that aren’t just mass Hero fodder, and this is certainly in that “something else” category. So please consider seeing this (or Sammohanam if it’s still around) and prove there is a market for story telling, not just spectacle.

Sammohanam (2018)

 

Sammohanam is kind of like Notting Hill (acknowledged by writer/director Mohan Krishna Indraganti), only with a few Telugu film staples and bonus rowdies. I liked it enormously, almost against my better judgement especially when it goes a bit awry in the second half.

Warning! partial spoilers ahead.

 

Film buff Sarvesh (Naresh) and wife Anasuya (Pavithra Lokesh) keep a beautiful and welcoming home, and she keeps the entire neighbourhood in snacks and sweets. Daughter Divya (Harini) is studying, and son Vijay (Sudheer Babu) is determined to be a picture book author. When Sarva is approached to let a film crew use his house, he agrees immediately on just one condition. They have to give him a role. Vijay is disgusted at the idea. He is an intellectual snob who believes while books can transform a mind movies are cheap and do damage. Divya is all for it because the It Girl of the day, Sameera Rathod (Aditi Rao Hydari), is the heroine. Sarva will brook no arguments, and the shoot commences. Sameera overhears Vijay and family mocking her bad Telugu and asks him to coach her. He reluctantly accepts and they develop a friendship that could be something more. After an uncomfortable start, everyone settles down and family and crew fall into a new routine. But they can’t all stay in this happy little bubble forever. What will happen when Sameera leaves? Will Vijay stop pouting? And will Sarva get his big acting break?

The answer in short is that people have their hearts broken, and some are mended. Sarva gets all ready for the movie premier only to find he was left on the editing room floor. He is devastated but his love for film cannot be killed. When Vijay was depressed over Sameera, his mum told him that rejection wasn’t the end of the world and that just because someone doesn’t return your feelings, that doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of love or that nobody else will love you. Don’t take it out on them, try and be there for them as it’s a hard time for both of you. It was done with warmth and a little bit of humour that made her advice relatable.

Aditi Rao Hydari delivered a good performance, although sometimes she was left with nothing to do but make doe eyes. Sameera’s character was well developed with respect to her work as an actress. She made it clear that while some producers (and co-stars) expected her to be little more than a prostitute, she was proud of her skills and training and wouldn’t sell herself out. There were many small moments and reactions where you could see Sameera subtly navigating the constant intrusion by Kishore the star kid. I liked when the family and loser mates started treating her more like a person, not a star, even when she was wearing one of her micro-skirts. She blossomed in their house, with people around who seemed genuinely to care for her, not for her status. But when her Dark Secret threw a spanner in the works, Mohan Krishan Indraganti reverted to film cliches. Sameera was being abused and gaslighted by an old friend and refused to tell anyone except her friend and assistant Ramya (Hari Teja). This led to lots of scenes with Aditi just staring at Vijay as he worked himself into a welter of negative emotions. She is made responsible for her own misery because apparently all she had to do was tell Vijay – easier said than done. Also why does a man have to physically threaten another man before a woman can consider herself safe? It felt a bit cobbled together to please the intended audience, and to allow the hero to take over.

Sudheer Babu is competent but bland. In part that is due to the writing as Vijay is introverted, but subtle emoting doesn’t seem to be in Sudheer’s wheelhouse. I felt that the scenes that worked best between Sameera and Vijay were because of Aditi’s energy which he could reciprocate or bounce off and they flowed nicely. But when the characters were at odds she seemed effortlessly in the moment and he was Acting. Of course he is the hero so getting the girl of his choice is a foregone conclusion, but there was a little emotional growth on the way that was a good sign. Vijay’s scenes with his dad are also nicely done and that brings me to the real star of the film.

Naresh. His performance as Sarva is beautiful. He is everything that comedy uncles try, and fail, to be. Whether he was crying at an old film, flirting with his wife (how shocking!) or throwing a tantrum over being denied his chance at stardom, I loved every moment. Even in the incredibly daft scene where he helps Vijay and the boys deal with Sameera’s problematic associate, he was hilarious. Naresh plays Sarva as a heart on sleeve kind of guy, and some of his scenes were unexpectedly touching. His rapport with Anasuya (Pavithra Lokesh) is really nice, and I enjoyed her performance too. They have a couple of scenes talking about the kids where you can believe they respect each other and rely on each other’s judgement. Unless it’s about films.

Harini is lively and natural, and I enjoyed her expressions as she swanned through the chaos of the shoot. She’s a capable and competent girl who seems able to sort the wheat from the chaff. When Vijay starts barking orders at Divya, Divya shouts back for him to stop moral policing her, she’s not an idiot. Their parents respect both kids’ positions and negotiate with each of them accordingly. There is no sense that Divya’s opinion is less valid than Vijay’s.

Of course Vijay has to have some friends with no purpose in life but to follow him around and be shorter and less atttractive. Murthy (Rahul Ramakrishna) is sleazy and dumb, and Seenu (Abhay Bethiganti) seems a little nicer and a bit more dim. Hari Teja has little to do as Ramya until one loooong piece of exposition. The always reliable Tanikella Bharani plays a small but significant role, and there are some cameos to spot.

The look and feel of the film is very appealing. But the story wasn’t as strong in the second half when it switched from character driven to plot driven action. The subtitles by rekhs and crew were a delight. They were idiomatic and clear, and the jokes translated well. When Sarva watches a character actor shouting his lines, he observes “He speaks Tegulu not Telugu”. I snorted as I suspect I may be picking up Tegulu from movies too. And there is a series of digs at heroes who get their break because of family connections. The soundtrack is almost completely forgettable, but emo balladeering is my least favourite genre so I probably just blotted it out.

The second half doesn’t live up to the very engaging start. But it’s still a refreshing and well considered film in many aspects, with a couple of great performances. Come for the romance, stay for the parents!