Mahanati

Mahanati

Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati is a spellbinding biopic that celebrates the life of Savitri in sumptuous colour with haunting re-enactments of her most famous scenes. Keerthy Suresh invokes the magic of Savitri’s screen presence while Samantha ties it all together as a journalist researching the legendary actor’s life for a newspaper article. At just under three hours, the film still only scratches the surface of Savitri’s story, but with an impressive cast and convincing dialogue, Mahanati is a mesmerising look at one of the most successful film actors from the South.

The film opens with Savitri falling into a coma and being taken to a hospital whose bemused staff have no idea who they have just admitted. One year later, on the anniversary of her illness, journalist Madhura Vani (Samantha Akkineni) is given the task of writing about the film star for a short article in the newspaper. Vani is shy and frumpy, struggling to make her mark in the male-dominated profession of journalism and she is dismayed at what she thinks is a throw-away assignment. But once she starts speaking to the people who knew Savitri, Vani becomes intrigued by the star and her generous and compassionate personality. As she learns more, Vani draws inspiration from Savitri and becomes empowered to make changes in her own life and stand up for herself. This interweaving of Vani’s story into the life of Savitri is ingenious and allows Nag Ashwin to focus on the more positive aspects of Savitri’s legacy, although he doesn’t avoid the drama either.

The film shows Savitri’s early life after her father dies and her mother goes to live with relatives. Even as a child, Savitri was a force to be reckoned with. Her determination and will to succeed is demonstrated as she learns to dance despite the dance instructor telling her she lacks discipline and will not be able to master the skill. I loved these early scenes and the young actor playing the child Savitri who is a real find. She is full of life and totally charming with plenty of attitude – perfect for the role!

Savitri is shown taking part in theatrical shows under the supervision of her Uncle, K.V. Chowdary (Rajendra Prasad), and her abortive first trip to Chennai to become an actress is also depicted. This is beautifully done, with Savitri in full fan mode as she tries to get glimpses of her favourite actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao (Naga Chaitanya), and being almost totally oblivious to the man who takes her photo, Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan).

Nag Ashwin doesn’t dwell too much on Savitri’s rich film history but focuses instead on the real-life drama of her marriage to Gemini Ganesan and subsequent estrangement from her uncle. Her iconic roles are shown in a montage and Keerthy Suresh does a fantastic job in re-creating these accurately, including a poignant song from Devadasu and the wonderful scene in Mayabazar where Savitri is playing Ghatotkacha impersonating Sasirekha.

I’ve been waiting for a film that showcases Keerthy’s talents as an actor, and finally she gets her moment to shine. She really is amazing here and completely nails a wide range of emotions. From the early bubbly and happily carefree girl all the way through to the devastated wife who turns to alcohol, Keerthy makes us live every moment and completely believe in her portrayal of a legendary actor. A standout is the moment when she learns Gemini Ganesan is already married and her dreams of romance turn to ashes. This, and her subsequent difficult decision to marry the man she loves despite everything are simply perfect, with none of the actors overplaying the emotion, but still managing to make the audience feel every heartache and each moment of elation.

Dulquer Salmaan is also a perfect choice for the ultimate romantic actor of the time; Gemini Ganesan. He has plenty of charm and when he sets out to woo Savitri, she doesn’t stand a chance! Their romance sparkles on screen and Dulquer is just as convincing when he portrays Gemini Ganesan’s jealousy at his wife’s success and subsequent alcoholism. The story is told from Savitri’s viewpoint, so Dulquer has less screen time after Savitri finds out about his affairs, but throughout it’s an excellent performance that makes the drama and emotion behind their relationship very real.

The secondary story of Madhura Vani and her struggle to be accepted as a serious journalist is well integrated into the main plot. Nag Ashwin uses Vani to introduce key witnesses to events in Savitri’s life that allow the film to move back into flashback. But is also emphasises the importance of Savitri as a role model and inspiration, while Samantha’s success over the other, male reporters is an important step for Telugu cinema. Here is a film that has a female lead who isn’t defined by her romance with a male character and who is allowed to have a personality and story of her own. Although there is a romance (with Vijay Devarakonda in a very bad wig), it’s very much part of Vani’s own story and important mainly as a way for her to assert her independence from her father’s plans.

