NOTA (2018)

NOTA

NOTA is a bilingual political /coming of age drama that ends up a step above routine thanks to Vijay Deverakonda’s engaging performance as a reluctant CM. It also helps that director Anand Shankar adds a number of real-life events to Shan Karuppusamy’s story which gives the film more impact. I watched the Telugu version as there were limited shows in Tamil here in Melbourne, and the switch from Tamil Nadu to Telangana didn’t make much difference despite most of the incidents deriving from known political issues in Chennai. The main let-down is the villain of the piece who is poorly realised and under-utilised, however there is enough here to make NOTA worth at least a one-time watch.

The film starts with a song and a drunken pool party for Varun’s (Vijay Devarakonda) birthday. Varun is a video-game designer based in London, but is home to celebrate his birthday and to visit an orphanage he supports. However, on the way back from the party his car is pulled over by the police and rather than being booked for a drink driving offence, instead Varun is rushed home. Varun’s father Vasudev Subramanyam (Nassar) (Vinothan Subramani in the Tamil version) is the Chief Minister for Telangana, but he is stepping down after being prosecuted in a corruption case. Now as an Australian I’m very used to the top political position changing hands frequently, but here the party makes the choice of the new leader. The situation is different in India where the CM gets to choose his successor and Vasudev picks his own son who is intended to be simply a place-holder until the court case is finished. Varun has no interest at all in politics and just wants to be able to head back to London and his life there, but his general fear of his father ensures that he stays in India and does as he’s told.

Mainly this means Varun stays at home, out of the public eye, and signs whatever documents various faceless party men place in front of him. This he does, without even sparing a glance at the documents he’s signing, until everything suddenly comes crashing down after Vasudev is found guilty of corruption. Suddenly it’s no longer a game and real lives are at stake, pushing Varun out of his complacency and bringing him into direct conflict with the party, and his father. This is where a number of those real-life events are brought into the film, such as the Chennai flood, scandals over the fixing of labels to donated meal packets and politicians treated to a stay at a resort. But there are clichés too. Varun gets pulled into the murky world of politics after a riot where a young girl is killed in a bus fire and her mother’s sooty hands leave symbolic marks over his clean white shirt. His response is an impassioned speech which is overly theatrical and to some extent banishes the authentic feel that Anand Shankar manages to create for some of the earlier scenes between Varun and his political mentor, journalist Mahendran (Sathyaraj). For most of the film however, the dialogues and scenarios are appropriate and create a believable character in Varun.

Vasudev Subramanyam was an actor before moving into politics (of course!) and Nasser does an excellent job with his character. Initially it appears that Vasudev is the ‘bad guy’ as he keeps his family under rigid control, but later events paint him in a more ambivalent light which adds interests to the story. Also good is Sanchana Natarajan as Kayal Varadarajan, Varun’s political rival. Her father is the leader of the opposition party and Kayal is determined to bring down the man she dubs the ‘rowdy CM’ by any means possible, regardless of their previous friendship in college. Thankfully Anand Shankar doesn’t burden the film with an unnecessary romance between the two, but instead gives Sanchana free rein to make her character charismatic and a real challenge to Varun, as might be expected in real life.

Sathyaraj is excellent, as is M.S. Bhaskar as Vasudev Subramanyam’s right hand man, only ever referred to as Bhai. What works well here is Bhai’s adherence to the party line and his uncritical support of Vasudev even though he disagrees with his choices. Also telling are the numerous ‘yes-men’ who all abase themselves in front of Vasudev and act much the same way with his son. However a side-plot involving a financial swindle doesn’t fit well into the plot and the entire thread involving the ‘God-man’ who is manipulating Vasudev behind the scenes is clunky and poorly written into the main action. Inevitably these side excursions start to drag down the rest of the film, and despite some good dialogue between Varun, Mahendran and Vasudev, the second half feels stodgy and is hard to digest. Which is a shame as there is much to like in the underlying political story. Varun’s coming of age within the political system is handled well, and his rivalry with Kayal works well to initiate Varun into the dirty side of politics.

There are only 2 songs in the film and both are modern dance numbers, one for Varun’s party and the second at a nightclub where Varun has been drugged.  C.S. Sam’s music is fine but doesn’t particularly stand out and the generic background dancers add even less to the choreography. I’ve added the Telugu version as this is the one I saw in the cinema, but the link to the Tamil version is here.

If the film has stuck more closely to the political issues then this could have been a very good story indeed. Instead the various sub-plots dilute the impact of the political scenes and it’s only the strong performance from Vijay Deverakonda that prevents his character from becoming just another mass movie hero out to save the world. Thankfully there is more backstory and just enough intrigue to make NOTA worth a look, while the real-life political situations do add another level of realism to the plot. The excellent support cast are also well worth catching as they all do justice to their roles. Overall, not a bad début for Vijay Deverakonda in Tamil cinema and another interesting choice for an actor who only seems to be getting better with each film.

