Taxiwaala (2018)

Taxiwaala

Rahul Sankrityan’s Taxiwaala is a supernatural comedy based around a taxi driver’s relationship with his car – which turns out to have a few more extras than he bargained for. The film has plenty of laughs, mixed in with a smattering of uncanny moments and just enough to jump scares to keep it interesting, although it does start to falter a little in the second half. Thankfully Vijay Devarakonda, Madhunandan and Vishnu Oi make an excellent team, helping to keep the film on track as it attempts to veer off down a number of side alleys. Their top-notch performances and a well written story ensure Taxiwaala is entertaining, even if it does end with an overly sentimental finale.

The film starts with a few set-up scenes to introduce the concept of a haunted car and it doesn’t really take off until Shiva (Vijay Devarakonda) arrives at his uncle’s garage in Hyderabad, looking for work. His uncle Babai (Madhunandan) runs the garage along with his apprentice (Vishnu Oi) called Hollywood because of his interest in American films. Babai suggests a number of jobs for Shiva, but since all of these involve major effort for little reward, Shiva struggles to stay in any of them longer than a day. So when an advert for taxi drivers goes up on a billboard near the garage, it seems like the answer to Shiva’s problems. Except that he needs a car… and he doesn’t have any money…

Luckily for Shiva his brother (Ravi Prakash) and sister-in-law (Kalyani) come to his rescue and raise the money he needs. With his limited funds, Shiva doesn’t have much choice, but is overjoyed when a broker finds him a vintage Contessa car at the right price. Even though the owner Raghu Ram (Sijju Menon) seems dodgy, and we already know that the car has given its previous owner some issues, Shiva is ecstatic with his purchase and takes time to fully restore the vintage car before starting work as a taxi driver. Although Shiva does well as a taxi driver, it doesn’t take long for the true nature of his car to make itself known and Shiva has to decide if the risk is worth the reward. It’s not as simple as just giving up either, since Shiva is paying for his sister-in-law’s vital medical treatment now that he is in a position to pay his brother back.

What works really well here is the character of Shiva and his petrol-head fuelled love of his car. It’s easy to understand how he falls heads over heels for the vintage automobile at first sight and why it becomes such an integral part of his life so quickly. His girlfriend Anu even comments that she takes second place to the car, and that is very definitely true. Vijay Devakonda has plenty of charisma and he turns it on full for much of this film, endearing himself to his passengers and ultimately the audience too as he comes to grips with working as a taxi driver and dealing with customers. Vijay has great comedic timing and uses it to good effect throughout the film so that his actions come across as totally spontaneous, which is a hard thing to get right. Madheenandan and Vishnu Oi are also hilarious and writer Saikumar Reddy has done an excellent job with the dialogues which really are laugh-out-loud funny. Adding a more traditional comedy actor can completely change the tone of a film and move the comedy focus away from the action, however here Chammak Chandra enhances the story in his support role without taking anything away from the main leads. Also, a major plus is the fact that his comedy comes through dialogue rather than slapstick and his involvement is kept in context with the main action.

Newcomer Priyanka Jawalkar plays the role of Anu, a taxi passenger who ends up in a relationship with Shiva after he behaves chivalrously when she is very drunk one night. After the initial meeting, Priyanka has very little to do here, the entire romance is pretty much all contained in one song, and she doesn’t have much chemistry with Vijay so it’s hard to say too much about her capabilities. However she’s fine with what she has to work with and it will be interesting to see her in a more central role. Malavika Nair has a little more to do as Sisira Bharadwaj and there is an extended flashback in the second half that explains her story. She still doesn’t have enough screen time to make much of an impact but her performance is competent even if I didn’t quite buy into the reasoning behind her choices. The flashback involves Yamuna as Sisira’s mother, Shijju as her stepfather and Ravi Varma as a paranormal professor who explains the concept of astral projection, all of which means that the flashback is rather too long. While the length means it detracts somewhat from the main story, it does provide a neat explanation for everything that has happened so far and sets up the finale reasonably well.

Overall the film looks good and the special effects are well done, especially those centered on the car. The jump scares are genuinely unexpected and mostly tied in with some comedy which works really well. Jakes Bejoy’s music also fits the mood, particularly the background score, and the songs themselves are reasonably catchy. Sujith Sarang provides excellent cinematography and the action is all well choreographed and suits the characterisation of Shiva. There are no big all out fight scenes, but instead plenty of small action scenes, the most impressive of which require Vijay to act against the car. It’s to his credit that he makes these believable with his reactions. Rekhs and her team (credited for a change!) do a magnificent job ensuring that the subtitles make sense in English, and they have also subtitled the written captions, which are so often forgotten in films. I love the yellow font too, which is so much more visible and easier to read than white.

The only real issues here are the long diversions in the second half to explain the supernatural element and a rather schmaltzy finale which all happens a little too easily for me. For the most part the story moves along well and although there are some obvious plot holes I think that is to be expected when talking about something so unrealistic. The best part of the film is undoubtedly the comedy but with great performances and a well written story, Taxiwaala is definitely another hit for Vijay Devarakonda. It’s clear he’s going places too – last night’s Melbourne show was the first Telugu film in a long time that played to a full cinema and the film had an appreciative reception. This is one definitely worth catching on the big screen to get the full impact of the special effects and really appreciate the comedy.

 

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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.

