Dear Comrade

The opening scenes of Dear Comrade hark back to Vijay Deverakonda’s previous film, Arjun Reddy, but as events unfold it turns out that this is a completely different kind of film. Dear Comrade is a romantic drama that starts off with a love story, but ends up tackling sexual harassment, aiming to shed some light on why women may decide against reporting the crime. While this may make the film sound like heavy going, it’s actually quite the opposite as writer/director Bharath Kamma adds plenty of light-hearted moments along with the sad, while Justin Prabhakaran provides an excellent soundtrack that even means we get to see Vijay Deverakonda dance. There is a lot going on in this film and it’s inevitable that it doesn’t all work, but there is still plenty here to both entertain and hopefully to spark some discussion, even if the message is sometimes obscured behind rather more standard Telugu action fare.

The film starts with a drunk and seemingly demented Bobby (Vijay Deverakonda) desperately trying to get in touch with his ex, Lilly (Rashmika Mandanna). It’s a role Vijay has played many times in the past, but before he becomes too much of a caricature, the film moves into flashback to explain Bobby’s history. Moving back to his student days, Bobby is seen as an impulsive and reactive student union leader who firmly believes that you have to fight to get what you want in life. He’s impetuous and hot-headed with a tendency to argue with his fists just as much as with rhetoric, a stance that makes him unpopular with his college principal and the police but a good friend to have on your side. These revolutionary tendencies are apparently due to his grandfather (Charuhasan) who teaches Bobby what it means to be a comrade. Sure, Bobby fights for what he believes is right, but also mainly because it seems to be something he enjoys doing.

Bobby meets Lilly when her family visit the house next door for her cousin Jaya’s (Shruti Ramachandran) wedding. A nice touch comes from Bobby previously having a crush on Jaya when the two were children, which gives a camaraderie between the two that continues through and has an impact in the second half. This time though it’s Lilly that Bobby starts to develop feelings for, and I love how the tables are turned and it’s Bobby who stares wistfully out of a window while Lilly is (almost) completely oblivious to his presence. The romance is slow to develop, but once it does, there is magic in every moment the two spend together, helped by Justin Prabhakaran’s evocative music. It’s not all smooth sailing though as Lilly has reasons for being wary of someone who gets into as many fights as Bobby, while Bobby can’t figure out if Lilly really likes him or just has her own agenda.

There are some very satisfying moments in this first half, such as the way Bobby finds out that Lilly is a State level cricket player and how his group of friends change their attitude from patronising to respectful once they discover she really can play. It’s nicely done to point out the prejudice without ever feeling spiteful or overly feminist. Lilly’s attitude to Bobby is refreshingly honest and the two have wonderful chemistry together that ensures their romance feels plausibly real. When the breakdown occurs between the two characters it develops organically as Lilly finds she cannot cope with someone so angry and violent, while Bobby can’t understand why she won’t stand up and believe in him as much as he believes in her. Vijay Deverakonda and Rashmika Mandanna were excellent in Geetha Govindam, and they work just as well together here, although in the second half the attention moves more to Rashmika as her character has to face some major challenges in her career.

Everything changes after the interval when Bobby heads off to find himself and hopefully lose his memories of Lilly while doing so. As in all Indian films, a journey of discovery means a motorbike and a trip to Ladakh, but that does mean awesome scenery so I’m not going to complain. But while Bobby has been off recording nature and trying to control his impulsive side, Lilly has had major problems in her life. Unfortunately, the film only shows these briefly once Bobby comes back into her life and Bobby’s actions as he literally kidnaps Lilly from the hospital where she has been recovering don’t seem plausible at all. But just when it seems that Bobby may be the cure Lilly needed to recover, the film takes another turn and we learn the reason behind Lilly’s departure from her promising cricket career.

What does work well here is the portrayal of Lilly’s reluctance to pursue any action against the cricket selector Ramesh Rao (Raj Arjun) who sexually, physically and mentally harassed her. The pressures of family, embarrassment and shame are all clearly portrayed as is the inevitable media reaction and appalling treatment received by Lilly and her family as they try to avoid the storm Bobby creates when he learns the truth. Bharath Kamma completely changes the direction of the film and suddenly the focus is on Lilly and her reluctance to bring any of the harassment out into the open. Bobby’s lack of understanding about why Lilly won’t fight and his frustration and anger is perfectly shown here and this is what makes Dear Comrade such an interesting film. There are few Telugu films that show the consequences of reporting harassment so clearly, and even if Lilly’s experience isn’t quite as bad as what can actually happen in real life, it does at least give some idea of the sort of courage that is needed to go ahead with any accusation of this nature.

For me this is Rashmika Mandanna’s film through and through and she is excellent in a role that requires her to be non-confrontational and frightened. Her reactions are mostly what would be expected of anyone from a similar background put into the same situation, and although I really wanted her to fight back, I could totally understand why she wouldn’t even try. She really gets into the heart and soul of the character and I love how she doesn’t see bobby as her salvation, but instead as the person who just makes her miserable with his demands. In a film industry where the hero isn’t allowed to ever be anything other than the perfect partner, it’s so refreshing to see Vijay Deverakonda take backstage and be exactly what Lilly doesn’t need instead.

On one hand this is a film that deals with relationships and the consequences when one partner thrives on violent confrontations while the other tries as hard as possible to avoid conflicts of any kind. On the other hand, Dear Comrade deals with sexual harassment and the routine abuse that women have to deal with day in and day out. It is a rather male slanted view, but perhaps that’s what is needed to reach the people who need to understand the fear and powerlessness that comes with this type of abuse. At least with the presence of Vijay Deverakonda, well-staged fight scenes and a sizzling romance, there is a good chance that more people will be watching. This was so much better than I expected and despite a few mis-steps and missed opportunities, this is one of my favourite Telugu films this year. Highly recommended.

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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.

 

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.