Simmering somewhere deep in this movie is Puri Jagannath’s take on moral nihilism and psychopathy. He feeds them like words of wisdom through the conversations between Surya (Mahesh Babu) and Chitra (Kajal). It is all mighty refreshing and I was, in fact, pleasantly surprised to observe that somebody could leaven them so thoughtfully into, what seemed like, everyday conversations between a couple. Furthermore, it is this casual philosophical banter that speaks a lot about Surya’s character in Businessman than any of the masala punch lines and overt acts of heroism. It is the only thing that kept me from dismissing the whole movie as any other regular potboiler. So the first time I heard Surya utter something about morality and war, I was half surprised and half confused. Surely, it couldn’t be. And I wasn’t laughing also which meant the dialogue had some conviction and thought going into it rather than mere words being thrown around. It was plain curiosity. So the next time around I decided to be on the lookout and surely enough, after some scenes that continued to depict the outrageously simple rise of Surya in the underworld, more philosophy followed. There are dialogues on God, on predators, on human nature – All of them providing a refreshing perspective by playing with viewpoints, taking impish digs at man’s conception of morality and, above all, asking searching questions about our innermost thoughts. I do not know whether this infusion of, what people might dismiss as, pop philosophy was a conscious decision, because it surely elevates this movie and gives the protagonist a rarely found depth and dimension. It surely is consistent and substantial.
But you would be wrong if you thought screenwriting is the highpoint of this film. If Puri shows moments of fascinating brilliance in one scene, the very next scene he drops us back into the rut of commercial cinema blending an outlandish plotline with an unconvincing romance. The idea of charting the meteoric rise of a gangster from simple beginnings is not a theme that hasn’t been dealt before in the cinematic medium. There is the ethereal Godfather Part I & II. Then there is Mani Ratnam’s stunning Nayagan that is also set in Mumbai like this film, where perhaps decades later, after people like Velu Naicker and Dawood Ibrahim have been neutralised or eliminated, Surya puts into motion his plan of creating a business of organised crime. It is a very striking concept although you would need a lot of ingenuity and insightful screenwriting to make the gangster’s growth look convincing. And this is precisely where Puri Jagannath fails first.
For a while Puri actually had me hooked with the eerily silent scenes that follow the hero’s arrival in Mumbai (in a second class train). It is Brahmaji’s character that does all the talking while an intense Surya just observes. I haven’t been to Mumbai but this is probably how you react when you land there; calmly take in all the hustle and bustle, experience the sheer cramped feeling that comes from being in dingy slums and claustrophobic local train compartments. It is a hero introduction scene that is, to put it lightly, completely counter-intuitive, anti-expectations and, above all, myth busting (It is a genre rule that very few directors dare to break). There is not a single line uttered that would have sent the, on-your-marks-get-set-go, expectant, first day crowd into raptures (I have noticed that with the first day crowd it is always like launching a rocket into the orbit. Once the first few good dialogues come and the laughter picks up it never abates). Just an uneasy calm before Surya makes his intentions clear – “Main Mumbai sheher ko pishab karwane aaya hoon” (This is precisely the dialogue I was not hoping for, because this I think – and this is what I felt when I saw the trailer also – is the most lackadaisical writing Puri has ever come up with ever. It is not only gross on so many levels but it just kills the mood. Incredibly enough the crowd seemed to share the same sentiment! What more Surya keeps repeating it like it is his “evadu kodthe dimma thirigi mind block” dialogue – which it surely isn’t.) This is followed by a scene where the hero cons a couple of youngsters by posing as a police officer. Believable, but stretching it. A couple of scenes later he walks into the criminal infested Dongri area and picks up a fight with some jobless gangsters. Umm..Well he is the hero, right? But, say what, this guy has too much dookudu in him. Then, after cleverly masterminding a murder in a jail he robs a bank with his newly recruited goondas. That, my friend, was the breaking point and that was when I stopped taking the movie seriously, till of course those pop philosophy interludes popped in.
