As a reward for letting Mani Ratnam make me cry again, I picked out a Telugu film that was recommended to me, and was available for free on youtube with subtitles. It did NOT make me cry, but it did make me go “wait, what’s happening now?” a lot.
So, am I right that Telugu film songs are just conceptualized and filmed on soundstages/cheap location shoots, and then the script is written, the rest of the movie is filmed, and the songs are inserted in a random order ever 20 to 40 minutes? Because that’s sure what it feels like!
Not a complaint, by the way. I would much rather songs like this, that are still noticeably “song sequences” than the confusing integrated back and forth with dialogue scenes method the Malayalam films use. Mostly because in the Malayalam films, the dialogue placed over the songs is never subtitled, since they are translating the song lyrics instead. And also because it makes it harder for me to think of them as a separate element of the movie and critique them in isolation, as I have been trained to do by my Hindi cinema.
Speaking of Hindi cinema, this Munna is just Trishul, right? Only, Trishul super super dumbed down? And Prakash Raj instead of Sanjeev Kumar and Prabhas instead of Amitabh. And while Prakash Raj is a reasonable replacement for Sanjeev Kumar, Prabhas can’t really replace Amitabh. But that’s actually fine, because this movie is just riffing on Trishul, it’s not trying to replace it.
First, Sanjeev Kumar fans, don’t come after me! Watch some regional Prakash Raj. He is really really good. And also really really humble. Just like Sanjeev Kumar was willing to play old man roles in his thirties if the script required it, Prakash Raj is willing to be the villain a million times over again in Hindi films if he thinks he can do it well. And still stretch himself in the regional stuff just to show he can. He plays yet another villain in this, but he shifts his portrayal just a little to fit the plot. In other films, his villain can be scarily determined, or heartlessly calm, or uncontrollably violent; in this one, he is ultimately a coward who constantly uses others to protect himself from the consequences of his actions. His anger is always tinged with fear.
Second, Prabhas fans, also don’t come after me! Prabhas is good, don’t get me wrong, but Amitabh in Trishul was at peak once-in-the-history-of film good. I mean come on, look at his introduction!
(Explosion! Explosion! Explosion! AMITABH! Explosion! Explosion!)
Trishul was designed to use the over-powering presence of Amitabh set against the considered acting of Sanjeev Kumar, with the exuberance of Shashi Kapoor to provide contrast with both of them. Thus the title “Trishul”, because it was about all three of them. Munna, notice, is just about “Munna”. The Shashi Kapoor character actually sort of disappears partway.
On the other hand, the Poonam Dhillon character gets a heck of a lot more to do! In Trishul, it started out as a revenge plan, the abandoned eldest son would take everything away from his father. But then, almost against his will, he got involved in the lives of his younger siblings and his stepmother. It’s all small slow steps as his initial anger gets burned out and replaced with love for his newly discovered family. Culminating in mutual forgiveness between father and son.
In Munna, not so much! No small slow steps here! Just huge crazy leaps! Okay, that sounded like a criticism, and it is really not. Remaking Trishul in the style of a Telugu 2000s action movie is a brilliant idea, you have a built in plot, plenty of set-ups for big action sequences, an excuse for lots of action scenes for the hero, and an awesome mid-point reveal (unless the audience has already realized it is Trishul, in which case it won’t be a surprise). Most importantly, doing it in such an extremely different style is more respectful than, for instance, the new Zanjeer which claimed to be an actual remake and an improvement on the original, which is of course blasphemy.
The other big difference is that the ending isn’t a reconciliation between father and son, it is the son finally defeating the father. Which is awesome! I hate it when the patriarchal power system has to be re-established through forgiveness, even when the whole rest of the movie shows the father as just irredeemably awful. Like, for instance, everyone forgiving Amrish Puri at the end of Gadar: Ek Prem Katha. HE TRIED TO KILL YOU!!! IT’S OKAY TO STAY MAD!!!
I also really liked the flashback opening here. Like the title of the film, it shifted the focus from the family as a whole, to just our hero. In Trishul, we start with poor Waheedaji and her little romance with Sanjeev, moving on to Waheedaji the unwed mother, and her struggles to raise her son. And then, bam! Amitabh! (explosion explosion explosion, see above). The whole movie is about Amitabh making his peace with the difficult parts of his past and finding his way back to where he would have been if his father had accepted him. He does this in all kinds of ways, from finding his family, to having an honorable place in the world, to taking over and running his father’s business.
But in Munna, we start with Munna’s moment of rebirth, nothing before it. He runs away and starts living on his own on the streets, makes friends with fellow street urchins, than arranges to attend a government school with the same urchins, and finally goes to college on a scholarship while working. And this flashback is what we actually need to know for the character, not the later flashback which serves to fill in the gaps. Munna is never going to go back to where he would have been if his life hadn’t “gone wrong”, because his life never went wrong. His friends from the streets are still his closest friends at the end of the film, he is still going to college on a scholarship, he doesn’t take over his father’s life, but does something even better than that. Life as a solitary hero is awesome, basically.
