Fidaa (2017)

 

Sekhar Kammula’s Fidaa benefits from a talented cast and suffers from some underwritten characters and lazy plot manipulation.

Fidaa bills itself as a love-hate-love story, but I felt it was more about growing up and knowing yourself, identifying where you will and won’t compromise. Medical student Varun (Varun Tej) lives in Texas with his older brother Raja (Raja Chembolu) and younger brother Bujji. One morning they all decide Raja should get married, and minutes later he chooses Renuka (Sharanya Pradeep) on a matrimonial site. Raja goes to India to meet her, but waits for Varun to come and give the final OK. Renu’s younger sister Bhanumathi (Sai Pallavi) is naturally curious and concerned about the man her sister will marry so goes about sussing out her prospective in-laws. She and Varun fall for each other but where Raja and Renuka are easy going to the point of invisibility, Varun wants to stay in the USA and Bhanu cannot conceive of leaving home. They break up without really breaking up or talking about it, and unhappily go on with their lives. But then Renu falls pregnant and develops a mystery syndrome that lasts just long enough for Bhanu to have to go to the USA.

Considering the number of co-directors credited I half expected a lack of cohesion in the direction but not so. Visually this is a beautifully composed film, making the most of natural looking light and locations. Unfortunately the writing relies on half-baked contrivances to move the action along. The characters are not particularly well developed either.

Sai Pallavi should win all the awards for her performance as Bhanumathi. The line between uninhibited and unhinged is tricky to negotiate, but she rocks both the energy and subtlety required. What could have been a mere hair swishing manic pixie dream girl becomes a delightfully quirky and real young lady. I guessed from the audience reaction that a lot of her dialogue is in a regional dialect and there was much cheering at some of her one liners. Bhanu is doing her undergrad degree in Ag Science, and demonstrates this by driving a tractor around one field, just one muddy field, and pointing at different grains. I’d never considered the pros and cons of wearing a half-saree while driving a tractor, but here it looked stylish and appropriate. It’s easy to see when Bhanu is putting on an act but never easy to see that any part of Bhanu is a performance. Her reactions seem spontaneous and her eyes look like there is somebody home. On a shallow note, I also loved that she has minimal makeup on that expressive face, spots be damned. It’s a departure for a mainstream Telugu film heroine. And she can really dance.

Varun Tej is tall, dorky, and may never get all that hair product out. Ever. Not even vigorous frolicking in the rain could flatten that bristly up do. Varun the character is kind of bland and I never found his dreams or change of heart convincing. At first I put that down to his acting but when I considered Bhanu too, I realised that neither character had much explicit motivation or development. The film relies on the actors to make the situations engaging. Varun was just overshadowed a little, playing the slow steady counterpart to the firecracker Bhanu. He was at his most lively in scenes with her, and I liked their rapport. The fight scene seemed out of character, but Bhanu was a huge film fan so I guess that was Varun showing support in a kickarse language that spoke to her. He was less successful in the angry and emotional post breakup phase when Varun keeps taking stupid advice from a comedy sidekick. He’s lucky he inherited the smouldery Mega Eye gene for the crying scenes because it distracted me from wanting to slap him for excessive wallowing. He certainly missed out on the Mega Dance gene…or at least, he got that one from his father not his uncle.

The plot used any old excuse in pivotal moments. Renuka required 3 months of total bed rest, but then was well enough for Bhanu to leave on a roadtrip for a week (judging by the outfit changes), and then turned up heavily pregnant at home in Banswada for a wedding. You or anyone else with a pen and a post-it note could easily write six reasons that were more believable. The roadtrip was beautiful and I’m sure everyone had fun with the drone shots, but if you’re in a hurry perhaps…a plane? Investment in building up characters and relationships was notably lacking. Some of the side characters have no reason to exist other than being a sidekick or whatever. There is also a fair amount of “do as I say, not as I do” advice. It’s disappointing because there’s a whole stack of Kammula films that show he is a keen and empathetic interpreter of human behaviour. This looked like he either couldn’t be bothered or perhaps gave way to an improvised approach that fell over.

Satyam Rajesh’s Ali is one character who added no value to the proceedings. And the kid who played Bujji did nothing to diminish my dislike of high pitched overly peppy kid actors. Of the supporting actors I most enjoyed Sai Chand and Sharanya Pradeep as Bhanu’s dad and sister. I still get irritated when people in possession of all their faculties and full mobility sit and wait for their daughter to come and give them their daily essential medication, but whatever. He was a caring and quite progressive father in many respects. Renu had a masters in psych but there is no indication she will ever get to use it, or wanted to. Another why???? element in the script. But Sharanya Pradeep was calm and lovely, playing Renuka with a maternal solidity.

Shakthi Kanth Karthick’s songs were diverse enough in style that they meshed with the key scenes rather than being a musical interruption. Vachinde was suitably flirty and hectic, setting the scene perfectly. I was pleased to see both the dialogues and songs were subtitled, although the quality of the English subs was atrocious. I hope that is reviewed before a DVD release. Unless there really is a w in hellow. And I’m pretty sure Fidaa doesn’t directly translate to “flat”.

