Pushpa: The Rise

Although Sukumar’s recent films haven’t inspired me too much, he was responsible for my favourite Telugu movie Arya 2 which also stars my favourite Telugu actor Allu Arjun. So, the prospect of the two working together again in Pushpa was a real draw, even though the film has an almost 3 hour run time.  And although there are shades of KGF (mostly because the story follows the rise of a gangster), I really enjoyed the film. The fight scenes are stylish and despite the curly mophead look, Allu Arjun dominates the screen in every scene. It’s not going to topple Arya 2 as my favourite Bunny film, but it’s good enough that I’m eagerly awaiting the next chapter in Pushpa’s story.

The film is narrated by Kesava (Jagadeesh Prathap Bandari), a teaseller who decides to follow Pushpa (Allu Arjun) as he recognises early on that Pushpa is destined for greatness. Initially this doesn’t seem all that likely since Pushpa mainly stands out for his arrogance and belligerence. However, these are good traits for a wannabe gangster and having decided to pursue 1000 rupee work (illegal) rather than 100 rupee work (legal), Pushpa’s life of crime begins. A convoluted animated back story over the opening credits explains that red sandalwood only grows in the Seshachalam forest in Rayaleseema, making it highly desirable and a key target for smugglers. This is the work that Pushpa finds, labouring to cut and carry the trees down out of the forest. The Reddy brothers, Konda (Ajay Ghosh), Jaali (Dhananjaya) and Jakka (Shanmukh) run the smuggling operation, selling the wood on to the head of the smuggling syndicate, Mangalam Srinu (Sunil).

Pushpa quickly makes a name for himself by coming up with novel ways to hide the smuggled wood from the eyes of DSP Govindappa (Shatru). The success of the smugglers does require some suspension of disbelief, but the battle between Govindappa and Pushpa leads to some excellent fight and action sequences, mostly shown in slow motion, which allows for a true appreciation of the choreography. Lakshman Chella, Ram Chella and Peter Hein have come up with some amazing stunts and fight sequences that allow Bunny to showcase his fighting chops while the sheer physicality of the moves is impressive.

Pushpa takes it up a notch when he takes on Mangalam Srinu, his vengeful wife Draccha (Anasuya) and her violent brother Mogilesu (Raj Tirandasu) who is Mangalam’s head enforcer. Sunil does a good job here as the head of the smuggling syndicate, and there is excellent tension between Pushpa and Mangalam which spills out into the syndicate later in the film. It took me a minute or two to recognise Sunil as I’m so used to him playing the comedy track, but he is just as good playing a nasty and corrupt smuggler as with any of his previous comedy roles. The rest of the syndicate, with the exception of local MP Bhumireddy Siddappa Naidu (Rao Ramesh), are mainly faceless thugs who have little say in the proceedings and there is nothing new or different in the various struggles to win control. The Reddy brothers are fleshed out more, but essentially most of the villains are two-dimensional and mostly just a temporary roadblock on the path to Pushpa’s future prosperity.

While the story is familiar, the success of the film lies in the characterisation of Pushpa, and in this Allu Arjun is simply brilliant. The character is a departure from his previous stylish roles, and he uses a number of ticks and habits to illustrate a poor man who has not had an easy life. Bunny is always good in action roles, and with less romancing, and shockingly, also less dancing, he really impresses with his total commitment to each aspect of the character. As a child Pushpa was shamed for being the illegitimate son of a rich family in the village and develops a raised left shoulder, which is used to excellent effect in the song Srivalli. Only Allu Arjun could carry this off with such style!

Bunny keeps all these ticks and character traits throughout the film, making them all essential parts of the role, just as much as his long curly hair, overgrown beard and growling speech. It’s an excellent performance that really brings Pushpa to life and ensures investment and belief in his story. Hopefully in part 2 we will get to learn just why his half-brother Molleti Mohan (Cinemachaat favourite Ajay) is so determined to ostracise him from his father’s family, but whatever the reason, the lack of family support is effective in understanding why Pushpa pursues a criminal career.

There is a romance track, but although Rashmika Mandanna is as charming as always, she has very little to do and her character Srivalli is kept one-dimensional and out of most of the action in the film. Her introduction seems to suggest she will have the confidence and resolve to balance Pushpa’s dominant personality, but Srivalli quickly fades into the background and, like many Telugu heroines, becomes a reason for Pushpa to demonstrate his fighting prowess rather than being able to deal with the situation herself. Still, Rashmika makes the most of what she is given and is good at conveying her emotions even with the minimal time she has onscreen.

Although there is less dancing from Bunny, the ‘item number’ with Samantha is excellent and I really enjoyed her performance. The lyrics, sensuality of Samantha’s dance moves and the baying crowd of men all make a statement about the male gaze and I have to congratulate Sukumar for taking this step, even though I suspect the hypocrisy will have passed by the target audience. Impressively, Allu Arjun keeps his left shoulder elevated throughout the dance sequences, which ensures that even in the songs, Pushpa’s character is maintained. Overall the soundtrack by Devi Sri Prasad is really good and the songs are well placed throughout the film, but the choreography is a little disappointing. Perhaps I expect more because it’s a Bunny film, but apart from the quirky moves in Srivalli, I thought the rest was rather routine.

One of the most frustrating things about the film is the terrible subtitles, which right at the beginning describe a Japanese shamisen as a violin and it goes downhill from there. I know I shouldn’t complain, because watching Telugu films with subtitles is still a novelty, but when so much money has gone into the production, it is incredibly frustrating that the same care and attention to detail wasn’t given to subtitling. Below are just some examples, and please Sukumar and other Telugu film makers, I’d be happy to review the spelling and grammar just to avoid the frustration of being taken out of the story due to mistakes like these!

Pushpa succeeds as an action film, but also works as a character film even if it’s only the lead character who is fully developed on screen. The mix of action, dialogue and to some extent suspense ensures that the long run time isn’t an issue and it’s almost a shock when the film ends. The rise of Pushpa is well worth watching and hopefully the next installment is just as good. 4 stars.

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