Panjaa’s opening titles are in bold graphic novel style with a 3D effect. Eye catching and intriguing, the confident visuals match a slick modern underworld thriller where characters are not always what they seem and life is lived in shades of grey.

There is nothing really new in the conflict at the heart of the plot, but Vishnuvardhan has tweaked things just a little and saves the film from being too familiar. I saw this in the cinema, without subtitles, when it released. While the basic plot and motivations were clear, I enjoyed seeing it again on a subtitled DVD as some of the characters’ thought processes were more accessible.

Most of the film looks to have been shot on location and it adds a note of authenticity in terms of the buildings, the lighting and the sense of place. I particularly liked the ornate architecture of Kolkata, as well as the lush green of the countryside. The colour palette is subdued and the style is pared back and modern. There is nary a plaid shirt in sight!

Jai (Pawan Kalyan) is the enforcer for Bhagawan (Jackie Shroff). He is a shadowy figure, always a step ahead and coolly efficient in his execution. Jai has a strong moral sense and acts according to his own notion of right and honour. He serves Bhagawan because when his mother and sister were assaulted, Bhagawan gave him justice and a refuge. But when Bhagawan’s son Munna returns from overseas, it is clear that Munna is not the kind of man Jai could tolerate, let alone support. Things escalate as Munna takes full advantage of being his father’s son.  Jai struggles between loyalty and his own code, and the need for more in his life.

Jai also struggles with the ladies. The one he wants makes him shy and tongue tied. The one that wants him is very assertive but he isn’t interested. I’m not convinced Janvi (Anjali Lavania) was necessary to the story, but it was nice to see the bad girl get to talk and think for herself. Unfortunately she ran into the brutal Munna on a bad day so it was shortlived. I like a good skanky item and this is certainly skanky.

Pawan Kalyan is a hero but Jai is almost an anti-hero. He is moral by his own lights but he is a professional killer. He is nice enough but not a good guy as such. He isn’t a dashing romantic hero although women fancy him and he doesn’t really win anything other than his own life. The final scene is ambiguous enough that it could be a vision of the future or a memory of the past so it’s not a resoundingly happy ending. Pawan Kalyan is very good as Jai. He draws the eye in all his scenes, using stillness and silence more than histrionics. His acting range easily spans Jai’s story from laid back comedy to high tension drama.

The casting is excellent. Having said that, I really do not understand the recent fad for Jackie Shroff in South Indian films. He doesn’t bring anything unique to the kind of roles he is playing, but he is adequate as Bhagawan. Munna (Adivi Sesh) is Bhagawan’s son, an overly entitled sadistic nutter. His performance is over the top but Munna needed to be hateful and I was certainly sick of the sight of him! Atul Kulkarni is excellent as rival crook Kulkarni. He conveys an intensity and intelligence that made Kulkarni seem plausible as a successful ‘businessman’. The relationship between Bhagawan, Kulkarni and Jai is revealed over time and the reactions and decisions of the main characters are consistent with what we know about them. The second tier of gangsters is represented by Tanikella Bharani as the slippery Guruvaiah and Sampath Raj as Kulkarni’s right hand, Sampath along with Amit Kumar and others in support. The interactions are well written and fairly restrained so it is possible to believe these guys can function in the real world. There are glimpses of family and other concerns that build a picture of this slice of the underworld.

Sarah-Jane Dias is Sandhya, a tree hugging good girl who turns up to work in Jai’s nursery. Yes. Jai is a complex man and has diversified his investments into a plant nursery he runs with Chotu (Ali). Jai is drawn to Sandhya and she likes him. Their relationship starts with superficial attraction and develops through time and proximity. She has a bit more going on in her life than just waiting for Jai, but she is primarily the love interest. I liked their scenes more on the second viewing as the dialogues helped show her character as smarter than her prancing around in gumboots lead me to think (although I appreciated the work appropriate clothing). Just as things looked promising, Sandhya returns home suddenly to see her sick grandmother.

The timing coincides with Jai’s need to get out of town. The rural setting puts him back in touch with his childhood self. He is looking for love and a home, the things he lost when his family was torn apart. But his past is a threat to himself and anyone close to him so he needs to resolve that while still keeping the promises he made.

The country sojourn introduces more of the excellent support cast including Subbaraju as Sandhya’s brother Ashok and Brahmanandam in amusing form as an inept local cop. I loved that this song is essentially a tirade against the greedy and cowardly policeman Paparayudu, accompanied by uninhibited dancing and some jiggly-bellied tiger men.

Ashok is a protective brother, henpecked yet determined to remain a bachelor, and no match for the smooth townie Jai or for local rowdies. He is frantic when Sandya comes home unannounced as he knows troubles from the past will be stirred up again and he wants to keep her safe.

Subbaraju gets to show off a bit more of his acting range than normal, and when he isn’t beating up baddies he has some fun scenes with the women of the household. Ashok and the rest of the family are vivid characters and very much part of Sandhya’s life.  Back in town, Chotu (Ali) was in trouble and believe it or not, I was sad to see his predicament. Despite these being small roles, the details are nicely drawn and the actors all deliver good performances. That kind of attention and care makes Panjaa quite satisfying viewing.

The comedy is not too intrusive. Pawan Kalyan doesn’t mind playing for laughs and I really enjoyed the Mega Tribute as Jai was persuaded to pose with cut-outs for a photo. Brahmi and Ali are in character roles and their shtick is part of the story so it stays on track. The fight scenes orchestrated by Shyam Kaushal are brutal but not too bloody, and highlight Pawan Kalyan’s strengths. The editing and composition of the action sequences is top notch. Everything flows quite well and there is a consistent look and feel to the whole film.

There are some flaws. The romance between Jai and Sandhya is a bit laboured and she does far too much marvelling at blades of grass and cooing at flowers. The first half takes a while to go anywhere. ‘Paparayadu’ excepted, Pawan Kalyan looked a bit lacklustre in the dancing but the choreography wasn’t that exciting either. The soundtrack by Yuvan Shankar Raja is average and the song picturisations are quite predictable but don’t detract from the film. Overall, the positives greatly outweigh these niggles.

Panjaa is a well made thriller with good performances and a cohesive story. It’s not dazzling or wildly original, but I never found it dull. It’s a quality effort and well worth a watch, especially if you’re a fan of the genre. 3 ½ stars!

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