Nagara Haavu (1972)

Nagarahaavu

Nagara Haavu is a classic film from Kannada cinema featuring Vishnuvardhan in his first lead role. Director Puttanna Kanagal based his 1972 screenplay on three novels by T.R. Subba Rao, telling the story of an angry young man, his love affairs and his relationship with his old primary school teacher, who seems to be the only one who has any patience with his outbursts. The film is set in the 1950’s and although many of the social conventions are now outdated, there are some that still apply to-day; while Ramachari’s struggle against conformity continues to be a popular theme in modern cinema. At almost 3 hours Nagara Haavu is a bit of an epic, but it’s an interesting film to watch and essential viewing to anyone interested in the evolution of cinema in Bangalore.

The film begins and ends with the same images of rocks and the sun viewed through a red filter, presumably an indication that despite the tumultuous events portrayed, by the end nothing has actually changed. The young Ramachari of the opening scene is a rude and angry child with terrible hair, who grows into a rude and angry young man, still with a terrible haircut. This time perhaps he has reason for his anger since his teacher instructs him to remove his trousers when he is caught cheating at college. It seems rather extreme, but Ramachari (Vishnuvardhan) has a reputation as being a bad student and his reaction is even more over the top. He decides that if he is considered to be villainous, then he will become villainous, going to his professor’s house and smashing the windows. Not content with this wilful destruction of property, Ramachari then ties Shyamrao (Lokanath) to a lamppost and leaves him there overnight to the horror of Tungamma (Leelavathi), Ramachari’s old schoolteacher’s wife. And me! How he avoids being arrested is baffling!

Ramachari seems to be angry with everyone and everything, but the reason for his apparently all-consuming rage is never fully explained. It may be partly due to frustration with his religious parents who revere God above all else, and seem to have little time for their son. Possibly his anger is a reaction to being forced to study when he clearly has no interest or aptitude, but whatever the reason, Ramachari has a well-deserved reputation for belligerence in his home town.

The only person who seems to have any time for Ramachari is his old schoolteacher Chamiah (K.S. Ashwath) who has practically adopted Ramachari and considers him to be his son. His wife Tungamma also has a soft spot for the troubled youth and between them they act as mentors and advisors whenever Ramachari finds himself (yet again) in trouble. The relationship between Ramachari and Chamiah is well written and excellently portrayed by Vishnuvardhan and K.S. Ashwath through both the good and the bad times. There is real warmth between them, and Vishnuvardhan does an excellent job of capturing the respect and love that Ramachari feels for his mentor. For his part, K.S. Ashwath is compassionate and stern as required while making it clear that he can see beneath the surface anger to the possibility that Ramachari represents. The dialogues between the two are the best parts of the film, as Chamiah tries to instruct Ramachari how he should behave in society, while Ramachari does his best to point out the double standards and hypocrisy that make him rebel against convention.

Ramachari’s best mate is Varadha (Shivaram), a man who knows the value of product, and who happens to have a beautiful sister Alamelu (Aarathi). When Alamelu is harassed by local sleaze Jaleel (Ambareesh) her brother is too much of a wimp to do anything, so he recruits Ramachari to deal with the problem. Ramachari has seen Alamelu, so his price for helping her dissuade her unwelcome suitor is to marry her himself. Neither Varadha nor Alamelu have any problem with this plan but it’s a different story for Alamelu’s parents who have no desire to marry their daughter to the local rowdy.

There is much drama when Alamelu steals away to tell Ramachari of her impending marriage to someone else and it’s up to Chamaiah to persuade Ramachari that Alamelu’s parents should decide her fate. After much emoting, Ramachari is eventually persuaded that sacrificing his love is the noble thing to do although it’s clear that Chamaiah doesn’t believe this at all and is simply bowing to conventional wisdom and the presumed dictates of society.

This has serious consequences for Ramachari’s relationship with Chamaiah when he later discovers that instead of living in luxury, Alamelu has been forced into a life of prostitution. This could have been one of those terribly over-dramatic scenes so common in seventies Bollywood, with Alamelu dying rather than continue to live in shame, but instead Puttanna Kanagal gives her a beautiful song and impassioned speech where she says that she wants to live! OK, she’s not happy, but it’s better than the usual attempt at suicide at least. There is also a lovely moment of symmetry too when this time it’s Alamelu who walks away from Ramachari and sacrifices her love for his sake. It’s all wonderfully melodramatic as Alamelu recites her story to Ramachari beside a red-lit fountain.

After Alamelu is married, Ramachari is pursued by Margaret (Shubha), a girl from his class in college who is determined that he should fall in love with her. She is portrayed as being more modern, chasing after Ramachari shamelessly, wearing Western clothes and declaring her love quite openly. Margaret seems to get away with all this because she is Christian and the daughter of a single mother – which is apparently all we need to know to realise that she is no better than she should be. Once again Chamaiah is recruited to break up the relationship as Margaret’s mother Mary (M.N. Lakshmi Devi) has much bigger plans for her daughter while Ramachari’s parents are mortally offended at the idea that their son would marry a Christian. The question is, will Ramachari listen to his long-time mentor or has he lost faith after what happened to Alamelu?

There is plenty of over-the-top drama in Nagara Haavu and some of the best ‘death stares’ I’ve seen for a long time. Everyone overacts like crazy, Ramachari throws chickens at Margaret after she teases him in class, her mother accuses him of rape, while Chamaiah clambers over rocks trying to find Ramachari to drag him off to apologise to the latest person he has offended. All apparently part of a normal day in downtown Chitradurga!

As well as showing the relationship between a troubled youth and his kindly teacher, the film paints a picture of a dysfunctional society where appearances and prestige matter more than love and happiness. Chamaiah believes that Ramachari just needs time to mature and indeed he becomes a more responsible person when he is allowed to leave college and work for a wage. The rest of the town however brand him a troublemaker and don’t allow him the opportunity to ever become anything else. No matter how much Chamaiah tries to fit Ramachari into the role that society demands, he is never going to conform, particularly when Chamaiah realises just how shallow and self-centred society has become.

Nagara Haavu is deservedly classed as a classic film with good performances, a well-written story and engaging music from Vijaya Bhaskar. Despite the length, the film doesn’t drag and is a fascinating look at times past, society attitudes (and fashions!) and family dynamics of the time. Some thing have changed, but many of these issues are still a concern even now, making the film relevant and not as outdated as it first appears. The dialogues might seem stilted, but the ideas behind them are valid and used to good effect. I enjoyed Nagara Haavu and recommended watching it for Visnuvardhan, Aarathi and K.S. Ashwath, the excellent screenplay plus beautiful shots of Chitradurga and countryside. 4 stars.

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Arrambam (2013)

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Arrambam is yet another Southern Indian film to use Mumbai as its backdrop, but really this action thriller could be set anywhere and still have the same impact.  Although there are a few Mumbai landmarks seen, the story is less about the location and more about the motivations behind the lead character’s quest for revenge, so despite Om Prakash’s excellent cinematography the background just isn’t important.  The action takes off immediately from the opening frames and there’s no time to take a breather until well into the second half. It’s fast, furious and best of all lots of fun as Ajith and Arya take on corruption in politics, the police force and basically just about everywhere!  There’s an excellent extended guest appearance from Rana Daggubati and even Nayanthara gets a chance to get in on the action and show off her ruthless side.  On the minus side, the songs aren’t too inspiring and there are a few gaping plot holes, but there is enough going on to make Arrambam an entertaining mass masala flick despite the lack of logic.

ArrambamArrambamArrambamArrambamThe film opens with a series of bomb blasts in Mumbai, and Police Inspector Prakash (Kishore) is charged with tracking down this latest terrorist.  The man they are looking for is Ashok Kumar (Ajith), who has an unusual recruitment scheme to enlist the help of computer expert Arjun (Arya).  Also involved in Ashok’s master plan are his sidekicks Maya (Nayanthara) and Mango (Krishna) who assist Ashok with kidnapping Arjun and forcing him to hack into a number of computer networks.

