Movie Review: Panjaa (Vishnuvardhan)
by Srikanth Mantravadi
There was an interesting discussion on a social networking platform about what constitutes ground breaking cinema; is it novel storytelling, is it a novel storyline itself, is it philosophical depth and so on…The idea seemed to be to isolate that one quality that takes a movie from the realm of good to ground breaking. It would of course not be out of order to suggest that it could also be a confluence of two or more of these elements. That, however, is not the point. The essential point is that, considering the glut of movies that get made these days, it is hard to expect novelty even in good movies leave alone great movies. Some movies, and Vishnuvardhan himself would attest to this considering the kind of reviews he got for Billa, get criticised for giving precedence to style over substance. “All style, No substance” is probably the most common refrain in film criticism and deserves to be a distinct category in itself. However, there are also certain movies where style is in fact the substance. Backed with even a wafer thin storyline but just a little bit of thoughtful attention to detail a style over substance movie can actually deliver. Like it does in Panjaa. The storyline is not its strongest point; it is even vaguely familiar – A hitman coming into conflict with his gangster boss due to certain circumstances (Its the unhinged son played brilliantly by Adivi Sesh who provides the conflict here). So what works in Panjaa? It would be unfair to just paint it all as simply style but it comes in various forms. It can be something as trivial as Pawan’s beard to something as critical as how well the gun battles are fashioned (Its an incredibly satisfying feeling to see that gangsters in telugu movies have graduated, even if temporarily, from sickles and swords to modern equipment like machine guns, grenades and gelatin sticks. Is it the Cal effect? Hmm..).
It is also a sign of intelligent screenwriting when certain ground rules of gangster movies are adhered to even though they are all movie-book creations themselves. The hero, for example, cannot just enter the enemy’s territory and hope to blow them away just because he happens to be the hero. He does it, however, not without tempering his bravado by saying that it is something that is next to impossible. So when he is actually pulling it off, in the next couple of scenes, we understand or at least reconcile ourselves to the fact that he was lucky rather than resigning ourselves to the fact that there is a certain inexplicable Chemical X in our heroes which makes them do such stuff. We admire a hero who actually knows his limitations for he is intelligent and more real. The Bocchicchio’esque guarantee that Jai (Pawan) insures himself with by kidnapping the rival’s son before entering their territory is another example of smart writing. Above all, there is the looming influence of The Godfather which is hinted in the way in which the gangster families are ordered and the way in which the chains of command, at least rudimentarily, work. So if Bhagwan (Jackie Shroff is effortlessly stylish and proficient) is the Godfather then Guru (Tanikella Bharani going through the motions) is like his consigliore, Abbandando, and Jai is like his Luca Brasi.
There is a heartening consistency to Pawan’s characterisation also. His usual flamboyance is discarded for a slightly moodier disposition. He is a gangster, remember. So no lively banter. Or at least lesser amounts of it. A scrunched up, shaggy face. Only the heroine’s chirpiness manages to put a faint smile on his face, once in a while, which means that in the larger context of the movie he is alive to the fact that he is a gangster. As the heroine notes, but cannot explain, he always has his eyes on his watch and his hands in his pockets. Even though we do not know how gangsters live it seems highly likely that they live like this, in constant fear, always alert to any eventuality. Small details like this can do wonders to the tone of the movie especially when it permeates like this into the other aspects of the protagonist’s life. To his credit Pawan plays his role with remarkable precision and ease. He is the lifeblood of the movie and is outstanding. Sarah Jane Dias, who plays an effervescent botanist, is refreshingly good and has more acting chops than the garden variety Ileanas. Anjali Lavania has a brief role, where when she is not looking hot, she ecstatically exposes herself as a dud actor.
The Brahmanandam track appears a little forced in this largely humourless movie. This could be one reason why certain village scenes make the screenplay sag. In fact the soft humour that plays out between Pawan and Sarah is more likeable. And mind you, this is not a criticism of the movie for it allows the focus to remain firmly on the story.
There are two technical departments which deserve substantial praise; the background score and the cinematography. Yuvan Shankar Raja blows the fucking lid off with a pulse pounding score be it the fabulous opening credit sequence or the action sequences. Most of the cues are fascinating derivatives of the Panjaa theme track with the industrial electric guitar being more pronounced and explosive. There are also some lovely acoustic cues for the romantic scenes. The cinematography is stunning and extremely slick. There seems to be more emphasis on natural colours than DI. The locales in Calcutta are beautiful and the labyrinthine alleys and rooftops, where one of the action sequences happens, add character to the film. The village scenes are also gorgeous. The whole movie has a music video like appeal.
The dialogues are mostly functional and this actually works to the advantage of the movie for it fits the hero’s characterisation. Bombastic dialogues would have mutilated the tone of the movie. The writing is slightly uneven at times, which means that some scenes do not have the desired impact.
There are some meta references which are hard to miss like the heroine remarking that Pawan has springs in his feet, or the mention of his karate skills. A Chiranjeevi cut-out in a photo studio figures prominently.
Eventually, a film like Panjaa is a director’s film. It is a script that needs every ounce of style to be extracted from all the actors and technicians. Vishnuvardhan keeps it understated when it comes to the drama and piles on the glitz when it comes to the action sequences. Every car has been shampooed and waxed before being shot; that’s how shiny they are! Every unkempt hair has been groomed to actually look unkempt. Dishevelment is manufactured and not unintended. Every frame of the movie has been spit polished to exude a lustrous glow. After all, style is also a vision.