Geetha Govindam (2018)

Geetha Govindam

Parasuram’s Geetha Govindam takes a while to get going, but once it’s up and running, this romantic comedy is better than expected, mostly due to the excellent performances from Vijay Deverakonda and Rashmika Mandanna. It also helps that the heroine is a strong character who doesn’t get repeatedly shunted aside by the hero, and that the story takes an alternative approach to the usual stalker plot. Add in some catchy songs, another good performance from Rahul Ramakrishna, and Geetha Govindam is definitely well worth a watch.

The film starts with Vijay Govind (Vijay Deverakonda) relating the story of his romance to a passer-by (Nithya Menen) as she waits for her car to be repaired. This seem to be a rather outdated way to introduce the story, but there is a reason for Nithya’s character, although that isn’t clear until the very end of the film. However, instead of diving right into the story, there is a prolonged and rather slow introduction that sets up Vijay’s character. For the most part he’s a fairly typical young bloke who enjoys hanging out and drinking with his friends, but Vijay also has a rather idealised view of marriage that makes him appear naïve and innocent. That doesn’t stop him following a girl and staging a mock fight scene in an attempt to make her fall for him, but he’s also flustered by the amorous advances of one of his students at the local college where he teaches. Vijay also has a bad habit of listening to his friend Krishna (Rahul Ramakrishna) who has a rather more direct approach to women and acts as the devil on Vijay’s shoulder, enticing him into bad decisions. The angel on Vijay’s other shoulder is his father (Naga Babu) who has brought him up to respect women and act responsibly. The question here is which voice Vijay will follow when he sees Geetha (Rashmika Mandanna) in a temple and is instantly attracted.

After a less than auspicious start, Vijay’s luck turns when he’s travelling home for his sister’s engagement and Geetha ends up on the same bus. Unfortunately for Vijay, Geetha still isn’t in the slightest bit interested and when he starts to talk to her on the bus she shuts him down immediately, calling him out for asking stupid questions. I love this interaction as Geetha demonstrates she won’t take any nonsense from Vijay and that she is quite able to stand up for herself.  A partial softening on her stance as the journey goes on, is abruptly banished when Vijay does something stupid, egged on by the drunken ramblings of his friend Krishna. From here, things go seriously downhill, made even worse when it turns out that Geetha’s brother Phaneendra (Subbaraju) is engaged to be married to Govind’s sister (Mouryani). Geetha wants her brother to avenge her honour and Phaneendra is out for blood while Vijay’s father asserts that he would literally die if Vijay ever did anything to smirch his reputation. Vijay now has a serious problem on his hands. Worse still, he has to rely on Geetha not revealing the true story, when she has every reason to shame Vijay in front of his family.  To add to his woes, Vijay and Geetha are tasked with delivering the invitations and doing all the shopping for the wedding, which throws them together repeatedly back in Hyderabad.

Geetha thinks that Vijay is an irresponsible womaniser and sees evidence of his debauchery everywhere. Vijay on the other hand is desperate to prove that he’s actually a nice guy and that everything that happened was an accident. This gives plenty of opportunity for some excellent comedy but still allows the point to be made that Geetha has every right to be angry and upset – a point which Vijay also acknowledges. His continual ‘Madam’ and ‘sorry’ are used to good effect as is his claim that he did not mean it wantedly (I think the subtitles meant wantonly which would make more sense!).

The friction between Vijay and Geetha works well due to excellent chemistry between the two actors. Rashmika is perfect as an angry young woman who sees no reason to believe anything her brother-in-law-to-be says and her responses to his protestations of innocence are delivered with just the right amount of distain. Rashmika is just as good here as she was in Kirik Party with the added bonus that she is onscreen for the entire film here. Naturally she does start to fall for Vijay – with all that charm and a very cute smile, it would be hard to resist, but Rashmika ensures her characters change of heart is kept convincing and reasonably plausible. Even if all it takes is 1 explanation and a song.

Vijay Deverakonda completely sheds his Arjun Reddy persona and totally owns the film as a man desperate to redeem himself in the eyes of the girl he really likes while making sure he doesn’t incur the wrath of her brother or jeopardise his sister’s wedding. There is some excellent comedy here as Vijay wriggles and grovels, willing to try almost anything to prove to Geetha that he’s not the man she thinks he is. While it’s impressive that Parasuram manages to take a fairly standard character and bring something new to the story, Vijay really takes on all of his characters failings and makes them believable. There is really no rational explanation why the nice and well brought up Vijay would do some of the things suggested by Krishna, but Vijay Deverakonda makes it seem not only plausible but perfectly logical nonetheless.

While the relationship between Geetha and Vijay is well done, there are a few misses in the film too. Vennela Kishore pops up as a potential bridegroom for Geetha, but his character is oddly written and doesn’t fit well into the rest of the story. The slow introduction is also an issue and there are a few scenes that are just too unlikely to work. These end up as distractions rather than adding to the story, and as a result some of the second half feels overly long and drawn out. Adding Nithya Menon’s character to a frame narrative is also an odd choice and really not necessary while a few of the other characters, Ravi Prakash’s police officer for example, don’t add anything to the plot either.

Overall Geetha Govindam is funny and entertaining, while the romance is just different enough to keep the story interesting Gopi Sundar’s music is well incorporated into the film and the songs are catchy and well choreographed to show the two leads to advantage. Worth watching for Vijay’s charm and Rashmika’s confidence which make this one of the better Telugu romantic films of the year so far.