There is a plethora of other actors who appear in cameo roles as various screen legends of the time. Just a few are Mohan Babu as S.V. Ranga Rao, Prakash Raj as director/producer Aluri Chakrapani and Krish appearing as K.V. Reddy. It’s a real who’s who of Telugu/Tamil cinema of the time and I was inspired to read up on some of these directors and producers whose names I recognised when I left the cinema. Mickey J. Meyer’s music fits the film perfectly too and Dani Sanchez-Lopez does an excellent job with the cinematography. The effects team have managed to recreate Chennai in the fifties and the costume department deserve special mention for the wonderful outfits worn by Keerthy and Dulquer. The end credits juxtapose shots of Savitri with those of Keerthy in the same film role and the resemblance really is astonishing.

Overall there is fantastic attention to detail for both the scenes in the early eighties and Chennai in the fifties that ensure the film feels authentic, although I did sympathise with Samantha and her selection of ruffled shirts and long skirts. Everything about the film seems to have been well researched and the sets dressed to add plenty of authentic flavour. Including the film segments in black and white also adds to the whole period feel of the film and emphasises just how much impact Savitri had at the time. I also have to comment on the excellent subtitles by Rekhs that ensured the drama of each scene was well conveyed. After the last few Telugu films I’ve watched where literal translations have made a mockery of important scenes it is such a relief to have proper idiomatic English that makes sense and doesn’t detract from the dialogue. Until I can learn Telugu (a vain hope given my lack of success with Tamil) Rekhs subtitles are the next best thing to understanding the dialogue myself and I always cheer when I see ‘Subtitles by Rekhs’ appear on screen.

Mahanati is an excellent dramatisation of the life of one of South India’s best known and well-loved actors. I don’t know enough about the details of Savitri’s history to comment on its accuracy but from all I have read, Nag Ashwin has captured the essence of Savitri’s story while Keerthy Suresh has brought her memory to vivid life. It’s ultimately a sad story but also a lovely tribute to Savitri and a reminder of what a wonderful actor she was. Mahanati is a real treat for fans of both classic and contemporary Telugu cinema – don’t miss it!

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Arjun Reddy

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Sandeep Vanga’s début film is epic. I don’t mean epic in the sense of Sanjay Leela Bhansali style staging (although at points it is), but rather epic in terms of story and exceptional attention to detail. It’s an all-encompassing tale of one man’s journey through love and loss, through addiction, pain and despair but still managing to survive with the support of his friends. The attention to detail in the story is exquisite and Vijay Deverakonda is outstanding as the titular character who is essentially a modern-day Devdas. But this story is so much more complicated than Devdas. It’s almost a documentary where every small facet of Arjun’s life is laid bare for the audience to pick over and examine in detail. So, we see Arjun’s family, his girlfriend and her family, college friends and enemies, work colleagues, even friends’ families who all have a role to play in the story. It’s also epic in terms of the love story where the passion is so large and so over-whelming that it bursts from the screen in waves of emotion that almost drown out everything else; where nothing else matters to Arjun and Preeti except each other and the scale of their love. This is selfishness and single-mindedness taken to the extreme and yet Sandeep Vanga somehow makes it seem plausible. And finally, it’s epic in terms of Arjun’s descent into alcoholism and drug abuse to the point where I was amazed he was still alive after his binges, let alone coherent. It’s also a little over 3 hours long – epic indeed!

Arjun (Vijay Deverakonda) is a Masters student at medical college when he first sees Preeti (Shalini Pandey), one of the new intake of first year students. He desires her as soon as he sets eyes on her and as college topper and all-round hero of the college he quickly marks her as his ‘property’. Strangely Preeti doesn’t seem too upset by Arjun taking over her life, but acquiesces to all of his demands, even when he tells her who to befriend, and she falls quickly fall into love and into Arjun’s bed without any objections. But then Arjun is popular and smart, so perhaps her instant attraction is understandable. He’s also brash and over-confident with anger management issues. He picks a fight at a football match and refuses to apologise afterwards because the fight was pretty much the whole point of the event for Arjun. Once Arjun falls for Preeti, he is completely obsessed by her and every single insult is of monumental importance, requiring instant satisfaction for which he is willing to beat the entire world to death if necessary.

It’s interesting that Preeti doesn’t have a voice until well into the narrative. Perhaps her reticence is because she’s simply over-whelmed by the attentions of the most popular guy in the college. There is the usual stalking = love trope as Arjun basically bullies Preeti into being his girlfriend, but somehow it seems possible given that Arjun is a free spirit and the normal rules don’t seem to apply. However, once Preeti falls in love, she’s just as obsessed as Arjun, to the point of following him up north when he moves away to finish his surgical residency. The love story is intense and physical with both Arjun and Preeti as single-minded as each other, and both utterly dependent on the other for their happiness.

