Saaho

I didn’t read any reviews before I went to see Saaho, but I’d seen comments on social media that were mostly negative. So I wasn’t expecting great things from the film, and perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Sure there are plenty of flaws, including a confusing story, poorly developed villains and far too many songs, but I loved the action, all the special effects and especially the imposing presence of Prabhas. Think standard Telegu Mass on VFX steroids, and that’s pretty much what you get with Saaho. Logic has never been high on the agenda for these kinds of films, not when directors can just blow up, beat up or shoot up everything in the hero’s path and writer/director Sujeeth follows he standard formula here. Nonsensical yes, but entertaining – definitely!

Let’s talk about the negative aspects first. The film opens with a confusing array of characters, not helped by long, complicated sentences of subtitles which vanished off the screen too quickly for me to read them. Then, the introduction scene for Prabhas is surprisingly poorly executed. Who is the man he is trying to rescue from a bad situation with a gang of thugs? There is some by-play about a whistling pressure cooker to give Prabhas a set time to carry out the rescue, but then there are no whistles – why set this up and then fail to deliver? And when this character reappears, his part in the finale is so rushed and poorly subtitled that I have no idea what exactly he was supposed to be doing. So, we’re off to a bad start, which is compounded by key events being rushed through and important characters appearing and disappearing without any clear idea of who they are and what role they play in the plot. It’s not helped by the subtitles which sometimes took me some time to work out and even with my bad Telugu I could tell that they missed a lot of information. The list of bad guys grows longer and longer, on top of which their alliances change, there are numerous double crosses and their relationships to each other are poorly described, so after a while the best idea is to stop trying to figure it out and just enjoy all the mayhem!

And the mayhem is what works very well here. This is where all the money was spent, and the result is slick and fast paced action with excellent fight scenes and lots of explosions. There are fast cars, motorbikes, even chase scenes with heavily armoured trucks and excavators but perhaps the most ridiculous involve men wearing mechanical flying suits and Prabhas carrying out some do-si-doing with a helicopter. At one point, at the end of a song, for no apparent reason there is a tank that drives over a couple of cars. It’s like they had a few thousands of dollars left and decided that adding a tank would complete the line-up of transport options! Throughout it all Prabhas is a tower of strength and stays true to the Telugu hero ‘code of conduct’ by endeavouring to single handedly take down all his enemies, be impervious to bullets, indestructible regardless of whether there are crashes, explosions or he leaps off a cliff without a parachute (more on that later), and of course still find time to romance the girl, talk tough and always, always look ultra-cool!

After the initial confusion the film settles down with Prabhas as an undercover cop who has been seconded to an investigation team after a series of burglaries in Mumbai. Amritha (Shraddha Kapoor) is the nominal female detective who is continually shunted aside by her boss Shinde (Prakash Belavadi), while tech specialist David (Murali Sharma) and Goswami (Vennela Kishore) round out the team. The police think they spot the thief (Neil Nitin Mukesh) on CCT and the team then devise a super complicated plan to bring him in. This involves convincing him to steal a ‘black box’ which is vital to open a vault full of money and gold in the gangster city of Waaji.

Waaji is a super high-tech city run by the Roy corporation headed by Narantak Roy (Jackie Shroff). After his assassination, Devraj (Chunky Pandey) is poised to take over the cartel when Roy’s previously hidden son, Vishwank (Arun Vijay) appears and thwarts his plans. The various cartel members are each trying to take over the top spot, but key lieutenant Kalki (Mandira Bedi) supports Vishwank, although his position is far from secure and he needs the black box to be able to pay off the various cartel members. The action moves to Waaji in the second half after the black box is stolen and Saaho (Prabhas) becomes involved in the power plays by Devraj and Vishwank.

