Grand old Banyans of Chevella and the bid to save them.

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On the Hyderabad-Bengaluru route, off Chevella district, are thousands of trees awaiting translocation in order to make space for a new highway. About a thousand of them are banyan trees older than our grandparents. A group of nature lovers is fighting this and has an alternate solution. Let’s hear them out.
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Twitter : @chevellabanyans
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Chitralahari – A lesson in patience and perseverance.

Chitralahari – A lesson in patience and perseverance.

Trust me the review is far more interesting than this tool tip.

confusion, determination and simmering rage All in one frame.

All good things come to those who wait but honestly that’s not why we delayed the review of this film. I guess it took us some time to wrap our heads around the fact that a hero (not an actor/protagonist) from one of the blue bloods of TFI actually pulled off the role of a regular guy with regular problems. 

Sai Dharam Tej is Vijay. A down-on-his-luck engineer with an idea he believes will change the world. He has no qualms moonlighting at a TV repair store while he works on his idea and waits for its inevitable success. Michael (Sunil) is a TV evangelist and is meandering through life since his singing/music career is pretty much bust. The two meet at a shady watering hole and strike up a weird friendship that barely works.

Vijay is in a breezy relationship with Lahari (Kalyani Priyadarshan), and how they meet is pretty much a minor plot point. I am however impressed by the non-problematic nature (by TFI standards) of the relationship and how it starts. Good job, writers! 

Vijay sits plum in the midst of all these relationships that seem to feed him positivity and keep him going despite him facing multiple rejections in the pursuit of his pet project. However, things don’t stay comfortable for too long.

Enter Swetcha (Nivetha Pethuraj), a hard-nosed executive who takes a personal interest in his project. You can see a distinct change in the energy of the film at this point. Swetcha is a cynic and has zero patience for Vijay. She does not hesitate for a second to drop the project when she sees Vijay’s attitude. At the same time, she is friends with Lahari, raising uncomfortable questions about her relationship with Vijay. Her presence shows us how lax Vijay has become, and she succeeds in pulling him out of his comfort zone.

In all these ups and downs with Lahari and his career, the one thing that keeps Vijay grounded is his father Narayana (Posani). Narayana is a supportive figure who does not succumb to the usual tropes we are subject to in most films. There is the heightened sensitivity and quiet pride in the child, that is rather typical of a single parent. He realises that Vijay is an independent adult who needs a friend rather than an authority figure in his life. I’d rate this father son portrayal up there with ‘Aduvari Maatalaku ..’. Every scene between them holds your attention. Posani delivers an excellent performance that is thankfully devoid of his signature “Rajaa!”.

Lahari is depicted as an impressionable airhead, and her self-awareness of this is amusing. This is not a bad thing. We see such people around us devoid of independent thought that go with whatever is on top of their minds. Lahari flip-flops constantly based on who she is talking to, and is effective in keeping Vijay on edge. I am glad to see that the love interest has been developed as a genuine individual who isn’t just there to brighten up the screen. Kalyani is unfortunately not a very talented actress, and we are lucky the script keeps our expectations of her low. I was personally rather disappointed when they got back together at the end of the film.

It is poignant then that Swetcha, as revealed by Vijay, is the inspiration for his project. She inspired him to start it, and in her own way motivated him to complete it. A major cliche TFI favours at this point is building a romantic angle where unnecessary. The writers, however, score, and we are spared this! In Swetcha’s own words, “Vaadiki antha scene ledhu…kaani manchodu”. Over time, Vijay, as he spends more time with Swetcha and begins to understand her motivations, cracks her shell and we get a glimpse of the person under the cynic. He is able to soften her stance and temper her views on life experiences.

Vijay gets completely broken down before our eyes, and we see him rebuilt. It is a process he must go through to be in a state where he can achieve his dream.

The movie is not without its share of problems though. The storyline begins to falter in the second half, and culminates in a thoroughly unnecessary courtroom scene. The project Vijay creates (emergency alert system in case of an accident) need not have hit human trials at all, and could’ve been tested with a rolled-up mattress in the driver’s seat. I’d personally test it on Lahari, but that is just the romantic in me.

Sunil and Vennela Kishore put in good performances but are largely forgettable. And that is absolutely ok because Sai Dharam Tej carries the movie so well! He has hit just the right notes and holds himself with a certain dignity despite all that he is going through. I am so glad he decided to sign this film and at the same time hope he does not get into a vortex of the same roles.

The ‘tech’ part of the film is non cringey and it is obvious there has been some genuine research put into the jargon being used.

Our writers are on a steady path to maturity and I am willing to wait for them to deliver more and better while I settle with a glass of aged perfection. See what I did there?

