Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Megabirthday 2011: Puli Bebbuli

There are certain people who could ask me to jump off a cliff and I would probably do it. So when BLB favorite Temple of Cinema Chaat put out the call for posts in honor of Chiranjeevi's birthday, an activity far less objectionable—and probably far more glitter-encrusted—than jumping off a cliff, I enlisted right away. Then I realized I don't own any Chiranjeevi films. And don't even know much about them other than what I have read on Temple's blog. And have personal experience with him only through song after amazing song, a selection of which you can see at the Masala Zindabad podcast page for the interview we did with Temple back in June. However, I am not one to be deterred from filmi fun by something so trivial as a lack of knowledge, and I set about trying to find the perfect Chiranjeevi film to write about. Several people suggested Aradhana, but I am too new in the field of Megastudies to appreciate subtlety such as that. Bring on the sequins, I say! Or, barring actual sparkle, at least some garish trousers and awesome dance moves!

One thing I do know about Telugu cinema is that I have thoroughly enjoyed the three films of K. S. R. Doss I've seen so far (as discussed in this episode of Masala Zindabad, along with writeups of Mosgalaku Mosagadu and James Bond 777). "Wouldn't it be great if Chiranjeevi had done a K. S. R. Doss film?" I thought to myself. The universe quickly provided, and I am pleased to add Puli Bebbuli to the Megafestivities.

As easy as it was to find Puli Bebbuli,* I'm having a devil of a time knowing what to make of it now that I've seen it. Different in tone from the romping glee of the other Doss films I've seen, Puli Bebbuli reminds me of Sholay with a big splash of long-lost childhood friendship to bond our two heroes, Gopi (Chiranjeevi) and Kumar (Krishnam Raju).** You'll know them by their matching tattoos.

As expected, they do not see each other's tattoos for several decades after they are separated as children during a fire at a circus. As grown-ups, Gopi is a jovial, scrappy street fighter (or something like that) and Kumar...I don't think Kumar does anything, since he was adopted by a rich man. But he too is tough and saves Sita (Jayaprada) from some bad guys, led by a man I will call V-Neck Villain,

This might be the Kannada actor Tiger Prabhakar?
who try to rob her of the money she is couriering for work. They fall in love and, in a scene that confused me so much I had to watch it twice (and I might still be wrong given the lack of subtitles), Kumar rapes Sita since, you know, they find themselves in a bedroom and a storm knocks out the power, even though she's not threatened with hypothermia or suffering from any other noticeable symptom that would "merit" Desai-utilized "concern rape" beyond being a woman that the hero is attracted to.

The screen is pitch black during this, but you hear her sobbing his name and when the lights come on she is crying and he apologizes.
Anyhoo, they later get married at a temple, so I guess we're supposed to find all this totally okay and still think Kumar is heroic.

Meanwhile, Gopi defends a different woman from being raped by a different villain (whom I will call Kurta Villain since he is more often more classically attired)

and ends up in jail. After getting out, Gopi takes the same job Sita had and tangles with V-Neck Villain as well. Also mixed up in all of this is Sita's sister Radha, who is a K. S. R. Doss heroine of the variety I have met before—totally kick-ass!

One of the villains has—or perhaps they co-own, I'm not sure—a fantastic cave lair tricked out with plenty of room for dancing and stuffed tigers fiercely lit in red.

And in pleasing parallel structure, Kumar's family also has a huge and elaborate house

with tigers of its own.

There were parts of Puli Bebbuli that are really fun in ways I would expect based on the other Doss films I've seen. The director is up to his usual tricks of fun framing

and tipping the camera from side to side and swinging it around to heighten the action.

While this isn't quite the string of fights of James Bond 777, many punches are thrown and never quite in the same combination: we get Kumar vs. Gopi but in different scenarios, Kumar vs. a villain, Gopi vs. each villain (if I recall correctly), Radha vs. Kurta Villain, Kumar and Gopi vs. both villains, etc. There is also some legitimately funny humor, provided by the Megastar himself. In the scene below he marches V-Neck Villain's men around after defeating them single-handedly.