Most of the Southern Indian actors play their usual kind of roles well here. Tinnu Anand is good as Devraj’s disabled father and Arun Vijay does well as Vishwank despite the dodgy writing while Supreeth and the cast of support thugs are suitably OTT. Mahesh Manjrekar has a reasonable role as one of the cartel members, but Madira Bedi is probably the best realised of these characters and I love her smooth operator approach to playing a gang member. The rest of the Hindi actors are a bit hit and miss. This might be more due to the language problem as they were better when speaking in English. Jackie Shroff is probably the best of the lot, possibly because he has only has a small role to play and little dialogue. Neil Nitin Mukesh seems uncomfortable throughout and Chunky Pandey desperately overacts every time he appears. To be fair, Shraddha Kapoor is pretty good in a more action-based role and she does have reasonable chemistry with Prabhas in their romance scenes. The problem is the songs, which don’t fit well into the narrative and don’t add anything to the story. This is an all action film, and the songs act as speed breakers, taking the audience out of the story. Probably the best is the Jacqueline Fernandez item number, which is just ridiculous enough to fit the plot, with the previously mentioned tank, machine guns, and lots of scantily glad women in a swimming pool.

Sujeeth however is equal opportunity in objectifying his stars, and Prabhas gets to jump off a cliff wearing nothing but ripped jeans, but only after he throws his parachute off the edge first. It’s that kind of film. Shraddha Kapoor actually comes off pretty well in the costume stakes, wearing generally sensible clothes, apart from in the songs. Prabhas looks uber-cool wearing cropped pants and trendy loafers once he gives up the denim and leather look of the first half.

Saaho is a fairly typical Telugu action hero film. The story doesn’t make a lot of sense and the cast of thousands list of characters is confusing, but there are some good ideas in there that would have worked better if they’d been kept simpler. Having lots of special effects doesn’t hide the limitations of the story, but it does make it fun to watch. I saw the Telugu version at a fairly full theatre in Melbourne, and most of the audience seemed to be enjoying the film as much as I was. We did all laugh at scenes that I think were supposed to be dramatic and tense, but there was plenty of applauding and cheering whenever Prabhas got to obliterate (literally!) the bad guys. All up, Saaho is simply entertaining and a fun piece of visual theatre. One for fans of Prabhas, mayhem and OTT mass action.

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Anji

Anji-title

Anji is an unashamed tilt at a commercial blockbuster with an obviously huge budget and everything including the kitchen sink by way of recommended masala ingredients. Kodi Ramakrishna directed Devi, Ammoru, and the more recent Arundhati, all of which had big special effects and equally big performances. I think those films are more effective than Anji overall as the stories were less obviously ‘inspired’ by Hollywood. Also I suspect that casting such a big name hero skewed the story towards him, leaving mostly comic relief and buffoonery for the other performers. But the visuals are pretty good and Chiranjeevi brings his own style and verve to the adventure.

Back in 1932 a nasty man with blue contacts and huge teeth (Bhupinder Singh) tried to steal a sacred relic, the Aatmalingam. The Aatmalingam catches the waters of the Akasa Ganga every 72 years, and drinking that water grants immortality. Luckily for us and not so luckily for him, he triggers the defences around the Aatmalingam. Bhatia barely escapes, losing an arm to a sentient flying sword.

Anji-fingernails

I must just question the wisdom of sending a man with those fingernails to do a delicate job of thievery.

In 2004, when the heavenly miracle is due to occur again, Bhatia (now overacted by Tinnu Anand with odd prosthetic earlobes) once again has a crack at gaining supreme power. A diary containing the pertinent lore was sent to Swapna (Namrata Shirodkar), a student in the USA, to keep it safe. She returns to India and thanks to fate and public transport, meets Anji (Chiranjeevi) and is pursued by idiots (MS Narayana and gang). After hiring Anji to escort her to her destination, the two realise they have to protect the Aatmalingam (and all the people) and defeat the bad guy. They join forces in an adventure with epic overtones and rush towards the final confrontation.

There are numerous scenes lifted directly from other films – the Crocodile Dundee knife scene, references to the Indiana Jones series and Romancing The Stone among others – but with a Telugu mass and Megastar spin.

Big special effects are one thing but the actors still have to deliver. Anji rights wrongs, protects the defenceless and keep an eye on the guru (Nagendra Babu in some terrible wrinkle makeup). One thing I consistently enjoy about Chiru’s films is that even in the most familiar material he doesn’t seem to be phoning it in. I liked that Anji was a little bit whiny and ‘why me?’ in some scenes but his morals were sound. Chiru had good rapport with his brother Nagendra Babu and with the other filmi family members. The action scenes (by Peter Hein) are fast and often played for laughs as well as adrenalin, and Chiru highkicks and leaps like there is no tomorrow. Anji is ambushed in the jungle, beaten and pushed over a cliff but Heroes bounce when they hit rock bottom (literally and figuratively it seems). The dances are energetic and lots of fun. Anji is often the object of female fantasy in the songs so I quite enjoyed pondering why someone would imagine that particular outfit or that dance move when their thoughts turned to love (or lust). Chik Buk Pori is beautifully shot and features Chiru and his backing dudes, Ramya Krishnan as a flirty con artist, singing orphans and a random white chick. Who could ask for more?