Majili and the ‘watching movies on streaming phase’

Thanks to Amazon Prime and other streaming services, movies can now be divided into ‘must watch in a theatre’ versus ‘wait for it to stream’ versus ‘don’t even bother when it streams’. This, I believe is a whole new phase and one that is very useful for some of us who cannot make regular visits to the theatres. So we read the reviews, hear people talk about certain films, get asked the ‘you haven’t seen it yet?’ question, all the while patiently waiting for the movie to stream. And when it does, the kids go to bed early, dinners are carried to the hall and we watch the movie – first day, second show, albeit in the comfort of our homes. And that is exactly how, I ended up watching Majili in the previous week.

‘Panikimaalina vedhavalandariki lakshanamaina pellaalu vastaaru’ – this was the dialog from the movie that stuck in my head at the end. This dialog and how this trope is popularised by Telugu Cinema for ever. I remember watching Cinema Soopista Maava and coming out of the theatre wondering what the director wanted to convey. That a girl who’s the topper of the state will only fall in love with someone who has never passed his boards? That a guy who works hard to build a good life for himself is worthless? That to be able to ‘pataofy’ a girl, you need to be a vagabond who roams around the city with a bunch of completely useless friends. And fathers, who raise their daughters up with love, affection and care, become bumbling idiots and hand over their daughters to these good-for-nothings at the end of a stupid challenge.

Majili takes this trope further. Naga Chaitanya, in the movie, is like Arjun Reddy. He had a first love that he lost, so he gives up on his aim of becoming a cricketer, becomes an alcoholic instead and walks around town picking up fights and drinking himself to glory. He hates himself and everyone around. Samantha is the girl who loves him unconditionally since her teens and when she sees him in self-destruct mode, walks up to her father and tells him that she will either marry him or stay single.

Now, imagine you were her father. Here is your girl, the one who you brought up with all your attention, telling you that she will either marry the drunk, good-for-nothing guy who lives in the house opposite yours or she will stay with you. What would you do? I, for one, would very happily thank her for giving me the choice and keep her at home. She can work, study, go out with her friends and party the hell out of life and I would take care of her. In my head, I would also secretly hope that she will, in due course of time, see the truth of the matter, and fall in love with a nice sensible guy and settle down (because, like a friend’s father said, ‘Paddenimidi yella vayasulo pandi ki ponds powder vesinaa andangaaane kanipistundi’). But in the movie, Posani walks up to the boy’s Dad and tells him that he has no choice but to get his daughter married off to the drunk.

Now if you were the father of the drunk – what would you do? If I were there, I would talk some sense to my boy (or slap the shit out of him) for brooding about first love and destroying a promising career. Next, I would tell the girl’s dad that I have no intention of destroying a girl’s life and advise him not to do it too.

Now if I were the drunk, what would I do? I would keep on drinking and destroy my liver and meet with the Devdas ending – at least that would be the honorable thing to do (and the more pleasurable one too, think of all you could drink!). But here the drunk chooses to marry the girl (parental pressure y’all), then keeps her in a separate room and lives and drinks on her earnings. Can we have some applause all around please – thank you, thank you!

The other problem with Majili was that it could not decide what tone it wanted to take. The entire second half, where you are dealing with issues like an unconsummated, unhappy marriage, aging father seeing his son go to pieces, a teenage child suddenly being sent off with a stranger and discovering things about her mother, and adoption even, is dealt in a tragi-comic manner. Are we supposed to be smiling at how awkward the wife feels when her husband of a few years comes close to her. Are we supposed to be laughing when she admonishes her father-in-law for not taking his drunk son’s side? Are we supposed to be enjoying the false proximity that this couple displays for the sake of a teenage child who insists that they act as husband and wife if they want to adopt her? I was lost and in the finale, when Samantha decides to forgive Naga Chaitanya – I wanted to tell her not to – he ain’t worth a piece of your attention.

Overall, the movie was quite underwhelming and far removed from the blockbuster status it seems to have achieved. When I go back and read reviews that called it a sensitive portrayal of love or a sensible love story, I feel confused – either I don’t understand love or they don’t. Either which ways, my wait for a blockbuster/ sensible love story continues!

Madras to Chennai: The wave that got us here..

Chennai always had this strange appeal to me. Not just because it hosts my grandparents’ place or it was my summer vacation city, but also because it brought my textbooks to life. For instance, if we read about the oldest banyan tree in our school books, we got to see that in Adyar on our next visit for holidays. Or if you read about Mr. Cuddapah Rangaiah in history class, on your way to the railway station you casually see a Cuddapah Rangaiah Street to your left. The more you explore the city, the more it surprises you.

