Trivikram’s Jalsa wanders all over the place with an uneven blend of romance and action packed drama. I had to check that it really was made in 2008 as the plot, and treatment of female characters, is very retro and not in a charming vintage way. Pawan Kalyan gives a good performance but unfortunately he can’t save the script and some glaring plotholes. Like the hero, Ileana D’Cruz rides out some stupid plot turns and inconsistencies in her character to hit the right notes in the more thought out scenes.
Sanjay Sahu (Pawan Kalyan) goes to ask his girlfriend’s (Kamalinee Mukerjee – don’t blink or you might miss her) father (Prakash Raj) for permission to marry Indu. He refuses and she is married off (to Kamal Kamaraju). Sanju goes back to his longest standing relationship, the one with the bottle. But then he meets Bhagi (Ileana) who falls for him on sight and eventually he returns her feelings. The story jumps forward and Bhagi finds out that Sanju had previously wanted to marry her sister. Naturally she is disturbed by the news, and flashes back to a history of getting her sisters hand-me-downs. Her dad assigns Pranav (Brahmi) to keep Bhagi safe from Sanju so you know this is serious. Unfortunately Pranav’s presence spurs Sanju on to some childish behaviour and the movie gets bogged down in comedy uncle shenanigans.
The first half sets up the romantic angle and then everything takes a sharp left turn as Sanju’s secret past as a naxalite is revealed. He is presented as the ‘good’ kind of terrorist who doesn’t want innocents to die. But still, he embraces violence so…. I think I find the rebel Sanju more interesting than the drunkard but I can’t say I wholeheartedly like either aspect of his character. The flashback also reveals his prior connection to Prakash Raj’s character as well as the villain Damodhar Reddy (Mukesh Rishi).
Bhagi is introduced as she plays an energetic game of squash at the gym, then races her friend Jo (Parvati Melton) to the car. They are confronted by a creep chases the terrified girls into the path of a very drunk saviour, none other than Sanju. I’m not convinced that moments after avoiding a threatened gang rape their thoughts would have turned to romance and bickering over who gets the guy. Bhagi starts out characterised as innocent and a bit dumb, but Ileana bounces daft lines back and forth with her friend Seenu (Sunil) as Bhagi tries to deal with her one-sided attraction to Sanju. Later as Bhagi becomes more assertive and playful Ileana has more fun as she plays off Pawan Kalyan, and also shows more range and depth. I quite liked Bhagi but I got the feeling the role was written piecemeal to suit particular scenes rather than conceived as a character in her own right.
Sanju is the guy who beats up all the guys who tease girls at college. It is nice that the hero defends people against bullies but I am tired of seeing women only allowed to be safe if the biggest bully lets them. He also goes on a rant about how aggravating it is that he can’t slap his future wife to control her for fear of the law and women’s groups. It was done for dramatic and ‘comedic’ purposes and it just doesn’t mesh with the thoughtful side of Sanju. He was a smart guy who chose to become a naxalite through tragic family circumstances but then seems to just forget all about it once he got into college. It really made no sense. And why does he always wander around with his belt undone? Despite my issues with the writing and the rape jokes, Pawan Kalyan is very funny in some of Sanju’s drunk monologues, with a deft balance of verbal and non-verbal comedy beats. The fight scenes are choreographed to his strengths, whether a precision martial arts style or a scrappy street brawl, and he gives them an elegance and energy that is totally missing from the lacklustre songs. I did like it when he punched a car and all the doors flew off. His choreo seems to be limited to ‘shuffle-shuffle-jiggle-wave your hands around’ but I suppose it helps him avoid direct comparisons with You Know Who.
There is a drawn out ‘comedy’ sequence where Sanju tells Brahmi’s character that he plans to drug and rape Bhagi. Then says he is only joking because it is no fun to rape an unconscious woman when you could have one running around and screaming. This kind of ‘joke’ is rife in 80 and 90s films, but at least I can pass that off as The Bad Old Days. Sanju’s plan to win Bhagi back seems to be to ruin any other chance for her until she caves in. And her sister insists Bhagi accept all this as it is Sanju’s way of expressing his love, and if a boy does that it is OK and you have to let him because he is a boy. Jalsa was made in 2008 by a smart director with a hero who is by all accounts quite intelligent so I cannot find it in me to make the same excuses for how this plays out.
One of the things I do really like is Mahesh’s laconic narration. His slightly lazy drawl hits the right notes of comedy, empathy, and sarcasm as he reveals more about Sanju than is evident in the drama.
Prakash Raj gets some nice bromantic moments with Pawan Kalyan but his character makes so many poor decisions that I lost all patience with him. Mukesh Rishi plays his usual imposing villain. He thinks nothing of killing an out of town Don on the way back to jail from his rejected bail hearing. Tanikella Bharani is creepy sidekick Bulli Reddy, his fixer. There is a tedious running gag between Sunil’s Bunk Seenu and Dharmavarapu Subramanyam’s greedy psychiatrist that I would have solved with a diagnosis of One Tight Slap, three times a day until the course is finished. Brahmi does his shtick, but is never more than mildly amusing. If you are looking for miracles to attribute to the Powerstar, he does seem to detoxify Ali who gives a fairly restrained character based performance. I generally enjoy Ali’s appearances in Pawan Kalyan’s films but typically loathe him in everything else so this is a mysterious but good thing.
Telugu Movie Science has long been on the cutting edge of creativity and the laws of physics are tested in Jalsa’s action scenes. As usual the showdowns involve an orderly lineup of hairy rowdies patiently taking turns to be beaten up. But no one can deny that disputes settled the old fashioned way – a swordfight – tend to have a definite outcome.
I can see why Powerstar fans, the most passionate movie fans EVER, often enthusiastically recommend this film. Pawan Kalyan is given ample scope to show his acting depth as well as his comedic and action chops and he really does shine in some scenes. It is just a pity that the story doesn’t really hold up and the direction seems more focussed on set pieces and not enough on bringing a balance to all the disparate elements. 3 stars.