Of course this is a story of loss and when Preeti’s family reject Arjun and marry her off to someone from their own caste, Arjun immediately sinks into despair. He quickly becomes an alcoholic and drug addict, although still manages to work as a surgeon with a devoted team of nurses who hide his drinking from management. His obsession with Preeti leads to an estrangement from his own father (Sanjay Swaroop) and the emotion in these scenes is raw and very believable. My favourite line in the entire film is when Arjun’s grandmother (Kanchana) is talking to Arjun’s brother Gautham (Kamal Kamaraju) and sums my own thoughts up beautifully by saying: ‘he wants to suffer – then let him!’

The story works because although Arjun lives life right on the very edge, his bad decisions are believable and mixed up with actions which so often are right. He’s a capable surgeon who really cares about his patients, and who all love him as a result. Ditto the other staff at the hospital who adore him. He is rather less considerate of his friends and continually abuses Shiva (an absolutely brilliant Rahul Ramakrishna) for having no ambition, even when Shiva is constantly rescuing Arjun from the consequences of his own excesses. No matter what his friends try, Arjun remains fixated on Preeti and addicted to alcohol or any other chemical that can blot out his misery for a few hours.

Sandeep Vanga conveys the fundamental selfishness of love in his story, and in his focus on Arjun succeeds in painting a realistically raw picture of despair and a broken heart. With all his flaws, Arjun is still a sympathetic character and the sheer depth of the emotion portrayed here drives a visceral response to many of the scenes in the film. Vijay Deverakonda really is incredible as Arjun and it’s a testament to the excellence of his acting skills that the character remains sympathetic despite Arjun’s many shortcomings. He ensures Arjun’s obsessive nature is sharply revealed in the early scenes and the swings between lover and addict, anger and happiness, hope and despair are amazingly powerful. This really is excellent work from Vijay and it will be interesting to see what he does next.

Also very impressive is Rahul Ramakrishna who strikes exactly the right balance as Arjun’s long-suffering friend Shiva, and his mixture of humour and concern feels true to life. His character is also very relatable, made even more so by the clever scenes with his own father that are so different to Arjun’s posturing, making Shiva my favourite character in the film. His dialogue too is clever with some great self-deprecation, but Rahul also manages to convey his hurt at Arjun’s remarks, despite knowing it’s the alcohol and drugs talking. The other friends, Kamal (Kalyan Subrahmanyam), Keerthi (Anisha Alla) and Vidya (Aditi Myakal) are also very good, as are the rest of the support cast. Radhan provides the music which suits the film well and the songs are used as backdrop while moving the story forward. No big song and dance numbers, but this is not that sort of film.

Even with the over-blown nature of Arjun’s romance and subsequent melt-down, the story feels realistic and plausible, mainly due to the excellent characterisations and honest dialogue. Arjun’s addiction is particularly well done and is an surprisingly  accurate description with his downwards spiral into self-absorption, mania, paranoia and continual pattern of pushing people away despite their attempts to help. This is good storytelling and I really hope the Telugu film industry can start to move away from current clichéd and formulaic screenplays into similarly more open and realistic films. It’s been a trend in the rest of the South for the last few years and it finally seems to be reaching Hyderabad. While Arjun Reddy may not be a film for everybody, it is an excellent watch and I enjoyed every minute – even if it’s not always a comfortable film to watch. Highly recommended.

Pelli Choopulu (2016)

 

PelliChoopulu-posterI loved Pelli Choopulu (or #pellichoopulu as it is also known). Writer-Director Tharun Bhascker Dhaassyam has an ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for people and their quirks. It’s a funny, feel good, movie with a little dash of realism, and packed with great characters. And – it had subtitles!

Prashanth, with his family and friends, goes to meet a prospective bride. After an idli related mishap on the way he asks for somewhere to change into a clean shirt when he arrives. Prashanth, Chitra, and a little boy there because this is a family friendly rom-com, get locked in her room. While they wait for a carpenter to come and break them out, they decide to have the chat they need to have. Initially awkward, they warm up and talk about their relationships and life goals. Chitra feels that Prashanth should follow his passion for cooking and not just drift along. He doesn’t really understand her drive. They have a frank conversation interspersed with laughter and good natured jokes at each other’s expense. Things turn awkward again when it turns out Prashanth’s dad got the address wrong, and everyone has to shuffle off to the right meetings. But at the very least, a friendship has begun. When Chitra needed a cook for her food truck, and Prashanth needed a business to impress his intended father-in-law, working together was a no-brainer. Then the question was – will they or won’t they?

