A basic but gorgeously dressed fairy tale of evil queen, savior child, and guardian, Anaganaga O Dheerudu has splashes of Drona (weird villain stopped by a guy with shaggy hair and a sword after passing through many trials), Magadheera (shaggy-haired sword-swinger is in name the protector but in execution the hero; grand CGI architecture; villains in scary headgear), Dharam Veer (costumes evocative of many cultures and time periods but specific to none; eagle-themed architecture), and even Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (creepy priests with scary rituals and red marks on their bald heads). But not, interestingly, any significant traces of snake films, as far as I could tell, despite being by far the most snake-filled film I've ever seen.
Because it's the theme du jour, let's start with those snakes, which in this film manifest themselves in sets and costumes rather than in dance or characterization. If there were an award for best use of snakes in visual design, Anaganaga O Dheerudu would win for the decade, if not the century. In fact, I would give it a top set design award for all of the 2010s, no matter what may come out in the next eight years. It is well worth the $4 rental on iTunes or Amazon just for its sets, and after being completely dazzled by the film on my laptop I can only imagine how glorious it must have been on the big screen.
"Oh no! Snakes!" cries one of our heroes as a sort of snake rocket unfurls down a canyon towards them.
A teeny snake in a locket drinks blood; snakes fly of the epaulets on evil armor.
Several versions of snake hair: a talking snake that emerges from the villain's head; her hair as red snakes; her hair as dark purple snakes with skulls for heads!
Medusa candelabra surrounded by a serpentine wall.
Dozens of snake skeletons; snake architecture in the main lair.
An evil ritual conjures up a great snake spirit.
The rest of the sets were no less impressive. My favorites were at a sort of gypsy camp on the beach that featured lots of animal themes: snail boats and tents, jellyfish chandeliers, seahorse and starfish gaming tables, peacock feather lamps, and a clam shell bed.
The good kingdom is represented by eagles.
In addition to all the animals, spirals and eyes were everywhere
My love for the sets extends to locations, which took good advantage of the drama and eeriness of Cappadocia.
And the costumes! Helen above were they amazing! Not always good, mind you, like this Project Runway challenge gone amok in a drapery fittings store combo in which every remnant in the bin was glued on the outfits,
but even those were impressive, if not exactly successful. There was clearly a lot of thought and design going on, perhaps not in close enough consultation in what the actors would be doing in the outfits once they were made. ("Where is this girl in these clothes going?" demands Nina Garcia.) Most of the scrap-bag costumes were fun, like Sid's golden patchwork (and cleavage-accentuating) outfit here
and this weird Elizabethan crotch-flap ensemble in one of the love songs.
Some of the evil queen's outfits remind me of a nightmare version of Rekha's supermodel couture in Khoon Bhari Maang.
Look at the train on that thing as she strides across her throne room!
Her army had creepy skull helmets and horses decked out like unicorns,
and they were in league with evil crows in a dark, foggy, very scary forest full of skulls and black feathery trees.
And because Siddharth's hair and wig staff got their own credits,
I have to ask if anyone else was as horrified by their work as I was.
"My eyes." Yeah, my thoughts exactly. I wanted protection from his hair and from this awful choreography.
Tying it back in an eighteenth-century ribbon does not help matters.
Not a step in the right direction from the already awful mullet of Konchem Ishtam Konchem Kastham.
You can see where this is going, though, can't you? To the over-populated, Bhansali-friendly land of "too bad they spent all their money on the sets and forgot about giving the story or acting any attention." There's a reason I haven't yet mentioned any of the people in front of the camera. In fact, as I was uploading images for this post, I realized I'd almost rather just look at a sequence of stills from this film than watch actual moving images. It was when things were in extended motion that the film ran into trouble. The fights were fun enough but not consistently executed/animated—sometimes I was convinced Siddharth could fly and sometimes I just had to laugh. The dance choreography and its execution too were disappointing at times; I wonder if the choreography was catered to what Shruti Hassan could do, hampering Sid in the process. Just look at them jigging against the blue sky a few pictures above. That whole song demonstrated where the line is between jaunty, elaborated walking and actual dancing.
Loved music itself, though, and the choreography did suit it. I just wanted more, given that he's one of my favorite dancers.
Now that I mention it [note from Editor Self: elegantly done!], Siddharth is one of my favorite contemporary heroes for pretty much anything, but he disappointed me here. I'm not sure I would have cast him in this role to begin with, actually, and gone for someone older who looks more world-weary. But given that he was in it, I wish director Prakash Rao had steered him further away from the lover-boy mode he does so often, alternating between arrogant and goofball before suddenly turning intensely serious. That pattern is such a standard for his rom-com roles that it distracted me from this film, though maybe there's a connection between the role being written this way and him being cast in it. However, I am glad he gave the hero more lightness and sparkle than Abhishek did in mopey Drona...and in theory I approve of his attempt to stretch himself in a role like this that at least required a different kind of physical performance from him. And the little girl...well, she was terrible. Her role easily could have been written as an older person so there was better hope of getting someone who can act. Shruti seemed fine at Telugu heroine feistiness, and I liked that her character had her own plan for her future and took action on important points. Lakshmi Manchu made a fabulous villain, thoroughly committed to her particular brand and plan of evil. She wasn't particularly complex, but neither was anyone else.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Anaganaga O Dheerudu is that it couldn't make up its mind whom and how it was trying to spellbind. In some ways, significant aspects of the story, dancing, and musical motifs were too simplistic to appeal to much of anyone other than young children. It had many moments that felt like broad cartoons, particularly the witch, whose desire for evil is never explained, and the tacked-on teamwork by the savior, the guardian, and the last family member that defeats her. But surely the villains and fights were far too scary, some sets too ominous, and the love story too boring for little ones. We've all seen masala films that create nothing but a mess out of their ingredients.* This is not one of those, but as spectacular as some of it was, those successes might have exaggerated the weaknesses. Overall, I think Anaganaga O Dheerudu is definitely worth a watch just for the sets. Those of you who like swords, heroic quests, minimal melodrama, the visuals of fantasy, and complicated, mixed-up costumes will probably enjoy it most. Once the story is set up, there's little doubt about how it will end, but there are plenty of beautiful wonders along the way.
* New film category: masalawrecks!