Saturday, August 31, 2019


Release date:
August 30, 2019

Prabhas, Shraddha Kapoor, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Mandira Bedi, Prakash Belawadi, Arun Vijay, Chunky Panday, Mahesh Manjrekar, Lal, Tinnu Anand, Jackie Shroff, Vennela Kishore, Murali Sharma
Saaho was simultaneously shot in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. This is a review of the Hindi version.

Prabhas is a pretty boy and a giant of a man, the sort of hunk with a face so innocent that he looks like he does not realise quite how hot he is or the effect he has on our hormones as we watch him, a face also pleading not guilty to violence committed by his body against bad guys in films.

There are few things more attractive in this world than a person who is not overly aware of their beauty. This charming aspect of Prabhas’ personality is diluted though in a film obsessed with its leading man’s many positive physical attributes. And so we get Prabhas captured in a long shot as an imposing solitary figure leaning languidly against a car, Prabhas standing Batman-like atop a skyscraper looking out on the world, Prabhas shot from a low angle stretching his arms out as he is framed against snow-covered mountains, Prabhas’ monumental muscles on display as he bathes, Prabhas’ face in close up, Prabhas’ face in extreme close-up – any closer and the camera would have pierced him.

To be fair to cinematographer Madhie, this would have been the brief. Saaho is, after all, a film defined by visual over-statement. In leading lady Shraddha Kapoor’s introductory scene, we get an extreme extreme close-up of one of her eyes. And she too is treated more like a mannequin than a human being by the camera throughout.

This, in totality, is what writer-director Sujeeth’s Saaho is: an over-indulgent, over-stylised film in which looks have been prioritised over substance, swagger over script.

The plot, for what it is worth, is about internecine rivalry in a business empire that one man describes as the “world’s most powerful crime syndicate”. When the chief of the Roy Group (Jackie Shroff) is killed, the battle for his position is fought between a whole troop of characters played by Mandira Bedi, Arun Vijay, Chunky Panday, Mahesh Manjrekar, Lal and Tinnu Anand. As they scramble across the world in search of a black box that is the key to godknowswhat, a troop of others including the police are hot on their heels. Among those in pursuit are characters played by Prabhas, Shraddha Kapoor, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Vennela Kishore, Murali Sharma and Prakash Belawadi.

Please don’t ask me who is who, who is aligned with who, or what specific purpose that black box was meant to serve. I lost interest somewhere in the first half when it became clear that this uninspired script packed with a multitude of uninteresting twists was just an excuse to flash highfalutin gadgets, SFX, stunts and Prabhas at us.

The writing recycles a zillion tropes from a zillion ‘mass entertainers’ of the sort that continue to find favour with male megastars across Indian film industries from Prabhas to Rajinikanth, Salman Khan to Mammootty and Vijay.

Among Saaho’s library of clichés is the heroine who is given a serious job and then trivialised by the hero, her real purpose in the project being to fall in love with him, be loved by him, look glamorous and feature in a couple of song ‘n’ dance routines. Shraddha Kapoor’s cop Amritha Nair even gets to fall on the floor on her back in a shootout while Prabhas’ Ashok falls on top of her, they gaze at each other, breathe heavily and simultaneously deal with the life-and-death situation around them. Gawd! Done to death in commercial cinema across the world! Can we retire it forever? Puhleeease?

More clichés, these ones peculiar to the Indian cinemascape. Amritha sheds her smart work attire to slip into a teeny weeny shimmery outfit for a nightclub song – she is undercover, of course. And then there is that long romantic number for which she wears flowy dresses and poses around in grand natural locations while he poses around with her. The only such number I remember liking in recent years is Gerua from the Hindi film Dilwale (2015) because, the formula notwithstanding, that song was to die for and the SRK-Kajol chemistry is worth dying and being resurrected for. The music of Saaho, on the other hand, is insipid. And Prabhas and Kapoor have zero sparks between them. They are, in fact, so cold together, that when they first declare their love for each other, I burst out laughing.

The two also share a kiss at one point that would put an iceberg to shame.

As bland as their pairing is the acting of the entire cast. Mandira Bedi is the only one who gets to break from the rest when she overacts till kingdom come on discovering the film’s final big reveal.

The problem is not that that secret in the end can be seen coming from a mile. The problem is that it is, by then, just impossible to care.

Prabhas is one of Telugu cinema’s biggest stars. He is known nationwide for playing the title character in Baahubali: The Beginning and Baahubali: The Conclusion, the Tollywood ventures (released in several languages) that rank among India’s top 5 all-time greatest box-office hits. Saaho is his pitch to make a post-Baahubali all-India splash again. The film was shot simultaneously in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi. Malayalam and Kannada dubbed versions have also been released. Whatever the Baahubali films’ flaws may have been, the first one was pathbreaking in its use of technology in the Indian scenario and neither of the two can be accused of being run-of-the-mill. With the world now at his feet, I cannot imagine why Prabhas signed up for a film as generic and dull as Saaho.

The only film more boring than this that I have seen this year is the Malayalam disaster Mikhael starring Nivin Pauly. Saaho and Mikhael make last year’s Hindi film Race 3 look shiny and innovative in comparison.