Fidaa is well worth seeing for the charm of the actors and the beautiful visuals. Just prepare to suspend your disbelief a bit. On the bright side, there were no CGI talking lizards!

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Kanche

Kanche

Varun Tej takes on the role of a soldier in the Second World War so effortlessly in Kanche that it’s hard to believe this is only his second movie. His performance is one of the highlights of a film that has at its heart a simple love story but uses a more ambitious setting to deliver a deeper social message based on the literal and psychological ‘fences’ of the title.  The story starts in Thirties India and moves to the battle torn landscape of Italy during the Second World War using flashback sequences to keep the focus on Dhrupati Hari Babu (Varun Tej) and his romance with Seetha Devi (Pragya Jaiswal). It’s an unusual backdrop for an Indian film and despite a tendency towards melodrama in the second half Kanche is one of the better films I’ve seen this year and well worth catching in the cinema if you can.

The story starts when Hari meets Seetha while they are both studying in Madrasapattinam and Hari is working part-time as a waiter in a social club. Hari is outspoken but respectful with a twinkle in his eye, while Seetha is the perfect lady, always looking absolutely stunning in elegant saris, sparkling jewellery and perfect make-up. I was a little surprised at how liberal her thinking was for a wealthy and presumably somewhat sheltered girl in 1936, but Pragya has just a touch of aloofness which gives more authenticity to her role and she certainly looks the part. The couple have sparkling chemistry together and the romance moves along with a freshness that belies the familiarity of the story. Varun plays Hari with the perfect mix of serious scholar and carefree larrikin to make him an appealing character, and gives an immediate contrast with later scenes where he is more introspective and self-contained as a soldier in the Indian Army.

Although Seetha is from a royal family and Hari is the son of the local barber, their romance blossoms while they are away from home. When they return from college however their relationship seems doomed to failure since social norms decree that Seetha must marry a man from her own class. Seetha and Hari try to enlist the help of Seetha’s brother Eeshwar Prasad (Nikitin Dheer) but he is firmly on the side of tradition and opposes the match almost more vigorously than Seetha’s father. Nikitin plays Eeshwar with a permanent sneer that looks painful to maintain and becomes almost comical with each reappearance. There are whiffs of a more rational and intelligent man but they don’t seem to be able to make it past the facial grimace and Eeshwar is too one dimensional to be completely convincing here. Sowcar Janaki has more scope as Seetha’s mother, trying to get her daughter to conform while at the same time acknowledging that as a woman she has little influence and no effective assistance to offer. I love the subtle message that Krish adds here about the role of women in Indian society which is just as effective as his more obvious statements about social divides later in the film.

The class divide isn’t enough drama for Krish though, and he adds in inter-caste rivalries in the village which increase the tension and lead to literal fences being constructed alongside the invisible social barriers to keep different groups of villagers apart. The village is split by class, caste and gender which makes for a lot to expect Hari to fix in the final half of the film!

The romance is told as flashback sequences interspersed with events on the battlefields in Italy and although the love story follows a predictable path, the rest of the film is rather more unexpected. Eeshwar is now Hari’s commanding officer and still hasn’t lost the sneer or his enmity towards Hari although the two avoid each other as much as possible. Krish doesn’t fall into the trap of making Eeshwar a vindictive bully and Nikitin does a better job in these scenes, making Eeshwar an honourable and decent man behind the curled upper lip. As events unfold, Eeshwar is forced to depend on Hari when he is captured by the German army along with the other commanding officers. Hari and a few other soldiers set out to rescue them but find themselves confronted by Nazi atrocities in a small town they pass through and need to adjust their plans accordingly.

There are a number of more subtle messages that are almost lost as Krish hammers home the point that anything can be achieved through co-operation and mutual trust. The camaraderie between the soldiers – British and Indian – is unexpected and an interesting counterpoint to the more usual rivalry and prejudice seen in other films. Hari’s letters to Seetha also provide a different view of the war and her unseen presence provides support for Hari as he struggles with the realities of the conflict.

One of my pet hates in films with foreign characters is the usually poor quality of the performances, however here the actors are good and generally appropriately cast. The commanding German officer and a family of bakers in a small Italian village are particularly effective and add credibility to this part of the film, while the various British soldiers are also all good in their roles.  The dubbing is however not as successful with a definite miss on some of the British army accents making the British General sounding more like an East End butcher rather than an officer of the British Army. There is also some confusion with the Italian villagers who speak variously in oddly accented Italian and German, although this is mostly drowned out by the Telugu voice-over. Still, overall the foreigners are much better than usual and are convincingly part of the film storyline rather than simply extras in the background for added flavour.

The pace in the second half is slower and the particularly in the final scenes the action becomes overly dramatic where less really would have been more compelling. The end is also heavy on the films message of peaceful co-existence through mutual respect and tolerance, even adding a baby called Hope just in case there could be anyone who missed the point. However despite the awkward melodrama and overly drawn out final fight scene, the story is still powerful and Varun is impressive right to the end. Definitely an actor to look out for.

With good performances, an interesting story and some clever dialogue, Kanche demonstrates Krish’s ability to think outside the norms of Telugu cinema and deliver another great film. Don’t miss it!