Namrata Shirodkar is perhaps best known as the woman who persuaded Mahesh Babu he could wear t-shirts, AND wear them one at a time. Oh, and she is a former Miss India. Swapna seems like a smart modern girl while in the US – she flies a plane, drives a fast fancy car – all of which is promising in an adventure. So I was confused when she came to India and walking and talking simultaneously seemed to be rather challenging. Her acting mostly ranges from jiggle and giggle to SCREAM and grimace. And the Telugu dubbing gives her a breathy little girl voice which is just annoying. She doesn’t have great chemistry with Chiru, but romance is a fair way down the ranks of subplots which was refreshing. I was expecting more substance in this role based on Ammoru and Devi which had fierce female leads. Namrata’s performance holds up reasonably well as she wasn’t challenged to deliver much more than be a foil for The Hero. Although Swapna did remember some of her foreign skills and I was pleased to see her steal and hotwire a bus to save the obligatory orphans.

The songs are well integrated into the action so they don’t halt the momentum. I wouldn’t care anyway because Chiru! Dancing! Lawrence is credited as a choreographer and he works so well with Chiranjeevi. Swapna throws some bark on the fire and ends up stoned. He knows what it is but he inhales anyway (eventually, after helpfully explaining what was happening). All of which leads Abbo Nee Amma. Om Shanti Om is stylistically a little weird but Namrata’s outfits add some entertainment value even if her dancing doesn’t. Reema Sen makes an appearance in Mirapakaya Bajji that has excellent use of Chiru.

There are some cool effects but there are also polyester stick on beards and an unconvincing roasted lizard on a stick. And a baby crocodile that squeaks like a rubber mouse. But I was pleased to see that when Anji’s dog attacked to save a family member it was clearly a stuffed toy and not a real dog being shaken around. And the horse stunts were not too scary. Where the adventure intersects more with history and religion, the quality and scale of the effects improves although the gore levels were consistent throughout. The religious elements are woven into the action very well and give the story more substance. In one scene Anji accidentally does the right things in the right order and is protected from the giant snake and flying sword. Because I understood what he should do I found the sequence gripping, where sometimes I wonder ‘who made this nonsensical ritual up?’. Some of the magical effects when the Aatmalingam is discovered are very pretty, and there are some excellent locations and sets. Maybe Kodi Ramakrishna is a thrifty director and spends his budget where it will have the most impact. The final confrontation takes place in the Himalayas and Heaven, under the eye of Shiva. It’s all quite grand and otherworldly.

Anji is entertaining from start to finish. My DVD ends quite abruptly following the showdown between Bhatia and Anji but I am quite happy as Swapna was doing something useful for a change, and I suspect if there is a missing scene it probably has singing orphans. Chiru owns his role and his energy is evident in every scene. If you like fantasy or supernatural adventures or have a soft spot for Indiana Jones and Chiranjeevi then I highly recommend Anji. 4 stars!

Aditya 369

Aditya 369-Poster

When I heard Singeetham Srinivasa Rao’s Aditya 369 described as ‘historical science fiction’ I was immediately curious.  It is less about science or history and more about the outfits and derring-do, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film is on Youtube without subtitles and there is a diverting but not very helpful plot summary on Wiki should you wish to swot before taking the journey. But no one in the film prepares, so please do not feel obliged.

Aditya 369-time machine

The plot goes something like this. Professor Ramdas (Tinnu Anand) is an eccentric inventor, but apparently does well enough for himself that he can support a large house and workshop and keep his daughter Hema (Mohini) in stylish polyester outfits. His life’s work is a time machine called Aditya 369. The professor takes a low key approach to security and intellectual property, allowing just about anyone to come and have a look at the machine.

