The Kannada cinema's highest grossing film to date, 2018's KGF merits consideration as a triumph brought in at long odds - not least because this insanely involved, awesomely over-inflated actioner suggests what might have happened had John Woo or Johnnie To been brought in to oversee reshoots on John Sayles's Matewan. In a wraparound story, a hardnosed female journalist (Malavika Avinash) grills an author who claims to have uncovered a story that climaxed on the Kolar Gold Fields (hence the title) in the second half of the last century. What writer-director Prashanth Neel gives us from there is the build-up: the long and winding saga of one Rocky, a young man born into acute poverty (and thus someone acutely attuned to the injustices of this world) who grows into a bad-ass gangster bhai (played by local pin-up Yash, or "Rocking Star Yash", as he's billed on screen); having made his bones, he's sent to assassinate the mining company bosses who've been using conscripted labour to bring about their ill-gotten gains. That's the throughline, at any rate. Around it, Neel is busy spinning his own yarns about a spiralling countrywide gang war and the fluctuating price of gold in them thar hills. We're introduced to roughly 40,000 characters in the opening twenty minutes; we only ascertain Rocky is Rocky because he's the one being pummelled by nogoodniks while suspended from warehouse ceilings by chains. There is, it turns out, good reason for these restraints. When they're slipped, Rocky has a tendency to reduce everybody around him to dust with his bare hands, spiking one early unfortunate on an anchor like a just-paid invoice. It's the well-worn one-man-against-the-world trope, expanded and re-energised via the kind of leftfield premise that could perhaps only come from outside the Bollywood box; a beat-'em-up informed with a streak of self-reflexivity that would defend it against charges of mindlessness, while also raising the possibility of heightened commercial calculation. The whole project set out panning for gold. In this instance, it struck paydirt.
That it did is surely down to the way KGF: Chapter 1 convinces us of its own urgent importance - that this story not only has to be told, but has to be told like this - from the very outset. There's a marked element of Michael Bay on EPO here. Everything on screen has been cranked up beyond 11: the thumping drumbeats and frame shakes, the heightened performance style, the frenetic editing strategy that clues us in to the idea we have a lot to get through. And we do: the film isn't quite empty spectacle, because it soon unfolds into wrinkles, tangles and sidebars, all manner of convoluted narrative business. For much of its duration, KGF looks like an effort on Neel's part to sublimate centuries of mythology, decades of gangster films and real-life labour struggles, and several years of study as to what makes a movie fly in the modern marketplace. If this blockbuster suffers from anything, it's an excess of story; it needs its action sequences to straighten itself out again. In certain stretches, it resembles Slumdog Millionaire, if the protagonist's harsh life experience were prone to resurfacing not in the form of handy quiz-show pointers but bloody, retributive violence. In others, it's pure video game, dispatching Rocking Avatar Yash on one mission after another. After Rocky cleans up the ports of Bombay, it's off to Bangalore, where he woos rich girl Reena (Srinidhi Shetty) and gets involved in a plot to pick off a politico; only after that do we get to El Dorado, where Neel reveals a familiarity with TV's Prison Break by having Rocky offer himself up for conscription so as to militarise an entire underclass. More so than most cinematic forms, the masala movie has been patched together over the years, dependent on the availability of personnel, the vagaries of the production process and the ideas being tossed into the script pot. Here, that approach seems in part deliberate, and every one of its pieces could serve as a standalone movie in itself. It's unarguable value-for-money, even as it risks overkill and defies rational analysis. As I watched KGF: Chapter 1, my left brain kept tutting "this is nonsense on stilts", only for my right brain to counter: yes, but what nonsense. What stilts.
The movie is so big and so broad that it almost inevitably totters into tricky territory from time to time. It's a funny idea to have Rocky get extra-peeved when a battalion of goons interrupt his courtship of Reena - he uses one newly unconscious foe's hand to sweep back his hair mid-rumble - but the underpowered romantic subplot hinges, a little ickily, on her being turned on by his aggression. And sometimes the self-reflexivity tips over into outright smugness. "At a very young age, he decided to become a brand," observes one of Rocky's coterie, the inference being that just as Rocky bhai sells himself to the world, so too will the KGF franchise and Rocking Star Yash. It can, in short, get a bit too much. You scoff at the beginning of the film's third hour when our narrator insists "we can't rush and rewrite history", because elsewhere KGF is characterised by an extreme excitability. I haven't seen a breakdown, but I'm willing to wager the film has more shots per minute than any other released in 2018, and Neel can barely bring himself to linger on any one of them for longer than two seconds. Even KGF's prettiest and most densely populated spectacle gets scattered before us like rice at a wedding; it's one of those movies that absolutely looks like a trailer for itself, though I'll concede that it makes a pretty great trailer. For fullest enjoyment, you may require a pre-existing fondness for Yash himself, who might appear interchangeable with a dozen other South Indian leading men (beard, bulk, glowering gaze) were it not for his somnambulant line delivery. (At times, he makes Robert Mitchum seem like Chris Tucker.) That may not matter so long as he sells you on the force of his punches and kicks - and Neel is plainly more interested in the choreography of his fight scenes than he is that of his token musical numbers. In the end, it probably boils down to whether KGF: Chapter 1 passes a crucial test: whether you come away thinking "yeah, I want to see even more of that". Swelled by repeat business, the box-office receipts would indicate a healthy proportion of its audience went away thinking not just yeah but hell yeah. But even your correspondent, who's had cause to wonder how good this swaggering, steroidal form of filmmaking is for the cinema in the long run, could well be tempted back for KGF: Chapter 2 - if only to see for how long Neel can keep up this extraordinary level of willy-waggling.
KGF: Chapter 1 is available to stream on Prime Video; a sequel is now playing in cinemas nationwide, and will be reviewed here imminently.