We expect no less!

As fantastic as I have found Doss's 1970s work so far, Puli Bebbuli is considerably different in its treatment of women. Sita is little but tragic victim/subject of action. Radha has some great rock 'em sock 'em moments but her participation in the finale—which would have been incredibly useful, since she's a strong fighter—is eliminated when the villains take off her clothes. She remains cowering behind a rock, watching the action but apparently feeling she cannot join in. I say "apparently" because I have no doubt that a 70s version of this story would have seen Jyothi Laxmi or Vijaya Lalitha somehow finding something to cover themselves as perfunctorily as possible and then leaping out from their hiding place to take down the men that did them wrong.

I think a real action heroine would have sneaked up behind one of the baddies playing sentry, stunned him with her...assets, clocked him, stolen his clothes, and flung herself into the fray. YESSSSSS! The Doss heroines I know do not cry and cringe, and they certainly not care for your definition of modesty or humility and in fact will fling them in your face to get what they want. They are, as my girlfriends and I say when we bet big in poker, knockers to the lockers (rather than balls to walls, you see). I hope I get to see enough Doss films to figure out whether this film is a one-off for his female characters or if this is a general change...and if the latter, did he want to have different kinds of women in his films or did he feel pressure to water them down?

Let's talk songs! I could not find a single one of them online, so we'll have to make do with my lousy screen grabs. It is Krishnam and Jayprada, not Chiranjeevi, who get the glitter in this film. SO MUCH OF GLITTER and big round things!

Also so much of lovey-dovies superimposed with charming hand-painted architecture!

Chiru's songs were very entertaining, showcasing his hip-swiveling moves and prowess at the "giddy-up prance"/"imaginary hobby horse" (Temple's and my terminology, respectively).

Ordinarily I might not spend much brain power on thinking how film X reminded me of film Y, but I've been wondering lately what effect Sholay had (and continues to have) on India's film cultures, so encountering aspects of it in Puli Bebbuli was a timely surprise. Without knowing the dialogue, I'm hesitant to propose whether the borrowing is mainly to capitalize on proven action and emotional elements. Based on what I know of Doss, he's an energetic, ALL IN director happy to make his own use out of elements from elsewhere. 'Cause let's be honest, don't we want to see Chiranjeevi kickin' it as a voluntary Thakur of Ramgarh by showing Kurta Villain who's boss using only his feet, his fists shoved firmly in the pockets of his belted leather jacket?

There's also a finale with our heroes fighting off a much bigger crew of bandits among desolate boulders that looks very familiar, though it's a film-logical enough thing to do that I would not be at all surprised to hear Sholay was not the first to use it either.

The comic relief even looks similar to Asrani's [note from Editor Self: I cannot even type this without adding "incredibly inappropriate and painful to watch!"] Hitler-esque jailor.

The soul of Puli Bebbuli seems quite different, though. It has very little of the heart-rending relationship between the male leads, instead giving them comparable but mostly distinct individual arcs that up the tension of their separation and the satisfaction of their eventual reunion. If there is a 1980s Telugu Sholay, this isn't it. Nevertheless, Chiranjeevi in a role that built out of the kind of good-hearted clowniness of Dharmendra's Veeru is a great idea.

For anyone who wants more Chiranjeevi + K. S. R. Doss (I do! I do!), this interview with the director indicates they did two more together: Billaa-Ranga and Roshagaadu.

* Not to be confused with NTR's Bobbili Puli released one year earlier. There's a useful and spoiler-laden plot summary of the film I'm discussing here.
** The internet tells me he goes by Rebel Star. OMG.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Nag Panchami Film Fessssstival: Anaganaga O Dheerudu (Once Upon a Warrior)

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!