I liked the sensible conversations between Chitra and Prashanth as well as the more playful scenes. She could easily outgun him in a battle of wits, but gave him his fair dues. The dowry discussion was interesting. Prashanth saw a substantial dowry as a way he could relieve his father’s worries and avoid a life where, based on his work experiences to date, he would most likely fail. Chitra was dismissive of his motives saying he was taking the easy way, and Prashanth agreed but saw nothing wrong with that. He found himself engaged, pending running a successful business, to a rich girl with a slightly unhinged father (Anish Kuruvilla). Richa and her dad took almost no interest in him as a person beyond his horoscope, and it was clear that he wouldn’t have voting rights in any decisions. Prashanth tried not to be offended by their behaviour, but the effort was visible. Would the lure of dowry win? Would he and Chitra realise that while they’re both imperfect they are perfect for each other?

Ritu Varma’s Chitra is feminine but practical, assertive but not rude. She is an articulate, educated girl who knows what she wants and that she is worth it. Chitra was hurt by a previous boyfriend, Vikram, but more because he effectively ran away without the courtesy of a face to face break up. Chitra also felt that her dad didn’t appreciate her as he wanted a son. But she didn’t let these things scar her. She got her MBA, she had a plan to make some money, and wanted to move to Australia. She was prepared to listen to her feelings, trust her gut, and go ahead with her business idea.

Vijay Deverakonda plays Prashanth as a bit dim and a little hopeless, but not in a bad way. Prashanth is an underachiever who decided not to try too hard because he knew he couldn’t do what he wanted anyway. He just wanted to find a way to get his family off his back, and not to keep feeling like a failure. When he is doing the things he loves – like cooking or drinking with his mates – his body language changes and he is more present and more confident. His call centre melt down is a sight to behold! When he is switched off his uncertainty shows in how he speaks and moves, and he seems to take up less space. It took me a while to recognise him as the actor who played one of the rich kids in Life is Beautiful, but I knew I’d seen those eyelashes before.

I think for Chitra to stay in charge, and not have to change to suit a partner, she needed a cute puppy type like Prashanth. He would give her the space to be herself, and not fight her on all the decisions. And Prashanth had some backbone when it came to showing her affection and support, telling her father off for wanting to send his own in house Ambani away for the sake of acquiring a son. What was wrong with the amazing daughter he already had? And dad agreed, later telling Chitra that he loved her and would support her no matter what and to take her time. He would still keep arranging the marriage meetings because of all the family expectations, but she was not to feel pressured to accept.

The relationships are depicted beautifully. Prashanth and Chitra get the bulk of attention on their will they won’t they romance, but the families and friends are very much part of the goings on. Prashanth was lolling around at home, with a drink topped up from his dad’s liquor stash. When his grandmother took a sip her reactions were priceless and the unspoken threats, mimed blackmail, and affectionate laughter as they shared a sneaky tipple was just gorgeous. Gururaj Manepalli and Kedar Shankar play the gruff but good hearted dads, and they showed how the tension between what their kids wanted and what they wanted for their kids was driving them both to distraction.

Prashanth’s friends are good value. Priyadarshi Pulikonda is a scene stealer with his droll expressions and slightly vague timing that made me wonder if Kaushik was an idiot or a genius. Vishnu (Abhay Bethiganti) is more sensible but has a larrikin streak a mile wide. They all know they could try harder, but they don’t judge each other (I was doing enough judging for everyone!). Everyone needs friends who just accept them and give them a hand when they can.

Once I recognised Vijay Deverakonda I couldn’t help but think of Life is Beautiful. Pelli Choopulu has a lot of the things I like about Sekhar Kammula’s films (a strong sense of community, realistic issues, good ensemble cast, Anish Kuruvilla who will seemingly do anything to avoid directing) and less of the things I don’t like so much (the assumption boys are right,  over-engineered plot developments, excessive and badly executed VFX).

The audience here in Melbourne went off at all the Australian references and the engineering jokes. The biggest reaction was garnered by mention of a potential groom from Melbourne who had a really good job. (7-11? Enquired one of the audience, to great merriment). Slightly sarcastic good humour was the prevailing mood for the movie, and for the viewers.

See this for a story full of love and warmth, laugh out loud zingy lines, relationships that make sense, and the delightful cast who bring it all to life.