It’s also about Amitabh versus Prabhas, of course. Prabhas is a good hero, sure, but he still needs a whole framework of a film around him to sell him to us as a HERO, as the almost godlike powerful being who never makes a mistake, never loses a battle, and so on and so forth. Amitabh doesn’t need any help, he is always and forever AMITABH. Even in a movie like Trishul, where his character is in the wrong more often than not (Shashi is actually the wisest and most virtuous of the central 3), Amitabh is still the one you care about and want to watch the most, and the only one you remember at the end of the film when the lights come back on. Prabhas, not so much.
(I mean, you can see the difference just looking at the posters. One of these is a film built to make a star, the other is an ensemble piece where one of the stars ended up over-shadowing the others)
This change in focus leads to an intentional or unintentional change in meaning as well. Trishul was talking about society and family in terms of requiring 3 separate elements of patriarchy. The Wise Father who should be respected, the Powerful Oldest Son who should control and direct, and the Obedient Younger Son who should carry out to the best of his abilities the wishes of those above him. Munna rejects that aggressively, and says that the only element which matters is the Mature Son. Let him protect his mother and sister, pick his own bride, build a new family out of his age group fellows, and eventually take control of all of society. The Father is weak and corrupted, and the Younger Brother is inferior and discarded, the Mature Son takes all the females as his prize and goes on to rule the world with the help of his age mates.
(No, really, that’s the ending. College students take over the world. Or at least this particular city)
Now, in America, this would be an eye rollingly pandering kind of ending. Because the 20-somethings already rule the world! Ish. I mean, none of us have jobs or a future, because the older folks tanked our economy. But in terms of who the media panders to, who is held up as the ideal for society, who is considered most worthy and valuable in most measures, it’s the young folks all the way. That’s just how America rolls, we are all about youth.
But in India, I kind of find it refreshing to just completely reject the older generation! It’s not just that Prakash Raj’s character is never redeemed, the honest older politician is killed, the corrupt bureaucrat ends up controlled by our young hero, even the heroine’s father is under the thumb of his daughter and, eventually, her boyfriend. Which actually fulfills the promise of the Trishul story more than the original film did! If you look at a one sentence description of the plot, or even the opening scenes, it is supposed to be about a son destroying his father. And then Salim-Javed spent the next two hours sloooooooowly shifting it over until it turned into a son forgiving his father and vice versa. None of that here, Munna (and Munna) is on a straight-forward mission to destroy the older generation no matter what.
It’s a good Prabhas role (in my limited understanding of Prabhas). It uses his size and sort of drap-y way of moving well, letting him be both relaxed and powerful at the same time, showing that he knows his potential and is comfortable with his destiny. And even in a crowd of fellow young men, his height makes him stand out as definitely The Hero. My one big problem with him has to do with grooming. I am fine with a little body hair, I know that his Bahubaali chest was obviously waxed. But come on, if you are going to wear tank tops onscreen, please please get rid of your thick shoulder hair! I’m talking about like top of the shoulder running down towards the back kind of hair. It’s just yuck! And it would be so easy to remove! Or just don’t put him in tank tops!
For the other actors, I already talked about how Prakash Raj is phenomenal and manages to create a different kind of villain than in all his other villain movies. And pretty much nobody else really mattered. They were fine, I guess? It was mostly kind of one-note humorous characters, the friend who is always falling in love, the stupid and corrupt politician, the younger second villain who could do fight scenes (another similarity between Prakash Raj and Sanjeev Kumar-neither of them is believable in a fist fight). Poor Ileana D’Cruz really got nothing to do here. Her role was “spicy!” “in love!” “sexy!”, and that’s it. I don’t think there was even a legit love scene. The closest it came was this weird imagined bit where they got to play out some kind of Bhabhi sex fantasy.
Although just because the female characters were terrible doesn’t mean that the female message was terrible! It wasn’t great, certainly, but it wasn’t terrible. Our hero’s first scene is him beating up a girl’s brother because the brother had beaten up our hero’s friend. Which sounds kind of bad, like he is using violence to force this girl to go with his friend. But then he has a whole speech explaining his reasoning. It’s not that the girl has to like his friend, it’s that she has to let his friend speak to her and make a decision and tell the friend what she decided. Don’t just freak out and have your brother beat him up because he says he likes you! And brothers, don’t beat up a guy just because you see him talking to your sister! It sort of goes back to what I was talking about with DDLJ, how this over-sensitivity to eve-teasing can confuse the issue, make things that aren’t problems look as bad as things that are and therefore minimize both.
Okay, and then the film goes on to show his friend chasing after our heroine even when she asks him to leave her alone, and our hero taking the heroine completely for granted, and various other not so great things. But at least there was that one speech! That was good. And also, I am less concerned about messages in Telugu movies, at least the subtle ones, because it’s not a subtle genre. People are going to remember the big blunt speech, and the punches, and the sexy songs, and that’s it. Not a lot of time for parsing “but what does it mean when the heroine wears a shirt that says ‘Property of Munna’?”