While watching a movie I always engage in this internal tussle where I analyse the believability of certain sequences. This is of course all subjective but there comes a certain point in a movie when I start assuming unbelievable things to be a given just to enjoy whatever else is left. So I started showing interest in the Surya-Chitra romance angle – which is frequently intruded by this utterly crazy accented chick who is Chitra’s girlfriend. To be fair, the romance is accorded more respect than is usually and works not so much because of any realistic portrayal but because of the lazy humour that Puri injects into the lines. There are the usual misunderstandings, the usual fights etcetera but the banter kept my interest alive. For a movie that had only two tracks, one charting the rise and the other traversing the romance, this was the better one. How I wish the whole movie was made around this! But nevertheless this acts as a relief to the increasingly convoluted proceedings in the other half where Surya has befriended a local Mumbai politician, has outmuscled everyone else to put the guy in the Mayor’s post and is now planning to expand his *cough cough* crime business to other cities. I maybe studying law but it does not need any particular understanding of our statute books to see how many crimes Surya can be booked under. Meanwhile, the Police Commissioner, played by a Nasser who alternates between unintentional comedy and mock seriousness before being bumped off for good, plaintively watches, ruing the fact that Surya is so clever that he has everything covered and cannot be apprehended. This guy must be full of shit or the Mumbai Police Services’ training is a joke. Somebody give him the Indian Penal Code. On the other hand Surya, it is apparent, manages to survive because of the combined inefficiency of the Mumbai Police – the same one that at the beginning of the movie proudly proclaims to have eliminated all the crime syndicates in Mumbai but have now become surprisingly impotent – and the expert use of hostages (He keeps shuffling them to keep the police on their toes it seems. One moment it is the heroine and another moment it is some police officer’s mother. Interestingly enough, the villain is also not averse to this ploy and manages to wrangle the hero into a death-trap with the heroine hostage scenario towards the end.) Ok enough nit-picking!
Despite all this, I believe, this movie could have worked much better if it had a much better tone and consistency in writing. Pokiri stretched believability too but the writing was very organic there. Here it vacillates between good, bad and deplorable so much that the good gets lost somewhere leaving only a bad taste. There are lines which fall flat because they try too hard to be punchy and then there are lines that have nothing going for them except for Mahesh Babu’s searing intensity. Also the movie would have grown in stature had they not given the twist explanation to the way the hero behaves. The family angle kills the shades of brilliance that Puri manages to bring to the table through the philosophy of the hero, who is an intriguing island of amorality and hardened cynicism till then. It makes revenge the overbearing justification towards the end which would perhaps go down well with the “family” audiences but does make the movie glib. Further, the rise of Surya need not have been focussed upon so closely. Nayagan cleverly sidestepped the issue by showing a couple of acts that seem to propel Velu Naicker to gangsterdom before cutting to the part where he is an established gangster. This technique would have had a far better persuasive appeal than the micro growth that Puri shows by resorting to outlandish schemes. In the end even the philosophy and ideology that Puri infuses is an indication of confusion. Even though the integration is seamless when it comes to the scenes, it does not all add up in the larger scheme of the things. In this respect, he reminded me of Trivikram’s Jalsa where there is a sub plot involving Pawan’s character’s tryst with Naxalism and the reasons leading up to them. The writing is blooded with such anger and angst that I was completely moved only to be stunned into disbelief when the same Naxal character coolly merges into the mainstream in comical fashion. It doesn’t “fit”.
The songs are good but have been choreographed and shot lazily. The cinematography is excellent for the most part with the title credits scenes being the pick. Very nicely shot montage of Mumbai. The action scenes are par for the course but nothing stands out.
Puri’s vision is a laudable one, with nearly full marks for the concept. The execution however suffers majorly.
PS: What’s with the blurring of cleavages and thighs in the song sequences? For an A rated movie, our CBFC really needs to grow up and not turn so prudish at the first hint of skin. It is also so selectively and arbitrarily done that there does not even appear to be any method to the madness. Cuss words have also been beeped out regularly. Again, when will the CBFC stop acting as the moral compass for grown up people?