In the unending hours between the beginning and the end of Saaho, across locations in India and abroad, villains say stupid things in low voices, Prabhas’ character does things that we are told are impressive, there are fights and chases, bodies are battered, men in winged armoured suits fly through the air, mobikes zip down expressways and cars explode. A lot of it is very high tech and clearly very expensive. At the end of the day though, what we get is not a film but a little boy showing off his toys to his playmates.

Rating (out of five stars): *

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
171 minutes

A version of this review has also been published on Firstpost:

Tuesday, August 27, 2019


Release date:
Kerala: August 9, 2019
Delhi: August 16, 2019
Johnpaul George

Soubin Shahir, Thanvi Ram, Naveen Nazim, Vettukili Prakash, Neena Kurup, Sreelatha, Jaffer Idukki

When they were children, Teena could not tell that there was a difference between her and her friend Ambili. Now that they are adults, she knows. He is a guileless soul, a child stuck in a man’s body, a man-child whose innocence almost everyone exploits.

Soubin Shahir, fresh from his stupendous performance in Kumbalangi Nights, plays the titular Ambili who wants nothing but to be loved. Teena is his rock, but her brother Bobbykuttan – current national cycling champion and Ambili’s best buddy from his childhood – is less reliable. This new film by writer-director Johnpaul George (of Guppy fame) is pivoted around a felicitation ceremony being planned for Bobby’s glorious return to his rural home in Kerala and an excursion he plans to take.

Up until Bobby’s arrival, the film seems firmly headed somewhere. Ambili is a darling, his conversations and his writings are hilarious, the manner in which locals take advantage of him is heartbreaking and Shahir is brilliant. When Bobby comes on the scene though, the narrative takes off on a trip that the screenplay does not have the muscle to sustain.

This part of the film actually involves a physical journey. It is an emotional and figurative ride too, and I totally get what George is aiming at. Sometimes, watching human beings at peace with rather than in conflict with nature can be deeply moving. Venu’s Carbon and Jayaraj’s Ottaal from recent years deployed genius cinematography at divine locations within a minimal script to portray our species in communion with our Earth, and both were near-spiritual cinematic experiences. Sadly, once Bobby’s expedition begins, Ambili mistakes lack of substance for minimalism.

Through the second half, even Shahir’s performance delivers diminishing returns, with the film occasionally taking a somewhat patronising tone towards his character. Ambili is a sweet man with a clean heart, there was no need to cutesify him in his interactions with random members of the public. An extended shot towards the end when he is seated alone and the camera dwells on him, his crumbling face and his physical tics is transparent in its effort to emotionally manipulate the audience.

The dialogues too go downhill in the second half, whether it is the tacky lines given to an old lady in Goa or a maudlin voiceover from a doctor in Maharashtra (no fault of the charismatic actor in that part).

Ambili’s obsessive stalking of Bobby might have borne fruit if the actor playing the friend had the chops to match up to Shahir. Debutant Naveen Nazim – brother of the sprightly Nazriya Nazim – does not. He is bland and his Bobby is, consequently, an unattractive character.

Thanvi Ram playing Teena is far more competent. However, Ambili is superficial in its writing of her bond with the protagonist. (Some people might consider the rest of this paragraph a spoiler) That Teena is a loyal friend is clear. But is she genuinely attracted to Ambili? Or is she submitting to his attraction out of a sense of duty and compassion? (Spoiler alert ends)

The appeal of the pre-interval portion of Ambili is its light touch – complemented by Vishnu Vijay’s lively music – in spite of the leading man’s grave circumstances. Post-interval the film becomes ponderous and stretched. Sharan Velayudhan’s lush camerawork within Kerala becomes less striking despite the vast potential of the varying landscapes traversed in the second half. He does manage to serve up some good-looking frames here, but they are not half as stunning or as all-pervasive as his work in Ambili’s home state. It almost feels like the film had a lower budget for cinematography outside Kerala. This lacuna robs Ambili of much of the magic it could have had during these passages, the weak writing, direction and a few poorly chosen bit part players take care of the rest.

Apart from its vacuous meandering nature, this part of Ambili is also riddled with flaws and loopholes. Through its post-interval travels, the film fails to acknowledge India’s great diversity. This is particularly evident in its odd assumption that Hindi is the language of every non-Malayali Indian, the amateurishness of some of the Hindi lines and the absence of multiple tongues in the soundscape as state borders are crossed.

Besides, too many questions are left unanswered. (Spoiler alert: please read this paragraph after you watch the film) Why doesn’t Bobby tell everyone that Ambili followed him? A character tells Bobby that the social media is abuzz with discussions about his road trip, but there is no evidence to suggest that he has done anything to generate such chatter – no photographs taken, no posts posted, no relevant activity at all on his part. And who was the woman other than Teena on the phone with Bobby? The voice sounds the same but her disdain for Ambili suggests that she is someone else. Who? (Spoiler alert ends)

The relationship that truly underscores this film’s potential is the one between Ambili and Vettukili Prakash’s character, which delivers the complexity sorely missing in the writing of the Teena-Ambili equation. Despite the briefness of his role, Prakash walks away with the film in a beautifully enacted and perfectly directed conversation. That scene, along with Shahir’s moving performance in the first half, are the selling points of Johnpaul George’s earnest but faltering Ambili.

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
140 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost: