So, I’ve been writing about and watching a lot of Malayalam films. But those aren’t appropriate for every situation. For instance, when I have a bunch of friends over who want to talk over/about a movie while we are watching it. In that case, I basically limit it to movies I have already seen on my own with complete and total focus, and also movies that still work even if you are wandering in and out of the room and telling me about how your classes are going and asking if you can make popcorn. So, last week we watched Magadheera (3rd time for me, 1st time with others in the room) and this week we watched Bijjugadu (4th time for me, 1st time with others in the room).
This is really the best situation to watch a movie like Bijjugaddu or Magadheera. Or at least, an equally good way to watch it. I liked the movies just fine watching them on my own, memorizing every little detail and noting down the way the narrative is constructed, and what it can tell me about production policies and industrial challenges. But watching them with other people who were whooping and cheering during the fight scenes, and debating with me the merits of particular outfits, and making guesses about where the plot was going to go next, that took it to a whole different place.
I loooooove Bijjugaddu. As I said, I’ve seen it 4 times now. The first time was to understand it and learn more about the Telugu industry. The second time was just for fun. The 3rd time was to see if it still held up. And then the 4th time was to see if it held up for my friends as well. And it passed the test all 4 times!
I think what I like about it is that the film is just big dumb fun. But it’s dumb in a smart way. It strips out anything that could be considered social commentary or content or value. But by doing that, it also remove the possibility of making a miss-step in any of those areas. It is so extreme, in both its romantic storyline and its violence, that it is obviously unrelated to any real world considerations.
The plot hinges on, basically, a child-marriage. In Indian films, I am used to these being dealt with one of two ways. Either it is considered sacred and legitimate (Sangdil Sanam, Hum Kisise Se Kum Nahin, Tum Mere Ho, Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam, etc.), and the forces of fate and virtue conspire to bring the couple back together again in adulthood. Or more rarely, it is considered a tragedy, a horror, a huge social ill that we must all fight against (Water, bunch of other movies I haven’t watched because they look depressing).
(This movie is all about snakes and child-marriage and the bad things that happen when they combine)
Bijjugaddu takes child-marriage to such a ridiculous extreme, that it is clearly not meant to be taken seriously. And more importantly, it’s a child love-marriage! One their parents disapprove of, not one arranged by their families and forced on their children. Both the hero and heroine remain cheerfully faithful to their childhood vow to marry after exactly 12 years and have no doubt that it will all work out. And the fact that it does work out is clearly due to their own determination, not to “fate” and “destiny” and “unbreakable vows”, as some of the other separated-spouse kind of plots seem to imply.
The structure of a childhood vow followed by separation allows for some interesting plot choices as well. For one thing, the heroine is much more sophisticated, better educated, and generally on a good path in life than the hero. But there is no need to justify an eventual marriage/relationship with a much lower-class person, because they were already “married” before any of those life differences took effect! Again, in a film that wanted to deal with these issues in a serious way, you would end up with something like Muqaddar ka Sikander, with Amitabh’s helpless longing for Raakhee. But, it’s Bujjigadu! So instead of any sort of angst over their clear class differences as adults, its all just waved aside and meaningless.
Actually, everything that usually goes into a spousal search is rejected in this case. She does ask his friend at one point what degree did Bujji do, engineer or MBA? But when she learns he doesn’t so much have a degree, she is fine with it. She is already committed to him, so it doesn’t matter what his education is. And in the same way, when Bujji first goes back to her childhood home, the woman who answers the door is overweight with an unsymmetrical face, a graceless posture, and badly fitting clothes. But after a brief moment of surprise that his “Chitti” has grown up so differently, be goes back to happy puppy eyes, still in love as ever no matter what she looks like. The childhood romance allows them to skip past the usual “rough boy from the streets wins over stuck-up princess/fails to win her over and sinks into depression” kind of story, and to ignore the whole “girl will fall in love with boys worldly success/boy will fall for her beauty” beginning of a love story.
Crime, violence, and criminals are a whole other area that is just sort of waved away. Our hero, when first approached by a fellow prisoner to perform a murder for hire, responds “It is wrong to kill people for money!” And then continues, “But tell me about him, is he a bad man?” When informed that, yes, this is a gangster criminal like them, he cheers up “Then it is all right! I can kill a bad man.”
Our hero seems to have no real moral center, he agrees to kill for money, and then once he escapes from jail, asks for more money than was agreed originally in order to help pay off his father’s debts. And then decides to ignore the agreement entirely once he bonds with his target. And the target is even worse, not only is he a violent criminal gang boss type, he is introduced heartlessly killing a police officer. But, this is also the heroine’s brother (twist!), and he just wants her to be happy, and he respects our hero’s moxi and skills in a fight (very Amitabh-Pran in Zanjeer kind of thing).
