Allu Arjun is immensely likable on screen and that keeps Pushpa going despite its lengthy runtime of three hours.

Allu Arjun in a scene from PushpaFacebook/ Allu Arjun
Flix Review Friday, December 17, 2021 - 14:48
Worth a watch

Sukumar’s Pushpa: The Rise is the first part of a red sandalwood smuggler’s saga. Who is Pushpa? He isn’t a flower, he is fire! Don’t roll your eyes yet. When Allu Arjun says it, the line sounds so swag that you end up cheering madly with the crowd. In fact, every time Allu Arjun is on screen (and he’s there in nearly all the scenes), he defines the word ‘lit’. The actor is immensely likable and that keeps Pushpa going despite its lengthy runtime of three hours.

Set in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh, Pushpa (Allu Arjun) is a labourer with style. He always sits with his legs crossed and doesn’t bother standing up when the boss walks in. With his sidekick Keshav, he manages to quickly rise within the illegal red sandalwood trade. There isn’t much by way of explanation for how Pushpa is so good at what he does. He knows how to cut wood, how to threaten police officers, how to beat up 10 men at the same time, how to make a lorry fly and so on. He signs with a thumbprint but he knows how to calculate percentages. It’s the kind of encyclopaedic knowledge that many of our screen heroes are born with.

The flashback that Sukumar introduces to give us a glimpse of Pushpa’s past is a rather unaffecting story. He’s the illegitimate son of a rich man, and the only time he looks remotely fallible is when someone asks him for ‘inti peru’. I was reminded of Rajinikanth in Thalapathy flinching every time he’s asked for his father’s name, but Pushpa doesn’t quite hit you the same way. The performances of the family are one note. The mother always looks pained while Pushpa’s half-brother uses every opportunity to humiliate him. Since that’s all the characters do every time they appear, they simply don’t draw you in.

Pushpa’s status as an illegitimate child drives him to great lengths to express anger and seek revenge, so the generic staging of the flashback is a disappointment. The film, however, comes to life in the negotiation and confrontation scenes that Pushpa has with the bigwigs of the trade (Ajay Ghosh playing Kondareddy and Sunil as Mangalam Seenu). These scenes are overblown, violent, and sometimes so unbelievable (in one scene, a man tests out the shade of hair dye on someone who just died in front of his eyes) that they’re also entertaining. The blood could be spilt tomato juice for all the emotion that the characters display as humans are beaten, slashed and murdered in their vicinity, and you watch with the distance of observing a video game unfold.

A brown-faced Rashmika plays Srivalli, a young woman whom Pushpa is attracted to, but I’d be hard pressed to say what she does in the film. For the most part, Srivalli just keeps throwing her pallu down and either picks it up herself or has Pushpa doing it (Samantha did the same in Sukumar’s Rangasthalam but that isn’t all that she did). The romance is problematic but justified as Srivalli wants all those transgressions from Pushpa after all. The heart of an ‘aada pilla’ is apparently so complicated that she can only be misread all the time. Sob. You know Dakshayani (Anusuya Bharadwaj) is a woman villain the minute she appears because she wears two giant nose-rings, the No.1 qualification to be a female antagonist in our cinema (no sweet-faced Villanelles shall grace our screens in the near future, I can see). She doesn’t have much to do in the first installment other than spit paan and glower around, but I’m hoping Sukumar gives her a better deal in the second part. Samantha’s much discussed item song ‘Oo Antava’ ends up looking like any other song that objectifies women, with the camera hugging every curve of her body.

Fahadh appears as Banwar Singh Shekhawat IPS, a bald cop who speaks bad Telugu and is trigger happy. Fahadh has played the borderline and full-blown psychopath roles a few times now, and he slips into Banwar Singh Shekhawat’s skin with ease. Sukumar amps up the stand-off between him and Pushpa in an attempt to set the stage for part two of the film, but as “mass” as it gets, I found myself getting tired of the nonsensical clash of their masculinity. How about some brain in the middle of all the brawn? There is no cat and mouse game, no nuanced moves on a chessboard. It’s Mean Girls but with adult men making the drama look grave. I wish we knew more of Pushpa’s psyche; does he feel nothing about the jungle that is his second home? When he was bullied as a child, how did he learn to stand up for himself? What is it about Srivalli that captivates him? Why red sandalwood smuggling in particular? The landscape in Pushpa plays an important role. The dense forest and the dam near it are instrumental to the trade. But they don't become part of the film’s fabric because they are only of utilitarian value; Pushpa doesn’t have a single moment when he takes his surroundings in or reflects on the nature of his work. His journey, from labourer to mid-level boss, is all external and we see very little of how he’s processing the changes.

Irrespective of these drawbacks, however, Allu Arjun’s charm carries Pushpa through. With a raised shoulder, slick dance moves and irreverent punch lines, he manages to win the audience over each time you find your interest flagging. He sings, he dances, he jokes, he fights, he cries, he romances, and he does it all so well that you don’t get bored despite the familiarity of the tale. Hopefully, part two of Pushpa will cover less explored terrain, and give us more of the fire of which we see only sparks in the first.

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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