Arrambam

Despite this rather inauspicious beginning, Arya’s character actually adds some light relief to the film, starting with a flashback sequence to explain why Ashok targeted him in the first place.  This features Arya heavily made up and wearing a fat suit as a stereotypical computer nerd at college.  Even with his daunting appearance and apparent flatulence, Arjun is still pretty popular due to his ability to hack into the college computer system and change grades as required for the other students. However when he encounters Anita (Taapsee Pannu) and decides that she is his soul mate, he’s inspired to exercise and loose the flab. 

During a rather disconcerting song where a now trim and fit Arjun sprouts blue wings for no apparent reason, he manages to woo the girl and ends up heading to Mumbai for a job interview.  One which doesn’t turn out anything like the way he expected.  Arya still keeps the nerd mentality even though he’s updated his fitness levels and appears suitably geeky throughout while also managing to keep up with the action.  It’s helped by his choice of T-shirts, but he gets the attitude right and his lack of awareness of the world around him is absolutely classic. Taapsee is ditzy and rather shrill as his reporter girlfriend but thankfully she’s not on screen often enough to be too annoying. 

ArrambamArrambam

While Ashok keeps telling his various victims to ‘keep it simple’, he himself makes things incredibly complicated by kidnapping Arjun and using threats against Anita to force Arjun’s compliance.  The first half keeps the thrills coming as Arjun attempts to escape and inform Inspector Prakash about Ashok and his criminal activities while trying not to endanger his girlfriend.

But of course that’s only part of the story and the second half involves a long flashback where Ashok’s motives are explained and suddenly the tables are turned.  The fast pace of the first half isn’t maintained and the film slows down considerably in the second, but there are still some good action sequences including a shoot-out sequence with Ashok’s old partner Sanjay (Rana Daggubati) and a high speed boat chase in Dubai.

Arrambam

Ajith is in his element here and writer/director Vishnu Vardhan has kept Ashok’s character deliberately ambivalent while making sure he has plenty of charisma and charm.  Ashok punctuates the end of his sentences by putting on his sunnies (which at least lets you know the conversation is over), and he is always über cool and classy despite his terrorist activities.  The relationship between Ajith and Arya also works well although the sequences with Rana and Ajith stand out as some of the best in the film.  The camaraderie between the two actors feels very genuine and it’s easy to believe that they are long term friends and partners with their teasing banter and rapport during police operations. 

ArrambamArrambamWhile Taapsee really is the drama queen the corrupt Home Minister Rane (Mahesh Manjrekar) describes, many of the other female roles have a strong presence.  Nayanthara gets to threaten, bluster and fight in many of her scenes and does an excellent job, keeping her fight sequences realistic and looking suitably athletic to carry it all off, while Suman Ranganathan is also very good in her small role.  I’m always happy to see Atul Kulkarni pop up although his role as the chief of police doesn’t really give him much scope here, and the rest of the supporting cast are equally kept mainly in the background.  Although I like Yuvan Shankar Raja’s soundtrack, the songs don’t work well in the film mainly because they disrupt the flow of the story. The item song featuring Akshara Gowda is particularly painful and seems completely pointless since it really doesn’t suit her character of the home minister’s daughter at all.  I don’t think that such a fast paced action thriller needs any songs other than the background score but at least the Holi song had more energy and made a little more sense in the context of the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Arrambam.  It’s fast paced, slick and stylish with plenty of action and I loved that one of the female characters was involved in the mayhem too. You go girl! The excitement and tension of the first half isn’t sustained through the second, but with Rana added in to the mix the action is still full on. Worth watching for Ajith and Arya as long as you can ignore the lack of logic and just sit back and enjoy the ride!

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Theeviravaathi: The Terrorist

Theeviravaathi The Terrorist DVD cover image

Santosh Sivan’s 1998 film is a lyrical study of one person’s journey towards being a suicide bomber. It’s a surprisingly moving film as it takes a very personal and internalised view of ‘the terrorist’.

Malli (Ayesha Dharker) is a member of an unnamed rebel army. She has a reputation for being focussed and ruthless, and is the sister of a famous martyr to the cause. Chosen from a number of young female volunteers, Malli sets off on a journey to infiltrate an event in order to kill the VIP guest of honour.

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