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Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava

Trivikram’s Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava is a bit of a throwback to the factionist rowdy fests of yore, albeit with a bit of a difference. How much of a real difference though?

Veera Raghava Reddy (NTR Jr) returns to his village after studying abroad. His father Narappa Reddy (Naga Babu) is delighted to see his boy back at home although he is worried by a recent escalation in a decades old feud with Basi Reddy (Jagapathi Babu). Predictably enough they are ambushed on the drive home. What does a good son do when he is the heir to conflict? Is killing and mayhem the only way? Or can a Telugu mass film hero broker a lasting peace based on doing what is right for the people?

There was some character development for Raghava, if not for anyone else. It was good to see him learn from both experience and from wise counsel, and then apply those learnings. Raghava struggles with the community’s expectation that he will be a carbon copy of his father. NTR Jr is excellent and can show restraint and slow burning rage as well as going for the big emotional notes. We get to see Raghava in shock after a very traumatic incident, and his ensuing grief. He’s not superhuman although of course he has the usual kit of gravity bending tricks up his sleeve. This is a film where the hero is often seen simply sitting and thinking. He can dial a conflict down to a terse conversation as well as firing up at the villainous Basi Reddy. He has goals and makes his decisions in light of the objective. At key times people tell him that the man that prevents a war is a great man. Raghava also believes the man that wants peace has to have the strength to win a war. The hero must win, but maybe not in exactly the way usually predicted in this style of film.

Aravindha might be a bit princessy but as she says to Raghava, nobody is only what they appear to be. She tells him straight up what she expects from a partner. She also tells him women think hard about which man they will be best suited to while men see a pretty face, hound her ‘til she gives in, then leave her at home and bugger off to do whatever. When he considers the example of his own parents it makes him realise that he needs to change if he wants to be with Avi. He still decides to go win his war but promises once that is over, he will concentrate on her from that moment onwards. Which is a bit of an each way bet but as this film is kind of about compromise and negotiation it is fitting. Pooja Hegde is stunning, and while Avi is perfectly happy to get by on looks when it suits her, she has a sharp mind and a healthy dose of self-awareness. They have a nice rapport and I liked that the film took the time to show them talking, helping each other with little things, and feeling their feelings.

Jagapathi Babu is quite the villain de jour in Telugu films. I loathed Basi Reddy but kind of loved the boots and all commitment to making him despicable. There’s no subtlety in the character but the performance has some beautifully modulated beats and peaks that add an edge. Sunil was effective as the decent guy who helped Raghava out, mercifully not bogging the plot down in Comedy Uncle mode. Naresh and Srinivasa Reddy were tedious and time consuming. Rao Ramesh and Subhalekha Sudhakar added another element as the crafty career politicians who have drifted away from representing the people and were caught up in winning for the sake of winning. And many That Guys flew across the screen, bleeding, screaming, crying, and suffering for their art.

Eesha Rebba also had a tiny role with not much to say for herself, but her expressions were perfect for an irritated younger sister. Supriya Pathak and Sithara both deliver some strong dialogue on the folly of men indulging in constant bloodshed and who pays the price. Easwari Rao and Devayani play silent wives of warring men, but both can pack a punch without saying a word. Which is just as well since Trivikram silences them just at the moment when they should have been heard. It is telling that when the hero is delivering a big speech about what he learned from the women in his life that none of the women, who are all present, gets to speak for herself. So everyone ignored what the women said until the biggest baddest strongest man repeated their words, then everyone listened to him. Again, nice idea but didn’t quite land the execution.

I’m not saying this is a totally sensible version of a mass film. Who sets up a high security meeting complete with metal detector at the entrance and then leaves a nail gun lying around! The percussion of the BGM matched Tarak ferociously beating his opponents with sticks. And Trivikram gets Raghava’s shirt off in perfect mass style in the midst of raging carnage. The device by which Trivikram got Veera Raghava Reddy into Aravindha’s home as driver/bodyguard Raghava could only aspire to be called flimsy. And there are the usual 50 to 1 fighting odds when our hero takes on truckloads of armed rowdies and emerges with nary a blemish despite the unbridled enthusiasm of the Fake Blood Department.

The upbeat songs were most successful in their picturisations. Peniviti was made unintentionally funny with all the stringed instrumentalists getting soggy in the rain. Tarak is amazingly talented and looks like he is having a ball when the music kicks in and he can go for it. Pooja Hegde doesn’t really try and keep up with him but she puts a lot of energy into Reddy Ikkada Soodu and does some excellent face.

There are some minor similarities with the recent Rangasthalam, like the setting and a hero who takes on a sociopathic Jagapathi Babu character. Unfortunately one also seems to be the dodgy subtitles.  Is gizzard curry really a sign of love? What are cooling glasses and when should one wear them? Does administering Celine really cure a fever? How much chaos is required before your shirt buttons pop off? Ladies, would you be carried away by a man who says he looks like a sword with a moustache? It’s sad to see scrimping on something like the subs which shouldn’t be an afterthought, and would help capitalise on the success of other Telugu films with new markets.