Chennai, as a city, started at the foundation stone laid by the British, near Parry’s corner, and rose to prominence engulfing the surrounding land. From being a colonial city to holding an important place in the Indian Independence movement, Chennai is a historical treasure trove. The Red & White buildings that we frequently see around have such important stories to tell. And it gives you a high in every instance you are around them.photo6188077739664320494

The pre city area of Chennai, broadly speaking, the land between Nellore & Cuddalore, was ruled as one kingdom with Kanchipuram as its capital. The temples standing tall even today, last as a testament to the culture and heritage of those times. The uncovering of the spice route, in the age of discovery, changed the face of this land.

The Portuguese, who first landed in Calicut in the 15th Century, eventually found their way to Mylapore in the Coromandel coast by the next Century. They built a port here, marking it for all the future explorers. The SanThome Church & the Luz Church built in this age were one of the first colonial structures in the city, but not necessarily in the same form that we see them today.

With the SanThome as the guiding center, towards the 17th century, almost all the major European powers established their presence in the Tamil Land. The Dutch East India Company that followed the Portuguese built forts to the north of Mylapore near Pulicat, and later to the south near Sadras. Further south of Cuddalore, near Tharagambadi (Tranquebar), the Danish Company built a fort Dansborg. And the French chose a place between these two near Pondicherry to build their fort, but all of them eventually lost their colonies to the British.

In the intervening period, the English East India Company, in the 17th century, after careful exploration, chose a sandy strip at Madraspattinam, the land between Pulicat and Portuguese settlements as the most favorable place to build a fort for trade; thus laying the stone for the City of Chennai & giving us our very first White building St. George Fort of the British Chennai. All these forts put on the map form the borders to the land between Nellore and Cuddalore neatly encompassing the city.

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With St. George Fort as the nucleus, the city rebuilt itself many times, each time expanding the city limits. The red hues from the Central Station or the High court and the white light from the Rippon building or the Higginbothams touch us from time to time when we are up and around the city. The colonial influences don’t just end here. It can be a street name or a school you see in the passing, that triggers something or makes you curious to know the stories behind it. The Lady Andal VenkataSubba Rao Matriculation School & the Ellen Sharma Memorial School are two names that get to me every time.

Towards the 18th century, British India formed the Madras Presidency which changed the lives of many people including my grandfather’s. In the early 20th century, as a young man when he needed to migrate from his birthplace Cocanada lands, in search of his livelihood, he chose the capital (Madras) and shifted to the city. For years, he worked at the Parry Company and made a home at the Luz Church Road-Mylapore. So I guess, it’s only natural for me to trace back the lines.

Anushka’s adda – through and through!

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The biggest measure of how scared an audience – at least for me – is how much people in the theatre titter and giggle even at the minutest of jokes. And if that yardstick is true, Bhaagmathie (I hope I got that numerological spelling right) was truly scary. People around me in Prasads were laughing out loud for the smallest of jokes or even things that were perceived as slightly funny. They kept screaming at Anushka to not go that way. And clapped their mouths in horror whenever she did something inexplicable. For the crowds that haven’t seen the ITs and the Conjurings of the world, Bhaagmathie provides decent enough scares.

Bhaagmathie is about Chanchala, I.A.S (Anushka), a sincere official who serves as a Personal Secretary to an equally sincere minister Eashwar Prasad (Jayaram). The government is out to trap him in some scam or the other and to this end, they target Chanchala, who is awaiting trial on a murder case. They shift her from jail to a remote bungalow in the middle of a forest so they can investigate her without a third person knowing about it. Chanchala proves a tough nut to crack and keeps the investigating officers frustrated. As the evenings approach though, she gets possessed by the spirit of Bhagamati, a queen who used to rule her kingdom from that very bungalow. Who is Bhagamati? Why does she choose to possess Chanchala? Did Chanchala really commit the murder she is accused of? Does the government manage to blot Eashwar Prasad’s spotless career? Bhaagmathie answers these questions in a barely there first half and an engrossing second half.

First things first, Bhaagmathie is Anushka all the way. She is absolutely spot on as the IAS officer who finds herself in a different situation. As Chanchala and as Bhagamati, she is absolutely terrific. She’s been there done that, but you will still come out awed about her every single time and that is her strength. Jayaram as the sincere minister, Unni Mukundan as the activist and lover boy, Mural Sharma as an ACP, Asha Sharath as a CBI officer and Dhanraj and Prabhas Sreenu as constables do justice to their roles.

The film’s strength is its technical department. The set laid out for the Bhagamati bungalow is brilliantly done, the background music is absolutely spot on and the photography is suitably claustrophobic and scare inducing. The film begins well, falls into the repetitive scare trap and has a bang on interval that will leave you spellbound. The second half has an interesting tempo for the most part, but once the story is revealed, you might feel slightly underwhelmed with the denoument. One dialogue from Anushka towards the end made it all worthwhile for me though – when someone asks her why she didn’t trust anyone, she says ‘Ee rojullo manushulani evaru nammutaaru… devullani, deyyaalani nammutaaru gaani’. How true and how sad a reflection on our times!