Aditya 369-Amrish Puri

Raja Verma (Amrish Puri) is a crook with a particular interest in historical regalia and diamonds. He arranges to steal a golfball sized diamond from the local museum and replace it with a fake. Now, if you call one guard with obsessive rule observance a diligent approach to security, then this museum was world class. Young Kishore (Master Tarun) is accidentally locked in,  witnesses the theft and has to be rescued when he tries to outrun the thieves.

Aditya 369-Balakrishna and Master Tarun

He confides in his saviour Krishna Kumar (Balakrishna) who decides to investigate.  Kishore decides to take his fellow plucky orphans on a spin in the time machine, is rescued by Krishna,  and Krishna and Hema are sent back to the past where they rescue Silk Smitha and meet Sri Krishna Deva Rayalu (also Balakrishna) and learn about the Golfball Diamond.

You know how in lots of time travel fiction the first rule is don’t change anything and don’t use modern stuff and cause ruptures in the fabric of time? When I saw the two emergency suitcases stashed in the time machine I assumed historically appropriate costumes. Well, at least the inhabitants of 1526 got an eyeful of fine 80s fashions. And listened to a boombox.

I disliked Krishna once he had landed back in time. In the presence of poets and scholars he had only ever read about, he couldn’t help but stick his oar in and go for a bit of one-upmanship. It was really tiresome and just made no sense. The dialogue seemed to go along the lines of “As you know Jim, I have an electric shaver” “Wow! Please, unknown man who says he is from another time but based on those clothes may be a nutter, tell us what to do”.

Following that sojourn in the glorious past, the crew is catapulted into the future where they nearly die from radiation before being given their own shiny space suits. To be fair to Krishna and his lax approach to historical contamination, the future people didn’t seem to have any qualms about revealing significant details that characters would not yet have experienced. But while I could understand the future people knowing their history,  I expected a bit more curiosity from the people in that past. The final scenes bring hero, villain, professor and know-all child into conflict as things almost literally spin out of control as Krishna has to rescue his friends and save the world.

Balakrishna offers his usual high energy performance. He could never be accused of slacking off, except maybe in the dances where he often relies on a slow disco strut interspersed with vigorous flailing. Krishna doesn’t have any hidden depths so what you see is what you get. The character tried my patience and I found myself looking at the sets and backgrounds rather than caring about what was happening to the people. There were a couple of sickening stunts involving horses so that further tarnished the heroics.

Aditya 369-Mohini

Mohini is adequate as Hema given that for most of the film she is just part of Krishna’s baggage.

Aditya 369-walk like an Egyptian

Amrish Puri does his usual villain thing with flair. Raja Verma is a bit obsessed with things that are original and authentic which may explain his Faux-gyptian style robe.  The diamond was supposed to link all the times together but that part of the plot seemed like an afterthought.

There are comedy uncles but no one else gets much of a look in with Balakrishna in a double role so that is another positive for the film. Suthivelu plays a hapless policeman who gets dragged along on the time travels, and Brahmi makes a small appearance as a scientist.

Aditya 369-henchmen

I really enjoyed Raja Verma’s gang of purple shirted thugs who carried guns in violin cases, and then played violins as background music in an interrogation scene. I think that is the first time I’ve heard the violence/violins pun in an Indian film. Tinnu Anand seems to have his own personal wind machine in all his scenes, maybe to stop him overheating from overacting.  Annapurna is Krishna’s mum although she doesn’t get to do much apart from marvel at his awesomeness.

Illayaraja’s background score is lovely. The theme over the opening credits is lush and a little eery. The songs are melodic although mostly a bit random. I did like the dance off between Silk Smitha and Mohini to settle the matter of Krishna’s honour. Well, I did until of course Krishna decided he could play all the instruments AND do the dancing.

The production design has a retro charm that sometimes made me nostalgic for TV series like Lost in Space. Terminator 2 was released in the same year and the difference in technical capability is enormous.

The “ye olden days” segment was what I would expect from any Telugu film, but the futuristic episode was more remarkable for the efforts of the wardrobe department to really feature antennas and silver lame.

Apart from that, as noted earlier, the costumes were mostly 80s mainstream fashion – lots of high-waisted denim, synthetic fabrics and big hair. And the women didn’t fare much better.

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy and Telugu films are a great place to find them. See this for the curiosity value of the Telugu mass hero formula applied to a different genre and for the low tech effects that have their own appeal. 3 stars!