Friday 21 January 2022

On demand: "Pushpa: The Rise - Part 01"

People say the movies aren't sexy nowadays, but just before Christmas, the UK Top 10 played host to the first film since
Boogie Nights in 1998 to devote three solid hours to the smuggling of wood. The eponymous hero of the Telugu blockbuster Pushpa: The Rise - Part 01 makes his precarious living driving illegally felled red sandalwood from the forests of Tamil Nadu to the ports from where it's shipped further East. The opening credits rewind us through that journey with the aid of rudimentary computer animation; it has the look of a visualisation sequence for an epic, ocean-hopping prologue scuppered by Covid restrictions. That the rest of this production was completed without much evident compromise is likely down to the fact so much of it was filmed outdoors. The live-action camera scrambles uphill and down dale - sometimes in torrential rain - after a figure obliged to negotiate between off-the-books labour and corner-cutting management, and obliged to circumnavigate the attentions of the local police. The role demands a man for all seasons, one who's "as rare as sandalwood itself", to quote the booming opening voiceover. Enter local megastar Allu Arjun in plaid shirt, playing not so much a flesh-and-blood character as a running, jumping and frequently brawling definition of the phrase bad-ass, a "hardcore Telugu" (his words) introduced pulling one especially unfortunate patrolman into his cab through the driver's side mirror before propelling him, with even greater force, out the passenger side. I give it fifteen minutes before Western viewers of a certain vintage clock what Pushpa - Part 01 reminds them of: it's Smokey and the Bandit with song breaks. (Arjun even has something of Burt Reynolds' fuzzy-faced insouciance about him - if, sadly, very little of his predecessor's easygoing, self-deprecating charm.)

Even those who don't make that connection - and who haven't just set their brains in neutral, as the first rounds of fisticuffs seem to implore - may be struck by the idea Sukumar's film is a throwback, to a kind of cinema that can be made more expensive and expansive (the opening credits offer thanks to Baahubali's SS Rajamouli), but which cannot ever be fully gentrified because of the rough-edged rowdiness in its DNA. The drums in Pushpa's songs rhyme with the lumps and thumps our hero receives whenever he can't wiggle out of police custody; the hoofing in these pricey-looking musical inserts is that of a small battalion of elephants; and the narration, which starts out like someone standing too close to you bellowing directly into your ear, only increases in volume as the film goes on, I assume so as to make itself heard over the crash-bang-wallop that passes for spectacle here. (I watched the original Telugu version; it's possible some of these aspects have been softened for the other dubs currently streaming.) Subtlety never appears to have been an option: like its hero, who blows all his money on a car at one point just to make a more impressive entrance in the next scene than a tuk-tuk would allow, the film's watchwords are go big or go home. Yet its relentless stunts with logs and timber don't half start to resemble willy-waving after a while. The film actually ends with the sight of two men tearing their clothes off in front of one another, a logical endpoint for a project that demonstrates next to no interest in women save as sporadic set decoration. Pushpa is positioned as courtlier than a rival smuggler who flexes his muscle to exercise prima noche rights over the local maidenry, but it feels like a dramatic misstep to have our guy's brother buy him a look from blushing sweetheart Srivalli (Rashmika Mandanna), not least because it sets us to wonder what else these boys would splash their cash on.

A sort of vision - more than you could take away from any of last year's Western blockbusters - emerges from this brawny roustabout, but it's a pummelling one, especially at three-hour length: it says/yells that life is a merciless scrap for money, and harder still when you enter that arena towards the bottom of the heap. I was surprised by just how much of this script is taken up by petty haggling, usually as a precursor to some sort of ultra-choreographed slow-motion fisticuffs. That may well be true to life as it's lived in 2021, and specifically to how it's lived in the backwaters of Tamil Nadu in 2021, but the trouble is Sukumar clears no room for anything else. There's no real consideration of what these dishevelled lugs would be doing if they didn't have to lug logs for their lucre and fight off all those who want to lug their lugs for lucre; no sense of their hopes, dreams and aspirations. (Pushpa wants to reclaim a surname that's been denied to him by a nefarious relative, but that plot point is having to do a lot of heavy lifting, usually just to punch somebody square in the fizzog.) The scrap is everything here, which guarantees us a thunderous smackdown ever twenty minutes, but it makes for a grim idea of escapism, and there's no sign of this conflict winding down with Pushpa: The Rule - Part 02 to come. Maybe Sukumar will finesse as he goes: my interest picked up around the two-and-a-half-hour mark with the introduction of a bald-pated Fahadh Faasil as a gleefully corrupt lawman who looks set to pursue Pushpa through Part 02; it's a bit like having Robert Carlyle show up for a scene or two with Vin Diesel towards the end of a Fast & Furious movie. (At last, we cheer: someone who doesn't do all their acting with their fists.) I can admire the film's success at a time when getting folk into cinemas is harder than ever, and doubtless there's a certain audience who'll step right up to cheer Pushpa's progress going forward - but this remains a hard phenomenon to like at this stage.

Pushpa: The Rise - Part 01 is now streaming via Prime Video.

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