(Aw, they’re so cute together!)
Again, this whole gang warfare with the police in the crossfire and our hero happily bouncing between factions is so overdone and ridiculous, it clearly has no relationship to the real world. And that’s without even talking about the impossible physics of the fight scenes! So I’m not watching it thinking “oh no! Low-class Indians are being stereotyped as gang members while gang violence and police incompetence is being normalized in society!” Instead, I’m watching it going “OH MAN!!!! HE JUST CHOPPED THAT GUY’S ARM OFF!!!!” It’s all just superfluous sex and violence built around the slightest plot framework and super fun acting and editing choices.
And then, just to warm the cockles of my social message loving heart, they include one strong social message in the most ridiculous way possible. Towards the end of the film, our heroine tells her brother she has to leave town to “help with her friend’s wedding”. Visions of traditional wedding songs and mehndi (ha! Spellcheck wants to make that ‘mending’!) parties and arranging marigolds and so on come to mind. The brother secretly sends our hero to follow her for protection. And then we go straight from her flight landing, to her hustling a friend into a car, helping her out of her overcoat to reveal a wedding sari, and then helping her run to a remote small temple where another group of young people is waiting. Our awesome spunky heroine is “helping” with the wedding by arranging and carrying out an elopement plan!
Which is a pretty great message right there, both pro-elopement and anti-assumptions about women’s roles. But then it gets better when the bride’s family arrives and starts trying to disrupt the ceremony. Our hero suddenly appears, with a big introduction provided by his side-kick (as one of my friends put it, “he brings a hype man to a fight?”), and proceeds to beat up all of the bride’s relatives. Even better, he uses the tools of the temple to do it, complete with coconuts being broken open, marigolds showering down, and so on, as the fight itself serves to bless their union. And finally, having defeated his enemies, he triumphs over them with a big speech about how young people should be allowed to marry whoever they want and it is wrong to stop them. (Lots of
“wooing” in my apartment at this point.)
That’s the only time this message is stated so emphatically, but it is really there through out the whole film. The whole child marriage-engagement-romance part obscures it a bit, but our hero and heroine themselves have a love match and are firm in their choices. And way back at the beginning, our hero is introduced beating up the guy who is beating up his friend, because the friend dared to fall in love with the guy’s sister. And our heroine’s introduction is when she rejects the arranged marriage her parents have found, because she wants Bujji, the guy who treated her right and gave her confidence in herself, not some random guy with a good resume. Everything else in this film might be ridiculous and over the top, but the message about love marriages and love matches is completely serious.
They even use it to get away with the iffy consent issues which are apparently common in Telugu film love stories (at least, in all 5 that I have seen so far). First, because our hero actually has no interest in women in generally, seeing as he has been 100% committed to one woman since he was 11. So there is none of that leering and longing after random women you sometimes get. And second, because once he finds out who she is, he knows that she would give consent for any of the leering and flirting he is doing, if she knew he was really Bujji.
Okay, there is one icky part. But again, it is so gloriously stupid, I feel like they can’t possibly think we should be taking it seriously. Bujji tells her brother at one point that, if she ever gives in to all his leering and flirting and says “I love you”, he would have to kill her. Because then she would be unfaithful to “Bujji”, even though he is in fact Bujji, because she doesn’t know it is him. And such a lack of faith in his glorious love should be punished by death. I guess that could kind of be related to honor killings for adulterous wives? But it really feels like it is only a relevant concept if you also are in a situation where the woman you love doesn’t know you are you and is falling in love with “you” and therefore also being unfaithful to you. But totally worth it for the whistle worthy excitement when he first says “I hope she never says ‘I love you’, because then I would have to kill her.” And maybe, by taking it to such ludicrous extremes, it is actually questioning the whole idea of honor killings. Or maybe not. Either way, it was so clumsily done I don’t think it could possibly ever actually convince someone to change their behavior or attitudes.
(Is threatening to kill her any less ridiculous than revealing yourself and judging her for being unfaithful to your childhood love while singing a song in a nightclub, your head barely bandaged from a recent fight scene?)
Really, that could be said about the whole movie. Either it was taking things to an extreme in order to subvert them (child-marriage, violence, honor killings, etc.), or it was just taking things to an extreme because it was more fun that way; but the end result is the same, this movie is completely pointless and superficial, but also just plain fun. (well, except for the pro-love marriage part, that seemed sincere)