Trivikram has tested the water for a new kind of hero but ultimately falls back on the old standards. Tarak is really coming into his own as an actor and makes the most of the range he’s given here, and the female ensemble cast was exceptional. See it if you like epic revengey films and have a high tolerance for gore.

Rakshasudu (1986)

Rakshasudu is all stops out mass from A Kodandarami Reddy. Chiru is The Nameless Hero, there are many people known by initials only, and you can’t go past his back up team of Nagababu, Suhasini, Radha and Sumalata. Evildoers beware!

A woman (Annapurna) goes into labour in an orphanage or children’s home. The unscrupulous owner (Allu Ramalingaiah) steals and sells her baby boy to a beggar who uses the kid to augment his begging routine. He is not a loving father figure, and physically abuses the child. The kid fights back, demanding to know where his real parents are, and one day finds himself sold and on the way to a mysterious island where he will work as a slave.

The nameless child grows up to be Chiranjeevi. In due course Chiru escapes the island, along with his bestie Simham (Nagendra babu) and an excellent dog. He goes to the orphanage and demands to know where his mother is. Allu Ramalingaiah asks for a large sum of money in return, and Chiru duly goes to steal it. But he is caught by wealthy JK (Rao Gopal Rao) and they make a deal. Chiru will terminate evil VR (Kannada Prabhakar) who owns the island where he was imprisoned, and JK will help him find his mother.

JK’s relative or assistant Vani (Sumalatha) is already on task regarding VR. She helps Chiru meet Shailu (Radha). Shailu is smitten immediately but he isn’t keen except that she is VR’s daughter. This opens up a whole new avenue of revenge for Chiru. He keeps an assignation with Shailu who sends a lot of mixed signals by bouncing on her bed and thrusting at him. What is he to make of it all? As soon as is decent, he is off to her dad’s place, presumably to announce he is out for vengeance and BTW about your daughter’s virginity…It doesn’t go down well with VR. But it is kind of amusing to watch the alpha male posturing backed up by handy photos. I would have been asking where the photographer was hiding but Shailu doesn’t care. She just wants Chiranjeevi. Poor Radha. She is doomed to be second fiddle, although she does her best to be unmissable. But Chiru is not all about being menacing and duplicitous.

Sumathi (Suhasini), a teacher, is dragged by a podgy Labrador to the river bank where she finds an injured Chiru. I have no idea how he got there, but I assume VR is responsible. Romance clearly starts to bloom as he convalesces, and her students find this a riveting spectator sport. Via flashback we see how VR killed her family when they were preparing to celebrate a festival. I think only Sumathi and her policeman brother Vijay (Rajendra Prasad) survived. Suhasini and Chiranjeevi seem to have good chemistry. In amongst all the wild shenanigans she looks like she is genuinely amused at some points but then I remember. Suhasini is a great actress.

Chiru is even more fired up for revenge now he knows who killed Sumathi’s family. He loves her and wants to start dishing out the comeuppances. But first he has to deal with Shailu and her incessant groping. While I don’t really like a lot of what his character does, especially when it comes to Shailu, I like the performance a lot. This role has the full Hero gamut from wisecracking to arse kicking and a whole lot of emo wallowing and shameless flirting. And random songs.

My notes here say: Song! Snow! Sleds!

There are so many flashbacks. Chiru recognises an old man in a photo in Sumathi’s album, and that sparks a memory of when he helped a Golden Labrador with a leg injury. His kindness was repaid in spades. When Chiru ends up high above the ground, strung up between two trees, the dog climbs a tree and crawls out along a branch to untie his human. What an anipal!

And maybe it’s the same dog who is delivering his love letters. Of course, the problem with sending your love letters by Labrador courier is that you may not be communicating with who you think you are. Chiru dreams of Sumathi but Shailu asserts herself in the song fantasies, perpetuating the love triangle that nobody is aware of. Yet.

Back in the island days, Chiru’s impressive high kicking fighting style wins the affection of VR’s lady friend, Jayamala. And that leads to the gladiator mini-skirt song.

Given the robes the slaves wear, the mini dress kind of makes sense as a glammed up version of his work uniform. So if nothing else I am grateful to the film for clearing that up. But Chiru is not to be hers. Of course he winds up in a Love Parallelogram. A Triangle is simply not Mega enough!

In the present day, Shailu sees Chiranjeevi with Sumathi, and her head splits into two with a nice montage happening where her brain should be. She is devastated.

The end of the film brings closure to many of these tangled relationships. Usually by killing one of the people involved. There is a classic Masala Death Trap, needlessly complex shenanigans, feats of improbable strength, red paint galore. Who will live happily ever after? And who will be crushed by the Mega-boots?

Not a classic but an excellent ripping yarn, a great cast, and all the things I expect from Chiru. 4 stars! (a bonus half a star for making sense of the mini skirt)